On the ninth of March, 2002, at their Spring Conference, the UK's Liberal Democrats voted for the full legalisation of cannabis, the reclassification of Ecstasy (MDMA) from Class A to Class B and the abolition of jail sentences for personal use and possession of all drugs. In doing so they exceeded the recommendations of their party's Policy Group, which had only wanted the decriminalisaton of cannabis without full legalisation. At the same time they voted for stiffer penalties for people caught selling drugs near to schools or hospitals, made the roadside drug testing of motorists official party policy, and declared their support for the prescribing of heroin by doctors. Their leader Charles Kennedy said "The party has decided that the criminal law should concentrate on the dealers, traffickers and exploiters of drugs rather than the users who need help and treatment."
Since their 1994 conference official Lib Dem policy had called for a Royal Commission to look into alternative strategies for fighting drug misuse, including the decriminalisation of cannabis. The vote to support a Royal Commission into decriminalisation was widely seen as indicating support for decriminalisation within the party, but at that time they were led by Paddy Ashdown, a former Captain of the Royal Marines in his mid-fifties, who made his personal opposition to any liberalisation of the drug laws quite clear.
New Labour responded to the Liberal Democrats's latest move by claiming that the party had "lost touch with the real world" as far as drugs were concerned. They continued: "Ecstasy is a dangerous drug that kills, and grading it from Class A to Class B would be foolhardy and irresponsible." They did not go on to argue that other drugs which are dangerous and kill people - such as paracetamol, which every year kills many more people than ecstasy has killed since it was invented, or alcohol, which kills about that many people in the UK every week (more if you count the accidents and murders) - should also be banned substances, carrying jail sentences of up to twenty years for their supply.
The media and the Liberal Democrat party itself have played down the significance of the decision to support legalisation, but the move has extremely strong support from a very large percentage of the nation's youth. Politicians and the media regularly decry the disengagement of today's youth from the political process; this is usually blamed on apathy, but it has at least as much to do with disillusionment with its ability to deliver meaningful changes in their lives, as long as the main parties agree with each other on almost everything of any importance. I suspect that many will see this as something worth getting to the polling station for. Support for decriminalisation or outright legalisation is also strong among many of the parents of the younger generation, who realise that the prohibition poses much greater danger for their children than the drugs themselves. The move will of course it will be unpopular with a certain aging, right-leaning portion of their supporters, and will probably make it harder for the party to woo disaffected tories; but the overwhelming support for liberalisation of drug laws among a largely non-voting segment of the populace may prove to make an enormous difference to future elections in many parts of the country.
With a Home Secretary who has already made moves to loosen Britain's draconian drug laws by moving cannabis from Class B into Class C and approving the Lambeth experiment in near-decriminalisation, and with a party represented in the Commons which is now arguing for full legalisation, and with polls of the public returning results ranging from about just under fifty percent to about ninety percent in favour of at least decriminalisation (depending on how the statistics are collected), there is good reason to be optimistic about seeing an effective end to Britain's cannabis prohibition within the next few years.
We have to go out and sell the message.
- Home Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes
Note, added 2013-05-12: it looks like that optimism was misplaced. The Labour government got jumpy and moved cannabis back into Class B, and though the Liberal Democrats have been part of Britain's coalition government since 2010, we haven't heard anything much more from them about this.