A leading harm-reduction campaigner has invited Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary to sit down and discuss the party’s drug policy after branding his comments against cannabis legalisation “really depressing”.
Peter Krykant, who launched a high-profile, unsanctioned overdose prevention centre in Glasgow, said it would be “very difficult to find someone with expertise in this area that would endorse what [Reed] is saying” about drug policy.
Reed told BBC’s Nick Robinson that Labour “won’t be legalising drugs,” despite leader Sir Keir Starmer implying during the leadership contest in 2020 that he would be in favour of legalising cannabis at some point.
The Shadow Justice Secretary said this was due to his “experience of seeing kids die on the streets…because of their involvement with drug dealers”. In the same interview Reed said he’d tried cannabis “once at university, but I didn’t like it”.
Campaigners described Reed’s comments as “disappointing and unfortunately predictable,” and said it was “frustrating to link drugs and murder without acknowledging the links between prohibition that fuels this”.
‘I don’t know, I don’t remember, I didn’t hear that’
Appearing on Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast, Reed said that despite previous comments from both Starmer and shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy which seem to endorse moving toward a decriminalisation model, Labour would not support this approach.
He said: “I’m the shadow Justice Secretary, and my experience of seeing kids die on the streets of South London because of their involvement with drug dealers and drug gangs, and the fear and horror in parents eyes when I met them afterwards, tells me we’re not going to be legalising drugs.
“What we need to do is give those kids better alternatives to getting involved in the kind of gangs that will destroy their lives while they destroy the community around them.”
Reed’s comments came after Robinson quoted Starmer’s comments from a 2020 leadership debate in which he said he “wouldn’t immediately” decriminalise the drug, suggesting he was ultimately in favour of a more relaxed approach.
Reed told Robinson he was unaware of the comments, saying “I don’t know, I don’t remember that, I didn’t hear that”. In February 2020, Reed shared a clip from the debate in which Starmer made the comments. When asked to confirm whether he watched or attended the debate by NationalWorld, Reed declined to comment.
Reed’s comments prompted criticism from many in the drug policy sector, with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) saying: “Disappointing and unfortunately predictable political comments from Steve Reed. We’re far beyond this level of discourse. We need urgent and evidence-based reforms to save lives, for safer communities, and also to compete with emerging markets across the globe for cannabis.”
Responding to the interview Krykant tweeted: “This makes me want to cry but also makes me extremely angry at the same time. News flash Steve Reed, I’ve looked in the eyes of way more people who’ve lost loved ones as a result of drug policy than you and lost many of my own family.
Speaking to NationalWorld, Krykant said “All the experts practically are saying that the current way we’re doing this is not working, so I just can’t see why Labour aren’t taking advantage of that and saying: ‘Here’s the evidence, this is what all the experts are saying, we’re going to try and reduce the prison population, we’re going to reduce the amount of money we’re throwing at this year after year, when clearly the current system is not working.”
“It’s obvious to anybody with any sort of experience in this field that criminalising people and sending them to prison can just become a revolving door, rather than offering people the drug treatment they need to manage their lives.
“It’s massively frustrating that someone like Steve Reed thinks he should be saying something like that publicly when all the evidence and all the experts are saying the complete opposite. I’d like to sit down and talk to him.”
“In the UK right now one in four people are in the prison system as a direct result of drug use and offending linked to drug use - not including supply. The really frustrating part when it comes to Labour right now is that, based on the polling that has been done on drug reform, the public are on board with it. There are always going to be a minority of people that are convinced the best way to deal with this is to criminalise and send people to prison, but we know it doesn’t work, it’s costing us billions of pounds a year - 17 people on average die every single day across the UK and the majority of those deaths are preventable.”
Krykant said he believes Labour is prioritising political point-scoring over not only the lives of drug users but also wider communities and the taxpayer. He also questioned Reed’s experience and understanding of the issue.
“Steve Reed doesn’t have the kind of experience that I have. The direct experience of working with people and direct loss of countless family and friends to overdose death. It’s frustrating when politicians don’t have that experience or that knowledge in real life, and when it comes to listening to people with real experience it seems that they just ignore us.”
Labour ‘in a difficult position’ on drug policy
Ant Lehane, a drug policy campaigner and former secretariat of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, said that while it is “frustrating” for Reed “to link drugs and murder without acknowledging the link between prohibition that fuels this,” the party could still take a slightly more positive approach.
He said Reed did not rule out diversion schemes, which are “proven to save police time, reduce reoffending and save the tax payer money,” by offering people caught in possession of drugs education and treatment, rather than putting them through the criminal justice system. Lehane said Labour are “in a difficult position,” on the issue.
“Any interview around this could be spun as "soft on crime" by the Conservatives,” he said, “but their own strategy encompasses diversion schemes. They know it works and Labour know it works, but being in opposition leaves Labour slightly hamstrung, and they know the Conservatives are desperate for any attack lines that they think will stick.”
Reed declined to respond to NationalWorld’s request for comment.