Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the report of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee Drugs: Breaking the Cycle (HC 184, 9th Report, Session 2012–13) and the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, published in January.
My Lords, I rise to propose that the House take note of the above two reports, the second of which is entitled Towards a Safer Drug Policy. Both raise serious concerns about the current legislative framework for drug policy in the UK. However, two other significant reports were issued at about the same time: the report of the Home Affairs, Health and Education Sub-Committee of our EU Committee and the BMA report, both weighty and well argued documents.
Why this flurry of reports on drug policy? I want to spend a few minutes describing the remarkable events of the past two years in the drug policy field globally. For 52 years since the single convention of 1961, the world’s drug policies have been driven by the UN conventions interpreted—and I emphasise “interpreted”—to mean that every use of illicit drugs must be treated as a crime and that every user of illicit drugs and every dealer must be treated as a criminal. The conventions were not drafted on the basis of evidence about how best to reduce addiction. No; they were drafted in response to a moral belief that taking drugs is wrong and that therefore everyone involved should be punished. No thought appears to have been given to the consequences of such a policy. Whatever our personal views about the morality of taking drugs—and people’s views differ—we all surely agree that good policy is that which reduces the level of drug addiction and harm to the individual and to others. Criminalising young people is contrary to that aim.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy deserves great credit. That august body, which includes former presidents, the former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, and many other very senior people across the globe, was the first to call a halt to the obsession with punitive drugs policies. I quote from the first paragraph of its report:
“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world … fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed”.
That comes from top global people.
In the two years since the publication of the global commission report, activity on drug policy reform has developed apace. Presidents of American states, including President Obama, initiated a one-year study of the implications of current drug policy for the Americas, including the impact on the central American states ravaged by drug trafficking, as well as the impact on the Andean countries involved in the growing of the coca leaf. At the general assembly of the Organization of American States in June this year, which two of us from the APPG were privileged to attend as guests of the President of Guatemala, the two reports of that study were debated. This process continues and further discussions are planned over the next 12 months in the search for reform. Uruguay has just passed a law to regulate the supply of cannabis—in other words, to disregard the requirement of the UN conventions that the possession, use, production and trade in cannabis must be treated as a criminal offence. This is the first country directly to contravene the UN conventions.
The Netherlands, of course, has for many years made cannabis available legally to users in its coffee shops. Interestingly, the Netherlands has virtually eliminated its heroin problem. It just looks at the relationship between those two, and we need to do the same. Spain has its own system of lawful or semi-lawful cannabis supply through cannabis-growing organisations. In the US, 20 states have now legalised cannabis for medical use—de facto legalisation of cannabis. Colorado and Washington have gone a step further and legalised cannabis for social use. The Department of Justice has agreed that it will not take any action with respect to those states; this is highly significant. President Obama’s drug tsar told me personally that these states will not get away with it, but President Obama appears to have a different view.
The importance of Uruguay, Colorado and Washington is that, for the first time in more than 50 years, evaluation of a regulated system has become possible. Many people believe that regulated herbal cannabis—and I emphasise “herbal”—properly labelled, with the THC level controlled, side effects and risks clearly shown, would be a great deal safer for young people than the illegal market that we have today. Regulation could, crucially, break the supply gateway to illegal skunk and other dangerous drugs. Young people who simply want a spliff would buy herbal cannabis from a lawful supplier and would not therefore have the need to approach a drug dealer, who will do their very best to sell them something far stronger—skunk, or worse. Now research can show whether such a policy really is safer than the illegal market. Can the Minister welcome that?
European countries are quietly moving away from criminalising addicts, providing heroin legally in a treatment setting, and establishing consumption rooms, where the police do not arrest people—the first step for many addicts in engaging with health and social services. In most European countries, the health department rather than the internal affairs department is the lead ministry, and drug addiction is accepted as a health problem rather than a crime. Can the Minister agree to look into the experiences of our European neighbours?
The EU has prepared a draft regulation of the European Parliament and the Council on new psychoactive substances. It was sent to me for comment, which I found interesting. It proposes that possession and use of NPS should be decriminalised. Does the Minister agree with the draft EU regulation?
This, then, is the context of the Home Affairs Select Committee and APPG reports and of today’s debate. The Select Committee visited Colombia, where the words “war on drugs” really mean what they say—and I was there to see it. Policies in the consumer countries supply billions of dollars to the drug barons to enable them to fight their Governments. The Select Committee concluded that there is now, more than ever, a case for a fundamental review of all UK drug policy in the international context; it calls for a royal commission on drug policy to report in 2015.
The Minister will no doubt point to the recent modest fall in traditional drug use, but it needs to be set against the explosion in the use of new psychoactive substances. But the Government also need to take note of a few other facts. Despite any recent modest fall in the use of cannabis—and it is, mainly, cannabis—the UK still has one of the highest levels of drug use in Europe. In 2011, it was one of only three countries in Europe where more than 30% of the population had taken cannabis. Are 30% of our population criminals? This is crazy. Despite our tough drug laws, England and Wales has the highest percentage in Europe of the population admitting to taking cocaine, at 9.6%, amphetamines, at 11.5%, and ecstasy, at 8.6%. The growth in the number of young adults who have ever used drugs has exploded under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 from 10% in the 1970s to 35% in 2009-10. There is a modest fall from 1996, but it is still a very serious problem. The cost to the Exchequer of drug-related harm is £15 billion.
The Select Committee also visited Portugal, where for 12 years the possession and use of all drugs has been decriminalised. Originally the policy was resisted by the right-wing parties; today all Portuguese political parties support that policy. I wonder why. The Select Committee believed the Portuguese model to merit significantly closer consideration by the UK. Does the Minister agree?
Our All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform spent a year receiving written and oral evidence from witnesses in producing our report towards a safer drug policy. Our focus was legal highs—or new psychoactive substances, as they are generally called. But our witnesses repeatedly told us that it was not possible to consider legal highs in isolation. Most young people use a legal high as a direct response to the contamination of traditional drugs in the illicit drug market. If we sort out the illicit drug market we would go a long way towards eliminating so-called legal highs.
Legal highs, of course, present a very serious risk to young people. As one is found, the Chinese scientists set to work with their test tubes in their laboratories; they change the molecules and produce a new substance. Young people have no idea what that substance is, or what it contains. The UK is apparently the European hub for such drugs; I wonder why. They come here from China or India and are then distributed across Europe. Twice as many young people in this country have used legal highs as the average for the rest of Europe.
Witnesses from ACPO and the UK Border Agency who gave evidence to us were very clear that the current drug control systems are unable to deal with the web-based selling of these drugs from overseas; the system simply cannot do it. I have already referred to the EU regulation recommending decriminalising possession and use of these drugs—not only for one year, as this Government courageously introduced some time ago, but permanently.
On the supply side, we point to the New Zealand model, which places the responsibility on the supplier to show that their product is of limited harm. The supplier, not the state, has to do the research, which seems eminently sensible. The New Zealand policy is in its early stages, and I hope that the Government will be monitoring its effectiveness. The APPG report recommends an independent drug classification body, which would classify drugs according to the level of risk identified on a scientific basis, rather than on a political whim. All political parties find these issues impossible to deal with rationally. This is not a party political issue. The reality, though, is that young people know that our drug law is an ass and disregard it; that cannot be helpful. An independent body with responsibility for research, information and classification would help a lot. We could then more easily move gradually to more evidence-based policies. We should not do these things in a hurry but we are an awful long way from where we really need to be.
Of course, politicians will be responsible for the strategic direction of policy, and we have excellent examples of this model with the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, and with NICE in the National Health Service—difficult decisions delegated to independent bodies that can act rationally. We also want the lead department for drugs to be reviewed, and we share the views of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the other reports. The ideal would be to have a cross-party review of drug policy and cross-party policies emerging from that review. In the mean time, I hope that the Minister will recognise that this debate is a genuine attempt to respond to the plea of the current Secretary-General of the United Nations who, on 26 June, called for every member state to have an open review of drug policy and to consider all options. That is quite something from the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Can the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will join other Governments in Europe who are working with us on that review in response to the plea of the UN Secretary-General?
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her speech, which was extremely effective. I agree with her that the acid test is not about criminalising drug users but how we deal effectively and properly with the problem. I also congratulate her on her report and the other report that we are considering today.
I made my maiden speech on drugs policy in the other place 43 years ago in 1970, and I am tempted to say that the debate has not changed very much in the interim. It strikes me how much of the debate is put in military terms, or semi-military terms. I still have a T-shirt given to me by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States with the slogan, “It is not over until we win”. That was 20 years ago and I do not think that we have won in the interim. As I have been going around the world over the past 18 months looking at the issue of HIV and AIDS, I find Ministers still talking about the war on drugs. Indeed, when I was in Russia a few months ago, a political leader said, “It is not just the war on drugs, it is total war”. In fact, Russia has probably the worst drugs position in the whole world; it has a disastrous policy.
These words may give great comfort to some politicians and increase their sense of self-righteousness, but they do not do very much to solve the problem. The truth is that this one-dimensional approach has never worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future. We all know what we want to achieve: we want to stop the pushers; we want to persuade people not to take up the habit; and we want to deal decently and humanely with those who have become dependent. However, we are not going to deal with all those goals by saying that all you need to do is to enforce the law. That is precisely what we have been doing over the past 50 years and it is precisely the reason why we have not been successful. We need to be frank about that failure.
Before this debate, someone asked me whether I was in favour of liberalising drugs policy. My answer to that, in principle, is yes, but the real answer is that we have already liberalised our drugs policy. When the Government were seeking to deal with the HIV and AIDS crisis in 1986-87, we faced precisely that problem of how to deal with drug users who shared needles and syringes. The result, obviously, of shared needles was devastating. We had no treatment to offer—it was a death sentence—and someone with HIV simply spread it to others.
We could have taken the view that upholding the criminal law was the only policy—the only way to go—and that those who injected should be prosecuted. There were many who urged us to take that way. In fact, we decided to institute a policy of clean needles. Our advice was, obviously, not to inject at all but if, in spite of the advice, people still injected, then we would supply clean needles. In other words, we put public health in front of the strict interpretation of the law.
This policy was not decided by some way-out left-wing Government or by implementing a resolution of the Liberal Democrat annual conference—I am sorry about that; it was meant to be a joke—but by the Government of Margaret Thatcher, who, for all her great qualities, did not have a reputation as a radical reformer in this area. The policy has been spectacularly successful. For the past 25 years, the spread of HIV through injecting drugs has been only 1% or 2%. It has not led to an increase in crime and drug use, and the policy has been followed by many other countries.
I agree that it has not been followed universally. It has not been followed in Russia and the result is that drug users are abandoned to their fate and an appalling tragedy is taking place before our eyes. Saddest of all, the United States has just gone back on the policy. The House will not be surprised to know that this was because of the disagreement on the budget between the Administration and the House of Representatives.
