In Britain, drug policy reform is an issue no politician wants to grapple with.
Labour and the Tories are hellbent on pursuing a race to be the ‘toughest’ on drugs, with both parties trying to outdo the other in further criminalising the trade. The Lib Dems, once friendly towards reform and cannabis legalisation, have dialled down their advocacy in an effort to be as vanilla as possible in claiming marginal seats and by-election votes. Consequently, the political consensus and ‘accepted’ norms of debate are stuck in a rather bleak mire.
The opportunity to grasp the narrative of the war on drugs has evaded politicians once more. A stalemate has occurred, with ways out of this situation appearing distant – even with the potential of a Labour government appearing likely.
However, under the leadership of Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, the Green Party have boldly backed plans to support decriminalisation. In attending a Zoom discussion titled ‘Time to End the War on Drugs’ last week, it became clear that the Greens are actively attempting to defy political convention (as they regularly do).
This discussion was not an echo-chamber of students or radical lefties arguing for the mass acceptance and availability of Class As in society. Nor was there an embrace of the economic, capitalist case for legalisation based on the destructive force of rampant growth. Instead, the focus was driven from a social justice and harm reduction perspective – a convincing and grounded approach that can appeal to many voters cautious of reform.
As Green Party Health Spokesperson, Dr Pallavi Devulapalli, summarised:
“I’m not a fan of drugs myself…but we cannot pretend the problem doesn’t exist”
The natural first step being advocated by the party is to call for decriminalisation. The intention is to destigmatise drugs, raise awareness and reduce harm. 4,859 people tragically lost their lives to drug poisoning in 2021. The UK has no safe-consumption rooms. Education barely exists, with students being lucky to learn about drugs for more than a couple of hours throughout their entire time at secondary school. The media has whipped up an image that problematic users are “crackheads” not worth wasting our time considering. In turn, a dangerous lacuna exists when it comes to awareness and perception.
Decriminalisation supported by the Greens would build a more sympathetic and considered approach to drugs in society. As explain by Zoe Garbett, Green Party candidate for mayoral of London, ‘regulation’ and ‘legalisation’ are the long-term goals. This is particularly convincing as it offers a pathway to tackling the issues of county lines, criminal gangs and child exploitation. These are precisely the injustices that prohibitionists point to when advocating hard-line punishments and harsher policies. Yet, for the last fifty-years, this consensus has only allowed for power to be accrued by those enforcing these immoral practices. Moreover, regulation actually allows users to know what they are consuming.
As Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, summarised:
“The public is more informed than politicians when it comes to drug reform”
Ultimately, political parties still see the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric as a vote winner – a go getter for gaining votes at the ballot box. Yet, this consolidation of prohibitionist attitudes in the face of liberalisation elsewhere conflicts with increasing public support for reform here in the UK. Although slender, polls show a majority of Britons back recreational cannabis legalisation. The Loop, a drug checking service, are planning to expand beyond festivals into multiple cities in 2023. On June 27th, a mass lobby of parliament will occur in the form of the ‘Anyone’s Child’ campaign. These are not policy wonks or VICE undercover journalists. These are families of victims of the drug war desperate for change driven by common sense.
To suggest that Britons are wholly accepting of drugs would be a mis-representation of reality. Significant efforts are needed to convince people of a post-prohibition landscape. With the media committed to a ‘just say no’ rhetoric, creating this change will be hard to come by. Framing an uncertainty and illegal trade in a positive light is an impossibly difficult task.
Yet, in gaining historic ground in the recent local elections, the Greens are seeking to train and convince their councillors to bring these debates to the local level – thus hoping to infiltrate the mainstream in the long run. The Achilles heel for the Green Party is their lack of parliamentary representation. However, overcoming this thorough a grassroots strategy is a smart move, utilising their increasing council representation to present alternative narratives and solutions.
For drug reformers, the Greens are a serious hope for building a future that expands beyond war and misery heaped on the most vulnerable in society. However, having their ideas implemented in reality is a distant hope due to the nature of the first-past-the-post voting system. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see a party who received close to 900,000 votes in 2019 embrace the case for decriminalisation and potential legalisation whilst others squirm at the possibility.
Matt is a freelance journalist for Volteface and aspiring policymaker on drug reform. His most notable project to date was undertaking research in Chicago on cannabis social equity measures in Illinois, contributing to an emerging field of policy analysis in the process. Matt is particularly invested in liberalising the UK’s approach to decriminalisation and harm reduction. For any queries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org