22nd October 2021
What does it take for a leader of the UK Labour Party to stand up for drug policy reform?
For months, Sir Keir Starmer has been evasive on the question. Now, stung into action by a crowd-pleasing podium aside from Boris Johnson, he has stepped off the fence. There is, he told journalists this week, 'not a case' for change, and he 'won't be reforming the drug law'.
We understand that politics is a matter of compromise and pragmatism, but it should also be a matter of principle and leadership. So, in the light of this latest development we want to ask Sir Keir directly: what would it take for you to treat this seriously?
Would it take record and increasing numbers of drug-related deaths across the country? That is what we currently face, and while they are worse in Scotland than elsewhere that is because poverty, marginalisation and the deep health inequalities that beset cities such as Glasgow hugely exacerbate the problem.
The Scottish Government is crying out for the opportunity to reform the law in order to tackle the tragedy being experienced by families in Scotland. It is possible, as the Westminster Government is doing, to use this as a stick to beat the SNP. But must you do the same? This is a pressing issue of poverty and social exclusion - and the calls for reform are coming from the police, treatment sector and across the political spectrum.
Would it take knowing that some of your closest allies were, for years, calling for reform in the strongest terms? That your own Shadow Attorney General only recently apologised personally for the horrors of the war on drugs, describing it as a 'tragic disaster that has inflicted harm on the poorest parts of Britain, and abject misery on people in the most desperate corners of the planet'? Your Shadow Leader of the House was previously a vocal advocate for reform. Your Shadow Justice Secretary went to Canada to see legal regulation for himself and extolled its benefits on his return.
Have they completely changed their view, or have they been told to stay silent on what they know to be a vital social issue to avoid providing opponents with cheap attack lines?
Would it take knowing that our drug laws exacerbate and entrench structural racism? Have you listened to Lord Simon Woolley who wrote passionately on the damage drug law enforcement does to Black communities recently in the British Medical Journal? Are you not concerned that drug law enforcement provides, according to Lord Woolley, ‘the sharpest tool in the box’ of disproportionate policing? Your Justice Secretary, David Lammy, has described Stop and Search - the majority of which is on the grounds of suspected cannabis possession - as ‘ineffectual and racially unjust’. Perhaps this problem, so painful for Black communities across the country, does not sufficiently shift the dial in target demographics.
Would it take meeting the families across the country – bereaved by drugs – who are pleading for change? Members of your own constituency have asked you to consider how our drug laws have led to their own tragic experiences. Have you taken notice?
Maybe these people don't feature in focus groups, but would you look them in the eye and tell them our drug policy is working?
Getting elected is, understandably, your primary concern. So, would it take knowing that in recent opinion polls a majority of the public recognised drug policy was failing? The electorate is ahead of you in seeing the need for an open discussion on what we might do differently. Maybe you could listen to more of the people calling for change.
Would it take knowing that the police themselves don’t believe we can ‘arrest our way’ out of the problem? We now know that the Government ignored calls from its own advisory body to introduce decriminalisation, is your intention to do the same? The adoption of drug offence diversion schemes across the country is happening because the police know full well that criminalising possession is counterproductive. The extension of warning schemes to Class A drugs in Scotland is a logical extension of this policy, backed by your own party north of the border. To rule out a similar move across the UK – because Boris Johnson made a quip about the ‘powder rooms of North London’ – simply looks craven.
Would it take knowing that we spend almost £1.5 billion every year on enforcing the Misuse of Drugs Act? That up to a third of our prisoners are incarcerated for crimes either directly or indirectly linked to drug use? We assume you know, and care, that according to the Government’s Independent Review of Drugs, crackdowns and criminalisation don’t effectively reduce supply but, instead, risk increasing violence and exploitation as new suppliers step into the vacuum that remains.
Would it take watching some of the most vulnerable, most marginalised people in our communities fall victim to county lines exploitation? These supply networks exist primarily because the supply of drugs operates outside of statutory regulation and is, as a consequence, hugely lucrative and underpinned by recourse to violence not the law.
We have made much of the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act is fifty years old. As an experienced legal specialist, does it matter that critical areas of social and health policy are governed by legislation introduced half a century ago? Could you point to a single criminal justice or health indicator on which the Misuse of Drugs Act has proved successful.
The job of opposition, and ‘progressive’ opposition at that, should be to lead and to challenge. Over 50 MPs from across the political spectrum have had the confidence and bravery to say ‘enough is enough’. We know that a great many more agree with this, but remain prevented from speaking out by the acceptance of a political atmosphere in which one sideswipe is enough to send political leaders running for cover, for fear they might be depicted as not tough enough.
The refusal to even countenance a change in the law is not a neutral position, but rather a choice to accept the status quo: the record drug deaths; the vast health and social inequalities; the systemic racism; the silencing of those most hurt; the failure to learn from policy innovation elsewhere.
That is what refusing to engage in this debate means: condemning many of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society to more suffering. It is not a mark of leadership or strength to promise more of the same, but weakness and fear in the face of growing tragedy and decades of failure.