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If Political Parties Want To Pick Up Young Voters, They Need To Change The Way They Talk About Drugs

07/08/2017 16:12 BST | Updated 07/08/2017 16:12 BST
Cara Levan

The General Election of summer 2017 saw an upsurge in the youth vote, widely credited for Labour's unexpectedly good result. Both main political parties are now desperately seeking ways to attract the young to their ranks. Perhaps now they will query whether the tired old soundbite that 'all drug use is harmful' might in fact be harmful to them.

Last month, parliament held it's first debate on drug policy for seven years. Despite drug related deaths being at their highest since 1993, the debate was poorly attended (see photo) possibly because there was nothing truly new about the government strategy under discussion or possibly because members were nursing hangovers from the night before.

Much of the debate was a churning out of the same lines that essentially rest on the fatally flawed paradigm of 'just say no'. And while they feel this is a logical argument when applied to controlled drugs, the same does not appear to apply to alcohol.

Evidence shows that 90% of all drug use is non-problematic. Some politicians, however, continue to argue that alcohol can be consumed moderately and without any problem while other drugs can't. They have evidently failed to look at the science around drug use. But what they perhaps unwittingly reinforce is the moral judgement implicit in the law on those who consume intoxicants other than alcohol: people who take (some) drugs are bad.

Meanwhile - out in the real world, local police forces, media organisations and event promoters are finding ways to work on the edges of the law to make drug use safer. Recently VICE UK, The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health launched 'Safe Sesh' - a progressive multi-platform campaign aiming to challenge political, cultural and social approaches to drug use.

Calls for a truly fresh look at drug policy are not party political but political parties would do well to put themselves ahead of the curve on this issue. One day we will all look back at these draconian laws in the same way we now look at slavery. Evidence from other countries shows that those who do use drugs problematically, my own partner included, can be better helped by a drug policy that is framed as a health issue, rather than a criminal one.

Corbyn's Labour party haven't had the wherewithal to face up to this issue yet but there was one fresh Labour voice from the real world in parliament. Manchester Withington MP Jeff Smith, who while acknowleding the potential harms of drug use, said

"We need more openness and honesty in discussing drug policy. We need to reduce the stigma around taking drugs so that families find it easier to discuss the problem and to find help. And we need to stop the pretence that all people's experiences with illegal drugs are negative."

"We can't pretend that all people who are taking drugs do it because it's a miserable experience, because people won't believe us. It will just destroy the credibility of the debate. We need and honest, rational discussion around drug policy, if users, especially young people are going to take us seriously."

"There are a limited number of us who are prepared to stand up and speak about this issue at the moment. I hope the numbers will increase because we really need a serious debate on this issue. Not more of the same approach that has failed."

Cara is a member of the Anyone's Child Campaign: families who have been negatively affected by drug policy and want to see drugs brought under safer controls.