I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting us the time for this debate, to the cross-party Members who supported the application, and particularly to the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for co-sponsoring it.
This May marks 50 years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 received Royal Assent. Back in 1971 there were three television channels; smoking indoors was normal everywhere from schools to doctors’ waiting rooms; and women could legally be sacked for being pregnant. Our culture and society now are completely different from that time, but our drugs regime remains the same, focusing on prohibition, criminalisation and punishment rather than looking at the evidence on what reduces harm to individuals and to society.
The 1971 Act was intended to prevent the use of controlled drugs, eliminate illegal drug markets and reduce the harms of drug use; it is not working. The data suggests that in 1971 there were fewer than 100 drug-related deaths in England and Wales; in 2019, drug-related deaths in England and Wales rose for the eighth year in a row to 4,393. There has been a 52% increase in drug-related deaths over the past 10 years, and 2,883 deaths resulted directly from drug misuse. These people mattered and many of their deaths were preventable. If there were better laws and properly funded treatment services, many could still be with us today.
In the late 60s, around 1% of adults had used drugs at some point in their life; the proportion is now 34%. While the drug market remains in the hands of criminal gangs, drugs are getting stronger and more adulterated. People are dying because they do not know what is in the drugs they are using. Even the Government acknowledge the failings. A 2014 Home Office report reviewed the evidence and said that
“there is no relationship between tougher/punitive sanctions on drug possession and the level of drug use in a country.”
Last year, Carol Black’s review of drugs for the Government said that the evidence suggests that
“enforcement crackdowns have little…impact on the overall drug supply…and can often have the unintended consequence of increasing violence, for example by creating a gap in the market for dealers to compete over, or increasing distrust in the drugs market.”
The police force in County Durham published evidence in which drug users were interviewed about a large-scale undercover police operation, which lasted six months, cost more than half a million pounds, and resulted in the arrest of over 30 people involved in the supply of class A drugs. When users were asked how long they thought the operation had strangled the supply of heroin for, one estimated four hours, and another just two hours. If people want more evidence than that, I recommend the books by former undercover cop, Neil Woods, who gives a graphic illustration of how the market is there and how, even if that market is interrupted, people come in and fill the gap. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.
Through county lines, dealing and exploitation, more and more young people have been pulled into drug supply and a life of crime. In 2017 alone, 38,000 people were criminalised for possession of drugs in England and Wales, almost 3,000 of them under the age of 18—people unnecessarily criminalised, limiting their future life chances and their educational and employment opportunities.
A third of the prison population are there because of drug offences or offences relating to drug use. Putting people in custodial settings as a result of their substance use punishes those who need help, does not address the root cause of their issues, and is, more often than not, counterproductive All those things add up to part of the human cost of our drugs policy, but what about the financial cost?
According to the Home Office, in England alone, policing and enforcing current drug policy costs £1.4 billion annually. Half of acquisitive crime is related to illegal drug use. A different Home Office-commissioned report said that the failure of drug policies costs the taxpayer £10.7 billion a year in policing, healthcare and crime. The total societal costs of harms relating to illegal drug use is now £19.3 billion.
Another consequence of the 1971 Act is how it has held back scientific and medical developments. Drugs in schedule 1 such as Psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and DMT are showing real promise as potentially life-changing treatment options for conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions. While it is technically possible, it is slow, difficult and expensive to do medical research into schedule 1 substances. Under this policy regime, we are wasting money, wasting the resources of the criminal justice system, wasting the chance to do better research and to find evidence to inform our drug policy and our medical interventions, and wasting lives.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out the scope of the impact of the drugs scene today and the implication that it has on residents, including in my constituency of York Central where there is an incredibly high level of drug deaths. This is how I got involved in the issue. I have been on a journey and learned how a public health approach can be transformative in diverting people away from crime, in ensuring that there is no exploitation, in providing good treatment, including engagement with drug consumption spaces, and in taking that full public health approach. Does he agree that we need a sea change now to see harm reduction, as has been tried and tested elsewhere, which has incredible outcomes that he, too, has seen.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This anniversary is surely the time to take stock, to change our approach to one that is rooted in evidence, and to do what is best for public health.
In 2019, the Health and Social Care Committee recommended such an approach. It called for
“a radical change in UK drugs policy”
“from a criminal justice to a health approach.
“Responsibility for drugs policy should move from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.”
It supported a consultation on decriminalisation of drugs for personal use. By the way, decriminalisation is supported by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society for Public Health.
The Government published their response earlier this year, saying that they had “no intention” of decriminalising drugs. They said:
“Drugs are illegal because scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health”—
apart, of course, from alcohol, a drug that is more harmful to the user than most drugs aside from heroin, crack and methamphetamine. It is certainly not less harmful to the user compared with cannabis or ecstasy, for example, and it is legal.
Let us think for a minute, following the Government’s logic, what would happen if we made alcohol illegal because it is harmful to human health. People would not stop using it. They would get it from the black market, as they did during prohibition in the USA. People would die from badly produced moonshine, as they did in the USA, and the profits would go into the pockets of criminal gangs. Instead of that, we mitigate the harm from alcohol use by legalising it, regulating it, making sure that it is not poisonous and making it safe, and we can invest the tax raised from its sale in the NHS and public messaging. No one has ever given me a convincing argument as to why we do not take the same approach to cannabis, as many US states and increasing numbers of countries around the world are now doing. There is simply no logic to the Government’s approach.
There would be different approaches to different drugs, but what is common is that the current regime is not working. Over the last half a century, there have been calls for reform from a wide range of parliamentary Committees and public bodies. We have an increasing body of evidence to look at on how things could change for the better. The evidence from countries that have liberalised their approach to drugs does not suggest an associated increase in use.
The example of Portugal is worth highlighting again. In the early noughties, Portugal was in the grip of Europe’s worst heroin and drug death crisis. In 2001, it ended the criminalisation of people who use drugs and established a health-led approach instead. Since then, drug-related deaths have fallen and have remained below the EU average. The proportion of the prison population sentenced for drug offences fell from over 40% to 15%. The number of annual drug overdose deaths reduced from 318 in 2000 to 40 in 2015. There was an 18% reduction in the social costs of drug use in the first 10 years of decriminalisation. Problematic use and school-age use both fell, and rates of drug use in Portugal remain consistently below the EU average.
Even within the current regime, the Government could stop blocking some proven harm reduction measures, such as overdose prevention centres and drug safety testing, and they could ramp up and even out the provision of naloxone and heroin-assisted treatment. They could have encouraged more diversion schemes and more deferred prosecution schemes and could properly reinvest in the treatment budgets that have been cut in recent years.
On the issue of diversion, I was told a powerful story about how young people, instead of getting a criminal record, were given the opportunity in life for someone to invest in them. As a result, they got apprenticeships and then got a job instead of a criminal record. Surely that is a better way forward for these young people’s lives.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have the evidence in the UK. There have been some very good diversion schemes in Durham and the west midlands, and there are others. We do not need to look at the evidence abroad; we can look at the evidence in the UK.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, particularly in relation to cannabis, the initial warning and the fixed penalty notice that we use at the moment do not prevent in any way, shape or form people from also being given a diversion scheme and other steps being taken? There is no barrier to that at the moment, for example, in relation to cannabis.
That is true. My problem with cannabis is that the supply is still in the hands of organised criminal gangs. That, for me, is not a sensible way to approach our drug policy.
We can explore models of decriminalisation, and we know that those are associated with reduced risks of recidivism, a reduced burden on police resources and savings to the public purse related to social costs, or we can look at models of legalised regulation. Whatever happens, we need a wholesale, new approach to this problem. The Government need to be honest that the last 50 years of drug policy have been a failure and have come at a terrible human, societal and economic cost. We need to commit to a public health approach rather than a criminal justice approach to drugs policy—one focused on saving lives and rooted in support and compassion for those who abuse drugs.