I do not pretend to have instant solutions. There were warnings—the needle park in Zurich being one, where a park was given over officially to drug users. However, we need to open a new dialogue and try for new solutions in this area. The old policies have failed and we must try, perhaps by pilot schemes, to find new and better ways forward. Some of the ideas put forward in these reports are excellent and should be carried forward. I congratulate the authors of both reports on what they have done.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. She is one of the leading voices in the quest for a more rational, proportionate and humane policy on drugs. The Home Secretary, in her foreword to the Government’s response to the Home Affairs Select Committee, stated:
“This Government does not believe there is a case for fundamentally re-thinking the UK’s approach to drugs”.
The document went on to say that,
“our new approach is working”.
It is pleasing that the Crime Survey for England and Wales has recorded a declining trend in the use of controlled drugs; that the numbers in treatment are rising; that the incidence of drug-related HIV infection has fallen so far, about which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, spoke with justified satisfaction; that there is now faster access to treatment; and that more people are recovering from their dependence on drugs. However, the improvement in the figures for usage is, I fear, more apparent than real. The previous Minister, Jeremy Browne, told the House of Commons candidly on 6 June:
“In this country, consumption of illegal drugs has reduced, but consumption of legal drugs has increased”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/6/13; col. 285WH.]
The United Kingdom is in the upper range of consumption of traditional drugs. There has been a large increase in addiction to prescription drugs and an even larger increase in the consumption of new psychoactive substances, of which it is thought that 73 entered the United Kingdom market in 2012. The internet has transformed the marketing and distribution of drugs. The Silk Road website may have been closed, but there are numerous others, and Postman Pat continues to bring the packages up the garden path. The drug scene continuously mutates. We know that the charge on the health and justice budgets of this country is £15.3 billion. The illicit market fuels vast amounts of crime. Some 78% of people who have used drugs in the past year in this country say that drugs are easy to get. Indeed, 24% of prisoners, unbelievably, say the same thing. If we are honest, we know that the horrors experienced in the producer and transit countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia would not occur were it not for the self-indulgence of consumers of drugs in western societies such as our own.
This is not the success story that the Home Secretary wants us to believe, but policy in this area is exceedingly difficult. There is no excuse for our failure to ensure that we have a comprehensive evidence base and that we sustain an adequate research infrastructure. The UK Drugs Policy Commission, the Home Affairs Select Committee and the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, Towards a Safer Drug Policy, have all pointed to the deficiencies in this regard. These include the discontinuation of programmes, gaps, inefficiencies and underfunding. At the very least, we need to know as best we can what is going on in the United Kingdom. We also need a division of labour in research across Europe and indeed the globe so that we can quickly analyse what these new psychoactive substances are. The Select Committee recommended ring-fenced funding for drug research and a co-ordinating role for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but the Government’s response was:
“We do not … accept the need for allocated ring-fenced funding to drugs policy research … the ACMD is not, nor is expected to be, a research commissioning body”.
This will not do. Stephen Pudney and his colleagues at the University of Essex, supported by the Beckley Foundation, have published a model study entitled, Licensing and Regulation of the Cannabis Market in England and Wales: Towards a Cost-Benefit Analysis. They have identified 17 distinct factors of cost and benefit. They have demonstrated how very difficult it is to arrive at a cost-benefit analysis in this area, and that it is impossible to do so with the present lack of basic information. No policy should be dogmatically ruled out and alternatives should be considered seriously. All decisions in this field are hard politically, but they will be less hard if they are evidence-based.
Another model study is the report of the New Zealand Law Commission, Controlling and Regulating Drugs. It recognises that the existing New Zealand legislation is unfit for the new drugs landscape, inconsistent with aspects of government policy, hugely expensive and that a punitive approach to low-level offending has adverse social consequences. It is a rational and practical report, which recommends that the manufacturers and would-be importers of new psychoactive substances should have the opportunity to seek approval by an independent regulatory authority before the substance is released on the market. It provides a detailed model for regulation, including particular protection for people under the age of 18.
There are no easy solutions. Those war-worn Latin American presidents and the hugely distinguished and experienced members of the global commission, including Kofi Annan and Paul Volcker, have taken the lead in the international debate and advocated decriminalisation of possession and use. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has issued his challenge to all of us to debate all the options that there may be in the lead-up to the United Nations General Assembly special session in 2016, in the quest to achieve a better international consensus on how we can reduce consumption and mitigate the harm that drug use brings with it. Our Government and our Parliament ought to respond constructively to that challenge.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the all-party group on this excellent report and on bringing this debate before the House today. When I was doing some research in this area, the thing that really encapsulated the problem for me was a United Nations report saying that, in 1998, the decision was taken to work towards the “elimination or significant reduction” of illicit drug production and abuse by 2008. We are, of course, five years on from that. The United Nations decided to extend that programme for 10 years but I guess it had no confidence whatever that there would be any greater success over that following decade either.
One of the things that strikes me about this debate is that there is a psychology in the back of people’s minds that the drugs problem, and drugs themselves, can somehow be uninvented—that we can hide them away and they will disappear. However, the reality is, as the report says so well, that we now have multiplying types of drugs and that these products will not go away. There is also the fact that any debate seems to forget that where there is a demand, there will be a market and there will be supply. That is the way that human beings, human society and global society work.
I spent most of my professional life in the freight industry, where I was very much involved in supply chains. One of the things on which I want to concentrate is the even more difficult area of the international global supply chain for illicit drugs. It is different for different drugs categories. Cannabis is now the most consumed drug but is often produced within the nations where it is consumed. Synthetic drugs, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has said, often come through the post or through the internet. However, there is still, regrettably, huge international global traffic in cocaine and opiates. We do not know the exact figure of course, but that market is worth something like $500 billion per annum—1% of global trade. We are handing that 1% of global trade to organised crime; to people who are out there to make money and are not worried about the consequences. We have to find a way of making that supply chain part of an established route, which is far more difficult than legalising or regulating the consumption side.
Why is that important? It is important because of the countries, nations, peoples and communities that are destroyed by the 90% of the drugs market that is driven by North America and Europe. In Mexico, there have been some 60,000 deaths and murders directly related to the drugs trade, a number of them mass killings. In Venezuela, between 1990 and 2008, the murder rate per annum increased from 2,000 to 16,000. In the United Kingdom, we have roughly 500 homicides a year, which puts that somewhere in context. In Colombia, 300,000 refugees moved from that country to Ecuador. The whole problem here is that this illicit trade is undermining developing countries and even some countries that are moving up towards developed status.
I have the privilege of being chair of the All-Party Group for Guinea-Bissau, a west African state which used to be a Portuguese colony. I shall conclude by quoting two passages from a recent publication, Guinea-Bissau: Lessons from Africa’s first Narco-State. It states that,
“trafficking networks have coopted key political and military leaders and transformed Guinea-Bissau into a hub for illicit commerce, particularly the multibillion dollar international trade in cocaine. This has directly contributed to instability in Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, and elsewhere in Africa … Drawn by the lucrative revenues, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups in West Africa have also been linked to Guinea-Bissau trafficking … While narcotics traffickers initially targeted Guinea-Bissau because of its weak oversight and governance capacity, the drug trade has dramatically compounded these drivers of instability while spawning others”.
It further states:
“Meanwhile, economic growth has been episodic, human development indicators have been stagnant, and a humanitarian emergency imperilling 300,000 people looms”.
That number of people represents a major proportion of the country’s population.
The result of our not tackling that trade is the wasting of a number of developing countries. If we solve the problem in one country, it moves to another. We have to make that trade part of the establishment. It is difficult, but we have to take that challenge forward.
My Lords, as my noble friend mentioned in her excellent opening speech, a report entitled Drugs of Dependence was published by the BMA’s Board of Science earlier this year. I declare an interest as the current chair of the Board of Science. The report sought to contribute to the debate on drug treatment and drugs policy through the eyes of the medical profession, and I wish to draw special attention to the role of doctors in our debate today.
The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, agrees that drug abuse should be treated more as a public health problem than as a criminal justice concern. She has said:
“We have a health problem, and we would do well as a nation to look at it as a health problem”.
But the lead for drugs and alcohol policy is the Home Office, and this Government are choosing to continue to treat it in that way. Can the Minister comment on this?
Professor David Nutt, the former chairman of the ACMD, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that drugs should be decriminalised and compared the harm caused by illicit drugs to that of alcohol. He said that,
“what we see now is a rising, rising, rising tide of damage from alcohol. There is no doubt a lot of people drink because it is legal and if there was an opportunity to use cannabis in a coffee shop-like model, they would not drink”.
However, Dr Clare Gerada, giving evidence to the committee as chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a former member of the ACMD, said that, in the case of cannabis, there would be significant direct health harm from decriminalisation, and that:
“Cannabis is not a … good drug to be on. It causes lung cancer. It causes oesophageal cancer. It causes failure at school”.
She reminded the committee that cannabis is very addictive and said that she would not advocate any person using it. She went on:
“We have just spent the last 60 years sorting out tobacco, let us not drop in the same problem now with cannabis”.
Clinicians all encounter the effects of drugs on their patients, whether they work in a hospital as a cardiologist, as a GP, a psychiatrist or as a public health doctor. There is consistent evidence that, in primary care settings, in hospitals and in mental health settings, doctors frequently do not address drug use. For example, a history of drug use is seldom documented, even when a patient presents with symptoms which suggest that drugs may have been used. What could be the reason for such a lack of documentation? One possible explanation for the reluctance of some doctors to explore drugs use is pessimism about being able to do anything.
The medical frame of reference is a useful one in which to approach drug use. Doctors are trained to be non-judgmental, factual and professional, and should be well positioned to provide information and advice and monitor progress. We have heard already today, and read in the BMA’s own report, that health should be at the centre of drug policy. Let us consider then how the medical profession could take a greater role in tackling the UK’s problem with drugs, recognising of course that the number of drug-related deaths has been falling steadily during the past few years.
The health and social impact of drug use is multifaceted, but I want today to highlight one area of impact: the mental health of drug users. A report from the UK Drug Policy Commission in 2012, A Fresh Approach to Drugs, highlighted that people who use illicit drugs have an increased likelihood of mental health problems, and vice versa. A study of people attending community mental health and substance misuse services found that 30% of those attending reported using drugs in the previous year and that 75% of those attending a drug service had had a psychiatric disorder in the previous year. These figures are very concerning, but the nature of the relationship is still unclear and varies between different drugs.
There is substantial research evidence that heavy cannabis use by adolescents increases the risk of depression and schizophrenia in later life, especially for those who already have a vulnerability to develop a psychiatric syndrome. This is compounded by concerns about the increased availability of stronger strength cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids, which are more harmful to health and more likely to cause psychosis.
Two of my children have been seriously assaulted by men who had been using cannabis. The man accused of stabbing my daughter had reputedly taken large quantities of stronger strength cannabis, with alcohol and ketamine—a cocktail—with devastating consequences for my daughter and for himself: he later committed suicide.
