[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered drugs policy.
The UK’s drugs policy is not just a combination of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and a host of schedules and classifications; a range of laws has been developed and put in place over the years, guided by our perceived knowledge and our current attitude. We put those laws in place because we thought it was the right thing to do, and I believe that we got it wrong.
Outwith drugs law, we have laws that regulate the production, distribution, marketing and consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is an interesting case, because it is not included in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It remains socially acceptable. It is consumed openly at christenings, naming ceremonies, weddings, civil partnerships and even funerals—society finds a place for alcohol at hatches, matches and dispatches. However, it was not always that way. Prohibition and abstinence were once very strong movements. In the 1920s, some states in the USA made alcohol illegal, and something strange happened. Prohibition, rather than stopping people drinking alcohol, delivered production, distribution and consumers into the hands of criminals who recognised a money-spinning venture when they saw one. The product became more potent, because that meant distributing smaller quantities while maintaining profit margins, and criminal gangs used extreme violence to protect their territory from rival gangs or gangsters. Levels of violence spiralled, and more and more people were criminalised for using alcohol. According to the academic and historian Michael Lerner:
“As the trade in illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On average, 1000 Americans died every year during the Prohibition from the effects of drinking tainted liquor.”
When prohibition ended, levels of crime dropped dramatically and people’s health improved. They continued to drink alcohol, but the product was quality controlled and monitored, and nobody had to use violence to protect their market.
To this day, alcohol continues to damage people’s lives and ruin their health, but it is legal and regulated. Increasingly, people can find educational support, because they have no fear of being criminalised. Maybe in an ideal world, everybody would be so happy and content—so free of stress and anxiety, so confident and self-assured—that there would be no requirement for alcohol, or indeed any recreational drugs. However, we do not live in that ideal world, and we never have. Throughout history, for a variety of reasons, people have taken drugs. One hundred years ago, people could buy cocaine, heroin or morphine at pharmacies and department stores. During the first world war, Harrods sold kits with syringes and tubes of cocaine and heroin for the boys on the frontline. Queen Victoria recommended Vin Mariani—wine laced with cocaine. Anthony Eden was prescribed purple hearts throughout the Suez crisis. Those people lived under what was termed “the British system,” which was a light-touch approach to drug consumption, one of tolerance and treatment.
Things changed during the 1960s. In 1961 the UN single convention on narcotic drugs was passed. It was not popular in the UK, because we could see that the British system was working. That convention, driven by prejudice, became the only UN convention ever to use the word “evil”. Torture, apartheid and nuclear war do not warrant the term “evil”, according to the UN. Genocide is referred to as “an odious scourge” or “barbarous acts”. The term “evil” is reserved for drugs—drugs that had previously been available in many different guises in high street pharmacies. The stigmatising of users went up a gear. In 1971, through the Misuse of Drugs Act, criminalisation became the name of the game. The result has been years of violence, tensions and organised crime, and a monumental increase in addiction.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a first-class speech. Could he say roughly what proportion of people in prison are there because of the drugs trade? What are the costs to the criminal justice system, and what is the total social cost of drugs? I hope he will cover those points in his speech.
I did not know there was a quiz. I have a prison in my constituency—I was talking to its governor two or three weeks ago—and the majority of the prisoners are there for offences related in some way, shape or form to the consumption or sale of drugs, or to the drugs market and the violence around it. We also know that there are more drugs, particularly synthetic drugs, available in our prisons than out on the streets.
Members will be glad to hear that the Office for National Statistics began collating consistent data on drug deaths in England and Wales from 1993. Those figures show an increase in drug misuse mortality rates among both men and women since 1996. UK opioid-related deaths rose between 2012 and 2015, increasing by 58% in England, 23% in Wales, 21% in Scotland and 47% in Northern Ireland. UK Focal Point on Drugs estimates that the number of problem drug users is 300,000 in England, 60,000 in Scotland and 30,000 in Wales. Those statistics are the result of current drugs policy, and behind those statistics are lives in ruins.
I fully understand why people exposed to the cruelty inflicted on their loved ones by current drugs policy would want to lash out in retribution. If somebody provided one of my loved ones with a pill at a music festival, and that pill killed them, my initial reaction would be to hunt the seller down like a dog and have them strung up. I would be wrong. At the next festival, another person would be selling the same drugs to other people, and another tragedy would unfold. This understanding is exemplified by the members of Anyone’s Child, who have been directly affected by the loss of, or damage caused to, a close friend or family member. Those people understand that vengeance will not bring back their loved one or undo the damage done. They understand that unless we change our current drugs policy and how we enforce it, more innocent people will die. It is their desire that their experience of loss does not fall on anyone else’s family member or friend. Is the Minister prepared to sit down and talk with members of Anyone’s Child? Nothing?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and making some powerful points. He and I both attended a recent meeting of the drugs, alcohol and justice cross-party parliamentary group, on the topic of drug-related deaths, where we heard Rudi Fortson QC explain how policies could be readily implemented to reduce drug and alcohol-related deaths. Does he agree that it would be good for Ministers to meet Rudi Fortson and hear what policies could be applied instantly that would make a big difference?
It is always good when I hear that people like Rudi Fortson QC—a person who has lived his life through the law—are looking at the current situation and thinking, “We have to change this.” It backs up everything I believe, but Rudi Fortson’s background makes him much more qualified in those terms than I am. I wonder whether the Government are engaging with people of his calibre.
Last week, Canada joined nine states of the USA and Washington DC by legalising recreational cannabis. Various provinces of Canada have taken different approaches regarding age limits: some allow people to grow their own cannabis, limiting them to four plants, while others do not allow home growing. We should be looking to those parts of the world to gather evidence and decide whether their approach is beneficial, and whether we should follow suit. Canada has the same problems as us but, like Portugal, Uruguay and other countries, it has taken a different approach to providing a solution. That solution is not “drugs for everybody”; it is “regulate the marketplace and take control away from the criminals”.
In the UK, parents who fear that their child might be dabbling in drugs, or even developing a habit, are extremely reluctant to engage with support groups that could divert their child from the path they are on. The parents are reluctant because they do not want to place their child on the police radar. They fear that their child could be arrested, get a criminal record or even be sent to prison. Early intervention can be the key to avoiding drug-related harm, and we should not be putting obstacles in the way of those who could be affected. We must encourage users to engage without fear of prosecution and free up police time and resources to fight crime. Will the Minister tell me whether the UK Government have engaged with other countries to access their research, which could assist us in becoming better informed and in taking an evidence-based approach to legislation? We need to listen to those affected, who can see a need for change but are not in a position to effect it.
Prior to this debate, the Westminster digital engagement team put out an appeal on social media, advertising the debate and asking the people of this country, “What do you think?” Nearly 20,000 people were engaged. The majority of the responses came back saying, “Legalise cannabis.” Some called for drugs to be regulated and taxed. A few said that they had lost loved ones as a result of the current policy. Some commenters called for drug addiction to be seen as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Lots of commenters called for the UK to take the same approach as Portugal. That is the people of this country talking.
