What would a Boris Johnson government do about drugs? That is the question many will be left with after reading the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Grand promises have been made with the Tories promising to:
- Tackle drug-related crime.
- Reduce drug deaths and break the cycle of crime linked to addiction.
- Tackle the threats we face … from county lines gangs and modern slavery and people trafficking.
But when it comes to what a Conservative government would actually do, the manifesto is becomes vague. We can expect a “new approach to treatment”, though no description is given of what this would look like. The government will “strengthen the National Crime Agency”; which could be anything from more funding, to new powers, to improved governance structures.
This is a departure from the 2017 manifesto, which gave specific recommendations on how to improve the delivery of drug treatment, particularly in a criminal justice setting.
There is no mention of medical cannabis in the manifesto, despite the fact that it was a Conservative government which rescheduled it in 2018. Over two thirds of the UK approve of medical cannabis being permitted, so it is surprising that the government has not provided a plan of how they will unblock patient access when polling data shows that it is not a contentious policy.
A concrete policy referenced in the manifesto is that “new laws will require schools, police, councils and health authorities to work together through Violence Reduction Units to prevent serious crime”. Substance use and criminal exploitation services will play a crucial role in these units and the party should be commended for endorsing this.
However, the manifesto specifies that a Conservative government would improve prison security to stop drug smuggling, which the evidence shows will be ineffective, and makes no reference to improving drug services in a criminal justice setting.
A policy which will have implications on BAME individuals is the announcement that the government would back “the increased use of stop and search as long as it is fair and proportionate”. It is well known that BAME individuals are targeted by stop and search practices, regardless of how fair and proportionate they are intended to be, and are therefore disproportionately criminalised for drug offences. In 2018/19, the Metropolitan Police conducted over 240,000 stop and searches – four times the rate of 1976, despite there having been only a minor increase in London’s population.
The manifesto goes onto reveal that “police will be empowered by a new court order to target known knife carriers, making it easier for officers to stop and search those convicted of knife crime”. This likely means that police would no longer need ‘reasonable grounds’ to stop and search “known knife carriers”, which can be interpreted as those who have been arrested, charged or convicted for knife possession.
Keir Irwin-Rogers, a criminologist at the Open University said in reaction to this announcement:
“The vast majority of officers tell me they do not require additional powers – instead, they consistently highlight the damage done by the decimation of police resources over the last decade.”
“The issue with expanding stop and search powers outside the confines of having ‘reasonable grounds’ should be clear to anyone who values liberty and equality before the law. The police already disproportionately target BAME individuals through stop and search and many people searched are likely to be found in possession of drugs, not weapons. The effect of further expanding stop and search powers in the manner outlined in the Conservative manifesto is that it will likely lead to even higher rates of disproportionality on the grounds of ethnicity.”
Police and Crime Commissioners have played an essential role in championing innovative approaches to drugs and the manifesto outlines that a Conservative government would seek to expand their role. Mike Barton, former Chief Constable from Durham Constabulary predicted that “the expansion of the PCC’s role could see them as more influential in this crucial area.” However, he warned that “the PCCs who have taken an enlightened approach to the scourge of drug-related crimes have been in the minority.”
Given the lack of detail and the punitive nature of some of the policies that have been outlined, this manifesto does not reflect a party that is seeking to push drug reform. Surprisingly, the Conservatives are now on their own is this regard, with Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP all endorsing progressive drug policies. One anonymous civil servant has commented that the Conservative approach to drugs now “looks completely outdated”.
However, what has defined this election is appeasement to core voters. After the disaster of the ‘dementia tax’, widely accepted as the policy which cost Theresa May her majority in the 2017 election, the Tories are choosing to play it safe and not risk alienating their base. By leaving many of their drug policy commitments unspecified, there is the scope for a Conservative government to endorse more progressive drug policies and if a Tory majority is secured, this could well happen. Any other approach is becoming increasingly untenable.
Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface. Tweets @Liz_McCll