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Drugs And The Law

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2001

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2.59 p.m.

rose to call attention to the case for a Royal Commission on the misuse of drugs in the light of the Police Foundation Report: Drugs and the Law (the Runciman Report); and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a number of people have thought that it was reckless of the Liberal Democrats to call for a debate on drug policy in the shadow of a general election. All the pundits tell us that there are no votes to be had from drugs except by making the most macho of condemnatory noises. We have some experience of that. Seven and a half years ago, in 1994, the Liberal Democrat conference passed a resolution calling for a Royal Commission on drug policy—a call that we echo again today. The result of us raising the issue was an attack by the popular press and political opponents, who suggested that we were soft on drugs.

That was seven and a half years ago. We have still not had a Royal Commission, yet the report before us makes the damning finding that,

"We have been forcibly struck by the lack of research and the weakness of the information base about drug use in the United Kingdom".

My first duty is to pay tribute to the Police Foundation and to Lady Runciman and her colleagues for going where successive Home Secretaries have feared to tread in producing an excellent and thought-provoking report on drugs and the law. As in 1994, our aim is not to provide flip answers, but to promote an informed debate. We share with Lady Runciman and her committee the hope that such an informed debate will produce law that is less intrusive, less detrimental to the individual and more enforceable. We also share the committee's ambition for laws that are more effective in targeting the most dangerous drugs and the activities related to them.

I hope to initiate a rational debate, free from gesture politics. Our initial call has been for a response from the Government—I look forward to that later today—although sometimes gesture politics has a role. For example, no icons of the drug culture should cross the threshold of No. 10 or feature in the honours list. In the early 1960s, the then British Government sent a message to organised crime about how we intended to police our gaming industry by banning the film star George Raft. The Home Secretary could send a similar strong message to Britain's young people about the seriousness of our drugs law by refusing entry to Britain for the American pop star Eminem, when he attempts to return for the Brit awards next week. At a time when the latest research shows British teenagers at the head of the league table of drug users among 30 European countries, it is not acceptable for those who so influence the young to promote the message that drug taking is cool, when so many wrecked lives and ruined bodies and minds show the contrary to be true.

In the totality of the issue, that would be gesture politics, but it is a gesture worth making, because we are in a war, with our own children in the front line. I do not doubt the Government's sincerity or determination. Like Lady Runciman and her committee, I welcome the 10-year strategy put in place by Keith Hellawell and the work of his unit. I must confess to having some doubts about bandying about the title "drugs tsar". Appointing a tough, no-nonsense copper with a nice macho title and an Elliot Ness image seems the kind of response tailored to the fears of the focus groups of middle England, where all too often the Prime Minister's political courage resides. Yet one is bound to ask whether, under the current legal framework, we are simply asking Mr Hellawell and the authorities to run up the down escalator. Does our present legislation reflect the reality of the statement in the Runciman report that:

"eradication of drug use is not achievable and is not therefore either a realistic or a sensible goal of public policy"?

Are we on course to win the drugs war with a 10-year strategy, or are we going to fail because we are asking law enforcement to carry out tasks for which there is no popular consent? I do not know. All that one can say is that all the evidence shows that things are getting worse, not better.

Two chilling statistics from the report concern heroin addiction. First, it says that in the late 1960s,

"the difficulty was almost entirely confined to certain sections of London and involved not more than 1,000 known addicts".

The report goes on to say:

"Between 1973 and 1996, the total of new and re-notified addicts increased by over 1,000 per cent".

The Runciman report tells us that we have 200,000 problem drug users, of whom the majority are heroin users. The largest increase in problem drug use over the past five years has been among those under 21.

In the past 30 years, drug abuse has moved from being an isolated fringe issue to being a major public health issue, a major cause of crime and a major threat to our social stability. The issue impacts on two distinct levels. At the individual level, drugs damage health and are a major cause of delinquency, including the dramatic rise in juvenile crime and more general crimes of theft and violence. At the macro level, drugs provide the financial engine room for organised crime. Drugs are thus a twin menace that can simultaneously destroy individual lives and destabilise whole societies.

I have already referred to the recent research that shows that 36 per cent of boys and girls in Britain aged 15 and 16 have taken drugs. Dr Martin Plant, director of the Alcohol and Health Research Council, is quoted as saying:

"One of the problems we have is that drug taking has now become so commonplace that it is widely regarded as socially acceptable".

The increasing availability and use of illegal drugs and large-scale alcohol abuse are related to crime in our society. In particular, there is a strong link between illegal drug abuse and acquisitive crime to pay for those drugs. There is also a strong link between alcohol abuse and the level of violent crime in society. Although drug and alcohol abuse may themselves be related to wider social problems faced by individuals, there is a clear and direct relationship to crime.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs estimated that in 1996, 25 per cent of those on probation had drug misuse problems associated with their offending and 70 per cent of those said that they had taken drugs of some kind, with 23 per cent saying that their offending had sometimes been influenced by the need to take drugs.

I could take a lot of time going through the various Home Office reports, but it is beyond peradventure that there is a clear link between drugs and crime. There is also a strong connection between drug use and unemployment and other social deprivation.

We have a problem. The question is whether we have moved on since 1994 in our capacity to answer three questions: Can the Government strategy work within the framework of existing laws? Do some of the laws need strengthening? Do some of them need relaxing?

My response to the first question is that those are exactly the terms that I would give to a Royal Commission. It is ironic that the Minister probably has in his brief the stock Home Office response that a Royal Commission would take too long, yet if one had been appointed in 1994, when the Liberal Democrats first called for it, or even when this Government came to office in 1997, it would have reported already. One of the advantages of the Runciman report is that it has done a lot of the ground-clearing work for a Royal Commission. There is no reason that a Royal Commission could not build on Runciman and report very quickly.

The answer to the second question—whether some laws need strengthening—is also undoubtedly yes. We need to turn the full might and power of all our law enforcement agencies, including our secret services and financial regulators, on attacking drug trafficking and the oil that lubricates the wheels of the drug trade—money laundering. The 1998 UN drug convention, the European Council's drug strategy and the UK's Drug Trafficking Act 1994 are all applicable. Quite simply, if we want to stop the drugs supply, we must cut off its blood supply—hard currency. Is it unreasonable for banks and other businesses to identify a source of capital, especially when a large sum of money is involved that falls outside typical business accounts? The first crime committed in any drugs transaction is not the creation of a drug but the financing of materials and people to create the drug. The pressing question becomes: when will it be more expensive to pay for treating the symptoms of drugs use than to spend money on stopping the causes of the disease?

The Professor of International Criminal Law at the University of Notre Dame, and the former Assistant Attorney-General in the United States, Jimmy Gurule, discussed the problem and said:

"In order to apprehend and prosecute these international drug offenders successfully, law enforcement officials must abandon traditional techniques in favour of bold and innovative counter-narcotic strategies. Any such initiative must include two principal components. First, this new law enforcement strategy must be international in scope. Second, it has been long recognised that 'if law enforcement efforts (directed at international organised crime) are to be successful, they must include an attack on the economic aspects' of drug trafficking and other related crimes".

Thus, any effective strategy must criminalise money laundering and deprive drug traffickers of their illicit drugs profits through enforcement of tough asset-forfeiture laws. Furthermore, both of those objectives must be aggressively pursued on an international scale; otherwise, without co-operation among all nations that are affected by illegal traffic, traffickers can defeat domestic forfeiture simply by removing all of their illicit wealth from the jurisdiction in which it is generated.

Runciman states:

"We have concluded that the most serious deficiency in the law against drug trafficking is a pragmatic rather than a legislative one. It lies in the current ineffectiveness of the procedures by which the assets of drug traffickers are confiscated under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1994".

I hope that the Minister will address that point. Our current laws and international agreements are not being pursued vigorously enough, perhaps because 80 per cent of the resources that are available for attacking the drugs culture is aimed at attacking the use of cannabis.

Runciman asked the big question, and it is worth pressing the Minister for an answer today: are we really using the resources that are available in the anti-drugs war in the right way? The Runciman report calls

for cannabis to be downgraded to a Class C drug with an appropriate change in guidelines about how enforcement agencies should treat possession for personal use. That recommendation deserves careful study. That does not involve going soft on drugs—not even on soft drugs. It is merely to ask—to adapt a phrase that is used in another context—if we are serious about our war on hard drugs, whether we need to replace the present day blunderbuss of legislation with Armalite.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. When he said that the Runciman report's recommendation of downgrading the classification of cannabis deserved careful study, did he mean that he supported that recommendation or not?

My Lords, that is precisely why I want a Royal Commission to be established. I am not an expert on drugs law. The noble Lord's knowing smirk suggests that he feels that he has scored a tremendous goal. Part of the problem is that the government whom he supported and the present Government have taken knee-jerk reactions to the problem.

The first point in the Runciman report is that there is not enough research. I fully accept—the Minister will probably say this later—that long-term mental damage and other long-term health problems may be caused by cannabis use. I am in no way advocating the use of cannabis but I ask whether we have trained our resources—our big guns—on the real problem. The real problem is the 1,000 per cent increase in heroin use and 200,000 heroin users. It is not worthy if, each time we debate drugs, someone says, "They are going to turn us into pot-heads". We must have a rational debate and establish whether the policy is working, whether it has any hope of working and whether there are proposals that could help to change the situation.

