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UK Drugs Policy

Volume 587: debated on Thursday 30 October 2014

In calling Caroline Lucas to move the motion, I congratulate her on the award she received last night at the Pink News awards in Speaker’s House, which I hope will enjoy the acclamation of her colleagues across the Chamber.

I beg to move,

That this House notes that drug-related harms and the costs to society remain high; further notes that the independent UK Drugs Policy Commission highlighted the fact that Government is spending around £3 billion a year on policies that are often counter-productive; believes that an evidence-based approach is required in order for Parliament and the Government to pursue the most effective drugs policy in the future; welcomes the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee in its Ninth Report of 2012-13, HC 184, that the Government consider all the alternatives to the UK’s failing drug laws and learn from countries that have adopted a more evidence-based approach; notes that the Government has responded positively to this recommendation and is in the process of conducting an international comparators study to consider the effectiveness of national drug policies adopted by a range of countries; and calls on the Government to conduct an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to publish the results of those studies within the next 12 months.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to open this debate and would like to start by thanking both the Backbench Business Committee for its support and the nearly 135,000 people who signed the petition I set up on the No. 10 website, which has enabled us to have this debate.

The motion notes that drug-related harms and the costs to society remain high. It makes the case that there is a wealth of evidence to that effect and calls on the Government to conduct an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to publish the results of those studies within the next 12 months.

The motion has been very carefully written so as not to promote one policy model over and above another. It simply advances the principle that our drugs policy should be based on evidence of what works to reduce harm to individuals, communities and families affected by drugs misuse. In order to get that evidence, we need a thorough analysis and assessment of the current legislation, including comparing it with alternative models. For that reason, I hope that hon. Members who are in favour of a prohibition-based drugs policy, as well as those who advocate alternative approaches, will support this motion, because, in essence, what it seeks to do is get the evidence.

Since the 1971 Act was passed, there has been no process of reviewing whether it is achieving its dual objectives of reducing drugs misuse and the associated social harms.

I agree with the hon. Lady. It is about 30-odd years since the Act was introduced and there should be a reassessment to see how we can bring it up to date with a proper policy.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and absolutely agree with him. Reviews take place in many other policy areas to check whether objectives are being met, and it is high time we had such a review of the 1971 Act.

The Government’s drugs strategy is itself subject to review, but that is a self-limiting process. In other words, it intends to look only at value for money and in terms only of whether the amount spent is more or less than the value of the positive outcomes. That review will be carried out in 2015 and it will not consider whether other approaches would be better value for money. Neither will it include the negative outcomes—the presumably unintended consequences—of the policy in its calculations.

I warmly welcome today’s publication of the Government’s international comparators study. I pay tribute to the Minister for Crime Prevention, who is in his place, for the leadership he has shown in the process. The study has been long awaited. It was commissioned on the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee and is a considered review of the different approaches to drug policy pursued around the world.

The review indicates that introducing an alternative to prohibition would not, contrary to some claims, boost drug use, and it could save millions of pounds if users were treated for addiction rather than jailed. It seems that the evidence for the issue of drug use to be moved to the Department of Health, in order for the focus to be on treating rather than punishing addiction, is overwhelming as well. This is just the first step towards a drugs policy that puts harm reduction first, and I welcome it warmly, but we urgently need to follow up on this comparison of international approaches and learn the lessons from it for our own UK-based legislation. That is why this debate is so important.

May I also congratulate the hon. Lady, not only on her award, which is well deserved, but on her work on this issue? In respect of following up, I also welcome the report led by the Minister. The Home Affairs Committee, prompted by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), will hold a separate session specifically on our last set of recommendations. It will be held in Cambridge, in honour of the hon. Gentleman, and I hope we can persuade the hon. Lady to come along and speak.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all his leadership on this issue as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). I am very happy to take up that kind invitation. To be serious, I am very glad that the Home Affairs Committee is doing that extra piece of very important work.

Such work is important because drug misuse destroys individuals, families and communities, and an ineffective drugs policy only compounds that damage. All too often, success in the war on drugs is measured in numbers of arrests or seizures of drugs, but many of us believe that we should assess whether the harms associated with drug misuse are rising or declining.

The Home Secretary acknowledged in the foreword to her Government’s drug strategy:

“Individuals do not take drugs in isolation from what is happening in the rest of their lives.”

I agree. Poverty, social exclusion and inequality all have an impact on drug use and drug markets. Research by the Equality Trust has shown a clear and demonstrable correlation between drug misuse and inequality. There is a strong tendency for drug abuse to be more common in countries, such as the UK, that are more unequal. Ending social exclusion must therefore be at the heart of any effective strategy to reduce drug-related harms. To do that, we need to marshal the evidence.

Contrary to press reports, many of us on the Conservative Benches believe that evidence-based policy would be more effective in dealing with the scourge of drugs.

What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely true. In a sense, this is not a party political matter: people from across this House and the other place believe that we should have an evidence-based approach, rather than an approach that for too long has been dictated by fear, particularly fear of the tabloids. It is important to have this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her award, even though, as I was nominated for it, I feel some frustration. It has been a great pleasure to work with her on this issue. Her voice is, and I hope will continue to be, very valuable in this place. Will she confirm that many newspapers are now coming out in favour of change, and that the public want change? Today, The Sun shows that roughly two thirds of people want a reform of drugs policy.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being nominated, and I am sure he will win next time. His point is incredibly important. Until now, politicians often thought that they were reflecting public opinion, but they are now massively behind it, as the poll in The Sun absolutely demonstrates.

It strikes me that a time of austerity, with the Government seemingly looking under every last stone to find money to save, is an odd time not to consider drugs policy, given that so much money is invested in the current drugs regime. Yet drugs policy seems to be completely divorced from the usual considerations about public spending and the good use of taxpayers’ money, and we simply have no proper public mechanism for knowing whether the money spent on the so-called war on drugs has been put to good effect.

No one now buys alcohol in unmarked bottles from the back of a pub—that would be dangerous and unnecessary—but for 40 years we have left our children to do exactly that with drugs. There is no denying that drug misuse has the potential to wreck lives, but surely it is time to be honest about the damage caused by the drug laws, which can cause a proliferation of criminality and public harm. The entire drugs trade has been handed over to the worlds’ racketeers and gangsters. The drugs market has soared, and that has brought untold misery. Essentially, the current market is almost wholly uncontrolled.

From speaking to young people in my constituency, it is clear that many of them can get hold of drugs far more easily than alcohol, which is surely wrong. When someone tries to get hold of alcohol, they at least have to show an ID card if they are thought to be under age. Drug dealers do not care about someone’s ID or anything else; they care only about their profits. I believe that the current policy is based on a deliberate ignorance about the effect of drugs.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate, and on her extraordinary petition, which has 130,000 signatures. I understand that 20% of people who have taken heroin said that they got it for the first time in jail. If we cannot control drugs in jail, how on earth are we supposed to control them on our streets?

That is an extremely good point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very helpful intervention, which speaks for itself.

If we are to design a better drugs policy that is based on evidence, we need to agree on the objectives of drugs policy. For me, it is about protecting people, particularly the young and vulnerable, as well as reducing crime, improving health, promoting security and development, providing good value for money and protecting human rights. In setting out why that is important, I will say a little more about the impact of the current drugs policy and why I believe it adds to the case for a review; I will talk a little about the growing consensus on rethinking the current approach to drugs policy; and I will say a little about Brighton and Hove, where my constituency is situated, where the approach of following the evidence as far as possible has delivered benefits.

Before doing any of that, I would like to talk about Martha. Martha’s mother, Anne-Marie Cockburn, is in Parliament with us today. Like so many parents, she had always wanted to protect her child. However, on 20 July 2013, she learned that that was not always possible. On that day, Martha swallowed half a gram of MDMA powder—ecstasy—and died. She was 15 years old. Today, 30 October, would have been Martha’s 17th birthday. She is not celebrating that birthday because the Misuse of Drugs Act did not protect her. Making MDMA illegal did not protect Martha. We owe it to her and to Anne-Marie, and to the many other people who have died drug-related deaths and their families and loved ones, to ensure that in future each and every one of us is offered the best possible protection by our drugs laws.

In her incredibly moving blog, “What Martha Did Next”, Anne-Marie writes:

“Had Martha known that what she was about to take was 91% pure, she would probably have taken a lot less, in fact I’d go as far as to say that she might still be alive.”

Anne-Marie argues that, under prohibition, it is impossible fully to educate people such as Martha, because there is no way to tell what drugs contain. Prohibition has not stopped risk-taking, but it has made those risks much more dangerous. Anne-Marie suggests that we are failing to protect children such as Martha—that we are letting them down—and that, alongside deterring young people from taking drugs, we need a regulatory model that reduces the risk if drugs do get into the hands of young people such as Martha.

I agree with Anne-Marie. Perhaps many people in the Chamber will not. However, the fact that Martha is not celebrating her 17th birthday today is surely the first of many good reasons to carry out an impact assessment of our drugs laws. We urgently need to know whether prohibition is an obstacle to education about drugs, and whether our children would be better protected by alternatives, such as strict regulation. Despite all the accusations that are thrown at those who are in favour of drug policy reform, the bottom line is that it is not about being pro-drugs, but about saving lives. The only credible way to do that is to know whether our policies are up to the job.

That is especially important because there is powerful evidence that the so-called war on drugs is making things worse. Far from being neutral, in many instances the current model pushes users towards more harmful products, behaviours and environments. Let me give two examples of what I mean. In doing so, it is crucial to distinguish between the suffering that is caused by drugs and that which is caused by drugs policy.

First, the vast majority of drug-related offending happens not because people take drugs, but because of drugs policy. Users are driven to burglary and theft to buy drugs at vastly inflated prices in an unregulated market. There is enormous potential significantly to reduce such crime and its impact on our communities under a different system.

Secondly, on legal highs, according to research into synthetic drugs by Demos and the UK Drug Policy Commission, 40 new substances emerged on to the market in 2010, compared with 24 in the previous year. By 2014, the figure had grown to 80 different synthetic drugs. Professor Les Iversen, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, recently admitted that drug control legislation is being forced to play “cat and mouse”. Such substances are routinely banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but that simply spawns more substances that, in turn, are banned. The legal process cannot keep up.

The Government have published a report today that recommends that all novel synthetic psychoactive substances, or legal highs as they are more widely known, be banned. I appreciate what they are trying to do with that policy, but I think that it is misguided. It fails to appreciate that many legal highs are the products of prohibition. Synthetic cannabis, for example, would not exist if there were a legally regulated supply of real cannabis. Nor does the policy recognise our knowledge that prohibition—in other words, banning things—does not stop people taking drugs, but simply increases the risks.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the only people the current policy really benefits are the drug lords and crime lords who sell this disgusting stuff to our children? If her policies were realised, it would put those people out of business for good.

Order. The hon. Lady has been speaking for 15 minutes, so I am sure that we are nearing the end of the opening speech. [Interruption.] I assure her that we are nearing the end of the speech.

Of course I am getting near the end, Mr Deputy Speaker. With that in mind, I shall simply agree with the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton).

The current policy is essentially putting users at greater risk by driving the creation of yet more ways to stay one step ahead of the law and by making research into the harms associated with new substances much more difficult.