I have spoken about mental health, but I return to a key point that I mentioned earlier on how we can reduce drug-related harm: all doctors have an essential role to play in tackling the use of illicit drugs. Doctors from every part of the health system can improve their rates of intervention by opportunistically screening patients and identifying those with drug misuse. Commissioning the right services will be key to ensuring that adequate clinical pathways are available to patients. Education and training will be vital. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, has reviewed the competencies required for doctors in relation to alcohol and other drugs to ensure that medical training gives adequate weight to every doctor’s role in this area. All royal colleges have committed to including these competencies in their curriculum, which is an important step.
Debate on the most effective approach to preventing and reducing the harms associated with illegal drug use must be based on sound evidence. Health impact is integral to that debate.
My Lords, it is a real honour and a privilege to take my place on these distinguished red Benches. I have been overwhelmed by the sincerity of the welcome and the warmth and generosity of spirit shown to me by noble Lords from all sides of your Lordships’ House. I thank you.
I also want to thank all the staff here for their dedicated service, and friendly and much valued support. My thanks go also to my two supporters, my noble friends Lord Lester and Lady Jolly, for all their help, encouragement and wise words. They have attempted to ensure that I have at least a basic grasp of the workings of your Lordships’ House—no mean feat.
I understand that a maiden speech should not be controversial, so you can imagine the look on the faces in my Whips’ office when told them that I intended to speak in this debate—start as you mean to go on, I say. I shall be brief, as I have only five minutes, but I hope that I can make further contributions at another time.
Today’s topic is of immense importance and presents our society and institutions with huge challenges, so I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling this debate and thus enabling me to make my first contribution in your Lordships’ House.
Through my working life, and in particular nearly 20 years of work experience in the NHS, I have gained some knowledge of the impact and effects of illegal drug abuse on health services and witnessed the horrific cost, despair and misery that drugs can bring to the lives of individuals and their families.
The link between drug abuse or misuse and the negative impact on individuals and communities is clear. Also well documented are the links between illicit drug use and crime. The Government’s Drug Strategy 2010: Reducing Demand, Restricting Supply, Building Recovery was important and I welcome it.
However, despite the fact that the usage of illegal drugs in the UK is falling, it is clear that in some areas, such as cannabis, the rates of use among young people in the UK are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, stated, among the highest in Europe. I am pleased to note, however, that greater clarity appears to be emerging on how we tackle this in the UK. I am particularly pleased by the recent comments of the leader of my party, the Liberal Democrats, that we need a more imaginative, open and, crucially, evidence-based approach to drug policy.
For my part, I wish to make three points in this debate: first, the importance of prevention and education; secondly, the issue of decriminalisation of drugs; and, thirdly, the importance of helping families and individuals. First, education is key, particularly education of the young. As a mother of two daughters, I understand the importance of that. Having a clear drugs strategy which is effectively monitored and evaluated is fundamental in all our schools, including fee-paying schools and academies. Early intervention is key, as is a cohesive implementation programme and a co-ordinated strategy between the new body, Public Health England, and the Department for Education. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that PHE must be the lead body in monitoring and evaluating the success of the education programme, and not merely a provider of centralised funds, if we are to make real progress on drugs education in our schools and in higher education. As a former governor of a number of higher education institutions, I know the importance of that.
Secondly, if the case for the decriminalisation of drugs or the retention of effective legislation to control their use was clear, there would be no merit in my address today. There is no such clarity, and the scourge of our times remains hotly disputed by those on both sides of the argument. Decriminalisation, when viewed against the vagueness of alcohol control on our streets, is not an obvious solution to the problem. Since the problem was recognised, we have appealed for a policy that is both firm and resolute. We have sought to use legislation to control and suppress those who use and abuse drugs, without much success. We have attacked the supply of drugs and the associated organised crime that supports it—again, without definable progress. That is not a condemnation of the paths that we have taken but recognition of the enormity of the problem.
Will decriminalisation solve anything? It seems that one effect would be to produce cheaper drugs with wider availability. That deregulation would introduce a massive problem of control of the drugs themselves. That would make them more accessible to criminals in countries with equally enthusiastic criminal resources, leaving the problem immune and further away from proper control.
I offer no clear solution, although I have drawn the view that continued control allows us to focus on related crime and criminals. Money-laundering, illegal alcohol, prostitution, gang warfare and even armaments are intrinsically linked to and caught up with the use and marketing of drugs. To remove the drug issue would in no way reduce the horrifying effects of serious crime, but would have the effect of drawing our attention, even partially, away from those involved in such crime. I cannot find it in my heart to support such a step.
However, there are other things that we can do here and now. This brings me to my third point: how we support those whose lives are affected by drugs. I believe that we must direct resources to help those suffering the consequences of the use of drugs and build a stronger, more cohesive society: one that helps the sick and disadvantaged and which values the importance of prevention and education in this complex and challenging area. That is why I support the view that responsibility for drugs policy should be moved from the Home Office, which rightly focuses on policing and law enforcement, to the Department of Health. That would allow a greater focus on the care and support we need to give people for them to get off drugs, into treatment and back into society.
I thank your Lordships for your patience during my first contribution to your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to be able to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, on her maiden speech in this House. Having heard the content of what she said, we look forward to other contributions that she will make to the work of this House. Although she mentioned that she had 20 years of experience in the NHS, she did not mention that in addition she has been a member of the Commission for Racial Equality, a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and has served as the Legal Services Ombudsman. I think that I can safely say on behalf of all Members of the House who have been privileged to hear her that we look forward to her contributions in many areas. I am sure that if they are of the quality of what we have just heard, they will be a huge enhancement to the work of the House.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Meacher not only on securing the debate but on the exemplary way in which she introduced it. I entirely share her views on criminalisation and the need for both national and international reform of current drugs policy. I declare two interests: one as a member of her All-Party Group on Drug Policy Reform; and another as chairman of the cross-party group on justice, drugs and alcohol, which aims to link practitioners in the field with Members of this House.
I listened with interest as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, introduced the word “military”, because the one thing that I have always thought was utterly inappropriate in talking about drugs is the word “war”. It introduces entirely the wrong perception of what people are meant to be doing. Yes, of course drugs are an evil and need to be tackled, but war is something entirely different. As for “military”, as was touched on by my noble friend Lady Meacher, I add that when I was serving in the Army, every time we went off to do something somewhere we felt that we had the country behind us and, in particular, that we had cross-party support behind us. That was broken, of course, in Iraq in 2003 and has been a matter of great concern ever since. On this issue, it has always seemed to me that cross-party agreement is essential, because the inevitable result of cross-party wrangling is inertia. In tackling something as urgent as this, with all the social and financial penalties for the life of this great country that it brings, the last thing we need is inertia caused by unnecessary wrangling on what should be a centralised policy.
I go back to my experience as Chief Inspector of Prisons. I have always thought that if anything encapsulates the nonsense of the present position, it is the way that drugs are treated in prisons. There is something called the mandatory drug test, which is meant to give a picture of drug use in prisons. It is absolute nonsense. Five per cent of people in prison are tested. I always remember going into a cell and finding nine pieces of paper on the wall. I said to the person, “What are those?”. He said, “They are my certificates for being drug-free. If you come next week, there will be a 10th. They always test me because they know I am drug-free and it makes the figures look good”. That is absolute nonsense. The only way to find out the actual size and shape of the problem is to test every person when they come in and decide from that what needs to be done with them.
The second thing that I found was that when the drug treatment and assessment programme started, it ended up with a lot of assessment but no treatment, because prisoners were moved around the country, away from the people who might have worked with them in prison and carried on doing so when they were released. Prison policy was totally against consistent assessment and treatment. I then found that there were masses of dealers in every prison. They were causing not only misery in prison by what they were doing to the prisoners who failed to pay them their dues for illegal substances, but terrible problems for their families outside. The misery was widespread, not helped by the fact that there did not seem to be proper liaison between the drug treatment organisations outside the prison and those people who were responsible for it.
Last week, those of your Lordships who saw the prison inspection report on HMP Oakwood would have seen that drugs were easier to obtain there than soap. It seems to me that our prisons, where we have people who cannot leave and could be treated, are the very place where we ought to have proper policies. You can do the assessment; you can start the treatment and make certain that it carries on. The whole situation shows the lunacy of the prohibition that seems to dominate our policy.
However, I do not want to end on a doom and gloom moment because I am very glad to see that while prison healthcare was not part of the NHS when I started as chief inspector, it is now. I am very glad to see that the prisons have put the responsibility for drug treatment in the hands of the NHS. That is an absolute endorsement of the way that we ought to go, and which my noble friend has so clearly recommended in her excellent report.
My Lords, I remind all noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate. Contributions from the Back Benches are of five minutes, which means that when the clock strikes five noble Lords should be looking to conclude their speeches.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and declare my interest as the vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Drug Policy Reform, which she chairs so ably and energetically and which she has ensured is well known in many corners of the world. I shall concentrate in my remarks on human rights matters concerned with the international aspects of global drugs policies and the involvement of the Government in these.
I begin by congratulating the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on its human rights policy and the actions taken to pursue it, which are admired worldwide. They are very effective and send a message to the world about British values.
The Home Affairs Select Committee said in its report at recommendation 61:
“The Government should not turn a blind eye to capital punishment and other human rights abuses affecting those involved in the drugs trade. In particular, we recommend that the Government ensure that no British or European funding is used to support practices that could lead to capital punishment, torture, or other violations”.
It is this recommendation which I would like to pursue. There are many ways in which the international drug enforcement regime can lead to human rights abuses. There are drug detention centres where addicted people are held against their will; rigid and draconian laws that impose long, mandatory prison sentences on small-scale impoverished participants in the drugs trade; sentences to be served in overcrowded, inhuman and degrading prison conditions; and prison conditions that can lead to the transmission of deadly diseases related to injecting drug use with inadequate or non-existent healthcare and no respect for the right to life or the duty of care.
Of all these, the death penalty is the most extreme. I declare an interest as I chair the All-Party Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Six countries currently execute drug traffickers: China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and, of course, Iran. Accurate figures are hard to come by but it is clear that Iran has executed hundreds of people for drug trafficking. Figures from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center suggest that in 2012 there were 552 executions, 346 of which were for drug trafficking. Pakistan also imposes death sentences on those convicted of drug trafficking and almost restarted executions earlier this year.
It is very important to know what the Government’s approach is to giving financial support to anti-narcotics activities or to contributing via the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or the European Union, to anti-narcotics work in any state that uses the death sentence for drug trafficking. In response to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Government said that they have a guidance document, Overseas Security and Justice Assistance, which I have read. It is an excellent document. If followed, it should ensure that no aid is given to programmes which lead to human rights abuses. The Government also say that they have lobbied the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to ensure that human rights are respected when undertaking these programmes, yet we read reports that the Government support the work of the Pakistan anti-narcotics force and have supported anti-narcotics work in Iran.