The Runciman report adopted the right approach—it suggested that we should at least examine the issue. If the noble Lord wants my view, I believe that we should look carefully at the case for an immediate relaxation in the law relating to the medical use of cannabis. I know that research is being carried out at the moment. I hope that the Minister will tell us when the trials will be completed and when a decision will be taken. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones will discuss that matter more fully.

On other matters, I acknowledge the efforts that the Government have made. I know that there are no guarantees of success about whether we should change our laws or stay in the present position. There are questions that need urgent answers. Why is it that people who are free of drugs when they go into prisons come out as drugs users? How can organised crime launder its money through our banking system with such apparent impunity? Perhaps the noble Lord the former Chancellor of the Exchequer will have an expert opinion on that. Have we the political will to provide the resources to enable us to direct problem drug-users into treatment rather than into prison? The latter is rather like sending an alcoholic to a brewery. Will we give appropriate priority and resources to education, particularly in relation to the relevant health consequences, which may be the real sanction that young people will listen to?

We again call for the setting up of a Royal Commission safe in the knowledge that Runciman has done much of the groundwork. Last Sunday the Prime Minister stated his ambition in this regard. He said:
"We want Britain to be the hardest place on earth to deal in hard drugs".
I believe that there is a possibility creating a broad cross-party consensus in relation to that objective so long as Ministers approach the task with open minds and with knees that are free from jerks. We should heed the warning in the Runciman report, which states:
"We welcome the new research programme of the latest national plan; but until it begins to yield significant results and embraces some of the issues raised in this Report, discussion of the policy options will continue to be hampered by the need for more research and better evaluations than we have at present".
Is that not Dame Ruth Runciman's more elegant way of warning us that we are running up an escalator that is going downwards? Runciman declares two objectives in calling for reforms: to reduce the harm that drugs can do to individuals and to reduce the harm to which, in that Committee's opinion, the present law is leading. The Runciman report could have been written in response to the Liberal Democrat resolution of six-and-a-half years ago. However, the Runciman Committee was not a Royal Commission and it does not have the authority of a Royal Commission. We believe that appointing a Royal Commission is the best way forward to achieve the national consensus that is needed to win the drugs war and the other objective of Runciman; namely, to
"bring the law into line with public opinion and its most loyal ally, common sense".

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.19 p.m.

My Lords, this is a timely debate in which I am delighted to participate. I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on initiating the debate on the thorough and well written report, Drugs and the Law. Although much of the report is perfectly sensible, the conclusions and recommendations that received all of the media attention were, to use a legal term, unsafe and unsatisfactory.

I start by telling noble Lords where I am coming from. I spent 35 years as a police officer, mainly in the CID. Part of that period was spent as the head of the drugs squad in my force. So I have seen at first hand the misery, suffering, anguish, grief and pain caused by using drugs, not just to those who use them but to those around them and, in particular, those who are left behind to pick up the pieces. You only have to talk to Paul Betts, as I have done, about the loss of his daughter, Leah, to start to understand the sorrow of losing a loved one in such very difficult circumstances. In this debate we are addressing the best way to mitigate that misery and suffering as a society, particularly with regard to the well-being and development of our young people.

It may surprise your Lordships to know that as a former police officer, I am a libertarian. I believe that individuals should be allowed to do what they wish without interference by the state, provided—and it is a big proviso—that no other individual or society in general is harmed as a consequence. I submit most strongly, however, that taking mind-altering substances does do harm to other people as well as to society as a whole.

Nevertheless, we know that there can be damaging effects on health. Indeed, ecstasy and LSD have led to a number of deaths. As regards cannabis—the noble Lord referred to cannabis in his speech—I can do no better than quote from Professor Heather Ashton in a BMA report in December 1997. She said:
"Smoking cannabis leads to 3 times greater tar inhalation than tobacco. Chronic use increases risk of cardiovascular disease, bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer".
A World Health Organisation report states that there is a 50 per cent greater chance of getting cancer by smoking a joint than by smoking a cigarette.

So there is harm to society because valuable medical resources are used to treat those self-inflicted illnesses. This is all at a time when we have changed the culture of smoking in society. What used to be macho and sexy is now spurned, as we see from small huddles of excluded smokers standing outside offices getting their fix. Surely we do not want to reverse that trend by encouraging smoking, which is the most common way of taking cannabis.

But there is also a risk to other people individually. I have said already that relaxing penalties, in my view, would give a green light and increase usage. I do not believe that that can be denied. What about those people who decide to drive or use machinery in the workplace after indulging in a night on cannabis?

I know that it is illegal to drive under the influence of drink or drugs but we do not have a road-side testing device for drugs as we have for alcohol. The technology has not yet moved that distance. DETR research in 1998 showed that almost one in five persons killed in traffic accidents has illicit drugs in the body. In my submission, that figure would rise significantly without the ability to combat it. To change tack now and give the green light to using drugs would be irresponsible at a time when serious consideration is being given to reducing the alcohol limit for driving.

I believe that we all agree that any drugs can be harmful—both lawful drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, and those drugs at present deemed unlawful to deal in, distribute or even possess. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 categorises different drugs according to their relative harmful qualities.

The nub of the argument this afternoon is whether, by relaxing controls on some of the so-called softer drugs, the fight against the harder, more dangerous drugs can be more focused and successful.

If we were starting from a clean sheet, we should probably not legalise alcohol and tobacco. But that debate has moved on and we cannot put back the clock. However, we can avoid making the same mistakes again. Basic economics tell us that by relaxing controls and increasing availability, the price would fall. That would lead to an increase in demand and usage.

Indeed, proponents point to the Netherlands as some perfect example of what can be achieved. I have spoken to Dutch police officers and it is difficult, at times, to make direct comparisons with this country. But since the 1980s, cannabis use has trebled in Holland since decriminalisation. In Amsterdam, which is the drugs capital of Europe, drug addicts are responsible for 80 per cent of all property crime. Because of drug problems, Amsterdam requires a far larger police force than comparable cities. Holland supplies virtually all the ecstasy and 80 per cent of the heroin flowing into Britain.

It is significant that the Dutch authorities have reduced the overall number of coffee shop outlets and the quantity of cannabis which can be bought in any one transaction. I understand also that the Dutch are having a serious rethink about their liberal drugs policy because of the social ills caused.

Incidentally, the active ingredient of cannabis—THC—was about I per cent in 1960. It is now almost 30 per cent in some cases.

We often hear quoted the problems during the prohibition on alcohol in the United States in the 1930s. In my view, that is a false analogy because the USA was a dry country in a wet world whereas our policies on drugs are in line with UN conventions on narcotics. If anywhere is out of step, it is the Netherlands.

What is to be done? When this Government were elected in 1997, one of their early appointments, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned, was the anti-drugs co-ordinator, the so-called drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell. In April 1998, he produced a White Paper, Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain, which said that making a lasting difference was at least a 10-year project. In consequence, he produced a 10-year strategy which, incidentally, was endorsed by the Police Foundation Committee.

The Government have developed a coherent programme and measures to deal with those issues, including new drug treatment and testing orders to break the vicious circle of drugs and crime, to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, rightly referred; minimum seven-year sentences for repeat drug dealers and more investment in effective treatment and education.

There is evidence that that is working. Very recently published research by the school health education unit at Exeter University, in a report Young People and Illegal Drugs into 2000, is encouraging. Researchers who have tracked patterns of childhood drug-taking for the past 13 years have reported that use among pupils, particularly older pupils aged 14 and 15, has fallen for the past two years. The researchers have christened that the "tsar effect" for obvious reasons.

Without being complacent, that is very positive news which was not in the public arena when the Police Foundation made its recommendations. The foundation report admits:
"We have been forcibly struck by the lack of research and the weakness of the information base about drugs use in the United Kingdom".
That is the main strength of the argument today for a Royal Commission to which I have no objection at all. The more information we have, the more decisive action we can take. But having said that there is no information, the Runciman report goes on to recommend radical new departures from the status quo. That is, I submit, asking us to take a dangerous leap in the dark.

In conclusion, we need to invest in a massive education programme for those under 10 years; we need to provide escape routes for those addicted; and we need to change the drug culture in society as we did with smoking tobacco and drink-driving.

It has been a pleasure to participate in the debate, which I think will be well informed and very measured.

3.28 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for introducing this important debate. At the outset, I should declare the fact that I am chairman of the charity, Action on Addiction, the only UK charity which exclusively funds research into the root causes of addiction.

I welcome with some reservations the findings of the Runciman report. But if, as the report points out, 25 per cent of 16 to 29 year-olds say they have taken drugs in the past year—and I believe that figure to be a low estimate—it is certainly an issue worthy of national debate and government attention.

