Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Liberal Democrat manifestos on drug policy, 2005 and 2010

Continuing with our coverage of election party manifesto commitments on drug policy, today its the turn of the Lib Dems. (see Labour here and the Conservatives here). Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto, published this morning, opts for a more functional title: 'Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010'

In line with the other main parties, drug policy only appears in the crime chapter, with nothing in the sections on health, education or families. In the 'Your community' chapter, that covers crime issues, under the heading 'practical steps to make you safer - we get two specific drug policy commitments:
"Ensure that financial resources, and police and court time, are not wasted on the unnecessary prosecution and imprisonment of drug users and addicts; the focus instead should be on getting addicts the treatment they need. Police should concentrate their efforts on organised drug pushers and gangs."
It is not clear if this is a call for de-facto decriminalisation of possession (through non-enforcement), as has happened in a number of countries across the world, or just a shift of emphasis in enforcement - more detail is clearly needed on specifics here. The last sentence is telling, in terms of the total failure to recognise, (or at least articulate) that it is primarily the enforcement of supply side prohibition that turns drug use into a crime issue in the first instance. This position undermines an otherwise welcome call in the next paragraph, to:

"Always base drugs policy on independent scientific advice, including making the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs completely independent of government."
In the same chapter, under the heading 'making the justice system work to rehabilitate criminals and reduce crime' two more commitments (the former not specifically drug related but obviously relevant):
"Introduce a presumption against short-term sentences of less than six months – replaced by rigorously enforced community sentences which evidence shows are better at cutting reoffending." (this commitment also appears in the 'Your money' chapter under a list of where government savings will be made)

"Move offenders who are drug addicts or mentally ill into more appropriate secure accommodation."
This is essentially all there is, excepting a mention of being 'critical supporters of the Afghan Mission' in the 'Your World' chapter. Drugs, however, are are not specifically mentioned, the stated aim only being to 'stabilise Afghanistan enough to allow British troops to come home during the next Parliament'.

The tone of the Lib Dems drug policy (and criminal justice policy more generally) is notably different from that of the other two main parties, with a seemingly more upfront commitment to evidence over punitive populism. The exception is the above reference to "pushers" which is rather old-school fear mongering language, and a term notably not used to describe those who aggressively market alcohol or tobacco.

That said, the commitment to 'Always base drugs policy on independent scientific advice' does set the Lib Dems aside from the other parties regards how the Government deals with the ACMD, although it would be good to see what an ACMD 'completely independent of government' means in practical terms (this would presumably involve redrafting the Misuse of Drugs Act). Also clearly related to the ACMD-saga is a  commitment, appearing in the 'Your Job' section under the heading  'creating a dynamic environment for science and innovation' to:
"Safeguard academic freedom and the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code to prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers and distorting evidence or statistics. "

The 2010 commitments offer marginally more detail than the Lib Dems 2005 manifesto , which was also far more concise overall.

Once again there is nothing on drugs in the health, family and education chapters, and we have to wait until the chapter 3 on crime, 'Tackling Crime, Defending Liberty'. Under a subheading '10,000 more police on the street - cut crime and the fear of crime':

"We will concentrate more police efforts on tackling drug traffickers and those drug users who resort to crime to feed their habits, rather than criminalising people possessing cannabis only for their own personal use."
On the same page under the different subheading 'Quality investigations, safe convictions, fighting crime and terror' :
"We will increase police resources to improve the detection and investigation of crime. We will create a co-ordinated UK BorderForce to strengthen the country’s borders against terrorism, people trafficking and drug smuggling."
The most obvious change between 2005 and 2010 is the dropping of any direct mention of cannabis, presumably reflecting the minefield that issue become in the intervening years, although the 2010 commitments regarding the ACMD are arguably at least an indirect nod to cannabis policy.

What you do not learn from either manifestos is that the Lib Dems do in fact have a more detailed official drug policy document, that was developed in 2002, titled Honesty, Realism, Responsibility: Proposals for the Reform of Drugs Law that is - from Transform's perspective - far more pragmatic and forward looking than anything to emerge from the other two major parties. It contains a strong critique of prohibition generally, and openly explores ideas for decriminalisation of personal drug possession, and legal regulated cannabis supply, albeit caveated with the need for UN convention reform as a precondition. They are unique amongst the three main parties in having engaged with these ideas.

Whilst the Lib Dems appear to have made the intellectual journey on drug policy reform, they have still shied away from it when it comes to front line politics. For them it remains an issue on which they have generally been defensive, (choosing to avoid - sometimes even deny) rather than one they actively campaign on.


Unknown said...

