Parliament gloomy

On 17th June, MPs met to debate the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It came as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Act, and with over 50 MPs having signed a statement calling for reform. You can watch the whole debate here, and read the Hansard transcript here.

MPs from across all parties spoke passionately about the harm the Act was doing in their communities, and the urgent need for this ancient and outmoded legislation to finally be reviewed.

Presenting the debate for Labour, Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) called for “political parties and the media to stop weaponizing drug policy and have a grown-up discussion on how to protect our communities.”

Speakers from Labour, the Conservatives, the SNP and the Lib Dems all took the opportunity to set out why the Act had failed, and why it needed to be reviewed.

Many cited evidence showing the dramatic increases in use and mortality across almost all drugs since 1971. Others focused on the enormous costs of enforcement and the evidence that crackdowns do little good in the long run, and can increase violence in the short term. Others highlighted the extent to which the Act has prevented life-saving interventions such as Overdose Prevention Centres.

Tommy Shepherd (SNP Edinburgh East) called on colleagues to "wake up" to the reality of how drug markets worked, and to "begin [a] process of review with an open mind rather than just defending the status quo."

Christine Jardine (Lib Dem, Edinburgh West) noted that drug deaths in Scotland were five time higher now that when the Act was passed, and said it was "time we listened to voices raised against [the Act], including the families appealing for help."

Adam Holloway (Con Gravesham) recalled his experience among homeless populations in America, and concluded that "we have to be pragmatic about this. We have to have a grown-up discussion and find a humane way out of it' including 'moving this out of the criminal justice sphere."

The arguments made so passionately across the house reflected Transform’s view of the problem – and it was incredibly powerful to see those views being set out with such clarity and force. It was even more powerful to see a shift in the tenor of the debate taking place. 16 MPs spoke in favour of reform. With more than 50 MPs having signed our statement calling for a review, it points to a sea-change in the public debate.

The MPs who have spoken out are showing that it is not impossible to speak truth to power on this subject; and that, while it still requires bravery and integrity to do so, the political risks are not what many believe. A clearly expressed and coherently argued position on drug reform is becoming a political asset, not a liability.

All those who feel that drug policy has failed will now recognise that they are not alone. They can, and they should, speak out.

None of which is to say the debate was all one-sided. Two backbench MPs spoke up for the Act. Nick Fletcher (Con, Don Valley) noted that drug crackdowns had little impact and that "being tough on dealers does not seem to be working." However, he concluded that legal regulation would not address this problem; rather the "two simple policies" [sic] of educating young people and supporting people with addiction would "drastically reduce demand and therefore the size of the market."

Dr Kieran Mullan (Con, Crewe and Nantwich) argued that the stigma associated with drug use, which many speakers had noted was a barrier to support and a source of social exclusion, was, in fact, an effective form of prevention. He went on to argue that crime didn’t exist because of opportunity or economic need or the existence of lucrative illegal markets, but simply because "sections of our society are willing to step outside rules and norms", and they would do that anyway regardless of drug policy.

Taking another unusual position (and, presumably, not one approved by the Government) Dr Mullen also argued that hitting ‘rock bottom’ was the only reliable path to recovery, and that "the idea we will fix this problem by giving people treatment is naïve." Therefore, so the reasoning went, the law – for all its failures – should stay in place because criminality is not impacted by social context, and stigma prevents use.

The official responses were predictably cautious, reflecting the stasis that still characterises party leadership in both Government and the Opposition. Speaking for the Labour leadership, Conor McGinn (St Helen's North) shifted the focus to the need for better treatment funding – thereby avoiding addressing both the subject of the debate and the preceding speeches.

For the Government, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse acknowledged that this was a complex issue and that the debate had been thought-provoking, while repeating the current Government position that a combination of enforcement, prevention and treatment would achieve in future what it has signally failed to achieve for the preceding half century. Evidence was presented documenting enforcement successes in reducing county lines supply in some areas, which is welcome. Sadly, as the Home Office’s own Independent Review of Drugs noted (and the testimony of police officers confirms) evidence shows that such short term gains are simply not sustained in the longer run. Enforcement ‘successes’ where they do occur, are invariably temporary and localised - more often displacing problems than eliminating them, and frequently mutating the market in ways that make it more dangerous.

The Minister also noted that decriminalisation was not a ‘silver bullet’ – a point on which every commentator could agree. However, he did not go on to repeat the evidence presented by many previous speakers showing that, while not being a panacea, decriminalisation (combined with a health-led approach) has reduced harms significantly in countries such as Portugal.

On legal regulation, the Minister stated that in Canada, cannabis legalisation had led to an increase in product strength in within a still thriving illicit market. This claim is not borne out in the comprehensive data gathered by statistics Canada, which shows that just under 50% of the market is now from legal supply – with a concomitant contraction in illegal sales.

He also noted that criminal gangs still operate in the Netherlands. This is unsurprising since, while cannabis (but not other drugs) sales are tolerated under strict conditions, supply to the Netherlands’ cannabis ‘coffee shops’ is - paradoxically - still illegal and largely controlled by organised crime groups. Indeed, a pilot legal cannabis production and supply model for the coffee shops is being implemented this year to try and address precisely this problem.

Overall, the debate was a clear demonstration that while weak defences of the status quo remain, they pale in comparison to passion – and the evidence brought to bear – on the side of reform. It also showed, to the credit of all involved, that a serious political debate can be had on the subject of drug policy.

We hope this is the start of a process that will see more elected representatives taking a public position on the issue, and the emergence of a mature debate on what has gone wrong, and where we should go next.

A debate of this kind, 50 years into the legislation, is certainly welcome – but can only be the beginning of a process. We will be working over the next year to ensure the momentum builds: we cannot simply let policymakers slip back into the comfort zone of silence or the repetition of hollow mantras about decapitating snakes.

There is an appetite for change, and momentum towards it which can only grow.