22nd February 2021
Sir Keir Starmer's neutral position on drug policy would be a recipe for more avoidable harm.
On Sunday, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer gave an interview which briefly covered drug policy. To many reformers his comments were dispiriting: asked for his views on decriminalisation of cannabis possession, he apparently rejected the idea - arguing instead that current drug policy was ‘roughly right’. Such a view was surprising not only given the momentum for reform globally, but also the growing support for change within his own party.
Perhaps this is to be expected from a politician who – for now at least – has adopted a strategy of avoiding potential controversy. When in doubt, default to the status quo.
But the tragedy of drug policy over the last half century is largely a consequence of this response. Fear (often misplaced) of political risk has caused generations of politicians to shy away from taking any meaningful position on reform: retreating to the path of least resistance even as violence, injustice, exploitation and intergenerational harm spiral.
But there was something in Starmer’s response that points to a less pessimistic reading. His support for the status quo was based on the fact that, as Director of Public Prosecutions, he had witnessed all too often the damage caused by drug-related violence, gang activities and county lines exploitation. That may very well be the case: it is likely he did indeed witness an array of suffering and pain related to drug markets during his time in that role.
However, such experience is - and can only be - an argument for change. The violence and exploitation Starmer describes are precisely the consequence of a market that remains completely outside of formal control, and tangible evidence that the enforcement-led approach has failed.
If what motivates Sir Keir’s view on drug policy is the litany of failures that he describes, then the only possible conclusion is reform - because the same policies can only produce the same failures. Defaulting to more of the same is not a neutral position: it is to actively support policies that produce the harms he decries.
Sir Keir did acknowledge that reforms were happening in some police areas - though was mistaken in suggesting they simply involved the discretionary use of cautions. That is perhaps understandable, the various police drug diversion schemes in place do vary in important ways, which is why we have produced a resource to help people navigate the landscape. There is also an increasing body of evidence describing and evaluating larger-scale decriminalisation programmes across the world (most notably in Portugal).
For a party concerned with addressing social inequalities, the status quo in drug policy should not be an option. Many UK diversion schemes have been established by Labour Police and Crime Commissioners. Furthermore, Scottish Labour now explicitly supports decriminalisation of all drugs, not least in response to the record levels of drug-related deaths in Scotland. The Party may be ahead of its national leadership on this issue.
Judging from what he said, Sir Keir’s views are fundamentally an expression of his own awareness that the current system is a failure. It is possible, in such a situation, to simply argue that we need to keep going – in the hope that, after fifty years of failure, it will somehow work this time. However, that is not really a position of principle, but of avoidance. We trust that, with further consideration, Starmer will recognise the need for change and develop his policies accordingly.