I have no doubt that a Royal Commission would take the debate further and challenge the orthodoxy of drug policy in this country. But I wonder what additional evidence could possibly be forthcoming or what additional recommendations could be added to the 81 recommendations on pages 128 to 136 of the report. Some of my misgivings may be allayed were it to be a permanent, continuing commission, keeping drugs firmly on the national agenda, but not an excuse for time-wasting. I cannot help but feel that the time has come for more action and not more words.

Simon Jenkins, a member of the Runciman committee, concluded his article in The Times of last week on the new film that covers drug crime, called "Traffic", by saying:
"This film is modern. The only sadness is that it was not made in Britain, under the noses of the complacent Home Office. Britain has the biggest hard drug market in Europe, deregulated and wide open to the traffickers of the world. Jack Straw's prisons are its largest single customer. Traffic tells us why. It is not history, nor even metaphor. It is the truth".
There is an urgency to Simon Jenkins' words and the whole tone of the Runciman report. We are already falling behind other countries in the effectiveness of our drug policy. We must look again at research and evaluation of treatment and at training and prevention. From that we can better inform our decision-making on issues such as drug reclassification.

I do not argue that Customs and domestic policing policies are not important—indeed, they are vital—but I believe that so many of the decisions that need to be made on UK drug policy follow from better research, scrutiny of policy and getting the best treatment procedures in place. What can the Government do now in those areas ahead of any further talk, discussion or Royal Commission? As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has pointed out, and as the Runciman report highlights, I believe that the key is in the area of research and information.

The Government should allocate 1 per cent of the total annual drug budget to research all aspects of the drug problem, mirroring the percentage of its budget that the NHS dedicates to research. Just 1 per cent would inject £14 million a year into drugs research, considerably more than committed on a year-by-year basis in Mr Hellawell's first annual report and national plan. The current balance of investment between supply reduction and research is simply out of proportion.

Why would more money spent on research help? For a start, a bigger research budget would, in part, evaluate the cost-effectiveness of those all important supply reduction initiatives. Research and independent evaluation will provide the critical tools by which the coherence of our drug policy can be assessed. Currently, 75 per cent of the drug budget is spent on law enforcement within the United Kingdom and the prevention of drug trafficking. But there is little evidence to suggest that drug use has decreased or that we are preventing drugs from entering the country. Indeed, the estimate of Customs and Excise is that it intercepts just 5 to 10 per cent of drugs coming into this country.

On the other hand, there is clear evidence that research has benefited the treatment of drug users, the education of our young people and our understanding of the causes of drug problems. Research has shown us, for example, that for every £1 spent on dedicated specialist drug treatment services, £3 is saved by society in hospital admissions, social security costs and prison places.

Anyone who works in the addictions field will tell you of the invaluable contribution made by the National Treatment Outcome Research Study, NTORS. That study proves how research can lead to a consistent, evidence-based treatment policy and be a significant critical assessment tool. But that is just the starting point. Most importantly, any increased funding for research must be long-term funding. It should include, as a minimum, provision for specialist, independent centres dedicated to researching the key domains of drug policy expenditure; that is, supply reduction, treatment and prevention.

Let me take one example from the National Addiction Centre, for which our charity, Action on Addiction, provides funding. One of our bright young researchers has worked on three completely different and unrelated research projects over the past three years. There is absolutely no coherence to her career development or continuity to her research. She is forced to follow the funding, wherever it goes and against whichever project. How can we expect quality research of a consistent nature when our brightest and best researchers are forced to operate in this way?

In addition, we are falling behind other countries. In Australia, for example, there are two nationally funded research centres, whereas in the UK there is only the National Addiction Centre and there are very few long-term research posts at the centre that are government funded. Indeed, when methadone maintenance was first considered in the UK, it was Australian, not UK, evidence that was utilised in the policy decision-making.

I call for the UK to spend 1 per cent of its drug budget on research, but in the United States more than 4 per cent of their budget is dedicated to research and that has been criticised by the General Accounting Office as inadequate. Eighty-five per cent of the world's research in that area now comes from the US, research that we have to "translate" into the UK context where there is a different society and a different culture.

I would also call upon the Government to ensure that a permanent independent body oversees the allocation of the drug budget on the basis of demonstrable effectiveness. Such a body must be independent if objectively it is to assess the effectiveness of policy implementation, to advise the Government on an ongoing basis as to how the drug budget should be allocated and to criticise government policy when it fails to follow the implications suggested by research.

Will the National Treatment Agency meet that brief? Will it be truly independent and able, therefore, objectively to view the effectiveness of drug policy? As its role develops, I hope that it will not just become a clearing house for bed placements at in-patient drug units, important though such places are.

A grace note on the need for a consistency of drug policy with that of alcohol and tobacco is that there is no national alcohol strategy. We have had promises, and we have even seen drafts, but now we need to see a firm strategy that is consistent with and allied to our drugs policy.

I also want to urge the Government to increase investment in both substance treatment and treatment evaluation. It is not enough to say that treatment works; we need to know when, why and for whom. To do that, we shall need higher levels of staff training, dedicated research and a greater commitment to independent audit and evaluation of treatment provision.

As with research, our treatment provision lags behind the US. That is most clearly demonstrated by comparing the methadone treatment programmes in both countries. In the UK, methadone treatment is little more than a prescription, whereas in the US, any prescription for methadone is accompanied by help with health, employment, housing and counselling, all provided by highly trained staff.

In conclusion, now is the time for action. The Runciman report has highlighted the urgency of the reevaluation of our drug policy. I urge the Government to review, to evaluate and, where appropriate, to implement their recommendations. Do not let talk of establishing a Royal Commission—whether it be right or wrong to establish one—be yet another reason to delay increased expenditure on research, to delay the establishment of an independent body to agree the allocation of the drug budget and to delay more expenditure on both substance treatment and treatment evaluation. As the Runciman report vividly displays, time is no longer on our side.

3.38 p.m.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for initiating this debate. My diocese, being predominantly urban, has more than its fair share of drug-related problems, so I read the Runciman report with particular interest and I was impressed by its knowledge, wisdom and moderation. I believe that it addressed the real issues and made some far-reaching recommendations. On these Benches, of course we do not agree with all the recommendations, but we agree that they deserve serious consideration. I, for one, 'was rather disappointed by the timidity of the response of the Home Office, although I understand that in the run-up to a general election no politician wants to frighten the electorate.

It may bring comfort to politicians on all sides of the House to know that the electorate is becoming quite resilient on the issue of drug misuse. I cite in evidence the fact that two years ago in my diocese we published a report, The Chemical Generation: Understanding Young People and Drug Use. We sent a copy to each of our 400 or so parishes. That report covered similar ground to that of the Runciman report and it made a number of recommendations. I must tell your Lordships that I watched the publication of our report with some trepidation, for I can at times be as cautious as any Home Office civil servant or Minister. I need not have been so anxious for, in fact, hundreds of ordinary Church people have now discussed our report in an open-minded and calm manner. They have not been disturbed or frightened by challenging recommendations and certainly, as a result of this extensive exercise, they are much better informed.

It may be helpful to share with your Lordships some of the key questions which have provided most interest in this consultation. First, there is the question of whether or not prohibition is preventing people having access to drugs. Government statistics, as the Runciman report points out, show that the UK has the highest incidence of drug use in Europe. About half of our young people have at least tried drugs and a significant proportion use them regularly. The figures also show that the price of drugs on the streets has not increased significantly for years, although drug seizures have increased. This must surely mean that the supply has increased proportionately. So it seems that current legislation has not prevented those who want drugs having access to them.

However, if the law has failed so far to limit the supply, might this objective be achieved by making the penalties more severe? That seems to be the position of the Home Office. Penalties for drug trafficking are already so severe that the senior Scottish judge, the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, has publicly questioned why someone convicted of cannabis trafficking is likely to receive a prison sentence four times as long as would be imposed for rape.

The Government also have the power to confiscate money and property from convicted drugs traffickers and are considering giving themselves more powers to do so in the future. We would support those proposals. Yet, even with those extra provisions, there must be a real question as to whether the police will ever have the expertise or the resources to make serious inroads into this multi-billion pound industry.

At present, 90 per cent of drug-related offences are concerned with possession not trafficking, and the possession of softer drugs at that. In my urban diocese we see only too clearly how the present law on cannabis possession bears most heavily on young black inner-city youth. It criminalises large numbers of otherwise law-abiding young people and damages police/community relations, getting in the way of the easy flow of information and intelligence which is so often the key to solving other crimes. The recommendations of the Runciman report to change the law on cannabis possession should, I believe, be given serious consideration.

Of course there is a counter argument. The Home Secretary, for example, has argued that legalising some or all drugs would send out the wrong message, giving drug use tacit official approval. And this is really the nub of the argument. Although half of our young people have tried drugs, the other side of the coin is that half of our young people have not tried them.

Are those people deterred from using drugs because they are illegal? That is a very difficult question to answer. Survey evidence suggests that people who do not use drugs are more persuaded by the negative health and social effects of the drugs than by their illegal status. However, the fact that these drugs are illegal undoubtedly reinforces their poor image—although for some young people that poor image may act in the opposite direction as drug use becomes part of their expression of rebellion.

