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Published on August 18th, 2014 | by Will Highfield
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Lib Dems say no to prison sentences for drug possession, but should they consider going further?

The Lib Dems recently called for an end to imprisonment for people whose only offence is possessing drugs for personal use. They’d rather see drug users receive non-custodial sentences and medical treatment.

According to the Lib Dems, over 1,000 people a year in England and Wales are sent to prison for possessing drugs for personal use. Nick Clegg doesn’t believe this is the way forward, arguing that imprisonment is a waste of money, that addicts would be better treated in the community, and that it runs the risk of users being addicted to harder drugs and becoming “hardened criminals.”

However, it’s noticeable that the Lib Dems remain in favour of eradicating drug use and punishing possession through non-custodial sentences such as fines. This is far from a radical new approach. All the Lib Dems have effectively said is that imprisonment is not the best means to a drug-free society and that drug use should be viewed primarily as a health issue.

But does criminalising possession of drugs for personal use follow from the Lib Dems’ aspirations? They claim to stand for a “free and open society” and “champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals.” It seems sensible, then, for them to consider how comfortably these values sit with punishing drug users, including those possessing only cannabis.

With Mill’s famous essay “On Liberty” being the symbol of the office of the President of the Liberal Democrats, an obvious starting position for the Lib Dems is one where the state can only punish drug users when the use of the drug is harming others, or at least has the potential to do so. But as has been pointed out by Jonathan Wolff, this doesn’t mean we should ban anything that can cause harm – we have to weigh up the costs and benefits. For example, things like setting off fireworks and driving a car can both cause serious harm, but we don’t see this as grounds for banning them.

Alcohol causes a whole range of harms, such as addiction, liver cirrhosis, heart damage, or death from drinking too much in one session – as we tragically learnt during the Neknomination craze. To abide by their principles, the Lib Dems need to show a clear difference between alcohol and every illegal drug such as cannabis, which many scientists believe to be considerably less harmful than alcohol.

Nevertheless, clear evidence of the harm (or lack thereof) caused by drugs is hard to get. This is due to various factors, and it’s important to take into account that things like overdosing and infection from dirty needles are not harms that necessarily follow from taking a drug.

It’s clear though that current drug regulation doesn’t just look at harm, as some illegal drugs cause far less harm to both the user and third parties than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco. For example, even once we take into account that more people drink alcohol than take ecstasy, the former is still around 200 times more likely to kill its user than the latter.

There is also another issue that the Lib Dems must surely be bound to consider – justice.  The key question here is whether or not it’s right to punish, through the law, people who are doing something that gives them pleasure and does not risk harming others any more than activities like driving or horse-riding.  This being said, there are a whole range of complications to consider, such as those drugs with a heavy risk of addiction.

One final point is to note that legalisation of some drugs on liberal principles does not require an endorsement of drug use.  If it so desired, the government could still try to reduce drug use through various strategies other than punishment, such as health warnings and taxes to reduce demand.

I am by no means condoning drug use or saying definitively that any currently illegal drugs should be legalised.  What I am saying is that, out of all the parties, the Lib Dems have the most reason to think about how consistent their principles are with punishing drug users.

If you are concerned about drugs misuse in yourself or someone close to you, please call the Frank helpline, available 24/7, on 0300 123 6600 for more information about drugs and the different options available for help and support. 

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

is a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham where he studied Philosophy.

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