It’s time for an honest & rational debate on drug policy: My speech on the Government’s Drug Strategy


May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on a really excellent speech? It was a privilege to be here for the first maiden speech by a brightly coloured turbaned Sikh. I am looking forward to a number of maiden speeches today. In my own maiden speech two years ago, I said among other things that I looked forward to arguing for reform of our drug laws. There has been very little chance to do so since then, so I welcome the debate today. However, unfortunately, the Government’s new drug strategy is a massive missed opportunity.

We do not get a new strategy very often. There is always the hope that it might contain some radical thinking. This strategy, sadly, offers little that is new. It is more of the same approach that is not working, that has seen an increase in drug-related deaths in the UK and that sees the UK responsible for nearly a third of Europe’s drug deaths.

My friend Cara’s son is five tomorrow. It will be his third birthday without his father Jake, who died of a heroin overdose. Cara wants to legalise drugs to end the stigma around drug use and to end the unnecessary criminalisation of drug users that made it so hard for her family to deal with Jake’s addiction, and makes it more difficult for people to seek help with drug problems.

The day after tomorrow, Thursday, will be the fourth anniversary of the death of 15 year-old Martha Cockburn, who died after taking ecstasy that turned out to be 91% pure; as a result, she died of an accidental overdose. Martha’s mum, Anne-Marie, who I think is in the Public Gallery, now campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of ecstasy, among other drugs. Martha died because there was no controlling measures on the substance that killed her and no way for Martha to check the safety of the substance she was using. Martha was failed by our approach to drug policy.

Many people who have been touched by the loss of loved ones want a more measured debate and a more rational approach to drug policy. Fifty people a week are dying of drug-related deaths in the UK—50 Marthas and Jakes. Our first duty in this place has to be to try to keep people safe and we are failing. The biggest missed opportunity in this strategy is the fact that we have not even considered decriminalisation or legalisation of some drugs as a solution to the problem. We have heard a number of times about Portugal, which decriminalised the use of drugs in 2001. Its drug-induced death rate is five times lower than the EU average. It had 16 overdose deaths last year and there has been a massive reduction in HIV infections.

In an article last week on the publication of the strategy, the Home Secretary said:

“We owe it to future generations to work together for a society free of drugs.”

Talk of a society free of drugs is a dangerous fantasy. Humans have taken drugs for thousands of years and are not going to stop because the Home Secretary produces a new strategy. It is a dangerous fantasy because it diverts attention and resources from the real challenge, which is how we make drug taking safer, how we educate users, how we reduce the consumption of dangerous drugs, how we take control of the drug trade from the criminals who want to exploit vulnerable ​users, and how we stop criminalising thousands of people unnecessarily. Many people are being criminalised because they have a medical or psychological problem. We need to recognise the link between early childhood trauma, including abuse, and addiction in later life. It is a closer link than that between obesity and diabetes. Drug addiction is often a psychological or biological problem, and criminalising people who have those problems is not the answer. In other cases, we are criminalising people unnecessarily for using a relatively harm-free intoxicant.

The best example is cannabis. It is surely wrong that we criminalise people for using a substance less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol—a substance that the overwhelming majority of people find pleasant, relatively harm-free and even a rewarding experience to take. We have all-party parliamentary groups that extol the virtues of beer, wine and whisky, but when we talk about a substance that is less harmful than alcohol, we are not allowed to say that it can be a positive experience.

If we legalised and regulated cannabis, we would take it out of the hands of the dealers, and reduce the opportunities for them to tempt users into experimenting with more dangerous drugs. We would also regulate the product, so users know with confidence what they are getting, so people who are worried about high levels of THC do not have to take whatever they can get on the street. There is a bonus too: we would raise many millions of pounds for the Exchequer to spend, if that is what we desire, on drug education or the NHS.

Around the world, countries recognise that cannabis prohibition is failing, and many of them are regulating. Uruguay was the first to do so. Eight states in the US, representing 20% of the population, have now legalised and regulated. Next year, Canada should become the first G7 country to do it. It is time we did the same. My personal belief is that this is going to happen. It is inevitable that it is going to happen in this country; we just need to grasp the nettle and do it.

We desperately need to change the terms of the debate. We need more openness and honesty in discussion of drug policy, and we need to reduce the stigma around taking drugs so that families find it easier to discuss the problem and find help. We need to stop the pretence that everyone’s experience of illegal drugs is negative.

In my previous life, I worked as a DJ and an event manager in the music industry, so I spent a lot of time working and socialising in nightclubs, being around people who used recreational drugs. Many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of ecstasy pills are taken every week in the UK, and we cannot pretend in our public discourse that people who are taking drugs do it because it is a terrible, miserable experience; people will not believe us, and it will destroy the credibility of the message. We need an honest and rational debate around drug policy if users, especially young people, are going to take us seriously.

Most of all, we need to focus on policies that minimise harm and risk to users, and that requires looking at different approaches to harm reduction. That is where this strategy is disappointing. The Government have ignored the chance to do that by looking at interventions that can save lives—at drug consumption rooms for heroin users, at heroin prescribing, at pill testing—and we need a much stronger emphasis on educational solutions if people are caught breaking what is currently the law.

If I get caught speeding in my car, I am sent on a course to teach me to drive more carefully. Those courses have a high success rate. If I am driving a speeding car, I have the potential to do much more harm to society than if I am caught in possession of cannabis or ecstasy for personal use, but the latter is a criminal offence, with the potential for a damaging criminal record, and the former a civil offence. There is no reason not to treat drug possession for personal use in the same way.

I want to say a few brief words about medicinal cannabis. Although it is not really covered in this strategy, we looked at it last year in the all-party group for drug policy reform. There is overwhelming evidence that cannabis is a useful treatment for a range of conditions. In some cases, people find relief in cannabis, having exhausted treatments that have failed. Some people may have seen an article in the Daily Mail recently that asked whether a woman should be criminalised for medicating ​with cannabis. When even the Daily Mail accepts that there is an argument for change, that surely illustrates how far behind public opinion the House is on the issue. We should follow many countries, as well as half the states in the USA, and legalise cannabis for medicinal use.

Finally, I want to mention resourcing. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said earlier, passing responsibility for drug treatment to local authorities was a good idea in practice. However, there is a huge problem for local authorities that commission addiction services because of the massive cuts to local authority budgets.

Some drugs are dangerous, and we need to get drugs under control, but I do not want those words to be misinterpreted; I do not mean that we need to ban the use of drugs. The production, retail and use of some drugs needs to be controlled, so people can use drugs safely if they choose to do so. Prohibition is not working in the UK or around the world. We need a new approach. We need to treat addiction as a health issue. We need to stop criminalising people unnecessarily. We need to begin considering proper, evidence-based strategies. We certainly need to move towards legalising cannabis, and I believe that that is only a matter of time. We also need to look seriously at the decriminalisation of other drugs.

I have spoken today not because I think I am going to secure a massive change in the Government’s drug policy; indeed, I do not expect any quick progress on drug policy. I just think we need to start reframing the debate. There are a limited number of us who are prepared to speak up on this issue at present, but I hope the numbers will gradually increase, because we need a serious debate on this issue, not more of the same approach, which has failed.

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