This week (July 18 2017) the House of Commons debated the UK’s national drug policy following the release of the government's latest Drug Strategy. Overall over 100 MPs attended and participated during the debate which lasted over 6 hours. Transform was quoted at various points of the debate by numerous MPs, but the most worthy mention was of our Anyone’s Child Campaign. There were many great speeches made by MPs from all political parties, and here are some of the highlights.
Norman Lamb MP quoted Anne-Marie Cockburn during his speech, as Anne-Marie watched from the public gallery:
“Let me quote Anne-Marie Cockburn—she has been mentioned in the debate—from the Anyone’s Child project:
“I invite the Prime Minister to come and stand by my daughter’s grave, and tell me her approach to drugs is working.”
That is a parent who lost their daughter as a result of the current approach to drug policy.”
Norman Lamb MP
Mr Lamb went on to blast the government’s “shameful” record on drug-related deaths which are some of the highest in Europe. He also made calls for Safe Consumption Rooms, quoting Transform’s briefing. He finished by calling for legal regulation of drugs in order to take them out of the criminal market and to control drugs altogether:
“I make this plea: do not claim that the case for change is irresponsible, but bring about change because it will save lives, it will reduce HIV and hepatitis C infection, it will protect people better, it will end the ludicrous enriching of criminals, it will cut violence in our poorest communities, it will end the self-defeating criminalisation of people who have done exactly the same thing as successful people in government, in business and in all sorts of walks of life, and it will raise vital tax revenues. Follow the evidence. Do not perpetuate the stigma and the fear. End this catastrophic approach to drugs policy.”
Another impassioned speech came from Jeff Smith MP who began by referencing his Maiden Speech when he first called for drug law reform. Mr. Smith told the story of Cara Levan, his friend and Anyone’s Child campaigner:
“My friend Cara’s son is five tomorrow. It will be his third birthday without his father Jake, who died of a heroin overdose. Cara wants to legalise drugs to end the stigma around drug use and to end the unnecessary criminalisation of drug users that made it so hard for her family to deal with Jake’s addiction, and makes it more difficult for people to seek help with drug problems.”
Jeff Smith MP
Mr. Smith also joined others in telling Anne-Marie’s story:
“Martha died because there was no controlling measures on the substance that killed her and no way for Martha to check the safety of the substance she was using. Martha was failed by our approach to drug policy.
“Many people who have been touched by the loss of loved ones want a more measured debate and a more rational approach to drug policy. Fifty people a week are dying of drug-related deaths in the UK—50 Marthas and Jakes. Our first duty in this place has to be to try to keep people safe and we are failing.”
He finished off his speech by noting that Parliament is far behind the public mood and called for the legal regulation of cannabis:
“When even the Daily Mail accepts that there is an argument for change, that surely illustrates how far behind public opinion the House is on the issue. We should follow many countries, as well as half the states in the USA, and legalise cannabis for medicinal use.”
Sarah Newton MP, charged with defending the Drug Strategy, attempted to argue that alcohol was not a harmful drug (albeit in moderation):
“...alcohol taken in moderation is not a harmful drug”
The fact is that alcohol is not only a drug, it is a harmful drug. The NICE guidelines state that,
“There is unfortunately no ‘safe’ alcohol limit when it comes to increasing one’s cancer risk.”
Ms. Newton goes on to say:
“I have said to my own children, “If you can’t go into Boots or any other reputable pharmacist and buy something, then it will not be good for you.” It is really important that we have very simple and clear messages for young people.”
As of writing the pharmacist, Boots, does not sell drinking alcohol. Sarah Newton MP seemed rather confused on whether alcohol is a harmful drug or not, and this only gave MPs ammunition against her during the rest of the debate. However, Ms. Newton does recognise that Boots and other pharmacies are reputable and safe outlets which are also best positioned for selling controlled and regulated substances, such as drugs - something that Transform is calling for.
Sarah Newton's comments will not go down well with millions of people suffering from the harms caused by alcohol use, including Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, who referenced her recovery from cancer and how the disease is directly linked to moderate alcohol use:
“She said a moment ago that there is such a thing as a safe level of consumption of alcohol, but that is not what the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines say. The NICE guidelines are clear and accurate: there is no safe level of consumption of alcohol. We allow it to be consumed legally and we provide information, treatment and recovery, but we do not criminalise people who are consuming alcohol... Evidence is available that shows just how much more harmful alcohol is than any other drug.”
“I did not know until I had breast cancer that alcohol was so closely linked to it.
“Alcohol is at the top end of the most harmful substances both to the user and to others—it is more harmful than heroin, in fact—but if I fall off the alcohol-free wagon by going into a shop or a pub and buying some alcohol, I at least know that it will not have been cut with something much more poisonous. I know that I am not risking my job by breaking the law and I know that I will be picked up afterwards if dropping off the wagon causes me problems. I believe that the regulatory, information and licensing systems for alcohol provide a great template for reforming the law on other drugs.”
Thangam Debbonaire MP
For Sarah Newton MP to argue that drugs are banned because they are harmful is therefore grossly misleading and inconsistent when compared to alcohol regulation. UK drug policy is undeniably politically motivated, and not evidence-based.
Another worthy speech was from veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn, who went as far as calling for civil disobedience! He said:
“I call on people to break the law, to come here and use cannabis and see what happens—to challenge the authorities to arrest them. That is the only way to get through to the Government’s mind, which is set in concrete.”
Paul Flynn MP
The final speech to note was made by one of the newer members of the House, Layla Moran MP. Layla is Anne-Marie’s MP and chose to dedicate her speech to telling Martha's story in detail, as Anne-Marie looked on from the gallery.
“We have a very special person in the room with us today—so special, indeed, that she and her campaign have been mentioned at several points during the debate. She is a constituent of mine called Anne-Marie Cockburn, and she is the mother of a child whose name may also be familiar to Members, because she too has been mentioned today... It is the story of Martha Fernback.
Martha died four years ago this week, on 20 July 2013, from an accidental drug overdose. She was 15. That fateful day, she was out with her friends on a Saturday morning to go to a kayaking club; she was too young for the other sort. She took—because it was so readily available—half a gram of Ecstasy powder, and almost immediately started to react. At first, her friends did not know what to do. They were worried that they would get into trouble, so they hesitated in ringing the ambulance when it was clear that Martha was struggling. But they did. Then Anne-Marie got the call that every parent dreads. An unrecognised number came up on her mobile phone screen; she was called to go to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Just two hours after first taking the drug, Martha, her beautiful baby girl, died.”
The speech focussed on how our broken drug laws have truly changed the life of Anne-Marie forever, and it puts it in an undeniable perspective.
Picture (left to right): Steve Rolles, Layla Moran MP, Anne-Marie Cockburn, Norman Lamb MP
There is no wonder then, why Home Office Ministers and defenders of our prohibitionist drug laws cannot acknowledge stories like Anne-Marie’s and Cara’s. It is because these laws are indefensible and abhorrent in the way that they snatch a child from a mother; they take away a child’s father; they are an accident waiting to happen to anyone’s father, mother, brother, sister, cousin, friend, or anyone’s child. The MPs mentioned here, as well as many others who took part in the debate, voiced their support for reform of our drug laws. It provides us with hope that the government will listen to reason (eventually) and overhaul our drug laws that are responsible for killing 50 people a week - 50 Marthas and Jakes.
Author: Ben Campbell, Communications Officer at Transform Drug Policy Foundation