Many of the new synthetic drugs are sold in shops up and down the country. If we do nothing to control the way in which the shops operate, such drugs will continue to be available. Most of them are sold over the counter and very few are sold illicitly in clubs. Where will the hon. Lady’s reforms lead us in terms of banning such shops from operating?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There are two ways to respond. The motion simply says that we should look at the evidence. I am not saying where that will lead us. On the shops that sell so-called legal highs, we are not talking about an absence of control. On the contrary, we are talking about regulation and control. My argument with the Government’s statement on legal highs is that it assumes that if we ban them and drive them underground, they will go away. They will not. It is likely that they will be even more dangerous and that people will not know what they are taking.

One proposal in Transform’s blueprint for a drugs policy, which I warmly recommend, is a step-by-step process by which we look at how we regulate and control drugs. For example, it might be possible to get hold of them in a licensed pharmacy if people show a certain level of ID. There are all sorts of ways in which we could regulate and control the drugs market. I repeat that this is not about legalising drugs or having a free-for-all, but about bringing regulation and control back into a market that is in the hands of gangs and other people who do not care what is in the substances. They do not care about the purity of a substance; they care only about their profit. I stress again that this is about regulation and control.

Although, sadly, we do not systematically collect and assess data for the purposes of ensuring that the Misuse of Drugs Act is the best way to meet our drugs policy objects, there is a wealth of informative data out there. The evidence that I have seen is enough to persuade me of the need for drugs policy reform. However, I repeat that the motion simply asks for an independent review of the evidence. I therefore hope that those who do not agree with my interpretation of the evidence will still support the motion.

I thank the Minister for Crime Prevention again for his work on the Government’s comparators report. It shows that there is a wealth of evidence from many other countries that we could have a very different drugs policy in this country. In order to protect people in this country in the most effective way possible, it is incumbent on us as a Parliament to look at the comparators report, learn from it and see how we can make our drugs policy more effective.

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful contribution of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I welcome her bringing this debate to the House.

I will speak about a harm-reduction approach to drugs policy. I do not hold a moralistic view on the taking of drugs, other than my objection to people supporting one of the most evil worldwide businesses or cartels. It always surprises me that people who object to buying coffee in Starbucks and who refuse to support Amazon are quite happy to support cartels that cause untold misery to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Until such time as we have a change in drugs policy, I hope that people who support the drugs industry will reflect on the wider harms that they, personally, are causing.

Talking of harm reduction, I welcome an approach that says, “Let’s look at the evidence and be driven by the evidence in what we do.” However, there is one piece of evidence on which we should reflect, which is that drug use is falling in this country. According to surveys from the Office for National Statistics, the level of class A drug use among young people—16 to 24-year-olds—has fallen from 9.2% in 1996 to 4.8% in 2012-13. That is a significant drop.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the approach that she is taking. However, we need to be really clear about the evidence that drug use is going down. The only real model that we can see over time is that there was a 32% increase in respect of some of the most serious drugs, heroin and morphine, last year. Cannabis use has been coming down, but that has happened irrespective of the policy context and of whether it has been class B, class C or anything else.

I thank the hon. Lady for that point. Cannabis use among 16 to 24-year-olds is now at its lowest level since records began, at around 13.5%. I think the view we sometimes hear that we are losing the war on drugs is factually incorrect, and there are many markers.

I have great respect for the hon. Lady’s experience in this matter. Does she see a connection between the falling use of illegal drugs that she is highlighting, and the rising use of legal highs?

Legal highs are a rather separate issue. I agree we must consider that they may have unintended consequences, but I would not follow that as a direct cause or link. I do not agree with that.

May I make a little progress and then I will come back to the hon. Gentleman?

I would like to focus on cannabis for a moment—that is the issue I have most correspondence about—and on its harms. Cannabis is often presented as somehow a harmless product, and if we compare it with alcohol and consider the numbers of deaths and injuries, alcohol undoubtedly currently causes far greater harm in our society. However, before we assume that it must therefore be acceptable to legalise cannabis, I want to focus a little on its harms. In the short term, there is double the risk of a car crash for people driving under the influence of cannabis, and in the longer term, one in six young users will become dependent. It simply not true to say that cannabis is not a drug of dependence—it is.

For me, this is about the impact of cannabis on young users and teenagers, because they will double their risk of a psychotic illness. In my career I have met many families and young people whose lives have been completely devastated as a result of psychosis—I come to this debate from that viewpoint and my real concern about what psychosis does to people, because many of them did not recover. That is particularly important for those who have a family history of psychotic illness. For example, if someone has a first degree relative with a history of schizophrenia and they start using cannabis as a teenager, they will double their risk of a psychotic illness from 10% to 20%—a significant increase.

It is always interesting to listen to the hon. Lady, and I do not think anybody is trying to make the case that drugs, legal or illegal, are harmless. Does she accept, however, that because we make it an illegal system, we cannot do what has been done in California, for example, where medicinal marijuana has allowed the breeding of strains of marijuana that are less psycho-harmful?

That is why I want to see the longer term results from Colorado and Washington state, and whether as a result of that system the harm to young people from cannabis is reduced. Personally, I think it is too early to say what the effects will be, but I will be following the results closely. If I see clear evidence of harm reduction, I will completely change my approach to this issue.

People often write to me and say, “Well look at Portugal where there has been a reduction in drug use”, but the Czech Republic, which has the same approach in not prosecuting people for personal use, has one of the highest levels of cannabis use across Europe. We must be careful about how selectively we quote from the evidence.

I have great respect for the hon. Lady’s skill and knowledge, which is probably greater than mine. In Portugal they take a great deal of care to look after the people brought to their attention who have problems with drugs, and they treat them properly, which works. Perhaps in the Czech Republic they do not use the same approach. It could be that that is the case.

There is certainly a strong case for a much better medical approach to drug use—certainly for hard drug use. My point is about relative uses. People often write to me and say that we would cut cannabis use if we took a different approach to decriminalisation. As I say, I am not dogmatic about the issue, and I would like to see the longer term outcomes from legalisation in Washington state and Colorado.

May I finish a few points about the medical aspects of this issue? There is also the issue of educational achievement for long-term, regular cannabis users in adolescence, because we know there is a reduction in their school performance, and it is more likely that they will end up with cognitive impairment later on. Whatever we do, we must be mindful of the effect of our policies on young people. The harms are greatest for young people who start using cannabis heavily at an early age. I hope the Minister will assure the House that when we review drugs policy he will particularly focus on its effects on young people, so that we do not head down a route that could lead to greater harm to young people as a result of policy changes.

I was not planning to speak in this debate, because I felt that most of what I have to say would be covered by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). However, I want to emphasise a couple of important points, which I hope will help the House to understand the issue.

The Home Affairs Committee has looked carefully at this issue and took a year producing a report, including a visit to Portugal. I was not able to go, but other colleagues, including the hon. Members for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) and for Cambridge, as well as the then hon. Member for Rochester and Strood, went to Portugal and provided a good outline of what is happening there. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), Chair of the Health Committee, is right: we need to make comparisons and see what works elsewhere. That was reflected in the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue.

The main conclusion of the Committee’s report in 2012 was to urge the Government to initiate a royal commission, which we said could be done in a short period of time. We were not in favour of a royal commission that would last an age, and we felt that it could be completed to a timetable. Had that been accepted in 2012, we would have had the results by now; sadly, the idea was not taken up by the Government. I do not think a royal commission will be set up in the next six months, but I hope that future Governments will see it as a way of ensuring that all voices on drugs policy are heard. There are many voices out there, as we see from the number of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate, many of whom have great expertise in this matter. Let us hear all those voices, take the evidence, and come to a conclusion. A Select Committee can only do so much—all Select Committees try their best to cover a full agenda—and a royal commission would enable us to do much more.

Will the right hon. Gentleman draw the attention of his Committee very rapidly to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)—I also raised it in the Chamber 30 years ago—about people going into prison and coming out as heroin addicts? There needs to be a review of the way that prisons combat drugs, and I hope the Home Affairs Committee will take up the issue rapidly.

The first point I was going to make about drugs policy after calling for a royal commission was about prisons. The issue was raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), and brilliantly and eloquently exposed in the book by the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is sitting behind the Minister. He has great knowledge and expertise from his years at the criminal Bar, and he mentioned many different aspects of the criminal justice system. There is a whole chapter on drugs in prison, and I commend the book to Members of the House. He may even have copies of it to sell to Members after the debate.

The Committee called for mandatory testing of prisoners on entry and exit, and we wanted to ensure that on exit, ex-prisoners are met at the gates and given the treatment they deserve, so that they do not reoffend and go back to prison. We found, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, that a quarter of prisoners first discover a taste for drugs while in prison. That is a shocking statistic and the number may even have gone up. Drugs are being used in prison and it is not acceptable. The prison authorities need to do much more, but we need to rehabilitate people, so that they do not reoffend as soon as they come out. A former Minister with responsibility for prisons is in the Chamber. He will have more knowledge of that, but I hope we get commitments from the Government and the Minister that more will be done.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that, in any work his Committee does on drugs in prison, we do not narrowly define drugs? Legal and illegal drugs have been mentioned in the debate. I know from a visit to my local prison that the main drug misuse is of prescription drugs.

That was going to be my second point. I have a feeling that Liberal Democrat Members have a copy of my speech.

Exactly. The Liberal Democrats have an incredible mind. They are able to predict exactly what hon. Members are going to say.

Correctly, the hon. Gentleman referred to prescription drugs, which had not been mentioned. The Committee was extremely concerned by the increase in the use of prescription drugs. Indeed, when the Committee was in Miami, as hon. Members would expect it to be, en route for Colombia to look at where 70% of the cocaine in our country comes from—we have done our homework—we heard of the first case of an American doctor being prosecuted for prescribing drugs. As we know, drugs become currency in prisons and outside. That is why there is a responsibility on the medical profession to ensure that doctors prescribe effectively and understand what is happening to prescription drugs if certain patients keep coming in and asking for them. It is important to ensure that we consider the availability of those drugs, which are perfectly legal.

I have not seen the Government statement on psychoactive substances so I cannot comment on it—I believe it was a written statement, and they never send the Committee advance copies. I just remind the House that the Committee was clear that the onus ought to be on the retailers who sell psychoactive substances. I did not realise that the Government were calling for a complete ban, but where psychoactive substances are sold, we should prosecute retailers for selling them. There is no point waiting for someone to die. It is essential we do something at the beginning by getting those who sell the drugs in the first place.

My final point is on money laundering and the weakness of successive Governments’ regimes to deal with criminality. As we have heard, the drugs trade is the second most profitable illegal activity in the world. It is worth some $380 billion a year, most of which enters the financial system, some through offshore areas such as Gibraltar and other areas of that kind. We need to ensure that authorities co-operate. I am not singling Gibraltar out because you are in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Order. Just for correctness, I am not the chair of the Gibraltar group, but I was in the past. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman needs to take this up with the new chair.

There is no criticism of you, Mr Deputy Speaker, of the new chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar or of anyone in Gibraltar, but we have discovered that some areas of the world are being used to launder money from drugs. Our financial authorities are not strong enough to deal with the way in which money goes through the system. That is why the Committee believes that bankers at the very senior level should be held criminally responsible if they know or are aware of laundering, or if they did not take action to prevent it.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to consider asset recovery to deal with money laundering and criminal actions. He will be aware that we have an opportunity to consider that under the Serious Crime Bill. Does he share my concern about the drafting of the asset recovery clauses? Will his Committee consider that before we debate the Bill? Does he agree that the Bill needs to take on board lessons from places such as Italy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am not sure that the Committee has time to consider that before Christmas, but I will do so with him. Let us sit down and see whether we can get an amendment together. I am happy to support him to make the Bill tougher, because it needs to be.