Among the MPs who want to speak in today’s debate, there will not be a single view on the way we go forward and what an alternative to the current approach to drugs policy should look like, and there will be different approaches for different substances. I look forward to hearing the views of Members, but I suspect that we probably mostly agree that, on the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is worth looking honestly at the legacy of that 50-year-old legislation and considering what needs to change to better serve our constituents and our communities. We should take this opportunity for political parties and the media to stop weaponising drugs policy and have a grown-up discussion about how we protect our communities. Today I am calling on the Government to launch a full, open-minded review of this legislation to learn from our mistakes, because we cannot afford another 50 years of failure.
I will leave the final words to Anne-Marie Cockburn, who is a campaigner for Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control. Anne-Marie’s daughter Martha, like people through the generations for thousands of years, just wanted to have a bit of fun and get high. She researched on the internet how to get high safely. She was 15 years old when she took an overdose of MDMA that killed her. Anne-Marie says: “As I stand by my daughter’s grave, what more evidence do I need that UK drug policy needs to change?”
This is a very important debate and we have another important debate following. I will not introduce a time limit at this juncture, but I ask Members making contributions to be mindful of the length of those contributions in order that we can get everybody in.
I draw the House’s attention to my unremunerated interest as chair of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group Ltd.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), my co-chair on the all-party parliamentary group on drug policy reform, on securing this debate. I commiserate with him on his promotion from Whip to spokesman on local government. It has been a real pleasure working with a decent and humane colleague with a very different career background from mine. I hope this can continue despite his new Opposition policy responsibilities. I appreciate his leadership in delivering today’s debate.
Fifty years ago, this House passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Its laudable aim was to deter unlawful controlled drug use and stifle supply. This followed what happened in 1961 when the United States persuaded UN members to sign up to a global narcotics ban. Had the House then seen through the clouds of both excitement and worry about the Woodstock generation—magnified by a popular press which then, as now, was prone to more than a modest amount of exaggeration—to the evidence of the extraordinary success of what was then known as the British system in addressing problematic drug use, by comparison with the American system, it would surely have thought twice. It perhaps also should have paused at the American invitation to follow the same principle towards all other drugs that the USA had deployed, with such disastrous consequences, towards the drug alcohol in 1919. Perhaps we should not be surprised at the global disaster that has now overtaken us.
If the House had known then what we know now, passing that Act would have been an appalling betrayal of its duty to the public interest. In the UK we have invested countless billions in the approach put into law by the MDA, with what success? Illegal drugs are today cheaper, and more available, potent and widely used, than ever. Most of all, victims of drug policy-related crimes are off the scale. They range from exploited children, to young, usually black men knifed on our streets, to half—half!—of acquisitive crimes in the UK. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said, we have seen a 40-fold increase in drug deaths in this period.
This is a policy choice we have made. In 2001, Portugal implemented a policy that has the key aspects of the British system from the 1960s. Portugal has dropped its drug deaths, in some years, by up to 90% as a consequence. We listen with proper attention to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) when she reads out the list of names of women killed by men each year: 125 in 2016; 113 last year. If I did that in respect of women, men and children dead as a consequence of the way in which successive Governments have implemented this Act, I would need to read out an equivalent list of names—killed by law and policy, accountable to this House—every single week that this Parliament sits, and still that would not be enough.
In the late 1960s, about 1% of adults had used drugs at some point in their lives. Now it is 34%. In 1971, heroin use was below 10,000 people. It is now more than a quarter of a million. In 1971, less than half a million people used cannabis. It is now more than 2.5 million people, and users of cannabis supplied by criminal gangs today also consume a much more potent drug, which is of real danger to growing young minds.
There are those who say that we just have not implemented the powers in this Act hard enough. One of those people is Peter Hitchens. To his credit, he is prepared to debate, but to my astonishment the last time that I debated with him, he referenced a collection of relevant newspaper headlines. Does he have no idea of the harm that his industry has done through these lurid, fear-mongering headlines that so mislead about the pathetic lives put beyond rescue by this Act that creates the innocent victims of our policy? Rather more academic research and experience take us to a much more reliable conclusion.
Last year, part 1 of Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs stated that, even if enforcement agencies
“were sufficiently resourced it is not clear that they would be able to bring about a sustained reduction in drug supply”.
She went further, stating that
“enforcement activity can sometimes have unintended consequences, such as increasing levels of drug-related violence and the negative effects are involving individuals in the criminal justice system.”
As soon as I can, I want to ask Dame Carol whether she could also have said “almost always” or simply “always” instead of “can sometimes”, as I am unaware of any evidence to the contrary—ever, anywhere.
Thirty-four per cent. of UK adults admit to having consumed an illegal drug at some point in their life. Having debated this with the then chief constable of Durham, Mike Barton—the most authoritative operational police chief on the issue—when 80% of an audience of hundreds of fresher students make the same admission in front of a serving police officer, I rather expect that proportion is growing fast. Our policy has a third of the British population potentially facing a two to seven-year sentence, including senior members of the Government. I am now convinced that this is precisely why so few colleagues are really prepared to engage in this debate; it is personally politically dangerous—ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
We represent the population in this matter as much as anyone else, and I would be surprised if most Members of this House had not enjoyed what a former Prime Minister dismissed as the “normal university experience”. The Leader of the Opposition implied as much about himself, but even he was not prepared to be candid. This issue is far, far too important for colleagues to take a pass on. We have a duty to engage and personal experience should not be used to drive colleagues out of considering the wider evidence about the success or failure of this policy. My advice to colleagues is, do not answer the personal question; you have a wider duty to the public, so that all parliamentarians can contribute to the consideration of what is in reality an appalling policy failure, with 50 years of evidence to draw on.
We wait for the publication of part 2 of Dame Carol’s report. Dare I hope that the Government have run into someone prepared to state the inconvenient truth? Only yesterday she reported at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Alliance her shock at finding so little research and science to underpin policy making, commissioning and practice in the UK. The Government might point to the role of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, yet its members are overworked, unremunerated and supported by a very limited secretariat. They are also appointed on the basis of political vetting, which inevitably compromises their necessary objectivity, and of course they have the example of Professor David Nutt’s inconvenient truth in 2008, which had him sacked.
The damage done by this Act to public health and its devouring of the criminal justice system is only half the story. What opportunities have we also missed? The powers to schedule drugs under regulation derived from the 1971 Act. Those 2001 regulations should allow for the lawful possession and supply of controlled drugs for legitimate purposes such as research and medicinal use. Yet our drug scheduling plainly lacks scientific validation and has not been subject to analysis or any recent official analysis of harm. The Home Office has no plans to commission a comprehensive review of the relative harms of the drugs that have been put in schedule 1. This evidence-free approach must change.
Cannabis-based products for medicinal use were rescheduled only because the mother of one child with a severe form of epilepsy was prepared to challenge the system for confiscating her son’s medicine, which had been prescribed overseas. Billy Caldwell duly became seriously ill, and to his credit the then Home Secretary returned the confiscated medicine to Billy under special licence and asked the chief medical officer if there was any evidence for this medicine’s efficacy. In two weeks, which is a record-breaking time in medicine assessment, she confirmed that there was. There is rather a lot, in fact—it appears to go back about three millennia. It should hardly have been a surprise to the House—a House of Lords Committee had recommended it 20 years earlier—but the system is still broken today for patients to get access to medicine from cannabis. Only yesterday, we witnessed a wretched plea to the Prime Minister from a sick child’s brother for his medical cannabis. That should never have had to be the case.
We are not just talking about cannabis, where our approach has denied us 50 years of research into, among other conditions, multiple sclerosis, pain control and, it seems, all too probably a significant advance in cancer treatments, because evidence is emerging of a number of substances that find themselves in schedule 1 that also have great potential. The current scheduling of substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and DMT now appears to have prevented a probable step change in more effective mental health interventions for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, addiction and depression. We continue to hinder medical research at a time when there have been no new pharmacological treatments for depression since the advance of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors 30 years ago. With a mental health crisis in waiting following this pandemic, we must immediately remove barriers to research.
