Tim Farron is to become the first leader of one of Britain’s main political parties to call for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use after declaring that the war on drugs is over.
In one of the most significant moves by the Liberal Democrats since they were reduced to a shell of just eight MPs at the election, Farron will call on the government to develop a framework for the legal regulation of cannabis.
Farron is to endorse a motion at spring conference which calls on the party to extend its existing support for the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use to recreational use.
The motion, to be tabled by the former health minister Norman Lamb, will be debated after the release of the findings of an expert panel appointed by the Lib Dems to examine how a legal market for the use of cannabis would work in the UK. The panel has found that the legal use of cannabis could save the exchequer more than £1bn a year. It could generate between £400m-£900m in tax revenues and could save £200m-£300m in the criminal justice system.
The Lib Dem leader said: “The Liberal Democrats will be releasing a report in due course that lays out the case for a legalised market for sales of cannabis. I personally believe the war on drugs is over. We must move from making this a legal issue to one of health.
“The prime minister used to agree with me on the need for drug reform. It’s time he rediscovered his backbone and made the case again.”
Farron and Lamb, the two rivals for the Lib Dem leadership after Nick Clegg stood down when the party lost 49 of its 57 MPs, showed that they wanted to act in a radical way when they appointed the expert panel last October. The panel, whose members included the former chairman of the government’s advisory committee on the misuse of drugs, Prof David Nutt, was charged with examining how a legal market for cannabis could work in Britain.
The panel looked at evidence from Colorado and Washington State where the use of cannabis has been legal since 2012. Its work has also been backed by Lord Paddick, the Lib Dem peer and former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, who led a pilot scheme in Lambeth which effectively decriminalised cannabis for personal use over a 12-month period.
Farron’s remarks about the prime minister are a reference to his support as a young MP for a report by the Commons home affairs select committee, of which he was a member. This called for the prescribing of heroin and the provision of safe injecting rooms.
The future prime minister, who said that the lives of friends and people close to him had been ruined by drugs, told MPs in December 2002: “When I first heard about the concept of safe injecting rooms, I hated it. I thought the concept of the state providing a room for someone to inject something into their veins awful, but I listened to the arguments … People who live in inner-city areas whose children have to step over drug paraphernalia in the streets and on housing estates deserve a break from heroin use in their communities. That takes me back to the point that safe injecting rooms at least get heroin users to a place where they can be contacted by the treatment agencies so that the work of trying to get them off drugs can start.”
As prime minister, Cameron has ruled out the legalisation of all drugs.