United Kingdom: Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy Calls for Royal Commission on Drug Policy 8/20/99

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Kerie Sprenger for DRCNet

In a bold move, the new leader of Britain's Liberal Democrat party, Charles Kennedy, broke ranks with the government's hard-line position on drug policy, calling for a royal commission to examine the matter. Mr. Kennedy is of the opinion that the time has come for an in-depth examination and debate of drug policy in the United Kingdom, with emphasis on education, differences in sentencing across the nation, and enforcement issues. He would like to include the voices of many experts, including police officers, many of whom believe that the war on drugs is a complete failure. Kennedy stops short, however, of backing legalization, even of decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

That a British politician is calling for an examination of the drug laws is nothing new, as one journalist likened the debate to a yearly ritual much like the summer cricket. What is new is that party leadership is taking this position. The Liberal Democrats are Britain's third-largest political party. Under Paddy Ashdown, the former party head, the Lib Dem's enlightened position on drug policy was downplayed, for fears the party's credibility might be damaged. Kennedy, who was elected to his position just over a week ago, has caused a minor uproar in government by taking this stance. Ann Widdecombe, the Tory Shadow Home Secretary, told The Guardian newspaper, "Charles Kennedy clearly has yet to learn how a responsible party leader should behave."

Both of the major political parties in Britain, the Tories and Labour, have a "just-say-no" outlook on drug policy. Kennedy is trying to bring reality to the table, by opening an honest debate. He would like to reconnect non-voters with the political system by bringing to the fore the issues that are affecting the average person. His spokeswoman told the Week Online that the Liberal Democrat party had always planned on calling for a royal commission once they had sufficient political voice, and had adopted this position in a party conference a number of years ago. "Mr. Kennedy feels that the issue should be dealt with in a mature debate. Discussions on the matter have long been repressed," she said.

Paul Matthews, a Home Office spokesman, gave the Week Online the official government position. "There are no plans for a Royal Commission, as it would be of no real value," he said. "The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is a statutory body that already handles drug policy in the UK. The government s position is clear: there are no plans to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use."

Matthews went on to say that marijuana as medicine would be treated no differently than any other licensed drug in the UK. After it has gone through clinical trials, and its safety, efficacy and quality is tested, marijuana can go through channels like any other drug. A license to grow marijuana as medicine for clinical trials has been issued to GW Pharmaceuticals, and trials are expected to commence in the near future. This will be the first major trial of marijuana as medicine in the United Kingdom, though 20 other licenses have been granted over the years for academic and therapeutic study.

Danny Kushlick of Transform, a British drug policy reform group, believes that the next election will have a positive effect on the UK s drug policy, as the Liberal Democrats are expected to take several seats that went Labour's way in the last election. "It looks hopeful," he said. "The Lib Dems shouldn't experience too much outside [US] pressure on this issue, as they are in the third place politically." The two major political parties in Britain apparently feel considerable pressure to follow American drug policy that the Liberal Democrats, being a lesser, though up-and-coming power, have yet to experience. Mr. Kennedy's spokeswoman, when asked if Mr. Kennedy was concerned about pressure from the US State Department, told the Week Online, "We don't really worry about things like that."

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Kennedy's call will be heeded.

Please visit Transform on the web at http://www.transformuk.freeserve.co.uk.

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