Drug Debate in Parliament: The Elephant in the Room

by Scarlett Furlong



There was an air of optimism amongst several MPs in Parliament’s Westminster Hall yesterday, October 23rd, when politicians came together to debate and discuss UK drug policy. MP for Inverclyde and member of the Scottish National Party, Ronnie Cowan, led the engaging and insightful debate.

The debate was well attended by members of a range of political parties including Conservatives, Labour, SNP, Independent and the DUP. The government Minister in attendance was Victoria Atkins, the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability – making her partially responsible for drug policy.

Whilst a couple of MPs did not express appetite for drug policy reform in the UK, the majority in attendance were consistent in their belief that current policy was flawed. These MPs addressed the Minister on a variety of areas of drug policy, with a strong focus on piloting drug consumption rooms (DCRs), improving drug treatment services nationwide and a plea to treat drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one.

Interestingly, before addressing MP’s concerns, Minister Victoria Atkins recused herself from talking on issues relating to cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids by stating:

“As I have previously stated on the record, owing to the potential for a conflict of interest, given my husband’s business interests, I have recused myself on issues to do with ​cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids. I therefore will not respond to those points during this debate, but will ask the Policing Minister, who deals with such matters, to write to Members instead.” – Minister Victoria Atkins

The business interests that Atkins refers to is the well-publicised fact that her husband is the Managing Director of British Sugar, who grow cannabis plants for GW Pharmaceuticals under a controversial license from the Home Office. It seems extraordinary that the government have kept Atkins in her post as drugs minister when she cannot openly discuss the most used illicit drug in the UK today. This is particularly strange given that it’s a crucial time for discussions around drug policies relating to cannabis, with the UK allowing cannabis-derived products to be made available on prescription from next month and Canada legalising cannabis for adult recreational use only a week ago.

Speaking to Volteface on this issue MP Ronnie Cowan said:

“It is contemptible that a U.K. government minister showed such scant regard to all the points raised by a range of speakers and laughable that she was sent to respond to a debate on drugs policy reform when she can’t respond on any issues around cannabis which is hot topic in regard to both medical and recreational use” – MP Ronnie Cowan

Minister Victoria Atkins also recused herself from discussing synthetic cannabinoids, commonly referred to as ‘Spice’, despite the devastating effect these drugs have been having on vulnerable demographics – particularly the homeless and those in prison. The Economist recently reported that over 90 per cent of the homeless population in Manchester smoke ‘Spice’ with other cities also experiencing similar crises. Atkins’ inability to comment on these issues is inevitably resultant in a failure to tackle both prison and homeless substance misuse issues.

Notably, Policing Minister Nick Hurd was absent from the debate and therefore could not respond to issues relating to cannabis on Atkins behalf. This meant a lack of discussion around cannabis-related issues, with MP Ronnie Cowan stating that he dropped a section of his opening speech, which was dedicated to synthetic cannabis, as he knew that Atkins would recuse herself from responding to any remarks he made on cannabis.


Scarlett Furlong is Policy Advisor at Volteface. Tweets: @scarlettfurlong

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