Saturday 12th March – It feels like the first day of spring in York today. After a recent cold snap, the Sun is now shining in a cloudless eggshell sky, raising the temperature to a seasonably pleasant 15 degrees Celsius. Around the York Barbican, the old city walls are sprinkled with cheerful yellow daffodils, their colour mirrored by the bright lanyards worn by the delegates inside. It is day two of the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, and the atmosphere in the auditorium can also be said to reflect that of the flowers outside. This is a party for whom smiling in the face of adversity comes naturally, a fortunate characteristic in their present political predicament.
It is here today that the Liberal Democrats have become the first mainstream political party in the UK to make legalisation of cannabis official policy. It is not the debate that has received the most interest by party members – the EU referendum and the party’s dire underrepresentation of women and minority members, particularly embarrassing for an expressly liberal party – have trumped it there. But make no mistake: This is the revolutionary motion of the conference. So revolutionary, in fact, that on Friday it prompted the first party political broadcast by the Liberal Democrats since the general election.
The motion itself was led by Norman Lamb MP, the former coalition Health Minister, who began:
‘It is long overdue that we call time on the most discredited, most stupid, most dangerous so-called ‘war on drugs’.
‘I want this party to lead the way to a new approach, which is liberal, and which protects public health.’
Lamb’s opener set the tone for a string of impassioned and moving speeches, with support for the motion being the overwhelming sentiment. Stand out speakers included drug refom activist Ewan Hoyle, who highlighted the value to public mental health, and particularly youth mental health, that could be gained from regulating the cannabis market, to reduce access to the strongest strains, noting that
‘It is the strongest drugs that it is most important that we take out of the hands of organised crime.’
Hywel Ap Dafydd recounted his own experience of battling through cancer and chemotherapy, during which cannabis provided the only respite from the worst effects of both the drugs and the tumour. He raised the issue that until cannabis is rescheduled, and better still, regulated, research into its medical benefits will constantly be severely hampered.
Another story that struck the crowd was that of Elizabeth Adams, who recanted how she was the victim of domestic abuse, exacerbated by use of both alcohol and cannabis. Whilst she was able to speak to authorities about accessing alcohol support programmes, the illegality of cannabis prevented her from doing likewise with this drug. She went on:
‘Drug Usage is pandemic. In the most vulnerable and poorest societies it’s everywhere, it’s a reality. Now if people are having social issues exacerbated by drug use, and they cannot feel that they can seek help and support anywhere for this because they will be penalised and criminalised, this is wrong and it cannot be allowed to continue.’
In particular her words on the war on drugs resonated around the room:
‘It is not a war on drugs. Drugs are doing very nicely, thank you. It is a war on drug victims.’
With the London mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections looming large, Anton Geogiou, who at only 21 is the youngest GLA candidate standing for election, spoke on how young people in the capital are particularly affected by the current system of criminalising drug users.
It almost seemed as though finding anyone to speak against the motion was the biggest challenge faced by the conference organisers, with only two speakers against, one arguing that the party’s current policy of decriminalisation is sufficient, and the other pointing to her personal experience of witnessing cannabis use in Kenya. Indeed one of the harshest criticisms levelled at the motion came also from Ewan Hoyle, who was responsible for previous reforms to Liberal Democrat drug policy, who suggested the motion did not go far enough in only limiting itself to cannabis regulation, and not addressing the harm caused by more dangerous drugs such a heroin. Indeed, speaking to others after the motion, there was a sense that this step was only the first of many the party should make towards broader drug regulation measures.
Summing up the debate, Lord Brian Paddick contributed his own observations from his time with the Metropolitan Police:
‘I have over 30 years experience as a police officer. We need to reduce the harm caused by drugs, and arresting people is not the way to do it’
Reminding the room of his own bon mot from his 2012 London Mayoral campaign, he even drew some wry laughter from the crowd:
‘Police are wasted on cannabis’
When it came to the vote, out of over 1000 people in the auditorium, the number voting against the motion could be counted in single digits – it passed with near-unanimity – seeing such enthusiastic support for drug regulation was striking. This perhaps explains why the motion has generated less debate then others at the conference – it would appear everyone here is in agreement when it comes to cannabis legalisation, or at least when it comes to following evidence based drug policy.
