Thursday, 25 September 2014

Geoff Payne writes: A new evidence based approach to drug policy

As Liberal Democrats we have never been afraid to stand up for what we believe in, even if that means standing against the crowd. At conference in Glasgow, the Federal Policy Committee will present its policy paper Doing what Works to Cut Crime, a paper that amongst other issues, revisits and has restarted the debate on drug policy.

From the outset we were clear that the criminal justice system spends too much time dealing with people who do not belong there. That wastes money and needlessly criminalises people. At the moment, we jail more than 1,000 people a year in England and Wales for possession of drugs for their own personal use. These are not drug dealers. Many of them are addicts who have a medical problem that would be more effectively treated in the community.

We must take a more holistic approach to drugs policy. The challenge of tackling entrenched drug and alcohol addiction is primarily a health and mental health issue. So we would move the government lead on drugs policy to the Department of Health and, where necessary, divert problematic and chaotic drug users at risk of committing crime into treatment.

This approach is more demanding and challenging for people addicted to drugs and alcohol, but it is also far more effective than simple prison sentences. Proactively helping victims of drug addiction will prevent more victims of crime and free up valuable resources to tackle the major route into addiction: the dealers, the gangs and their links to organised crime.

Furthermore and subject to further work on implementation, we propose adopting the model similar to that used in Portugal where those who possess drugs for personal use will be diverted into other services.

If an arrested person is thought not to be a drug dealer but rather an abuser and dependent, that person would be directed towards appropriate treatment in the Health Service, and possibly supervision by the probation service under civil court orders.

Those thought to be a non-problematic user of drugs would be diverted towards programmes designed to encourage them to stop such as those run successfully by drug workers in the community. In some cases, particularly for repeat offenders, Fixed Penalty Notices might be appropriate.

We are clear however that the dealing of illegal drugs underpins organised crime and should continue to be regarded as a serious offence. The penalties for those who manufacture, import and/or deal in illegal drugs must remain severe and stringently applied.

Helping drug users and punishing drug dealers forms the core of our proposals but our working group was also prepared to think outside the box.

Our paper welcomes the establishment of regulated cannabis markets in Washington state, Colorado, and Uruguay and we propose undertaking a review to assess the effectiveness of these schemes in relation to public health and criminal activity. If the findings are positive, we would ask the review to consider potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market with tight controls on quality and strength.

The potential advantages of such an approach include a reduction in organised crime; the ability to address the impact of ‘skunk’; and the redeployment of public revenues into treatment for those addicted to harder drugs as well as the education of young people about the dangers of cannabis, tobacco and alcohol.

I hope you will agree that the proposals in the policy paper are innovative and broaden the debate on drug policy. These policies are aimed squarely at utilising evidence to ensure we are doing what works to cut crime.

Conference will be debating the issues raised in this blog and the wider proposals in the policy paper Doing What Works to Cut Crime on Sunday 5th October from 10:50 to 12:30. Please do join us.

Geoff Payne is the chair of the Criminal Justice Working Group, a member of FPC and FCC and a practicing barrister.