Why Centrists Should Support Drug Policy Reform

by Torrin Wilkins

Arguments about drug policy reform often focus exclusively on the left and the right… yet, in all this we forget that whilst our political system may be split between two parties, a large section of the public identifies as centrists

Arguments about drug policy reform often focus exclusively on the left and the right; after all, this is how our political system works – with First Past the Post ensuring elections are mainly a contest between the Conservatives and Labour.

Within these two parties we see the debate on drug laws often ends up splitting them in two. Within the Conservatives you have the libertarian wing who favour less government intervention, and the authoritarian “tough on crime” wing led by Priti Patel in the Home Office.

Policy-wise, those opposing changes to drug laws have been more successful in the Conservative Party – there has been the odd victory however, such as medical cannabis becoming legal in 2018 – a significant instance reform.

Within Labour, there is a split between arguments about evidence-based policy and the law-and-order approach adopted by Keir Starmer – who even recently invoked the “tough on crime” message originally used by New Labour.

In terms of policy, the 2019 Labour manifesto said that “Prison is not the best place to address the drug addictions…” but Keir Starmer later backtracked on this and supported the continuation of prohibition and criminalisation.

Yet, in all this we forget that whilst our political system may be split between two parties, a large section of the public identifies as centrists. The Social Market Foundation and Opinium did some polling on this back in 2016 which saw “45% of voters put themselves in the centre” – and this hasn’t changed much since, in 2020 Ipsos said 34% of people thought of themselves as centrist.

Overall, the centre ground in the UK seems broadly in favour of reforming drug laws. The Liberal Democrats supports reforming drug laws within the UK. Yet it’s also a far more mixed space than simply the Liberal Democrats. There are also moderates, One Nation Conservatives, Social Democrats, social liberals and supporters of a Social Market Economy.

Whilst these groups are similar, there is a sizeable contingent of centrists that are more cautious about reforming drug laws, some Conservative and some Labour voters, whilst others don’t vote at all.

There are two things that cut across these groups and will help to increase support for reforming drug laws within the UK: real world examples, and showing that reforming drug laws constitutes a moderate change to the law.

The first way to convince centrists is to move the debate away from principles and towards how drug reform works in practice. Using real world examples clearly shows a specific set of policies that a campaign supports and that a country already uses them successfully. It also helps to dispel any arguments that your policy can’t be achieved when another country already uses it.

During the EU referendum this tactic was used by Vote Leave when they constantly referred to an “Australian-style points-based system” to show what kind of immigration system they wanted after Brexit. They did this repeatedly and despite the fact that Australia actually has more immigration as a result of their system, thus proving the impact this kind of messaging can have if deployed effectively.

For drug policy one of the best examples of reform is Portugal. When they decriminalised drugs it saw immediate impacts of reform which included “…new HIV infections, drug deaths and the prison population all fell sharply within the first decade”. These results are clear real-world evidence that, regardless of how people initially feel about drug reform, there is evidence it works when put into practice.

The other way to get centrist support for drug policy reform is to show how drug policy reform is moderate. This may seem difficult in the current climate where reforming policy on drugs seems like a radical move that the large parties are worried to tackle.

In part this will be done by creating an argument based on evidence and using other countries to show that reform isn’t actually some kind of huge experiment. Instead, it is a move towards a tried and tested policy successfully used by countries around the world.

It also means showing that the actual shift taking place, from criminalisation and towards treatment in the case of decriminalisation, isn’t as large as it seems. Treatment in Portugal for instance has meant replacing prison sentences with Dissuasion Commissions to help people off drugs.

Finally we also need to forcefully demonstrate how current laws on drugs are harmful, and the status quo is far worse than improving the law and reducing harms. We know that only drug gangs benefit from the current criminalisation of drugs, offering lucrative, unregulated financing for these serious organised crime groups – revenue that could be going to the Exchequer.

For those in the centre ground we can win the argument by focusing on countries that have successfully reformed drug laws and by framing reforms as moderate and incremental. It’s something we are working on at Centre Think Tank, making the case that changing drug laws is a positive step that would save lives, and that it’s tried and tested elsewhere across the world.

With this we are looking to continue campaigning for better policies on drugs, and convincing people that we need treatment, not prison sentences, to deal with the harms and costs caused by drugs within the UK.

Torrin Wilkins is the Director and Founder of Centre, a think tank advocating for moderate, progressive policy reform. Tweets @TorrinWilkins

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