The problematic users, the kids on estates recruited to county lines, the medical professionals, the support workers and the law enforcers should be listened to. Peter Bleksley was a young cop during the Brixton riots. He went on to become one of the Met’s most celebrated undercover agents. He was a founding member of SO10, Scotland Yard’s dedicated covert policing unit. He said:
“I look back now and think, well, are there less drugs and guns on the streets because of what my colleagues and I did? And of course the answer is an emphatic, NO. We could wallpaper my bedroom with commendation certificates—they sit in the loft gathering dust. What a waste of time.”
The UK Government spent an estimated £1.6 billion on drug law enforcement in 2014-15. Drug treatment has been cut by 14% in the past couple of years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a false economy, especially as Public Health England estimates that for every pound spent on drug treatment, there is a £4 social return?
I absolutely agree. If we could see the results from the money being spent on the criminal justice system, I would back off and say, “Well, it is working”, but it clearly is not. To extend the hon. Lady’s point, every £1 spent on early intervention saves £7 in the criminal justice system further down the line. Even if someone does not give a damn about these people, it makes good financial sense to step in anyway and get early intervention.
Peter Bleksley is not alone. A host of personal testimony has been gathered by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. I will offer four more examples from these experts. Patrick Hennessey, a British Army officer in the Grenadier Guards who served in Afghanistan, said:
“In Afghanistan I fought on one ‘front-line’ of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and in Hackney I live side-by-side with the other and it’s obviously failing at either end. If real generals pursued an actual war like generations of politicians have pursued this farce they’d be court-martialled and sent to prison.”
Paul Whitehouse, chief constable, said:
“Far from making communities safer, current drug laws have the unintended consequence of placing barriers between the police and often vulnerable individuals.”
Graham Seaby, a former detective superintendent in the international and organised crime branch of New Scotland Yard, said:
“The drug problem will continue and escalate if governments fail to recognise that the only way forward is to move towards nuanced regulatory models, thus removing the profit from criminals, and the motivation for their involvement.”
Francis Wilkinson, chief constable, said:
“The single greatest crime reduction measure the world could take would be to regulate the supply of cannabis, cocaine and heroin.”
Neil Woods, 14 years an undercover drugs cop, would say exactly the same things. Ron Hogg and Arfon Jones, both police and crime commissioners, say that drugs must be a health issue, not a criminal justice one.
Every time we lock up a criminal gang or announce to the media that we have seized a large quantity of drugs with a street value of so many millions, what they do not say is that that supply has been disrupted for an hour or so. Another gang will step into their shoes and maintain distribution. Often those takeovers involve a spate of violence, and such networks are always maintained by violence and the threat of violence. The fact is that after 30 years of locking people up, a bag of cocaine that cost £10 in 1980 will cost £10 today for the same weight. However, because cocaine is so plentiful, it is purer in the UK today than it has ever been. The damage being inflicted on people and communities will continue to increase if all we do is crack down on the criminal fraternity and those ensnared in problematic drug use. We can lock people up for longer, but it does not improve their situation one iota; in fact, it makes it worse. Will the Minister meet and listen to members of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership?
In July 2017 the UK Government published their drug strategy and announced that they would appoint a recovery champion, whose role was defined as someone who would
“be responsible for driving and supporting collaboration between local authorities, public employment services, housing providers and criminal justice partners, ensuring that these critical public services are able to contribute fully towards securing effective outcomes for individuals suffering drug dependence.”
Fifteen months later, there is still nobody in the role, so nobody is co-ordinating those aspects of the support and recovery programme. I find myself wondering whether there is a UK Government harm reduction recovery programme. When will the Minister appoint a recovery champion?
As legislators, we have a choice. We can change the law. In doing so, we can address the harm that drugs do. Before that, we have to take a constructive approach to our drugs policy. We need to accept that 90% of people who use recreational drugs do not live chaotic lives. We must acknowledge that of the 10% of users who become problematic users, the majority have suffered physical, psychological or sexual abuse. We must acknowledge that problematic use is higher in areas of social deprivation. We must accept responsibility for trying to find solutions and acknowledge our failures. We need to help people with problematic drug use through harm reduction, treatment and wraparound support. Criminalising users does not deal with the underlying issues that lead to drug use; it only makes things worse.
We should have a network of safe drug consumption rooms throughout the UK. They have proved to be a success in Switzerland, Canada, Spain and a growing number of other countries. We must be prepared to learn from other countries’ experiences. The emergency services should carry naloxone and be trained in its use. Will the Minister reconsider legalising safe drug consumption rooms and ensure that naloxone is provided for members of the emergency services? Most importantly, UK drugs policy should be a health issue, not a criminal justice one. Alternatively, we can continue to criminalise users and drive them into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, while ignoring the atmosphere of fear that they live in. All we do is marginalise, stigmatise and ostracise them.
The hon. Gentleman has just moved on from the subject of drug consumption rooms, but did he note that after his last debate on drug consumption rooms the International Narcotics Control Board produced a report effectively endorsing them. That came from the body responsible for the international enforcement of the relevant drugs conventions, which I know he and I think are outdated and dangerous, frankly, in the global consequences they deliver on drugs policy. If even the INCB is in that place, I hope our Government will take some notice.
I noticed a couple of things after that debate. In it, the Minister denied that Canada had kept its drug consumption rooms open because they are effective. She made a statement that the Canadian Supreme Court had ordered them to stay open. On the back of that, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy wrote a five-page letter to the Minister and I, detailing how the DCRs are working effectively in Canada and why they have been kept open. They described her statement as
“neither factually nor legally accurate.”
We have lost the war on drugs. Our drugs policy saw to that. We need to change our mindset and ensure that we are in a position to win the peace. Finally, when we see a problematic drug user, we are watching a person drowning. We should throw them a lifebelt, not push their heads further under the water.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. It will soon become apparent that I disagree with large parts of what he has said; in a democracy it is quite correct that we can take two sides of the same argument. However, I agree that the effects of drug use, and the deaths caused by it, have an impact on each and every one of our constituencies.
Drugs and drug addictions are among the worst scourges of our society today. According to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the cost to the UK economy of drug misuse is more than £15 billion a year. Far more importantly, drugs destroy lives and livelihoods, tear apart families and communities, and fuel crime and exploitation. Although the number of drug users is falling, the number of people dying or being admitted to hospital due to drug use is on the increase.
In Scotland, it is nothing short of a crisis. The rate of drug-related deaths in Scotland is considerably higher than in England and Wales. It is estimated to be the highest in Europe, yet every year the number of deaths hits a new record high. The same goes for hospital admissions. In 2016-17, the rate of people being admitted to Scottish hospitals in relation to opioids, cannabinoids, cocaine, and sedatives and hypnotics reached new records.
The crisis can and will get worse. The county lines operations, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde mentioned and which are spreading across the UK, bringing a supply of drugs to rural communities across the country, are particularly concerning for me as a Member of Parliament for a rural constituency. We know from examples abroad, most notably in America, how the supply of drugs to rural areas can bring devastation to those communities.
