A guest post from Ewan Hoyle the founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and author of their new drug policy (debated here: bit.ly/LibDrugs) who is also their council candidate for Glasgow’s Anderston/City ward. There’s a Glasgow Skeptics meeting on this topic on the 14th of May

The people of London would undoubtedly be better served by their police force if cannabis users were not being arrested and charged. And for the vast majority of cannabis users a criminal record would be far more damaging to their prospects than using cannabis will ever be.There is nothing factually wrong with Brian Paddick’s “Police are wasted on cannabis” campaign.

So de facto, turning-a-blind-eye, decriminalisation is a step in the right direction. But as a policy end-point it is starkly illogical. If a drug is illegal, but no one is ever prosecuted for using it, then there can be no justification for its continued illegality. A trade that could be regulated and taxed and contribute greatly to the national economy should not be allowed to be dominated by organised crime. We might be able to save money in not prosecuting users, but we would still be spending money and time pursuing and prosecuting the producers and dealers. This endeavour has not had any success in restricting cannabis supply to any meaningful extent in the past, and is highly unlikely to do so in the future. If the act of using is no longer immoral to the extent that society deems it should be illegal, then the act of supplying can not be deemed immoral if the responsibility lies in the hands of a supplier who has only the best interests of the customer in heart. A policy of strictly controlled legal supply can create such a supplier and is the one that government should be investigating with great urgency.

The motion passed by Liberal Democrat conference last September was determinedly “tough on drugs” in its intent. Past policies that implied tolerance of drug use were swept aside in favour of policies targeted at the restriction of the ability of drugs to do harm. Paddick’s proposals sadly take us back to our old ways, and may even increase the potential for harm caused by the drug itself. If we exclude the obvious harms of a criminal record, arrest at least focuses the mind of the user and their family on their drug use and might cause them to re-evaluate their behaviour. By removing the chances of that happening, any problems users experience are more likely to develop further and have serious implications for their health and happiness.

So, on the scale of “tough” to “soft” on the ability of cannabis to do harm, de facto decriminalisation as proposed by Paddick is probably a step towards softness. If we want to get tough on the ability of cannabis to cause harm, then we have to deploy policies which are more likely to prevent problems emerging and which are more likely to facilitate early intervention in order to halt the progression of any problems which do occur.

The model of decriminalisation adopted in Portugal – where possession is still illegal but an administrative and not a criminal offence – takes us back in the direction of toughness. Rather than turning a blind eye to cannabis use, the police refer users to panels tasked with determining whether treatment is appropriate and delivering education on harms and available services. In a situation where contact with the police can only be positive for a drug user’s prospects, concerned family and friends need have no qualms about seeking help for a loved one. In Portugal, prospects for cannabis users are better, but again their de jure decriminalisation policy is starkly illogical for the same reasons as the de facto decriminalisation proposed by Paddick.

It is only with strict government control and regulation of a legal market that we can optimise our restriction of the ability of cannabis to cause harm. Rather than have information on the harms of cannabis delivered only after an unpredictable encounter with the police, this information can instead be provided in the environment of a pharmacy, by someone trained for the purpose, prior to the first time a customer uses the legally supplied drug. The ability to advise customers on the potency of strains and encourage safer modes of administration, means the customer is far less likely to come to harm. The undermining of the illegal market combined with age restrictions should hopefully reduce availability of cannabis for children, while reducing further the necessity to expend police resources against the black market suppliers. If it is decided to educate first-time users on the early warning signs of psychosis, then the increased number of people in society equipped to identify these signs means those developing psychosis are more likely to be helped regardless of their drug use history.

So Brian. It is time to move beyond liberalising our drug laws. De facto decriminalisation is not the best answer for the people of London or anywhere in Britain. The policy that is the toughest on drugs and crime is a plea to government for the strict government control and regulation of a legal cannabis market.

I have strong suspicions that if it is communicated properly, it will garner you far more support that your soft-on-drugs, baby-step, 4/20 announcement.