I commend the proposers of the motion.. This is a very important debate, and we do not debate UK drugs policy often enough. We need to ensure that we have more time to debate this serious and important subject.

It is a great privilege to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I am not sure whether it will cause her or me more embarrassment among our supporters that we find ourselves sharing company and the same side of the argument.

Some years ago, when the debate about drugs erupted, as it does from time to time, the media went round more or less every Front Bencher and asked whether they had ever smoked pot. I was one of the very few who never had, and I have no intention ever of doing so. That gave me a clear enough head to look at this issue on the basis of evidence, which is what the hon. Lady’s motion urges us to do.

I focused on the important distinction between soft and hard drugs, and on whether cannabis should be treated differently from hard drugs. I concluded that it should be, and that we should move to the legalisation of cannabis. We could have a small number of legal outlets while banning the active marketing and promotion of cannabis, its sale to minors and its consumption in public places.

I concluded that a move to legalisation would have a number of advantages. First, about 80% of the effort in the so-called war on drugs goes on trying to prohibit cannabis. Much less effort and resources go into the prohibition of hard drugs, which cause the greatest harm and the greatest danger. Therefore, if we could provide some legal outlets for cannabis, we would be able to focus more of the effort on the drugs that do the greatest harm.

Secondly, I concluded that the effort of trying to prohibit cannabis was ineffective. Until recently, we had a higher prevalence and usage of cannabis in this country than in Holland, where there are legal outlets. Prohibition was therefore ineffective.

Thirdly, I concluded that we were undermining respect for the law by having a law that was widely disregarded, and one that was harder to justify in a country which, after all, legalises the sale of alcohol, which can do at least as much damage as cannabis, and legalises the sale of nicotine and cigarettes, which can have more lethal consequences in the long term.

One key argument often used by those who advocate keeping cannabis on a par with hard drugs, and criminalising and prohibiting its sale in this country, is that it is supposedly a gateway drug, meaning that it leads people ineluctably to sample cocaine, and then tempts them to go on to heroin. They say that, therefore, its sale should be prohibited. I believe that the reverse is true: because the sale of cannabis is illegal, we drive soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers. They can obtain cannabis only from criminal gangs, who will want them to upgrade to drugs that are more addictive and more profitable.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real gateway is tobacco use? Most people smoke cannabis with tobacco, and that poses the greatest risk of long-term harm.

I will, for the sake of argument, agree with my hon. Friend, but I think that is a rather different argument from the one I am addressing.

The most important single reason for legalising the sale of cannabis is to break the link between the sale of hard drugs and the sale of soft drugs. There are only two coherent and rational policies as far as soft drugs are concerned. The Swedish approach is one of toughly enforced prohibition. I looked briefly at the report and thought it was a bit weak on analysis of the Swedish situation, but I will look at it more deeply. The other is a version of the Dutch approach, which is now the approach of a number of countries, where legal outlets are available. The worst option is falling between two stools and decriminalising use while leaving the supply in the hands of drug gangs. That leaves us open to driving soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers.

I say these things not as someone who is soft on drugs believes there is nothing is wrong with taking drugs. I believe that even if there were no health disadvantages from using drugs, there is a moral case against using them. However, just as I want to decriminalise and legalise, I do not want to de-moralise drugs. Ultimately, wherever possible moral choices should be left to individuals. In so far as we are going to be no worse off—the Dutch experience shows not a higher number of users, but fewer people pushed into harder and worse drugs—let us look at the evidence closely, and be willing to accept that although drug use may be wrong it does not automatically have to be criminal.

Lots of things are wrong. Adultery is wrong, but we do not make it a criminal offence. Lots of other things are against the moral law in which I believe, but we do not make them a criminal offence. Let us look at drugs without going to the opposite extreme of saying that any use of drugs is desirable and entirely value-free. Let us look at the evidence and see whether the policies we have been pursuing in this country have been ineffectual, have focused the effort where it is least needed and not where it is most needed, have undermined respect for the law, and have driven soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers. I hope the House will support the motion.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). We are both old lags in this debate and were both mentioned in the drugs report of 2002.

I am more optimistic than I have been during the past 27 years in which I have made 28 speeches on this matter in this House. At one time we had an annual debate, which was an amazing ritual. The Government, whoever they were, said how wonderfully and successfully things were going, and the Opposition would say, “Yes, we agree.” One moment I prize was when, about half way through, both Front-Bench speakers had to leave the Chamber for a fix—they were both chain smokers. They saw nothing wrong in denouncing young people and then going off to any of the 16 bars in this place and having a whisky and a cigarette. They would have a couple of paracetamol in their pockets for the headaches they were going to have the next morning. They could not see any contradiction between that and laying down laws for young people.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) talked about the myth that the use of drugs has gone down because of Government action. There is absolutely no correlation. Let us look at the past 43 years. When the Drugs Misuse Act 1971 was passed with the support of all parties—always a worrying thing—there were fewer than 1,000 heroin and cocaine addicts in the whole country. The last figure I saw was 320,000. There has been a steady increase over the years. The reason there has now been a decline in cannabis use and other activities by young people is that they have a new addiction. They have an almost universal addiction to their Tablets and iPhones—that is where their attention is going. It is all to do with fashion. Drug taking might be cool one year and naff the following year. It all depends on that.

The hon. Lady made a point about Portugal, which is a great success story. It changed its policy in 2001. Within a very short time the number of deaths went down by 50%,and it does not have the cost of prosecutions and so on. It has been a continuing success. The change in the Czech Republic is relatively recent and we have yet to see the results, but there are encouraging signs.

I have to apologise to the Minister. I was so ungracious as to believe that he was going to follow the path of all the other Ministers with responsibility for drugs, including some very distinguished ones. I remember when the beloved Mo Mowlam was in charge of drugs. Her letters would comprise the civil service reply and a little note on the top, written by her, saying, “See you in the Strangers Bar to tell you what I really think.” [Laughter.] When the current Minister came before the Home Affairs Committee, I asked him whether he had had the compulsory lobotomy to become a Minister with responsibility for drugs in exchange for his red box. It was not true! The Minister stuck to his views, and here we have the first ever intelligent document on drugs from Government in 43 years—the only one that is evidence-based. We have had evidence-free, prejudice-rich policies for years from politicians who were cowardly. They would not take on the tabloids. Some years ago, the Liberal Democrats decided that they were going to pursue the policy that we are encouraging today and they were denounced by The Sun for going to pot.

There is cowardice because of prejudice, but we know that public opinion is way ahead of us. The public know the stupidity and impotence of our drugs policy. I regularly ask how many prisons in Britain are drug free. I always get the answer that there are none. If we cannot keep hard drugs out of prisons, how on earth can we keep them out of schools, clubs or anywhere else? It is a pretence.

Women go into prisons like Holloway drug-free and come out with a drug habit, such are the difficulties of keeping drugs out of prison.

There is a splendid book called “Invisible Women” about Holloway prison, which I commend to everyone. It tells the terrible story of what is going on there.

Another point about prison is that one medicine that was given to young women who had been badly treated and were mutilating themselves was largactil. There was a name for them in prison: they were called muppets. This was a drug for those who had serious mental health problems. The whole sorry story of drugs in prison is one of abuse by many medicinal drugs. A blind eye was turned to cannabis use because it kept a lid on things. If prisoners were on alcohol they were aggressive, but if they were on cannabis they would give everyone a hug. That is how the prisons liked it. The prison policies pursued by all parties are completely hypocritical and they illustrate the futility of prohibition.

I received a call before I came to the House from someone talking about the use of medicinal cannabis, which I have supported for a very long time. It is not that I want to use it. I have never used any illegal drug and I have no plans to use cannabis. The point is the irrationality of the Government’s stand. Cannabis in its natural form is one of the oldest drugs in the world. It has been used on all continents for 5,000 years. Now, because we are nervous and it is an illegal drug, we allow people to have only little bits of cannabis. Dronabinol, nabilone or TAC are available, but they contain only a small number of ingredients from the hundreds in any natural substance.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is very strange that a doctor can prescribe heroin in the form of diamorphine, a controlled and very dangerous drug, but not cannabis?

Indeed, and I would like to get on to that. We have just been involved in a war, which I mentioned at business questions. We went into Helmand province five years after we went into Afghanistan. We had lost only two soldiers by that time, but our main purpose in going in—hon. Members should read the speeches from 2006; I have just put them on the website—was all about stopping heroin being grown and ending the drug crop. In 2006, 90% of our heroin came from Afghanistan; yet here we are, years later, and 90% of our heroin still comes from Afghanistan. There is a difference, however: now it is cheaper because there is more of it. The efforts to control it were utterly futile, yet there is a shortage of morphine throughout the world—another issue that we have not addressed.

I come back to the point that we should look at the chemistry. Nobody knows what the effect of the various ingredients of natural cannabis is. It might well be that ingredient No. 36 neutralises ingredient No. 428. We do not know, and by stopping people having a natural drug that has proved to be beneficial, we are imposing torment on many who have serious problems, such as multiple sclerosis and other diseases that we know can be cured. It is prejudice that has driven our policies for all these years. I am heartened today by the Minister, by his courage and by the report, which is the only report—I repeat: we have waited 43 years for this—that is based on the truth and the evidence. Marvellous things are happening in other countries throughout the world, and there is a recognition that prohibition has been a curse.

In the litany of good signs that the hon. Gentleman is seeing, I am quite certain that he will have read the article by Sir William Patey, who was our ambassador in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2012. He says:

“For the sake of both Afghans and British citizens, senior politicians must take responsibility for the failings of global prohibition, and take control of the drug trade through legal regulation.”

When someone like him says that, it is another reason to sit up and take notice.

That is absolutely right. We are following what happened with the prohibition of alcohol in America, where the deaths came from the use of distilled spirit. The content could not be controlled, and it was poisonous. We now have people taking drugs—often in the most concentrated form and in the most dangerous way—that are produced by people who are irresponsible. I believe that if we did not have prohibition, people would be using heroin beer and other things by now. In Amsterdam, they take their cannabis without smoking, because the danger—as with tobacco, where it is not the nicotine—is in smoking the substance. The best way would be if we relaxed about this and if people could have their drugs of choice—all dangerous and to be avoided if at all possible, but we cannot stop people seeking relaxation and comfort from drugs; that will go on. The way to do it is to end prohibition and for a courageous Government to reform our laws.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who was an advocate of this cause well before it was fashionable. It is good to see him in his place still arguing for it. I also echo his praise for the fantastic work that my right hon. Friend the Minister has done, which means that we have now heard praise for his work from all parties present in the Chamber, even though some representative parties that are not here have been rather more critical of the stance he has taken. It is also good to hear a degree of unanimity in the comments expressed today. There are some differences, but they are in the nuances. There is not a principled difference; all the speeches have broadly called for change to our policies.

My belief is that the so-called war on drugs has simply not worked. What it has done is cause more harms than it has alleviated. That has been clear for quite a long time, and I and my party have long called for reform. It is not about being hard on drugs or soft on drugs; it is about being smart on drugs and doing the right thing. Of course drugs are harmful. Whether they are legal or illegal, and whether they are prescribed or not prescribed, tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, cocaine and heroin are all harmful things. They all cause harms—to people who take them, to other people and to society. The model for so long in this country and in many parts of the world has been based on the idea that when it comes to some substances—not tobacco and alcohol, but the other ones, for historical reasons—our aim should be to stop people taking them. The idea is to reduce the number of users, rather than looking at the harms the substances cause. That is the wrong goal and it has not worked.