The challenge facing the Scottish Government, the UK Government, and all of us is not just to stop the problem spiralling out of control, but to turn the tide altogether and tackle the havoc that drugs are wreaking on so many lives. More certainly needs to be done to treat people who have become addicted to drugs.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cost to society and to the Government of £15 billion a year. How much would it cost if the Government changed their policy, and heroin addicts went to their local NHS clinic to get their fix in the morning and evening and there was no drug crime at all because it was free at the point of need, administered by the national health service? How much would the Government save? The financial arguments might have greater appeal than other arguments.
To borrow the phrase of the hon. Member for Inverclyde, I did not realise that this was a quiz. I do not have those figures to hand.
Labour Members mentioned past cuts to alcohol and drug partnerships, and received some sympathy from the Scottish National party Member leading today’s debate. Yet the SNP-led Scottish Government have not helped, especially considering their cuts to alcohol and drug partnerships in Scotland. The money spent is being reduced not just here in England, but in Scotland under an SNP-led Government.
Likewise, the forthcoming revision of the Scottish Government’s national drug strategy cannot come a moment too soon. The current strategy is a decade old, but reflects a much older approach, where instead of helping people to defeat their addictions, they are put on, for example, endless methadone programmes. Is it any surprise that the proportion of people dying from drug overdoses who are on methadone has risen from 21% in 2009 to 37% in 2016? The new strategy, which comes out next month, must address that, and focus on beating addiction completely.
I am not sure that we heard any solutions from the hon. Gentleman. Normally in such debates we hear about how great things are in Scotland. As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I think it is appropriate, when we are discussing an issue that is of importance to the United Kingdom, that we put it into context.
I invite the hon. Gentleman and the Scottish Government to consider the “National Drug-Related Deaths Database (Scotland) Report”, from June this year, which said that the Scottish Government’s flagship take-home naloxone programme
“has not prevented substantial increases in opioid-related deaths in Scotland.”
That is a quote from a report in June this year. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would like to question that report, I will give way again.
Absolutely. We are in the process of rolling out a naloxone project in Scotland that has been taken on board. I visited drug consumption rooms in Barcelona during the summer. Quite unsolicited, the staff mentioned to me the good work being done by the Scottish Drugs Forum and the naloxone programme. They have taken it on board in Barcelona, and it has been a terrific success.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is questioning me or the “National Drug-Related Deaths Database (Scotland) Report”. That report, which was issued in Scotland in June, said that the Scottish Government’s policies have not reduced the number of people dying from related illnesses.
It makes good sense, and is soundly medically based, to give people who may take an overdose a way of correcting that overdose with a lifesaving intervention. That has to be a good thing to do. I understand that there are tensions with the SNP on this issue, but it is considered good medical practice to do exactly as is being recommended in Scotland and in England.
I know that my hon. Friend and I disagreed in our last debate on UK drugs policy in Westminster Hall. These are not my conclusions, but those of a national report that has looked into the policies of the Scottish Government and said that, however well-meant the policies are, they have
“not prevented substantial increases in opioid-related deaths in Scotland.”
I am sorry—I have given way a few times, and I know that a number of Members wish to speak.
We need an approach to addiction that is more ambitious than methadone and take-home naloxone, and certainly more ambitious than self-injection rooms. We need an approach that puts recovery first, but we need to tackle addiction and the drugs trade together, because there are no victimless crimes in drugs. We cannot simply separate it into matters of public health and criminal justice, because recreational use, addiction, exploitation by gangs and suppliers, and the supply chains of drugs into and across the country are all bound together.
If we want to give people the best chance of recovery from addiction, we have to tackle the supply chains. That means enforcing the law properly, not soft-touch sentencing and back-door decriminalisation. By making it harder to import, produce, supply and possess drugs, we make it easier to get off drugs and overcome addiction. From the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 to the new financial crime unit to seize the assets of drug lords, and to the recently announced review into the link between the drug market and violent crime, the UK Government have demonstrated that they recognise that. I only hope that the Scottish Government recognise it too, and act before the crisis gets any worse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this important debate.
I think the tide is turning in terms of people’s willingness to look at the evidence, whatever preconceived ideas they have. I must admit that I am a convert; I have looked at the evidence and realised that what we have been doing for the last 50 years is not working. I have been out with the police on drug raids in my constituency. I have seen the effects in older industrial areas where these problems are manifesting. We need a new approach.
I will focus my remarks on one issue, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde has already touched on, that I would like the Minister to consider: consumption rooms. I am looking for the Minister and the Home Office to empower and resource police and crime commissioners, and allow them to take some progressive actions and interventions. For example, in pilot areas, where there is support for such an initiative, there could be medically supervised consumption rooms to treat addicts and reduce crime.
For members of the public who may be alarmed at that prospect and are unsure what a drug consumption room is, it is a supervised clinical environment where people with a diagnosed drug addiction are provided with medical-grade heroin, clean equipment and facilities to safely dispose of used needles. In debates in public and in this place, they have been unfairly characterised by opponents and, more disappointingly, by organisations such as the BBC, which I would hope would take a more careful and considered view on the use of such terminology, as “shooting galleries”.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the effectiveness of safe drug consumption rooms—a critical issue for my constituency, where the drug-related death rate is 1,000% higher than the EU average. Glasgow also has an HIV epidemic. Does he agree that there is a real concern that correlation may be confused with causation? Much of the evidence that has been cited to show that safe drug consumption rooms are not effective does not necessarily show that.
It is really important that policy be evidence-based. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), many of whose concerns I share, shooting galleries do exist. We might not like it, but they exist, unauthorised and under no medical supervision, in our communities, in private dwellings, in derelict properties, in residential areas, near schools and behind shops. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before we were summoned to vote we were talking about drug consumption rooms. If it is in order, Mrs Moon, I will remind the Minister that she pointed out that she believed that such drug consumption rooms were currently available. Perhaps she can clarify that in her closing remarks, but currently users buy drugs of unknown strength or quality and inject what is in many cases poison, with dirty or used needles, which can be discarded on the street for a child to pick up or a pet to stand on. Without any other option, that seems to be the Government’s preferred drugs model. It is a system that funds criminality, maximises harm for users and puts children and communities at risk.
Why have I changed my mind to support drug consumption rooms? Many Members may have had the same experience that I have had. Not a week goes by when I do not receive inquiries. Constituents send me photographs of used needles discarded in the street, at intolerable risk to public health. I firmly believe that consumption rooms would substantially reduce the public health risk, by closing down illicit shooting galleries and moving things to a clean, safe clinical environment away from residential areas, where needles can safely be discarded and those with addiction issues can engage with health services and move towards a drug-free life.
I understand that supervised heroin treatment costs about £15,000 per year per patient. However, that is three times less than the cost of keeping someone in prison—the most likely destination for someone committing crime to fund a drugs habit. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) asked about that. As has been mentioned, it will be no surprise that more than 80% of the adult prison population reported using illicit drugs at some point prior to entering prison, and almost two thirds admitted using them in the month before they entered prison. More than 40% of prisoners have used heroin.