Can the Minister say first whether, directly or indirectly, British government money goes to counternarcotics work in Iran, Pakistan or any other country that imposes the death penalty? If it does, how do the Government ensure that that money is so ring-fenced that it does not lead to the arrest and subsequent sentencing to death of any individual? Secondly, in the light of what is known about prison conditions in many parts of the world, is the Minister satisfied that the Government do not support drug enforcement activity anywhere that would lead to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment?
My Lords, I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling this debate. Of course, 50 years ago we could not have had this debate because Governments did not have drugs policies in those days. However, it became apparent during the 1960s that we were going to need one. Very little was known about drugs or drug use in those days but it was quite clear that they were damaging to an individual’s health. They hurt families and the wider communities, and there was potential damage to society itself. That is how it was perceived and, from where we are now, it probably was not entirely wrong. However, we need to look at the context of those days.
Drugs in 1971 meant cannabis, a little amphetamine, heroin—that was probably the most serious one—and some hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. Although cocaine existed, it was not really available in the United Kingdom then. All the new NPDs such as ecstasy, methedrone and ketamine really did not exist. Crack had not been invented and prescriptions for drugs such as valium and librium were really new, and their long-term effects not known at all. In 1974, there were 14,000 heroin addicts registered with the Home Office.
There are only two things you can do about drugs, then or now. You can put in place measures to restrict or reduce the supply of drugs or try to reduce the demand for them. You can restrict the supply by use of the criminal law. Unfortunately, in the 1970s there was no recognised way of treating drug addicts, so there was nothing much that you could do about reducing demand. We introduced something called the British system, whereby addicts were prescribed heroin every single day as a way of keeping them level and out of the black market. That in fact continued in this country until the 1980s and it is the forerunner of much of the state provision of treatment today.
The central plank was to try to control or reduce supply, which was done through the passage of the Misuse of Drugs Act, supported internationally by the United Nations conventions. While those and the law may not have changed over 40 years, quite a lot of other things have. We now have 300,000 addicts, mostly of heroin and cocaine. We have crack, NPDs, ecstasy, methedrone and ketamine, with two new drugs appearing every week. In 1992—but not until then—the Home Office decided that there was after all a link between drugs and crime. That led to the first ever drugs strategy, while my noble friend Lord Howard was in the Home Office. We learnt then that the cost of drug-related crime and the policing of drugs was about £12 billion a year.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about the international side of the drug industry. He mentioned a lot of countries but missed out Afghanistan. The second reason why we went into Afghanistan eight years ago was to suppress the opium business, of which we are the largest consumer; 80% of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan. Now we are leaving Afghanistan, though, and the poppy harvest has in fact quadrupled. I am not really sure that you could describe that as a policy success.
Whichever way you look at it—internationally, nationally or locally—I cannot see that our attempt to restrict the supply of drugs has been anything but a disastrous and incredibly expensive failure. In 1971 we did not have options but today we do. If we cannot restrict the supply, as we clearly cannot, we can reduce demand. The United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the NHS all accept that drug addiction is a primary illness; it is not curable but it is treatable. The previous Government recognised this and over 10 years put an enormous amount of time and effort into treatment, and formed the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.
The present Government have taken that forward by ring-fencing the funding and by moving the National Treatment Agency into Public Health England, but there is a structural fault in drug treatment in Britain. The officials at both the Department of Health and the Home Office fundamentally do not believe in drug treatment; they believe that drugs are a symptom of social deprivation. They are backed in this feeling by the medical profession; because there is no medical treatment for drug addiction, which there is not and never has been, there is therefore presumed to be no treatment at all. Therefore the only treatment for drug addiction, in the view that is held, is substitute prescribing, which means that 150,000 out of 300,000 addicts in this country live on prescription drugs. To look at it another way, it is like taking an alcoholic off whisky, putting him on vodka and saying, “There we are, job done”. However, there is a vast amount of other treatment available such as abstinence-based treatment, which has been in existence in this country for 40 years but which virtually no one has access to because they cannot get it through the health authorities.
We started this debate 40 years ago with a degree of consensus; we need to find that consensus now. No responsible politician wants to do anything other than to reduce the demand for drugs and the harms caused by them, so there is quite a lot of agreement about the way forward. The consensus is growing among politicians, internationally and now in the media. All that we need now is for the Government to join that consensus.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for proposing this debate and particularly for being so encouraging about participating in it. I have two areas of experience that I hope may be relevant. I have been a funder and trustee of several charities that deal with the fall-out from drugs, including Reprieve, IntoUniversity and Storybook Dads. My involvement has also made me think about the impact of the internet on this issue, which, as some noble Lords may know, is my particular interest.
One charity that I know well, Just for Kids Law, provides invaluable support for children and young people, many of whom are in care, looked after or at risk of exclusion from school. As well as legal help, it offers services ranging from securing housing to finding work. The organisation is a vital resource for the most vulnerable in our society. One of the most distressing and relentless aspects of the lives of the children that JFK helps is being stopped and searched by police. We know from police statistics that 50% of all searches are to look for drugs. We also know from police data that the searches take place disproportionately among the BME population. Some JFK clients talk of being stopped more than three times a day. Not only is this hugely destructive to the lives of the children but it is expensive. JFK worked with another not-for-profit organisation, StopWatch, to produce a smartphone app that allowed the kids to register every time they were stopped, whether there was an arrest and how the police treated them. The stop-and-search app allowed young people to get some control over what they felt was persecution. It also showed the high number of searches that did not result in any substances found, data that could be very useful to the police when prioritising work.
It is interesting to reflect on that development. Technology is changing with great speed the relationship between the supposed criminal and the authorities. But could we not be even bolder in thinking about how the internet could inform some of the solutions for the enormity of the challenges facing drugs policymakers? It feels as though those currently illegally controlling the drugs industry certainly already are. Only yesterday on the Radio 4 “Today” programme there was a discussion on the increasingly high level of digital capability. Marc Goodman, an ex-officer who now studies crime and terrorism, said in his TED talk in 2012,
“all the drug dealers and gang members with whom I dealt had”,
a cell phone,
“long before any police officer I knew did”.
He also talked about how hard it is for the police to stay ahead of drug cartels. For example, in Mexico there is a national encrypted radio station and telecoms network run by a group of dealers that is completely out of the reach of any state. I think it might be even harder to access remotely than the parliamentary e-mail system.
The internet is rapidly changing consumer behaviour, and this brings me to the Silk Road. This is not the beautiful route stretching through central Asia, well trodden by Marco Polo, but the website of the same name, mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, sometimes called the Amazon.com of drugs. Launched in 2011, the site was operated on Tor, a “dark web” service that anonymises users, making it much more difficult for them to be tracked. The site allowed users to buy a huge range of semi-legal and illegal substances using the digital currency Bitcoin. The FBI closed it down last month.
Rather than a terrible crime, using Silk Road could be seen as a better approach to drug sales—a more peaceful alternative to the deadly violence that street deals have led to for decades and which, as the APPG report’s notes show, has led to many thousands of deaths at unbelievable cost. As many of commentators have written, the site was credited by its creators and users as mitigating gangs and cartels, providing quality drugs and going some way to breaking dependency cycles. It did this by breaking people’s relationships with dealers on the street and with the police—all objectives of the unsuccessful so-called war on drugs that, as has been documented today, has cost Governments around the world trillions of pounds.
I very much respect the work of the APPG, but in future work might it be possible to take the different but linked experiences of Just for Kids Law and the Silk Road to think boldly about how technology might help facilitate a different, more successful global drugs policy?
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my new noble friend Lady Manzoor on her excellent maiden speech. I was grateful to her for sharing with us her experiences in the health service over so many years and for her strong support for moving drugs policy and government efforts from the Home Office to the health department. It is that sort of experience that supports my gut feeling that that is the right thing to do.
I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, not just on introducing the debate today but on all her hard work over recent months and indeed years over this issue. I know that she has tirelessly visited many different countries, not only all the EU countries but a great number of South American ones. She has put before us a lot of evidence and reports on this issue that have really helped to inform us. I shall refer slightly later to one of those in particular. I am extremely grateful to her. I think that she has really encouraged us in this House to address the issue in a far more in-depth way.
If we look at the 2010 drugs strategy and the government response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report, we can see that the Government are still hoping against hope that the “war on drugs” posture will continue to be credible. However, as we have heard from so many speakers, it simply is not. Many speakers, although I shall not repeat what they have said, have given examples of how it is not helping those on harder drugs to deal with their health problem or indeed helping young people wend their precarious way through the world of recreational drugs.
I particularly want to home in on the failure of the current posture of the Government as a world leader. We like to think of the UK engaging in international dialogue and acting as a world power in a responsible way. Unfortunately, the Government’s 2010 drugs strategy states:
“We must make the UK an unattractive destination for drug traffickers”.
On the face of it, that is a reasonable statement, but where does the UK suggest would be a better destination? On to which of our friends and allies are we wishing the problem? It is a global problem, and even if we could make the UK so unattractive that no hard drug crossed our borders, the rest of the world would still be suffering from serious, ruthless criminals who have an easy route to vast profits. We would not be immune to the effects of that, so let us not make that sort of statement.
I want to talk for a moment about the visit that I was privileged to make to Colombia with the IPU and about one of the insights that gave me. It has since been underpinned by the excellent report on the coca leaf by Sophia Ostler of the UK IPU. In Colombia, I saw first hand some of the realities for the police in trying to deal with narco trafficking and I saw the UK supporting them in that. I think we still have 40 officers out there helping, and the Colombians are very grateful for that effort. One of the unforeseen effects of that support is the shift of the coca-growing effort to Peru and Bolivia. The question is: what else can small-scale peasant farmers high in the mountains grow and are there alternatives to that or to the coca leaf? That is where the report is so valuable. It shows all the current alternatives, from Coca-Cola to Red Bull. It states that companies are extremely reticent about where their coca leaf comes from and that a helpful start would be more openness and accountability from international companies already engaged in legitimate trade in the coca leaf. There are lots of other uses. It is depressing that countries in the Andean region have had to suppress their cultural use of coca tea and so on because of the UN’s attitude to their traditional use. Everything I have said about coca and the Andean region could be said about Afghanistan and opium growing.
I thank my noble friend Lady Meacher for securing and so brilliantly introducing this debate on a subject that is always topical and always of the first importance. It is trite but true to say, first, that illicit drugs and the problems they create have for decades been a scourge around the world and, secondly, that the so-called war on drugs has conspicuously failed. I do not pretend to any particular expertise in this area, although a lifetime in the law has inevitably exposed me to many of the problems, and still less do I pretend to any easy solution. There are no quick fixes available here. Some would say that, like democracy, unsatisfactory though the present law is, it is better than any alternative and is the least worst option, but I respectfully question that. There must be better policies and better ways of control available. My main reason for participating in this debate is to encourage government to engage internationally with all those striving to reach such better solutions and to urge government to be imaginative and to recognise, as my noble friend Lady Meacher described that a number of other countries have, that policies concentrating essentially on criminalising all aspects of the drug trade are counterproductive. Better health must be the ultimate goal.
