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Drugs Policy

Volume 754: debated on Thursday 26 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to contribute to the work of the European Union to prepare for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drug Policy in 2016.

My Lords, the Government are committed to taking a leadership role in preparing for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, including through our representations in the European Union. Of course, we must work with our international partners to share our expertise and indeed to promote a balanced and evidence-based approach to drugs that is within international drug control conventions.

I thank the Minister for his reply. On 26 June 2013, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, appealed to all member states to consider “all options” in drug policy in the lead-up to the 2016 UN special session. Yesterday the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan claimed that to put doctors and pharmacists in control of heroin supply in the UK—with tough regulation—will save lives, improve health and reduce crime. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will extend their review of drug policy to include a rigorous, independent study of the costs and benefits of a regulatory regime as proposed by our former ambassador—and if not, why not?

First, I pay tribute to the work the noble Baroness has done in this field. She has brought to the fore on many occasions the importance of reviewing drugs policy. The Government have taken a broad view of this. If we look at the statistics, it is commendable that drug usage domestically is down and we have seen a greater emphasis being put on helping people overcome drugs issues. Nevertheless, she may well be aware that there is an international comparators report due within the next two to three months, and we will be reviewing what we find in terms of best practice across a range of countries, not just within the EU.

My Lords, will the Government support the modernisation of schedule 1 through an evidence-based review process so that the great advances in medical science in the UK and elsewhere can be reflected in the wider availability of drugs for medical use?

I have already said that we are constantly reviewing our drugs policy to ensure that what we do is based on prevention and cure but also on enforcement. Evidence has shown that our current balanced approach is paying dividends and we need to ensure that we do not have a knee-jerk reaction to what is being proposed. I have already mentioned the comparators report, and other reviews internally will ensure that we continue to have a balanced view of this particularly sensitive area.

My Lords, the 2014 report from the UN on drugs and crime stated very clearly that the UK has the largest problem—what it described as a hydra-headed problem—of legal highs in the whole of the EU. When one substance is banned, two others appear. This is an extremely difficult problem for the Government, but what action have they taken to tackle legal highs in this country?

The best way to answer the noble Lord is by saying that we make those legal highs illegal. As he has acknowledged, unfortunately, the way these drugs are introduced into the market is very clever. Something is a derivative of something which was banned. Then another derivative comes out. However, I can say to the noble Lord that we have banned 350 of what were legal highs and are no longer. We continue to review that process. Indeed, my honourable friend the Minister for Crime Prevention is leading a review and an expert panel to look at how the UK can continue to respond more effectively to new psychoactive substances and legal highs, and how this can be enhanced beyond existing measures.

My Lords, we are faced with evidence of the vast increase in drug use, in the scale of the associated criminal economy, and in the costs to society and to the public purse since the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We are also faced, as my noble friend has said, with appalling dangers from new psychoactive substances. There is evidence from Portugal and other European countries, some of which the Home Office has been studying, that treating misuse of drugs as a health issue and not as a criminal one yields significant beneficial effects on rates of drug use and health. Why are the Government not responding positively to the challenge which Ban Ki-moon has put to it to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate and consider all options?

I cannot agree with the noble Lord. On the contrary, the Government are doing just that: they are having a wide-ranging debate. I have alluded to the comparators study. Just to pick up his initial points, if we look at drug use in England and Wales, it is down—8.2% in 2012-13. If we look at those people who have to access treatment, he said that there was no focus. That is also down to only five days. The misuse of drugs, and the deaths associated with that, is down. Waiting time is down, and a record number of people are completing their treatment. The Government are emphasising, as I said, prevention, education and enforcement. This is a balanced approach, looking at international comparators, and if one looks at, for example, Sweden, it has zero tolerance, and drug use there is very low.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if we treated drug users as patients rather than criminals, we would have more resources to ensure that every child in every school had a balanced PSHE course that warned them of the dangers of taking up drugs in the first place?

I regret that my noble friend does not recognise that that is exactly what the Government do. We do have a balanced approach, and those people who unfortunately fall under the influence of drugs are treated as patients. I have already quoted the statistics on this. We are seeing a growing number of individuals who go in for treatment completing their treatment. There is a focus on ensuring that we get people off drug use.

My Lords, the Minister has said that drug use has plateaued, drug deaths are going down, and all issues related to substance misuse in terms of crime have gone down. Does he recognise that the reason they have plateaued and gone down is the massive investment the previous Government made in the area of drug treatment? That is in real jeopardy because local authorities are cutting drug-misuse treatment services across the country. There is a great likelihood that all these issues will rise again—drug use and crime.

I say to the noble Lord, if he compares last year’s statistics to those of the year before, he will see that they have gone down again. I fully acknowledge the steps that were taken by the previous Government in tackling this issue. This is not about politicising it but about ensuring that we get cure and prevention. The balanced approach that we have taken builds on what has been done, and the statistics demonstrate that, yes, it is a real problem and we must tackle and attack it—but we are addressing it with a balanced approach and that is the right way to move forward.