Thursday, 22 September 2011

My speech to Lib Dem conference

On Sunday I gave a speech at Lib Dem conference supporting the excellent motion "Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms".

The full motion can be found here, and essentially amounted to a call to decriminalise those affected by substance addiction while advocating a new drugs policy that was evidence-based and could more effectively tackle the damage drug misuse can do to individulas and wider society.

My speech is below:

I would appeal to Conference to support this motion which is well-written, carefully constructed and thoughtful in both its diagnosis and prescribed remedies for a problem that is responsible for reinforcing poverty and further marginalising already disadvantaged individuals and communities.

There is a welcome emphasis on the very real and serious consequences, both personal and societal, as well as a reiteration of the need for evidence-based policy. I particularly support the call to consider re-evaluating the law, being informed by the experiences of the Portuguese model, to increase investment in treatment and rehabilitation and all-round better provision for those affected by drug dependency.

In regards amendment 2 I am not convinced it is necessary and, as the motion proposes an overdue impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 it is probably unwise to be constrained by the terms of legislation whose fitness for purpose is actively being questioned. However, I am in support of amendment 1, with its emphasis on prevention and tackling some of the precipitating factors leading to substance dependency.

In 1997, I was homeless in Glasgow, and then for five months a resident in a rehabilitation centre for people with addiction problems. I don’t wish to discuss my personal history, but the rehab was not the most empowering place. While it had some positive results, it was unable to deal with some of the wider problems experienced by those affected by drug misuse. Most of the clients were homeless. Most had experienced various social problems. Most experienced mental ill-health. And all of us were unemployed. These factors created various problems once “rehabilitation”
was complete – this led to a revolving door syndrome with the same people returning to the same service time after time.

I moved on to a council flat in Sighthill, which Jo Swinson will know as a thoroughly depressed and disempowered council estate with poor housing and living standards and an unacceptably low life expectancy. Unfortunately, support for recoverers was limited and drugs were more easily available than anywhere outside of Barlinnie Prison. But what I recall most about the place was its poverty – not just material poverty, but a poverty of hope and ambition.

So we’re not dealing with one problem but a complex web, a cycle that enslaves. This is why I support the simple amendment, which promotes a shift in emphasis as well as a reappraisal of policy.

Finally, I would like to mention the Kerr Report, which applies only to Scotland but whose principles are transferrable. This is a document championing a new approach towards improving standards of health in Scotland. We are, after all, talking about a medical issue, a health issue; I currently work in adult mental health and there is an inescapable relationship between drug use and mental illness. The report recommended more preventative rather than reactive approaches, the need for evidence-based practice and for services to be “as local as possible and as specialised as necessary” to provide for the needs of service users.

This approach needs to be fully incorporated into the government’s drug policies. Support this motion and amendment 1, and hopefully it will be.

Immediately following the speech, I was intrigued to note that several people had opted to follow me on twitter. I also received the following tweets of support, including the following:

"Well done for speaking in the drug debate in the capacity of someone in
recovery. Taking away the stigma."

"Speech was great."

"FANTASTIC speech in favour of the drugs motion. Looks like only one
speaker against."

"Incredibly passionate, moving & personal 1st time speech on drug
policy by Andrew Page"

"Impressive debut. I look forward to seeing more of you up there."

Later I bumped into Chris Davies MEP who congratulated me, as well as my many friends who were keen to tell me "well done". I fully appreciate it - thanks to all of you.

It is in debates like this that I am most proud to be a Liberal Democrat: setting out a distinctively liberal stall and daring to be different. Of course what is now needed is for responsible, science-based government policy to tackle the scourge of drug dependency. This sensible but politically bold motion was passed and now the challenge has to be to ensure that our party policy is transformed into appropriate action with a programme that can actively reverse the dehumanising and socially destructive effects of drug misuse.

In other words, we've shown leadership as a party on this issue. The Conservatives must now do likewise.

I have previously written about the need for a practical approach on the issue: It's time to talk sensibly about drug misuse.

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