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Drugs Policy

Volume 773: debated on Monday 13 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to review their drug policies in the light of the United Nations statements at the UN General Assembly Special Session on 19-21 April.

My Lords, there are no plans for any review. The Government used the special session to share our experience of delivering an evidence-based, balanced drugs strategy within the UN drug conventions and to strengthen international co-operation in tackling drug harms.

Are the Government aware that the UN high command turned their backs on the war on drugs at the UN special session of the General Assembly in April? Taking account of the UN call for evidence-based policies, and most particularly that priority should be given to health-based policies, does the Minister agree that it is now high time that we had a complete review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which was of course written at the height of the war on drugs, at a time when we had none of the evidence that we have today about policies that are effective in reducing addiction, violence, corruption and the rest of the paraphernalia associated with the war on drugs?

I do not share the noble Baroness’s view that backs were turned. Indeed, there were specific outcomes from the special session. As the noble Baroness will be aware, the British Government led on action against drugs, in light of new laws on psychoactive substances, and we got some real outcomes on that. Also, while I know that the noble Baroness was disappointed on issues of both drugs health policy and human rights, the UK Government again led both the European Union and 29 other Governments in making a statement to ensure that there will be substantial outcomes from that session.

Is the Minister aware—I am sure he is not—that I find myself at a total loss to understand the Government’s policy towards the use of medicinal cannabis? Is he further aware that there is now a mass of medical evidence to show that, in certain cases, it can be useful and helpful? Is he also aware that, in relation to the legalisation of medicinal cannabis, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Portugal and 24 states in the United States of America have all agreed that the medical evidence is strong and that medicinal cannabis ought to be authorised? Why on earth do the Government not accept the evidence and do the same?

The Government do follow the evidence. I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that a clear regime is in place, administered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, to enable medicines, including those containing controlled drugs, to be developed. I understand that Sativex is the cannabis-containing medicine that is authorised in the UK.

My Lords, is it reasonable that smoking, which is considerably more harmful, is allowed freely to kill people, whereas people who use cannabis, which is considerably less addictive and less harmful, are made criminals?

On the first point that the noble Baroness raises, successive Governments have taken steps against the harmful effects of smoking. The ban in places such as restaurants is part of the health concerns underlining that. In a previous answer, I outlined the Government’s view on particular remedies that contain cannabis. Specific measures are in place if authorisation is required.

My Lords, I note the Minister’s disinclination to institute a review. None the less, I wonder whether he could assure the House that in some context or other, attention is being given to such matters as the information in a report by the charity Release published in 2013, which shows that black people were stopped and searched for drugs at more than six times the rate of white people, despite successive crime surveys showing that drug use in black communities is at a lower rate than in white communities?

The right reverend Prelate is right to raise this concern. Issues of stop and search have been prioritised; I recall that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has specifically focused on this area. I believe that, although in 2009-10 stop and search was about seven times as likely for someone of black ethnicity, that has fallen to four times more likely—but that is still four times more likely than anyone else.

Does the Minister agree that it is significant and a very progressive step that possession of a new psychoactive substance under the Psychoactive Substances Act is not a criminal offence? Does he not think that that is something that we should extend and build on with regard to other drugs?

I know that the noble Baroness was a very active participant during the passage of the Bill, and she is quite right to say that this is about not penalising possession but tackling the people who provide and supply such drugs. That is where the clamping down has occurred, and it is proving effective. On the other question, we continue to review and see the evidence, and we will be led by the evidence.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, some prescriptions for a controlled drug can be dispensed on the basis of a supervised consumption of the daily dose on specified days. This obviously would be to avoid misuse and any safety risks. Would it not be possible for the use of cannabis for medical purposes to be controlled by some similar arrangement? Would the Minister care to comment on that?

As I said, there is a specific procedure in place. Another cannabinoid substance, Nabilone, is authorised in the UK and used in the treatment of cancer patients—but it is a synthetic compound, not related directly to cannabis. There are specific measures in place, and the Government believe those measures to be appropriate. If other such medicines need to be authorised, there is a process to be followed.

My Lords, 26 June is International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1987. It is intended to serve as a reminder of the goals achieved by member states for creating an international society free of drug abuse. Can the Minister add any more to what he has already said, which frankly at the moment is not a great deal, about what new initiatives the Government are currently taking or about to take through the United Nations and on the international stage generally to help achieve that overall goal on drug abuse?

As I have said already, and shall say again to the noble Lord, we led on the international response to new psychoactive substances. To highlight some of the other actions that we have taken together on the international stage, and through the UN, there is the formation of a UK-led International Action Group on New Psychoactive Substances; the establishment of a global early-warning system at the UN; the first two tranches of international controls on some of the most harmful new psychoactive substances; domestic control of more than 100 harmful substances by China; and five recent UN resolutions on new psychoactive substances. That has enhanced international co-operation, and Britain has led the way on these initiatives.