Drug use is still high, with millions of people regularly breaking the law, which is not an effective disincentive. Hon. Members can talk to many police officers about this, but frankly it makes the law look silly when 4 million people a year are committing a criminal offence, of whom 100,000—randomly selected, but with somewhat more from poorer communities and black and minority ethnic groups—get arrested, with a few unlucky people, again disproportionately poorer people and those from black and minority ethnic groups, being thrown in jail. It does not work.

I may come to this if I am lucky enough to catch your eye in due course, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I do not think anyone else has made this point, but does it not also cause a lack of respect for the criminal law when every year 4 million people regularly break what is regarded as the criminal law for something that they do not think is a criminal offence?

Absolutely. If we asked people what sort of sentence it should be possible to get for having a spliff, they would not think that many years in jail was proportionate. I know that that does not always happen, but the maximum sentence in this instance brings the law into disrepute.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that politicians might just be behind public opinion on this question? A major tabloid paper reports today that it has polled its readers, who believe there should be a review of the legislation.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, as I said in an intervention. Politicians are behind, at least in what they are prepared to say. Another survey two years ago—I cannot remember which paper ran it—showed that 77% of MPs thought we should have reform, as long as they knew they would not be named in the survey and asked to introduce it. Politicians should have the courage of their convictions, and the public’s convictions, and take action.

I shall pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who chairs the Health Committee. We have indeed seen a reduction in the raw numbers—she is absolutely right—but I think that is largely because people are taking new psychoactive substances. We are seeing a huge increase in people taking legal alternatives, rather than illegal substances. The perversity of that is that we have pushed people to take substances whose safety we know less about. We know less about the harms and we are probably increasing the risk to those people very substantially. We should also look at the system. Smoking tobacco is more harmful than chewing khat, but why would we make the dangerous one legal and the not-so-dangerous one illegal? It seems like a very strange thing to do.

As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I was delighted that the Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is sadly not in his place, agreed when I kept insisting that we should have a look at this issue. We undertook a detailed study and we heard from experts around the world. We concluded, on a cross-party basis, a key objective:

“The principal aim of Government drugs policy should be first and foremost to minimise the damage caused to the victims of drug-related crime, drug users and others.”

That is a call to completely rethink how we do drugs policy: to focus on reducing the harm, not on how many people do things that we badge as illegal.

The Home Secretary of course rejected the report’s findings and just carried on with business as usual, but we had one key victory. We secured agreement for an international comparators study, which has been worked on by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) and, now, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention. That is what has come out today, and although there is a serious gap where some of the conclusions ought to be—one feels that one is being led towards something, only to find a missing paragraph saying what one should do—it is very clear. The fundamental point is that sounding tough does not matter. The rhetoric does not make any difference; it is about outcomes. The study says:

“Looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country's approach and the prevalence of…drug use.”

That is key. If being tough actually reduced drug use around the world, we would have to look again, but it simply does not work. It creates extra harms, so the argument falls down.

What does work? There have been lots of academic studies. The thing that most reduces drug use is having a more equal society. Solving that may be beyond the scope of this debate, and certainly beyond my scope in the time I have left, but that is what will work—not tough laws, but a more equal society. Yet we continue with the tough approach. Every year we spend millions of pounds jailing something like 1,000 people for no offence other than possession. We are not talking about people who have burgled; we are talking about simple possession offences. They are not dealers; they are not doing worse things. Jailing them does not help them to deal with their addiction; if anything, it makes things worse for them and takes money that we could spend helping them instead of punishing them.

It is therefore really good progress that we now see acceptance from the Government that a tough drugs policy does not reduce usage. Contrary to what the Home Secretary said to the Home Affairs Committee, the Government have finally accepted that in Portugal decriminalisation and a focus on treatment have not led to more drug use.

We have the Minister on board, but we need to get the Home Secretary to agree to go ahead. We spend vast amounts of money on a drugs policy. Estimates vary between £3 billion and £10 billion a year, depending on which costs are included. Times are tight, so we should spend that money effectively. We should use police resources effectively, too. If police are kept busy dealing with simple possession offences, that is time and effort that they cannot use to settle violent or acquisitive crime, or indeed the gang crime that our war on drugs is fuelling. That is why so many police officers have spoken out.

The chief constable of Durham, Mike Barton, has argued for the decriminalisation of class A drugs, highlighting the fact that prohibition has put billions of pounds into the hands of the criminals he is supposed to be fighting. Many others say the same, including Chief Constable Tom Lloyd, my own former chief constable:

“Drug dealers all over the world are laughing at law enforcement…I want the end of prohibition and the start of control and regulation so we don’t have dealers on the street.”

He has also highlighted the harm done to young people, because for a huge proportion of them, their first contact with the law comes from being stopped and searched for drugs offences. When someone is convicted, according to Tom Lloyd:

“It seems hypocritical to saddle a young person with a criminal conviction that could blight their lives”.

Such people often have problems getting jobs and travelling in the future. This causes huge problems. Because of our criminalised system, we have no control over what drugs are cut with—and these cutting agents are often worse than the drugs themselves.

We also have huge problems with discrimination. For black and minority ethnic groups, the use of harder drugs is lower, but arrests are higher and they are twice as likely to proceed to court than white people. That is not right; we should not be doing that. With more than half of stop and searches being for possession, even the Home Secretary has acknowledged the problems that can result from that.

We need a new system, focusing on treatment, education and rehabilitation and dealing with the harms caused by drugs. How we pay for that is a challenge. The answer is to take money from the criminal justice system. We need to divert the money from spending on policing and prison towards spending on helping people to break their addiction. My party has called for exactly that, continuing to spearhead those calls. At our party conference in October this year, we had a new crime policy paper, which picked up on this issue. It called for a transfer of powers from the Home Office to the Department of Health, saying that drug addiction is a health problem and should be seen as such. We should make sure that people are not sent to prison for personal possession; we should move towards decriminalisation. We propose having a royal commission to take an overall view of what we do and to keep an eye on what is happening with cannabis in the US and Uruguay. I agree with the hon. Member for Totnes that it is too early to be certain about the outcomes; we need to keep an eye open.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the US, and earlier in his very powerful speech he mentioned the difficulty some young people have with being criminalised over the possession of drugs. Does he regard it as an oddity, as I do, that a person could be denied a visa to go to the United States, in some parts of which marijuana can be bought and smoked quite legally, just because they have a criminal conviction in this country for having used cannabis?

The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right; I agree completely with his point. We are blighting people’s lives for no good reason, and many do not think it is proportionate.

It is not just my party that has pushed for this change for a long time. Many other Members have called for reform, like the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). We have heard the clear view of The Sun in a very strong editorial just this morning, stressing that we cannot continue with the status quo. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said when he was Secretary of State:

“We have been engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years. We’re plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress.”

The former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller called for us to acknowledge the truth that

“much…of the vast expenditure on the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has been fruitless.”

The noble Lord Lawson, with whom I disagree on many things, said:

“I have no doubt that the present policy is a disaster.”

Then there is the Prime Minister. When he was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002, along with the hon. Member for Newport West, he voted to recommend

“that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma”.

The Prime Minister used to be a reformer. When he ran for the Tory leadership, he said:

“Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades.”

All those voices are on side; we need to bring the Prime Minister back. Portugal has been a huge success. When we visited, we found that the new drugs policy was supported across the parties, and by the police as it helped them to deal with crime.

Let me make two last points before concluding. In 2016, the UN General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs in 2016, providing a key chance to change the global system in respect of drugs policy. This is key, and there are calls from around the world. Britain is leading the way in the calls for reform, but unfortunately not in an official capacity—it is the all-party parliamentary group on drugs policy reform that is seeking to co-ordinate Ministers around the world. The Government should support this change.

I echo the calls of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention to look again at marijuana as a medicine. The evidence is that it can be a very effective medical remedy, dealing with many diseases, including MS and glaucoma, and easing the side-effects of chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS treatment. This can help improve people’s lives, so clearly we should look at it as a medical intervention. This country has followed the wrong approach for 40 years. It has not worked, and it is time to change.

I shall take a somewhat different tack from other Members, but first I congratulate the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and others on their contributions to the debate. I want to pick up on what was said by the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee about legalised prescription drugs and how they relate to drug-related harms and their costs to society. I would argue that the cost of prescription drugs is massive, as are the related harms.

I would like to pay tribute to the late Jim Dobbin, with whom I worked closely on the all-party group on involuntary tranquilliser addiction. Jim set it up and worked on it year in, year out, because of his concerns, perhaps arising from his background, and because of the people he came into contact with. I pay particular tribute to Mick Behan, who worked out of his office. He had gone through involuntary tranquilliser addiction and worked hard with Jim to bring this to the notice of Government after Government.

Ironically, I was the Conservative candidate in Heywood and Middleton in 1990 when the Conservative Government were in power. Like all good candidates, I could not attack the Government, but I could attack the local Rochdale council, and who was a senior member of Rochdale council in 1990? Jim Dobbin. I then came to this place. My constituent John Perrott, who is the secretary of the all-party group, contacted Jim and got involved in work with him over the last four years, trying to bring to the notice not just of this House but of the system, the situation with tranquillisers and prescriptions.

The motion talks about costs. It is estimated that 1.5 million people have a long-term addiction to tranquillisers in this country. In 2012, 67.3 million prescriptions for tranquillisers were issued; in 2013, it went up to 70.2 million. Those are legal drugs that are being issued. There is a lot of evidence, particularly relating to the benzodiazepines—benzos—and the Z drugs, to demonstrate people’s addiction. As early as 1988, apparently, GPs were instructed that people should not be on these drugs for longer than four weeks. Yet 1.5 million people are addicted to them.

As a member of the all-party group, I used to visit various parts of the NHS with Jim to talk to doctors. We also spoke to the British Medical Association. There was a worry about their professionalism, as I remember one doctor saying, “If I refuse to give another prescription, I know full well that patient will go to another doctor and get the same prescription.” There is a great hole in the system. What the real cost is, I do not know. It must run to millions, if not billions, just for prescribing those drugs. Clearly, the profits for various companies are quite high.

The human cost is different again, when we think about the problems people face through no fault of their own. Who better to quote than the Prime Minister himself on this? Jim put a question to him in October last year, in response to which the Prime Minister said that

“these people are not drug addicts but they have become hooked on repeat prescriptions of tranquillisers.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 296.]

They went to their doctors in all good faith. They did not read the small print about possible side-effects and nobody spelled them out. Now we are left with of 1.5 million people who cannot get off these drugs, and there seems to be no place in the system for them to go. The only place they are sent is to a drug rehabilitation centre, but the majority of the people sent there have usually been on illegal drugs. I am not talking about a class difference, but there is a psychological difference between one and the other. What generally happens is that people who have suddenly realised that they are addicted to a substance that they took as a medicine stop going to such centres. One clinic that Jim and the all-party group supported, and which we hope will continue, is a voluntary clinic in Oldham, which followed the recommendations in a manual produced by Professor Heather Ashton about ways of getting people off benzo drugs and curing the addiction that they cause, but that is just one clinic. There was another in Liverpool, but its grant has gone.

