Policy Priorities in 2019: Practical Liberalism—Tackling Britain’s Burning Injustices

This is the second of a three part series on the Adam Smith Institute’s Policy Priorities in 2019. In part one, we make the case for creating more prosperous society post-Brexit. In part three, we outline a future worth fighting for.

Liberalism has always meant helping the most marginalised.

Restrictions on individual liberty disproportionately harm the least well-off in society. From our decades-long support for drug law reform to more recent endorsement of safe standing at Premier League football matches, the Adam Smith Institute remains at the forefront of advocating practical, evidence-based, liberal solutions to pressing social issues in the UK. This year will bring new challenges to individual liberty from the left and right, but it also has the potential to be a great year for consumer choice, harm reduction, and the repeal of counterproductive regulations in different parts of our lives.

In 2018 we welcomed the legalisation of medical cannabis, but we’re falling behind the rest of the world in our approach to the recreational market. Last year saw Canada legalise recreational cannabis, as well as Michigan and California. New York and New Jersey are both likely candidates for further reform in the US and it’s only a matter of time before the UK follows. We want to make that happen sooner rather than later. The evidence shows that recreational legalisation disrupts an unaccountable and dangerous black market, leads to more informed users, reduces consumption for underage people, and frees up police resources to focus on violent crime. The naysayers have been proven wrong and recent polling shows that the almost two-thirds of Brits support the legalisation of cannabis. We will be continuing the fight for a commonsense approach to cannabis in 2019 and providing a blueprint for how best to legalise the drug.

A liberal, harm-reduction approach to drug policy should also be applied in other areas. Last year saw the expansion of festival drug testing service The Loop, with new academic evidence confirming that this initiative significantly reduces drug-related hospital admissions. In 2019, this service should expand into more festivals and city centres in order to save lives and we’ll be supporting such moves. We will also argue that the Government should allow trials of supervised drug consumption rooms: even the Home Office acknowledges the clear evidence that such sites reduce overdose fatalities and bring high-risk users into contact with medical support. Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Denmark, Australia and Canada all have these facilities operating in their cities and it’s time for us to join them. Another aspect of UK drug policy sorely in need of change is the failed Psychoactive Substances Act, which we have repeatedly called to scrap. As Professor David Nutt recently highlighted in his keynote speech at our Forum conference, the PSA makes our draconian regulations on psychoactive substances research even more restrictive while pushing users towards more dangerous drugs and consumption patterns.

Prohibition doesn’t work when it comes sex work regulation either. Last year saw mounting pressure on Leeds City Council to scrap its managed street sex work zone in Holbeck, despite strong evidence that such schemes reduce exploitation and violence against the most vulnerable sex workers. In 2019, we’ll defend this approach and encourage other local authorities to trial it elsewhere. On a national level, we’ll continue to support full decriminalisation of sex work as the only reasonable way of reforming our botched current approach. The wide array of evidence supporting the case for full decriminalisation continues to mount, while the alternative of ‘End Demand’ (the Nordic Model) clearly fails to protect the most marginalised sex workers.

While practical liberalism primarily focuses on helping disadvantaged groups, we’re also committed to protecting individual liberty in everyday contexts. 2018 was the year that the Nanny State went into overdrive, with a fabricated childhood obesity crisis used to justify all manner of paternalistic measures. The sugar tax came into effect in April while Transport for London announced a ban on fast-food adverts. Proposals for mandatory calorie counts on menus, a pudding tax, minimum alcohol pricing, bans on energy drink sales to under-16s, and various advertising crackdowns will be a key challenge in 2019. We’ll be at the forefront of making the evidence-based case for lifestyle policy that benefits those who are best placed to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink: ordinary people.

One notable exception to the public health lobby’s incessant calls for state intervention is vaping, which we will continue to champion alongside other reduced-risk nicotine products. In 2018 we released 1 Million Years of Life, which argued that the UK could take its comparatively liberal approach to e-cigarettes even further through policy reforms that make it easier for smokers to switch to reduced-risk products: from sensible advertising reform (which is now underway) to using Brexit as an opportunity to increase consumer choice in the field of safer smoking alternatives. This year, we’ll be keeping up the pressure on Government to back this harm reduction revolution and embrace the burgeoning market for reduced-risk products.

But that’s not all. In 2019 we’ll be tackling a huge range of other policy areas that would benefit from liberal reforms. Our overly strict childcare regulations prevent women from getting into work and hurt poorer families. Our ban on paying blood plasma and organ donors leads to shortages and entirely avoidable deaths. Our approach to criminal records creates significant barriers to rehabilitation and ruins the lives of many young people. Our approach to refugee policy—whether it’s our costly, unpopular ban on letting asylum seekers work or unreasonably low limits on overall numbers—is in dire need of change. Our homelessness epidemic has many complex causes but the housing crisis and reluctance to fully embrace evidence-based Housing First approaches both play a key role.


Adam Smith Institute’s Policy Priorities 2019

Part 1: Rebooting Britain—Creating a More Prosperous Society post-Brexit

Part 2: Practical Liberalism—Tackling Britain’s Burning Injustices

Part 3: Into The Future—Why Everything Will Be Awesome