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Drugs Policy: Departmental Responsibility

Volume 778: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to transferring responsibility for drugs policy and the rehabilitation of drug users from the Home Office to the Department of Health.

My Lords, responsibility for achieving the aims in the drugs strategy is shared across a number of departments. Drug treatment, which will include the rehabilitation of drug users, is the lead responsibility for the Department of Health. Successful delivery of the strategy requires effective governance and accountability, which is provided by the Home Office. There are no plans to transfer overall responsibility for the drugs strategy away from the Home Office.

My Lords, I expected a slightly diffuse answer, but is the Minister aware that changes of the kind I suggested are strongly supported by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists? What is more, they have already been implemented in such countries as Canada, Switzerland and Portugal, with good results. Will the noble Baroness use her personal influence to get policies that reduce harm to drug users and cut the profits of organised crime and pushers that are so necessary given the doubling of deaths from opiates in just four years?

My Lords, I do not know how influential I am, but I certainly agree that the Government are absolutely clear that reducing the harms caused by drugs needs to be part of a balanced approach. That means acting at the earliest opportunity to prevent people starting to use drugs in the first place and escalation to more harmful use, and providing evidence-based treatment options that can be tailored to individual need. The noble Lord talked about the rise in certain drug deaths. It is very concerning. PHE will continue to work with the Government and local authorities in delivering tailored, effective responses according to specific local issues. The reasons behind some of the increases in drug-related deaths are multiple and complex, which is why we established an expert group that has made recommendations to curb the number of people dying from drug misuse.

My Lords, a charity called the Nelson Trust goes into prisons to help prisoners with drug rehabilitation. Does the Minister feel that this is the way forward and that we ought to concentrate more on this? By the time prisoners come out, it is often too late to try to treat their addictions.

I thank my noble friend for that question and respect her great experience in the area of health. It is absolutely right that prisoners should receive treatment for both prevention and their drug use, because when they come out of prison, it is very important that they have recovered from their drug use and the issues associated with it.

My Lords, between 2001 and 2008, investment in drug treatment increased from £250 million pounds a year to £750 million a year, ring-fenced. This resulted in the number of drug users in treatment rising from 80,000 to 230,000, which had a huge impact on drug misuse, drug-related deaths and acquisitive crime. The last eight years have seen a massive financial clampdown and huge disinvestment from local authorities. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that local authorities do not continue this disinvestment, which is going to reverse all the positive gains, especially in relation to drug-related death and acquisitive crime?

The noble Lord raises an interesting point, because there has actually been a reduction in drug misuse among adults and young people compared with a decade ago. It has gone down from 10.5% in 2005-6 to 8.4% in 2015-16. The number of heroin and crack cocaine users in England has also fallen, to 294,000. Among 11 to 15 year-olds—a particularly vulnerable group—drug use has continued to fall since its peak in 2003. On the point about local authority investment in drug treatment, the amount that local authorities spend on treatment and rehabilitation is entirely up to them, because the budgets are devolved to them. Clearly, there are different needs in different areas and it is up to local authorities to deem how that money is spent.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in April the United Nations challenged 50 years of prohibitionist global drug policy at the UNGASS when it declared that evidence-based public health policy is here to stay? I know that the Minister is aware of the considerable evidence now available of the importance of medical cannabis to tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of very sick, chronically ill patients. If the MHRA is willing to work with the Home Office to develop ways in which cannabis medicine can be made available to these very sick patients, will the Minister enter into discussions on that issue?

I thank the noble Baroness. She and I have had many discussions both within the Chamber and outside it on this very issue. I recognise the value of Sativex in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and other types of pain relief. The MHRA is open to considering marketing approval applications for other medicinal cannabis products, should a product be developed. As happened in the case of Sativex, the Home Office will consider issuing a licence to enable trials of any new medicine provided that it complies with appropriate ethical approvals.

My Lords, last week a young man was shot dead outside a Liverpool chip shop in what was believed to be a drug-related incident. The Merseyside police say that they need many more officers to tackle the problems caused by gangs supplying illegal drugs. Does the Minister agree that it is also essential that we do more to break the link between those dependent on illegal drugs and the criminal gangs by increasing support and treatment for people with drug addictions rather than reducing it, as many local authorities are currently being forced to do as a result of reductions in expenditure imposed upon them by central government?

I was actually talking to police officers in that area on Friday. Local authorities can spend what they deem appropriate on drug treatment and rehabilitation but I agree with the noble Lord’s first point, that breaking the link between the criminal element of drugs and the users is essential.