Members of Britain's Liberal Democratic Party overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Sunday supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales.
The resolution calls for an independent panel "to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom." Citing the Portuguese decriminalization model, the resolution called for consideration of reforms so that "possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offense" or that "possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions."
The resolution also calls for the review to consider "alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organized crime, and the health and safety of the public, especially children."
The resolution includes a call for "widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems," including the widespread use of heroin maintenance clinics for hard-core addicts.
The resolution also offers support for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), whose scientific integrity has been under attack first by the former Labor government, which resulted in a number of high profile resignations, and then by the Conservatives, who have put forth a plan to no longer require a certain number of scientists to sit on the council. The council should "retain a majority of independent scientific and social scientific experts in its membership," and no changes to the drug laws should take place without its advice, the resolution said.
The Liberal Democrats are the junior partner in Britain's coalition government, having brokered a deal with Conservatives after the last parliamentary elections. The resolution will put the party in conflict with the Conservatives, who are opposed to any liberalization of Britain's drug laws.
It also puts them at odds with Labor, which after a brief dalliance with downgrading marijuana offenses in 2004, overrode the advice of the ACMD to restore the old, harsher penalties the following year. The Liberal Democrats can continue to boast of having the most progressive drug policy position of any of Britain's major parties.
The resolution was introduced by Ewan Hoyle, delegate from Glasgow South and founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform. Politicians have tip-toed around drug policy reform because of "cowardice, pure cowardice," he said. Instead of panicking over what the tabloids might say, Hoyle added, "It's time politicians looked voters in the eye and attempted to explain complex concepts. I want [Liberal Democratic leader] Nick Clegg to walk into [Prime Minister] David Cameron's office and say: 'This is part of what is needed to get the country out of a hole.'"
While most party front-benchers stayed out of the debate, MP Tom Brake, co-chair of the Home Affairs Parliamentary Party Committee, congratulated delegates on passage of the resolution.
"Today, Liberal Democrats reaffirmed our support for an evidenced based drugs policy, calling for an independent panel to review current drug laws," Brake said after passage. "We want to ensure the Government has a clear focus on prevention and reducing harm by investing in education, treatment and rehabilitation, and moving away from criminalizing individuals and vulnerable drug users. We need proper regulation and investment if we are to get to the root of the battle with drugs. Liberal Democrats are the only party prepared to debate these issues."
The Conservatives were quick to go on the attack. The resolution "sends out the message that taking drugs is okay, but it is not," Tory MP Charles Walker told the tabloid Daily Mail
. "If the Liberal Democrats think taking heroin, cocaine and smoking skunk is okay, then that is up to them, but the government and I think most people in Britain do not agree with them."
While Labor continues to back away from drug reform, at least one Labor MP congratulated the Liberal Democrats on the resolution.
"The resolution passed should be acceptable to all but the most prejudiced MPs," said MP Paul Flynn, a long-time supporter of drug law reform. "But what next? Will someone take the campaign forward in Parliament?" he asked. "I've tried several times with bills and debates. I still have the scars to prove it. But, contrary to popular belief, advocating the end of drug prohibition is not an electoral liability. If it was I would have been rejected by the voters twenty years ago. This is an era when there is respect for strongly held independent views that challenge accepted foolishness."
Flynn could not resist a chance to jab at Prime Minister Cameron -- who supported drug legalization before he opposed it -- and the Liberal Democrats as well.
"An additional reason why drugs reform may be successful is that we have a Prime Minister who understands the argument," Flynn noted. "He wrote a great column in 2002 setting out the alternatives. The vote was practically unanimous this afternoon. Will the Lib Dems have the cojones
to implement their conference policy?"
It may not be just a matter of cojones
, but also of numbers, said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Institute
"This is Liberal Democratic policy only, and they are the minority partner in the coalition government," he noted. "They have had a pretty strong drug policy position for years, but the problem has been that it has been a shield issue for them rather than a sword issue. They have not wanted to take the lead on it because the leadership sees it as a potential liability rather than a strength. They have made the intellectual journey, but are afraid to commit on the political side."
But now the Liberal Democrats have passed their resolution, even if party leader Nick Clegg has been noticeably silent on the issue, and that puts the issue squarely before the public again. That's a good thing, said Rolles.
"The Tories will certainly need to respond, and will be made to look trenchant, anti-evidence, and dogmatic as a result," the analyst said. "Labor may move slightly, but I think they are biding their time to see what the public reaction will be. All the parties know that drug policy reform must happen at some point, but none want to move on it until they are more confident it will play well politically," he said.
"This pushes the debate into the political mainstream, which is always helpful, not least because it provides cover for others to take a public position on reform," Rolles continued. "We know that exposure to informed debate on this issue tends to move opinion in a positive direction so that is also a positive. This isn't a seismic moment but it is another step in the right direction. Undermining the creaking edifice of prohibition is an attritional process."
The Liberal Democratic Party has had its say on drug policy reform this past weekend. Now, the question is how the party leadership responds and whether Labor and the Conservatives can be moved on the issue. It looks like the drug debate is heating up again in Britain.