I respectfully suggest that the central objectives of those seeking a better control system should be twofold: first, to reduce the level of harmful drug-taking, and secondly to reduce the level of criminality resulting from present systems of control. As to reducing the level of harmful drug-taking, while recognising that most drugs are harmful or at least have the potential for harm, in certain circumstances some are not, or at any rate are no more so than alcohol or smoking. Putting aside the fact that sometimes drugs such as cannabis or even ecstasy can have medicinal value, it should be possible, as presently it is not, at least to carry out studies to see at what level the consumption of various substances becomes really harmful. We should not strive to criminalise substances not shown to be significantly harmful and thereby risk alienating many consumers, particularly the young. Government should also bear in mind that new psychoactive substances —chemical highs—not yet made illegal are increasingly being introduced into the market. A sound overall drugs policy should seek to combat the temptation to devise and resort to them too. The less the criminalisation involved, the better the chance of moving to a system by which drug-taking can be lawfully licensed and controlled and damage to health thereby reduced.
I turn to the second objective: changing the existing control system and reducing so far as possible the level of resulting criminality. Associated crime is essentially of the following kinds—of course I discount the actual offences of supply and use that one is contemplating perhaps in part, at least, decriminalising. First, there are crimes such as robberies, burglaries, theft and so forth which are committed for gain by those needing cash to fund their addiction. Many addicts’ lives are dominated by their addiction and they will do anything to satisfy their craving. Secondly, there are crimes committed in the course of turf wars between rival dealers protecting their trade and internationally between drug cartels and law enforcement agencies. These crimes regularly involve murder, extortion, corruption and so forth. Thirdly, there are crimes committed by those under the influence of drugs, who are disinhibited often to a considerably greater degree even than by excessive drinking. By the same token that the nation’s health might be improved by licensing rather than criminalising drug supply and use, so too might associated criminality be reduced. What a prize that would be. Perhaps liberalising—further liberalising as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, would have it—the drugs regime would involve some short-term political cost, but the longer-term benefits would be colossal indeed. I hope that government will actively participate in the search for these benefits.
My Lords, I join those who pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, not only for the way she introduced this debate but for the consistent and effective work she does on this subject. She is becoming a leading figure internationally in her commitment. I was sorry to miss the first sentence of her speech because I totally misunderstood that the previous business would wrap up as quickly as it did.
I am always impressed by those working on the front line on the drugs issue, and I wish we in Parliament could find ways of listening to such people more directly. I certainly learnt a great deal when I was serving under the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on Sub-Committee F which a couple of years ago did a report on this subject. It is worth reading, not least for the evidence in the report which comes from those on the front line. I thank those in the front line for the tremendous help they have given me in clearing my thoughts and focusing for this debate.
I understand that there are moves among the Liberal Democrats to shift the drugs lead from the Home Office to the Department of Health. If so, that is immensely encouraging. I think we should all cheer that, if it is happening. I hope that other parties will be able to follow suit. The same call should be made to move the brief internationally from the UN Office for Drugs and Crime to the World Health Organisation.
This is no longer a theoretical debate. Regulation is happening now. Cannabis has been legalised in Washington state, Colorado and Uruguay. Each year that the war on drugs continues, we spend £60 billion to create an illegal drugs market with a turnover of £200 billion.
Senator John McCain, not well known for his liberal views, now supports legalising cannabis. The most recent national convert to legalise cannabis for medical use is Romania—again, not known for its liberal positions as a whole. Half the world’s opium is grown for the legal opiates market; 3,500 acres is grown in the UK. None of it attracts the attention of organised crime or the Taliban. No drug is made safer left in the hands of organised criminals and unregulated dealers. Mike Barton, chief constable of Durham and lead on intelligence for ACPO, recently called for the drug supply to be taken over by the NHS. We cannot continue to allow the world’s drug policy to be determined by our special relationship. It must be determined by UN principles, health, security, development and human rights. These are not supported by prohibition.
There are in fact two wars on drugs. The first is the misguided overconcentration on attempting to rid the world of certain drugs—not, incidentally, the biggest killers; those are overwhelmingly tobacco and alcohol. The second is the war against the organised criminals who profit from the unintended consequence of prohibition, namely the creation of the second largest income stream for organised criminals: illegal drugs.
There is a significant point in Sub-Committee F’s report. Part of this war results often in the trade being displaced, and previously unaffected countries and communities being drawn in, sometimes with the most appalling human rights consequences. We need to take that seriously.
As with alcohol prohibition in the US, there is only one way to end this madness: ending the prohibition and replacing it with a system of responsible regulation. This must mean placing drugs under the control of doctors, pharmacists and strictly licensed retailers. Successive Administrations have continued to spend taxpayers’ money on a system of criminalisation that has never been subject to evaluation. Despite being promised an evaluation in 2010, we have still not seen one from the Government.
I am personally highly dubious about whether the Home Office has any real idea of what has resulted, positively, from the £100 billion expenditure. Legalising and regulating heroin would mean that Afghanistan no longer produced heroin for the non-medical market. What we are talking about here is the potential transformation of international relations, enabling developing countries, especially those involved in drug production and supply, to extricate themselves from the nightmare of prohibition and aspire to the same goals that we all do. Imagine reallocating £60 billion annually to development, rather than spreading crime, misery, stigma and blood-borne viruses.
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Meacher, not just for the debate but particularly for her tireless work on drugs. With any luck, she will make some progress.
I will highlight a matter which has not so far been raised by this House: the connection between drug dealing and human trafficking. There is a clear example in the report Drugs: Breaking the Cycle, at paragraph 52 on page 21:
“In 2011, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre published a report on people trafficking in which the largest identified trend was the trafficking of Vietnamese children into the UK—37 of the 58 children identified were trafficked into the UK to work in cannabis farms”.
I have said in the Chamber on several occasions how many cannabis farms there are in this country: something in excess of 7,500, of which about 4,000 are in London. They are in rented accommodation. I warn noble Lords who happen to own rented accommodation to be very careful to whom they let it. The traffickers are taking rented houses, pulling them to pieces, subverting the electricity and the water and creating large, successful cannabis farms which are in fact almost entirely run by Vietnamese children. Until recently, those children were treated as offenders when the police raided these farms, and not as victims. It is hugely to the credit of the Court of Appeal criminal division that in a decision in July it was seen and made clear that these Vietnamese children were to be treated as victims and no longer prosecuted. Indeed, the judge who presided over that court was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is in his place today.
Something good has happened there but, of course, if we had a rethink of cannabis it might not be necessary to have all these cannabis farms. I wonder how much cannabis is being imported into this country now, because so much is being grown here. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was saying about the really horrifying way in which drugs are successful in prisons, and how those who are taking drugs are really not tested on this system. It was an appalling story, and I have no doubt that it was accurate. I wonder whether the Home Office should not think again and much more carefully about looking at addicts who commit relatively minor crimes, but which are of sufficient importance to send them to prison. Should they not be going to residential clinics, which have a short-term cost but a long-term benefit? If they are weaned off drugs they will not be reoffending to fund their drug addiction. It would save a huge amount of money on the costs of keeping individual prisoners.
I finish my brief comments by saying that it is perfectly obvious that there has to be a rethink on drugs in this country. It clearly is not working and the Government should be brave enough to think about how it could be improved.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The debate was not necessarily promising because of the five-minute time limit for such an important and complex subject. In fact, however, the contributions have been invaluable, starting with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and also with the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Manzoor.
There is one area on which nearly everyone is agreed: we should transfer the primary leadership on this issue from the Home Office to the Department of Health. It should be treated as a medical rather than criminal problem. There was also, not total agreement, but a majority of recommendations that possession of drugs should not be treated as a crime. Some 42,000 people a year are sentenced for drug offences, and 12,000 are given jail sentences for drug possession. There is no evidence whatever that this deters drug abuse. Indeed, it discourages going for treatment because, as many speakers have pointed out, of the stigma involved in such a conviction. The last thing that those who are addicted want to do is to acquire a criminal record, which would have all sorts of disadvantages. Nor is there any evidence that longer sentences help. There has been a gradual drift towards longer sentences for all drug offences, and there is no evidence that this has helped at all.
Apart from the bodies that have been referred to, a recent report was issued by the UK Drug Policy Commission, which is headed by Dame Ruth Runciman. It is an expert commission and a very important report, but the Government do not seem to have commented on it. The Government’s approach to evidence-based policy has often shown considerable shortcomings. Take, for example, the classification of drugs, to which many noble Lords have referred. The way the Home Office has neglected evidence is appalling. There is no particular evidence that the present classification is any good, but it is absurd to classify cannabis together with drugs such as heroin, cocaine and crack.
That is not the only unsatisfactory aspect. Several noble Lords have referred to the dangers of addiction to prescribed drugs. A number of bodies have warned about the excessive reliance in treatment on methadone tablets, which can easily be sold on the illicit drug market and can often lead to a relapse in people who have been trying to come off the drug. However, when they find that they can sell what has been officially prescribed, and that the methadone is easily sold, that is an incentive to relapse from treatment. As many noble Lords have pointed out, buprenorphine is a better alternative, especially when it is combined with naloxone. It is in common use in other countries, but has been neglected in this country.
All these contributions come to one conclusion, which is that the Misuse of Drugs Act is now 40 years old, the drug scene has changed dramatically since 1971, and it is high time that it was fundamentally re-examined.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for her relentless focus on drugs policy—a matter I spent 18 months of my life studying when I led the Cabinet Office review 10 years ago.
Serious drugs have been with us for hundreds of years. Heroin was sold over the counter in the UK in the mid-19th century, although it was not until the mid-20th century that diverse drug use began to rise exponentially and to involve many millions of users. Those of us who were young in the 1960s can understand this well. Drug use was part of revolutionary social and cultural change. We read about hallucinogens in our Aldous Huxley. My next-door neighbour at college, a biochemist, kept a test tube on his bookshelf that was openly labelled LSD. Marijuana appeared exotic and bohemian. Jazz musicians took heroin, we were told, and that seemed cool—and no one talked about the dangers. We know better now. Which of us would not be horrified to learn that our children, or in my case my grandchildren, were using a class A, B or C drug, or one of their legal high near-equivalents?
There are, however, modest grounds for hope. A combination of better public education and the street-smart insights of a new Trainspotting generation have reduced the allure of drugs. Overall numbers appear to be in gradual decline. It may take another 50 years, however, before we return once again to mid-20th century norms. In the mean time, unlike many of your Lordships, I continue to support the notion that the state needs to do all it can to stigmatise—and not to legalise or in any way legitimise—the use of classified drugs, for they are all harmful in their different ways.
We should focus on one category of drug user above all others: the 300,000 consumers of heroin and crack cocaine. They do terrible harm to themselves and to their families but cause grievous harm to the rest of us, too. They commit the majority of all crime—more than half of all burglaries and muggings—to fund their habits. The consequence is huge trauma for their victims and a vast economic cost that is borne by us all.