The law is rather a blunt instrument for educating people, however, and many believe that the billions of pounds spent trying to enforce an unenforceable law might be better spent on education and treatment, which have historically been chronically underresourced. However, it is good to receive the Government's assurance of extra spending in this area.

At present, 62 per cent of the total drugs budget is spent on enforcement, while only 13 per cent is spent on treatment and education. Even where these funds are available, they are not always used well or at all. There is a rumour to the effect that the Prison Service is actually handing back to the Home Office money earmarked for drug rehabilitation because the service is not able to organise all the projects needed. It would be good to have the Minister's comments on that rumour.

Certainly last year's Wedderburn report from the Prison Reform Trust on women prisoners pointed to a great shortage of community drugs programmes. There is general dismay that the Government do not seem to be paying attention to the Wedderburn report. If true, that would be unfortunate because in a real sense Wedderburn and Runciman are related and need to be considered together if there is to be an effective strategy for combating drug misuse in prison.

The Church, of course, has been practically involved in drug rehabilitation work for years. In my own diocese we have projects aimed particularly at young addicts: specialised housing where addiction can be tackled in a community setting; projects making contact with young addicts while they are still in prison, meeting them at the prison gates, and providing them with a home and care in the vital weeks following release. We know all too well from firsthand experience how demanding this work can be and it would be foolish to pretend that there are easy answers. But I have no doubt that many more resources must be deployed in such a way.

This is a very serious issue but I am not totally convinced that the establishment of a Royal Commission would take us much further forward. I remember a Leicestershire farmer responding to the advice of a keen young ministry adviser by saying, "Son, I already have more advice than I know what to do with". My question is: what new information would a Royal Commission provide which the Runciman report does not already give us? What is lacking is not information but the political will to consider far-reaching changes. I hope that Ministers can be encouraged to revisit the issue in the calmer days following an election.

Certainly, we know from our own diocesan consultation that people are very concerned for those who are harmed or killed by drug use. But people are concerned about how otherwise law-abiding people can be criminalised for using something which, by arbitrary criteria, has been prohibited. For example, it seems to be particularly iniquitous that people suffering from diseases such as multiple sclerosis, whose symptoms can be relieved by cannabis, are prosecuted. That must be a nonsense.

Finally, as citizens of south London, people are concerned about the social effects of drug use. Young men are being shot on the streets of Harlesden and Brixton as drug-related turf wars are fought. We have no wish to bring up our children and grandchildren in such a dangerous environment. We cannot allow such violence to become endemic. There must be better ways of tackling the issue.

On a subject such as this it is easy to bury one's head in the sand. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has done your Lordships' House a service in drawing attention to the Runciman report and encouraging further debate. I hope that the Minister in his response will be able to indicate ways in which the debate can be taken forward. It is too important simply to languish while less sensitive issues are addressed. That may be good politics, but it is not good sense.

3.38 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for bringing the matter before the House for debate. I must first declare an interest. Until recently, I was chairman of a drug crisis agency, City Roads, a 24-hour pan-London facility to treat people in acute crisis.

I agree with noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, who said that we need much more money for treatment. Although I never took an interest in the detail of what City Roads did—it did things better than I could ever do—I understand that it is a nightmare for such an agency to be paid for the work it has done. So many different agencies are involved and the Government are notoriously late payers. I can tell stories about that but I shall not. Because the Government do not pay on time all kinds of problems are caused.

First, I believe that we should have secure payment for the people who are treated by drug agencies and, secondly, that we ought to have more agencies. This is very delicate and time-consuming work. As the right reverend Prelate said, the people who do that work are dedicated. It costs a lot of money, but that cost is not as great as the harm caused by drugs if people are not treated. Therefore, we should adopt some sensible economics when dealing with drugs. I hope that there will be more small dedicated drug centres across the country where people can be treated. I have seen data which show how people who have been treated do not return to drug addiction but are integrated into the community. City Roads has a success rate of 70 per cent.

I also agree that much more research is needed about addicts who have been treated. Far too much attention is paid to whether people have ever smoked or taken drugs. To give a slight analogy, we have had problems in gathering poverty statistics. The most important statistic is not whether a person is, or has ever been, poor but whether he or she continues to be in poverty. Headline numbers, quick counts and one-off sample surveys do not answer that question. The people concerned with poverty statistics and drugs statistics should get together and compare notes. But the important point is that we need to know much more about addicts rather than new entrants. Far too many people believe, naively—or perhaps not—that every entrant into drug use is for ever an addict.

Since I am not, and never shall be, a Minister I do not mind saying that long ago I smoked cannabis, and several times. It has not done me any harm. I have also drunk alcohol and smoked tobacco. I am neither an alcoholic nor a cigarette addict. We should stop talking nonsense about cannabis. A disproportionate amount of resources, police time and statistics are devoted to the lighter side of the drug problem; it is polluted by the insistence that we regard cannabis as a very dangerous substance. Heroin, crack cocaine and powdered cocaine are much more dangerous than cannabis will ever be. We must be sensible on this matter. I am sure that a secret, no-names survey among politicians to ask whether they have ever taken drugs would reveal much more truth.

I do not know what the problem is. I did not inhale cannabis or tobacco because I was not competent to do it. The question is not whether one inhales. I should like to emphasise that Clinton and Bush are two examples of people who have taken drugs and survived to become president of their country. It did not destroy them; they emerged from it. We should concentrate on the harder drugs and on people who are caught in persistent drug use, rather than one-off users. If one includes one-off users with addicts one exaggerates the size of the problem and misdirects resources. I hope that we shall have both better statistics and resources for treatment.

Finally, it is a great pity that our drug statistics come mainly from crime surveys. We choose to make this a crime, but it is a health and social issue, as the right reverend Prelate said. I believe that we should change both the direction of our research and also the perception of politicians, not keep talking about headline cases where kids have died. Of course kids have died. If one headlined every case in which someone was run over and killed by car drivers—23,000 cases—one could argue for the banning of all cars. Should we ban driving? No. We must get this in perspective. A Royal Commission is perhaps a way of avoiding doing something. We need to do some rethinking, admit that there are serious difficulties and avoid frivolous headlines about what is a very minor part of the problem.

3.55 p.m.

My Lords, one of my main reasons for taking part in today's debate is the utter unwillingness of the Government to take seriously the conclusions of not just one but two excellent reports on the subject of cannabis: the first is the report by the Committee on Science and Technology on cannabis for medicinal purposes which reported in late 1998; the second is the Runciman report on drugs and the law which appeared this time last year, about which many noble Lords have spoken today. The latter report makes clear that when debating drugs, as with many other aspects of public policy, we need to talk about priorities, not moral or legal absolutes.

The logic of the Runciman report is impeccable. The committee asks: is total eradication of drug abuse achievable? If not, one needs to accept the need to focus on the drugs that cause the most harm to users and society. When formulating objectives one must face realities. As the report says, there is a significant difference between the public perception of cannabis use and other drugs. We need to focus on the most harmful drugs, heroin and cocaine, which give rise to most of the violent criminal behaviour and have the greatest effect on the individual user.

That type of harm reduction strategy has been successfully used in other cases; for example, with HIV/AIDS, where needle exchanges have been set up which have diminished the prevalence of HIV among drug injectors. One of the key objectives of the committee's considerations was to try to find ways to separate out the market for cannabis from heroin and crack cocaine in particular. The need for the setting of priorities is demonstrated in my own borough, Lambeth. Of all the drugs related charges in Lambeth last year, 77 per cent related to cannabis. These offences dominate the operations of the police against drugs, yet by far the most important activities in Lambeth at the present day relate to crack cocaine and heroin dealing. Arrests for cannabis possession are easy pickings for the police when faced with fairly heavy performance management targets for drug offences, but surely their efforts should be directed towards the violent crack dealers and heroin suppliers, not those in possession of cannabis.

The Runciman committee did not advocate the legalisation of possession of cannabis but its depenalisation, which is a word that we have all come to understand in recent months. Its recommendation to move cannabis from class A to class C under the 1971 Act would mean that possession of cannabis would cease to be an arrestable or imprisonable offence. Denis O'Connor, whom I know and respect, was formerly assistant commissioner in the Met and covered the Lambeth area. He entered a note of dissent at this point, saying that it might cause operational problems for the police, but he clearly remained open to persuasion. The Chief Constable of Fife, however, was also a member of the Runciman committee and did not dissent on the record.

The key question in all of this is whether picking up a suspect for possession gives the police the opportunity to investigate other more serious offences. That is a matter that needs serious discussion, but let us debate it and look at the realities. On the contrary, the Government condemned the idea out of hand. Ann Widdecombe's response, derided by most of her Shadow Cabinet colleagues, but perhaps not by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who I see is not in his place, was even more extreme—that there should be an increase in the penalties. I suspect that at the time the Government had something rather similar up their sleeves, such as "three strikes and you are out" for cannabis possession. Why not criminalise the whole population while we are about it?

