Thangam Debbonaire & Jeff Smith: Labour can afford to be bold on drug policy reform

It’s been a historic month in the world of drug policy. Canada became the first G7 country to vote to legalise and regulate cannabis; the Home Secretary announced a landmark review of medical cannabis legislation here in the UK; and festivals across the country will offer drug safety testing this summer on an unprecedented scale.

The Police Federation, representing 120,000 rank-and-file officers, have declared the prohibition of drugs a failure. The British Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, the Royal Society of Public Health and the Royal College of Physicians have all made the public health case for reform. Even Lord Hague, hardly a radical voice, has come round to the view that it’s time for a change to cannabis policy.

Meanwhile, the need for real action in the UK is more urgent than ever. More people died from drug misuse last year than any since records began. The UK is now the drug overdose capital of Europe, responsible for over a third of all deaths across the continent.

The government’s 2017 Drug Strategy, published two years late, offered little change to the tired mantra of “drugs are harmful so they must be illegal” – a stance that offers ministers the misplaced moral satisfaction of being ‘tough on drugs’, but precious little to anyone really affected by the issue.

The real impact of UK drug policy can be found in children being denied life-changing medicines, teenagers being exploited by dealers to sell heroin, and BAME people being disproportionately stopped and searched for suspected cannabis possession. At the same time, a crippling austerity programme is hollowing out essential drug and alcohol treatment services.

Protecting communities from the effects of drug abuse demands more than burying our heads in the sand and wishing the problem away. Instead, we need a grown-up debate that focuses on how to tackle the organised crime networks profiting from the drugs trade, how to ease the strain on our stretched public services, and how to reduce the risk to those who are suffering from addiction. We believe that the UK needs evidence-based drug policies that focus first and foremost on reducing harm.

Labour Police and Crime Commissioners are already pointing the way to a safer and more humane policy. In the West Midlands, Labour Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson is focusing on addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice one. He has unveiled plans to trial prescribing heroin, which will take the market out of the hands of organised criminals and support some of the most vulnerable users into rehabilitation.

Today David will join party members in parliament to launch the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, a forum for members to debate Labour’s future drug policy. There are no policy prescriptions, and we expect members will have a range of opinions. What we hope people will have in common is a recognition that the status quo isn’t working – and it’s the people Labour is there to represent who are suffering the most.

Thangam Debbonaire is MP for Bristol West. Jeff Smith is MP for Manchester Withington and co-chair of the APPG on drug policy reform.

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