We need drug policy reform – but we won’t get it without PR

Drug policy reform is popular, based on decades of evidence, and would save billions of pounds each year… but under first-past-the-post it won’t ever happen.

During the May 2022 local elections, Labour issued a series of online adverts attacking, not the shambolic governing Conservative Party, but the Liberal Democrats and their long-standing plans to create a legal, regulated market for cannabis. 

With months of partygate rumblings tanking Tory poll ratings, Johnson and Sunak having already been fined, and the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray investigations yet to report their findings, Labour HQ decided to focus on parochial policy promises from a political party with which it should be collaborating to oust the Tories, not spreading malicious misinformation. 

But the existence of these adverts explains why drug policy reform not only will not happen, but cannot happen, until we change our electoral system. And the tragedy is, it desperately needs to.

Drug deaths have risen 88% since 2010 to a record 6,189 in Britain – more than from all knife crime and road traffic accidents combined. This largely the result of increased opiate use as funding for drug treatment services was slashed by up to 40% during the austerity of the 2010s. 

With over 3 million criminal records issued for drug offences since 1973, more than 680,000 years of prison sentences since 1986, and at a cost of £20 billion per year – the ‘war on drugs’ has failed on every possible metric, with drugs cheaper, purer and more plentiful than ever before. 

Opiate and crack cocaine use – the most dangerous types of drug use – often has complex causes including trauma, mental health problems, genetic factors, poverty, and a family history of drug abuse. Whilst there is no silver bullet solution to ending our hidden drug death epidemic, it’s not for a lack of evidence-based policy solutions that these tragic figures continue to rise year after year. 

Portugal decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2001, alongside an expansion and re-orientation of drug treatment services away from abstinence and towards harm reduction as part of a health-led approach. Once Europe’s drug death capital, Portugal had just 72 drug deaths in 2019, with significantly lower levels of drug use and HIV transmission than the EU average. To put that into perspective, in Scotland alone during 2021, 72 people died every three weeks. 

More than 200 ‘overdose prevention centres’ have been established in 14 countries around the world, including in Portugal, France and the US, to provide safe and sterile facilities for people injecting drugs – ensuring they can do so under medical supervision, and access wider support services to help address the causes of their drug use. 

Cannabis legalisation has freed up police time and prison cells, and taken money and power away from criminal gangs in Canada, Malta and Uruguay. And in 2024, Germany will become the first major European country to establish a legal, regulated recreational cannabis market.

Yet efforts to reform our own half-century old drug laws are yet to achieve anything meaningful. Cannabis was legalised for medical use in 2018 but only 4 prescriptions have been offered on the NHS since, with only a handful of politicians willing to speak out against the ‘war on drugs’ gleefully pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments since 1972. 

Like other ‘controversial’ policy areas such as euthanasia and sex work, drug policy reform falls foul of an electoral system in which 71% of the votes were wasted at the 2019 election, where 45% of voters are represented by someone they did not vote for, and where a party can win an outright majority of seats on just 35% of the vote. 

In a system where the votes of only a few thousand people in a handful of constituencies hold the balance of power, pressing policy issues are simply dismissed as ‘barnacles on the boat’ – only to be dealt with when they become impossible to ignore. 

By creating the tyranny of the marginal constituency, our first-past-the-post system rewards lowest-common-denominator politics. It incentivises magnolia managerialism and the myopic politics of the marginal seat. In Rishi Sunak vs Keir Starmer we’ve got nothing more than high school politics, as the sinister head boy takes on the adenoidal prefect in the battle to be crowned the least unpopular. 

Our electoral system has become so efficient at this hollowing out of politics that we now find ourselves in a total policy vacuum, where the biggest ideas on the table in 2023 – to rebuild society after 15 years of perma-crisis – include teaching maths for an extra two years, setting up an ‘office for value for money’ and guaranteeing a GP appointment within two days. 

What happened to ‘White Heat’, the ‘Big Bang’ or ‘a new Jerusalem’? I doubt the radical reformers of Thatcher, Attlee or Wilson would even recognise such flaccid incrementalism, the miserable managed decline of Britain, as proper politics. 

Whilst our unreliable, diseased electoral system remains in place – enabling the sort of cheap and vapid attack ads used by Labour against the Liberal Democrats – there will be no room to address morally difficult topics, or propose bold solutions to the chronic problems plaguing the British body politic.

Thankfully, campaigns such as Compass’ Win as One, alongside the work of organisations like the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, have highlighted both the urgent need and widespread support for a switch to a proportional system. 

Proportional Representation would give parties the freedom to campaign on issues they cared about, and voters the freedom to vote for the candidates that they judge to be the best option – without needing to consider tactical voting lest their vote go to waste. 

Proportional representation would do away with the crude politics-by-focus-group culture that the tyranny of the marginal seat instils. First-past-the-post creates a narrow politics focused on winning specific demographics in specific seats, instantly annihilating the possibility of pursuing any policy that might be unpopular with certain swing demographics of outsized importance. 

Proportional representation would put an end to the puerile ‘bluffocracy’ we have today that encourages politicians to exaggerate their differences, and focus on discrediting other parties, rather than working together to seek the best solutions in the interests of the whole country. 

Compass’ Win As One campaign envisions exactly the cross-party collaboration necessary to change our politics, change our country and advance the cause of drug policy reform. The two knights of the realm, Keir Starmer and Ed Davey, could band together with other progressive campaigning organisations, health bodies and ex-senior police officers to form a ‘coalition of the respectable’ advocating for ‘sensible, evidence based’ drug policy reforms. 

Once we have a voting system where every vote counts, every vote is worth the same and everyone in every constituency matters, politicians will have the space and the impetus to embrace innovative ideas like a universal basic income, constitutional reform, or a radical overhaul of our drug laws. 

First-past-the-post has proven itself constitutionally incapable of producing a politics that tackles the biggest challenges we face – the climate emergency, social care, the productivity puzzle; because in a political system where it pays to be the least worst option, doing the bare minimum becomes the maximum voters can expect. 

In a political system where everyone counts and everything matters, everything is possible.

Jay Jackson is a political commentator and Secretariat of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. Jay has written for outlets including Labour List, Tides of History and the Mile End Institute.

You can find him on Twitter at @wordsbyjayj

One thought on “We need drug policy reform – but we won’t get it without PR

  1. This is very well put together. I note that one of the foci of the Labour National Policy Forum for 2023 is ‘Safe and Secure Communities’, and two of the questions put to members are: 3. How can prevention and diversion schemes be improved to reduce crime and reoffending? and 5. In what ways can devolution and constitutional reform empower people and bring
    our communities closer together? These seem to be an opportunity for those who are still in the Labour Party to put forward legalisation as a strategy of prevention, as argued above; and electoral reform under point 3. Not to mention the brilliant Social Exclusion Unit report on Reducing Reoffending in 2003 (?), surely a major cause of the effective destruction of the SEU in 2005 – that would throw them – take a look at it, it’s evidence-based, imagine.

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