We on these Benches resent the attempted rubbishing of the Runciman report, particularly before Ministers found that they had to backtrack to avoid being rather more illiberal than the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. The report specifically says that cannabis is not harmless. It is quite clear that there are considerable adverse medical effects, which I do not seek to minimise. There are cognitive effects, motor impairment effects, effects on the cardiovascular system, respiratory problems and problems with the immune system. I simply demonstrate that we on this side of the House fully understand those matters. There are physical and psychological risks from long-term use. The carcinogenic qualities of cannabis are now becoming better known. There are other side-effects on mental health noted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. However, as the report says, we need to compare the key essentials—mortality, morbidity, toxicity, addictiveness—with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine and indeed even with alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis is less harmful, and that bears repeating. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. After all, 33,000 people a year die from the effects of alcohol. Alcohol is, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, "a mind-altering substance". In the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 the three-tier classification, which is unique in Europe, recognises the relative risks of different drugs, which need to be more accurately distinguished in terms of current scientific and sociological knowledge.

Quite apart from the recommendations of the Runciman report, the other major area of disagreement is on the medicinal use of cannabis. An excellent report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology of this House, which reported in 1998, recommended—the Runciman report agreed with this—that cannabis should be transferred from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 under the regulations relating to the misuse of drugs to allow doctors to prescribe it. It also recommended that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs should be consulted on the proposed change. In the meantime there are glaucoma sufferers, epileptics, asthmatics and MS patients who are waiting for relief.

The Government were extremely negative in their response. They claimed that GPs would be pressurised to prescribe cannabis for recreational purposes when, after all, heroin can be prescribed by GPs. In fact until 1971 cannabis was prescribable. The Government have agreed that clinical trials should go ahead. These are taking place. But, as I argued back in 1998, simply to wait for the results of clinical trials is inhumane. Such trials could take five years or more to come to fruition.

Since that report was published, there have been two years in which patients could have had their symptoms alleviated by the prescription of cannabis. Should we leave MS suffers and others deprived for this period at a vital period of their lives, or do we force them to become criminals?

Where we can thankfully agree with the Government is on the vital role of education in breaking the culture of drug-taking among the young. The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, published yesterday, confirms the importance of that approach. The results of the survey—they are fairly horrifying—show that British teenagers are the most likely to use drugs in Europe; 40 per cent of British teenagers have taken drugs by the age of 16, compared with 35 per cent in France and 26 per cent in Italy.

There is no doubt that some resources have gone in this direction since the Government took office and that some success is being demonstrated. But progress needs to be faster. The Runciman committee stated that the most dangerous message of all is the message that all drugs are equally dangerous. When young people know from their own experience that part of the message is either exaggerated or untrue, there is a serious risk that they will discount all the rest. The Runciman committee is entirely correct in stating that. It is a great pity therefore that we cannot have a greater consensus on the way forward. That is caused clearly not by evidence of what works and what does not, but by fear of tabloid newspaper retribution through appearing to be soft on drugs. We should have the mature and rational national debate that Lady Runciman has called for.

Legalisation of any drug in particular should be considered only after a major public debate through a process such as a Royal Commission which would look at the consequences in the round. I welcome the open-minded approach of the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie. to the idea. More research is needed in a variety of areas. In that respect I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai. Personally, I would be opposed to legalisation of cannabis on the current state of our knowledge on health grounds. However, I could be persuaded with the right evidence. That is what a Royal Commission is for. It examines the issues in a dispassionate way. We need a Royal Commission to establish the facts, build a consensus and implement an effective drugs policy, one that even the Daily Mail might recognise as having some legitimacy.

4.5 p.m.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on his choice of subject, election looming or not. I declare several interests. For 30 years I was an NHS general practitioner in an area of north London where many patients had drug and alcohol problems. I was a Member of your Lordships' Select Committee which inquired into the medical uses of cannabis. I am a trustee of the Medicinal Cannabis Research Foundation.

The tendency of humans to take substances which reduce anxiety and induce feelings of calm or wellbeing has always been with us. I have even seen a documentary showing chimpanzees enjoying themselves getting drunk on fermented fruit. Having a large brain gives us the power to make conscious intelligent choices in our daily lives in a possibly challenging physical or social environment. But this sets up psychic tension—which choice shall I make? Might I be wrong? Living as a social being has a downside as well as an upside. It is gratifying to obtain some relief from this tension. Sometimes the relief obtained, compared to the stress of reality, is so good that we are reluctant to stop taking the substance that gives us that relief. That is why problems of alcohol, tobacco or other substance abuse are greater among relatively deprived sections of the community where stresses are worse.

I have read the Runciman report. It is a detailed and persuasive document. One of its main thrusts is that the classification of controlled drugs and the severity of the penalties that they attract should correspond to the harm that they do. Other important critical points include emphasis on the huge predominance of offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act which concern cannabis, already referred to, averaging some 80 per cent of all charges, and also the heavy concentration of resources on enforcement—at 62 per cent—rather than treatment at only 13 per cent.

The inquiry team looked at the relative harm done by each of the main control drugs to individuals and society. The criteria for grading involved assessing the likelihood of each drug causing harm under nine headings. To save time I shall not enumerate those; they are in the report.

At present, the Misuse of Drugs Act divides controlled drugs into three classes of harmfulness. Class A includes hard drugs, such as cocaine, opium and heroin, but, surprisingly, also cannabinol and its derivatives. Class B includes amphetamines and cannabis herb and resin. Class C includes benzodiazepines (valium and similar drugs) but, surprisingly, also an opiate, buprenorphine which can be very dangerous if it is injected. The report reminds us that, although the general criteria for this classification are the likelihood of a drug being misused, there appears to be no explicit set of criteria for deciding which drugs are more harmful than others and so should go into Class A rather than Class B or C. But in 1970 the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, when Home Secretary, said on introducing the Misuse of Drugs Bill, now an Act, that,
"[it] will provide for changes in the classification to be made in the light of new scientific knowledge".
In fact only two small changes have been made in the 30 years that the Act has been operative.

The Runciman committee subjected each drug to the nine criteria I outlined earlier, classifying, for illustration, tobacco and alcohol as if they were also controlled drugs. The ranking resulted in the classification of alcohol among the most dangerous Class A drugs and tobacco in Class B. Some drugs were reclassified, with cannabis and its derivatives moving from Class A or B to C. On the other hand, because of their harmful effects, two other drugs were moved up a class.

A few words are in order to explain the reclassification of cannabis. The Science and Technology Select Committee heard evidence about its adverse effects. It concluded:
"The acute toxicity is very low; no one has ever died as a direct and immediate consequence of recreational or medical use".
We heard about some other adverse effects from long-term and heavy use. However, most of those did not seem as serious as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. There is a slight impairment of reaction time and fine movements become clumsy. But drivers compensate for that by taking fewer risks, which is the exact opposite to what happens to drivers affected by alcohol. The most serious long-term effects arise because the substance is smoked like tobacco. We have not so far seen cases of chronic bronchitis, emphysema or cancer in any numbers, but it has not perhaps been smoked for as long as cigarettes; we may see these problems in the future. However, methods may be developed for the administration of cannabis by means other than smoking. Some dependence can occur with heavy use, but cannabis is nowhere near as addictive as tobacco. Doctor Philip Robson, of the regional drugs dependency unit in Oxford, said in evidence to the Select Committee:
"I do not meet people who are prepared to knock over old ladies in the street or burglarise houses to obtain cannabis".
Cannabis is therefore not completely harmless and full legalisation is not an option at present. However, to make possession and small scale social supply or production into non-arrestable offences (which transfer to Class C would achieve) would allow a major shift of police effort to concentrate on hard drug trafficking.

I am sorry that the Government have rejected the recommendation to reclassify cannabis, as they also did with the recommendations made by the Select Committee.

Several European countries have made changes in their drug laws, which have a similar effect to reclassification. In no case has consumption of cannabis risen noticeably. In the Netherlands, separating the supply of cannabis from heroin and other hard drugs has resulted in the level of new young users of heroin falling steadily.

I shall close my remarks with a few words on the treatment of heroin abuse. The National Treatment Outcomes Research Study has shown impressive results. After one year of treatment burglary had come down 87 per cent. It was estimated that for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 was saved by the criminal justice system. The improvements were largely maintained after two years. The United States and Switzerland can show equally impressive data on the benefits of effective treatment of heroin addicts.

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has shown, there is a great need for more new thinking on this subject. That is crucial to our whole system of law and order. After the election, I hope very much that the new government will seriously consider this matter because present policies are expensive and are leading us nowhere.

4.14 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make one or two points. I should very much have liked to speak at greater length, but circumstances have conspired to prevent me giving this opportunity presented by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the attention it deserves.

My main interest has always been in drug treatment. I declare that interest as chairman of the Drug and Alcohol Foundation and of the Addiction Recovery Foundation. I also serve on the board of Mentor International, which is the largest non-governmental drug agency in the world. I chair its British arm, Mentor (UK). Furthermore, for some years I have served as vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on Drugs Misuse.

In the field of drug treatment, we have made quite a good deal of progress. There is now a high standard of treatment available here in Britain, but I should tell noble Lords that the size of that field and the availability of places have not grown at all over the past 10 to 15 years. The vast majority of drug users in this country will never come into contact with an agency that can help them. Indeed, although we always talk of drugs as a young people's problem, still only one unit exists in the entire country specialising in the treatment of adolescents. That is extraordinary and rather worrying.

