‘That this House recognises that the cannabis battle in the war against drugs is being lost; that cannabis is neither more damaging than tobacco, nor more addictive than alcohol, and that it is no more the portal to harder drugs than a half of bitter to rampant alcoholism…’
That was the opening to a 2000 bill on decriminalising cannabis that was sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn, along with 13 other Labour MPs.
At the time, they constituted a tolerated but patronised left-wing division of the Labour movement and the bill didn’t gain the wider support of the parliamentary party.
Fast-forward 15 years, and some of the sponsors of that bill now sit in vital positions in the Shadow Cabinet: Leader (Corbyn), Chancellor (McDonnell), and International Development (Abott). It was a turn of events that almost nobody predicted and, perhaps, in the decade and a half since that bill was presented, the impetus for the original bill has slipped away from Labour’s reigning ‘faction’. Put simply: they’ve got bigger fish to fry.
In the 2015 General Election, cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation was never seriously brought to the table. The Conservatives weren’t ever going to be advocates for progressive drugs policy and they suitably ignored the issue because, as every Lynton Crosby diktat restated, anything that didn’t directly involve the economy wasn’t going to win the election. The Labour party kept up its line about crime (‘drug addiction continues to be a major cause of crime’) and, when drugs policy did come up, it was generally to talk about banning legal highs and ruining 14-year-old children’s first festival experiences.
Even the libertarian pirates of UKIP weren’t biting – ‘we will not decriminalise illegal drugs’ – which left it to the Liberal Democrats to offer the approach that ‘those arrested for possession of drugs for personal use are diverted into treatment, education or civil penalties’. The election result of the Liberal Democrats would be an understandable reason for never touching the issue again.
But even if Britain’s view on the issue is stagnating, the world at large is wrapped in a foggy weed haze.
North America, the political Victoria’s Secret to Britain’s La Senza, is particularly enamoured with recreational drug use, and it’s hard to imagine that one special relationship wouldn’t impact the other. The political future of the drugs debate in the UK cannot fail to see the United States as the paragon of liberal drugs policy bedded into a socially conservative society.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the friendlier of the North American countries, Justin Trudeau has recently been elected to the venerable office of Prime Minister of Canada. With his B-list movie star good looks, Trudeau comes across like a bee-stung Matthew McConaughey; and he has a similar attitude to drugs policy.
In 2013, Trudeau made the startling admission that he had shared a joint since becoming a member of the Canadian parliament. He told the Huffington Post that he ‘had a few good friends over for a dinner party, our kids were at their grandmother’s for the night, and one of our friends lit a joint and passed it around. I had a puff.’ Obviously, you can still retain your puritan credentials after a single puff, but what made Trudeau’s confession noteworthy is that it exists in a startlingly barren landscape. Put simply, serious career politicians don’t admit to cannabis use.
Take David Cameron, for example. Whilst he was Leader of the Opposition back in sunny 2007, reports emerged that he was a recreational cannabis user in his younger and more vulnerable days (anyone familiar with British public schools will know that this is a claim which requires little scrutiny). His response?
‘Like many people I did things when I was young that I shouldn’t have done and that I regret. But I do believe that politicians are entitled to a past that is private and that remains private, so I won’t be making any commentary on what’s in the newspapers today.’
If we hadn’t realised it by then, we had just received confirmation that Cameron was a slick politician, moving silkily in the no-man’s-land between denial and confirmation. What stands out, however, is the fact that, even in the 21st century, a pragmatist like David Cameron felt unable to explicitly state that he’d even had ‘a puff’. Maybe this is because the list of British politicians who have admitted to cannabis use reads like a cenotaph of political mediocrity: perennial Tory embarrassments Tim Yeo and Oliver Letwin; deficient ex-Secretaries of State Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith; and a roster of 2015 ballot paper losers like Andy Burnham, Caroline Flint, and Yvette Cooper. That said, there’s a decent case to suggest that the 2020 election could be fought between two open drug users: Boris Johnson (‘Cannabis, you mean? Yes, I have. There was a period before university when I had quite a few spliffs’) and Chuka Umunna (‘It’s not something I’m proud of and I don’t think it’s news any more, to be honest’).
