A plan to overhaul the UK’s unjust drugs policy is just around the corner

Ant Lehane

Values of fairness, justice and equality should underpin Labour Party policy and the way we seek to govern. For decades, the UK’s drug laws have gone against these ideals with the situation growing increasingly dire over the last ten years of Tory rule.
 We are currently in the midst of an unprecedented drug-related deaths crisis, with 5,546 people in the UK dying in 2018 from causes related to drugs – the highest figure on record. In the same year, 1,784 were killed on British roads. Like road victims, each of these casualties is someone’s son, someone’s daughter or sibling – as shown by this campaign group, it really could be ‘Anyone’s Child’ who falls victim to the drug crisis. And like road fatalities, many of these deaths were preventable.

Rising inequality, the stigmatisation and criminalisation of problematic drug users, and savage cuts to treatment services have brought us to this point. It is sadly no surprise that the areas worst-hit, such as parts of Scotland and the North East of England, are some of the poorest in the UK. 
Our drug laws are not helping. A recent study from the organisation Release revealed that Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than their white counterparts, despite being statistically less likely to use substances. Black people are also significantly overrepresented in prisons for drug charges – a direct result of our racist drug laws introduced 50 years ago.

All the while, Conservative ministers have admitted using Class A substances during their Oxbridge years – a confession that has come with no punishment despite the maximum penalty for merely possessing Class As being five years imprisonment. It really is one rule for them, and another rule for the rest of us – unfair, unjust and unequal.
 The Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform (LCDPR) was founded by Jeff Smith MP and the now Shadow Secretary for Housing Thangam Debbonaire MP and launched at a packed room at the 2018 Labour conference. Our purpose was to create a forum for members and supporters to debate and shape Labour’s drug policy for the future and campaign for change.

Since then, much has changed. The party’s 2019 manifesto promised to “establish a royal commission to develop a public health approach to substance misuse, focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalisation”. It was a paradigm shift in the party’s approach, showing a commitment to ending the long-lost war on drugs. But there is a better way to do this than a time-consuming royal commission.
 The LCDPR has been working since the spring of 2019, through a series of public meetings, to gather views and generate ideas as to how Labour should tackle the problems associated with drug consumption and drug markets.

To facilitate these events, 18 grassroots Labour members were deployed as ambassadors to the campaign, tasked with coordinating meetings and acting as local points of contact with their communities.
 Over 700 people attended meetings hosted in Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Grimsby, Gorseinon, Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Wolverhampton, York and at the 2019 Labour Party conference.
 The findings from this grassroots consultation has been synthesised by an expert working group comprising leaders in the fields of academia, addiction, healthcare, treatment, policing and policy. Comprehensive, transformative recommendations – based on the key themes emerging from the public meetings – are currently being drafted with a public release due in the autumn.

Our co-founder Jeff Smith said: “For decades, this country’s drug laws have contributed to massive health inequalities, intensified racial discrimination and failed our communities. Drugs policy is an important issue for Labour – and the people we seek to represent. I’ve been really encouraged by the conversations that have taken place since we started the campaign two years ago, with members and supporters engaging constructively, and prominent figures in Labour coming out and acknowledging that the war on drugs has failed and that we need a new approach. The launch of our recommendations will be a landmark moment in the campaign, setting out what we think should be in the next manifesto. I would encourage Labour supporters, members and parliamentarians to give them their full consideration.”

The LCDPR wants Labour members and supporters to be placed at the heart of decision making and for the party to implement evidence-based drug policies that reflect their experiences, values and concerns. That is why we will be calling on the Labour frontbench to consider our recommendations, open a dialogue and engage with our campaign – and ultimately to adopt our recommendations as party policy. 
We call on Labour members to embrace the societal benefits of drug policy reform, raise our recommendations at the Constituency Labour Party level and champion the cause. A comprehensive plan for how Labour should overhaul the UK’s unjust approach to drug policy is just around the corner – watch this space.
 If you would like to learn more about drug policy reform, or would like to join our mailing list to be kept up-to-date with the release of our recommendations please email [email protected].

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