My constituent John Perrott has—I hope—got himself off prescription drugs by means of that system. He sent a number of freedom of information requests around the country asking how many people had been taken off such drugs. As I said earlier, it has been estimated that 1.5 million people are addicted to them. A total of 180 people all over the country responded by saying that they had undergone some kind of rehabilitation to get them off prescription drugs.

As I have said, I do not know the total financial cost involved, but the mental and physical costs are clear to anyone who meets people who have ended up taking prescription drugs. Members can imagine the mental stress that they experience. They took those drugs because a doctor had told them that they would be fine. Therein may lie one of the problems that have been identified by Jim and others. The Earl of Sandwich has tried to take up the issue with the British Medical Association. Some doctors have said that, anecdotally, there is indeed an issue. However, they tend to feel that their professional judgment is being challenged, even if what is involved is a historical judgment. They worry about, for instance, possible litigation—and we are, of course, familiar with the American scene. But all that these people are crying out for is some recognition within the national health service.

We have had meetings with Health Minister after Health Minister, and they have all said, “It is fine—it is in the system.” However, drug companies are making millions from prescription drugs. Doctors say, “What can I do? If I tell people that there is a different system which does not involve my giving them tablets, they will not believe me”—and, as I said earlier, those people can easily go to another doctor and get the drugs from him. I understand that some of them can be obtained through the internet in any case. That is a very different scenario from the one that has featured in the debate so far, although it is clearly relevant to the overall issue of drug misuse.

Members have mentioned drugs in prisons. I have tried to obtain factual information from prisons, but have been given only anecdotal evidence. Prison doctors have told me that many prisoners know that the way to get hold of drugs is to say, “I am depressed”—and why would someone who has been sentenced to imprisonment not be depressed? The prisoner need only act out the symptoms, and the drugs will then be prescribed, entirely legally. The anecdotal evidence that I have received from the prisons themselves is “It keeps them quiet.” Other Members have mentioned that already.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has spoken to prison governors, as I have. They have told me, as I am sure they have told him, that if prescription drugs, particularly tranquillisers, are taken out of prisons and no longer prescribed for prisoners—although they are not needed for the majority of prisoners—every custodial facility in the country will be on fire the following day.

My hon. and learned Friend has made the point far better than I could. We are told that when we talk to people in the system, but there is no recognition of it. I find it amazing that even Members of Parliament cannot acquire information about the scale of prescriptions inside prisons, but, for some reason, that is not possible.

There is a whole series of questions to be asked. I congratulate the Members who initiated the debate, and I appreciate the points they have raised about illegal drugs. As an ex-teacher, I have seen the damage that drugs cause, on the streets and elsewhere. However, the issue of illegal drugs is part of a much wider issue relating to drugs in 21st-century society.

Let me end by paying another tribute to Jim Dobbin. He stood firm on this issue, and he worked hard on it. I last met Jim on, I think, the Thursday before the weekend he died. He had had a meeting with the Chairmen of the Health and Home Affairs Committees, during which he had been trying once again to find out more about an issue that affects all our constituents.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw. He made a compelling speech, in which he rightly identified an immense problem that goes to the heart of the issue with which our drugs policy must deal.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. I recall having a conversation with one of her co-signatories, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), when I was the criminal justice Minister responsible for the prison and probation services. The right hon. Gentleman, having at one time been the Minister responsible for drugs policy in the Home Office, is yet another convert to the more enlightened and intelligent policy that is proposed in the motion and implicitly recommended in the study report that the Government have just published.

On that occasion, the right hon. Gentleman and I, as Minister, cooked up a plan for him to ask me a question so that we could begin to arrive at some estimate of the actual cost of our drugs policy to the criminal justice system. However, even as the Minister answering the question, I found it impossible to beat out of the Department information that would have enabled me to give a proper answer to the right hon. Gentleman, and eventually, having tried to do so several times, I gave up.

This is the central point that I want to make. Given the number of global leaders who have had responsibility for policy in this area—Kofi Annan, the former Presidents of Brazil, Switzerland, Colombia, Portugal, Mexico and Chile, George Papandreou; the list goes on and on, and includes, of course, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East—we ought to start drawing some conclusions. Members who know that they will not get the political kicking that our current Administration plainly feel they will get if they begin to open up an intelligent policy discussion of this issue should now collectively begin to push harder and harder. I share the optimism of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who for many decades has occasionally been a lone and vilified voice. His courage is an object lesson to us all.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the international context. Does he agree that it is significant that at least one American state—Colorado—has decriminalised marijuana? Is that not a sign that the tide is turning in regard to the efficacy of the war on drugs?

I agree with the hon. Lady. There are examples all over the world of much more enlightened policies on drugs. Portugal and the Czech Republic have already been cited, and a number of American states have changed their policies on cannabis.

This is what I find modestly depressing. A bright young new Member of Parliament is elected in 2001, and is appointed to the Home Affairs Committee. He is then party to a report which invites another really good report from the Home Affairs Committee, whose members, as Members of Parliament, sit down and consider the issues properly. He is then party to a recommendation in 2002. He is holding to that position even in 2005, when he is competing for the Conservative party leadership. And here we are now. I found myself becoming one of his Ministers in 2010.

I shall now do what I should not do, and reveal a collective internal political discussion between Ministers who had some responsibility for justice and those from the Home Office. Of course, we did not dare to raise this issue. I pushed as hard as I could for us at least to get to where we are today, and I congratulate the Minister and his predecessor on having pushed so hard to secure the report that has just been published. It is a big step forward for us to persuade the Government even to specify the international comparators. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) was right to point out that the conclusions appear to be missing from the report. Joking apart, however, we all need to understand the political difficulty of carrying this debate with us. We have been frightened of the tabloid press, and we have seen what they did to the Liberal Democrat party as a result of some of its policies in this area.

The Home Affairs Select Committee’s recommendation in 2012 for a royal commission was absolutely right. That will get the matter out of the political space, so that the work on international comparators that has been put into the report can be considered. The royal commission will then be able to put forward the kind of difficult and far-reaching conclusions that I believe would be appropriate to take us in the direction of regulation and away from the utterly disastrous policy of prohibition.

My hon. Friend talks about political courage. In the debate earlier this week on the Recall of MPs Bill, he made a brave speech on restoring the reputation of Parliament. One way of doing that would be for us to take the lead on this matter and tell the truth about the fact that the existing drugs policy has not worked. Should we not simply take on the tabloids—and damn the consequences—by putting in place a policy that works and that is best for the people of this country?

I wholly agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), he has seen at first hand the horrifying consequences of the failure of our policy in the prison system. I visited 70-odd prisons during my time as prisons Minister, and the most depressing part of those visits was seeing the methadone queue. The prisoners queuing up to be prescribed their methadone were sallow, emaciated and plainly ill, and they had almost no prospect of getting better, given the treatment that they were getting.

We worked hard to start to join up the different parts of the criminal justice system in relation to addiction. We wanted to divert addicts from the criminal justice system and into the health system right at the beginning of the process, so that they could get proper treatment. One of the aims of the probation service reforms is to incentivise the service in regard to the successful rehabilitation of offenders. About 46% of acquisitive crime is drug related, as a result of people trying to feed their habit. If we are to rehabilitate such people successfully, we need to address their addiction. We ran eight pilots in the health service to try to identify the best ways of incentivising the health system to address addiction. All those measures are just baby steps, however, given the way in which the drugs industry has been criminalised. According to a Library note, Home Office figures show that the cost of the problem to the criminal justice system is about £13.9 billion.

Legalisation would create a risk of adverse health consequences. We might see an explosion in drug use, just as we have in the use of another drug, called alcohol, which is omnipresent in our society. Linked to that could be the kind of consequences that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood described, relating to tranquillisers. There could be a significant increase in health problems if we legalised and regulated the supply of drugs that are currently illegal. However, the lessons from Portugal suggest that that would not happen.

Getting the supply of drugs out of the hands of criminals would create the benefits that other hon. Members have mentioned. We would know what was in the drugs, that they were clean and that they had been obtained on the basis of sensible advice about their use. We would then have a society in which people took responsibility for their actions. If someone drove under the influence of drugs, for example, they would have to take the consequences, just as they would today if they drove under the influence of alcohol.

Given the scale of this issue, it is a pity that this debate has had to take place on a Back-Bench motion. The tide of opinion expressed by those who have taken part has so far gone entirely in one direction. I know from my experience as a Minister that, when we first looked at this matter, the Government spent about £900 million on trying to address addiction. The general assessment from Ministers at the time was that that was achieving absolutely nothing. It was felt that the rate at which people were getting better would probably have been exactly the same if that money had not been spent. We were making serious efforts, and the Government are to be commended for their efforts, particularly in the criminal justice system, to join up the management of addicted offenders, but this could all happen much faster and be much more effective if we grasped the root of the problem—namely, the consequences of prohibition.

In the end, drugs are drugs. Alcohol is a drug. We have heard about the example of prohibition in the United States, and of its war on drugs. Both those policies have been utter calamities, and they should present a lesson to the world. I sincerely hope that we in this House will be able to force Her Majesty’s Government to have the courage to address this serious issue in a way that could be of immense benefit to many of our citizens.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should like to suggest that speeches should last for no more than eight minutes. We are struggling with time, and quite a few people wish to speak in the next debate. There is more than one debate today, and we must think of the others who want to speak.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on moving the motion today. As the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said, everyone who has spoken so far has supported her views in one way or another. Like the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I have been dealing with this issue for a long time. When I spoke in a debate in the House nearly 30 years ago, I told the story of how my closest friend had gone to prison for possession of pot—cannabis—in the late ’60s. He was in prison for six months and he came out a heroin addict. Within six months of his coming out of prison, I went to his flat to call for him one day, only to find him dead on the floor. He had died of a heroin overdose. From that day on, I have done everything I can to fight the scourge of drugs and to bring to people’s attention not only how evil and destructive drugs are but how senseless the policies to combat them are.

The report on so-called legal highs is an interesting document, and the Government’s response to it is equally interesting, but they do not mention how we are going to solve the problem. It is proposed that we talk and think more about it, but we need to look at the overall picture of how we are going to help people by dealing with drugs in prisons and in the community generally.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) spoke eloquently about the late Jim Dobbin. Jim dealt with this issue not only in this country but abroad. I sat on committees with him in the Council of Europe, where he persistently got the issue on to the agenda, against the odds, and got it discussed. We owe Jim a great debt of gratitude for his courage in tackling this issue and for having the strength of character to keep fighting for it. We are doing him justice by keeping the debate going. I was delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Jim; we are sad that he is not here today.

What we do know about drugs is that we have spent billions of pounds and we have a policy that, by common agreement, has failed; it has taken us not a step forward. That is why I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention on having the courage to persevere and the commitment to see this report through on the comparisons that need to be examined seriously. The hon. Member for Reigate said that it contained few conclusions. There are no conclusions in it, but there are ideas of where we could go. The Members who have talked about a royal commission are going in the right direction; the sooner that can be done, the better.

We have to examine the situation in Portugal, which has been mentioned a lot. The report says clearly that not only has cannabis use there been reduced, but heroin use and cocaine use have been reduced dramatically. The way in which the initial possession has been treated as a health-related matter and not a criminal one is a major step in the right direction. If we can do no more in the life of this Parliament, before it ends next year, than get the royal commission set up and get the idea that we treat the possession of very small amounts of drugs, in some cases, as a health-related matter rather than a criminal one—

I want to support the excellent speeches I have been hearing. As a commanding officer in the Army, I had far too often to rid myself and the Army of outstanding young men and young woman because they had just touched a drug. Things have got better, but think what will happen once we deal with this as a medical and not a criminal situation. Of course if someone is high on drugs and leading a patrol, they have to be brought before the commanding officer. But if we are talking about just possession and just usage, our current approach is just too wrong.