Problem drug users do wicked things, but for the most part, as other noble Lords have suggested, they are troubled individuals, many with mental health problems. They are rootless and chaotic, caught in the whirligig of short sentences, routinely switching in and out of prison. They merit our compassion and they need our help. We offer well intended help, but the system is itself chaotic. The problem drug user is passed between different health and justice institutions and slips between the cracks again and again. I have long believed that our present approach is not fit for purpose.
The notion that treatment will invariably lead to abstinence is a chimera. At best, 20% may become abstinent for more than five years, for heroin is the most pernicious and unshakeable of all addictions. Treatment, none the less, is worthwhile. A broad-based regime with a battery of approaches from heroin substitution to heroin prescription, from counselling to coaching, from help with accommodation to workplace training, will not bring a cure but will bring substantial harm reduction, including a significant cut in acquisitive crime. However, help must be available consistently and continuously.
To protect society, we need something that we do not have now: a legal framework—not necessarily a criminal framework—that would enable us to grip problem drug users to ensure that they do not slip through the cracks, and an agency that is part of the criminal justice system to keep them under what may well be a lifetime of humane and compassionate supervision. Only a step change in our approach will reduce the impact of what will be a very long-lasting epidemic.
My Lords, I declare my registered interest in policing. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for initiating this very important debate. I also add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, for her very stimulating maiden speech.
I will set out my position on drugs policy straightaway. I am not against the prospect of reform; I would also support a royal commission. However, based on my experience as a police officer and after, and taking account of all the most recent developments around the world, including in Portugal and Uruguay, I find myself still broadly supporting the Government’s evidence-based approach to reform and drugs policy. I am also encouraged by and support the most recent European Union drugs strategy statement, which for the very first time in the 2013 to 2020 policy statement incorporates the reduction of,
“health and social risks and harms caused by drugs”,
as a policy objective, alongside the more traditional reducing of supply and demand.
Those who use language such as, “The war on drugs has failed”, or who seek to polarise policy choices into a simplistic “criminalise or decriminalise” debate, undermine our ability to make informed, evidence-based strategic decisions. In the early 1970s, President Nixon and other world leaders spoke about the war on drugs and a drugs-free world. The reality is that a war in those terms has always been doomed to failure, as would a war against theft or burglary, if making progress was defined only by the total absence of illicit drugs.
As other noble Lords have said, the truth is that illegal drug use in this country is falling, and deaths from drug abuse are falling. Although, as other noble Lords have clearly articulated, there are absolutely no grounds for complacency or for ignoring the powerful calls for reform, current policies have made and make a significant impact on the drugs problem.
I respect the views of those who have argued today for change, and of others beyond this Chamber. I read with interest the views of Mike Barton, the chief constable of Durham Police, who argued that prohibition had failed and called for decriminalisation. However, I will briefly set out some concerns that still nag at me and stop me fully embracing the radical reform agenda. The current policy on illicit drugs enables parents, teachers and others to give very clear guidance to youngsters about the health risks and—yes—the criminal consequences of illicit drug use. Based on my experience with youngsters, and as a police officer, I believe that the social stigma and lifestyle impact of the criminal consequences of illicit drug activity remain a very powerful deterrent to many young people, and prevent them experimenting with drugs—which they might well do in a decriminalised regime.
Even though I welcome debate and have an open mind about many of the possible reforms, my major concern remains how any decriminalising regime could be pragmatically implemented. The experience of Portugal and other countries may not be replicated here, against the background of our very different scale, of our cultural differences and of the problems that we face.
If only so-called soft drugs are legalised—which some have argued for—the criminal suppliers will focus more intently on the supply of so-called harder drugs. Softer-drug supply may become a gateway, a loss leader and a route to addiction in the criminal market of harder drugs. Your Lordships’ House has heard in previous debates about the devastating potential brain damage from some of the stronger cannabis derivatives. A caring, responsible society should set criminal parameters to protect people from some of these so-called soft drugs.
If all drugs are decriminalised, criminals will still seek to make a market. Only a laissez-faire, total free-for-all, regardless of the consequences, will limit the link between criminality and drugs. I assume that we would want to have minimum age limits, and that we would not allow our youngest people to be involved in drugs. Perhaps there would be limits on quantities and impact. Anything other than a total free-for-all would allow an illegal market to continue.
In conclusion, by all means, as so many in your Lordships’ House have articulated today, let us explore reform and change to our drugs policy. However, in doing so, we must not demotivate or devalue the work of so many professionals in a variety of agencies who, day in, day out, combat and treat all aspects of drug abuse. They have not lost the so-called war on drugs. They may be coping with inadequate resources and facing real challenges, but they are making a difference.
Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that we are time-limited.
My Lords, I do apologise; I am about to finish.
Nor must we, without hard evidence, dilute and damage the powerful deterrent effect of the stigma associated with the current criminal consequences of drug use or supply, which deters so many young people from experimenting. For these reasons, I support the Government’s evidence-based approach to reform.
My Lords, it is no surprise that this has been a very intelligent debate on a multifaceted issue. I congratulate my noble friend on packing so much into a scarily short time. I attended a seminar a little while ago. During the first session, the politicians blamed the media for blocking debate through overdramatic reporting. The second session was led by a journalist, who blamed the politicians for being risk averse. We say something about this in the report of the APPG, which is led so energetically by the noble Baroness. I add my thanks, too, to Frank Warburton and Jonathan Hurlow, who did a huge amount of work on it.
We said that we recognised that politicians were apprehensive about proposing change because they might be perceived as irresponsible or soft, so they shy away from rational decisions. The report states:
“Our current drug policy suggests a preference for a flawed policy rather than appear soft on a contentious issue”.
That was addressed to all politicians. However, changes are afoot. Like others, I am attracted by the Portuguese approach of—the description is perhaps more accurate than “decriminalisation”—depenalisation. It is not a soft option, nor is it regulation. There, the number of young people becoming addicted is falling, and so are drug-related deaths.
I will focus on one part of the all-party group’s work. We realised that the world had changed. As others said, drugs are traded on the internet. If we close a site here, another will pop up there. We may ban a new drug, but already there will be several in the pipeline, because scientists in China are poring over published research—using the detail of what is in the public domain—to make small changes in the composition of the drug so that it does not fall within the current classification. It is simply not possible to keep up under the system that we have now.
They are called “legal highs”. Well, yes, they are not illegal—but how do you get over the message that not being illegal does not mean that the drugs are not unsafe? As for cigarettes and alcohol, I cannot defend the fact that some drugs are taxed and some are banned.
The all-party group welcomed the fact that temporary class drug orders do not criminalise the user—not least because a criminal record carries so many problems with employment, relationships and so on, but does not necessarily involve treatment. We heard that some young people use new psychoactive substances—legal highs—because they do not want to break the law. I do not discount that. However, the orders seem to feed a drive for the development of alternatives that are subject neither to the orders nor to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Those alternatives may be very dangerous because their contents are unknown and change from week to week, and because young people make their own risk assessments without reliable information. A harm-based policy, which must be the logical approach, suggests that temporary orders should be in place long enough for a comprehensive risk assessment, with the benefit of avoiding criminalising young people.
The Misuse of Drugs Act is clunky. A witness told us that the system was designed to cope with alcohol, heroin and cocaine, one at a time. It focuses on criminal activity, with the obvious difficulty that if neither users nor police know the content of a substance, in the absence of accurate field-testing devices, what do you do? This and more led to our recommendation that the ACMD should become an independent decision-making body,
“to oversee risk analyses; coordinate the research they need; and make decisions on a scientific basis as to the correct classification for each drug, beginning with new psychoactive substances”,
leaving the politicians to focus on political decisions.
Of course, we need to be as imaginative as the suppliers and to look at all possible responses and tools, such as the use of the internet for good and using trading standards personnel. At the moment they are constrained in what they can do and frustrated by knowing that there has not been any deception of a buyer, who knows that they are not buying plant food or bath salts. It is a very odd collusion.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Birt, I was around in the 1960s. I do not know whether that qualifies or disqualifies me, but life was simpler then. The “war on drugs” is indeed too simplistic, and I have been greatly cheered by a lot of the views that I have heard today.
My Lords, when the EU Committee’s sub-committee on home affairs, which I have the honour to chair, reported 18 months ago on the European Union’s future drugs strategy, one of our most important findings was to note the paucity and the poverty of the public debate on drugs issues, including the way that such debate as there was tended to be dominated by raucous tabloid press scare stories and governmental knee-jerk reactions. One of our central recommendations was that the Government and the EU institutions should aim to stimulate an EU-wide debate on drugs policies. That finding remains as valid today as the day we made it and that recommendation remains largely ignored by both the Government and the EU’s institutions. It is in that context that I warmly welcome today’s debate and the tireless efforts of my noble friend Lady Meacher to fill that lacuna. I hope that the Government’s contribution to this debate, and other statements to be made by the Government in the months ahead, will help to serve the same purpose.
One striking consequence of this lack of informed debate is the astonishingly confused and confusing public terminology for some of the main issues at stake. It is not uncommon to read newspaper articles which actually equate decriminalisation of a limited number of drugs offences with the legalisation of trade in drugs as if the two terms were synonymous, yet there is a world of difference between them. To decriminalise the possession and use of small quantities of drugs but not their trafficking, as Portugal has done, is a completely different approach from that being followed in Uruguay, and possibly being prepared in two American states, where these commodities are being legalised. That, in turn, is quite different from the attempt being made in New Zealand to regulate legally what are called “legal highs”. If we are to have a sensible debate in this country about these matters we need to pay greater heed to these distinctions, and we need to be a lot better informed about the successes or failures of these policies in the increasing number of countries where they are being tried.
It is not surprising that such innovations are being tried since the not very wisely named “war on drugs” has fallen a long way short of being a complete success. Not only are our already overcrowded prisons, particularly in this country and the US, being filled with drug offenders, but many countries in Latin America, west Africa and Asia are being devastated by the collateral effects of that war, and of the trade in drugs, which our inability to control the demand for in our developed economies is continuing to stimulate. That certainly does not prove that all those policy innovations make good sense or should be replicated here, but it does show why a policy of simply standing pat on existing measures and refusing even to contemplate or to discuss any changes is such an inadequate one and so unlikely to be successful.
One remedy which seems to be gaining wider support and acceptance here and elsewhere in Europe is to put greater emphasis on harm reduction and on trying to treat drug users in the community rather than in prison. When we conducted our inquiry into the EU drugs strategy we came across small but encouraging signs that in this country such an approach was gaining ground, often encouraged by the devoted work of voluntary organisations. However, it is still desperately underresourced and, in terms of government policy, this seems to be something that does not dare to speak its name. Perhaps the Minister will address that concern when he replies to the debate.
