As data reveals disproportionate cannabis cautions for Black people, a Labour campaign backed by 20 MPs is calling for reform. Its co-founder Jeff Smith MP explains why.
As data reveals disproportionate cannabis cautions for Black people, a Labour campaign backed by 20 MPs is calling for comprehensive drug reform. Campaign co-founder Jeff Smith, MP for Manchester Withington, explains why.
As a former club DJ, I’ve probably spent more time around people who use drugs than the average MP. My experiences mean that I’m realistic about the role that drugs play in many peoples’ lives, and I’m well acquainted with the harms our drug laws cause – avoidable drug deaths, the unnecessary criminalisation of decent people and wasted police resources. It is what has driven me to campaign for reform of drug policy since my election to Parliament in 2015.
The UK’s current approach to drugs has been a colossal failure, in common with experience from around the world. We are in the midst of a drug-related deaths crisis, with 5,546 people in the UK dying in 2018, the highest figure on record for the UK and the highest of any country in Europe. Ruinous cuts to treatment services caused by austerity have added to the problem. Each person lost is a tragedy, and it’s the poorest and most disadvantaged communities that bear the biggest burden of addiction and deaths.
Through county lines dealing and exploitation, young people and children have been pulled into drug supply at an alarming scale. The Children’s Commissioner estimated that 27,000 children in England and Wales are caught up in drug gangs, and 2,000 teenagers from London alone have been identified as having a link to county lines activity.
Meanwhile, Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite being statistically less likely to use substances. They are also significantly overrepresented in prisons for drug charges – a direct result of the entrenched biases of our drug laws and our society.
As the party of fairness and equal opportunity, these are the people Labour seeks to represent, and these are the people who are being let down the most by the country’s drug laws. That’s why Labour must embrace the progressive drug policy reform this country desperately needs. That’s why in 2018, we began the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, aiming to create a forum for Labour members and supporters to debate and shape Labour’s drug policy for the future.
Since then, over 700 people have attended our public evidence-gathering sessions, hosted in Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Grimsby, Gorseinon, Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Wolverhampton, York, and at the 2019 Labour conference. The findings from this consultation have been collated by an expert working group featuring leaders in the fields of academia, addiction, healthcare, treatment, policing and criminal justice. Today (September 23), we have launched a set of recommendations based on those findings, which we would like to see adopted as future Labour policy.
This comes at a significant moment. Later this month, Dame Carol Black is expected to report back on the second phase of her Home Office-commissioned review of drugs. Though the government prevented the review team from considering the potential impact of legalisation or decriminalisation by deeming it ‘out of scope’, phase one offered a fair and damning assessment of the UK’s drugs crisis, accurately depicting the scale of the challenge.
If phase two is similar, we can expect Dame Carol to propose practical solutions which would make a difference to many people’s lives. We hope the review will call for common-sense measures, like serious reinvestment in drug treatment services and diversion schemes. For years, governments have pursued a drug strategy which has ignored evidence and focused on criminalisation rather than reducing harm, and change is needed.
There will be those who fear that progressive drug reform is at odds with the wishes of often more socially conservative voters in traditional working-class areas, who might be alienated by perceived attempts to sanction drug use. But our proposals are intended to save lives, not to encourage drug use. Most importantly, it’s the people in those communities who are affected by the failure of our national approach to drugs more than anywhere – whether through addiction, county lines, violence or drug litter.
Sanctioning drug consumption rooms isn’t about condoning the use of heroin, it’s about connecting people at their lowest ebb with health services, saving lives, and getting needles off the streets. Considering the legalisation and regulation of cannabis for adult use isn’t about encouraging more people to get stoned – it’s about diminishing the power and prevalence of criminal gangs and making it harder for children to get hold of weed and harm their developing brains. Backing diversion schemes for low-level drug offenders isn’t about being soft on crime, it’s about reducing reoffending, improving life chances and saving police resources.
And we may be pushing at more of an open door than many politicians realise. The latest stats show that 53 per cent of people are in favour of a health-based approach to drugs over criminal punishment. In a separate poll, 53 per cent expressed a preference for legalising and regulating the cannabis market, with only 32 per cent against.
Labour wants to make the UK the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in. As it stands, thousands of kids are sucked into county lines violence before the age of 18, and hundreds of thousands of people with addictions are unlikely to reach their 50th birthday. We need to engage seriously with progressive drug policy reform to make our vision a reality.
Find out more about the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform here.
Follow Jeff Smith MP on Twitter.