Where is the Liberal Democrat influence over drugs policy? (libdemvoice.org)

Yesterday we learnt that the Home Secretary has decided to ban the drug ‘khat’, against the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The Lib Dems were reportedly against this move, and the decision lay with Theresa May. This and other decisions suggest that drugs minister Jeremy Browne has been given a script but no power.

The disappointing decision to make khat a Class C drug follows the view of the ACMD in January that it should remain legal (having said the same thing 7 years earlier):

The ACMD considers that the evidence of harms associated with the use of khat is insufficient to justify control and it would be inappropriate and disproportionate to classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In summary the ACMD considers that the harms of khat does not reach the level required for classification. Therefore, the ACMD recommend that the status of khat is not changed.

The advisory council is not prone to prioritising the freedom of consenting adults over health risks, so if even they think classification is “inappropriate and disproportionate” then we really should be worried. In fact, rather than the usual reference point of alcohol, the most frequent comparison for khat – not to be confused with cats – is coffee, the world’s most popular drug (which has itself seen many prohibitions over recent centuries). Used functionally in East Africa by “farmers, night watchmen, labourers, lorry drivers and students”, its use in the UK might be considered more recreational – as a communal activity in cafés or while watching the football. While khat is not entirely harmless or blameless, the Home Office’s case is poor, and this move is, as Stephen Williams says, a “waste of time and money for the government and our police.”

Theresa May’s decision can be put down to three factors, alongside the Home Office’s prohibition predilection: 1) her own leadership ambitions; 2) the Tory party’s pre-determination before the election – primarily by Sayeeda Warsi – that khat should be banned; and 3) international pressure from the US and others. May has even attempted to suggest it is directly linked to terrorism, but legal regulation is (as with cocaine and heroin) by far the best way to prevent links to terrorism, violence and corruption.

In contrast to the Home Secretary’s view, the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto stated clearly that we would, “Always base drugs policy on independent scientific advice, including making the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs completely independent of government.” Given that the drugs minister is now a Lib Dem, voters might legitimately question our record on this in government. (Unfortunately, MPs will not get a chance to vote on the change in the Commons.)

This is not an isolated case. In late 2010 the ACMD advised that the provision of foil by harm reduction services to heroin and crack users should be decriminalised. They repeated this view in December 2011 and again in February this year. 32 months after the original report, the government is yet to give its response. It seems Theresa May hopes, cowardly, to avoid ever giving a decision. For his part, Jeremy Browne clearly has no power to follow our 2010 manifesto, or indeed our 2002 policy that specifically covered harm reduction programmes (see update below).

So the question is, what is the point of having a Lib Dem as drugs minister? Was the last reshuffle trade a good deal?

I recall another former drugs minister, Bob Ainsworth, discussing the difficult choice of remaining in the tent and doing what he could while also disagreeing with government drugs policy. But in our case that must be balanced with the harm to our party’s image and backbone of being nominally in charge of going against our own policies. And when we are unable to achieve even tiny reforms (such as on tin foil) or prevent steps that actually go in the wrong direction (khat), I conclude that Jeremy Browne should resign from his drugs policy role in protest.

We have – to be fair – secured a review of drug policies abroad, after the Home Office ignored most of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s recent recommendations. This is welcome, and could potentially have a long-term impact, but I’m doubtful. The Home Office would not even confirm to me that they intend to release this review to the public once completed.

The government will also introduce a new “escalation framework” for punishing khat users, which will be interesting to see (unless you’re on the receiving end), and I would optimistically hope that the impacts of the new prohibition will be scrutinised. But while drug policy reform is heating up in many countries – no thanks to the Foreign Office, where Browne previously played a drugs policy role – it’s hard to see any real progress on the horizon in the UK.

This puts our party in an odd position. Back in December, Nick Clegg put his head above the parapet, saying “I’m anti-drugs – it’s for that reason I’m pro reform”, and Julian Huppert has worked tirelessly and admirably on drugs policy. Without any prospect of support from the Conservatives or Labour, all we can do is go on the offensive, try gradually to shift public opinion and stick up for liberal principles. In contrast to the freedom Clegg and backbenchers have to speak out, it’s hard to see how Jeremy Browne’s role as Home Office “room meat” helps.

Update (4/7/13, 12.10pm): “The government has accepted the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to allow for the lawful provision of foil by drug treatment providers subject to the strict condition that it is part of structured efforts to get people into treatment and off drugs.” Coalition horse-trading in action? In any case, a small victory for the Lib Dems. Aside from the conditionality, this is in line with our manifesto position and 2002 drugs policy.
Originally published at http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-where-is-the-liberal-democrat-influence-over-drugs-policy-35174.html

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