Why the democratic left must support drug policy reform
The statistics are unanswerable and clear, drug laws are enforced in a discriminatory fashion. Those who are poor, young and from ethnic minorities find themselves punished for their drug use. The richer, whiter more middle aged you are the more drugs are effectively decriminalised. This pattern is repeated in almost every set of statistics globally.
If only a small number of people took drugs then this would be of little concern to the politicians but we have a mass culture of drug consumption. More people have smoked cannabis in the UK than supported the Labour Party (the main centre left political party in the UK) in either of the last two elections. That gives us a huge slice of the population ready to be marginalised.
The criminal records and negative interactions with the criminal justice that those who are being victimised not for their drug use but for their youth, poverty or ethnicity, are clearly standing in the way of social mobility and a cohesive multicultural society. These are both key policy goals of the democratic left.
Are the current drug policy outcomes so important that it is worth sacrificing these key policy goals?
There are two key points to make with regard to this issue.
Firstly the current drug policies ability to protect communities is obviously at best severely and arguably completely counterproductive. Heroin is cheap, readily available and fills our prisons with problematic users whose criminal activity has primarily been carried out in deprived communities. Cannabis is available in every secondary school in the UK, a bold claim you might suggest, but anybody with any contact with teenagers anywhere in the UK would know this to be the case. It is also probably true in most countries in the developed world. Whilst cocaine is an established part of drinking culture. If support for the current drug laws and policy was based on the laws ability to ‘protect’ people from drugs then they have made a grave misjudgement.
Secondly currently both the drug laws and drug policy are not evidence based. They are informed from moral stand point. The very public spat that involved Professor Nutt and the last Labour Government made this very clear. This moral judgement is viewed negatively by many people even if they are concerned about the use of illicit drugs.
This reaction is borne out of an awareness that much of the drug use that takes place is not particularly harmful or problematic. Barack Obama is amongst one of countless politicians who have admitted taking drugs without any lasting damage to their health or careers. Thus if politicians take a negative stand point on drug policy reform it serves to either highlight a hypocrisy that makes them look dishonest or their remoteness from the ordinary lives of citizens.
This makes politics and politicians look irrelevant to so many people’s lives. A terrible consequence when voter turnout and political engagement is such a critical issue for those working politically for more socially just societies.
Worst of all, this disconnect from most people’s experience of drugs stems from an innately conservative position that reeks of the kind of paternalism that again is something that the democratic left , if it wishes to represent its key values should be fighting. The acceptance of this cultural imposition undermines the idea that we can make democratic choice about what is deemed to be culturally acceptable and further undermines the idea that our societies can be tolerant and pluralistic.
Drug policy reform should be an issue with which the democratic left connects with both young people and those in marginalised communities. Allowing politicians to emphasis the idea that real change can come through the democratic process and more importantly it isn’t just the comfortably well off small ‘c’ conservatives that politicians care about.