Cuts Cost Lives: Labour must embrace a health-led model to drugs policies

“The recommendations were warmly received, with key shadow ministers privately expressing strong interests in reforming this unjust area”.

Ant Lehane

The United Kingdom has the unenviable title of being the drug death capital of Europe, with three times the number of deaths compared to the next country, Germany. Official data shows that drug deaths have risen year-on-year for eight consecutive years, which is in correlation with a decade of slashed drug treatment budgets.

To add to this, poorest communities seem to be hit the hardest. Scotland and the Northeast of England tragically have a drug-death rate that is three times higher than the rest of the UK – more people died from issues related to drugs last year, than fatalities on the road – well over 5000.

Many within the Labour movement are appalled by the drug-related suffering in our country, and will not stand by as the situation worsens. We believe Labour policy must be rooted in key values of fairness, justice and equality – and are making major strides in addressing this blind-spot in policy making related to drugs.

The Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform – a network of politicians, activists and members – has worked tirelessly over the past 4 years to address the issue. We have spoken to over 700 members, hosted over 20 events and consulted key experts.

Our working group consisting of field leaders in policy, health, addiction and policing has synthesised the data, considered the political status quo and published a set of recommendations for the Shadow Front Bench.

The recommendations were warmly received, with key shadow ministers privately expressing strong interests in reforming this unjust area.

There have been positive developments and noteworthy successes too; drug reformers across the political sector have facilitated the implementation of diversion schemes (or de-facto decriminalisation) in large swathes of the country, a Home Office commissioned report on drug use recently highlighted that “we cannot police our way out” of the crisis, and 2018’s breakthrough on the rescheduling of cannabis for medical purposes.

Therefore, it is with a tinge of disappointment that the Labour Party has not taken a more evidence-based stance on an issue that intersects with key social justice areas: homelessness, health, racial justice and social inequality.

Issues related to illicit drug use – traditionally a staple battleground for the hard-Left – have recently become less partisan. Various polls have indicated increasing support for the decriminalisation of possession of substances, with the most popular media discourse arguments centring on cost, efficacy and policing prioritisation.

This poses a central question for reform colleagues on the Left: Why won’t LOTO embrace a health-led approach that would reduce crime, save lives and free up cash.

I believe this reticence is due to attack lines from the Right and a fear of seeming “soft on crime”. Furthermore, there is an acceptance among wonks that Labour must side-step “culture war” issues and drug policy is assumed to sit in that category.

However, this could not be more wrong.

Issues related to drugs negatively impact marginalised communities most with truly tragic consequences. Reframing the drug debate away from metropolitan “middle class cocaine users” and towards actual issues that hinder marginalised communities must be at the heart of engagement with policy makers.

The Tories are quietly trying to clean up the drug death crisis that they have accidentally engineered. Whilst “talking tough” is always the message on drugs, the policies demonstrate a different reality. The government recently unleashed its all new drug strategy with positive developments such as increased funding for treatment, and de-facto decriminalisation in areas that they so heavily chastised in the context of Mayor Khan’s proposed pilot scheme.

Ben Twomey, criminal justice expert and former Labour Police Commissioner Candidate, has long been a vocal critic of government policy enabling organised criminals.

Twomey says, “For drug services, as in so many areas of government policy since 2010, Conservative cuts cost lives. Children have been left to be groomed and exploited, while the real criminals make millions. 

“During my time leading on drug policy in the West Midlands and County Durham, Labour Police Commissioners and councils introduced new approaches that are turning the tide of harm. It is time their work was supported with a national public health approach that will protect children, save lives and reduce crime.”

Twomey’s comments highlight the need for imminent reform, but also indicate the pressing need to address the wider discourse around drug policy reform. Sensible, evidence-based drug law reforms provide a solution to worsening issues related to health, policing and criminal justice.

Conservatives have long won on the battleground of ‘law and order’, with sensible drugs policies often falling victim. Support for drug policy reform tends to decline as age increases, so it is understandable – whilst incredibly frustrating – why Labour have been slow to champion alternative approaches.

What Labour strategists could be highlighting however, is how the drugs crisis has happened on the Tories’ watch – and can be credibly linked to austerity-style policies under Cameron and Osborne. This could serve as a powerful attack line against the futility of the “levelling up” Agenda.

Austerity policies have fuelled poverty, addiction and social issues, particularly in poorer communities and the all important Red Wall. Furthermore, a recent piece in the Times highlighted the racial injustice of current drug laws, with an FOI revealing black people are an enormous ten times more likely to be sent to prison for first time drug offences.

Implementation of drugs policies that tackle racial injustice, regenerate communities and save taxpayer money is possible, as highlighted by the leaked London diversion scheme report. Strategically, the evidence speaks for itself. Black men go to prison for drug offences, whilst many ministers are on record as having used class-A substances without any forthcoming legal ramifications.

When it comes to drugs, it is one rule for us and another rule for them. Unjust, unequal and unfair.

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The poorest communities are hit the hardest by drug laws within the UK and its time we changed them. Find our how we can do this here:

We need to move away from punishing drug users, instead we need to focus on protecting health. Find out how we can do this here:

About the author

Ant Lehane is the Secretariat of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform and he is an advisor for Drugs and Me.

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