If we want an example of why we should do that, we should look no further than the experience of our recently active service veterans, 7,500 of whom have returned from active service in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. The charity Supporting Wounded Veterans believes that 2,400 of them are beyond available current treatment. So many of them turn to alcohol and street drugs to manage their service-inflicted pain—destroyed, in our estimation, from military hero to alcoholic and junkie because we have not enabled the research that would break their spiral down to death by their own hand or otherwise.
Finally, given what she said yesterday, Carol Black will ask for accountability and co-ordinated delivery across Government that acknowledges drug dependency to be a chronic condition. Drug policy, owned and led by the Home Office—vainly trying to enforce the provisions of this Act over decades through a criminal justice enforcement approach—must change to a public health, cross-Government approach. We have tried and tested 50 years of policy based on instinct and what now appears to be prejudice towards drug users, whom we have put outside the law. Meanwhile, we knock back our alcohol and smoke our tobacco as drugs inside the law. Prohibition of either would clearly drive drinkers and smokers underground, with all of the accompanying wider cost to the overall public good. We have accommodated their undoubted harms, which are massively greater than those we have criminalised, and we can and are starting to control them to a better degree inside the law, as the recent substantial public health progress over tobacco consumption shows.
The Misuse of Drugs Act has failed. It ended the British system towards drug users of the 1960s. Our oldest ally, Portugal, faced with its own drug crisis of the late 1990s, returned to it in 2001, with conspicuous success over the past two decades. Its politicians climb over each other now to claim responsibility. After 50 years, it is about time we all took up our responsibility to understand the evidence and how we can best mitigate this policy disaster which arises from a law passed 50 years ago here in the United Kingdom.
I wish to associate myself entirely with all of the comments that my two colleagues have just made from either side of this House. I wonder what it says about our ability to function as a body that makes and reviews legislation that such a significant piece of legislation, dealing with such a major social problem, can lie on the statute book for 50 years without review or amendment. That is all the more incredible when we consider that by any conceivable measure it has been an abject failure in trying to achieve what it set out to achieve. As we have heard, back in 1971 just 1% of the British population said that they used the drugs that the Act would go on to criminalise, whereas today the figure is 34%. We are facing the biggest social policy catastrophe of our generation. Thousands of people are dying every year needlessly because they do not know what they are taking and help is not available for them when things go wrong. Tens of thousands of people every year get a criminal record because of the way in which we try to tackle this problem. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, living in communities up and down this land, have their lives blighted, not just by the misery of people dependent on those drugs in those communities, but by the brutal violence used by those involved in organised crime to enforce their regulation and supply of these products.
By any measure, this policy and this legislation ought to be reviewed. It is not just the fact that the legislation has not been able to do what it wanted to do; it is worse than that, because the legislation is now an active cause of the problem, because the entire area is looked at not as one of public health and wellbeing, but as one of criminal activity. The centre of the Act is about criminalising people who use drugs, and that does a number of things. First, it immediately means that the state has no role in the supply and regulation of these products, and that responsibility is given to the private sector and to organised crime within it. That is the first consequence of the Act. The second is that if people are getting into trouble and need medical help because of their substance addiction, many of our health and social care staff working in our public agencies are unable or unwilling to put themselves at risk of criminal prosecution by offering that help.
I will come on to look at that concept and drug consumption in a minute, but what I am talking about is the fact that people have no ability to come to a health professional and say, “What is this?” They have no ability to ask for clean needles, because these actions are prohibited under the 1971 Act and the schedules to it.
The third thing, which has already been remarked upon, is that the Act stigmatises, big time, those who use drugs and puts them in a position where they are unlikely, because of social opprobrium, to ask for help. We surely need to have a review and a fresh think about a problem that is so manifestly out of control and where the existing legislation is so manifestly unable to provide any assistance.
I always like to try to see the other side of the argument, so I want to ask: why are people resistant to review? Why do they want to hold on to things as they are? I can only conclude that it is because they fear the consequences of decriminalisation or of changing the law. They must somehow think that if we were to do that, we would open the floodgates and unleash supply into communities where there are not already drugs, and that many more millions of people would get caught up in the problem, because we would not have the criminal mechanisms that we have at the minute. I say to any colleagues who think that: wake up and see what is happening on the streets of your constituencies.
Those colleagues should come with me to any medium-sized town in this country, stand in a bar and make their intentions known as to what they would like. Within one hour they will be offered any drug of their choice. If they do not want the personal contact, they could order in advance. If they go on the internet, they will find a mobile phone number on which, through the county lines network, they can order whatever they want and it will be delivered to their door. Sometimes people will even get a customer service message asking for feedback on the supply. That is the extent of what we have at the moment.
It is just fantasy to suggest that there are loads of people out there who are somehow prevented from getting into drugs by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That is not the case, so we surely need to have a grown-up conversation about what we should do given that potentially a third of our citizens could be made criminals by legislation that is so manifestly unfit for purpose.
I hope that the Home Office and Ministers can begin that process of review with an open mind, rather than just defending the status quo. They should be prepared to look at an evidence-based approach, drawing on international comparisons, and to try to work up a better system that is grounded in protecting public health and wellbeing, rather than trying to criminalise behaviour. I and my party would support—I think there would be support in all parts of the House—any bold Minister who wanted to take that initiative and begin that dialogue. I am not saying prescriptively what should be in such a review; I am not saying how it should be done. I simply want to have the dialogue, the discussion and the debate, because too many people are dying for us not to do so.
While we are doing that, there are some things that ought to be done immediately. I want to turn for a moment to the question of drug consumption rooms—probably better called overdose prevention centres. These are medical facilities, and I have been in them and seen them working in Portugal, Germany and Canada. These are medical facilities where someone can use their own drugs under medical supervision. Such places are not going to make the overall problem any better; what they do is drive a focus into the very sharp end of the problem—the point at which people are dying.
At the moment, people do not voluntarily overdose because they are fed up with life and want to commit suicide. That is not the case at all. People are taking substances and they do not even know what is in them. Sometimes these substances contain a lethal concoction which is much, much stronger than they thought it was going to be. Because it is all criminal activity, it has to be done behind closed doors. It is not something that someone does in the open. By the time someone realises they have a problem—by the time they cannot breathe, they have a heart attack or they need medical help—it is too late to call for assistance. For the limited number of people in those circumstances, being able to satisfy their immediate addiction under medical supervision would literally be a lifesaver. That is what happens in other countries.
It is blindingly obvious that we ought to try to consider having such places here, but the law forbids it. Even pending a change in the law, by regulation the Home Office should allow pilot centres to emerge so that we can see for ourselves whether they would work here. After all, what is there to lose? There is nothing to lose and everything to gain—there are lives to gain.
This idea does not stop people using drugs; it does not get rid of the problem; it does not make people get their life back together; it does not get people the medical help or social services help that they might need; it does not get them a job if they have not got one—of course it does not, but it keeps them alive long enough so that those interventions can take place further down the line. We cannot give help to a dead person, and that is why it is so vital that we have a sensible discussion about drug consumption rooms and supervised facilities. The Scottish Government stand ready and have been pressing the Home Office to allow them to go ahead and do that in Glasgow, which brings me to my final point; I know you did not want people to go on too long, Mr Deputy Speaker, so this will be my final point.
We have a bit of a disjuncture in the interrelationship between the devolution of political authority and Administrative action in the United Kingdom and this particular problem, in that the whole criminal framework—the 1971 Act and others—is a reserved matter for Westminster, which sets the problem, if you like, but dealing with the consequences of that, including the health and social care and the economic fall-out from that policy, is a matter for the devolved Administrations. Without getting into the arguments about Scottish independence or whatever, it seems to me a matter of ultimate sense and grown-up policy to have the same part of government responsible for the regulation as is responsible for mopping up the consequences of the problem. That is why, when the time comes, we need to urgently look at devolution of the controls currently in place in the ’71 Act, and whatever replaces it, to the devolved Administrations, and to locate them within a health and social care context, which is already devolved.
