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UK Elections Cheat Sheet: What Does Each Party Say About Drug Policy?

With just a week to go until the UK’s General Election on 4 July, political parties have rolled out plans and visions for how to deal with drugs. This article will dive into each party’s drug policy plans, focussing on related pledges and statements, as well as how they would deal with crimes and individuals associated with the drug trade.

The relevance of discussing drugs policy has reached a critical juncture. While the UK has been resilient to drug policy change, growing concerns with an increasingly toxic drug supply contaminated with dangerous adulterants like nitazenes, and Germany potentially catalysing cannabis policy change across Europe, there are growing calls for a fresh approach to controlling drug harms.

A new paradigm would be especially relevant in Britain, which consistently records some of the highest rates of drug use, including the largest reported opioid-using population in Europe. More alarmingly, Britain is also a continental leader in drug-related deaths. Scotland, in particular, has the highest European average for drug-related deaths, with 1,197 fatalities recorded in 2021, an increase of 712 since 2010. In the face of this public health crisis, successive UK governments have continued to lag behind their European counterparts, favouring prohibitionist and criminalising tactics as a means of regulating the drug trade.

While change is possible, it needs to be led by decisive leadership and political will. While some parties have supported drug policy reform in the past, others have chosen to take a more punitive approach to their control, relying on criminalisation and police to supposedly minimise their harms.

However, change is possible. As the election looms, a new direction for British drug policy could emerge if there is enough political will. Below are some highlights from each party’s manifesto and drug-related mentions.


The Conservative Party

“Drugs” are mentioned three times in the Conservative manifesto.


After 14 years in government, the Conservatives have only in recent years unveiled their ‘10-year drugs strategy’; launching in 2021, the new strategy brought back much needed funding into the drug treatment service. Their manifesto reiterates this commitment, pledging greater investment in “rehabilitative services” such as “drug treatment, education and employment”.

However, the details of this investment remain unclear. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has repeatedly refused to support harm reduction strategies like consumption rooms and soft decriminalisation across the British nations, failing to support devolved nations’ wishes to implement more progressive interventions. Labelling drug users as a “scourge” to communities, he advocates for a “zero-tolerance approach” that includes expanding criminal law to target more “low-level” offending and improving policing capabilities to intensify “on the spot” testing.

Against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse Drugs, Sunak’s administration has even adopted a prohibitionist stance as part of an “antisocial behaviour action plan”. This included launching “hotspot police” taskforces to cover 16 areas in England and Wales with the highest rates of disorder, particularly parks, which ministers have described as “drug-taking arenas”. Sales of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, were also banned, despite expert calls highlighting how criminal sanctions are “disproportionate” to the level of health and social harm caused by the substance.

While a Conservative Party electoral victory seems very distant, they have heavily influenced the way that drugs are understood within the nation’s political discourse. The past 14 years of Conservative rule has established the British status quo of drug prohibition and criminalisation, which is unlikely to change significantly without significant desire and willingness to push for change.


The Labour Party

Labour has the same number of mentions of drugs as the Conservative’s manifesto. However, it focuses more explicitly in their role in increasing anti-social behaviour.


Labour’s manifesto reveals a renewed endorsement of the ‘tough on crime’ mantra built upon a ‘broken windows theory’ of crime which dates back to their 1997 manifesto. In their new manifesto, Labour is firmly embedded in a “law and order” approach to drug control: they argue that anti-social behaviours and low-level disorder, “if left unchecked, [lead] to more serious offending”. Drugs are primarily referred to as an activity to eliminate: drug dealing draws children into gangs and destroys communities, while drug use in prisons is turning them into more dangerous places. Claiming that Conservatives “weakened enforcement powers”, Labour intends to introduce “respect orders” to ban “persistent adult offenders” from public spaces and “stamp out” issues like drug use.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has explicitly said he has “no intention” of changing UK drug laws, asserting that the current approach is “settled” and “not really subject to great debate”. While the Labour Party’s premier has shot down interest in reform, some voices within the party have called for serious change. Labour peer and former Home Secretary David Blunkett has claimed that there should be an “open debate” about the treatment of victims of drugs, urging Starmer to launch a decriminalisation inquiry. Meanwhile, Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has proposed pilot projects to freeze the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis in select boroughs; he also led the London Drugs Commission to investigate how cannabis laws may be negatively impacting people’s lives in the capital.

When questioned about adopting a health-based approach to drug policy, such as embracing drug checking and better overdose services, Shadow Minister for Health Wes Streeting said that while he was “comfortable” with a “reasonable debate” about drugs, the main priority of a Labour government would be to “crush every drug dealer in the country”. Underscoring a focus on tackling county line drug operations, Streeting declared that the “War on Drugs hasn’t even begun yet”.

There’s hope that a Labour government would be more responsive to evidence around the effectiveness of certain harm reduction interventions. While Starmer has been ambivalent with most political positions, when pressed into taking a stance, his resistance to recognise the benefits of a new approach to drugs does not bode well for a progressive future of drug control.