In the excellent report produced by Lady Runciman's committee, the point is made that one lesson we can learn is that the benefit of treating drug demand as a primary health problem counteracts the social exclusion of young people caused by drug offending. The report concludes that,
"Demand will only be significantly reduced by education and treatment. not by the deterrent effect of the law".
If that conclusion is considered controversial, it should not be, because it is universally recognised by all those who have knowledge of these issues.

I believe that the reason why treatment services in the UK have not developed in the way they should have is because, as stated in the report,
"The largest part of the drugs budget is spent on enforcement without the necessary resources being applied to the proper evaluation of its success or failure".
In other words, we waste too much money on enforcing a law that is demonstrably unenforceable and not enough on the healthcare that can and does produce the benefits we know it produces, both for individuals and for society. The report makes this point forcefully and repeatedly. It states:
"Despite large increases in the number and quantity of seizures of all drugs, there is no strong evidence that drugs have become harder to obtain or more expensive".
Again, all the evidence suggests that the law plays a minor part in deterring demand. The report goes on to state:
"But we see no evidence that severe custodial penalties are deterring traffickers or that enforcement, however vigorous, is having a significant effect on supply".
Indeed, specifically in respect of cannabis, the report states:
"Our conclusion is that the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents".
I agree with that. My own conclusion is that the 30 year-old framework established by the Misuse of Drugs Act has failed completely and utterly to restrict or eradicate drug use in this country. More than that, it is now preventing us developing the quantity and quality of treatment services and prevention initiatives that we need and which are our only hope of making a real impact.

The report is rather more measured in its language. It states:
"The eradication of drug use is not achievafle and is not therefore either a realistic or a sensible goal of public policy".
The problem is one that no government or senior politician seem able to admit in public, although one or two may do so in private. The obsession of politicians of appearing to be tough on drugs is where the problem lies. Prohibition and the war on drugs have failed to curb drug use, have resulted in the largest black market the world has ever seen, and have seen a corresponding rise in organised crime and the violence associated with that, along with a rise in acquisitive crime to generate the funds needed to buy those drugs. The failure to admit this is the principal reason why the two main political parties cannot make any real progress towards solving the problem of drugs in our society and why they avoid debating what for them is almost taboo, but what the rest of society increasingly regards as the obvious route to follow.

In all senses, the report of the Police Foundation is an immensely useful piece of work. Let us hope that, in replying, the Minister can contribute in an equally useful way, rather than churning out the same old excuses that serve only to reinforce the lack of realism at the heart of government.

4.18 p.m.

My Lords, from time to time your Lordships' House discusses matters of serious concern. Today's debate is no exception. So far I have not heard a single speech which goes against the grain of what my noble friend Lord McNally has proposed.

On the matter of drugs and the law, opinions are divided. There are many issues that are directly related to drugs. Indeed, a number of noble Lords have pointed out the level of crime and disorder and its relevance to drugs. On this, there is no dispute. The increasing availability and use of illegal drugs, along with large-scale alcohol abuse, contribute to crime in our society. Looking at any part of our criminal justice system, one can find example after example of links between illegal drug abuse and crime to pay for those drugs. It is as clear as the link between alcohol abuse and the level of violent crime.

Equally, it should come as no surprise that public debate is often emotive. In the maze of differing and conflicting views, the report of the independent inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has done a public service. As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, Lady Runciman and the members of the Police Foundation should be congratulated on the report.

It is an authoritative report based not on assumptions but on hard facts resulting from discussions with some of the foremost experts and professionals in the field. It would be a shame if we were to dismiss its recommendations, not on the basis of evidence produced but on the basis of what is politically acceptable.

The Government's job is to lead; it is to provide leadership; it is to confront difficult issues with a view to seeking solutions. We simply cannot take the blinkered view that drugs are a bad thing and therefore there is nothing to discuss. The public concerns will not go away. The drug dependency culture cannot be swept under the carpet. It is exploited by drug barons and drug dealers with the sole aim of making money, as my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out. In many cases, laundered money is used to buy arms to support wars in many parts of the world. Large communities are often displaced, with the resultant poverty and the flood of asylum seekers. The issue of drugs is a serious problem which requires serious consideration.

Research findings ably demonstrate the effects of drugs and alcohol on young people. It may not come as a complete surprise to many of us that children and young people have a more detailed knowledge of drugs and their effects than their parents. There is therefore a wide gap between the solution that parents seek and the knowledge that young people possess. It clearly demonstrates the need for an informed debate in which young people are consulted.

I am disappointed with the Government's response to the Runciman report. They missed the opportunity to modernise our drug laws; they ignored the balanced and research-based evidence, thus missing the opportunity of better and more effective use of resources. Fundamentally, although public opinion is comfortable with open and honest discussion, the Government have slammed the door, thus preventing such a debate.

Research carried out across Europe for the inquiry demonstrates that we in the United Kingdom are increasingly out of step with developments in drug laws. The Government want to adhere to international conventions on drugs but refuse to follow the example of other countries where there is greater flexibility within these rules. Belgium and Portugal are demonstrating different approaches. They focus on drugs as a public health issue, with prevention and treatment as key tools, and place less dependence on criminal law.

We welcome the valuable work being done by the UK drugs co-ordinator, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie. We welcome the long-term strategy for tackling drugs to build a better Britain. Look at the targets that have been set up: halving the numbers of young people using drugs, especially heroin and cocaine; halving the level of reoffending by drug-misusing offenders to protect our communities from drug-related, anti-social and criminal behaviour; doubling the number the drug misusers in treatment; and halving the availability of drugs, especially heroin and cocaine, on our streets.

These are laudable aims—we support them—but what is the reality today? Can we put our hands on our hearts and say that the levels of drug use have declined? There is evidence that the use of hard drugs has increased. It will continue to increase as long as the massive supply of hard drugs finds its way to the United Kingdom through the Middle East. There is also evidence that young people who regularly use drugs are likely to consume cannabis.

Public attitudes to drugs are now quite different from those held a few years ago. Perhaps I may quote from an article by Dr Russell Newcombe in the Druglink magazine about support for reform. It stated:
"Though public support for legalisation of drugs in general has changed little over the last decade, relaxation of the laws on cannabis is now supported by a third of the British population and by over half young adults. Recent research also indicates that about four in ten young adults have now used cannabis (over half in their sixties), and that the majority have friends who use cannabis".
Yet the Government's new 10-year drug strategy, Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain, mentions neither decriminalisation nor legislation, nor does it refer to the growing public support for such major reforms of drug policy. It is confusion of this nature that calls for a more informed debate. The issue will not go away.

The Runciman report pulls no punches. It proposes the reclassification of individual drugs and suggests that associated penalties,
"should be adjusted to reflect current scientific understanding of the relative risk they pose".
I am glad that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones pointed that out. It does no good for middle-aged, middle-minded and middle-class people simply to preach to young people. Lady Runciman had this to say:
"When young people know that the advice they are being given is either exaggerated or untrue in relation to less harmful drugs, there is a real risk they will discount everything else they are told about the most hazardous drugs including heroin and cocaine".
While recognising that cannabis is not a harmless drug, the inquiry argues that the existing law and maximum penalties against the possession of cannabis produce more harms than they prevent. The report comments:
"Even with the use of discretion, the laws implementation damages individuals in terms of criminal records and risk to jobs and relationships to a degree that far outweighs any harm that cannabis may be doing to society".
The Government are missing a valuable opportunity to bring our drug laws into the 21st century. Adopting a more balanced and evidence-based response as advocated by the Runciman report would ensure that resources are better targeted and more effectively used. That point was made by a number of speakers.

The report is widely seen as injecting a breath of fresh air into the debate about illegal drugs. It proposes the reclassification of a range of drugs in line with a more accurate assessment of the harm they cause. The whole basis of a fair system of criminal justice should be proportionality between the severity of penalties and the seriousness of the harm involved in any criminal act. The Government argue that downgrading certain drugs would send out the wrong signal. But what kind of signal does it send out when the Government refuse to proportion penalties to a careful consideration of the relative dangerousness of different drugs? That can only bring the law into disrepute.

Making cannabis possession for personal use a non-imprisonable offence and normally dealing with it by cautions or fixed-penalty fines, which do not carry a criminal record, also fits in with concepts of fairness and proportionality. It is clearly disproportionate that young people found in possession of cannabis for their personal use should be prosecuted—and in cases of repeat offending sometimes imprisoned—for behaviour which is undoubtedly foolish and may damage their health, but is usually less so than the abuse or heavy use of legal drugs such as alcohol or tobacco. It is even more disproportionate that, if convicted, they should have to declare such convictions for years afterwards when applying for jobs—and, if they are applying for jobs in the care professions which are exempted from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, they have to declare them for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps the most important recommendations of the inquiry are those relating to the treatment of drug-dependent offenders and the need for a substantial reallocation of resources to provide far more treatment facilities. Bearing in mind the findings of recent studies, it clearly identified that the number of offences committed by addicts reduced by one-fifth when proper treatment was available.