In advance of that, I have spoken with the Minister several times on this matter, and I trust that he is thoughtful about it. I think he is prepared to consider other points of view and evidence, but I think he feels himself mightily constrained by tradition, convention and, perhaps, political pressure elsewhere. However, he has now received a letter from the Drugs Policy Minister in Scotland, Angela Constance, asking for a four nations summit to consider, among other things, establishing pilots of these types of medical facilities. I hope very much that he will today confirm that his reaction to that is positive and that, if we cannot change things overnight across the whole UK, he is prepared to let us employ the apparatus of devolution to allow one part of the UK to go beyond where other parts are perhaps willing to go at the minute and to collate the evidence to point a way to the future, which could then lead to best practice being adopted throughout.
We have a responsibility not to continue to stick our heads in the sand on this matter; there has been a collective exercise of ignoring the blindingly obvious for far too long. We are not voting on this today, but I appeal to colleagues to do what they can through the various structures of this place and within their political parties—this matter should not divide us on party grounds—to consider why we need a review after this half-century and why things are so clearly wrong that we must do something. We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that things are okay. Now, 50 years after the passage of the Act, is the time to admit that it is not working and to do better. The citizens of this country deserve that.
Politicians are often most criticised for sitting on the fence. While I am sure that Whips across the House like to believe they are skilled in the power of persuasion, there is no hiding the fact that, often, many MPs made up their minds on issues long ago. However, it is clear that the time for an open and honest debate on the future of the UK’s drug policy is desperately needed, not least because the current strategy does not appear to be working.
When I speak to individuals from South Yorkshire police, the problem is self-evident. While time spent catching dealers temporarily reduces supply, there appears to be no lack of criminals. An ex-police officer told me recently about a huge drugs bust in April, in which everyone from the top ring leaders to the small dealers were arrested. After thousands of hours of police work, millions of pounds-worth of drugs were discovered, yet according to the former police officer I spoke to, the raid managed to keep cannabis off the streets for a whole two hours. Being tough on dealers does not seem to be working. The gains made by the police are small, and for this reason I have concluded that enforcement alone will never get us to a solution.
Every time someone buys drugs, they become part of the criminal supply chain; put simply, it links them directly to dealers who have no problem with carrying a knife or a gun. Because suppliers operate outside the law, they do not have the police to protect them, so instead they protect themselves with weapons. They do not pay taxes either, nor do they give a receipt. Equally, they are not held responsible if their product leads to hospitalisation or even death. While we are talking about drug reform, decriminalisation where users are not penalised for possessing drugs will not fix these issues.
The answer may be to totally legalise cannabis and, potentially, other drugs. I have heard some say that putting drugs in the hands of the Government or a legal partner takes the production and supply chains and any customer transaction out of the hands of criminals. I have also heard that such a policy makes sense as it would ensure that the quality of products will be controlled, leading to fewer deaths from consumption. Taxes could be raised and we could get consumers out of the supply chain.
Yet I am not convinced that adopting these policies would be trouble-free. For one thing, are we to believe that the persons involved in drugs would simply leave and go to find employment in a regular job? I am not convinced. After all, research from the Institute of Economic Affairs concluded that the current black market in cannabis is worth £2.6 billion per year, with 255 tonnes sold to 3 million users in 2016. Any movement to Government-controlled legalisation of cannabis would be a huge loss for current criminals, and I fear they would simply move into selling harder drugs, which it would be grossly irresponsible ever even to consider regulating.
Secondly, the legalisation of something like cannabis may lead to an upsurge in usage. There is conflicting evidence, but a recent peer-reviewed study conducted in the United States concluded that cannabis use has increased in states where the drug was legalised. With cannabis use increasingly being linked to psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, what toll would liberalisation have on our NHS and its mental health services?
The hon. Member makes an important point, but is he aware that the difficulty with cannabis is that it is made up of different compounds? THC and CBD are the two main ones, and the problem with the cannabis we buy on the street, which is mainly skunk, is that it is very high in THC, and that is what causes the problem. If we legalise cannabis and make the product safer by regulating it, we would have a better balanced product that is not as dangerous and will not be leading to the kind of consequences he has talked about.
I thank the hon. Member for saying that, but I still go back to what I said before. If we legalise the cannabis we have talked about and make that safe, I still think the illegal or the criminal element would continue selling the cannabis—[Interruption.] It is not a good place to be.
The questions I have raised today are not new to those involved in policy making, yet such arguments will be new to many of my constituents, who unfortunately have had to deal with the effects of illicit drug dealing in their communities. That is why I believe this House and the Government need to have an open mind when considering reform in this regard. Before we rush into anything, we must ask what the potential effects of reform are, especially for our children and young people.
I therefore believe that, as compassionate individuals, the best thing for us to do is to deter people from starting the habit in the first place. With regard to drugs, this means doing everything we can—as parents, family members, community members, society, Government—to educate our children and look out for them, too. We need to look at who all their friends are, have high expectations for how they behave, keep them entertained and encouraged, keep them fit and healthy and, most importantly, give them a vision of a great future.
We also need to take responsibility for our own actions. That means the minority of successful people out there who are earning good money need to stop their weekend coke habit or their marijuana habit because, contrary to what they think, this practice is hurting communities and putting lives in danger. They need to think again because they are part of the problem. They are part of that chain and they are fuelling demand. Every time these people take drugs in expensive bars and nightclubs, they are part of the chain that has a nine-year-old running drugs, they are part of the chain that puts a knife in the hands of a 16-year-old, and they are part of the chain that leaves grieving parents mourning the loss of a son or a daughter who has just overdosed.
Put simply, there will be a lot less demand if the people who are not addicted but take drugs recreationally stop doing so. This reduction in demand would ensure that the market would shrink, and the number of dealers and crime would be reduced. When our police do the big drugs bust, maybe the streets will be drugs-free not for two hours; just maybe they will be permanently free from these dangerous substances.
In summary, we need to stop our young people getting involved in drugs by educating them about the damage they cause. We also need to put more support into helping those already affected by drug addiction. These two simple policies alone will help drastically reduce demand and therefore the size of the market. In turn, this would give our police forces a fighting chance to catch the dealers and other criminals involved in these supply chains.
I am afraid that I am going to have to introduce a time limit of five minutes, which is still fairly generous compared with what a number of Back Benchers are used to. The next speaker is Adam Holloway. Sorry, Adam, but I know that you are a seasoned contributor and will be able to do it within five minutes.
In my experience, drug addiction is very clearly an illness. Opiate addiction, for example, is a health problem. As we have heard very passionately from three speakers today, we urgently need to move from a criminal justice response to a health response.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent 10 days or so in the US going round homeless shelters on the east coast and looking at what is probably a historic opportunity to stabilise the street homeless population coming out of the pandemic. Of course, the problem of street homelessness in the US is somewhat different from the one we have here, given the benefits that are available to pay for housing here, but they share the common thread that very large numbers of the street homeless are mentally ill or drug addicted.
I spent an extraordinary day with Professor Jim O’Connell, who set up Boston Health Care for the Homeless back in the mid-’80s, when he realised that street homeless people did not have medical records. He now has an enormous operation. One of the things that he does is what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) described very movingly as “overdose prevention”; he has a tarmac area, half the size of a tennis court, called the Southampton comfort station, where opiate-addicted people come and shoot themselves up with fentanyl.
I used to be a TV reporter, and I had the same emotional response to seeing those 200 people shooting up, staggering, preparing to inject themselves, as if they were on a picnic or rolling a cigarette. It was an appalling scene. It was—I do not know—like I imagine somehow hell would be. I would not want to live one second of any of those people’s lives. Pam and Sue from Professor O’Connell’s operation wait there to get people breathing again when they have had an inaccurate dose of fentanyl.
As I say, the overwhelming majority of street homeless people here are drug addicted or mentally ill. Whatever someone’s route to addiction, and whatever judgments we want to make about these things, the reality is that these people are addicted. They have a very serious illness. I have taken opiates for pain relief, and I can absolutely see how someone could very quickly become addicted to this stuff.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh East and for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) have said, we have to be pragmatic about this. We have to have a grown-up discussion to find a humane way out of it, not just for the people who are addicted but for wider society. We need to think about all things—at the very least about having overdose prevention places, but also about prescribing, decriminalisation and moving this out of the criminal justice sphere. These people are ill, and, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.
