Drugs rethink?


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.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Actually the first question is do MPs think about drugs policy? I doubt it... plenty of other things to occupy them... how to con the electorate to vote for them yet again, how to hide the latest expense wheeze, which boards to join, what back handers can be accepted quietly and hidden, which gullible starry eyed girl to chase...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    its easy for mps living in posh areas + nice little communities to think that drugs arent a problem- all i can say is they shud live in rundown poorer areas where people who dont like drugs have to live with the stench of cannibis from selfish neighbours. i do think more help and support is needed to tackle drug issues but decriminalisation isnt going to solve it- just save the police time + money

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    What do MPs really think about drugs policy?

    They think they are doing a grand job, because they dont live in the real world. Of course, they will put more police on the streets on a friday and saturday night because of the violence caused when i drunk attacks a stoner who is on the way to get munchies from the kebab house.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Basically what I'm saying is the old school drugs (ecstasy, cocaine, speed and cannabis) the doctors know how to treat , they know whats in them and the damaging effects. But all this Mephedrone, GHB, and endless legal high taking is a result of the governments restrictions on the old school drugs mentioned above. Its the government who have coursed the switch from "classic" drugs to the junk

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Politicians answer the question they wish they'd been asked not the actual question posed.

    On drugs policy they chose the line of least political resistance regardless of overwhelming data to the contrary. Are we surprised by this? No, but isn't it time to ask for solutions instead of sound bites?

    I hate to say this........ I back Nick Clegg on this one!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    As a former heavy drug user the country is clearly heading for a serious problem. Back in the day me and all my friends used to take ecstasy, cocaine, speed and cannabis. we are all fine and have good careers. But today due to problems with quality of these drugs and poor availability in comparison to the 1999-2004 period. People are taking all sorts of crap legal highs no knowing whats in them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.


    That one. If you (BBC) leave the main story up there without showing the generally positive response it garnered then are you not contributing to the situation alluded to the in the last paragraph of this story? I should think if the deputy PM is backing it then our views should be up for a least a few days no?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Is this about drug policy or voting practise or both? I'm confused. Why can we comment on this but not on the main headline where Nick is backing reform? Why is the thread with the pertinent responses on it, nearly 1000 of them, now effectively hidden? Very sorry to be one of 'those' posters but what it going on please?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Take the radical starting point that an adult citizen is capable of making up his own mind. Then realise that, provided nobody else is harmed by his actions, he has the right to do what he likes.

    It is not the government's place to dictate, much as it would like to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Yes yes we understand the political message that is: The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are two separate political bodies with separate philosophies.

    Is there an election around the corner or something? Get stoned; you won't care much at all after that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    M personal belief on cannabis being a "gateway" drug is due to the illegal nature of the drug with lack of harm from the drug, Medicinal benefit's etc.. When tried by someone.. and realize its not as bad as its made out to be (by being illegal).. Spur's the thought process "well if this inst that bad then what about the other illegal drug's?". The Government is setting a bad example , and message

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Cannabis should be decriminalised and people should not just be able to possess it but should be able to cultivate it for themselves.

    It's just a plant and it's quick and easy to grow and doesn't turn people into idiots like alcohol can do if they drink too much.

    If you smoke too much your just going to order a pizza and fall asleep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    A comparison is often made with alcohol.
    The conventional hard and soft drugs are very high value for small volume, compared to say beer or vodka, so there is every incentive for supply and consumption to operate outside any form of regulation.
    Or safety.
    Criminality should stay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    MP's vote in public, so we all know their position. This avoids the situation of an MP saying one thing and acting differently. However, the public vote gives the whips their power to control MP's who may feel obliged to tow the party line, despite perhaps wishing to vote in opposition. There should be opportunities for votes to be cast secretly, as this would enable true opinions to be expressed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    How about two changes to the law:

    A/. Decriminalise all currently illegal drugs

    B/. Put a legal obligation on anyone selling any form of drug to ensure the drug is safe when taken at appropriate doses

    That way if anyone sold, for example, heroin laced with anthrax, they'd be liable to a long prison term so the emphasise moves to clean drugs, not the tainted ones that kill/maim....

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It would be hard for many MPs to do an about turn as far as their opinions on drug legislation go because of all the garbage and scare story's that they love to spout.
    JamesStGeorge got it in one "Politicians do not think about drugs at all. They think about votes. So regardless of the obvious, and scientific advice, they believe the public wants drug users to be persecuted"

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Politicians do not think about drugs at all. They think about votes. So regardless of the obvious, and scientific advice, they believe the public wants drug users to be persecuted, it makes them feel good to have an identified 'bad' group to deal with. Law and order industry loves it as it keep them in high paid jobs. Legalise and tax, known contents, keep money out of criminals hands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    When it costs thousands of pounds in police time, court time and prison time for using a substance less dangerous than alcohol and cigarette smoking.
    Where is the logic in it?

    Legalising it will save money
    Quality control will ensure the right stuff gets used
    And you can tax it.

    There's my logic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I put this to you then.. It is easier to deal with the like's of a few known Classified substance's then that of the "40 new legal high's a year".. Which also cause larger damage's in health (since there not as potent to there chemical harm). The war on drug's is lost.. The point it where will we cut our losses?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Its simplistic to say this but it just goes to prove that our movers and shakers really do live in a world completely detached from reality - add this to the recent milliband comments about immigration and our national decline becomes all too believable!


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