Time for a drugs policy that is compassionate, not vindictive
Sean Morton, standing for selection to the Highlands and Islands Regional List, argues that it’s time to end our “tough” approach to justice policy, and suggests a radical overhaul of Labour’s policy on drugs.
I have noticed over the last few days that the press and the political parties are drawing up the battle lines for the election. And I have noticed, to my dismay, that justice isn’t really featuring anywhere. I believe if we take on the SNP – head and heart – on justice policy, we will win that fight.
The SNP have displayed two objectives with respect to justice policy. The first, is a desire to portray themselves as competent managers. On this, they have demonstrably failed and we have made considerable inroads in highlighting this. The second objective is a desire to highlight Scottish justice policy as distinctive, in particular from the rest of the UK. With respect to this second objective, we’ve played right into the Nats’ hands by allowing them to paint themselves as the custodians of a distinctly Scottish, more liberal and welfarist justice policy, when the exact opposite is in fact the case.
In contrast, the only objective that can be discerned from Labour’s justice policies in recent years is a desire to appear “tough”. Politicians who claim to be tough on crime are not in short supply – which makes it difficult to carve out a distinctive position, key to gaining a political edge.
The SNP have successfully managed to pull off a remarkable trick, in sounding liberal and progressive while pursuing some of the most illiberal and conservative justice policies Scotland has ever seen. With almost every other politician in Scotland also adopting a conservative stance, it’s difficult to attack the SNP for this blatant betrayal of their liberal rhetoric. Furthermore, with every politician for as long as I can remember peddling the same message with public perceptions of crime seldom shifting, you have to ask whether any voters actually believe any politicians’ claims to be tough at all.
It’s time to end the dogmatic populism that Labour has attached to justice policy. It doesn’t work, it’s not distinctive, and people don’t buy it anyway.
For years, our flagship justice policy was “carry a knife, go to jail”. It’s a policy that’s flawed for a number of reasons. First, while knife crime remains a serious worry in many Scottish communities, it is not a universal concern. It was designed to target voters in traditional Labour areas – and it didn’t even work.
Second, it’s expensive. All of the evidence suggests that short sentences have little rehabilitative effect whatsoever, which means that in order for the policy to have the desired effect, quite lengthy sentences would be required, costing a lot of money. People rightly ask how such a policy could be paid for.
Third, and most importantly, at a criminological level such a policy fundamentally won’t work. Put yourself in the shoes of a young man who puts a knife in his pocket every time he goes out. Why do you think he does that? As a youth worker, it’s a question I often had to ask myself. And the answer is simple: they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the other people with knives – because they don’t exist within the bounds of what most of us would consider to be normal society. They feel the police, the law, and the courts don’t protect them – so they have to protect themselves. So if they think the police, the law, and the courts impotent, why would they think they’re a deterrent? Young people who go out with a knife in their pocket are afraid of being stabbed; they’re not afraid of a few weeks in the clink.
But what we need badly in our justice policy is a new approach to drugs. I can’t think of a crime that tears more families and communities apart like the drug trade does. But we judge people affected by it far too harshly. Many ordinary people have taken drugs, and all of us know people who take drugs or have taken drugs at some point in their lives. Some of us even know people who have become addicted, and the least fortunate among us have even lost loved ones to the scourge of drugs. We need to recognise that people who have taken and become addicted to drugs are themselves victims of crime.
There’s some idea that it’s just cities that have a drug problem. That’s just plain wrong. Every little village in my ward has more than one family struggling to help a loved-one beat drugs. I have known too many people who have lost the fight. And what’s the political response? Tougher rhetoric. It’s all wrong. We need to be tougher on the causes of addiction and kinder on the families who are struggling.
There are a number of things I believe we should do.
- As a first step, we should mandate that anyone found in possession of small quantities of drugs for the first time should receive cautions and referral for treatment – not prosecutions. It’s time we gave drug users the treatment their doctors say they need, not the punishment the Daily Mail says they deserve.
- Second, we should make available better support for relatives to help them deal with the problems of drug addicted family members. 24/7 helplines and online advice are a must. People can find themselves in their hour of need at any time of the day or night.
- Third, we must make it the law and make it public and plain that when someone is overdosing nobody should be afraid to call for help. People should know that they will not be in trouble with the police for saving a life, and that the person overdosing will not be in trouble once they are safe and sound.
- And finally, we must provide resources to those who have come through their battle with drugs who want to tell their story to anyone who will listen: the police, health boards, councils and schools most of all.
Labour has successfully held the SNP’s feet to the fire over their management of justice issues – in particular stop and search, Police Scotland, and the new women’s prison. But with respect to policy, for too long, the SNP has managed to get away with talking liberal while being conservative. We can’t attack them for that from a conservative position. It’s time Scottish Labour carved out a new position on justice – more liberal, more welfarist, and more distinctive.
We can take on the SNP if we stand for doing right by the real victims, their families and their communities. By listening to our heads and our hearts we can be a more just society without being a vindictive one.