Source: The Guardian
Sunday 18 September 2011
By Paul Owen
Motion also offers show of support for Advisory Council on the Misuse of
Drugs, following high profile resignations from body
The Liberal Democrats have voted to establish a panel to consider
decriminalising the use of all drugs.
The panel would also consider a less radical alternative: that
possession would remain illegal, but those caught would have to appear
before a panel and made to undertake “appropriate education, health or
social interventions”, replacing the existing fines and jail sentences
on the statute book.
Any money made available by these reforms would be used for education,
treatment and rehabilitation.
The motion also offers a show of support for the Advisory Council on the
Misuse of Drugs, following high profile resignations from the body over
disagreements with the then-Labour government, and the coalition’s plan
to remove the statutory minimum of scientists sitting on the council.
The Lib Dem motion says the council should “retain a majority of
independent scientific and social scientific experts in its membership”
and that no changes to drug laws should be made without its advice.
The panel would carry out an impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs
Act 1971 to evaluate, “economically and scientifically”, the legal
framework prohibiting drugs.
Ewan Hoyle, a delegate from Glasgow South and the founder of Liberal
Democrats for Drug Policy Reform, moved the motion. Drug policy had been
a no-go area for politicians because of “cowardice, pure cowardice”, he
said – fear of the reaction from tabloid newspapers. “It’s time
politicians looked voters in the eye and attempted to explain complex
Hoyle added: “I want Nick Clegg to walk into David Cameron’s office and
say: ‘This is part of what is needed to get the country out of a hole.'”
All motions passed at the Lib Dem conference become party policy – but
not coalition policy. Asked if the successful motion meant the drugs
panel would now be set up, a party spokesman said: “This gives our MPs
and ministers backing from conference to take this into government, to
put into the coalition process. It will bind ministers and MPs in the
coming years as they move forward, if drugs policy comes up, to act on
it where appropriate.”
He characterised the motion as “not that different from government
policy: to follow the science on drugs”. But Lib Dem frontbenchers
stayed away from the debate, although MEPs Chris Davies and Graham
Watson did speak in favour of the motion. Davies told the conference:
“Far from reducing the supply of drugs, prohibition has actively
encouraged their use. It’s a policy that has failed.”
Caroline Chatwin, an expert in drugs policy at the University of Kent,
said the Lib Dems’ motion represented “an important and positive step
forward in the recognition that the harm caused by drug policy can be
greater than the harm caused by drugs themselves”.
“Every year, many people, particularly young people, are criminalised
for the possession of drugs when, apart from their drug use, they are
otherwise law abiding citizens,” she said. “This is a state of play that
causes harm to both individuals who are criminalised and society in
general, which suffers the consequences of large numbers of disaffected
and marginalised members.
“It is particularly damaging that particular groups, such as
disadvantaged black males, are disproportionately stopped by the police
on suspicion of minor drug offences, breeding disaffection and
alienation amongst whole communities.”
She added that although the motion was based on Portugal’s seemingly
successful policy of drug decriminalisation, “David Cameron has already
sent drug policy advisers to Portugal to investigate the possibility of
adopting a Portuguese strategy here – an idea that he ultimately rejected.”
But she said that the Lib Dem motion still “falls short of the mark, by
leaving the illegal drug trade in the hands of unscrupulous criminals”.
The UK Drugs Policy Commission has also backed the thrust of the Lib Dem
motion. Roger Howard, the commission’s chief executive, said there was
an understandable worry that removing criminal penalties for simple
possession could lead to a rise in drug use, but he insisted the move
could do some good. “The evidence from other countries suggests there
would be no great surge in drug use,” he said.
Speaking against the motion in a debate which was at times quite
emotional, Julian Cooper, a councillor in Witney, David Cameron’s
constituency in Oxfordshire, said the proposal “totally underplays the
consequences” of legalising drugs, particularly the health consequences.
The motion was passed with only one or two votes against, according to
Andrew Wiseman, the chair of the Lib Dems’ federal policy committee.