Treatment programmes are best carried out in the community. However, when drug-dependent offenders do go to prison, it is vital that they have ready access to treatment in prison and effective resettlement on release. Although the number of treatment programmes in prisons has increased in recent years, there is still a long way to go before we can be satisfied that prisoners with drug problems are receiving the help they need.

We welcome the setting up of the CARAT programme (counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare) in April 1999, which aims to provide counselling and assessment in prison and continuing support on release for drug-dependent offenders. We hope that the Government will look again at the findings of the Police Foundation inquiry. Its emphasis on a balanced, proportionate and effective response to the harm done by illegal drugs will do far more to reduce drug misuse than punitive approaches, which increasingly lack credibility with law enforcers, the general public and the drug addicts whom we are trying to reach.

All these matters point to the need for an informed debate. The Government have failed to provide this. Only a Royal Commission would have the freedom to take into account all aspects of the arguments for and against change.

4.30 p.m.

My Lords, today's debate has been a most interesting one. I hope that it will make a useful contribution towards the wider national debate on the subject. Clearly there is a serious problem in the United Kingdom, especially among our young people. We were reminded of that in newspaper reports this morning by mention of the Edinburgh Research Centre report, which also ensures that we see the drugs problem as part of the wider problem of young people's addiction to tobacco and alcohol, as well as to drugs.

Broader even than that, the problem needs to be seen in the context of the decline in standards of all kinds, which we have discussed often enough. Such debates are usually led by my noble friend Lady Young. Too many of our young people have lacked disciplined leadership and the self-discipline that one derives from it over the years. The profoundest thought needs to go into such considerations. But we must also think about the individual aspects of the problem; and today we are considering the drugs aspect.

There have been two useful recent reports: one from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the other from the Police Foundation, which forms the basis of today's debate. The work of both those bodies, and of others, helps to highlight the problem. That is both welcome and necessary. I hope that our debate today will make its own small contribution, as of course did your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Given all that work, and the emphasis that this Government, like their predecessor, have given to the matter, I do not believe that a Royal Commission would do any good. However, many of the recommendations of the Runciman report have, rightly, been accepted by the Government. I do not want to say much in the brief time available to me about the medical uses of cannabis. Although we all want doctors to relieve suffering, I believe that the Government are right to be cautious about extending permissions in that field.

I also very much sympathise with the case for more research, especially into the effective treatment of addiction. My noble friend Lord Chadlington made some shrewd remarks in that respect. However, as has become clear this afternoon, the controversial recommendations are about the reclassification of cannabis in particular. Those are the ones that I disagree with most strongly.

It is argued that matters have advanced so far that the criminal sanctions against cannabis should be lowered and that the law should concentrate on trafficking as regards cannabis. That does not seem to me to be a logical position to take. If something is legally useable, its supply cannot sensibly be made illegal. We have to face up to the decision as to whether or not we want cannabis to be legally purchased and used for recreation. If, as I believe, the answer is no, possession should remain illegal, as in the case of selling it. It makes no economic sense to try to limit supply without also limiting demand. There is no doubt that cannabis in its various forms is essentially harmful and addictive; and, indeed, that it sometimes leads people to take other drugs.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, outlined the links to crime, as did the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie. If we legalised the possession, but not the supply, of cannabis and move in the suggested direction, I believe that it would only be a few years before some great person produced a report arguing that it was inescapable that we should legalise trafficking. One can imagine the reasons—poor quality of drugs, the crime involved, and so on. No doubt the Treasury would spot a new source of tax revenue and also go along with the idea.

I realise that the proposal is that, while lowering the penalties by reclassifying the drug, we should step up our efforts against harder drugs and as regards education and treatment. But it seems to me to be the weakest message imaginable to say to our young people, "We no longer regard the possession of this drug as criminal or as a serious offence. But we do advise you against it on certain health grounds". That will not persuade any young person that I know of the wisdom of that course of action.

But, in any case, like the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, I do not think that habits are static. When one reflects on what has happened with regard to smoking over the past few years or with regard to drinking and driving, one sees that change in public attitudes is possible. What is acceptable behaviour at one time can become unacceptable a few years later. In the case of drinking and driving, law enforcement—I refer to the breathalyser in particular—has been extremely important in changing attitudes as well as government propaganda campaigns and so on.

It is a defeatist attitude to say that many people have tried, and are trying, cannabis and. therefore, we should allow it. It is said that eradication of drug use is not attainable. Of course it is not, nor is the eradication of murder or burglary or vehicle crime. That does not mean to say those crimes should no longer be considered offences. The aim is to reduce drug use, not to eradicate it. That is a realistic aim.

We are also told that the police have effectively decriminalised cannabis because in many cases they only caution. I like the idea that a caution should always be accompanied by compulsory attendance at a treatment centre. Similarly, treatment in prisons should be improved as much as possible. We should do all we can on this matter in all fields: education, rehabilitation and treatment, as well as imposing effective criminal sanctions for both possession and trafficking.

I noted what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the right reverend Prelate said about the coming general election. I heard Viscountess Ruth Runciman interviewed on the radio this morning. The interviewer tried to lead her into saying that because we are near to an election no sense on this matter could be expected from any politician. That struck me as profoundly undemocratic. This will be the first general election for 30 years in which I have not been a candidate, so I know a little about elections. Of course they result in issues being simplified, and sometimes distorted in the process, as much by the media as by politicians. However, Ministers and legislators in another place are drawn closer to public opinion at election times.

In your Lordships' House only the Bishops have an identifiable constituency to which they return every week. The right reverend Prelates are not required to be re-elected. We should respect what the voters say. I am quite clear what that is. Voters and parents want a tough line to be taken on drugs as well as treatment when things go wrong. What is more, the voters are right. That is why those who seek votes will not advocate the lowering of criminal sanctions. Even the Liberal Democrats held back in that regard, as we witnessed when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was interrupted by my noble friend Lord Lawson and stepped back a little. As I say, the voters are right. We need to step up rehabilitation and treatment, research into addiction and the other matters that have been mentioned. However, we should not step down the criminal law at the same time.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke of the importance of laws against money laundering and other international financial laws, which I support. My party has also put forward some proposals for strengthening the law which I hope that the government in power in two or three months' time will implement, whatever government that may be. I refer to a new offence of substantial possession to enable the police to charge those who have large quantities but where there is too little evidence to press a charge of intent to supply; a specific law against driving with drugs in the bloodstream, as recommended by the Magistrates' Association, and several other similar proposals, including the strengthening of the law against crack cocaine houses to enable them to be treated like opium or cannabis houses. We want to see mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted more than once for selling drugs to children and orders to keep such offenders away from schools. I see no value in a Royal Commission, but the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has done a service to the House in raising this matter.

4.40 p.m.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on securing this debate today. Like him, I should own up to an addiction—not to cannabis but to Third Division football clubs. And mine won one nil.

It has been a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate with many important insights and a good deal of consensus on the subject. That is to be welcomed, although there may be differences of detail in the way in which we approach some matters. It is clear that we all favour the continued criminalisation of cannabis. No one argued that we should go the whole hog and decriminalise it. It is also clear that there was a strong consensus for tough action against drug dealing and the war against drugs.

From the Dispatch Box I shall not trade the "We can be tougher than you" approach. The subject is too important. In general, I do not think that my Government have approached the subject in that way despite some of the comments today.

It is sometimes cynically suggested that a Royal Commission is a device used by Government to kick into touch an issue that is too difficult to handle. In one sense, there might be a temptation for a government minister to do exactly that—not least because several Members of your Lordships' House are convinced that there will be a general election fairly soon. Another reason for establishing a Royal Commission is to examine issues on which a government lack a clear strategy. In my reply, I hope that that reason will be demonstrated plainly not to be the case.

With the important and valuable contribution of the Runciman report to the debate, on many of these issues—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made this point—the ground has already been laid. It has been raked over and examined carefully. And with the report before the House, the report of psychiatrists and so on, I do not think that we need a Royal Commission. The Government have a clear vision. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was happy to concede, the Government have a clear 10-year strategy to tackle the drugs problem. It is a strategy which I believe is working.

There were many notable contributions to the debate today. The noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, made a strong plea for additional research. That plea was widely welcomed. He wanted to see a dedicated budget. The right reverend Prelate said that governments at this stage of their lives seek not to frighten the electorate. I suppose that is true; I do not wish to frighten the electorate. But we should have an intelligent debate on the subject, as we have demonstrated today.

I enjoyed the short contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. The comments by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about the relationship between cannabis use and certain medical conditions were important, an issue which picked up on earlier research work. I listened with great interest to the comments of my noble friends Lord Rea and Lord Desai. As ever, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, brought a strong whiff—perhaps that word is appropriate in these circumstances—of common sense to our debate along with the trenchant views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, with his insights into law enforcement.

