The Lib Dems will publish on Monday the motions they are going to debate at their autumn conference in Birmingham. But today they have told us about one: calling for a panel to look at decriminalising possession of all illegal drugs.
The plans are backed by the party’s Glasgow south branch, and are already being supported by some backbenchers. They also appear to have the tacit approval of Nick Clegg, who is said to be “watching the motion with interest”.
Clegg may calculate that such a motion could provide an effective release valve for members frustrated at having to compromise their liberalism because of being in government with the Tories.
But it has the chance to escalate into a problem for the party. In essence, it backs a decriminalisation of all drugs, including class-As and a network of “heroin maintenance clinics for the most problematic and vulnerable heroin users”.
Julian Huppert, who is well respected in the party, says:
It’s clear that drugs policy as it stands doesn’t work. Traffickers and dealers are making money and our jails are overcrowded, but at the same time drugs are becoming more accessible.
We’re facing a vicious circle while continuing with ineffective laws. I’m pleased that we’ll have an opportunity at conference to debate this issue; it’s time we had a properly independent evidence-based evaluation of our approach on drugs.
Party officials think it stands a good chance of being approved by conference, which would automatically make it party policy (though not, of course, government policy).
If that happens, this would leave the door wide open for some papers to declare “Nutty Lib Dems want to decriminalise heroin”, something they might not have bothered giving much credence to before the party went into government. Just look at what happened to former Labour defence secretary Bob Ainsworth when he made a similar suggestion.
Nick Clegg has been busy telling people recently that the Lib Dems are becoming known as a trustworthy party of government, more responsible on the economy than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories.
What he doesn’t want is a load of headlines painting the party as a campaign group pushing fringe issues, as they used to be before Clegg took his “big gamble” by signing up to the coalition.