Dealing with one problematic adult drugs user costs society about £45,000 a year, and estimates suggest that illegal drugs cost the UK taxpayer as much as £16.5 billion a year. So there are wider costs than the purely financial considerations of drug treatment. The Home Office suggested that about 45% of acquisitive offences are committed by regular drug users—heroin, crack and cocaine users. Crimes such as theft, burglary and robbery, which are common in many communities, can often be traced back to those who are trying to fund drugs habits, and it is those types of crime that the police struggle to investigate, to detect those responsible. That type of crime may be considered petty or low level, but it has a significant impact on the victims and on their confidence in the police, their personal safety, and their security in their homes.
Another cost to consider is the £7 billion drugs market that funds organised crime. The 50-year war on drugs is failing to resolve it. Treating drugs use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice matter will strangle the illegal market and take power away from the dealers. We have previously heard testimony or quotations from serving police officers. There is ample evidence from people at the sharp end, including a former police officer, Neil Woods, who worked in undercover drugs operations for 14 years and wrote a best-selling book called “Good Cop, Bad Cop”, which was recommended to me by a superintendent in my area.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I apologise. The author said that, for all the users and dealers he helped to put behind bars, he disrupted the £7 billion British drugs trade for less than a day. Clearly, what we are doing is not helping. We are losing the war on drugs and failing to protect the public. I implore the Minister to accept that, after 47 years, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is not fit for purpose. The drugs mortality rate in the north-east is twice that of the west midlands and three times higher than that of London. The costs are simply too high. I hope that the Minister will facilitate a new approach to drugs and empower those who are in authority in my constituency.
As to those statistics, the fact that the north-east has a far higher rate of death from drug misuse compared with London shows that there must be a link between deprivation and drug use. I think Alex Boyt, of Blenheim, would like that to be looked at further. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I am not an expert, but it seems there is a correlation between areas of deprivation and areas with a high incidence of drug-related death. There is a lot of evidence out there, and from anecdotal experience it seems that an issue that was confined to the big cities is now commonplace in older industrial communities, such as the areas and villages that I represent.
Absolutely—I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. In conclusion, I implore the Minister to facilitate a new approach to drugs policy and to empower authorities in my constituency, such as our police and crime commissioner, Ron Hogg, and Chief Constable Mike Barton—in the only police force in the country rated outstanding by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary—who want to try a new approach. Will the Minister allow a pilot scheme so that we can at least evaluate the evidence and see whether it works, as many experts believe it will?
Order. I now call Jim Shannon, but seven Members still wish to speak before I call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.54 pm. Could we please have restraint from hon. Members, so that we can hear from as many of those who put their name forward to speak as possible?
I will adhere to your guidelines, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for securing this important debate. He will be well aware that we approach this topic from different angles, but I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
I am deeply concerned about Canada’s recent decision to legalise cannabis—undoubtedly the driver behind today’s debate—and its potential impact in the UK. That said, my concern lies with the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, rather than medicinal purposes—indeed, I am pleased that the Government are conducting a review into the use of cannabis on medical grounds, which I fully support. Today, however, I want to talk about the negative impacts and dangers of legalising cannabis for recreational use. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) referred to mortality rates in England, and the figures are clear. The number of deaths among both males and females continues to rise, and that is due to many things, including heroin and morphine abuse, but I want concentrate specifically on cannabis. I will come to the side effects and dangers of legalisation later, but first I will consider the rationale for legalising cannabis use—as a bid to reduce the number of criminals who make money from selling cannabis illegally.
Taking money from criminals and reducing the amount of goods on the black market sounds like a no-brainer, but will the policy of legalisation really make the fundamental changes that President Trudeau envisages? Under the new legislation, it will still be illegal to sell cannabis to under-18s—under-19s in some provinces—and illegal to buy it from anyone who is not a licensed dealer. To my mind, it is simple: the policy will not stop criminals making money. Minors will still have access to drugs, and it is they who are most at danger from the side effects of cannabis use.
Short-term effects of cannabis include confusion, anxiety, sleepiness, memory loss and feeling sick or faint. There are also effects on a person’s ability to learn or concentrate, as they become uninterested or demotivated. People begin to use the drug in their teens. In my constituency I am well aware of the problems caused by illegal drugs, which are usually peddled by paramilitaries and criminals to anyone who wants to buy them. Those who do not want to buy drugs are recruited, and my constituents have seen at first hand the detrimental effect on the health of those who became involved with drugs at an early age, and indeed on their families who have to pay back the debts. There is a spiral of drug use.
The figures speak for themselves. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, cannabis use in Canada is slowly on the rise. It tends to be younger people who use the drug and they are the ones most at risk, yet the new legislation does nothing to safeguard minors. We need to protect the poor, the needy and the vulnerable—that is the thrust of all our comments today. We just have different ways of doing that. Making a drug legal simply makes it more accessible and incentivises those who may not have used it previously—perhaps those in the slightly older age bracket—to buy it.
Criminals who were previously selling cannabis on the black market will continue to do so, and they will continue to supply minors, so minors may be at even greater risk than they were before the legalisation. Let us be frank: criminals will always find a way to sell drugs and supply them to minors, and I worry that the drug’s new status will inadvertently offer more protection to underage users. A young person could be walking between home and college with a brown paper bag clearly in hand, and although certain states have banned smoking cannabis in public spaces, it is not an offence to buy it or to carry the purchase home. Of course, I realise that if someone is obviously underage, they are likely to get stopped and asked for ID, but that will not happen in all cases. Lots of young people will simply be brazen enough to carry cannabis visibly and take the risk of getting stopped. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, in 2010 Canadian youth ranked first for cannabis use among young people in 43 countries. Scientific research over the last 15 years has established that the human brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20s, and there is a strong association between daily cannabis use and depression in adolescents and young adults.
I have spoken many times in this place about legal highs or psychoactive substances. Their use by young people is a real concern. In my constituency of Strangford, I have seen at first hand the devastating impact that using those drugs can have on families. Many of the drugs produce a similar effect to cannabis, and it is the feeling of being “high” that makes them so attractive to people. Ultimately, if people want drugs and the demand is there, they will find ways to get them. That demand has led to products such as spice being added to the regular menu of illicit street dealers. Often, new legislation merely changes the way that a drug is sold or produced, rather than fundamentally changing the demand for drugs or the nature of drug taking.