Chuka’s right: it’s not news. Obama’s done it, which means we can all do it. But what makes Trudeau different is that he admitted not to a youthful indiscretion, but to smoking whilst an MP. And, on top of that, as leader of the Liberal party, he championed legalization of marijuana. And, on top of that previous top, he won.
‘During the recent election campaign while cannabis regulation was not a central issue in his campaign he didn’t shy away from it and defended the policy position every time he was challenged or asked about it,’
says Donald Macpherson, Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, about Trudeau.
‘His timing was such that the overwhelming majority of Canadians simply said it’s time to do this.’
The timing in Canada was helped by high-profile legalisation in several states of their southern neighbours, not to mention the fact that, at 12.6% usage, Canada is one of the biggest cannabis consuming countries in the world (especially if you discount African and South Pacific countries who have a markedly different relationship with the drug). The same UN report put UK usage at 6.6% (Northern Ireland at 7.2% and Scotland at 8.4%), which suggests that the issue isn’t quite as pressing over here. Electorally speaking, around 4.5 million people in the UK are confirmed cannabis users, which would be a daunting pressure group in pretty much any electoral system other than First Past the Post.
I asked Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West and the primary sponsor of that 2000 early day motion, whether he felt like there was any future for his decriminalisation bill and found him somewhat pessimistic on the issue, except with an eye on the events in North America. ‘I am not optimistic that Labour will act except as the reaction to the extraordinary decriminalisation events in Canada and America. They greatly influence in ways that the depenalisations in Portugal and the Netherlands never have,’ he said.
It seems that even Labour’s most ardent supporters of decriminalisation are reluctant to put the issue forward in the current climate, so is there no hope of the party picking it up?
I questioned Donald Macpherson on whether the Liberal party’s drugs policies could work over in the UK.
‘I don’t know the UK public sentiment about cannabis these days but I think the time has come to say the emperor has no clothes and cannabis prohibition in the UK as well as North America is a colossal failure.’
He added that:
‘[with] the US states moving in that direction each election cycle and now Canada I think for a politician to state the obvious – cannabis prohibition has failed – and to propose a sound evidence-based regulatory system based in public health it would be supported by the majority of people. Trudeau was also very careful to say that he wants to legalize cannabis to take it away from organized crime, to tax it and to protect young people. I certainly think that could be emulated in the UK.’
Maybe it’s just that Canadian’s are famous for their positivity, but Macpherson’s reasoning seems sound. Labour now has a leader who demonstrably supports cannabis decriminalisation (see the 2000 bill for evidence) and two international pin-ups – Trudeau and Obama – to use as illustration of the electoral viability of the issue. On his recent visit to the UK, Trudeau had even the most right-leaning of Labour MPs swooning, so I cannot believe there would be significant opposition to putting cannabis decriminalisation on the social agenda. This is not Trident renewal or Syrian air strikes, where the left’s position is morally fairly equivocal, but a social signpost that should draw together both the vast pro-decriminalisation left and a fair number of floating libertarians who’ll likely be cut adrift from UKIP after the EU referendum.
It would also serve to focus Corbyn’s opposition on a domestic policy issue, something he has been accused of lack of interest in. Corbyn is an internationalist in his viewpoint, and whilst happy defending UK institutions like the NHS, he has thus far struggled to carve out a niche in terms of domestic policy. Yes, the Conservatives will hit back at him, but at least this avoids the dog whistle ‘threat to national security’ headlines that seem to accompany every Corbyn statement at the moment.
Labour is currently being pulled apart in two ways: internally, a way that interests no-one outside of Twitter, and externally, a way that impacts literally everyone’s life. Pushing a socially progressive drugs policy would be an opportunity to unite diverse internal factions – from Progress to Momemtum – as well as offering a cogent domestic policy sword, with which to strike at the Conservative government.