It is increasingly clear that the Westminster bubble cannot shield itself from the debate on drug reform much longer.
Most politicians are terrified to express a firm opinion on drug policy reform, judging that breaking ranks and incurring the wrath of the right-wing press is not worth the hassle.
Nick Clegg called this a “conspiracy of silence”, sustained by politicians scared of opening up a controversial debate. Yet this implicit collusion is perfectly demonstrated by the difference between Nick Clegg’s beliefs in Europe and Nick Clegg’s beliefs in Westminster.
As a member of the European Parliament in 2002, Clegg supported a motion calling for the “legal control and regulation of the production, sale and use of currently illegal substances”, including “partially decriminalising the sale of cannabis” and “making heroin available under medical supervision”.
Since becoming an MP, however, he had largely avoided the drugs debate until his call last December for a Royal Commission to examine Britain’s drug laws. Even then, he was cautious and spoke in hints and generalities, avoiding the specific proposals he supported in Europe and straining to avoid mentioning decriminalisation.
There was further Lib Dem activity last Friday when Norman Baker, the Home Office minister responsible for drug policy, suggested that legal highs could be licensed and sold in regulated, blacked-out high street shops.
It is unclear whether the growing Lib Dem interest in drug policy over the past few months signals a move towards a radical 2015 manifesto pledge on drug reform, presumably starting with decriminalising cannabis, or whether drug reform will be just another thwarted Lib Dem ambition.
Both a Royal Commission and licensed legal high shops have been flatly rejected by the Tories, but the Lib Dems still plan to plough ahead with their own review of alternative international drug policies regardless.
Whatever the Lib Dems decide, it is clear that the Westminster bubble cannot shield itself from the debate on drug reform much longer.
First, voters are increasingly receptive to reforming drug laws. A narrow majority (53 per cent) now support legalising or decriminalising cannabis and, revealingly, forty-six percent of Daily Mail readers agree too. The Daily Mail may present itself as a bulwark against the soft, do-gooding liberal Establishment, but a vast chunk of its readers are now in favour of changing the law on drugs. The impact of a ‘tough on drugs’ media backlash is wildly exaggerated.
Second, international factors are favourable to drug reform, especially as alternative approaches emerge. Uruguay declared that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and is now the first country to legalise and tightly regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.
The political impact of British drug policy on the rest of the world is often overshadowed by the widely accepted and widely abused idea that impartial, scientific evidence is sufficient to make good drug policy.
Given the colossal illegal drug industry that cuts across national boundaries, international co-ordination is clearly needed for any reforms to be fully effective. The run-up to the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on drug policy, initiated by Latin American states which face the consequences of the rest of the world’s drug laws, is an ideal opportunity and will trigger debate across the world.
Finally, an eclectic mix of experts, celebrities and campaigners in favour of drug reform are getting their message heard and making drug reform a mainstream issue. A petition started by Green MP Caroline Lucas – backed by Russell Brand, Richard Branson and Sting – passed the 100,000 signature mark needed for a debate in Parliament to be considered.
All sides of the debate base their argument on ‘reducing harm’. A truly bold move by any political party could finally allow the debate on how best to achieve this goal – a debate raging outside of Westminster – to break through.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.