Decriminalise possession to ease prison crisis, say Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrats have called for the possession of drugs for personal use to be decriminalised as a way of easing the overcrowding problem in Britain’s jails. There are now more than 11,000 people imprisoned for drug offences, the party says, while the overall prison population in England and Wales has nearly doubled in three decades, from just under 45,000 in 1990 to almost 85,000 now.

Last year the Liberal Democrats published a report detailing how a regulated cannabis market could work in the UK (DDN, April 2016, page 4), while the party has previously stated that it favours adoption of a Portuguese-style approach to drug legislation and the transfer of drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health (DDN, March 2015, page 4).

‘The rise in prisoner numbers and fall in prison staff has created unsafe environments where violence is widespread, the use of illegal drugs abounds and prisoners with mental health issues slip through the cracks,’ said Liberal Democrat shadow justice secretary Jonathan Marks. ‘The simple fact is we will never turn prisons into places of rehabilitation and reform unless we send far fewer people to jail. The government has finally admitted that prisons must act as places of education and reform (DDN, March, page 5) and the proposals in the prisons and courts bill are largely welcome.’

However the reforms were ‘doomed to failure’ without action to address the issue of overcrowding, he said. ‘This requires a radical overhaul of sentencing, include ending the criminalisation of drug users which sees many people sent to prison who pose no threat to society.’

Meanwhile, a new Australian report by former police commissioners, judges and other senior figures is calling for decriminalisation as part of a widespread reform of that country’s drug laws. Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?, published by the Australia 21 think tank, calls for ‘incremental, robustly evaluated steps towards a national policy of decriminalisation’ and support to allow the country’s criminal justice system to ‘focus law enforcement more usefully’. Drug-related deaths, crime and ill-health all continue to rise despite more than 80,000 arrests per year, the organisation says.

‘What we now have is badly broken, ineffective and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy,’ said former police commissioner Mick Palmer. ‘We must be courageous enough to consider a new and different approach.’

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