I am not sufficiently expert, or perhaps sufficiently foolhardy, to put forward any ideas for specific changes in policy or the law. I am sure that all of them bristle with difficulties and drawbacks, but one of those difficulties, surely, is the political toxicity for any party or coalition of parties of changing even the smallest measure. Yet, if you come to think of it, this should not be an issue where party politics are involved at all. We should not allow such debate as there is to be dominated by a competition in demonstrating toughness towards anything to do with drugs. There is surely a good case for doing as the Government have done over airport capacity and setting up a non-political body to assess the whole field of drugs policy, including particularly the innovations taking place elsewhere in Europe and in the wider world, with a remit to report back early in the next Parliament in the hope—even the expectation—that such an approach could lead to cross-party policy-making and a shift away from the very unsatisfactory status quo. I would very much welcome the views of the Minister on this suggestion.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on bringing attention to these important reports. I declare an interest as an ambassador of the Angelus Foundation, which aims:
“To help society understand the dangers of ‘legal highs’”.
As a neuropharmacologist researching the cellular mechanisms underlying various neurological and mental disorders, I have a particular interest in the impact of recreational drugs on the brain. After so many eloquent and informed speeches, I would like to make just two points.
The first is to question the actual meaning of the phrase “relatively less harmful”. Much is often made of the fact that, in a 2007 paper, cannabis came in with a final net score lower overall than that for tobacco or alcohol, suggesting that it might be safer, but then again, in the same paper, cannabis scored higher than LSD, which is widely regarded as a model for psychoses such as schizophrenia. Is having hallucinations really more welcome than, say, the relaxing effects of moderate amounts of alcohol? Similarly, on the same scale, cannabis also had a higher score than ecstasy, a drug for which in the past five to six years more than 60 papers have documented adverse short and long-term effects on the brain. Therefore, on that comparison, cannabis should be more harmful. Moreover, smoking cigarette after cigarette in one sitting is unlikely to achieve an “overdose” akin to a single session of marijuana that can send smokers to A&E with acute panic attacks.
These drugs all have detrimental effects, but they are qualitatively different. Surely any direct comparison is like benchmarking apples against pears. Further factors might come into play, such as the differential effects of certain drugs on the still developing adolescent brain. In teenagers a certain region, the prefrontal cortex, is still not fully operational, accounting perhaps for the tendency of young people to take more risks and seek sensation. This, in turn, may be reflected in the differential statistics, where the risk of cannabis addiction has been estimated for adults to be about one in 10, but almost doubles for teenagers to one in six. A recent report in the Lancet has documented cannabis as having a dependence syndrome in the young, including,
“increased risk of motor vehicle crashes, impaired respiratory function, cardiovascular disease and adverse effects on adolescent mental health”.
Subsequently, a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that persistent cannabis use was associated with neuropsychological impairment among adolescent-onset users, for whom cessation did not fully restore neuropsychological functioning. Confounding factors such as socioeconomic status or personality differences were subsequently eliminated: the link appears direct between cannabis use and an irreversibly lowered IQ. No similar claims have been made for nicotine. Even if such qualitatively different drugs could be compared on a quantitatively single scale, the crucial question is then: just how harmful is a “less harmful” drug? The phrase lacks any precise definition, and cannot therefore really be used as a valid justification or a starting premise.
My second point relates to the paradoxical signals sent out that, although the laws may be relaxed on a drug, it is still to be avoided. Already the possibility of cannabis legalisation is all too readily glamorised as a cool and trendy campaign to support, with little negative publicity offsetting that image, in contrast, for example, with tobacco. It would be helpful to know how the preventive programmes mentioned in the reports—we have heard too little about those this afternoon—will be funded and rolled out. The reports paint a rather gloomy picture of the preventive programmes, yet one initiative they did not explore, which has proved successful, is a community-wide approach, such as the one in the US, where community anti-drug coalitions have shown positive impacts when a community-wide response is taken up.
Another possibility has been prompted by my own experience of speaking in schools and penal institutions on drugs and the brain. Adults and teenagers alike get fascinated by basic neuroscience that can give insights into drug action: the “plasticity” of the brain whereby dynamic, endless reorganising of individual neuronal connectivity is driven by individual experience through chemical messengers signalling between different brain cells. It is this chemical transmission, this plasticity, that is modified in various ways by different recreational drugs. If this personalisation of the brain could be the individual mind, then “blowing your mind” might be an unintentionally accurate description. I have found from experience that this carries weight with young audiences.
Other noble Lords have spoken on the legislative and political merits of the recommendations of these reports. I would urge that such considerations be placed in the wider context of a thought-through programme of prevention that should first be in place and proven to be effective.
My Lords, I very much welcome this debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for giving us the opportunity to fully explore the important issues raised by the reports of the all-party parliamentary group and the Home Affairs Select Committee. I take this opportunity to add my warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, and congratulate her on her maiden speech. I look forward to her further contributions in the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the debate has, not surprisingly, been excellent and full of expertise. It has posed many interesting and challenging issues. It has not only given us a variety of views but shown the breadth of expertise and experience that we have in the House on this subject.
As noble Lords may be aware, I, too, have had a long-term interest in drugs policy and service provision, from setting up and managing day care and rehabilitation services in the late 1980s, which the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned, to serving on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the board of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. More recently, my work on a cross-departmental review of drug treatment in prisons resulted in the publication of the Patel report.
From my experience of carrying out this national review, I believe that our overriding concern must be to have a drugs policy that supports some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and their families—a policy that is evidence based and listens to the views of users and carers; a policy that is adaptable and able to meet new challenges, including new drugs as they emerge; and a policy that is sustainable in the long term. To do this, we clearly need to learn from quality research, including the experiences and evaluations of different approaches from other countries. In fact, in their response to the report of the all-party parliamentary group, the Government state this explicitly. They say that,
“we must continue to listen and learn from emerging trends, new evidence and international comparators”.
However, I ask the Minister what steps the Government are actually taking to ensure that we do not spend several years doing this when there is enough clear evidence to act now, such as that from Portugal’s alternative community-based treatment and diversion approach.
Of course, there are new risks to which we must urgently attend, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned. I am speaking about risks posed by the rapid changes in drug manufacture, the new psychoactive substances and so-called club drugs. While temporary drug control orders are to be welcomed as a helpful step in dealing with these new threats, they are not sufficient. As I understand it, the Government have used three temporary banning orders in total, despite the fact that there are well over 100 legal highs out there and they are coming in at a rate of more than 70 a year. In fact, in the last year alone, 73 new substances came on to the British market and are now freely available from 690 online shops. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, highlighted the pros and cons of the internet market. In addition, the Angelus Foundation thinks that there could be up to 300 head shops selling these substances on UK high streets. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction is monitoring 280 new substances across Europe.
Against this disturbing background, Les Iversen, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has said that the ACMD has the capacity to review only about four legal highs a year. I believe that it has to carry out a review even for a temporary banning order. I would therefore like to understand more about the Government’s rejection of the all-party parliamentary group’s key recommendation regarding these orders. Perhaps the Minister can explain the thinking behind not making these orders permanent in a way that does not, as the all-party group recommends, add to the criminalisation of young people.
On the question of decriminalisation, which many noble Lords have mentioned, and the issue of whether we have a punishment-led or treatment-led approach to drug problems, I have to say that all Governments, my own included, sometimes fail to make the right decisions based on evidence. This is due to the pressures that build up from public debate, which is itself often ill informed as a result of exaggeration in the media and cries that the Government of the day are somehow being soft on drugs if they give way to the advice of the experts. Let us be clear about this: the evidence supports treatment rather than criminalisation and punishment. The recent experience in Portugal on using drug treatment panels rather than the traditional criminal justice system supports this. We have also recently seen a complete reversal of direction in some US states, which have legislated to legalise marijuana use, as my noble friend Lord Judd said.
It is therefore disappointing that the Government,
“does not believe there is a case for fundamentally re-thinking the UK’s approach to drugs”.
My noble friend Lord Howarth also used that quote. I strongly urge the Government to ensure that our current drug policy is based on research and evidence, rather than the ideological and moral opinions of media commentators. It is not appropriate in such a dynamic and ever changing situation as that presented by drugs issues to have a blanket ban on fundamentally reviewing any policy. Surely our policy development and implementation must respond to change and, in particular, the evidence.
The first treatment that a drug user receives must be about stabilising the chaos in their lives; if that means something other than abstinence, so be it. Arguments around whether there should be harm minimisation or an abstinence-based approach are, at best, divisive or completely miss the point. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, highlighted that issue in relation to needle exchange schemes. Abstinence is not about telling all addicts that the only way to move forward is to stop suddenly; it is about providing the right range of treatment options at the right time.
The previous Labour Government invested significantly in drug treatment and revolutionised its provision, with significant results. For example, the waiting time for treatment was cut by more than half, far fewer people dropped out of treatment and outcomes were greatly improved. Recent government rhetoric appears to have moved away from creating a constructive approach and providing a choice of treatments to drug users, to focusing on and ensuring that offenders are punished and drug users are effectively pressured to become abstinent.
At the same time we are seeing major changes in the way that the finances for drug treatment are being distributed and managed. The previous Labour Government had ring-fenced these moneys, but this is no longer the case after the system has been devolved to health and well-being boards, which gives me some cause for concern. I ask the Minister to provide some reassurance that the policy is not being driven by a concern to command public confidence, rather than providing appropriate and evidence-based treatment options with a robust mechanism for protecting the funds for this treatment.
What I find frustrating is that, although we in the drugs sector are fortunate to have a relatively good evidence base on what works and what is cost-effective—research has concluded that for every £1 spent on young people’s treatment services, there is a return of up to almost £2 over a two-year period and £8 over the longer term—young people’s programmes are generally not supported by evidence, and programmes such as DARE, which have been shown to be ineffective, are still being used.
The UK Drug Policy Commission noted that UK Governments have invested little in independent evaluations of the impact of their drug reforms and policies, particularly around the criminal justice system. A number of well evidenced programmes, such as those involving the use of naloxone, have not been implemented, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said. Can the Minister provide an explanation as to why these programmes have not been implemented?
Perhaps I may make a plea that we do not forget the voices of users and carers in this debate. After all, it is those people most affected not only by drug problems but by our national policies and treatment approaches who suffer the most. When I was taking part in the review of prison drug treatment services, all 22 of us on the committee were anxious to hear the voices of users, but no one thought that it would happen. In a five-week period, we consulted user groups across the country who had talked to offenders, ex-offenders and drug users to get feedback for the report. We expected 50 people to respond in that time; 500 users, including current and ex-offenders, came forward and gave us some amazing evidence. It is really important that we do not put that evidence to one side.
Finally, after listening to all the many excellent contributions, I suggest that the way forward on these complex and challenging issues is to establish a cross-party group to review drug policy—a group that examines all the evidence carefully, listens to the voices of users and carers, and carefully develops an effective drug policy. Maybe the Minister and I could set this in motion today. I am sure that there are a number of people here in the Chamber who would be prepared to contribute their time and expertise to it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and, again, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on pursuing these critical issues.
My Lords, I am sure that I join all speakers in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on securing this debate. I see her as a great asset to this House. The combination of expertise and experience, which I think we all expected, has produced an excellent debate, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it.