I do not believe that legalising drugs for recreational use can ever be a good thing in practice, and neither will it work in principle. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. The Canadian legislation sends a message that buying and using cannabis has Government backing. That is dangerous in itself because it implies that using cannabis is completely safe and acceptable. It is not, and it never will be. As I said earlier, legalisation makes the drug more accessible and appealing to people who may not have previously been users, while at the same time doing nothing to safeguard minors. I am sorry that I have a different opinion from that of the hon. Member for Inverclyde, but all points of view must be heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate, and I am sympathetic to many of the points he made. He rightly highlighted the links between the use of drugs, drug dependency and deprivation, the challenges that many people who are dependent on drugs face, such as in housing and employment, and the fact that the current criminal justice approach does not work as we would like. We should help people with drug dependency to access the appropriate health and care support they may need, and we must think seriously about whether the current prohibition on drugs is the right way forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) made a factual point about naloxone and drug use. The policy is widely used in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and all over the world. He might be interested to read a 2017 review paper by McDonald, Campbell and Strang, entitled “Twenty years of take-home naloxone for the prevention of overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids—Conception and maturation”. That paper effectively concludes that take-home naloxone coverage is insufficient—that may chime with something my hon. Friend said—and that greater public investment in such schemes is necessary if we want them to succeed. Opioid deaths and their causes are multifactorial, and a considerable body of international evidence suggests that if naloxone is given to people who are at risk of an overdose, it can save lives; many review and study papers indicate that. I believe it is a step in the right direction for the Scottish Government to confront that issue and to say that there is a good body of evidence, but unfortunately dealing with opioid deaths is not as simple as just handing out naloxone, which we know is in itself an effective measure.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the case against the end of prohibition on drugs. If we look at the wider public health issue, it is fair to say that if something is decriminalised or legalised, more people may well use that substance because it could be seen as something that is okay or acceptable to use, but I do not think anyone in this debate is suggesting that if there was a broader approach to the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, there would not be a public health campaign, just as there is with legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine, to suggest that there are adverse health outcomes associated with use.
Many substances that are classified class C or even class A have a lower public health burden than alcohol—for example, MDMA or ecstasy. Alcohol, the legal drug that many people—not me—in Parliament and elsewhere consume, is the substance that causes the biggest public health burden. We must be realistic and recognise that if we move to a position where people are able to make a more informed choice about whether they want to consume drugs in the future, that informed choice involves telling people that taking certain substances has consequences, as we do with alcohol and cigarettes today.
On the current approach to drugs, I would like the Minister to pick up on a couple of points. First, there is the challenge of improving the care that we provide for people who are dependent on drugs. This is not an issue for this Minister, but it may be a conversation to be had with the Department of Health and Social Care. The current commissioning landscape in England for drug and alcohol services is fragmented and completely divorced from mental health. We have to recognise that mistake, which we made in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. That needs to be addressed if we want to improve the quality of care available to people who are dependent on opioids in particular, as well as alcohol or any other substance.
It is important to recognise that improving care for people who are dependent on substances is about taking a holistic approach. It is about law enforcement working together with healthcare, housing and social care, and about finding employment and retraining solutions for people. The way existing law is framed, alongside the criminal justice prism through which drug laws are seen and enforced, often drives a wedge between different agencies, preventing them from working together effectively for the benefit of people who are dependent on illicit or street drugs. I hope the Minister can look at that point. Many opioid users are struggling to get treatment. In recent years, there has been a rising trend in the number of opioid deaths, yet the number of people with addiction to heroin and opioids accessing treatment has fallen in the last 10 years or so. There is a problem here that needs to be addressed.
We often talk about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—I think a former Prime Minister said that, and it is something we can all agree with. What good treatment for people affected by substance misuse is not about is being tough on crime and being tough on addicts. That does not work, it has not worked, and it is driving a wedge between the health system and the people it is trying to support. I hope that we can recognise in our broader discussions about prohibition that the current policies are a barrier to people with drug dependence receiving the care and support that they need.
I am keen to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak. I suggest that people have a self-imposed speaking time of three minutes. That will leave a little less time for the Front-Benchers, but I would like to make sure that everyone gets the chance to air their view. I call Jeff Smith.
I will be as brief as possible, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate and on his long and strong advocacy on these issues. I am tempted to say only that I agree with everything that he said, because I do, but I have a few brief comments to add.
First, I want to say how disappointing it is to see the Minister and the shadow Minister in their places today, not because I have anything against either of them personally, but because I hope that one day we will have a debate on drug policy where a Health Minister and shadow Health Minister answer the debate. For too long, we have treated drug policy as a Home Office and criminal issue rather than the health issue that it should be.
My starting premise is that we will never stop people wanting to take drugs. Humans have taken psychoactive substances for thousands of years. Our brains like them—it is not our fault; they just do. If we are honest, people take drugs because, often, they are enjoyable, whether it is alcohol or one of the illegal drugs. Most people enjoy taking them. Most people take them without problems most of the time. Sometimes, however, use becomes problematic, whether it be of alcohol or illegal drugs. We do not tackle problematic alcohol use by banning alcohol. That would be absurd, so why is it any less absurd that we ban drugs that cause problems when used wrongly? We need to make a distinction between problematic use and recreational use that causes no harm. We have a drug policy that is not working, as has already been said.
Is the clock counting down the time for my speech?
It is counting up. Have I really had all that time? I cannot quite believe how long I have been speaking for.
Not only does our drug policy not work, but it causes problems, not least through unnecessary criminalisation. In 2017, nearly 38,000 people were unnecessarily criminalised, which leads to poorer life chances and a cycle of prison. Then there is the cost: if we include all the costs of policing, healthcare, the judiciary and so on, it costs £10.7 billion to deal with illegal drug use. The policy is not working. Drug supply is in the hands of organised criminal gangs and that leads to an arms race in violence, trafficking and organised crime. Then there is the stigma, which has already been referred to, which prevents people from seeking treatment.
We need a change. We need to base our drug policy on the evidence of what works. As the Home Office itself found, there is no evidence that tough law enforcement reduces drug use. Change will not to be easy and I will not pretend otherwise; we have had a war on drugs for 50 years and it is ingrained in the political narrative. For too long, though, we have treated this problem the wrong way. For too long, politicians have been part of the problem. It is time that politicians started being part of the solution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. I recently went out with the police force in my constituency, and one of the first things we did was go to an accommodation block for young people, where we tested their rooms for drugs. The police had swabs that they pushed along surfaces in the whole block, and under examination they revealed whether the young people had taken drugs. It was not the first time those rooms had been tested. Many of the people had been tested before and many had come up positive before. This was retesting.
Members might ask why, if those young people had been caught once, they did not do something different the next time, but that is part of the problem. The police took the view that it was not something that needed to be enforced in law. They took the view that there was no point in making criminals out of these young people. The real check on what should happen to the young people was not taken by the police; it was taken by the people who run the building. If it was a small amount of drugs that was showing up, they would have a word with the young people and tell them that this was not encouraged. If there was repeatedly a large amount, they would lose their accommodation. That, more than anything, was a frightening prospect for many of those people, who had found the accommodation quite late. It provided them with a lot of security.
There is a real distinction between the policy that the Government have set out and are pursuing and the policy that the police are pursuing at the same time, and those two policies cannot live together. We cannot have people saying one thing and the other people, who are supposed to be a part of the organisation that delivers it, doing something completely different. The Government need to recognise what is actually happening on the ground, because the police are not implementing legislation in the way the Government think they are. They are doing that with a greater spirit of openness about what is good for those young people in the community, and I encourage the Minister to look at that carefully.
