Welsh Parliament Debates Drug Policy Reform

by Ella Walsh

Last night the Welsh Labour MP for Newport West, Jane Bryant led a Senedd debate opening up a vital conversation about drug reform in Wales. This was an incredibly exciting debate, impactfully demonstrating increased pressure and appetite for reform to the UK government. 

In 2020 4,561 people in the UK lost their lives to drug deaths, which was the highest number of drug-related deaths since records began. While the rate of drug related death decreased by 4.1% in Wales last year, the reality remains that under the prohibitionist control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, many remain at risk of drug-related harm and death. 

Standing independently from the Labour party’s official stance on decriminalisation and wider drug policy reform, MP Jane Bryant opened the debate stating that:

“2021 marks 50 years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed in the UK Parliament. While that policy was designed to prevent drug use and reduce harm, we have witnessed instead an exceptional rise in illegal drug use, addiction, and drug-related deaths across the UK. Simultaneously, drugs are getting stronger, criminal gangs are growing in power, and the violence linked to drugs is increasing. Perhaps most worryingly, thousands of children and young people are being exploited across county lines and borders in every corner of the country. 

Today’s situation represents a very serious failing in the drug laws, but in-depth and serious discussion on reform remains miles away. This urgently needs to change.”

Jane Bryant went on to promote a different way of looking at drugs, and how Wales responds to drug use, emphasising the importance of “… looking outward, learning from our friends and neighbours, taking inspiration from what the international community is doing to combat this serious problem.”

She also notes the significance of ‘following the science’ where drug reform is considered. 

“In a period where the phrase ‘listen to the science’ has taken on a greater resonance than any point in history, perhaps it’s time to look again at what scientific evidence is heading. For example, some cutting edge contemporary evidence is being conducted over the use of psychedelics in the use of medicine…others focus their research in more well known substances, such as medicinal cannabis.”

Bryan also made reference to the drug policy reforms we have witnessed on the global stage, specifically the decriminalisation and harm reduction focused reforms in Portugal. 

“In this field, drug policy, the UK, is increasingly and frustratingly out of step with countries that we relate to. There is RWE that other policies work, yet we continue to bury our heads in the sand. In Europe, Portugal has set a positive example for what can be done when drug policies prioritise health over criminalisation.”

Raising points on the issue of cannabis control and the policing of cannabis offences Bryant stated:

Over the years there has been a slowly changing mindset in the police, many forces have openly indicated their in-willingness to target recreational cannabis growers and users as there are bigger issues to deal with.”

Bryant then went on to discuss the legalisation of cannabis in Canada, stating that:

“Cannabis is the most prevalent illegal substance in the UK…Across the Atlantic Canada and many US states are now leading the world with their advanced approach to cannabis, stepping away from criminalisation, and instead are embracing full government regulation.”

In support of this debate James Evans MS stated that:

“I think the time is right now that we take a detailed look at drug policy in Wales. Let me be clear: I would like to see a country where drug use is eradicated, but, sadly, I don’t think that’s going to be achievable. The current criminal justice system treats all people who use drugs as criminals, but in reality, some people use them to remove the pain of a serious trauma in their life, to give them that slight moment of relief from their suffering.”

Peredur Owen Griffeths MS also supported Bryan’s speech. 

“I fundamentally believe it’s time for a national conversation on substance misuse. As I said during my short debate earlier this term, the status quo just isn’t working. It’s failing families, it’s failing communities and it’s causing irreparable harm.”

Lynne Neagal, Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing also supported Bryan’s speech, but underscored the limitations in the Welsh parliament’s capacity to act on the current drug policy’s shortcomings.

“In Wales, we are also acutely aware that the harms of substance misuse fall disproportionately on our most deprived communities, driving health inequalities for the poorest and criminalising the vulnerable who need support and treatment. For this reason, tackling stigma and looking at substance misuse as a health issue must continue to be our focus. I strongly believe that tackling the harms of substance misuse is best achieved through supporting people into treatment, not criminalising them.”

 “Welcome the opportunity to respond to this debate, as I am passionate about making a difference in this area. Whilst we do not hold all the legislative powers, there is much we can do to progress a distinctive Welsh response to substance misuse. I recognise the Member’s comments, but, as she also recognises, these powers do lie with the UK Government, and it’s important for me as Minister to focus on where we can make a difference. And as I said in response to the debate by Peredur Owen Griffiths, I’d be very happy to engage with his cross-party group on the important issues raised this evening.”

The Senedd debate that took place on Wednesday evening was a breath of fresh air where parliamentary drug reforms are concerned. While the Deputy Minister stated that necessary legislative power to review and amend drug laws are held exclusively by the UK government, the tone of the debate by and large shows both an understanding of the current problem, and a commitment to a harm reduction approach from Welsh MSs.


This article was written by Content Officer Ella Walsh, tweets @snoop_ella.

Lead image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinrp/2050064012/in/photostream/

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