The hon. Gentleman is for ever bringing us his experience and the House should welcome that. Once again, he has touched on a very important point: careers are being thrown away because of the attitude of the Army, in his case, and of other organisations, which have taken draconian measures against people for the very minor crime of carrying or smoking cannabis. We have to look seriously at this issue. We owe it to the people outside this place because, as other Members have said, they are now ahead of Parliament on this matter. We should not be playing catch-up; we should want to find a way of leading on the issue. The report on comparisons is a step in the right direction, but I hope that the strength of the support in the Chamber today will carry forth that message to our colleagues, including the Prime Minister, who should be continuously reminded of his stance in 2002. He should be reminded of it daily, because when he talks about this issue he seems to forget what he might have said before.

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that today’s Guido Fawkes quote of the day is the one on drug laws that we have heard cited by a number of hon. Members.

I am delighted to hear that Guido Fawkes is talking about something other than me. We have an opportunity now and we squander it at our peril. We should look forward to this Minister getting the backing of his boss, the Home Secretary, and of the Prime Minister to make sure that we have the opportunity to do something positive, for once, on the issue of drugs. Let us not just continue to know that we have failed.

Finding myself simultaneously in agreement with the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is a first since I entered this place in 2010. When I came down to the Chamber this morning and I was thinking about the speech I was going to make and the notes I had made, I thought I was going to be committing political suicide. However, it is apparent from the contributions made by Members from across the House today that there is unanimity of view within the House: the current position, enshrined in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, can no longer prevail. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Newport West, who, as he rightly reminded the House, has been speaking, with one voice, on this issue for the past four decades. I have to tell him that the end is in sight and he is going to win in due course.

I wish to start my observations by setting out three startlingly simple propositions, with which this Minister would agree. The first is that the so-called “war on drugs” has been lost. My right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—

Just honourable—that is a great shame.

My hon. Friend made reference to all the political leaders from across the world who have, in effect, made that point since they have left public office. He is no longer on the Front Bench and feels able, as I do, from the Back Benches to make the point that the war on drugs has been lost. That is a strong indication that we are getting policies completely wrong.

The second proposition is that existing drugs policy, focusing principally on criminalisation, is detrimental to health outcomes for individuals and damages society as a whole. The third proposition can now be made with confidence, given the report published by the Government this morning—I will come back to the issue of whether or not it contains any conclusions—but the report on comparative experience in other jurisdictions makes it clear, especially in relation to Portugal although the evidence from a number of other jurisdictions is the same, that decriminalisation not only leads to better outcomes for individuals but lessens the bill for the criminal justice system and provides greater benefits for society as a whole. One of those benefits, which I mentioned when I intervened on the hon. Member for Cambridge, is that it leads to respect for the criminal law.

One problem we have at the moment is that a large number of young people who are using psychoactive substances do not regard that as a crime. For them to be criminalised by the laws of this country leads to a general disrespect on their part for the criminal law and for this place. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made an important point in her earlier intervention: we are, or we are perceived by many of our constituents, to be behind the curve on this issue. We are perceived not to be in touch and not to be living in 2014. That is because successive Governments, of all colours, have been held back from doing the right thing, and I want to congratulate this Minister on having, for the first time, what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate describes as an “intelligent debate”. This is the first time I have heard the House discuss this issue in an intelligent debate.

I intend to return to my three propositions, but it may be of assistance if I say that I come at this matter not only as an MP but as someone with experience of the criminal justice system, not really from practice but from having been a Crown court recorder. Any criminal justice professional in this country we speak to, be they a judge, a police officer or someone working in the probation service, will tell us the same thing: not only is our current approach to the use of illegal drugs in this country not the right one, but it is not based on evidence. Furthermore, it is detrimental to individuals and to society as a whole.

Nobody has been speaking for young people on this issue. They regard us in this House as dinosaurs when we consider the use of recreational drugs. They consider us to be living in a different age, one in which they are no longer living. They have no respect either for the criminal law or for this House, as a result. We have to move on. We have to recognise that times have changed. We must recognise the broad array of recreational psychoactive substances that are now available to young people and have an intelligent policy that does not just say, “You are a criminal if you use those substances.” Instead, we should say, “There are very significant risks to your health and very significant costs potentially to society. Although it is a matter for you whether you use those drugs, there will be consequences, but they will be consequences that we will principally deal with through the health system rather than through the criminal justice system.”

Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, you are certainly not a criminal, but others may well be criminals if they take drugs or alcohol and put members of the public in danger as a consequence. They are criminals, but just taking a drug or drinking something does not make them criminals.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. If we look at the difference between recreational drug usage and smoking, we will see that the harm is so much greater with smoking. For every 1,000 smokers who are admitted to hospital, 123 of them are suffering from health problems directly caused by smoking. If we look at 1,000 drug users who are admitted to hospital, only two of them are there because of the use of illegal drugs. We have at least one drug in this country—we could add alcohol to the list —that is far more dangerous than anything that anybody uses by way of recreational drugs or other illegal drugs. We must focus our attention on dealing with that as a health problem rather than as a criminal problem.

Let me come back to one of my opening propositions, which is that the war on drugs has been lost. A survey of the public earlier this year proves that that is not just my view. It is the view not just of the world leaders who used to hold office to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate referred, but of 84% of people in this country. It is true that only 39%—up from 27% in 2008—of those in the same survey believed in the widespread decriminalisation of illegal substances. The likely reason for that is the hangover from the debate that we have not been having in this country for the past four decades. We have not had a national debate on this issue, which is why people have not turned their minds to the question of whether some form of liberalisation, some different approach, taking into account the detrimental health effects, is the right way forward.

As the hon. Member for Newport West said, what is the point of this war on drugs? If it is to prevent people from taking substances that may harm them, plainly it is not working. According to the most recent crime survey for England and Wales, 2.7% of adults had taken class A drugs in 1996 compared with 2.6% now—statistically not significant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who is no longer in her place, referred to the fact that there has been a seeming reduction in cannabis usage among young people. There are many reasons for that, one of which might be the tougher line that has been taken on cannabis by the Government, which has driven people into using so-called legal highs, on which the Minister has today published his report.

If we talked to criminal justice professionals—judges, the police and probation officers—we would learn that they do not support the war on drugs. It is a war that has been lost. If we acknowledged that fact and looked at the experience of Portugal and the other jurisdictions that have liberalised their drug regimes and taken away criminal penalties for small amounts of possession, we would free up enormous resources for the police. More importantly, we would free up enormous financial resources for the treatment of those who are addicted to these substances. Therefore, I venture to suggest that I am correct in my first proposition—I think the Minister will agree with me—that the war on drugs has been lost and that we must look very carefully at a new policy.

My second proposition was that the health outcomes of existing policy are at best poor. In fact, what also happens is that society is harmed by existing policy. We know that funding a drug habit is not a cheap business. It increases crime, particularly acquisitive crime. Drug dependency is therefore one of the drivers of crime in this country. Home Office figures for 2003-04 show that the annual cost of drug-related offending is £13.9 billion, £9.9 billion of which goes to the victims of crime. The other £4 billion of public money is being poured into the criminal justice system every year to deal with the issue. If that £4 billion were taken away from the criminal justice system and put into the health system to try to encourage better outcomes, we would not only get something better for those who use illegal substances and for society, but achieve a reduction in the total amount that has to be spent.

If existing policy is not deterring drug use and drug dependency, it is leading to crime, and that cannot be in anybody’s interests. A great deal of money is evidently being wasted, and it is money that, in these times of austerity, should not be wasted.

Let us turn now to the health of those who take illegal substances. By criminalising them, are we dealing adequately with them? Many young people who take drugs have no idea not only what they are taking, but what the effects might be. Those who are standing in a nightclub at 1o’clock in the morning having consumed, no doubt, a large amount of vodka are much more interested in getting the pill than they are in what is in the pill. What is in the pill is not always what people have been told. They might be told that it is MDMA when it is some other entactogen that has not been tested on humans. It may be rat poison, or it may even be harmless. Even if someone does know that the pill they are about to pop is ecstasy, there is no guarantee that they are aware of its potential effects. Although there are admirable websites such as Talk to Frank, not many young people necessarily go on them. Not everyone knows about the risks of these drugs or how to mitigate those risks. We know that from some of the tragic cases that we have seen in the past of users taking excessive amounts of drugs in clubs and elsewhere.

Let us consider those who inject their drugs, and look at the comparative treatment in other places, and the experience of the criminal justice system in Georgia. Georgia reduced its prison population from 24,000 to 10,000 by taking out of prison those who had been put there for possession of small amounts of drugs. The first result of that was a massive saving to the taxpayers who fund the Republic of Georgia. Much more importantly, there was an incredible improvement in the health of the prison population. Deaths in prison fell, and there was a significant reduction in the hepatitis C and HIV infection rates among the prison population. I am not sure whether that experience is included in the Minister’s report, but it is another strong indication that we are not doing this right and that if we focused on this as a health issue rather than as a criminal justice issue, we would serve our constituents and our society a great deal better.

Untrammelled use of drugs, especially recreational drugs, fuels disinhibition in those who take them, and that in itself leads to criminal behaviour. We know that that is a significant part of organised crime. The Association of Chief Police Officers has estimated that 50% of all organised crime in the UK involves illegal drugs, mostly class A drugs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has said that drugs are the most profitable sector of organised international crime, with a total turnover of $2 trillion in 2009.

My third proposition is that other countries are doing this much better, and that is why the Minister’s views and the report that he and his predecessors, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, have pushed for so hard, are so important. In the limited time available, I will deal only—

Order. I am glad that the hon. and learned Member referred to the limited time. Mr Deputy Speaker asked Members to confine their remarks to about eight minutes, so that everyone who wished to speak would be able to do so. The hon. and learned Gentleman has now been speaking for fifteen and a half minutes. I would be grateful if he came to a conclusion.

I am extremely grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be quick.

The experience in Portugal is absolutely clear: liberalisation of the regime for small amounts of possession is the way forward. I know that the Minister believes that, and while other hon. Members have pointed to the fact that there are no conclusions in the report, I venture to suggest that that is because they have looked only at the section on Portugal. If they go to page 51 of the report, they will see a section entitled “Observations”. I dread to think of the negotiation that went on in the Home Office to replace the word “Conclusions” with “Observations”. There are four bullet points there. All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate and anyone who is interested in the issue need to look at the experience of Portugal and those four bullet points, because they are essentially the conclusions of the Portuguese experience. The most important is the second one, which states:

“There is evidence from Portugal of improved health prospects for users, though these cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone.”

Whether or not they cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone, what is clear, from all the contributions in the debate, is that the existing regime, contained in the 1971 Act, is not working, and that we need a different approach. That approach, which the Minister is championing today and which is the subject matter of the debate, is a great thing, which I urge the House to think about deeply. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on bringing forward the debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for making it possible. I was a Member of the House before that Committee came into existence and I cannot stress enough to Members who arrived in 2010 how much it has done in making this sort of debate possible—debates that perhaps neither Front-Bench team wanted to happen, but on issues that the public want debated.

