Liberal Democrats are poised to call for the decriminalisation of the possession of all drugs, insisting that current laws are “harmful” and “ineffective”.
Party members are almost certain to back a motion at next month’s conference urging the Government to set up an expert panel to consider the decriminalisation of personal drug use.
The motion will become party policy if it wins support at the conference in Birmingham, which is likely to provoke tensions with the party’s Conservative coalition partners.
The Lib Dems would like to see drug law reforms based on legislation in Portugal, where the personal use of any controlled drug is no longer a criminal offence.
Drug users would no longer face a prison sentence or fine but would instead be required to go for treatment or counselling. The current penalties for dealing drugs would not change.
The motion states that there is “increasing evidence that the UK’s drugs policy is not only ineffective and not cost-effective but actually harmful, impacting particularly severely on the poor and marginalised”.
It points out that those countries which have decriminalised possession of drugs have not seen increased use of those drugs relative to their neighbours.
“Individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and by a drug habit, and … the priority for those addicted to all substances must be healthcare, education and rehabilitation, not punishment,” the motion says.
“One of the key barriers to developing better drugs policy has been the previous Labour government’s persistent refusal to take on board scientific advice, and the absence of an overall evaluative framework of the UK’s drugs strategy.”
Lib Dem members believe that an evidence-based policy could produce large savings for the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, which could be reinvested in education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes.
The motion will be moved by Ewan Hoyle, founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform, and supported by Lib Dem MEP Sir Graham Watson.
Party members can submit amendments to the motion by September 5, ahead of the conference on September 17-21.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman dismissed a similar call from Labour ex-Cabinet minister Bob Ainsworth to legalise hard drugs last year.
Mr Ainsworth said the war on drugs had been “nothing but a disaster” and switching the trade from the hands of criminals to doctors and pharmacies appeared to be the best solution.
Asked whether David Cameron thought Mr Ainsworth’s ideas merited consideration, his spokesman said simply: “No.”
He added: “The Government is not in favour of legalisation of drugs because we don’t think it is the right approach.
“Drugs cause a lot of harm in society and we don’t think legalising them would be consistent with minimising that harm.”
But Mr Ainsworth claimed that the PM privately believed there should be a “full debate” on drug decriminalisation.
In a Westminster Hall debate in December, Mr Ainsworth said Mr Cameron had supported a Home Affairs Select Committee report in 2002 that called on the Government to reclassify Ecstasy from A to B.
The Labour MP added: “More importantly, it asked us to have a full debate on the alternatives to prohibition and the Member (Mr Cameron) went along with it. He supported it and he advocated it – and he was right to do so.
“But when he became the leader of the Conservative Party, for reasons best known to himself, he felt he needed to recant, and he said that he had been wrong to support that policy.
“I think that shines a light on exactly what the problem is here.”