A Digression on Drugs
I digressed in my column for The Independent on Sunday today. It is about Nick Clegg’s plan to defend as many as possible of the party’s 57 seats at the next election. The Liberal Democrats realise that they might lose seats to Labour, but they hope to defend well against the Conservatives in the south, and they know that if they can hold onto, say, 50 seats they will still be likely to have some leverage in a hung parliament.
The plan is to use some well-defined policies to appeal to segments of the electorate who still find it hard to vote Tory. One such policy is the mansion tax; another is drugs. This is where I went off road. The point about a liberal policy on drugs is not, for the purposes of political analysis, whether Clegg is right or wrong but whether or not there is a subset of voters who (a) care and (b) think it is right.
With regard to “soft” drugs such as cannabis, which of these statements comes closest to your own view?
The sale and possession of such drugs should remain a criminal offence as now 43%
The sale and possession of such drugs should remain illegal but should be regarded as a minor offence, such as parking in the wrong place, rather than a CRIMINAL offence (a policy sometimes called ‘decriminalisation’) 30%
The sale and possession of such drugs should no longer be illegal (sometimes called ‘legalisation’) 19%
That seems quite a big subset: 49 per cent of voters say they want some form of liberalisation. I doubt that many of them care much, but there is undoubtedly a small core of “liberal on drugs” voters that it is worth the Lib Dems’ wooing.
My other unworthy and distracting thought was that I doubt if many of the 49 per cent know what they are talking about. Hence my digression, to point out that Clegg did not know what he was talking about.
He admitted as much, because he said only that he wants to “look at what works elsewhere” and to include a “clear commitment” to a royal commission on drugs in his party’s 2015 manifesto.
On the other hand, he hinted that he agrees with decriminalisation, because he said (a) we have to “do something different”, (b) he is not in favour of legalisation, and (c) decriminalisation “may be a solution”.
Right, working backwards then, what is the problem?
I don’t think Clegg knows, apart from platitudes about having lost the war on drugs and a meeting with a former president of Mexico, which has little to do with the case for decriminalising cannabis.
As I pointed out, the drugs policy of the Labour governments has been a remarkable success. I quoted the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which shows a fall between 1998 and 2011 from 20.8 per cent to 10.9 per cent in the proportion of young people aged 16-24 who report illegal drug use in the previous month. If there is a war on drugs, we are winning it.
It is true that decriminalisation “may be a solution” if the problem is that otherwise sensible potheads are liable to get criminal records that might interfere with their blameless careers. But mental illness is also a problem, even if it is associated with cannabis use in a small minority of teenage boys. It is incumbent on the advocates of decriminalisation to show that the change would not lead to wider cannabis use or, if it did, that it would not matter.
Clegg says he wants to “look at what works elsewhere”. On this, the YouGov survey is not so helpful to him. Not in the answers that people gave, but in one of the questions it asked (the longest I have ever seen in an opinion poll):
In 2001 Portugal decriminalised possession of drugs in an attempt to deal with a high rate of heroin addiction and HIV amongst drug users. People growing, dealing or trafficking drugs are still prosecuted, but possession of drugs for personal use has been decriminalised. Instead there has been increased investment in drug treatment programmes and harm reduction programmes.
Since the policy was introduced there have been higher levels of drug treatment, the justice system has spent less time on drug-related crime, there has been less problem drug use, but a higher rate of overall reported drug use.
Would you support or oppose a similar programme in this country?
This was actually supported, by a margin of 40 per cent to 32 per cent, although 27 per cent didn’t know. But note that YouGov’s careful researchers accept that decriminalisation in Portugal has led to a “higher rate of overall reported drug use”.
Perhaps this does not matter, but I would like Clegg to explain why not.Tagged in: drugs, liberal democrats, nick clegg
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