As I doubt that I shall cover all the points raised, I hope that noble Lords will allow me to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, with a commentary on the debate and circulate it to all noble Lords who have spoken, as I think that that will do justice to the value of the contributions and the seriousness with which the Government also view this issue.
I also join in the welcome to my new noble friend Lady Manzoor and congratulate her on her maiden speech. We will all look forward to her contributions in the future, given the excellence of her speech today.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, pointed out, drugs ruin lives and cause misery to families and communities. For this reason, the Government have published the most ambitious drug strategy to date, Reducing Demand, Restricting Supply, Building Recovery: Supporting People to Live a Drug Free Life. That title is important; it sums up the strategy that we are seeking to pursue. Launched in 2010, it is highly ambitious in its aims and it balances activity across three strands: preventing drug use in our communities; supporting individuals in recovering from dependence; and cracking down on the illegal drugs trade.
This Government are committed to breaking the vicious cycle of drug and alcohol dependency. However, as many noble Lords have pointed out, there are no quick fixes. Simply focusing on reducing the harms caused by illicit drug use is not enough. This is why we are leading the way as one of only a few EU member states that have raised the level of ambition to take recovery beyond the treatment system and enable people to sustain their recovery. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is encouraged by that and by the role that we see ourselves playing in Europe.
While the strategy has recovery at its heart—helping individuals to be free from dependence on drugs and alcohol and to rebuild their lives—it balances this with a focus on education and support, which are needed alongside law enforcement. Since its publication, this Government have continued to focus on all three strands of the drug strategy to continue making a difference. We have removed unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, introduced streamlined processes and improved the accountability of decision-makers across a number of key areas. It is a policy in which all government departments work together. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and indeed all noble Lords, that the Home Office and the Department of Health have a shared approach to this issue.
Local communities are now at the heart of the public health agenda. We have scrapped expensive police authorities and introduced a single accountable person to make decisions on local crime, disorder and policing; we have established the National Crime Agency to lead the fight against serious, organised and complex crime; we have published the Transforming Rehabilitation plans to change the way we manage and rehabilitate offenders in the community; and new community budget areas will be able to combine resources from various local sources into a single pot with greater local control to improve services for local people.
There are some promising signs that our approach is working, with continuing positive trends in a number of key areas. Drug use is at its lowest since measurement began in 1996, with the use of any drug in the past year falling from 11.9% to 8.2% in 2012-13. In 1996, this figure was 11.1%.
Does the Minister accept that that recent drop has mainly been in the use of cannabis and that it has been substantially offset by the explosion in the use of legal highs?
I do not want to sound complacent in giving these figures. I understand exactly what the noble Baroness is saying but the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, told us why it was very important to suppress the use of cannabis and how dangerous it can be as a drug. However, the figures show that there has been a considerable reduction in drug use. I think that we should acknowledge that and take some encouragement from it. We are going to need some encouragement because this is a difficult issue with which to deal.
I was going on to say that school pupils tell us that they are taking fewer drugs too. That is really important because these habits can be dealt with when people are young. In 2012, 12% of 11 to 15 year-olds reported having taken any drug in the past year, the latest in a downward trend from 20% in 2001.
The number of heroin and crack cocaine users—not just cannabis users—in England has fallen below 300,000 for the first time since records began in 2004-05, according to figures published by what was then the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, now Public Health England, in March.
I agree with my noble friends Lady Miller and Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about targeting the supply side of this issue. To restrict the supply of drugs, the police, SOCA—now, the NCA—and other enforcement agencies are seizing significant quantities of drugs off the streets. In 2012-13, more than 109 tonnes of class A drugs were seized at home and abroad as a result of SOCA’s activity. The police and the UK Border Force made 216,296 drug seizures in England and Wales in 2011-12.
Local criminal justice partners across England and Wales managed the transfer of 88,000 class A drug-misusing offenders into treatment and recovery services in 2011-12 through the drug interventions programme, or DIP. The DIP is estimated to help to prevent around 680,000 crimes per year. This is the approach of intervening and not seeking to drive drug users into criminality. Moreover, well over 250 new psychoactive substances, also known as legal highs, have been banned to date. In June, we legislated to make 10 more legal highs temporary class drugs within a matter of days.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Manzoor that enabling addicts to recover is the right way forward. That is why we are supporting individuals in recovering from dependence. The strategy has maintained quick access to treatment, with average waiting times being only five days. Record numbers are recovering from dependence, with nearly 30,000 people successfully completing their treatment in 2011-12, up from 27,900 the previous year and almost three times the level seven years ago, at 11,200. Drug-related deaths in England have fallen over the past three years.
I should like to comment on the review and report of the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford—and this applies, too, to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. The Government are very grateful for the report in this important area. A number of recommendations from his report are being implemented as part of the Government’s health and justice reforms. I know that the Patel report proposed pooling all government drugs funds under a single, central governmental structure; this has been implemented, with the Department of Health funding all substance misuse work in prisons. I hope that that is carrying forward the noble Lord’s ideas, and the expertise that he brought to his report.
Given that we are making progress, the Government are not currently persuaded that there is a case for fundamentally rethinking the UK’s approach to drugs. However, we are not complacent and must continue, as we have been doing with today’s debate, to listen and learn from emerging trends, new evidence and international comparators. In particular, we are building on the commitment in the drug strategy to,
“review new evidence on what works in other countries and what we can learn from it”.
We are conducting a study on international comparators to learn more from the approach in other countries. We continue to develop our approach to evaluating the effectiveness and value for money of the drug strategy. This includes publishing an update on our approach to evaluation alongside the next annual review. The update will set out, at a high level, the approach to evaluation; it is not the evaluation itself.
I turn to some points raised in the debate. If I say that we are confident in our current approach to tackling drugs, it is not to be complacent. Drug usage has fallen to its lowest level since records began and people going into treatment today are far more likely to free themselves from dependency than ever before. However, as the noble Lords, Lord Birt and Lord Condon, pointed out, it is a very long haul. We are continually looking at new ways to reduce demand, restrict supply and promote recovery. The Government are undertaking an international study that will examine approaches in other countries, and we will seek to engage with the United Nations on this matter.
Given the complexity of the issue, the economic and social costs of class A drug use, and noting that the vast majority of this is attributed to crimes committed to fuel problem drug use, the Home Secretary will continue to be accountable for the overall drug strategy. However, as I have explained, all government departments work together on that strategy. Of course, there are other societal harms, including family breakdown, poverty, crime and anti-social behaviour. That is why drugs policy has to be a cross-government issue.
The Government are committed to an evidence-based approach. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and my noble friend Lord Taverne, hoped that we would pursue an evidence-based approach. Our approach is informed by the expert advice of the ACMD.
I am grateful to the Minister. He talks, rightly, about the need for a cross-departmental strategy and an evidence-based approach. Is he satisfied with the contribution of the Department for Education to the demand reduction aspect of his strategy? He will, perhaps, be aware of the observation by the charity, Mentor:
“We are spending the vast majority of the money we do spend on drug education on programmes that don’t work”.
He will be aware of the comment by the Department for Education that they,
“do not monitor the programmes or resources that schools use to support their teaching”.
I can only point to the fact, which I have already quoted, of the reduction of drug use among school children. When I talk about cross-governmental co-operation, I am demonstrating that it is one of the areas that is very important. Schools can be very important in this, and I am satisfied that the Department for Education is playing its full part.
We are also committed to undertaking an evaluation to assess the effectiveness and value for money of the current drug strategy as well as reviewing the drug strategy on an annual basis. The second annual review will be published shortly.
I agree with my noble friends Lord Fowler and Lady Hamwee that the “war on drugs” is an unhelpful term and does not reflect the complexity of the issue. However, I believe that the legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime. Neither would a regulated market eliminate illicit supplies, as alcohol and tobacco smuggling clearly demonstrate. Regulation also carries its own administrative and enforcement costs and could cause increases in drug use and availability. I do not believe that it is a risk worth taking.
I apologise for intervening, but could my noble friend be absolutely clear on the clean needles policy? I have been listening to what he says very carefully. All the international experience to which he refers suggests that when countries do not follow that policy, it has a disastrous effect with regard to HIV. Do the Government in the United Kingdom remain absolutely committed to the clean needles policy?
Yes, I can give my noble friend that commitment.
It may help if I go on and stick to my notes in order. We talked about the medical evidence; the recent British Medical Journal report stated that global drug prices are falling and purity is increasing. However, this focused on international drug supply indicators. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, who always makes a valuable contribution to our debates. In the UK, we are seeing low purity levels and high wholesale prices for both cocaine and heroin, alongside some very large seizures and the lowest drug usage levels since records began. We should acknowledge the work being done by those individuals working to achieve this.
We have a cross-government action plan, which is already delivering successful outcomes. We continue to work with the ACMD to monitor closely this market, and our evidence-based approach continues to support UK law enforcement to disrupt supply and communications activity to reduce demand. Hundreds of new psychoactive substances identified in the EU are already controlled drugs in the UK, and we are leading the international response through the G8 and with the EU to tackle the threat from NPS. However, we are not complacent—I use that word again. We are conducting an international comparators study of alternative approaches adopted abroad to address drug issues, including legislative responses to the legal-high market. We want to understand the opportunities and drawbacks of the alternative approaches to help inform any further necessary steps to protect the public. We welcome the contributions that this debate has made in that field. But the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, brought us up sharp with her informed comments on cannabis.
We are committed to explore the full use of existing drug, medicines and consumer protection legislation, as well as the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985, to disrupt the NPS market.
I also point to the work done by my honourable friend, the former Minister Jeremy Browne. He visited Portugal, which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, Denmark, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the USA, and has spoken to the New Zealand representative responsible for drug policy. Visits to the Czech Republic and Switzerland are planned for November. We recognise the global nature of this issue and we are determined to learn from other countries.
I have been taken short by a couple of interventions on these issues which rather threw me, but I confirm to my noble friend Lord Fowler my remarks on needle use. I thank all noble Lords for speaking. The Government are committed to a balanced approach, focusing on reducing demand, restricting supply and building recovery. Drug use is at its lowest level since measurement began in 1996. We are not complacent and we will continue to increase the resilience of young people to enable us to make a good choice on a range of issues, not just drugs but alcohol, sexual health and obesity. I thank the noble Baroness for presenting us with this chance to talk about that.
My Lords, I rise, first, to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, for using this debate for her maiden speech. It was charming of her to do so. I give special thanks to my two vice-chairs who are here today, the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and my noble friend Lady Stern, not only for their valuable contributions today but for their ongoing work for the APPG which has made all the difference. I also thank Frank Warburton our research officer, without whom none of our reports would be produced at all.
I have to reply to just one point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield. The word “cannabis” applies to many different compounds; the whole point of regulation is to split the market for the low THC/high CBD relatively safe herbal cannabis from the illegal market for the much more dangerous high THC cannabis. That is the point. The scientists who gave evidence to our committee made that point very strongly.
It has been an extraordinarily rich, well informed and wide-ranging debate. I say a special thank you to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his challenge to all parties. I say thank you very much to all noble Lords who have spoken today.