From reading the leaked Labour manifesto this morning it is safe to say that the message is one of total abstinence. By that I don’t mean the Labour party have thought long and hard on drug policy and decided to provide an abstinence based message on drugs, I mean there is absolutely no plan, no intention to reference or address the many issues surrounding drugs policy in the UK.
Having worked in drug treatment for the past eight years, I have witnessed first-hand the rising number of drug related deaths, relentless drug treatment cuts and failing drugs policy. This year I met Labour MP Rachel Maskell at the treatment centre I worked in and highlighted these very issues; the cuts, the deaths and the pressing need for reform. Rachel at the time spoke passionately about the need to address these issues and verbalised how important frontline services are. Such passion and acknowledgement is overwhelmingly absent from the leaked manifesto.
The most frustrating part of the manifesto is that it recognises how drug treatment cuts have impacted on the prison population then utterly fails at resolving the issue:
Prison should always be a last resort, our most extreme sanction for unacceptable behaviour. It should never be a substitute for failing mental health services, or the withdrawal of funding from drug treatment centres.
I could not agree more with the statement itself, yet feel disheartened that at no point in the entire document is the withdrawal of drug treatment funding addressed.
From a public health perspective, drug related deaths are at an all-time high in the UK, and both the homeless and prison populations are rife with ‘spice’ users. Yet again, despite having an entire section on public health the manifesto does not provide any indication that services will be given the money or support in this area. The same is true within the mental health aspect of the manifesto, an acknowledgement that an increase in budget is required yet no reference to the slashed, now unprotected (due to the removal of ring-fenced money) treatment budgets and how this will in turn impact on the mental health of drug users.
Drug reform is certainly present on the political agenda and cannot be ignored. Round the world governments are recognising the harms caused by the illicit drugs market and making significant changes and reform. The medicinal benefits of cannabis are now widely acknowledged and there is a growing pressure on the government to make significant policy changes. On all accounts this manifesto completely fails to shine a light on any one of these issues.
The abstinent approach is surely not one which fits within Labours core support. Corbyn clearly appeals to the young, and a great deal of his movement has the support of this group. If this is the case why does this manifesto not acknowledge the need for drug reform, so clearly supported by younger generations? Due to a lack of experience and knowledge, drug reform has persistently lacked support from older generations, who see no need to push the agenda. Younger generations however feel very different about reform, attending ‘4/20’ celebrations at Hyde Park en masse shows this is the case. So, why have Labour gone teetotal on an issue that resonates so strongly with its grassroots support? Are the issues too controversial and the questions too complex to answer?
Labour should be the party that shouts the loudest about the need for drug reform. Their political ideology should see drug reform as an opportunity to stand out from the rest of the field. Address the issue in prisons by de-criminalising drugs and think differently about punishment for drug related offences. Increase the treatment budgets in response to harmful cuts and a record number of drug related deaths. Change drug policy so that police forces up and down the country have a uniform approach to cannabis, as opposed to the current ‘postcode lottery’ system of punishment.
Labour need to think differently about drug reform and acknowledge its need for debate. They could stand out on the issue and advocate for not only those who are impacted by the harm of drugs but inspire their core support with policies that will create exciting change.
I think Labour need to pick up the bottle, so to speak, and relapse to help get much needed drug reform and support for treatment services back on the agenda. It is a battle this party should be fighting rather than one they are too afraid to discuss.
Paul North is an Addiction and Treatment Advisor at Volteface. Tweets @Paul_North