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Q&A: A UK Liberal Democrat talks drug policy

british mp norman baker

Just after his resignation as Minister of State for the Home Office responsible for the drugs portfolio in November 2014, British MP Norman Baker talked to David Young about drug policy in the UK and the widespread mood for reform.

One reason cited for the British MP and Liberal Democrat Party member Norman Baker’s resignation was a row over drugs policy with Home Secretary Theresa May. Baker is quoted as saying there was little support for “rational, evidence-based policy” in the Home Office.

It was revealed earlier in 2014 that the UK Government had done nothing about an official report showing that tougher drug laws do not result in decreased drug use. Baker likened being the only Lib Dem in a Home Office full of Conservative Party members to “being the only hippie at an Iron Maiden concert”.

The Liberal Democrats have strong views on drug policy in the UK – earlier this year, leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called reform “idiotic”. Baker has voiced his strong opinion more than once.

Here’s what he told Matters of Substance.

Q: When the international comparators study came out, you said that the “genie was out of the bottle” on drug reform. Shortly after that, you resigned as Minister of State for the Home Office. Are you still optimistic that the United Kingdom is moving towards drug reform?

A: Yes I am because, first of all, there is movement towards reform all across the world.

Secondly, I think the first evidence-based report can’t be simply swept under the carpet. It’s there now, it’s public and it can’t be unwritten.

Thirdly, the debate in the House of Commons demonstrated support for reform right across the house from all parties. It’s only the official Opposition [the Labour Party] being difficult about it.

Fourthly, the public response to both the medicinal cannabis stuff I did and the wider international comparative study was pretty positive. Including even the press. There was a poll in The Sun, for example, which demonstrated a high level of support for reform.

So I think that we have moved on to a different place, and the politicians at the top of the Labour and Tory Parties are increasingly out of touch with reality.

Q: The British tabloids, though, which are very powerful, don’t share your views on drug reform.

A: Well The Sun was quite supportive, and The Mirror was neutral on it, so that’s A: big step forward from where we were.

Q: What were the key points that you took away from the international comparators study?

A: Pushing up penalties and putting people in prison does not reduce drug use. On the other hand, it’s quite clear, from Portugal, for example, that dealing with these issues as a health issue in terms of the users is actually quite successful in weaning people off drugs.

The question is how do you minimise damage to society? The evidence is that fines and prison sentences don’t in fact minimise drug use, they perpetuate it.

At the moment, when people [in the United Kingdom] are arrested, they are given a fine, sent on their way out of the Police station and carry on doing whatever they are doing. In other countries, where people are forced to go through a health regime and address their behaviour, that reduces the drug use.

Q: When the international comparators study came out, the Conservatives who were opposed to reform just pointed out that drug use in the United Kingdom is on a long-term downward decline, so the status quo must be working. Isn’t it difficult to make the case for reform so long as that’s the case?

A: Well there’s also a long-term downward decline in countries that have seen reform. I mean, Portugal is way down from where it was.

What we discovered from the international comparators study was that the level of penalty and the approach actually doesn’t bear much relation to the level of drug use.

So the issue is really what you do with people who have been using drugs, whether you are seeking to penalise or whether you’re trying to help them.

Q: You have mentioned Portugal. Does it offer a policy framework that you would like to see the United Kingdom follow?

A: I think Portugal is a very interesting experiment, and it’s been going now for 10 years or so, so it’s actually got a reasonable amount of experience to draw from.

Q: What was your experience working with the Conservatives and particularly Home Secretary Theresa May on drug policy?

A: It was very immovable. Theresa May and her SPADS [government special advisors] were stuck in this 1971 rhetoric that must present drugs as the downfall of society and were deeply harmful. They had the attitude of ‘we must countenance nothing’.

That’s the public position, and of course, under the radar, they are more rational. Theresa May, for example, authorised the handing out of foil to heroin users, which is a very humane and a sensible policy, getting them to move from injecting to smoking. But it’s the state handing out paraphernalia, and she was nervous about the impact of that, so I did it. I fronted it, and I was very happy to front a sensible policy.

So she sometimes did the right thing, but I get the feeling with the Tories that the politics will always trump the science if it’s a contest.

Q: So what role does coalition politics play in the likelihood of drug reform?

A: Of course it makes it more likely. Put it this way, drug reform will not happen for a long time in this country unless we have Lib Dems in government.

Q: You oppose prohibition but you would prohibit legal highs – can you explain that approach?

A: I didn’t say I was opposed to prohibition. I mean the Portuguese model doesn’t legalise drugs, it just decriminalises them in a different context.

And the interesting thing about the review panel was they recommended a ban on sales and marketing of so-called legal highs. They’re unhelpfully called legal highs [a term that covers some illegal substances in the United Kingdom], but they are certainly not safe and people are consuming them.

There is an issue about where the threshold kicks in, and I would insert a caveat in terms of damage. But it doesn’t criminalise possession of them. I think that’s an important principle that I’ve been trying to espouse generally, which is that we go after dealers, we don’t go after the users.

Q: The New Zealand approach to legal highs has been to regulate the market.

A: But New Zealand backed off that a bit though. I think the fact that New Zealand did back off that somewhat has made it difficult for anyone who wants to recommend that to do so.

Q: Are there other lessons from New Zealand?

A: I’m certainly interested in the psychotropic substances issue, and I have met the minister from New Zealand who was rather good. A: liberal. He was interesting and good value.

We’ll clearly watch what happens in New Zealand. It’s obviously an interesting test case, and that’s what it’s about: it’s always interesting to see other people’s test cases without having to commit yourself, so you started off down that track and we will see where it goes.

Q: As a minister, yours was the loudest voice for drug reform in the UK Government. Your resignation takes that voice away.

A: I mean Nick Clegg is very strong on drug reform. I have no doubt that Lynne Featherstone, my successor, will be strong on drug reform too. That’s where the Lib Dems are as a party. The party is united on that view.

Q: What is next for you?

A: We’ve got six months until the election, so as I have said, I shall have a bit of a break. Nobody believes me of course, but I just want a break.

Four and a half years in office when you’re the only Lib Dem in the Department against people who want to stop you doing things is a huge challenge and a huge burden to bear.

So I will spend the next few months by and large in the constituency, up until the general election.

I will intervene [in debate], particularly over medicinal cannabis I think, because that’s something we should be doing. I think it’s inhumane and lacking in compassion to have the approach we have got.

But I will be less high profile than I have been because I need to have a break, genuinely.

Q: And what happens next in terms of drug policy?

A: The next thing will be the party manifestos coming out ahead of the next election. Our manifesto will be pretty reformist. I suspect the other two won’t be. The Labour Party in particular is hopeless on these issues.

And after the election, I think we will see what we get [in terms of a coalition or singleparty government] and what comes out in any coalition agreement if there is one. But increasingly, I hope that politicians have taken the temperature, because the temperature out there is for reform. It’s very clear that the papers even think there should be reform, and the public certainly think so.

The fact of the matter is that, rightly or wrongly, you’ve got a large number of people in high, key positions in public life, whether they are in banks or in politics or anywhere else, who use recreational drugs and have used them and carry on with their lives and their work. And that’s just the reality of it.

So when a nucleus of the population in high positions looks at the papers and says, “Actually, it’s not the end of civilisation because I’ve been using this substance for so long,” I think that loses credibility.

So we are in a position now where those that started using drugs in the 1960s are now in positions of power and actually have carried on quite well.

David Young is a London-based writer.

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