I agree about the importance of having a thoroughgoing review on UK drugs policy. First, we must put this in its international context. Most of the leaders of some of the countries that have been at the heart of the international war on drugs would say now that it is not working. More people are taking drugs than before. The harms caused by drugs in some countries—in South America, the Caribbean, Afghanistan—have got worse, so there is an international context, in which people are recognising that an essentially punitive and criminalising approach to drugs is not working. As I said in an intervention, individual American states are moving towards decriminalisation, notably Colorado. Given that the decriminalisation in Colorado has boosted its tourism trade, I put it to the House that it will not be the only US state that goes down that road.

On the question of decriminalisation, I am by nature a libertarian, but I have always taken seriously the arguments of good friends and people with whom I work in Hackney. Their argument has always been that the skunk that young people smoke nowadays is a much more serious matter than the marijuana that some of us may have come across when we were young, and that it is one thing for a fully grown adult, such as a student, to smoke a spliff at a party at a weekend, but when pre-pubescent children smoke skunk, hour after hour when they are out of school, it must, of necessity, have an effect on their growth, educational development and so forth. There was also some concerning research about the links between marijuana and schizophrenia. Therefore, although I have had libertarian instincts since I was a student, as in inner-city MP I take seriously some of the arguments about the possible harm, even of smoking marijuana, and the signal that is sent by decriminalising it.

The fact remains, however, that if we are about anything in the House, we should be about evidence-based policy. This latest report, which the Government have belatedly released, shows that there does not appear to be evidence internationally that a more punitive, criminalised response brings down levels of consumption. On this issue, Members of Parliament have been unduly timid in the past. I can remember my own Home Secretary, a wonderful man, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who sacked his adviser because they told him something that he did not want to hear: that alcohol was a much more harmful drug than cannabis, not only physically but in terms of the social disorder, domestic violence and so on that it promotes. I am sorry to say that my right hon. Friend’s response was not to say, “Gosh, isn’t that interesting. I must look into these facts,” but to sack the man concerned. Members of Parliament have been timid and have not taken an evidence-based approach. It may well be that Members are behind the opinion of our constituents—

The hon. Lady should distinguish between Members of Parliament and Ministers, who have responsibility for the positions of their party. I think she will find that when Members of Parliament have looked at this properly, as the Home Affairs Committee has done repeatedly, they have been properly courageous.

I stand corrected on that. Certainly Ministers in the two major parties have been increasingly behind the opinion of their constituents, who, after all, could be eminently respectable figures but might just possibly in their youth have been in a room with someone who was smoking cannabis. They will know that young people growing up in London today cannot lead a life where they never come across, never see or never hear of people smoking cannabis. Our constituents may be more realistic about these issues than some Ministers have been able to be in the past and even now.

This has been a difficult issue for MPs and Ministers, but speaking as someone who represents a constituency that sees the very worst of drug harms, and on the basis of the evidence, past reports and today’s Home Office report, there is an unanswerable case for a review of UK drugs policy.

Most of the things that I wanted to say have been said, so I will be brief. I just want to put on record my admiration for the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for having secured this debate, and for having raised the profile of the issue considerably in recent weeks and months. I also want to pay tribute to the Minister. It is true that the report out today has no clear, firm conclusions, but I have no doubt that it is pushing the discussion in a very healthy direction.

At the risk of being repetitive, I want to quote one aspect of the report, which is essential. It states:

“We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country.”

It goes on to cite recent evidence in the Czech Republic where tough laws coincide with relatively high use of cannabis, but then, dealing with Portugal, it states:

“Although levels of drug use rose between 2001 and 2007, use of most drugs has since fallen to below-2001 levels. It is clear that there has not been a lasting and significant increase in drug use in Portugal since 2001.”

If that is the case, and it certainly syncs with many other reports on the same issues and the same case studies, there is a serious question to answer. If the law is not acting as a disincentive to drugs use, and therefore, logically, drugs use will continue at more or less the same levels, with other factors knocking it up and down in various places, the question is whether we want that trade to belong to the criminals or to be under the umbrella and regulatory regime of some sort of government. For me, the answer is obvious.

There is also a practical issue. This is not an ideological or philosophical issue. According to the figures I have seen, in 2012 14% of people in jail were there for drug-related offences, and last year there were 87,871 convictions on the back of drug offences in this country. Obviously, not all of them ended up in jail, so the question is whether the present policy offers value for money. It comes with a multibillion pound price tag, and the cost goes well beyond the money. We have to ask ourselves who wins from this policy. My hunch, and the hunch of many Members who have spoken today, is that the laws in place have little effect other than to create a black market and therefore opportunities for the very worst people in society. We have laws in place that enrich the bad people while doing very little, if anything, to protect those whom we all have a common interest in protecting.

The present policy does not seem to me to offer great value for money. I know that there is a growing consensus outside this place on this matter, and this debate shows that there is a great consensus in this place, too, which I was not expecting to hear. The motion seems to be unarguable. We need an evidence-based policy system, and the first step is the review for which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is calling. I very much support it, and I am thrilled that everyone else in the Chamber today has supported it.

Like every other Member here today, I welcome the opportunity to debate this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. It has been a high-quality and wide-ranging debate. We have heard from two Select Committee Chairs. We have talked about prescription drugs, prisons and the international issues that we need to address.

I welcome the international comparators report which was published today. It received a lot of media hype overnight. I found it quite difficult to get a copy of the report until the Home Office provided a link to the Table Office at about 11 am, so I have not had a chance to digest the contents of the report fully. It has been a long time coming and it is a shame that we could not have had it a few days earlier so that we could have reflected on it in full.

I was rather bemused this morning to hear the Minister on Radio 4. I was not quite sure whether he was speaking as the Minister or as a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, as the Home Office later put out a contradictory statement. Perhaps he can clarify whether he is speaking on behalf of the Government today. I know that he has had difficulty in the past in speaking on behalf of the Government, and that he had to absent himself from the khat debate because he did not agree with the Government’s policy on khat.

The report on legal highs has also been published today alongside the international comparators report. Again, we welcome this, but it has been a long time coming. We on the Labour Benches called for the issue to be tackled much earlier; the growing market in legal highs has been allowed to flourish over the past few years. We are pleased to see the report. I pay tribute to Maryon Stewart and the Angelus Foundation, who have pushed the issue of legal highs and the need for legislation to deal with the problems that have developed.

Three key issues on legal highs emerge from the report, on which I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me. First, I hope there will be a comprehensive prevention and awareness campaign on legal highs. Secondly, we need a clear legislative framework to try to disrupt the supply of new psychoactive substances and stop headshops proliferating on our high streets. Thirdly—perhaps this should have been the starting point—we need a proper framework for assessing the scale and the danger of legal highs. We need to know when legal highs enter the UK and what dangers they pose. I hope the Minister may be able to assist with that today.

Of course, we all want to look at the evidence. In the Home Affairs Committee report, one of the first bullet points in the key facts section states:

“England and Wales has almost the lowest recorded level of drug use in the adult population since measurement began in 1996. Individuals reporting use of any drug in the last year fell significantly from 11.1% in 1996 to 8.9% in 2011-12. There was also a substantial fall in the use of cannabis from 9.5% in 1996 to 6.9% in 2011-12.”

Let us consider all the evidence and see what is happening.

I want to focus on treatment and all the comments that have been made today about the situation in Portugal, which is a key part of the international comparators report. Little has been made of the fact that the trends in Britain are very similar to what has happened in Portugal. It is important to remember that the changes in drug laws in Portugal were accompanied by significant investment in drug treatment, as we have had in the United Kingdom. When we examine drug harms and what has had an impact, it is not clear that a change in legislation is the driving force.

I want to make sure that there is no risk of complacency creeping into the hon. Lady’s remarks. It is important to know that there were 2,000 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2013 and a 32% increase in heroin and morphine-related deaths. The number of deaths involving both legal and illegal drugs last year was at its highest level since 2001. There are different ways in which we can look at the figures, but the bottom line is that we need a review of the evidence. Will she support that?

I do not want to be considered complacent, but we need to get all the evidence on the table so that we can assess it. There is some merit in looking at what has happened regarding treatment in this country over the past 10 to 12 years. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that this country is well ahead of comparators. In 2010 60% of opioid users were in treatment. That compares with 12% in the Netherlands and 25% in Sweden, so I am not sure that I agree with the motion that the status quo is failing. Drug-related deaths among the under-30s have halved in a decade, and it has been calculated that getting people into drug treatment has prevented 4.9 million crimes being committed, saving the economy £960 million. This is evidence that we should all consider.

My hon. Friend has always been very thoughtful and careful in the way in which she has dealt with this issue. I agree that we need to get all the evidence out and examine it. Will members of the Opposition Front-Bench team commit to establishing a royal commission to look at the issue in detail so that we can base our policy on the evidence?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee. What worries me about the idea that a royal commission will solve the problem for us is that there are issues that we need to tackle now—for example, legal highs. I am pleased, as I said at the outset, that we now have a plan from the Government for legislation in relation to legal highs. I am not discounting a royal commission, but we need to keep abreast of the issues that are developing now. We need to put in place ways of tackling legal highs and other issues.

It is important to remember that access to treatment is a key issue. In 2001 it took nine weeks to access treatment; in 2011 it took five days. We should be mindful that that was because of the investment in health services. Once people are in treatment, it is important to make sure that they complete it. In 2005-06, 35,000 people dropped out and only 11,000 completed treatment, whereas in 2011-12, 17,000 dropped out but 29,000 completed treatment. We should be aware of such evidence when we debate the drugs situation.

I acknowledge that, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Lady is in a difficult position. She is calling for evidence. Whatever her comments on the early part of the motion, it concludes by calling

“on the Government to conduct an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to publish the results of those studies within the next 12 months.”

It would be of immense help if the Opposition proposed such a motion on an Opposition day so that it could be voted on in the House. It would then carry greater authority and they would achieve exactly what she wants—to get the evidence out there.

I recognise that it is important for the House to have these debates, and it is good that the Backbench Business Committee granted this one, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is right and that the Government perhaps need to ensure that such issues are debated in Government time, with clear options for what they feel should be taken forward.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for whom I have the utmost respect, but when she says that the status quo is not failing, I do not understand what world she is living in. It is failing young people in London. I think that her faith in the statistics on access to treatment is misplaced, because young people in the east end of London have great difficulty accessing treatment. The status quo is failing. Young people of all classes—not just the underclass—are continuing to suffer from drug harm because Members of this House are too frightened to look at the recent evidence.

I am not frightened to look at the evidence, but we need to look at what is happening today in the round; we must not cherry-pick. I have the same concerns as my hon. Friend about treatment now, because of the Government’s misguided reforms of the NHS. There is fragmentation in the treatment services across the country, which is something that many people are genuinely concerned about. [Interruption.]

I am going to carry on, because it is important that these issues are brought to the House’s attention. They might not be what everybody wants to hear, but I think they need to be recognised.

One of the key issues raised in tackling drugs policy in this country is the link between criminal justice and health. That resulted in the establishment of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, which brought together the Home Office and the Department of Health, recognising the social harms that come from drug abuse and from people breaking the law by engaging in acquisitive crime as a result. There was a recognition that in order to tackle that we needed to get them into treatment. Huge investment was made, but it was a combined effort from both Departments. It is important to remember that that has been successful, because crime has been dropping. One of the reasons for that was the commitment to getting people into treatment so that they were not committing offences.

