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Drug Policy

To start with some very basic points on my views on drugs:-

  • illegal drugs are illegal for one simple reason they harm the individual and they harm society
  • they affect a person's physical and mental health
  • they affect a person's relationships with family and friends
  • the addictive nature of them will lead some people to commit any criminal act to get hold of them
  • I am NOT in favour legalising drugs

However, the current laws on drugs are not effective as they could be in reducing the impact of the drugs on our society.

The 2011 Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference passed a motion Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms, which calls for an independent panel to review current drug laws. Commenting on this, Co-Chair of the Home Affairs Parliamentary Party Committee, Tom Brake MP said:

"Drugs can have a devastating impact on individuals and families and can fuel organised crime. Evidence shows that our current drug policy is costly, ineffective and it is the poor and marginalised who suffer most."

"Today, Liberal Democrats reaffirmed our support for an evidenced based drugs policy, calling for an independent panel to review current drug laws."

"We want to ensure the Government has a clear focus on prevention and reducing harm by investing in education, treatment and rehabilitation, and moving away from criminalising individuals and vulnerable drug users."

"We need proper regulation and investment if we are to get to the root of the battle with drugs. Liberal Democrats are the only party prepared to debate these issues."

The best example of how a change in the law can really affect the drug trade is in Portugal.

The Portuguese example

In Portugal they have they split the drug trade into two groups the users and abusers. They treat each group differently. The abusers are the people dealing and trafficking drugs they are treated as criminals. The drug users are treated as the victims of drug trade and are helped to stop their habit.

In Portugal this different approach has had the effect that in the past 10 years illegal drug use has halved. To achieve this effect required a law change to define users and the setting up of a public health system to treat users. This type of law change implemented in Portugal in2001 is called Decriminalisation.

In Portugal, drug decriminalisation means drug possession, distribution, and use is still illegal. Decriminalisation does not mean people can carry around, use, and sell drugs free from police interference. That would be legalisation and that in my view would be completely wrong.

In Portugal, the penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged; dealers are still jailed and subjected to fines depending on the crime. People involved in this side of the drug trade are sent through the criminal justice system as they are now.

In Portugal, a person is defined as a drug user if they are caught using or possessing small amounts - defined as the amount needed for 10 days of personal use. Then drug users are basically treated by the public health system rather than referring them to the criminal justice system, but via special court system.

In Portugal, the drug users are moved out of criminal courts and into a special court, known as a "Dissuasion Commission," an administrative body created by the 2001 law. Dissuasion Commission is a panel of legal experts, psychologists, and social workers who judge each offender's unique situation. Each three-person commission includes at least one lawyer or judge and one health care or social services worker. The commission has the option of recommending treatment, a small fine, or no sanction.

Portugal now has one of the lowest illegal drug usage rates in Europe.

Hampshire Police's Operation Fortress

In Hampshire since May 2012 Operation Fortress has been in progress it is a two-year campaign to target serious violent crime linked to drugs in Southampton. The report on this at the Police Authority meeting this morning reported that so far it is having great success.

Operation Fortress is one of the biggest, most significant stand alone projects ever to be launched by the Police, with a dedicated team of officers and staff drawn from across the two counties. Funded by Hampshire Police Authority, Operation Fortress intends to make to the city a hostile place for anyone intent on coming here to deal drugs and harm others. Its aims are to restrict the supply of drugs, reduce the demand for drugs and to rebuild local communities.

Key to the success of the campaign is the work the Police are doing with partners across the city including Southampton City Council, Hampshire Probation Trust, and Southampton Voluntary Services as well as education and drug treatment professionals to help reduce the demand for drugs.

People turn to illegal drugs for many different reasons but doing so makes them more vulnerable to the violence associated with drugs and drug-dealing. Drug users may end up living in debt and fear as a result which can also have a devastating impact on their loved-ones, friends and relatives. The police's aim and hope is to break the cycle of addiction, vulnerability and violence that ultimately impacts everyone in our local communities.

Detective Superintendent Kath Barnes has said:

"We're well aware that some drug users will be on the fringes of criminality in their own right. But we've been careful in a number of appropriate cases to treat those individuals as victims of crime because they are being exploited, sometimes through their own vulnerabilities."

