Government plans announced at the Home Office national drugs summit last week, including the expansion of football banning orders to include those convicted of drug possession offences, herald a significant shift in rhetoric and approach – as the war on drugs meets the culture wars. Labour can now score an easy win by presenting itself as the party of rationality, evidence and reform.
Policing ministers Kit Malthouse has outlined a range of plans designed to reduce demand from what he calls ‘middle-class coke heads’ – ahead of an upcoming drug policy white paper. Some of the prospective measures included: five-year football banning orders for drug offences; the confiscation of passports and driving licences; use of electronic tags and skin detectors to detect signs of drug use; and the roll-out of US-style random drug testing across society.
These are worrying developments, raising profound human rights and civil liberties concerns, and paving the way for the eventual criminalisation of people being found to have drugs and/or their metabolites in their system, something that does not currently constitute a criminal offence – only the production, supply or possession of controlled substances is against the law.
The Tories’ alarming but predictable authoritarian turn on drugs, doubling down on 50 years of policy failure, gives Labour a golden opportunity to put clear red water between themselves and the government, and embrace evidence-based, cost-effective positions that we already know are popular with the public (the wider rollout of diversion schemes, drug testing services and the legalisation of cannabis, for example).
Keir Starmer himself backed the use of diversion schemes – where people found in possession of small quantities of drugs are dealt with outside of the criminal justice system – during the Labour leadership debates in 2020, but risks further undermining his credibility with sections of the party by failing to offer his support for such schemes which are already used widely across the country.
Senior party figures including Sadiq Khan and David Lammy, meanwhile, have signalled their support for changing our approach to cannabis – with Lammy calling for full legalisation, regulation and taxation of the drug. But Labour, which issued online adverts attacking the Lib Dems for being ‘soft on drugs’ during the recent local elections, risks being outflanked on drug policy by the Greens and the Lib Dems who have much more progressive and substantive policy agendas.
Whilst the Greens advocate for the legal regulation of all drugs, and the Lib Dems call for both diversion schemes and the legalisation of cannabis, Labour has said it does “not support changing the law[s] on drugs”, and will “absolutely look at naming and shaming” those caught in possession of illegal drugs. This sort of policy-by-focus-group populism, undoubtedly formulated with an eye on ‘Red Wall’ voters, is both unsatisfactory and unnecessary.
Polls have consistently shown that on issues from trans rights to the four-day working week, the Red Wall isn’t as socially conservative as the media narrative – and the shadow cabinet WhatsApp leaks – might suggest. Even if it was, Labour has spearheaded progressive change against the will of public opinion before (reform of laws on abortion, death penalty, divorce, contraception and homosexuality in the 1960s and 70s) because politicians have the ability to shape and lead public opinion, as well as react to it.
Keir Starmer is an outstanding case in point. As a former director of public prosecutions and eminent human rights lawyer, he is in a uniquely credible position with the public, his colleagues in parliament and the legal and policing establishment to embrace and advocate for desperately needed reform to our current drug laws – enabling a future Labour government to save thousands of lives and billions of pounds in the process.
With a general election likely over two years away, we are yet to truly find out if Labour’s principles of security, dignity and respect apply to drug policy. But the rhetoric isn’t encouraging. Labour under Starmer has a once in a generation chance to own the issue, overhaul our laws on drugs and change societal attitudes towards people who use drugs in the process. Failure to do so would constitute nothing less than a dereliction of duty to the most vulnerable in our society and would come at huge human, financial and political cost.
Starmer describes himself as a “box-to-box midfield general”, and the Tories’ draconian proposed reforms have provided an open goal for Labour on drug policy. It’s time for the midfield general to show the required leadership and beat the war on drugs once and for all.