I wish to set out our approach. The Government did so in the national drug strategy report published in 1998, Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain. It is a 10-year strategy for tackling drug misuse which has four aims: to help young people resist drug misuse in order to achieve their full potential in society; to protect our communities from drug-related anti-social and criminal behaviour; to enable people with drug problems to overcome them and live healthy and crime-free lives; and to stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets. That is hardly a strategy with which Members of your Lordships' House would want to disagree. It has the benefit of being clear in its intent.

The strategy is backed with £217 million of new money. Many noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, have pleaded for new money this afternoon. The strategy balances harm, demand and supply reduction policies and sets stiff targets under each of the four main aims across the 10-year period. Although it is still early days, there are already encouraging signs that the strategy is on track. It is worth going through some of the key achievements to date.

Some 93 per cent of secondary and 75 per cent of primary schools now have a drug education policy, up from 86 per cent of secondary and 61 per cent of primary schools in 1997. Secondly, there has been a steady increase in drug misusers attending treatment services—there was an increase of around 7 per cent during the six months from March to September 1999. There are also targeted new drug prevention services for young people at risk of drug misuse in the 11 first-wave health action zones, which were set up in 1997–98 to improve public health in areas with high levels of deprivation and inequality. There are often high levels of drug misuse in such areas. The fourth element of our achievements to date is the £1.2 billion of Class A drugs that were prevented from reaching our streets in 1999–2000 by co-ordinated law enforcement. That is a significant increase of 33.5 per cent on the previous year. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in congratulating the police on the arrests that were announced yesterday of individuals believed to be the main suppliers of crack cocaine in this country.

I have sometimes heard it said that drug misuse is spiralling out of control, but that is not true. Drug misuse remains an uncommon or short-lived activity and there is evidence that it is stabilising. For example, one of the best indicators of changing trends—drug use within the past year—shows that within the 16 to 24-year age group, prevalence has remained at 29 per cent over the three British Crime Surveys conducted between 1994 and 1998. The BCS is a very accurate indicator of activity. Further evidence of that stabilisation can be seen from the results of the recent European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs, published yesterday. The report showed a drop in the number of British 15 and 16 year-olds who have tried illegal drugs since a similar survey in 1995.

Of course, the Government recognise that there is still a long way to go. We must continue to build on and drive forward our programme of work under the national strategy if we are to make a lasting and sustainable difference to the problem of drug misuse.

The Government have made it clear that we welcome the report of the committee set up by the independent Police Foundation into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The report contributes to our thinking on the effectiveness of our drugs laws and policies. Much of the report chimed with Government thinking or represented work already in hand. Some 20 of the 81 recommendations have found favour with the Government in some shape or form.

It is perhaps interesting that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has allied his current call for a Royal Commission to the Police Foundation's report. The Police Foundation inquiry might feel that it had done the job of a Royal Commission.

The Government and the Police Foundation agree on many things. For example, the Police Foundation concluded that the eradication of drug use was not achievable, realistic or a sensible policy goal The Government agree. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, appeared to agree as well. The Police Foundation also suggested that the aim of the law must be to control and limit the demand for and supply of illegal drugs. Again, the Government agree. The Police Foundation concluded that our drugs laws must enable us to fulfil our international obligations, and that the laws should reflect the latest scientific understanding. Once again, the Government agree.

Much has been made of the areas in which we rejected the Police Foundation's recommendations. It was also erroneously suggested that by announcing our rejection of the recommendations relating to the re-classification of cannabis, ecstasy and LSD, the Government were somehow giving the report short shrift. That was not so. The decision to establish a working group chaired by the UK National Drugs Coordinator, Keith Hellawell, to consider the detail of the report is powerful evidence to the contrary. However, recognising that the consideration of so thorough a report would take some time, the Government felt that it was important not to allow speculation to gather about their attitude to those particular recommendations.

Those who favour a Royal Commission into drug misuse argue that the rationale for the current system of prohibition should be examined. Indeed, while there are shades of grey around models in which the law is to a greater or lesser extent enforced, the only alternative to the current system of prohibition is legalisation.

The Government have a clear and consistent view about the damage that drugs can cause to individuals, their families and the wider community, about the link between drugs and crime—that link was ably established by the noble Lord, Lord McNally—and about the corresponding need to maintain firm controls. However, we have never shied away from debating the issue surrounding legalisation. For example, it is sometimes suggested that decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs would reduce the harm that they cause and the market for them. The present Government and previous governments, and successive governments throughout the world, have rejected that argument.

The biggest single danger of legalising drugs involves the risk that consumption would significantly increase as a consequence, which has attendant public health and social costs. Common sense and the lessons of history support such a prognosis. For example. it is estimated that there are currently some 1.25 million people in this country who have used cannabis during the past few months. We should contrast that with the 10 million or 11 million people who smoked tobacco during a similar period. Prohibition does not eliminate the use of drugs, but it would be a nonsense to suggest that it does not limit or deter use.

It is also suggested that legalisation would at a single stroke eliminate the extremely lucrative criminal activity that is associated with drugs. Substituting a legal supply of drugs for the current illegal supply would clearly have some impact on criminal activity but it would be naive to assume that the black market would disappear altogether. Criminals would attempt to undercut legal producers and the UK would become an attractive base for organised crime. Moreover, there would still be law enforcement costs, unless one has in mind a model of legalisation in which even children have access to drugs.

The social and possible health consequences of increasing consumption by legalising drugs, and the limited effect on criminal activity, are fatal flaws in the legaliser's argument.

I shall try to respond to one or two of the many points that were raised in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, discussed money laundering that is associated with criminal activity. We completely agree with him about the need to strengthen the Government's response. For that reason, the Prime Minister asked the Performance and Innovation Unit to examine the issue. As the noble Lord knows, it is for that reason that we wish to set up a national confiscation agency, following the enactment of the Proceeds of Crime Bill.

The noble Lord also discussed the balance of enforcement between cannabis and hard drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. The national strategy on drugs focuses on drugs that cause the greatest harm, especially heroin and cocaine. That is accurately reflected in our approach to enforcement. We must focus on those drugs that cause the most harm. Hard drugs do that—they break up communities and scour the lives of individuals in communities. Our target is to reduce substantially the reported use of all illegal drugs. We believe that we should concentrate on those that do the most harm. We and the noble Lord are at one on that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, called for more resources for research. We share that view—it is a common concern. About £966 million will be set aside as a result of SR2000 to tackle the drugs menace. We are investing far more as a by-product of the drug treatment and testing order regime, which will come into effect during the next few years.

I believe, and it is a fundamental belief of government, that the pre-figure for drug treatment and testing orders represents a major expansion in treatment programmes. I think that that is an assumption which is commonly shared. It is clear that, with the development of the National Treatment Agency, that will become a major part of its work and a major preoccupation. In a sense, it is an important response to concerns about the speed with which additional treatment capacity can be met.

The agency will set standards of treatment and provision and will commission performance monitoring and develop a unique system tackling variations in treatment standards. It will ensure that there is ready access and availability of those treatment programmes across the nation.

Some interesting issues were raised in relation to resources. The noble Lords, Lord Chadlington, Lord Desai and Lord McNally, looked at that issue in their comments. At present, 62 per cent of drugs expenditure is on enforcement work; 13 per cent is spent on treatment and rehabilitation, and there was much debate about the balance perhaps not being quite right; 12 per cent is spent on education, and we all agree that that is an extremely important area; and 13 per cent is spent on international supply reduction, which is clearly an important element in the national anti-drug strategy.

The aim is to shift drug-related expenditure, over time, away from reacting to the consequences of the drug problem and towards positive investment in preventing and targeting drug abuse.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, touched on the legalisation of cannabis. As I said earlier, we do not believe that it would be beneficial to do that. I believe that there is a consensus on that point, although the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made a strong plea for the medical uses of cannabis to be given greater attention and thought.

That is a view shared by the Government and for that reason we provided a licence for research into that matter. Although that licence has some time to run, it is our expectation that in 2002, there will be a report on the potential medical benefits of cannabis. I believe that we should be science-led in relation to that matter. If the recommendations suggest that that is a sensible course of action, then it will make the greatest sense for us to follow that recommendation because, as the noble Lord said, in certain circumstances, heroin can be prescribed.

In all, this has been a valuable, well-informed, thought-provoking debate. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is extremely sincere in his desire to say that our drug laws and policies are as effective as possible. The Government share that desire and believe that their 10-year national drug strategy is on track, even though we fully recognise that there is a long way to go and little room for complacency.

If we were to seek to take stock now by establishing a Royal Commission, it is our view that that could only harm the strategy and it would send quite the wrong message to the many people on whom the strategy depends—the health professionals, teachers, prison staff, police and Customs officers, community leaders, voluntary workers and parents. It would sow the seeds of confusion at a time when there is already clarity.

This subject is far too important for us to hesitate in our drive to tackle the drugs menace. Those people deserve our support and now is not the time to waver.

4.58 p.m.

My Lords, I have one minute left of our allotted time so I can just thank all noble Lords who have contributed. There was an astonishing degree of consensus from the Back-Benches on this matter. This debate will well merit reading. This is the second time today that I have tried to put the Government on the path of righteousness and, although slightly rebuffed on both occasions, I shall continue on that path. I beg to leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.