"Something like 50 percent of our current government have taken drugs in their time but have managed to get away with it," British MP Norman Lamb told a room full of medicinal drug users, former addicts, and politicians on Monday in the UK parliament buildings.
He was speaking at the launch of a group called LEAP UK — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — a collection of former undercover drugs officers, military figures, and police who are campaigning for drug law reform in the UK.
A new British branch of an existing international pressure group — originally founded in 2002 by five police officers from Canada and the US — LEAP UK aims to raise awareness of what the organization says is the failure of current drug policy based on evidence gleaned from their experiences of enforcing it — saying prohibition is costly, ineffective, makes millions for organized criminals, and doesn't tackle the root causes of addiction.
Meanwhile, opponents of legalization say criminalization is relatively successful as a deterrent and that softer drugs, such as cannabis, can act as a gateway towards harder drugs like heroin. Making all drugs legal would send out the wrong message and lead many more people into harmful addiction, they argue.
LEAP says it wants to "reduce crime, disease, death, and addiction" by ending what executive director Neill Franklin, former head trainer for drug enforcement with the Maryland State Police, called "the most socially destructive policy since slavery — the war on drugs."
"Our members have been on the front lines of the world's longest war," he said while speaking in House of Commons Committee Room 10.
Another board member, former MI5 officer Annie Machon said her time in the intelligence services had taught her that the war on drugs was an "abject failure." She said that while working with customs and excise officers she had learned of the overlap between terrorist organizations and the illegal drug trade, including in Afghanistan, Colombia, northwest Africa, and Northern Ireland.
"By ensuring prohibition ends we will be able... to protect millions, if not billions of people around the world," she said.
Neil Woods, chairman of LEAP UK, had previously told VICE about the 14 years he spent working as an undercover drugs cop — between 1993 and 2007. He often posed as a crack or heroin addict. "Everything I did while undercover was a waste of time," he said. "All I did was make the lives of the vulnerable more unbearable."
Lamb, an MP with the Liberal Democrats and a former health minister responsible for mental health, said he didn't think was helpful to prosecute people who end up using drugs because of their mental health — in fact, it was "a spectacularly stupid policy."
Lamb said drug prosecutions often blight the career prospects of young people who are being criminalized for doing something that harms no one but themselves.
While commenting on the number of politicians known to have taken drugs in the past that had evaded prosecution, he stated: "It seems to me to be the height of hypocrisy." Lamb accused British politicians of existing in a "time warp," adding: "I think most of the public are ahead of politicians on this."
"I recognize that there are dangers with some drugs and there are dangers with excessive use of drugs," Lamb said, but he believes this should be a "health issue." Were he a user, he noted: "I would prefer to buy in a regulated market where I had some idea what I was buying."
Lamb also praised LEAP, saying: "For people involved in law enforcement to make the case is far more powerful than for politicians to make the case."
Patrick Hennessy who fought in Afghanistan with the British military said: "I fought an old-fashioned war, the ones with planes and bombs and bayonets." He called the so-called war on drugs "idiotic."
"You can't fight a war against a thing."
Hennessy spoke about the experience of having to sack "one of [his] best" soldiers, a 21-year-old who failed a drug test after taking a pill at a festival while back in the UK after seven months of in Afghanistan, where several of his colleagues had been killed. Hennessy said this was an example of how flawed the current law is.
Giving a Scottish take on the law, James Duffy, retired police inspector and the former chair of Strathclyde Police Federation, said: "Prohibition has been a failure." Duffy joined the police in 1975 and worked for the force for 32 years. In Scotland, he said there were around 55,000 heroin addicts, and it costs about 1,000 pounds ($1,392) a week to keep just one in prison.
Meanwhile, he noted that the Scotch whiskey industry is enthusiastically supported by the government. Around 1,500 people a year die alcohol-related deaths in Scotland and more than 10,000 die tobacco-related deaths — Duffy said he couldn't find any record of a cannabis death across the UK. "We are targeting the wrong things."
Neil Woods posing as a drug user during his time as an undercover police officer. (Photo via Neil Woods)
Michael Shiner from StopWatch, an activist group that does research on policing, said drugs law reform was long overdue and that he believed drug policy and policing "does more harm than good" while having a "disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities."
He said a StopWatch study using figures from 2010 found black people were many as six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs by police even though research showed they use drugs less — something Shiner said showed drug laws were being enforced unfairly and disproportionately.
Another speaker spoke about her experience of loss. Rose Humphries said her two sons did drugs when they were young. They started on cannabis, amphetamines, and magic mushrooms, but both went on to become heroin addicts. Her son Roland died 12 years ago, aged 23, while on a methadone program waiting list. He was at a friend's house, and she said she's still wondering if the delay in calling the ambulance was because he and his friends were worried about getting in trouble with the police. Her other son Jake managed to become free of drugs for seven years, before relapsing. He died alone of a heroin overdose in 2014, when he was 37.
"I hope we can influence policy," she said, adding that she wanted other families to be able to avoid "the tears and the grief of having to arrange their child's funeral. That's why I want legal regulation of drugs."
Cannabis user Faye Jones of United Patients Alliance said she smoked for medicinal reasons. "I not only have to fear that the law enforcement could come to my house [and] arrest me," she said, but also that they would "take away the two things that I rely on to have a normal life, my medicine — [which is] my cannabis, and my driving licence."
Jones said she would be afraid to call the police if a violent crime was carried out on her for that reason.
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