Last year in Scotland there were 934 drug-related deaths. Of those, 137 were in Lothian, which covers my constituency. People fear that in 2018 the figure could top 1,000, so they are right to regard this as a crisis that needs to be addressed. The compelling tragedy of those deaths is that most were avoidable. These people did not die because they overdosed; they died because they were using dirty needles or other paraphernalia and they contracted hepatitis C or HIV from other users. They died because the stuff they were taking was either cut with toxic substances or was far more powerful than they expected it to be. In some cases, they died because they had left treatment too early—the orthodoxy is that success is judged by how many people go through treatment rather than by the number of people who are kept in treatment.
I laud the work of agencies and of many sincere individuals on the ground at the frontline. I have spoken to many of them in recent months, and they all tell me that even without changing the law many drug-related deaths are preventable. As Members have said, we could certainly have safe consumption facilities. We could also have heroin-assisted treatment. The reality is that the best way to get somebody off an addiction is first to manage it so that they can regain some control over their lives and begin to make plans. We could also remove the stigma—there are far too many people in our society who react to these deaths by saying, “They’re only junkies; their lives don’t really matter.” We have to say that those people were once valued members of a community and that they could be again, and we need to reach out to them. Finally, we could shift the emphasis on to harm reduction through a massive publicity programme.
I do not have time to say what I wanted to say, so let me just make an appeal to the Minister. There are cross-party concerns about drugs policy, and there is cross-party support for a new initiative from the Home Office to review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We deal with no other area of public policy where the principal legislation has remained unchanged for nearly half a century. The problem has got dramatically worse and its character has changed. Far too many people are labouring under the misapprehension that prohibition means control, but it does not. There is no control over what substances come on to our streets, there is no control over how much is available, and there is no control over who is using them. There ought to be, and we have a responsibility as legislators to move forward and achieve that. A review is long overdue, and I implore the Minister at least to be receptive to these appeals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. The UK does not operate alone, and neither do global drugs control policies. The UK Government, as a fully paid-up member of UN treaties, must acknowledge and take ownership of the failure of global drugs control policies and the harms that are done in its name—the so-called war on drugs. It is actually a war on the people who use drugs, because it is they who feel the sharp end of prohibition. Some 26 countries have made changes to domestic laws and policies concerning the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in order to protect their citizens, but the UK lags behind.
It is not really a war on drugs; it is a war on citizens’ behaviour, and it is most often delivered by the state against the poorest people and communities. We do not put drugs in prisons; we put people in prisons. We allow the market to regulate itself because we simply prohibit drugs. It is a market, and it will not go away or be managed by simply investing in more police or in border control efforts—it is like trying to make gravity illegal. We cannot be naive and seriously think that there is any way forward but to reform policies to make them fit for today.
That brings me to the long-standing issue of the Glasgow safer drug consumption facility and heroin-assisted treatment pilot project, which has cross-party support in the city, certainly from Labour and the Scottish National party. As hon. Members might be aware, the issue of drug use and drug-related mortality in Glasgow is particularly acute. It is a problem that necessitates radical and disruptive new approaches. Almost a third—267—of Scotland’s drug-related deaths in 2016 occurred in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area. In Glasgow there are 283 drug-related deaths per 1 million people—an appalling 1,315% higher than the EU average. There are 13,600 people aged between 15 and 64 in the Glasgow City Council area who are problematic drug users, which is twice the national average in Scotland.
That is why the safe drug consumption and heroin-assisted treatment proposal is vital for our city, to improve its public health performance in this area. I met the Minister recently and we had a productive discussion about the issue of safe drug consumption rooms and heroin-assisted treatment. Although we disagree on the safe drug consumption room pilot, primarily over assurances about the safety of the substances that are brought into the facility, I propose that there are methods of testing the substances prior to their being used on the premises, but that is beside the point. I want to focus on where there is a possibility of moving forward in the short term to deal with this pressing issue in Glasgow.
I want to ask the Minister whether she can outline more robust measures to improve and expedite the heroin-assisted treatment pilot programme. How can we get that on the ground and move it forward? I want to see people being able to use drug-related equipment in a safe environment and in a way that can be controlled, and I want the substances that they are using to be assured. That is the only way that we will make an impact on the ground in Glasgow and the only way that we will be able to address the appalling level of drug-related deaths. I would like to focus on the heroin-assisted treatment side of the proposed pilot in Glasgow. Let us focus on delivering something on the ground within the next year—let us get it on the ground and do something as a starting point at least. Will the Minister elaborate on how she can do that?
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Moon; I did not think that I would be called, because earlier I was chairing an all-party parliamentary group meeting. I am more than happy to speak in the debate and to represent my constituents on this really important issue. As other Members have said, the issue of drug consumption rooms in Glasgow has reached a public health crisis point. We absolutely need to do something. Glasgow has a well thought through and evidenced proposal for a drug consumption room in the city.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
What frustrates me hugely is that all the Home Office Ministers are happy to sit behind their desks down here in London, but they are not happy to come to Glasgow to meet people from the Scottish Drugs Forum or the doctors and experts within the Glasgow health and social care partnership who have worked on this proposal and who know their field extremely well. They do not want to come and listen to the stories of the families in Glasgow whose lives have been blighted by drug misuse for many years. Some families have lost not just one child but two children, and there are grandchildren who now face the prospect of growing up without parents.
The Government are literally deaf to those people’s complaints. They are unwilling to come and listen to those who have come through recovery, who have used such a facility, and who have seen the difference it made to their lives. They have seen the difference, rather than injecting in dirty back lanes, in bin shelters and in tenement closes in the area I represent and beyond. The Minister will not come and listen to those who use drugs right now.
The Scottish Drugs Forum has done a huge amount of work on this. They have talked to people who inject drugs in the city centre of Glasgow and they have said to them, “What facility would help you to normalise your life and get into treatment?” A drug consumption room would enable people to come in at a lower level. They do not have to commit to a treatment programme, but they can take the first step towards treatment and a better, more stable life for themselves and their extended family.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said, those people are not just junkies. We should get rid of that horrible term from our vocabulary, because it helps nobody. It stigmatises and is cruel, and it signals that we do not value those people in society. We need to turn that around and give those people the support they need to come back from the brink and give their lives some semblance of order. We cannot write anybody off in society. Doing so is not fair to those people or their families. It also costs us an absolute fortune, as people make repeated visits to accident and emergency departments, and we have to pick up the pieces of the chaos it causes. Housing associations have to pick up needles day in, day out, because this problem is not going away. The Minister can bury her head in the sand, but I challenge her to come to Glasgow, meet the people I meet, and not just make decisions from behind her desk in Westminster.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for introducing this debate and illustrating yet again the expertise he has developed by getting involved in policy discussions not just here but in other jurisdictions, where he has obviously learned a lot.
As my hon. Friend and others have said, our starting point must be the dreadful impact that drug misuse has on too many people, directly and indirectly. We have heard about the statistics for Scotland: 934 drug-related deaths were registered in 2017, up by 66 from 2016. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) fairly pointed out that those numbers are particularly awful, but the causes are complex and some of them date back decades. There are economic costs associated with the problem—drug misuse costs £3.5 billion a year in Scotland, and alcohol misuse costs a further £3.6 billion—but they are nothing compared with the personal tragedies of each life affected. This debate has allowed hon. Members to focus on how we should respond to this huge challenge. I thank everyone for their contributions.