The stated purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is to prevent the misuse of controlled drugs. By any measurement that we wish to employ, the Act has failed. The fact that it has been allowed to fail for 50 years is an abomination. As was stated, we have gone from fewer than 100 deaths in 1971 to more than 5,000 in 2020. The legislation is flawed and the job we are asking the law enforcement agencies to do is impossible. The legislation is flawed and the job we are asking the law enforcement agencies to do is impossible. The fallout is picked up by the NHS and many, many third sector organisations.
A lot has changed since 1971. Asbestos is no longer a popular building material. Women can no longer be fired for being pregnant. In many situations we have moved forward with the times, but on drugs policy we are firmly entrenched in the past. When we changed our drug policy in 1971, we junked the British system in favour of the misguided policy of Richard Nixon’s America. The result has been an increase in crime, an increase in corruption, an increase in harm, and an increase in the number of drug-related deaths. This involves our communities being subjected to violent crime, vicious turf wars, and the corruption of the young and often vulnerable members of society. We cannot and never will be able to arrest our way out of a drugs war. Substances that were once legal are now made by criminals with scant regard for consumer safety. They are often cut with other products and potency cannot be guaranteed. As a result, many young people have died experimenting with drugs. One tablet—one tablet—is all it takes and a life can be lost because drugs are not regulated.
Other countries are not inflicted by this paralysis. They have decriminalised and legalised drugs. They have drug consumption rooms. They have diversion schemes. I visited Portugal and Catalonia to see what they are doing and it works. It saves lives and it rehabilitates. Theirs are humane schemes because they treat drug addiction and harm as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. They are creating an environment where people are not marginalised and ostracised. As a result, they are not experiencing prejudice because of their health issue. That can only happen when there is a change of mindset that facilitates the provision of services. We need to waken up to the reality that the policies we are pursuing are not doing any good and, in some cases, are actually making the situation worse. Recent evidence from Canada, as quoted in the Scottish Affairs Committee’s drugs and crime report, showed overdose prevention centres in British Columbia alone saved between 160 and 350 lives in 20 months. Yet the UK Government’s attitude is that the establishment of drug consumption rooms would condone drug use.
This lack of empathy and refusal to bow to evidence makes me wonder if the UK Home Office thinks that the life of a drug addict is a life not worth saving. Neither the Home Office nor the Department of Health and Social Care has provided any evidence to contradict the findings of numerous reviews, including by the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction and the ACMD, which said that such facilities have not been found to increase injecting drug use or local crime rates. Listen to the United Nations executive board chaired by the UN Secretary-General and representing 31 UN agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. They have called on member states to promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use.
Minister, please drop the coming-down-hard-on-criminals rhetoric. It may sound good, but it does not work today and it has not worked for 50 years. It is time to end the war on drugs and start the war on the causes of addiction. And please engage with Scotland’s Minister for Drugs Policy, Angela Constance. Help her to remove obstacles, so we can have a more progressive and more effective drugs policy, one that has health at its core.
I come at this debate from my experiences as Justice Secretary in Scotland for seven and a half years. It would also be fair to say that I think I reflect the views, privately, of many senior individuals in both law enforcement and the judiciary. Mike Barton was mentioned. Only a few have had the courage to speak out, but privately many will tell you, as I have come to see, that this issue cannot be solved by justice. It has to be treated as a health problem.
I always recall that when I started as Justice Secretary a drug debt was seen as being recovered or paid off by a stab in the buttocks. By the time I was demitting office it was the production of a firearm. Now in Scotland, it is almost invariably the use of that firearm. The levels of violence are escalating. What was seen on the streets of London is now seen on the streets of Glasgow. What was viewed as the norm in Glasgow is now prevalent in Edinburgh. The whole equivalent of the county lines is spreading across our country and we are not defeating it in any shape or form. If it could be done by law enforcement or by military power, the United States would be drug-free, but it is not and this approach is a total failure, despite all the US weaponry and the assets at its disposal. That is why there has to be a change. It is affecting our safety with not only the escalation of crime, but the level of the corruption of our economy. Whole areas of our economy are literally being taken over by the drug trade and laundered money.
I recall asking senior police officers in Scotland whether there was a clean one in a particular trade in Glasgow that would be viewed as clean—I will not name it, for those who are the clean ones—and the answer I was given was, “Probably, but we do not know of them.” This will be the case not only in particular cities in Scotland, but across the UK. I am referring to the so-called “colourful businessmen”. We know who they are and where they get their money, and the Misuse of Drugs Act fuels that and provides for it. That is why we have to change.
Of course, it would take the wisdom of Solomon to provide a solution, because at the heart of the drug addiction problem are deep roots—poverty, health, inequality and hopelessness. Of course there are some elements of hedonism, but in the main those who suffer are people who are tragic, who are individuals, who are captured and caught, and we need to help and treat them, not to punish them and worsen their situations. As other Members have said, other countries have shown that a different path can be taken. The Portuguese method is the way that should be chosen. The power should be devolved to Scotland so that we can go on a different path. If we get it wrong, it will not impact on the rest of the UK. If we get it right, ours will be a method whereby people here will be able to see what has happened. After all, there has been no calamity on the Iberian peninsula and no effect upon Spain. All the suggestions that every drug addict in Spain was going to depart to Faro on the Algarve have been shown to be false. Portugal has managed to improve the situation. It is no Valhalla, but it is better. If the Minister is not prepared to devolve drug policy as a whole, there has to be some flexibility.
My friend the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) mentioned the request by the Scottish drug Secretary for a summit to discuss aspects that can be changed. The Scottish Parliament has control over justice and health, abortion and end of life, yet because of the restrictions of the drug policy, we are not able to deal with drug consumption rooms or overdose prevention rooms, whichever one calls them We are not able to test street tablets for people who are going to take drugs. It is surely better that we should know that what they are buying is something that can be consumed safely and will not be the equivalent of getting the proverbial black spot in their hand that will result in death or a living hell thereafter. All of that can be dealt with by simply allowing some latitude and some powers. There will be no danger or difficulty for the rest of the UK. Scotland can be used as a testing ground, because there is an issue there—people are dying. It is entirely inadequate to say that this can all be solved simply within the current powers of the Scottish Parliament, because it cannot. I will be the first to say that more has to be done, more should have been done and blame has to be accepted by the Scottish Government in respect of providing treatment orders and the ability for people to get support. Equally, that on its own will not address the fundamental problem.
There has to be a radical change, which I believe should be pan-UK, but if the Minister is not prepared to accept that and if he accepts, as I think he does, that there is a particular problem that is worse in Scotland, we have to be able to address it. That means that we have to have the powers, if not in whole, in part. We have to be able to provide the drug consumption rooms to ensure that addicts can take safely. We have to be able to ensure that what is being bought and traded is capable of being consumed, even if we do not want it consumed. There has to be a better way, because the intransigence being shown by Westminster is being paid for in the communities of Scotland and with the deaths of far too many individuals.
In my time both as a doctor and a volunteer special constable, I have seen up close the harms that drugs do to our society, and I have also seen this in my personal life.
I wish to begin by focusing on areas of agreement with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and others. It is clearly right that the best outcome for an individual addicted to drugs is to be supported to overcome that addiction. It is clearly better for individuals who end up using drugs that they can do so in a way that minimises the risk of harm. It is clearly true that often it is not going to be the best use of police time to pursue individuals who are using drugs on a personal basis. Those are things I think we can all agree on, but some of the other arguments put forward today fail on a number of fronts. They fail to understand the reality of the policing of drug use in society at the moment. They fail to understand the nature of criminality associated with drug production, and they fail to understand the complexity of addiction recovery. As is so often the case with those on the left, they take for granted all the quiet benefits of our current approach to drugs that could potentially be lost in reform. Fundamentally, abstinence-based policies are stopping very many people from taking illicit drugs. The overwhelming majority of people do not take drugs. What Members have done today, without any evidence whatsoever, is to draw association with cause. An enormous number of social ills have exploded over the past 30 years. We cannot say that, because our approach was X, it has been the cause of that. There are many, many factors that drive drug use and we have no idea what drug use would have been had we taken a different approach.