Some may cynically see the call for cannabis regulation as a calculated move by the party to appear the ‘cool dad’, an attempt to again appeal to young voters, and looking around the room at the number of goatee beards, there are unavoidably a sizeable number of ‘cool dads’ in the audience. There is inevitably a political calculation to any major policy change such as this, but to simply write it off as a last ditch appeal to the youth vote ignores the reality.
Firstly, cannabis isn’t that cool anymore, especially among many health or career focused millennials. Rates of youth use of cannabis have been falling gradually for years (although please don’t make the mistake of attributing this to current government policy). To think that simply unfurling a ‘Free the Weed’ banner would have the newest generation of voters flocking back to the Lib Dems as the trendy party again would be remiss, and Farron, Lamb et al. know this. It will take more to reclaim the Lib Dems’ image among the young, especially as they are now competing against both the Corbyn love-in led by the youthful Momentum, an ebullient SNP, and a Conservative Party that is determined to redefine their own image among young voters.
The drive behind this motion is rather deeper, and more compelling. Whilst Liberal Democrat policy on drugs has for years been far more liberal and progressive than that of other parties’, and they have made a point of calling for evidence based policy to be employed, they have often stopped short of pinning their colours to the mast and wholly basing their own drug policy purely on the evidence available.
There are reasons for this hesitation of course. A previous lack of hard evidence for one, although this has changed rapidly in recent years as the harms of punitive drug policy, rather than the drugs themselves, have become apparent. Experiments with legalisation in the US and Uruguay are already informing the debate. The other reason is a swing in public opinion. Five or ten years ago, voicing support for cannabis legalisation was the reserve of a dedicated fringe. Not so now. Tentative support for legalisation is growing across the UK population, although admittedly the main challenge any call of this type faces is engaging the majority of the British public. Convincing a room full of Liberal Democrat members of the value of drug reform is one thing, but taking that message out to the rest of the country, most of whom will have given little thought to the legalisation of cannabis, is quite another.
On Tuesday last week an independent expert panel report on cannabis regulation was released, commissioned by the Liberal Democrats in autumn last year, and the framework it recommends for legal regulation of cannabis forms the basis of the Lib Dem motion. But as Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at Transform, who chaired and assembled the expert panel, was keen to point out when we spoke to him, the report itself is not at all party political:
‘We produced a report that we’re all very pleased with, we think it’s a responsible, pragmatic set of policy recommendations. I very much hope other parties will pay attention. We’re more than happy to work with other parties, if the Conservative Party or the Labour Party – or any party – asked us to produce a cannabis policy recommendation for them, that’s exactly what it would look like. If Theresa May wants to write another foreword for it and call it a Conservative Party policy: great – or Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t care. It’s not party political. The Lib Dems had nothing to do with it, we weren’t paid, we did it because we thought it was important. We wanted to inform the UK policy discussion in a positive way and I think we’ve done that.’
In voting in this policy change, the Lib Dems are finally putting their money where their mouth is – this was a vote for controversial, groundbreaking, evidence based and socially conscious drug policy. As one speakers noted:
‘If the Lib Dem fightback is going to happen, we need really radical, socially liberal policies like this one.’
Last month Tim Farron called for David Cameron to “rediscover his backbone” on drug policy. In championing cannabis regulation, the Liberal Democrat Party are rediscovering theirs, and not just on the subject of drugs. The spectre of Tuition Fees still hangs over the party, and the issue of trust remains public’s biggest misgiving with the Lib Dems. The political calculation made here, then, is not that they will hopefully appear ‘trendy’ again, but that in standing up for evidence based, radical drug reform, they can once again be seen as a party of principle – a much more attractive quality for young voters.
With a Conservative government unwilling to engage on drug policy and a Labour opposition seemingly unable to stand for anything at all, the Liberal Democrats have clear water to make this issue their own as their distinctive clarion call, if anyone will listen. Whilst it may currently be a pipe dream, that any European political party is having the confidence to suggest a fully regulated cannabis market is a radical indicator that times are changing in the drug policy debate. If the Lib Dems can turn this into a major political issue, it won’t just be their party that benefits, but every single person currently persecuted, marginalised and criminalised by UK drug laws – and that is a principle really worth fighting for.