I want to mention France, because there drugs are seen as a health issue, not a criminal justice one. We know that France tends to invest less in treatment as a percentage of GDP—about one fifth of the investment that this country makes. Saying that it is just a health issue and thinking that that will solve the problem is not reflected in the facts.

I am going to carry on, because I am conscious that time is short and the Minister has still to speak. [Interruption.] Well, I think it is important not just to have a one-sided debate in which we all say that the war on drugs has failed. The UKDPC has said that this country is a world leader in treatment, and I think we should recognise that as something very positive.

I am concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), about what is happening to the spend on treatment. Health and wellbeing boards do not need to have criminal justice representation. I think that is a problem, because it means separating health and criminal justice. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that concern.

Local authority budgets are under enormous pressure. Their public health budgets—the majority of the funding comes from the pooled drug and alcohol treatment moneys made available—are being raided. John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, has referred to this asset stripping of public health by local authorities. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point.

I am also concerned about the role of police and crime commissioners, because they had responsibility for £120 million that went into treatment through drug and alcohol partnerships. They now have no incentive to spend the money in that way, and I am concerned that because of their lack of representation on health and wellbeing boards, a real problem is developing.

I want to make a few final points. On recovery, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—I know and respect him as a former Prisons Minister—talked about the complex needs of drug addicts, particularly those in prison. I think we need to have a much wider debate on what recovery means and how we support people recovering from drug addiction. That means how we support them into housing, how we shore up family relationships, which are very important, and how we secure employment opportunities. Those are all key issues that have to be part of a bigger debate on drugs.

I think that it is absolutely right that the police’s focus must be on disrupting the supply of drugs, disrupting organised crime and ensuring that addicts get treatment. It is very disappointing today to see that there has been a 60% drop in the amount of heroin seized by police over the past year, because that is another important part of tackling this problem.

On prosecuting for possession, the previous Labour Government introduced the penalty notices that were used for the possession of cannabis, and the Government have adopted them for khat, so it is not the case that someone in possession of drugs will get a custodial sentence. However, I think that the Liberal Democrats have now said that there should be no prison sentences at all for possession, so I want to check with the Minister whether that is the new Government policy. As I understand it, that is for repeat offenders, not one-off offenders.

I think that we have a lot of work to do on how we deal with criminal records. The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) mentioned the fact that someone with a drugs conviction can be prevented from entering the Unites States. We need to look at what simple possession means for criminal records, especially for young people who might be found with a pill or an assortment of pills on one occasion. That will result in a caution, which will then result in later problems for employment and travel. That is another issue that we need to include in a wider debate.

I feel that it is important that we do not just have a one-sided debate. We need to look at what has worked in this country and around the world and base the debate on evidence. Some of the evidence that I have tried to present has in effect been queried and shouted down, and that is absolutely fine, but we need to have the debate. We cannot just say that it has all failed without recognising some of this country’s huge successes in drug treatment.

I had felt that I was in a somewhat surreal debate, hearing all Members on both sides of the House agree about the need for reform and a different approach, all making coherent arguments about why the present arrangements need to change. But I woke from my dream when I heard from the shadow Minister, who appears to be the only Member of the House who wishes to defend the status quo absolutely.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said that he has waited 43 years for this report. I think that it is a very good report and that people can take from it what they want; they can look at the evidence and draw their conclusions from it. I think that the Home Office deserves credit for having the courage to issue it, and I hope that it will be the start of a debate.

My view, which is drawn not only from the report but from the public opinion polls that have been referred to, is that the genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in. I think that the days of robotic, mindless rhetoric are over, because the facts and the evidence will no longer allow that. We now have to base what we do as a country on the facts and the evidence that we can accrue, and the issuing of this report is part of the attempt to do that.

I welcome the efforts of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and many other Members—many of them are here today—who over the years have made brave comments that have not always been welcomed by the Government of the day. I sense that there is a public mood now for a proper debate on these matters, and what could be wrong about a proper debate on a matter of such importance? It is much better than trying to shut down debate and pretend that everything is all right.

The coalition Government has made lots of progress over the past few years, which I am very pleased with, and there was progress in some regards under the previous Labour Government. However, it would be arrogant to say that we have everything right and that we can learn nothing from other countries. Of course we can learn from other countries, and it is right that we should seek to do so. The report seeks to highlight some of those lessons that can be learned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) referred to the Portuguese experience. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) drew attention to the fact—he quoted the report in full—that we have learned from Portugal for more than a decade that there is no correlation, at least in that country, between the level of penalty available and the extent of drug use. That is an important finding that we ought to bear in mind as we go forward.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who is not in his seat, made an interesting case for legalising cannabis. That is not Government policy, I have to tell him, but his case was coherent and others may or may not want to take it forward. The report’s stated position—its “observations” as the civil servants put it—is that we ought to keep a watching eye. Of course we should keep a watching eye on what is happening in the world. Does anyone argue that we should not?

These are experiments and it is far too early to say what the outcomes will be. They may be negative or positive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said. We do not yet know the consequences, but we should certainly watch with interest to see what they will be for public health and crime—and public finances, indeed, if we are to see a regulated market such as that in Colorado or Uruguay.

We have not touched much on the subject of crime. If we legalised drugs, the business would be less lucrative to the criminal world and that would stop some of the criminal gangs killing one another. We would have the bonus of fewer young people being killed on the streets of London.

I shall take that as a comment in support of our right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. As I said, it is not Government policy to legalise drugs—nor, I think, is it the policy of any party in the House. However, my hon. Friend has made his point. Those sorts of discussions ought to be taking place and people ought to be able to argue the whys and wherefores in each case.

I turn to the question of new psychoactive substances, sometimes unhelpfully called “legal highs”. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion wanted more detail about what we were doing and was not entirely sure whether our policy was correct. I should say to her that in some ways it mirrors the approach taken in the international comparative study: it recommends that we get very tough on the suppliers of these dangerous substances, which cause immense harm to our constituents and, unfortunately, the deaths of young people. We are trying to rid our high streets of headshops, which are not an asset, but we do not seek to criminalise the users of the substances. That approach seems entirely appropriate—hammering down on those causing misery and helping those who use the substances.

Does the Minister share my concern that a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances may result, first, in driving young people to take illegal drugs and, secondly, to continue to take so-called legal highs but without anyone being able to analyse what they are taking? Those products would no longer be marketed lawfully on the high street, petrol stations or anywhere else. Has the Department looked at that issue?

On the latter point, I do not believe that what is sold now is accurately described anyway on the packet; the information is not available to young people now, although the substances are legal at present.

There is no simple answer that will solve all problems. Every potential solution has drawbacks as well as advantages. That is why I set up a review panel with the best brains in the country to look at the matters in great detail. They came to the unanimous conclusion about what should happen, and that is what we intend to take forward.

In fact, to pick up a point made by the Opposition spokesperson, we are already taking forward some of the panel’s recommendations. For example, Public Health England is launching a toolkit to support local treatment and prevention work in November 2014. It is piloting a new adverse event reporting system, akin to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency yellow card system for medicines, and this month it is launching its “Rise Above” campaign to build young people’s resilience to risky behaviours.

Action is already being taken as a result of the review. That will give comfort to many Members on both sides, including my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who has always campaigned heavily on this issue on behalf of his constituents and others. The measures are right and should be welcomed across the country.

There is a distinction between how we are treating those who are peddling the substances and those who are using them, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) accurately said. I agree with the Opposition spokesperson that we should congratulate and thank Maryon Stewart and her organisation for the superb work they have done over the years to push the agenda and highlight the importance of prevention and education.

Key to the new psychoactive substances report is the fact that there will be prevention and awareness campaigning and a proper legal framework. No doubt we will take that forward as and when we have a full response from the public to what we have produced so far. We intend to take action; I give the hon. Lady an absolute assurance that we are not just publishing a paper.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes and for Cambridge, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and the Opposition spokesman all referred to the need to ensure that we take account of health, and that is absolutely right. In my view, the issue is predominantly one of users’ health; it is a criminal issue for those who peddle the substances, but a health issue for those who end up taking them. We should frame our actions accordingly. The Government has done a great deal to help—through its recent heroin-assisted treatment programmes, for example.

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee rightly referred to prescription medicines, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). I commissioned the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look into the whole issue and the evidence gathering is under way. We recognise that the issue is serious. Others taking action include the Department of Health and Public Health England. The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have published a consensus statement of good practice to prevent and treat addiction to medicines. We are taking action on that front as well.

The Opposition spokesman asked whether I was speaking on behalf of the Government. The fact that I am at this Dispatch Box perhaps gives a clue to the answer, as well as the fact that the document issued this morning bore the Home Office logo.

The issue of prescription drugs in prisons was also raised. The Justice Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is aware of the issue and considering it seriously, as, I am sure, is the prisons Minister. There is a serious issue in prisons; there is no point in denying that, and the Ministers are seeing what they can do to reduce dependence on prescription drugs in particular in prison.

I tell the House today that the Home Office is taking steps to make available Naloxone, which can prevent heroin overdoses. It is already available on prescription, but we are amending regulations to make it more widely available from next year. That will help people who come out of prison from over-using heroin and suddenly dying. That is a good public health measure, and it is going forward.

I hope I have covered most of the large number of points that have been raised. I genuinely think that this has been a really good debate; I know that Ministers generally say that, but it has been. It has been thoughtful, and Members have spoken from the heart and the head. I am grateful. The debate has now been opened; we can no longer rely on the stonewalling about drugs policy in this country that we have so often heard. There is a genuine debate to be had about the proper way forward and it has started today. The genie is out of the bottle, and it is not going back in.

I simply want to thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this incredibly powerful debate. My only regret is that colleagues who perhaps not yet been persuaded of the arguments were not here to hear them; those arguments were made in such a compelling way that we could probably have brought many of those colleagues with us.

Several Members spoke about a feeling of optimism and a sense that the tide is turning. Notwithstanding the slightly less optimistic speech from Labour’s Front Bench spokesperson, I think that is absolutely right. I feel excited about the announcement today that Naloxone will be more widely available. That is incredibly positive and I thank the Minister for that, as well as for his response to the debate as a whole.

We recognise that public opinion on the issue is changing: a poll today showed that 71% of the public think that the war on drugs has failed. Our responsibility now is to make sure that politicians catch up with the public and recognise that we do not need to be afraid of the debate. If we look the evidence in the face, there is an awful lot that we can work with. We can put in place a much more effective drugs policy regime.

I started this debate by referring to Martha, whose 17th birthday it would have been today. Our laws let her down. By failing to review our drugs laws, we would be letting down future Marthas as well. I want to end by paying tribute to her extraordinarily brave, eloquent and tireless mother, Anne-Marie, and to all the other campaigners who are urging all of us here to review and reform our drugs laws. I hope very much that we will show we have listened to them by passing this motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that drug-related harms and the costs to society remain high; further notes that the independent UK Drugs Policy Commission highlighted the fact that Government is spending around £3 billion a year on policies that are often counterproductive; believes that an evidence-based approach is required in order for Parliament and the Government to pursue the most effective drugs policy in the future; welcomes the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee in its Ninth Report of 2012-13, HC 184, that the Government consider all the alternatives to the UK’s failing drug laws and learn from countries that have adopted a more evidence-based approach; notes that the Government has responded positively to this recommendation and is in the process of conducting an international comparators study to consider the effectiveness of national drug policies adopted by a range of countries; and calls on the Government to conduct an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to publish the results of those studies within the next 12 months.