Drugs rethink?

  • 14 December 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
  • comments

Here we go again - Nick Clegg's support today for a radical rethink of drugs policy adds to the growing tally of subjects where the Lib Dems are at odds on major policy issues with their Conservative Coalition partners.

There's the monitoring provisions of the Communications Data Bill, aka the "Snoopers Charter"; there's the open, indeed institutionalised, dissent over Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for press regulation; the open conflict over the review of constituency boundaries; the sharp differences over green energy and shale gas, and now there's the Home Affairs Committee's heavyweight report calling for a Royal Commission to examine new approaches to the problem of drugs.

It's important to be clear what is being suggested: not MPs handing out skunk on street corners, but a close look at experiments with decriminalisation of possession for personal use.

In Portugal, people caught with small amounts of drugs are not prosecuted, and fed into the penal system. Instead, they are referred to slightly Orwellian sounding bodies called "Dissuasion Commissions". The select committee is recommending that the Royal Commission studies these alternative approaches, to see if they are more effective at cutting drug use and the crime, social and medical problems that result from it.

After all, when a minister as senior as Ken Clarke, a former Home Secretary, Health Secretary and Justice Secretary, tells them "we've been engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years, and we're plainly losing it", the MPs may have thought it not unreasonable to wonder if there might be an alternative to current policy.

But with all controversial select committee reports, it's always worth checking the rather boring-looking formal minutes at the back - and in the case of this report it becomes clear that the committee was split on two key issues.

The chair, Keith Vaz, had to use his casting vote to support the inclusion of a paragraph regretting the 2008 decision to make cannabis a Class B drug. (The voting is interesting: Lib Dem Julian Huppert, Conservative Mark Reckless and Labour's David Winnick supported the paragraph; while three Conservatives, Nicola Blackwood, James Clappison and Michael Ellis voted against).

A little later, there's a vote on the paragraphs which argue for a Royal Commission - Julian Huppert, Mark Reckless and David Winnick plus Labour MP Brigit Phillipson voted for it and the same trio, Nicola Blackwood, James Clappison and Michael Ellis, against. And in the final report approving the whole report Michael Ellis voted against it….while Nicola Blackwood, who has considerable experience working with drug rehabilitation initiatives, is strongly against decriminalisation.

My point is that, once again, we're back to the fact that the Commons has a kind of variable geometry majority - there are different coalitions and different pluralities in the House on different issues.

There's much talk that, on drugs, a lot of MPs, possibly a majority, don't believe the current policy approach works, but don't dare say so, for fear of being labelled "soft on drugs". Mr Huppert is trying to coax these bashful creatures from their hiding places, perhaps with a backbench debate on the committee's findings. If he's feeling really confident, there's even talk of putting down a motion calling for the proposed Royal Commission to be appointed.

How the main parties would whip, if such a motion was accepted for debate, would be an interesting question indeed.

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