While the Operation Fortress team is focused primarily on catching drug-dealers, drug users identified through the campaign may also be referred to drug treatment services such as those provided through Southampton's Drug Action Team.

In Summary

In the debate on drug policy avoiding a bad headline often gets in the way of a sensible and effective policy. Like many areas of the criminal justice system rather talking of having hard or soft policies the issue should be about having effective policies instead of ineffective ones.

The type of policy introduced successfully in Portugal is commonly referred to decriminalisation. The problem is the media and the public often equate decriminalisation with legalisation. This is a false equation.

For example in Eastleigh the parking has been decriminalised. This does not mean you can park where you like, it means that the instead of the Police enforcing parking restrictions they are enforced by Council Car Parking Wardens. In both enforcement cases the activity is still illegal.

The practice of Operation Fortress in Southampton is just the sort of the action I am talking about. It rightly focuses on the traffickers and the pushers, whilst helping any users quit. This approach would be enhanced if central Government made law changes to back it up.

So my views are:-

  • The current laws and practices to tackle the drug problem are not working
  • Treating the abusers and users in drug trade both as criminals is wrong
  • Abusers have a criminal problem and should be treated using the criminal justice system
  • Users have a health problem and should be treated using the health service
  • The money that is spent on processing users through the criminal justice system would be better spent on drug treatment centres.

The bottom line

The approach in Portugal has halved the number of users in 10 years, even if a British version was only as half as successful as that it could save hundreds of lives.


Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms

The 2011 Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference motion in full is below:-

Conference notes:

I. That drugs are powerful substances which can have serious consequences for the individual user and society in general; and that it is therefore right and proper that the state should intervene to regulate and control the use of such substances as it does the consumption of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco and both prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

II. That the misuse of drugs can blight the lives of individuals and families and the purchase of illegal drugs can help to fuel organised crime.

III. The need for evidence-based policy making on drugs with a clear focus on prevention and harm-reduction.

IV. That there is increasing evidence that the UK's drugs policy is not only ineffective and not cost-effective but actually harmful, impacting particularly severely on the poor and marginalised.

Conference further notes:

i) The positive evidence from new approaches elsewhere, including Portuguese reforms that have been successful in reducing problematic drug use through decriminalising possession for personal use of all drugs and investing in treatment programmes.

ii) That those countries and states that have decriminalised possession of some or all drugs have not seen increased use of those drugs relative to their neighbours.

iii) That heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland and the Netherlands have delivered great health benefits for addicts while delivering considerable reductions in drug-related crime and prevalence of heroin use.

iv) The contribution of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to the 2010 Drug Strategy consultation which states that "people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences) should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses or possibly other, more creative civil punishment".

v) The report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy whose members include former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former heads of state of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Switzerland, the current Prime Minister of Greece, a former US Secretary of State and many other eminent world figures, which encouraged governments to consider the legal regulation of drugs in order to, "undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens".

vi) That the United Kingdom remains bound by various international conventions and that any re-negotiation or new agreements will require international co-ordination.

Conference believes that:

A. Individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and by a drug habit, and that the priority for those addicted to all substances must be healthcare, education and rehabilitation, not punishment.

B. Governments should reject policies if they are demonstrated to be ineffective in achieving their stated goals and should seek to learn from policies which have been successful.

C. At a time when Home Office and Ministry of Justice spending is facing considerable contraction, there is a powerful case for examining whether an evidence-based policy would produce savings, allowing the quality of service provided by these departments to be maintained or to improve.

D. One of the key barriers to developing better drugs policy has been the previous Labour Government's persistent refusal to take on board scientific advice, and the absence of an overall evaluative framework of the UK's drugs strategy.

E. The Department of Health and devolved equivalents should take on a greater responsibility for dealing with drugs.

Conference calls for:

1. The Government to immediately establish an independent panel tasked with carrying out an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom.

2. The panel also to consider reform of the law, based on the Portuguese model, such that:
a) Possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offence.
b) Possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions.

3. The panel also to consider as an alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organised crime, and the health and safety of the public, especially children.

4. The reinvestment of any resources released into effective education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes.

5. The widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems; these services should include widespread availability of heroin maintenance clinics for the most problematic and vulnerable heroin users.