Let me ask a question of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, who I know DJ-ed in nightclubs that I frequented a long time ago in Leeds and Manchester. How many times were his nightclubs raided by police bent on catching everybody who was taking amphetamines? How many times has he seen police with their sniffer dogs outside a festival desperate to catch people taking these types of drugs? As I mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of people who are caught with cannabis are charged only with possession if they are an adult. If they are not causing any other problem for the local area, such as smoking it publicly or being involved in criminality, they will end up with a warning notice and a fine. Very few of the people who have been talked about for being in prison for drug offences are there for consumption. Overwhelmingly, they are in there for dealing. If they are there for consumption, it is usually because they have had a string of other interventions—whether it be a suspended sentence, a community order, or other things. Ultimately, it is fair that, if they continue to cause misery in their local communities, they face a prison sentence for that. They are not there because we are sending people away to prison because they smoke cannabis or because they take ecstasy. That is just not the reality of the situation.
The question that we might ask ourselves is why do we not just decriminalise these drugs, especially if people are relatively able to use it in proportion. It goes back to what I said earlier. First, I do not endorse that situation. My strong view is that criminalisation deters an awful lot of people from using drugs. Members cannot have it both ways. They cannot say on the one hand that there is all this stigma around drug use, that people cannot get treatment, cannot speak about it, and cannot be freely open with it, and then say that decriminalisation will not increase usage because it is freely available anyway and people can just get it. We cannot have both those scenarios; we must have one or the other. There is either a stigma, which will have a social effect, or there is not; we cannot have it both ways.
Let me turn now to the nature of criminality related to drug dealing. Drug dealing and drugs being illegal do not create criminal gangs. Those gangs exist because sections of our society are willing to step outside the rules and the norms, use violence, be thugs and do things that the rest of us will not do to make a quick buck. They happen to be doing that with drugs, and decriminalising them will not change that. First, they will just do more of other things. There will be more racketeering, more counterfeit money, and more people trafficking. There will always be people who will look to make money and to be violent as a result.
As has been mentioned, whatever limits we put on drugs—unless Members here really think that Boots will be giving out injectable heroin—there will be limits on the drugs that will be decriminalised. The evidence in Amsterdam is that it has one of the biggest problems with potent cannabis. Decriminalising the use of cannabis in Amsterdam has not stopped that, so, whatever we do, there will always be people who want that hit—it is the nature of addiction. The nature of addiction is that people want a bigger hit. They want more than they got the first time, so they will always hit those limits and want someone else to go above what the law will allow, while accepting that there will be some kind of barriers.
Finally, I want to draw on my experience at university. As a doctor, we had former heroin addicts come in to speak to us. There was a lady who had multiple problems with addiction. Her ongoing addiction was not as a result of not being able to get treatment; she had multiple opportunities to seek treatment. She went on some treatment courses, but, actually, it was when she hit rock bottom, having no help from anyone and having exhausted everything that was available to her, that she turned it around. I am afraid that even the very best addiction programmes are not particularly successful unless people go on them multiple times and go on a bit of a journey.
The idea that we will fix this problem by giving people treatment is naive I am afraid. The problem will carry on regardless because of the inherent nature of these substances, which, on balance, should be banned. We have to weigh up the costs to society of even a small increase in the number of people who take these drugs, and, of course we feel sorry for them, but they have ended up taking them anyway.
I really do feel privileged to speak in this debate. It has been an absolutely terrific debate, with some fantastic contributions. I do not wish to denigrate the contributions of the hon. Members who take a different point of view, but I particularly associate myself with the remarks of my good and hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), and the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) and for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill). This is an important subject, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate.
Clearly, we have had 50 years of failure with the Misuse of Drugs Act. Any objective analysis indicates that the current policies are not working, and for me that means it is time to try something new. There have been some terrific suggestions about pilot schemes, which I have advocated for a number of years now. Originally, I had the same views as some Government Members, but I have taken the time to get involved with the subject and to meet people like the late Ron Hogg—our former police and crime commissioner in Durham, who was extremely brave and introduced some heroin-assisted treatment programmes and diversionary programmes—and Mike Barton, our chief constable. Introducing those measures was brave because they were not popular with the general public, but they were effective in reducing crime and the number of avoidable drugs deaths, and successful in removing some of the burden from the criminal justice system.
Problematic drug or alcohol deaths are higher in areas of significant deprivation. I think that is a given, and it is another reason why I am very concerned about the issue. I do not consider drug use an individual moral failing; I do not make such judgments. There is a complex interplay of economic, societal and family factors that affect someone’s chances of developing substance misuse issues.
We need to ask ourselves what the Misuse of Drugs Act has achieved. As we have heard, in the late ’60s about 1% of adults had at some point used drugs that are now criminalised. That figure is now 34%. Heroin use has risen exponentially—25-fold since 1971. Cannabis use has risen fivefold. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands of years have been served. More enforcement will not solve the problem.
I am a member of the drugs, alcohol and justice all-party parliamentary group, which stands for evidence, not prejudice, in policy; and treatment, not punishment, in practice. The group is advised by Humankind, We Are With You and the Westminster Drug Project—charities that together support about 150,000 people across the UK each year. Although the third sector is well placed to support those with complex needs and vulnerabilities, and has the necessary talent, tenacity and experience to do so, it has lacked resources due to a number of years of cuts to local budgets.
Significant and sustained investment is needed now to rebuild and reinvigorate our services. If we do not invest, we are simply storing up problems for the future with the way services are delivered at present. In order to address health inequalities effectively and create change for the people who are most affected by these inequalities, the Government must commit to a public health approach, rather than a criminal justice approach, to drugs policy.
I recommend the book “Good Cop, Bad War” by Neil Woods. It is a very instructive read about the experience of an undercover policeman. It is an inconvenient truth. Indeed, Paul Townsley, the chief exec of Humankind, said: “After 50 years, it is high time the Government really committed to taking a health-first approach to drugs use. Locking people up hasn’t worked, but we know that access to high-quality treatment and support does work. Over 25 countries across the world have decriminalised possession of some or all drugs and the international evidence shows an alternative policy is possible and effective.”
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has failed. It has not stopped the flow of illicit drugs into our country. It has not prevented people taking drugs, and it has not kept them alive. In communities up and down these islands, predominantly but exclusively those where deprivation has been rife, families bear the scars of loved ones criminalised and lost to drugs. Generations of policy and politicians have failed them. It is inexcusable, and it cannot go on.
Drugs legislation is reserved to Westminster under schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, which specifically mentions, at B1,
“the subject matter of…the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.”
In small areas such as needle distribution, life-saving naloxone provision and the excellent heroin assisted treatment programme operated by the Glasgow health and social care partnership under licence from the Home Office, allowances have been made under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but the UK Government could go much further. I would have them tear up the Act and start again or devolve all drugs policy to the Scottish Parliament, but in the meantime they could allow the Scottish Government to take further action to reduce harm and save lives.
Medically supervised drug consumption rooms, safe injecting facilities or overdose prevention rooms—there are different names, but their purpose is the same—get those who are injecting drugs inside, out of the pouring rain, the bin sheds, the filthy waste grounds and the lonely back lanes, and into a place where they will be looked after and get access to support, advice, a cup of tea and some dignity. If they overdose, they can receive treatment right away, not whenever a passer-by happens to find them. People can move from DCRs towards treatment and recovery when they are ready, and stay alive long enough to get there. It is not asking much; it is what we would all want if someone we loved was in that position. DCRs will not fix everything, and I would never claim that, but they are part of the picture.