It is fair to say that the majority view is that the criminal justice approach is not working, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said. Some hon. Members argued eloquently that the way we regulate drug use through criminal law needs not just reform but fundamental reform. We should be open-minded about that, and I agree that our response should be evidence-led.
Regardless of how we respond, we should first and foremost see this as a public health issue—almost everybody who spoke in the debate said that, and I agree—albeit one that requires input from many Departments, including on housing, mental health, employability, education and justice. In Edinburgh, the drugs policy unit has been moved out of the justice directorate and into the health directorate. Like the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), I think that is exactly where it belongs. The 2008 drugs strategy, which has been referred to, received cross-party support, but it is being updated.
That first strategy, “The Road to Recovery”, helped to shift cultural attitudes and challenge stigma. It established a broad recovery network, delivered locally through 30 alcohol and drug partnerships. It brought together health boards, local authorities, policy and voluntary agencies in each part of the country. National leadership was provided by the Scottish Recovery Network, the Scottish Drugs Forum and Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs. It led to a new focus on harm reduction. For example, the pioneering naloxone programme was designed to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. We have heard a bit of criticism of that programme, but a recent NHS Health Scotland literature review demonstrated that take-home naloxone programmes increase the odds of recovery from overdoses, and improve knowledge of overdose recognition and management in the community. We have also heard criticism of the substitution treatment that accompanied the strategy, but the NHS Health Scotland evidence review suggests that, overall, the health of opioid-dependent individuals is safeguarded while they are in substitution treatment.
The new strategy is set to be finalised imminently. We have not seen the final draft, but we know something of the direction of travel. We also know that it will be funded by an additional £20 million a year in each of the remaining three years of the Scottish parliamentary Session. It will contain policies that reflect a better understanding of the causes of addiction and substance abuse, including some that have been referred to today, such as deprivation, poverty and adverse childhood experiences. As has been highlighted, there will be a more holistic focus on the person, rather than simply on the addiction. Recovery remains the goal, but there will be a greater focus on tying that goal to work on homelessness, employability, mental health and family support. That is simply in recognition of the fact that, too often, the most vulnerable find it hardest to access the sustained support they need for those key issues.
The new focus will be on “seek, keep and treat”. It is acknowledged that the most vulnerable are sometimes the least likely to access the services that could support them. There will therefore be more proactive outreach and advocacy, and broader and more sustained attempts to keep people in treatment by responding to their broader needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) rightly highlighted that keeping people in treatment is problematic and that we need to do better on it. Treatment must be tailored carefully to the person. We must recognise that some will not be ready yet to start on the road to recovery or abstinence, while others will start on that road but relapse. Support must continue and be sustained throughout the process.
A measure that would fit with that approach, which a number of hon. Members have referred to, is the establishment of a drug consumption room. My party is keen on that, and there is almost, but not quite, unanimous support for it in the Scottish Parliament. Work on piloting a safe drug consumption room would be hugely welcome. It has been driven by the Glasgow City health and social care partnership. It could serve an estimated 400 to 500 people who would otherwise be injecting unsafely and publicly, and who would experience high levels of harm. Such a facility could significantly reduce the risk of further outbreaks of blood-borne viruses.
Evidence from elsewhere shows that drug consumption rooms can make a significant difference in reducing drug-related deaths. A Sydney study linked such facilities to fewer emergency service call-outs, an increased uptake of detoxification and drug-dependence treatments, a decrease in public injecting, and a reduction in the number of syringes discarded in the vicinity. Similar studies from Barcelona have found similar positive results.
The question is: why on earth does the Home Office not want to pilot a drug consumption room? The evidence shows that it is likely to achieve significant benefits. In the unlikely event that it does not work, the fall-back will not be on the Home Office; we will accept full responsibility. There is no justification for such intransigence. The Home Office’s failure to act is endangering lives. I echo calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for the Minister to meet the Public Health Minister in Scotland. She should visit Glasgow to hear from practitioners who are pursuing this cause.
Tackling drug addiction must be supported across portfolio areas. Ideally, we need education to try to help young people to become resilient to offers of drugs or pressure to take them in the first place. Where the criminal law is breached, diverting people—especially young people—from the criminal justice system can be effective if alternative interventions mean addressing the underlying causes of offending, including for drugs, with hugely beneficial lifetime implications. If drug users are in prison, a dedicated improvement fund is being used in Scotland to ensure that programmes there properly address health-related causes of offending, such as drug and alcohol misuse. Each of those drugs policies could be the subject of a separate debate in their own right.
Drug addiction is first and foremost a public health issue. Our key ask is for the Minister to look again at piloting a drug consumption room in Glasgow. She has absolutely nothing to lose with such a policy, and lots of people have lots to gain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward—although I thought you were Mrs Moon.
Our policy on drug use should be regarded first and foremost as a national health issue. As hon. Members have emphasised, we need better legislation on drug use, with far greater intervention and education policies on drug abuse and addiction. The UK now has the highest recorded level of mortality from drug misuse since records began, and nothing is more important than preserving our citizens’ lives. Our approach to drugs is simply not doing that, so it is time to consider all options, based on what is most effective in reducing harm.
The war on drugs is failing. People are being exploited by drug dealers and traffickers on an industrial scale. The rising prevalence of county lines and sexual exploitation highlights the need for criminal action against the perpetrators. Greater training and funding for frontline services is essential to crack down on the gangs and individuals who treat people like commodities. They inflict pain and suffering on vulnerable people, and sexually abuse them.
Traffickers are targeting potential victims, including by “cuckooing”, whereby drug dealers befriend vulnerable addicts and supply them with narcotics before moving into their homes. They then threaten to withdraw the supply of drugs, or use threats and intimidation, to get their victims to sell the substances.
Homeless people are increasingly becoming the victims of modern slavery, lured by traffickers with promises of work, housing and narcotics. They are then used as forced labour to sell drugs or in other forms of criminal exploitation. This year the number of British people coming to statutory support services after being identified as victims of modern slavery has doubled. Many were homeless and had existing drug addictions, making them a target for traffickers, who used their addiction to coerce them into harmful activities. An increasing number of people have been identified as victims of slavery, ending up destitute, homeless and re-trafficked shortly after exiting safe houses.
Addiction is an illness. Young people sell themselves for their next fix and join dangerous and abusive gangs to ensure that their addiction is fed. Far more needs to be done to educate children in schools about drug use and the associated dangers that addiction brings. We are not talking about recreational drugs; we are talking about people who are dependent on a substance that dominates their ability to function.
Involvement in the criminal justice system often results from both illegal drug taking and the criminal activities to obtain those drugs. The destructive behaviours are often caused by brain changes triggered by drug use. Treating drug-involved offenders will provide us with an opportunity to decrease substance abuse and reduce associated criminal behaviour. Commitment to expand drug treatment facilities is essential to ensure a better way to cut the numbers of people who are addicted and keep them out of the criminal justice system.
