Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK, the newest branch of what has become a worldwide organisation of police and military personnel, called for an end to global prohibition on Tuesday in the birthplace of British democracy.
In a two hour event within the hallowed halls of Westminster, guests including author Johann Hari, Dr Christian Jessen, various MPs including Paul Flynn and Norman Lamb, and current Police Crime Commissioner for Durham, Ron Hogg, were treated to a ‘road-map of drug regulation’, from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the inner city streets of the UK.
LEAP UK members have held various positions within law enforcement, including chief constable, MI5 officer, undercover drugs detective, and magistrate. The organisation also includes military personnel who served in recent conflicts.
Neil Woods was an undercover drugs detective with 23 years of service experience, before a number of events led him to realise that the war he was being asked to fight was futile and harmful. Neil, who now Chairs LEAP UK, said:
“LEAP is an organisation spreading across the globe. We’re here now in the UK with experience from every link in the drug law chain. When those charged with the enforcement of our drug laws say we need change, surely we have to ask why? We are asking for politicians of all stripes to put aside their soundbites and perceptions of this issue and listen to what we have to say.”
The current Conservative government continues to maintain that our drug laws are working, despite drug-related deaths reaching record highs in England and Wales in 2014, and growing global consensus on the need to move toward a less punitive approach to drug policy.
They point to record amounts of illegal drugs, especially cannabis, seized by police and border agents, but forget that most basic principle of policing laid down by Sir Robert Peel:
“To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”
LEAP hope to change the minds of our lawmakers by utilising their unique perspective on the war on drugs to highlight the failures and harms they’ve witnessed firsthand. Those perspectives cover every aspect of policy and policing, from former undercover agents like Neil Woods, right up to retired police inspector and former Chair of Strathclyde Police Federation James Duffy, via former MI5 Officer Annie Machon and Patrick Hennessey, barrister, author, and former army officer in the Grenadier Guards, all of whom were present at the official launch in Parliament.
The event included testimonies from many individuals who have been affected by the war on drugs, including Rosemary Humphries from the Anyone’s Child campaign, who received perhaps the longest ovation of the afternoon for her impassioned call for an end to a policy which robbed her of her two sons,
“As a parent who has lost two children to heroin overdoses I’m pleased to see yet another unexpected voice call for legal drug control and regulation. It’s just such a shame that it takes bereaved families and police to draw politicians’ attention to the catastrophic failure of drug criminalisation. Anyone’s Child is looking forward to working in partnership with LEAP to help put government, not gangsters, in control of drugs, to help keep us all safer and healthier.”
As pointed out by Jason Reed, Executive Director of LEAP UK and compère of sorts throughout the event, this was not only the launch of a new organisation in the UK, but also an affirmation of what is, and what must be, a ‘global action’ to reform drug policy. This was evident in the array of speakers, including those from Germany, Belgium, and the USA.
Sadly, despite repeated invites, there were no cabinet ministers or party leaders in attendance. However there were one or two MPs, with Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb even giving a speech of his own in support of reform. His frustration at the lack of tangible movement on this issue was evident, and he raised a very good point when he pointed out that probably at least 50% of current MPs have tried drugs, and are only in the positions they are now because they happened not to get caught.
LEAP UK Chairman Neil Woods perfectly summed up the need for politicians to put aside their fears of public condemnation, and to engage in a conversation with the agents of their war on drugs,
“Most of my police career was in drugs investigation, both in conventional and covert policing. Over fourteen years of undercover work, I’ve seen that criminalising drugs only causes harm. Demand is not reduced, and with every year organised crime gets stronger and more dangerous. We are in a new phase of the debate – the time for posturing and party politicking is long gone. We invite politicians to listen to our evidence on the urgent need for drug law reform.”
The first of the afternoon’s speakers had been Major Neill Franklin, 34-year veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, and Executive Director of LEAP US. In a short but powerful speech, he called the prohibition of drugs “the most socially destructive public policy since slavery,” and given the evidence presented today by all speakers, it is difficult to disagree with him.
Taking the floor again towards the end of proceedings, he pointed out the UK’s role in ending slavery over 200 years ago, and the role he hopes this country could play in ending what has often been referred to (most notably by Michelle Alexander in her excellent book of the same name) as ‘The New Jim Crow’: Prohibition.
Following the formal event in Westminster, an afterparty was held at Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road. LEAP, in association with VolteFace, invited everyone to come along to what was billed as the ‘acoustic session’ – an evening of low-key discussions and speeches from some of the people behind the organisation.
Many of those people – including Neill Franklin and Diane Goldstein from LEAP US – used the evening as an opportunity to thank and praise the hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm of the man who started the journey which has led to this launch: Jason Reed.
As they all explained in their own unique ways, without him, none of this would have been possible. I’ve known Jason quite well for some time now, and watching him squirm as he was forced to actually accept this well-deserved praise, without being able to hide from it as he usually does, was strangely satisfying.
Following the conclusion of the speeches, musician and spoken-word poet Scroobius Pip recorded a couple of brief interviews for a special edition of his Distraction Pieces podcast, and it was announced that in an effort to keep the conversation going, a new LEAP UK podcast is being launched which will feature interviews with drug policy experts and those affected by prohibition.
With so many voices to be heard and angles to explore, this promises to be an exciting new development which will surely open up the debate to a whole new audience. One thing’s for sure, the journey definitely doesn’t end here. These are exciting times for drug policy reform.
Deej Sullivan is a freelance writer focused on drug policy reform. Tweets @sullivandeej