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Volume 710: debated on Monday 11 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have made any changes to their drugs policies following the United Nations high-level drugs conference in Vienna in March.

My Lords, the Government have made no such changes. The political declaration gave no basis on which to do so.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that rather brief response. He has, I believe, seen the House of Lords letter that was addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations ahead of the Vienna convention. It was signed by 28 noble Lords from this House and suggests that, because current prohibition policies have failed, the UN,

“should now establish an Intergovernmental Panel charged with the task of examining all possible alternative policies for the control of the drugs trade … The important thing is to get the debate out in the open and free of all prejudices”.

There has been no response from the UN, but is this not a really important policy option that our Government should now follow up either at United Nations level or perhaps within Europe as a starter?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. When I responded to our debate on 22 January, when this issue arose, I pointed out that my experience in the United Nations—I look for an affirmative nod from noble friends around me—has shown that it is easier to build on what is there than to change, because the consensus required would involve the vast majority of nations which have ratified the conventions. Therefore, when we sought in Vienna to investigate these areas we found no consensus in the United Nations forum for a review of the kind proposed, therefore it would not seem the most productive route to take.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while a global or international effort to reduce drugs may be helpful, the chances of co-ordinated effort, as he has already said, are still somewhat remote? What further action does he think this country can take nationally to reduce the illegal importation of drugs?

My Lords, the answer to the question is that, sadly, it is very limited because the point about the drug trade is that it is international. Much like trafficking, it requires the co-operation of countries of origin, countries of transit and countries of destination. Through the United Nations and the European Union, therefore, and indeed through our relationships with Governments across the world who share this problem in one form or another, that is the way forward. I have to say we were not particularly enthused about the meeting in Vienna. The outcome was not as positive as we would have liked—we would have liked a more positive declaration to use—but we will seek to use the declaration we have to ensure a managed approach in all the other fora of the United Nations where drugs are the issue of the day.

My Lords, the Question to Her Majesty’s Government is about drugs policies, so my supplementary is within the rules. When do the Government intend to follow the lead set by the United States, Canada and Sweden and ban the dangerous drug GBL which has been responsible for the deaths of many teenagers in this country and which the Government’s own advisers recommended should be classified as a class C drug nine months ago?

My Lords, I admit I am not fully aware of what the position is on that. I will seek to find the answer and let the noble Lord know. The position overall is that on cannabis use is falling, and that on ecstasy and cocaine it seems to be stable. I will have to seek advice on the drug mentioned by the noble Lord and respond to him.

My Lords, the UK is the only country in the whole of the European Union which does not control the use of khat. Was there any discussion on this subject in the United Nations conference and were any recommendations made that would be relevant to the reconsideration of the ban on khat which is now going on in government circles?

My Lords, I have to confess to the noble Lord not to my knowledge. I will check to see if there was. Nothing in the official communiqué suggests that, but in the side discussions at any UN conference many things are discussed.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, given the political realities that have been described, while we currently invest £70 billion in the criminalisation policy, there is ample evidence from abroad that more effective means of harm reduction can be brought about by the policies that go alongside? Does he also accept that the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that there are ways to invest in addition to the criminalisation policy, might be a way forward?

My Lords, the Government believe that in resolving these issues there should be a balanced approach and that harm-reduction policies are an essential part of it; for example, in relation to the HIV/AIDS pandemic across the world, and the lack of access to drugs in poor countries. On the other hand, we do not accept the case for decriminalisation and we believe that a balanced approach carried forward with our European partners, who are broadly in agreement with us, is the best way to tackle this international and domestic problem.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that internationally one of the best things we can do is to try to limit the supply of drugs coming on to the international market? Does he not think it is about time that the Government had yet another discussion with the Senlis Council in regard to transferring drugs that are produced in Afghanistan to licit use, particularly to deal with the global shortage of opiates, and to see what contribution that can make to stemming the flow of drugs coming into western Europe?

My Lords, that is an important point and I am more than happy to take that back to my colleagues in Government. The issue in Afghanistan is that the Government of that country have said they are not in a position to administer a licit programme, the danger being greater commercialisation. The point he raises, however, is a good one. There are policy changes and considerations at all levels that need to be taken into account. It is an ever-changing problem both in terms of countries of origin and countries of destination. I am sure the points he made will be carefully considered.

My Lords, with regard to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, does my noble friend know of the policies in such countries as Switzerland and Portugal, which have adopted a considerably more liberal way of dealing with their hardened drug addicts? They give them the drugs that they need and decriminalise them. The result of that has been a great reduction in crime and the increased social and physical health of those hardened addicts. Are the Government looking at the policies in those countries and considering their merits?

My Lords, the Government are happy to continue to review the situation. We are in favour of fact-based research programmes and of looking at any that might provide an answer to our problems that look more advantageous than the solutions that we are currently dealing with. I am sure that that review will continue. If proposals come forward within a balanced approach, this Government favour the introduction of harm-reduction policies but, at the same time, do not believe that we can desert the argument that we need to contain the spread of drugs around the world.