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Problem Drug Use

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to declare problem drug use a public health emergency; to require the Secretary of State to review the effects of welfare sanctions on people who use drugs; to make the Department for Health and Social Care the lead department for drugs policy; to require the Secretary of State to respond publicly to recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; to amend the classification of drugs in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; to make provision for safe drug consumption facilities; to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use; to make provision about the stigmatisation of problem drug use; to amend the Equality Act 2010 to recognise drug dependence as a health condition; and for connected purposes.

This pandemic has shone a spotlight on many of the problems we face as a society, but it has also diverted our attention from many other pressing social problems. One of those is the question of problematic drug use, which afflicts every community in every part of this land. Thousands of people are losing their lives. Tens of thousands have their lives and their health blighted, and hundreds of thousands of people living in our communities have their lives compromised by the effects of this problem, yet the big problem we have is that the principal piece of legislation governing this area that we look to—the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—is simply not fit for purpose. In fact, worse than that, it is a hindrance to taking action and compounds the very problems that we perceive.

The Act does that in a number of ways. First, by criminalising the entire area, and the production, distribution, supply and consumption of drugs, it takes any concept of regulation or control and places it firmly in the hands of organised crime, rather than public agencies. Secondly, stigmatising and criminalising the end user makes it very difficult for anyone caught up in the problem to seek help. They are often torn between threats of violence from their supplier and the threat of arrest and detention by the police. Thirdly, it compromises the ability of health service workers to intervene and do something about the problem, in many cases also placing them under threat of prosecution. Finally, it shrouds the entire area in ignorance and a lack of information, meaning that we cannot shine a light on the problem and decide what to do.

It is nearly 50 years since the Act was passed, and I can think of no other legislation on social policy that has remained unreformed and unreviewed for half a century. The case for reform is all the more compelling when we consider that the scale and nature of the problem we face today is so different from that faced by our predecessors at the end of the 1960s. Drugs have changed. More people are using them, and we now know far more about what to do with them than ever before. That is why we should have a comprehensive review of drugs legislation. I hope and pray that the Government will see the wisdom of doing that at some stage in the near future, and that we will move away from an approach based on criminalisation and prohibition, towards one based on compassion and regulation.

But that is not what today or this Bill is about. I do not seek to overturn or amend the 1971 Act. I seek to introduce additional specific measures that will deal with the problems in front of us today. When discussing this whole area we must first realise that this is not a new problem. Narcotics have existed for as long as we have. They were there in the past; they will be there in the future. Ever since humans beings grew legs, we have been chewing leaves or drinking potions in an attempt to combat pain or overcome boredom. For some that is a response to dramatic and poor conditions in their lives, but for others it is simply part of the curiosity inherent in human nature.

We understand much more than we used to about the science behind this problem. That science is still developing, but we know that the problem of drug addiction in our society is principally to do with biochemistry. It is not a moral question about right or wrong. What is happening is not to do with the actions of some aberrant individuals who are deciding to be bad; it is a social problem about how we interact with our world and environment.

When people like me make such arguments, two arguments are usually thrown against us. The first is to say that drug problems in society are a result of many other social ills, and we should be concentrating on the incohesion in our society, the poverty, inequality, abuse, violence and our mental health crisis, and we are misplacing our energy if we talk simply about reforming drug laws. I know of no one on this side of the argument who does not call for a radical change in social policy to try to overcome the policies that we are afflicted by, but it is a false choice to present this as “either we do that, or we reform drugs legislation.” We need to do both. Although in many cases those social problems are the consequences of drug addiction, in some cases they are also the causes of it, and that interrelationship must be addressed.

The second point argued when people like me say things such as this is that we are going soft on drugs. To use the Home Office’s phrase, we are “giving the wrong impression”, as if somehow reforming criminal law in this matter would encourage drug consumption, addiction or problematic drug use.

The problem with that argument is not only that there is not a shred of evidence to support it, but that there is abundant evidence to support the opposite point of view. Over the last 20 years, many countries have made often radical and dramatic changes in their legal framework surrounding drugs. In not one single instance has that led to an increase in the problem. Everywhere—everywhere!—it has led to a reduction in the problem, with fewer users, fewer drugs, fewer deaths and fewer demands on law enforcement. That is the fact of the matter across the world. Today, in Portugal, which has taken serious action—probably more than any other European country—four people for every million of the population die from problem drug use. The figure in the United Kingdom is 85 people per million. That should mean that we do something about this problem, and I hope very much that we will.

Let me turn to some of the specifics of the Bill. Much of the debate has been about drug consumption rooms, and I want to be clear just how irritated and frustrated I become when some people refer to these glibly as shooting galleries, as if they were a site of entertainment or relaxation. I have visited these facilities in Canada, Germany and Portugal, and they are as far away from anyone’s concept of recreation as it is possible to get.

Some people just do not understand how providing a facility to allow people to take their own drugs can in any way help them. Surely we should be intervening with rehabilitation. Surely we should be offering these people help and advice. The people who say that misunderstand the problem, and they misunderstand this proposal. We cannot give advice to a dead person. This proposal, and facilities such as drug treatment rooms and drug consumption rooms, are about keeping people alive today so that we can make those interventions tomorrow. These facilities are, in effect, overdose prevention centres. Because this entire matter is shrouded in the criminal law, most of the 5,546 people who died from this problem last year died alone, behind closed doors. They died unintentionally because, by the time they realised something was wrong, it was too late to call for help. However, the real horror is not the deaths, but the fact that they are entirely preventable if we choose to bring this whole area into the light and look at it seriously.

In my last minute, I want to address how policy is made in this Parliament. We have a Select Committee system. Committees are set up to scrutinise areas of legislation and Executive action. Over the last year, the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee have done exactly that in this field. They have brought forward experts, who have studied this matter in detail, and they have—independently of each other—made the same recommendations, which reflect the proposals in the Bill. The Government’s response, in rejecting those recommendations out of hand, has been woeful. I say to the Government that this matter will not go away. They cannot keep their head in the sand. They should take it out and tell us what the alternative is. If the UK Government are incapable of acting as a state on this, they should give the capacity and the power to the devolved Administrations, so that the countries of this land can learn from each other.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tommy Sheppard, Ronnie Cowan, Alison Thewliss, Tonia Antoniazzi, Clive Lewis, Ben Lake, Caroline Lucas, Crispin Blunt, Grahame Morris, Jeff Smith, Wendy Chamberlain and Pete Wishart present the Bill.

Tommy Sheppard accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 November, and to be printed (Bill 189).

Delegated Legislation

Public Health

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 935), dated 2 September 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3 September, be approved.—(Maggie Throup.)

Question agreed to.