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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Being soft on drug dealers

I have lost count of the number of attacks that have been made on the Liberal Democrats regarding their policy of substance misuse. In particular we have come under attack for this one line in our policy:

"ending the use of imprisonment for possession for own use of illegal drugs of any class"

In moving the motion that led to the adoption of this policy the then Liberal Democrats Home Affairs Spokesperson, Simon Hughes, said:

Treatment and prevention should be the priority for individuals who use drugs. By contrast, the criminal law should be directed at the organised thugs and pushers who run the illegal drugs trade. Harmful drug use should be responded to primarily as a health issue.

We need a more intelligent response to the users, and potential users, of drugs - we should be getting users off drugs not into prison. Education and treatment need to be the priority. There is nothing more self defeating than making those who seek or are referred for treatment for their drug problems to wait weeks and often months. It is simply madness when it is not just in the individual’s in interest to get treatment as soon as possible, it is also in society’s interest to break the cycle which links drugs and crime.

By contrast, the sharp end of the criminal law should be focused on the rough end of the drugs problem. As we are regularly told the criminal justice resources are overstretched. The overstretched police, the courts and prisons should be used to deal with the organised, often ruthless and relentless criminals who make their livings from harmful trade. To help break the link between drug users and the crime they resort to to pay for their habits, and to break the link between drug users and the criminals who sell their drugs. Specifically, to focus treatment on users and break that link, we propose specialist heroin prescription and treatment clinics we are proposing that simple possession alone of class B or C drugs will not result in a prison sentence, and we propose focusing a greater proportion of resources on treatment and education Specifically to focus the criminal law on the real criminals.

Labour have made a real meal of this, often misrepresenting our position, often adopting a popularist stance for their own political advantage. In by-elections in particular they have driven home the message that in their opinion, the Liberal Democrats are soft on drugs.

Well now it appears that Labour have joined the fold. The Independent on Sunday this morning reports that:

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, will tomorrow call for offenders with mental health problems and drug addicts to be spared jail in a bid to reduce the escalating prison population.

The article goes on to report that:

A Home Office source said that Mr Clarke will use a speech to the Prison Reform Trust in London to argue that community punishments are not a soft option and that they must be used more widely for low-level offenders. He will also stress that new ways must be found to stop people offending in the first place.

It is sad that this is not part of a more reasoned approach to drugs policy but at least Labour are now on the right track.
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