This is the Speech Ed Miliband should give as soon as possible. It’s very much a draft, written over a couple of hours in a very hot Valencia to honour a twitter promise. Deberia estar haciendo mis deberes Espanoles! (And if that’s wrong it only proves my point!)
Disclaimer: I believe drug law reform should be apolitical so this piece is not an endorsement of the Labout Party or a condemnation of any other party. I feel that it is better written as if it was being delivered by one of the leaders.
Ladies and gentlemen, today I am going to raise an issue that most politicians steer well clear of – drug law reform. I know, I know, you’ll think that I’m taking an unnecessary risk, that tomorrow’s newspapers will condemn me for being soft on drugs, soft on crime and probably soft on a few other things while they’re at it!
Well they can, and they’d be wrong, and I’m going to stick to my principles not bow to media hysteria that so often clouds this issue and discourages rational debate. This is a subject so important, so damaging to individuals, families, communities and the whole country that we must take a grown-up approach and examine the issues calmly, with evidence and firmness of purpose.
Let me tell you that, finally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is going to get a politician who is smart on drugs, smart on crime and willing to risk his reputation for the good of all the people in this great country of ours, the single, united, One Nation that I hold dear to my heart.
Let me explain why I am doing this and how I intend to achieve success.
Why? I want to reduce the harm caused by drug use, reduce crime, reduce criminal profits and reduce the cost of the criminal justice system and increase the fight against serious and organised crime and the support given to the vulnerable and disadvantaged who need support not punishment. For the economists amongst you, support is cheaper than punishment and more effective in improving health outcomes and reducing crime!
How? I will ask the government to set up a review of our drug policy and laws, inviting all interested parties, drug users, police, health and support workers, academics scientists, politicians and experts from all over the world to expose the myths and misinformation and promote the truth, and reliable evidence on this issue so that we can determine and deliver the changes we need.
No doubt there will be those who will ask for a solution now. I can’t give you that; if I could we wouldn’t be here now and we wouldn’t be facing this dreadful situation.
No, we need to take care to devise a new approach, grounded in sound evidence and practice, but incorporating new, bold thinking in order to deliver the best possible world, not the worst.
If, as I sadly and strongly suspect, this government will refuse to take its head out of the sand, refuse to acknowledge the real problems we face and refuse a review. This issue is bigger than party politics, but it needs a big, confident party to deliver the political change so we, the Labour Party, will conduct such a review ourselves.
We in the Labour Party can rightly and proudly claim to be the party that stands up for every honest citizen of this country, striving to create a better world of full employment, economic growth and strength, support for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, elimination of waste and the development of policies across the board that seek to solve our problems in the long term not just promise simplistic, superficial quick fixes, burying our heads in the sand as the problems get worse.
I have come to realise, and it’s been a difficult and challenging process, that our drug policy is not working. Alcohol prohibition, as we saw in America in the early part of the last century, led to a huge increase in crime and violence as ruthless, violent gangs fought for control of the illicit market, corrupting law enforcement officers, and endangering the lives of ordinary citizens. The alcohol produced was much more dangerous, with stronger drinks produced, transported fought over and consumed in order to maximise criminal profits.
After over 40 years of the modern so-called “war on drugs” we are seeing the same, not only in this country but world-wide. Criminals are making huge illicit profits, about $500 billion every year, up to £6 billion every year in this country. And not only that we are spending over £10 billion every year trying to stop that illegal trade. It might be worth it if we were succeeding, but we’re not. The amount of drugs produced, transported and consumed in the last 40 years or so has increased many, many times. From a few hundred heroin users we now have about a third of a million people in this country with serious problematic drug use.
This coalition government will say that drug use has fallen in recent years, and in the last few years for some drugs it has, for example heroin and cannabis. But this is not because of the so-called “war on drugs”; when cannabis was reclassified to Class B under Gordon Brown cannabis use continued to fall. We still have a massive drug problem in this country, now compounded by the prevalence of “legal highs”. The may be legal but they are, like all drugs supplied by the illicit market uncontrolled and unregulated. All drugs are more dangerous when their production and supply is in the hands of ruthless, violent criminals. We are deluding ourselves to think that we have any real control over who produces, supplies and uses drugs, the criminals decide all that, and we have no system of regulation to ensure strength and purity of those products, those drugs.
With alcohol, and I’d be the first to say we do not have a perfect system, we do at least have procedures in place so that we can be sure that what’s in that pint of beer, bottle of wine or, trying to be inclusive here, champagne flute or cocktail glass is what it says on the tin.
We have no such confidence in the strength or purity of drugs supplied by the criminal, or quasi-criminal “legal high” market. If nobody took drugs that would not present a problem. The fact is, sadly, people do take drugs. Our system of prohibition actually makes it more dangerous for people who take drugs while at the same time enriching criminals who use their ill-gotten gains to corrupt, fund violence and undermine legitimate business and political systems.
Now I know some of you will say “they decided to take drugs so it’s their problem, just leave them to get on with it and take their chances.” I can understand that view but I am concerned that it will not help us. Most people do not consume potentially harmful substances to excess as most people have no need as they live relatively happy and fulfilled lives. But there are those amongst us who have suffered appalling experiences as children, physical, emotional or sexual abuse and they have made bad choices. If they are now problematic drug users, I include alcohol abuse, surely they need our support to help overcome their difficulties, not expensive and often counter-productive punishment? Isn’t that thinking, caring for others in need that underpins the values and aspirations of our Labour Party? It actually makes economic sense for us to spend less money on support, with the prospect of the individual becoming a valued and productive member of society than spending much more on imprisonment and tackling the criminality that arises from the illicit drugs market.
Earlier I referred to the so-called “War on Drugs”. I think of it now as a “War on People”. Hundreds of thousands have been through our prisons, at great expense and little benefit, and ordinary people’s lives have been blighted by the aggression and violence of the drug gangs devastating their communities. Thousands of individuals, our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers have died from accidental overdoses, diseases and the other harms associated with the criminalisation, ostracism and persecution inherent in drug prohibition.
It seems to be the worst of all possible worlds.
Now, will change makes things worse? Will drug use go up, will criminals do something else equally harmful and will there be other unforeseen harmful consequences? On the available evidence I don’t think so but that is what the review will determine. That’s why we are not prejudging or jumping to easy early conclusions.
If we decide that more problems would be created than solved by change, then we won’t change and just have to accept that this is as good as it’s going to get. Frankly I don’t think that will happen but I do have an open mind.
Some will argue for more law enforcement, some less. Some will argue for more health support, some less. Some will argue for more education, some less. The review I propose will invite evidence and reasoned opinion from all sides and incorporate all views into what will be a rational whole.
Now, let’s return to politics and the need for the Labour Party to be returned to government for the sake of this country that we love. Have I damaged our chances by venturing into this minefield? No, I don’t believe I have.
In all areas of policy we seek to improve, not deliver perfection. Any new system for controlling and regulating drugs will have flaws; but if we applied the test of perfection to every change we proposed we would never see any change or any improvements. And we know we have delivered great improvements to this country – look at our record.
I believe the British public will understand the need for a careful, considered look at our drug policies and laws, respect us for our approach and admire us for our strength of character and purpose.
To put it simply I believe they’ll vote for us!
20 July 2014