I was lucky enough to visit the Quai 9 DCR in Geneva in 2019. It marks its 20th anniversary this year with some reflection on where it has come from. In 1986 Switzerland had among the highest reported HIV prevalences in the world. According to Miriam Wolf and Michael Herzig, between 1991 and 2010 overdose deaths in Switzerland decreased by 50%, HIV infections decreased by 65%, and new heroin users decreased by 80%. This is the result of a public health, rather than a criminal justice, intervention. Switzerland is not alone. As colleagues have made clear, countries around the world have taken similar paths.
I still recall the astonishment of the staff in Quai 9 when I described the situation in Glasgow and showed them the pictures of where people inject in the waste ground near my constituency office. I pay credit to Serge Longère, Garance Zarn and the team at Quai 9 for all they are doing to ensure that those who use their service are given hope and dignity. They offer access to support, training and jobs, as well as providing a place where people can take drugs in safety and move towards recovery.
Glasgow has had a plan for a similar facility since the 2016 “Taking away the chaos” report. It is the Home Office that stands in the way of that plan. An amendment to the Misuse Of Drugs Act—a simple statutory instrument—would at a stroke protect from prosecution those who seek to operate, work in, or use such a medically supervised drug consumption room. In a brave attempt to provide the beginnings of a facility, the campaigner Peter Krykant has been operating an overdose prevention project using a refurbished ambulance as a safe injecting van. He puts himself at risk doing so, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for that work. Peter is reducing harm, and he is saving lives, but it should not just be up to him.
I think of all the people who might still be alive today had the Home Office approved a proper facility for Glasgow five years ago, and had it not fallen back to the same tired old political rhetoric. The cowardly Ministers in the Home Office will not even come to my constituency to walk the streets, to listen to the campaigners with lived experience like Peter Krykant, and to meet those such a facility would support. It would not solve everything, we know, but it would help, and if it saved one person from being added to the grim total of drugs deaths in Scotland, it would be worth it. The UK Government must give up their damaging rhetoric, stop listening to the Daily Mail, and instead listen to the overwhelming global evidence of how medically supervised drug consumption rooms reduce harm and save lives—and do it now.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing this significant debate. Fifty years of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, according to the charity Transform, are 50 years of failure, and I agree. It is time we took a public health approach to drugs policy that puts people before prejudice, and it is time we had review and reform of the Act.
I will speak first about the prejudices before I speak about the public health approach. Professor Robert Reiner, a retired lecturer at the London School of Economics who I had the privilege to learn under, has spoken about the over-policing and under-protection of black young men for decades, and for decades very little has actually happened to improve their plight. They have been stigmatised by officers; they have experienced stop and search, often for suspected drugs. They have experienced inequality of strip searches that lacks adequate monitoring. They have experienced inequality of due care and concern while in a police cell. They are less likely to be given a warning and more likely to be given a caution. They are often released from custody in the early hours of the morning and have to walk miles to return home. They experience inequality of sentencing and often receive a harsh sentence.
Hon. Members may be wondering where I am getting this information from. Most of it comes from my constituents. The impact on children is especially heartbreaking. I have heard stories of boys as young as 12 from the black community being groomed and exploited by gangs to sell drugs and to carry knives. These boys may have been doing well at school and had dreams for their future. Once they are caught in the net of drug dealers, it is almost impossible for them to leave without their lives being harmed. The stories I have been told are of older men offering to buy them trainers and give them money, and offering them a place to hang out in their homes. When they cannot be coerced, manipulated or bribed, they are often threatened: “We know where you live. We know your family, your sister.” It becomes sinister and then they are made a slave to crimes, but that is not their sin: they are powerless to their masters, and we must remember that they are children.
Where are the Government in this? Where is the policy? Where is the national campaign message? Where are the messages to children, parents, carers and teachers? Where is the advice and the support? Who is it safe for children to confide in, and where should they go without being stigmatised, criminalised or threatened by the very officials who are meant to protect them? The Government keep children who are exploited by gangs between a rock and a hard place, and that should not be so.
Like me, many will remember the “Grange Hill” campaign and song “Just Say No”. It was a national incentive, and what followed was people saying no to alcohol and drugs. I know that times have changed, but we need strong campaigns and to remember that young people—boys—are victims, not criminals. They, their families and carers and the public need the Government to step up and protect vulnerable young people, no matter the colour of their skin tone.
On the public health approach, addiction is an illness. How many of us choose to be ill? People have deep-rooted issues that they need help with. It has never made sense to criminalise people for harming themselves. Of course, everyone should face the consequences of their actions if they commit a violent crime, but criminalising people for drug possession or supply and applying punitive prison sentences are not the answer. Criminalising people for drugs is also an inadequate use of public funds. Instead of building prisons, we should be investing in youth centres, women’s centres, hospitals, community outreach centres, advice centres and preventive initiatives.
A focus on rehabilitation in countries such as Norway has resulted in them having among the lowest incarceration and reoffending numbers in the world. We need to learn from other countries that are doing better than us. We need a transformational policy, and it is time that we review and reform this Act.
I trained some 15 years ago as a primary school teacher in a very deprived part of what is now my constituency. I will not name it because people are rightly tired of their community being characterised by drugs alone. There is, however, a huge drug problem.
I was doing a placement with primary sevens, so they would have been about 11 years old, just getting to be gallus but still quite clearly innocent kids. It did not take long for me to become attached to every single one of them. Some of them were funny, some super smart, some very caring, others artistic or musical. They all had things they were good at and distinct personalities.
One day, during the lunch break, the wonderful woman who was their teacher told me that every single one of them had a live connection to drugs. I am changing names here, but she told me, “Connor’s brother died of an overdose. Sharon’s mum was murdered because she owed a dealer money. Peter’s dad is on the run from the police. You can see Nicole’s sister on the street most days asking people for money to feed her habit.” Every single one of them had a live connection. The most heartbreaking thing to hear was that she believed that most of them would not be able to avoid that connection in their adult lives, because that was what she had seen over the previous 20 years.
That teacher had taught Nicole’s sister and said that she was every bit as lovable as Nicole at that age. She pointed out to me that if I saw Nicole’s sister on the street asking people for money to feed her habit and clearly off her face, I would possibly feel irritated or even angry with her, and I might even wonder why she did not just pull herself together. We have all been there—none of us is a saint, and we have all judged. But she pointed out to me, “I know you’re very fond of wee Nicole, and if you saw her doing that, you wouldn’t be angry—you’d be terrified for her. And I know, Anne, that you would want to scoop her up and find a way of helping her—anybody would.” She explained that she had known Nicole’s sister, now 20, since she was five years old, so when she saw her in the grip of her addiction, she saw that little girl.
Now, some 15 years after my teaching practice, I am acutely aware that this group of 11-year-olds will be in their mid-20s, and if that teacher was right, many of them will have some connection with drugs. Some will be dead. Some will be addicted. Some will have escaped, but some will be dealing and some will be in jail. I know—and the evidence, as we have heard from so many hon. Members today, tells us—that a very different legislative approach to drug use would undoubtedly have seen their lives turn out very differently. It is well documented that most addicts are self-medicating to deal with unresolved childhood trauma. I have given a number of examples of the trauma some of the children I taught experienced. When trauma is unresolved, it is very common for adults to respond to triggers as their five, seven, 10 or 12-year-old selves.
I ask everyone listening to think about that and think about what that teacher taught me that day—that we should not abandon a child just because their body takes on an adult form. Rather than turn our backs, lock them up and ostracise them, we should recognise drug abuse and addiction as an illness and as a public health matter—now a public health emergency. What we should be doing, as that wonderful teacher was sure I would do, and was sure anyone would do with any child in trouble, is scooping them up to get them to a place of safety and help them to recover from their illness, as we do with every single other illness.
We have heard the evidence today—so much evidence—that the public health approach works. It is better for drug users, of course, but if I cannot convince the Government to care about that, then surely the evidence that it is better for our health services, our economy and our justice system will encourage them to think again and make this a public health matter rather than a criminal justice matter.
