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Drugs: Classification

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the recent report from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs on the harmful effects of different classified and non-classified drugs, they will reconsider the present system of classification.

My Lords, the Government do not intend to review the drug classification system established by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The criminal justice system expects—and the Government must provide—a stable and enduring system. The current system continues to serve that purpose.

My Lords, this recent report is perhaps the most thorough analysis of the impact of different drugs not only on users but on others in society at large. If the Government believe in evidence-based policy, is it not obvious that, in light of this report and of many other reports that have reached similar conclusions, the present classification—with ecstasy in class A and cannabis in class B—is in no way based on evidence of either the physical or social impact of drugs?

Will the Government further accept that they would be utterly irresponsible and failing in their duty to society if they did not provide much stronger disincentives to the indulgence of the abuse of alcohol, which comes top—by miles—of all other drugs in its impact on society as a whole?

My Lords, on the whole question of drugs classification, there is clearly no consensus about what constitutes evidence. The Government simply do not agree that a system of a sliding scale of harms, such as is suggested in the Nutt report, constitutes a good basis for government policy. We do not believe that structuring drug-harm classifications in the way that the recent report does would be better than the current basis for government policy.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Mr Fedotov, who is the new executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is urging Governments to put away their policies that criminalise drug users and to replace those policies with health policies? In the light of that advice from the United Nations, what plans does the Minister have to review the Misuse of Drugs Act?

My Lords, the Government certainly take seriously the need to engage the community in reducing the level of drugs misuse. Later this year, the Government will produce a drugs strategy to reinforce that side of their policy, but they do not agree that it is right and proper to decriminalise all use of drugs.

My Lords, we tax alcohol, we regulate tobacco use and we criminalise drug use. The Minister may not want to use words such as “hypocritical” and “cynical”, but is there a consistency in this approach?

My Lords, we believe that all drugs that are classified on the list are extremely harmful to society; we do not believe that alcohol taken in moderation is harmful to society. Clearly, there is alcohol abuse, but the Government already have a strategy—and we will add to it—on reducing the possibilities of that abuse. This Government are taking measures that are rather more stringent than those of the previous Administration.

Will my noble friend take very great care before she takes seriously the recent report of this independent committee on drugs? Its judgment is based on a methodology that to most of us, when looked at carefully, is shown to be entirely flawed.

My Lords, the Government have confidence in the independent advice given by their own statutory commission and we trust that advice. I am inclined to agree with the comments just made by my noble friend.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the proposal that Professor Nutt and Professor Blakemore put forward in the Lancet and in the recent report is based not only on their own evidence but on peer-reviewed evidence? What evidence does the Minister have to say that the misuse of alcohol and tobacco, which appear in the top quartile of the list in that report, is less harmful and creates fewer deaths than the rest of the drugs in the classifications A, B and C?

My Lords, I suggest that there is a real difference between alcohol and tobacco, which taken in moderation are not harmful to society, and the drugs on the classified list. I am afraid that there is no consensus between the conclusions reached by Professor Nutt and the evidence that he took.

My Lords, would the noble Baroness care to reconsider that last answer and separate alcohol from tobacco? There is no safe use of tobacco; all government advice that has ever been offered on the subject is that, when tobacco is used in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions, it is a killer. Therefore, it is treated differently from alcohol.

My Lords, I accept the trend of that comment from the noble Lord. It is indeed the case that tobacco is harmful, as he has just said. I think the House would agree that alcohol taken in moderation is not so harmful.

My Lords, I thank the Minister and her colleagues for examining policy in this area, but will they consider very carefully the pricing of alcohol, particularly in consideration of the young people who binge drink and the association of criminality with the heavy intake of alcohol? Pricing might discourage that.

As the noble Earl may know, the Government are introducing policies that will prevent the sale of alcohol below cost, and will toughen the penalties for those who engage and persist in selling alcohol to underage consumers.

What discussions is the Minister having with her counterparts in Scotland on all these matters to ensure some degree of compatibility, if not consistency?

I am afraid that I am not informed about discussions with the Government in Scotland, but I shall inform myself and I shall write to the noble Lord.