The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have made a clearer attempt at naming and addressing drug-related issues.


Since 2015, the Lib Dems have been vocal advocates for drug decriminalisation. Their manifesto reflects this stance, vowing to make the Health Ministry a “departmental lead” for drug policy development and promoting the introduction of a “legal, regulated market for cannabis”.

The Lib Dems also pledge to increase investment in “addiction services and support for drug users”, aiming to reduce police time and court backlogs by diverting people arrested for possession towards treatment rather than punitive sanctions. While good on paper, the reliance on police diversion schemes has been criticised as it maintains the police as the key force delivering interventions for people using drugs. This is the same force that is responsible for arresting and controlling those involved in the drug trade.

This step away from a ‘War on Drugs’ rhetoric is not unexpected, considering that as Energy Minister during the coalition years, now leader of the Lib Dems Ed Davey backed a review of the UK’s drug laws, arguing that the current system “scars communities” and allows “drug barons to make billions”.

What is concerning is the lack of references to harm reduction, or how Scotland is the only place in the UK that’s underscored as having a “drug deaths crisis”. There’s ample evidence from across the UK – from Northern Ireland to England – that the entire nation is suffering from drug-related harms and an inability to deploy life-saving interventions due to legal constraints.


The Green Party

The Green Party has firmly embedded drug policy reform within its health-related commitments.


Similar to the Lib Dems, the Greens support an evidence-based review of UK’s drug laws, particularly laws concerning cannabis. Their manifesto states that “neither prohibition nor the policing of low-level offences” have been effective in reducing use or disrupting criminal markets. The party will “push” for a National Commission to “reform the UK’s counter-productive drugs laws”.

The Greens also intend to bolster public health budgets to pre-2015 levels with an immediate injection of £1.5bn. This includes supporting people in drug and alcohol treatment services, but there is no mention of how this would be done. The Greens also support ending new HIV cases by 2030 through an “evidence-based approach”, which has traditionally supported harm reduction interventions like needle and syringe programmes.


Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru is the only party to mention criminal record expungement.


Plaid Cymru is lobbying for full devolution of the criminal justice system in Wales, and has a comprehensive description on how they would reduce drug-related harms. Central to their manifesto is shifting policing efforts towards targeting “supply lines” rather than “‘individual users, if those people are causing no wider harm”. Their manifesto recognises that some people selling drugs may be doing so to purchase drugs for their own use, and that they should be supported, rather than punished.

This involves supporting a “soft drug decriminalisation” so as to respect “individual choices” and ensure that users and dealers, many of whom are vulnerable children, are not “exploited” by a “hostile and violent” criminal environment. Plaid Cymru also supports the clearing of Home Office records for individuals cautioned or convicted of low-level drug possession; they are the only party mentioning expungement. They also call for the introduction of drug consumption rooms, as well as a wider review of drug policy.

Harm reduction is at the heart of Plaid Cymru’s drugs policy. They seek to reduce the number of drug addicts by introducing consumption rooms across Wales, encouraging a more “human and sustainable” approach to addiction.


The Scottish National Party (SNP)

SNP calls for a “radical” approach to tackling the drug deaths crisis that has defined much of Scotland’s drug-related problems.


The SNP manifesto acknowledges the “drugs death crisis” on their hands and argues for a “radical” public health approach: this includes the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use and introduction of supervised drug consumption facilities.

The UK’s first official consumption room was approved by the Scottish government in Glasgow in September 2023. The facility, which is yet to open, is set to allow people to take drugs including heroin and cocaine in a sterile environment under medical supervision.

Scotland has committed to resolve its drug-related crisis; emergency action is needed to put this approach into practice, including devolving powers in health policy.


Reform UK

The Reform party takes a zero-tolerance approach to drugs, calling for more punishments.


Reform is the only party explicitly calling for a “substantial” increase in stop and search practices to “crackdown” on crime and antisocial behaviour. Their ‘contract’ (manifesto) calls for mandatory life imprisonment for all drug dealers and traffickers, irrespective of the substance, and “heavy fines” attached to the creation of a new offence of “substantial possession”.

The party also supports militarising the police force, with plans to increase their numbers by 40,000, prioritising ex-military personnel, particularly for leaderships roles, and implementing strict training on presentation and fitness for all officers.

During a recent interview, Reform leader Nigel Farage clarified his position on drugs decriminalisation, having expressed support for it in the past. He now believes that decriminalisation in the U.S. “hasn’t really made much difference”, emphasising that the “law’s the law” and that substances like cannabis does “more long term harm than most people realise”.

Political parties across the spectrum are presenting their dissatisfaction with the current state of British drug policy: in fact, two-thirds of polled Brits believed that the government was doing too little to tackle addiction problems in the UK in July 2022. And while many believe that interventions like drug consumption sites are not controversial, there has been significant resistance to any changes to the current approach, which excessively relies upon the criminal justice system for dealing with drug-related harms. With the election soon coming, the appetite for change will hopefully turn to reality.

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