Let’s have a real debate about drugs


Donald Trump probably thinks that this is a number of shamrock plants. It is in fact cannabis! We need to reconsider as a society how we deal with this and other drugs

At the Lib Dem Spring Conference we held an interesting debate about prisons and the need for reform. Per head of population the UK has more people in prison than any other country in Western Europe. This does not say, regrettably that we have the lowest crime rates in Western Europe. Prisons have reached the point where they can no longer rehabilitate. They are overcrowded and understaffed. They just lock people up in such a way that the only learning is about how to be a better criminal.

One of the reasons for this is the way that we treat drugs. Up to 14,000 of the approximately 85,000 people in orison are there because of convictions relating to drugs dealing or usage.

The drugs trade causes huge problems in our society for all of us. Many burglaries and much petty crime is caused by users needing a fix. At the more serious end of the trade serious drug pushers and importers make massive amounts of money from this business. Many of the shootings and stabbings in Liverpool, are connected with turf wars over the drugs trade as gangs fight for territorial advantage.

Lib Dems believe that we should thoroughly review the way the state handles drugs and seek to decriminalise it. Those who just use should be left to get on with it subject, of course, to limits on how they drive and do other things whilst under the influence.

Some people will say that this is totally irresponsible and that by advocating this line, which I support, we are encouraging drugs dependency. There are two responses to this:

  1. That nothing we have done so far has actually stopped the increase in the users and usage of drugs. I have no personal experience but apparently it is very easy to get hold of the recreation drug of your choice.
  2. That this is also true of other things which are legal and controlled. Tobacco; Alcohol and gambling are all addictive but they are also legal.

Of course some people become alcoholics now; some get addicted to gambling and some smoke themselves to an early grave. BUT with the exception of gambling alcohol and smoking problems are on the decrease. Adult smoking numbers have gone from 80% to 20%. Binge drinking on the streets is in sharp decline although middle class dinner party and end of the working day drinking is increasing.

So all thoughts of things can progress from a minor usage to addiction but we treat drugs very differently.

What would happen, do you think, if we did decriminalise drugs and instead:

  • Sold them in a regulated way?
  • Through approved, visible and checkable retailers?
  • Subjected them to tax?
  • Provided overt help to people to come off their usage?

Well to some extent we know the answers to this. In other countries, largely Scandinavian, which have moved in this direction drug usage has declined; the number of addicts has declined; the amount of crime associated with them has declined. The tax take has gone up which means that countries taking this attitude, for example in Scandinavia, are able to pay for the consequences of dealing with the addictions caused.

You can also see what happened in the USA after the abandonment of prohibition of alcohol where everything predicted in the preceding paragraph actually happened.

As we look at costs we can see that removing just 2/3 of the people currently in prison would save the state more than £3 billion every year. Then we would reduce the cost of the police and emergency health services. We would reduce our insurance costs which are hugely inflated by burglary claims as people find things to sell to feed the habit.

Above all the US experience was that lots of people became less attracted to the use of alcohol because part of the thrill of drinking was that of doing something a little naughty, but which at the end of the day did neither them or other recreational users much if any harm.

You may not agree with this. Fair enough. But no-one I know thinks that what we are doing at present is successful. Most people think we are losing the battle because of the way that we currently conduct it. Change is inevitable so how do we handle change? The way to do is to get together with people from all persuasions and backgrounds to thrash out the myths from the facts the reality from the gossip and do something jointly to come up with implementable solutions.

A failure to do so allows super criminals to laugh all the way to the Cost del Sol. It allows people to be swept into petty crime. It allows our homes to be invaded by petty criminals and it allows us all to pay a very, very high price for inaction.

Will you join me locally or nationally in this debate?

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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