I will probably vote Lib Dem this year - the first time I will have voted - as I have been a victim of the out-dated drug policies supported by Daily Mail reading conservatives and perpetuated by the two biggest parties having spent a year in prison for intent to supply cannabis. I say "probably" because although the liberal democrats are, as stated in this article, the most progressive of the three main parties they fall some way behind the Green Party in their passion for change.

The legalisation of drugs would not solve all of society's problems. Even as a self confessed psychonaut I can see that taking drugs is not without risks and their abuse should be discouraged. However the law as it stands causes more suffering than it prevents. Users and addicts alike are unnecessarily forced into crime and then often in to a prison system that mixes them with real criminals (violent offenders, fraudsters and other career criminals). Its just wrong and I struggle to see how the Daily Mail reading masses can continue to justify their intolerant hysteria in the face of growing scientific and expert opinion in favour of drug reform.

micky said...

i would vote lib dems if they made cannabis legal as im sick of being a victem of the police for smoking it when im not hurting anyone if they made it public to do so they would win by a land slide and leave the other 2 partys in the dust

Steve Rolles said...

They used their cannabis policy as a campaign tool in a couple of high student population marginals quite successfully i seem to remember, onee in Manchester i think. But havent generally wheeled it out for fear of the Daily Mail effect. That may have changed now of course - but who knows. This election seems very different to previous ones.

Jock Coats said...

It's not merely the "Daily Mail effect" though - the level of debate descends to this sort of thing (.pdf) even by local opponents in elections that are not terribly significant in terms of drugs policy!

On the other hand, a number of us did get our South-Central region conference to demand we instigate a full new policy working party on drugs in the light of more recent developments such as Portugal, but it was carefully couched so that that would take place after a General Election - all but 2 in the room supported the motion, so we will likely get one.

Still - inability to articulate existing policy when it comes to elections still makes me mad as hell.

Unknown said...

The current approach with illegal drugs will ensure the problem will never go. By keeping desirable / dependent substances illegal we are only giving criminals a platform to make vast sums of un-taxable money. It is estimated that the illegal drugs trade makes up 10% of the global economy ($500 billion in the mid 90s)- this is black market money controlled by criminals and crooked governments!

The governments could control this market and collect revenue from it. Perhaps GM substances to make them less addictive, this might help clean up streets from the zombie like junkies that congregate in towns, possibly drive down crime and give farmers something to produce. Increase the UK GDP.

Many states in the USA had to reverse their decision they had taken with alcohol.

I think it's about time the world had a rethink about some of the substances they made it illegal in the last 80 years or so.

The big down side is we could all end up like the government controlled characters of BRAVE NEW WORLD!!!!

but if politicians are wanting the current problems resolved a completely different approach is needed!

Anonymous said...

re: the "Daily Mail effect" - I was interested to read this recently.
Note that all the best rated comments on that article are actually *anti-prohibition*. Even Daily Mail readers realise it doesn't work - it seems like the Daily Mail writers are the only ones that still believe in it.

Angus said...

The Daily Mail effect?

What is this mysterious leaked secret policy document they refer to?

could it be the policy paper published in 2002?

Jock Coats said...

Mysterious? Leaked? I posted the 2002 policy paper on my blog only a couple of weeks ago.

It does sound like the same policy document, yes, but I think they are wrong about conference policy being "binding" on the party in government sadly.

Equally, it doesn't look as if the story's commenters in the Mail are too perturbed by it.

Anonymous said...


spot on. our "response" to drug users is far to aggressive. a cannabis dealer can serve more time than a rapist. now straight away this is wrong ! say what you like about cannabis but its not a killer. needless to say a rapist "can" be.
i think softening the laws on drugs and controlling them is a much better way to tackle these problems. by controlling them you are not forcing any user to deal with a career criminal and anyone who still wants to deal drugs without a license should be fined/community service or even behind bars for consistency breaking the law.

Anonymous said...

I currently work in the drug treatment sector and at the moment I see the services across the uk as just being proffesional drug dealers. The emphasis currently is not on treatment but harm reduction. With a liberal democrat government will we be having a change of treatment services?? Will we be moving towards a recovery model?? Actually treating the symptoms instead of dishing out substitute medication?? You go to a drug service with a drug problem. What do they do? Give you more drugs. You use on top?? I'll tell you what, we'll give you more drugs!! While harm reduction has its place in the initial treatment of addicts (yes they are addicts, it's not a dirty word), we have to be moving towards total abstinance from all drugs, because that's the only way people can recover from active addiction.

I want to know which party will be supporting this ethos......

Jock Coats said...

"we have to be moving towards total abstinance from all drugs" mean, I assume, in the sense that alcoholics must abstain or risk falling off the wagon completely, whilst plenty of people can and do drink reasonably responsibly and rarely if ever encounter a problem with it? Thus it should be for anyone's choice of drug.

muebles majadahonda said...

In my view everybody must go through it.