Skip to main content

Drugs: Classification System

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is the status of the root and branch review of the ABC system of drug classification, announced by the Home Secretary in January 2005.

My Lords, in October 2006, when publishing their reply to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on the relationship between scientific evidence and the classification of illegal drugs, Her Majesty's Government announced that the review of the drug classification system would not be proceeding at this time. We considered this matter very carefully. We continue to believe that the current system discharges its function fully and effectively, providing clear and meaningful distinctions.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I am of course aware of the excellent report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Drug Classification: Making a hash of it. I note in particular the report’s conclusion, on page 48, that,

“we have found glaring anomalies in the classification system as it stands and a wide consensus that the current system is not fit for purpose”.

Do the Government agree that the real problem is not about detailed composition of their classification system but that current national and international drugs policies are as a whole not fit for purpose? Is it not obvious that prohibition, as the late Milton Friedman once wrote,

“is an attempted cure that makes matters worse”?

We are told that the drugs trade is the second largest global business after oil, and it is all in the hands of criminals. Does the Minister consider this to be acceptable?

My Lords, I disagree with the fundamental premise of the noble Lord—that, in some way or other, legalisation would solve all our problems with drugs. We do not believe that. It is not the Government’s policy and we have no intention of reviewing it.

My Lords, the Minister said that there is no intention to review but does he accept that there are significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs, as has been pointed out? There is also a concern about the rationale being used to make classification decisions. Is that not at odds with the objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm?

My Lords, a harm-based system is the core of the classification system, which works well. I am aware that there are some critics of the classification system, but we have to base our policy on something. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has served us well in advising not just our Government, but successive Governments, on the best course of action with regard to particular types of drugs and their derivatives.

My Lords, would it help to reduce the drug problem in this country if we and other states bought up the poppy crop in Afghanistan for legal use?

My Lords, we take action to deal with problems at the source of the output of drugs such as heroin, but the noble Lord is right: we can and should always do more. That is certainly an objective this Government have followed regarding their drugs policy.

My Lords, I do not think my noble friend can dismiss the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, quite so easily. Is there not an increasing case to be made for decriminalising at least some drugs and for treating drug users medically rather than through the criminal justice system? Does my noble friend agree that this deserves at least very serious consideration indeed from the Government if we want to do something about it?

My Lords, I do not dismiss the argument, but it is not the core of our policy and is not our approach. The Government—and previous Governments—have attempted over the past nearly 10 years to tackle the drugs issue by putting money into treatment and trying to educate our population about the harmful effects of drugs. The noble Lord is of course entitled to his view on legalising some drugs, but it is not a view that the Government share.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that even though the Government do not intend to alter classification at this time, they should keep an open mind because so many changes are taking place in the pharmaceutical industry and other industries that have an effect on this? The Government should always keep their mind open towards reclassification depending on circumstances and the case that is presented.

My Lords, I do not dispute what my noble friend has said, and of course we do keep an open mind on classification. That is why crystal meth has been reclassified and will become a class A drug on, I think, 18 January 2007.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that whatever the classification or declassification of drugs may be, the practical consequences of people taking drugs, particularly when driving cars, are really quite alarming at the moment? What can be done to prevent tragedies occurring where someone has caused even death due to driving under the influence of drugs?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that we should focus our attention on the practical impact of substance misuse. It is for that reason that the Government have invested as heavily as they have in drug treatment and tackling misuse. Since 2001-02, £7.5 billion has been invested by the Government in tackling drug abuse. In the past year alone, the Government invested £1.5 billion, and a further £86 million was made available for treatment services. If we can start to deal with drugs issues in those ways, we have a greater chance of success. There are examples of success in reducing people’s interest in and consumption of drugs.

My Lords, the noble Lord did not really answer the question put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. Can he please tell us what consideration Her Majesty’s Government have given to purchasing the harvest of opium from Afghanistan and using it for medicinal purposes in this country?

My Lords, my understanding from colleagues across government is that we are looking to ensure that crop substitution takes place. Work is being undertaken on that.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether it is the Government’s view that legalising any particular drug would be likely to increase or to decrease its consumption?

My Lords, I hesitate to suggest that that is perhaps a simplistic way of looking at the issue. We need to focus most of our attention on education because that is where we can make a difference, and there is evidence to suggest that our education campaigns are beginning to have an impact, particularly on young people, among whom drug consumption is now beginning to reduce.