We are failing people who are addicted to drugs. We have to look at where we have gone wrong. Drug addiction is not getting any better, so the existing system is clearly not working. It must be made much easier for people to get the treatment that they need. Facilities for treating people with drug issues must be improved and increased. Drug reform would be an opportunity to address the issues in the criminal justice system. It is time to think differently about punishment for drug-related offences, to increase the treatment budgets to prevent addiction and drug-related deaths, and to change drug policy so that police forces up and down the country have a uniform approach to drug addiction, allowing them to better tackle the drug battle that permeates all our towns and cities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. As I have previously stated on the record, owing to the potential for a conflict of interest, with my husband’s business interests, I have recused myself on issues relating to cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids. I therefore will not respond to those points during this debate, but will ask the Policing Minister, who deals with these matters, to write to Members on those points.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing the debate. His debates on drugs always seem to be interrupted by numerous Divisions, so I am delighted to have reached the point where I have a little time to sum up.
This Government recognise the serious harm that drugs cause, not only to individual users but to their families, children and local communities. Drugs have been identified in the recent serious violence strategy as a major driver of the recent increases in serious violence. Drugs cost more than £10 billion a year to our society, over half of which is attributed to drug-related acquisitive crime such as burglary, robbery and shoplifting. We remain ambitious and committed in addressing these problems. That is why we committed to further action on drugs as part of the serious violence strategy.
Our policy on drugs is anchored in education to reduce demand, tough and intelligent enforcement to restrict supply, evidence-based treatment to aid recovery, and co-ordinated global action. I will deal with the global picture first. The UK is driving global action to tackle drug harms. Genuine international challenges include the increased production and purity of cocaine in Colombia, and the problems of fentanyl use in North America. International co-operation is key. We continue to strengthen controls at our borders, share information and understand global trends. Last week, I met people from the International Narcotics Control Board who had come to view our work on tackling drugs. We will continue to work closely with our international partners to share best practice and achieve the best possible outcomes for all those at risk of harm from drugs.
The national picture, Government are already delivering a range of action is that through the 2017 drugs strategy to prevent drug misuse in our communities, support people to recover from dependence on drugs, and support law enforcement to tackle the illicit drug trade.
On reducing drug dependency, is the Minister aware that generic buprenorphine is no longer available from the manufacturer? As a result, drug treatment uses the Subutex brand, which costs £3,000 per patient per year and is becoming increasingly expensive. Will she look into that? It is proving financially difficult to support patients with opioid-substitution therapy.
I will of course look into that, and I will ask a Health Minister to write to my hon. Friend.
The drug strategy recognises that we must reduce demand by acting early to prevent people from using drugs in the first place and to prevent escalation to more harmful use. We are taking action to build resilience among young people, alongside a targeted approach for groups at particular risk. Well-off recreational drug users must also recognise the part that they play in funding the criminal networks that supply their drugs and the violence that those crime gangs use.
My shadow, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), has already mentioned the issue of county lines. Yesterday, we had a meeting of the serious violence taskforce. It is absolutely clear that the illicit drug market is a major driver of the rise of serious violence, which is why the police must work with our health professionals to tackle it. Schools play a vital role in that, helping children to understand the risks of illicit drugs and build their resilience and ability to say no. The Government are making health education compulsory, as well as funding Mentor UK’s Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service to provide practical advice to teachers.
Tough enforcement, however, is fundamental. We are restricting the supply of drugs, adapting our approach to changes in criminal activity, using innovative data and technology, and taking co-ordinated action to tackle drugs alongside other criminal activity. Through the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, we have choked off the supply of so-called legal highs. More than 300 retailers throughout the UK have closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances. Police have arrested suppliers, and the National Crime Agency has ensured the removal of psychoactive substances from sale on UK websites.
Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of decriminalisation, and I again note that no single body of opinion has formed about how such decriminalisation would work. Who would administer the drugs, presumably available on the NHS to users? Will that include recreational drugs such as MDMA, so that people can have fun at the weekend? Is the taxpayer paying for that?
I welcome the chance to discuss the issue, but the problem with such a debate is that “decriminalisation” is referred to, but not a body of opinion—certainly none described in this debate—to evidence of what would happen under such a policy. The police and others have to deal with precisely these issues day to day, to protect our communities from illicit drug use, because those drugs harm people.
The Minister is setting out the case for why there is an obstacle to change. In Durham, for example, the police and crime commissioner, a very experienced chief constable and all the agencies say, “Give this a try.” They believe that it will work, because the evidence suggests that. Why does she not pilot such a scheme?
One or two police and crime commissioners may say that—I know, because they write to me regularly—but the majority of them do not share that view. That is not to say that we cannot have a debate about this, but let us please not pretend that that is the view of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Recovery is a vital element of our approach. We are taking forward action to enhance treatment quality and outcomes. Here is perhaps where some colleagues have—inadvertently I am sure—fallen into error when talking about drug consumption rooms and heroin-assisted treatment. Sometimes, people may not understand the differences between the two programmes. We have run pilot heroin-assisted treatment programmes, where heroin users are put into an intensive support programme through their GPs or other medical professionals. They are prescribed diamorphine as part of an intensive programme of action. That is very different from drug consumption rooms, which support the illicit drug market.
I will not, as I am conscious of time. People wander into drug consumption rooms, having bought their fixes on the street. We have no guarantees on the safety of those substances. The Government simply cannot condone that sort of behaviour, not least because it falls foul of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but also because it would not be responsible to support the illegal market.
Interestingly, the view of the International Narcotics Control Board is very cautious. It says that drug consumption rooms must be operated
“within a framework that offers treatment and rehabilitation services”.
I would argue that its model is closer to heroin-assisted treatment.
I have one minute left, so I am afraid I will have to refuse more interventions.
We are helping users through needle and syringe programmes, to prevent infections, and opioid-substitution therapy, and widening the use of naloxone. The Home Secretary has commissioned an independent review of the drugs market in the 21st century—it is not quite the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde represented. We need to understand how the drugs market works today. That is why, as part of our drugs strategy and our serious violence strategy, working with health partners, we are convinced that this is the right approach.
I sincerely thank everyone who has taken part in this afternoon’s debate. I mentioned that I had visited drug consumption rooms in Barcelona—I understand the difference between them and heroin-assisted treatment units. What impressed me most about those rooms were not just the facilities—they were attached to health clinics and psychiatric hospitals, and there was even a mobile unit being driven around the area—but the attitude of the people providing the service in those units. They looked upon the users of their clinics as human beings first and foremost. They had moved away from the idea of categorising and stigmatising people as junkies, crackheads and stoners. They did not see a problem but an opportunity to help people back into life.
It was summed up perfectly to me when it was explained that people living in Catalonia who have a medical card get free medical care; immigrants living in Catalonia are given a medical card, so they get free medical care; and illegal immigrants in Catalonia are given a medical card, so they get free medical care. They have taken the stance that this is about humanity and their approach to their fellow citizens. Only when we do that will we start to address the horrendous problems we have in our society through problematic drug use.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered drugs policy.