The United Kingdom Government must ultimately commit to adopting the evidence-based solutions to drug use. This means no longer rejecting evidence-based recommendations and ignoring evidence that shows that the current approach is simply not working.
Let me briefly provide the House with my personal experience of being a frontline police officer and a detective in London during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, the Misuse of Drugs Act was well established as the Government’s preferred method of dealing with drug use, on the basis that people would not use or be found in possession of controlled drugs for fear of arrest and prosecution. The Government’s solution was to arrest their way out of the problem by criminalising every aspect of illegal drug supply and possession. Some of the provisions in the Act were very successful in introducing specific offences making involvement in the production or supply of drugs punishable with long prison sentences. It is right that those concerned with the supply of drugs continue to face these increased penalties.
However, where the Government got it wrong at that time was in criminalising the possession of even the smallest amount of controlled drugs, particularly cannabis. The police’s prescribed method of dealing with possession of cannabis was the same as for drivers who provided a positive breath test for alcohol: a zero-tolerance approach with absolutely no discretion. When someone was stopped and searched, for whatever reason, and cannabis was found, irrespective of the quantity, they were immediately arrested. The suspected drugs were then analysed by a scientist to provide legal proof that the substance was in fact cannabis. The arrested person would be taken to a police station and bailed to return at a later date when they would be formally charged with possession of cannabis, their fingerprints and photographs would be taken, and they would be bailed to attend court. That was in the days before the Crown Prosecution Service when the arresting officer prosecuted every single individual case personally, requiring the officer to attend court. The defendant invariably pleaded guilty and received a fine of probably no more than £30. This happened in hundreds of cases every week and remained the procedure for many years. All that for a few grams of cannabis for personal use: on reflection, what a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time, police and court resources, and taxpayers’ money. It benefited absolutely no one.
Enforcement of this legislation for possession of cannabis undoubtedly created serious tensions and distrust among the police and communities and led to increased racial tension. It continues to do so to this very day. Another serious consequence of this was that tens of thousands of people—disproportionately young black men, already facing barriers to employment—would receive a criminal record and be deprived of the opportunity to improve their life chances by being disqualified from ever entering certain professions.
Drug misuse must be treated as a public health issue and people who use drugs should be helped, not just punished. Advice, support and education should be provided in the same way as they are for other health issues, including alcohol and tobacco. The Misuse of Drugs Act criminalised and failed millions of people, often the most disadvantaged in our society. I call upon the Government to order a review of the law and produce and introduce an evidence-based drugs policy that is founded on the principle of a multi-agency, public health approach, rather than a criminal justice approach. The success of such an approach has been demonstrated by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, established in 2005, which has since reduced the number of homicides in Scotland from 137 to 64 last year. That policy, procedure and strategy works. If the Government are not minded to adopt such an approach, the responsibility for drugs policy must be devolved to the Scottish Parliament so that we are no longer bound by this discredited legislation and approach.
I am relieved to be able to speak in this powerful, emotive debate today but I am also very angry that, half a century on, this country is still somehow clinging to an Act that has signally failed in its intention. It has failed more than one generation and it is time that we listened to the voices raised against it, including the families appealing for help.
I am sure beyond any possible doubt that when the Misuse of Drugs Act was originally debated in this place, the genuine belief was that it was needed to tackle a problem that had already taken lives, destroyed families and promoted crime and antisocial behaviour across the country. However, can anyone now be in any doubt that the Act and the war on drugs that it epitomises have failed? If criminal convictions were the measure, we might be able to argue for its success. There have been more than 1.8 million convictions under the Act since 1971, but those convictions are actually also another indication of failure—failure to change the fact that the illegal drugs trade has been a driving force in crime in this country.
If we look at the real impact in terms of lives destroyed and lost, it is clear that the belief in the Act was, although well intentioned, misplaced. If we look just at Scotland, in 1969, there were 244 drug deaths. In 2019, that figure was almost 1,300, but those are just numbers, and there are so many more. Heroin misuse has risen twenty-fivefold. The UK drug-related death rate is five times the EU average. Scotland’s drug-related death rate is more than 15 times the EU average. However, this is about so much more than statistics. It is about every life lost and family left desolate by the death of a loved one. It is about lives stamped out amidst an epidemic that is destroying and has destroyed futures every day for the past 50 years, and yet, somehow seems to go unnoticed.
My constituency is not immune from the problem. None of our constituencies, none of our communities and no family can be sure that they are safe from it. In response to the point that was made about the role of families, I know parents who have worked hard to educate their children, spend time with them, talk about drugs, provide for them and create a good, stable family life for them, but that could not protect them. Yes, drug problems can be more prevalent in areas of deprivation—we know that—but not exclusively. We are all vulnerable. Recently, a mother in Scotland allowed the BBC to film the funeral of her son who died of an overdose of street Valium. The heartbreak was difficult to watch. His mother wanted his story to serve as a warning to others, to remind politicians of the grief caused by our common failure to tackle successfully the problem of drugs on our streets. She let us witness it.
What makes that failure worse is that there are examples close at hand of how it can be tackled. Portugal, for example, had one of the worst problems in Europe. In 1999, one in every 100 people there had a problematic drug addiction, and the country’s HIV rate was the highest in the EU. Then, in 2001, it completely changed tack from criminalisation to decriminalisation. Now, if someone is caught with a personal supply, they receive a warning or a fine, or they are referred to a multidisciplinary team of doctors, lawyers and social workers. Rates of overdose deaths and drug-related crime have plummeted, as has the HIV rate.
It is clear what we need to do. Where prohibition has failed for 50 years, control and regulation can work. We need education, social action, health spending and projects designed to help, and I firmly believe we need to look at where the decriminalisation and regulation of drugs, specifically cannabis, have worked. More than 25 countries have decriminalised possession of some or all drugs. Cannabis has already been legalised and regulated for adult non-medical use in Canada, Uruguay and 15 US states. Decriminalisation is supported by the World Health Organisation.
To take away the power that control of drugs has given the criminal world, and to break the stranglehold of the gangs, we should reform, regulate and license; we should offer medical treatment to those found in possession rather than criminalise them; and we should recognise that this is a public health and economic problem. We have tried one way for 50 years, but it has failed. It has failed families up and down this country, and it is time we tried another way, a better way.
The Misuse of Drugs Act has damaged individuals, families and communities and entrenched social injustice. The war on drugs has been lost. This Government have failed, and there is nowhere with more evidence of the problems of criminalisation than here in Scotland, when we consider the stark number of drug-related deaths. Rather than adopting a public health approach, this Government ignore that possibility. They have failed on an unprecedented scale. In Scotland, this is a public health emergency, and it must be treated as such. This Government have an opportunity, on the 50th anniversary of the legislation, to consider whether the Act is still fit for purpose.
The UK Government wish to take a hard line on this issue, but that simply is not working. The introduction of safe consumption facilities to reduce public harm is one solution, but they have blocked reform at every turn. The Government are entrenching the problem by refusing to amend or repeal this outdated legislation, and the Scottish Government, who wish to fall in with international best practice by decriminalising the use of drugs and introducing safe consumption rooms, are unable to do so. In comparison, Portugal ended the criminalisation of drug use 20 years ago. Since then, drug-related deaths have fallen and remained below the EU average, the number of drug offenders in prison has more than halved and the number of drug-injection-related HIV diagnoses has fallen dramatically.
Does the Minister agree that we should aim for a similar outcome in the UK? If he does, when will he take action to make that happen? The UK Government must now allow the Scottish Government to implement a range of public health-focused responses, including the introduction of supervised drug consumption facilities, or devolve the power to do so to the Scottish Parliament. We are facing a public health emergency. This Act continues to fail too many families, and too many have lost loved ones. We can change this, and we must change this. If this Union is truly strong, surely it can withstand this. It can take a pragmatic approach and it can act. If this Government will not act, they must devolve the power to Scotland to take that action. Inaction is not a solution, and their compliance and ignorance are complicit in the problem. Drug-related deaths are real. These are not just figures; they are real people, real families and real communities, and they need real action.
I am really encouraged by the voices across the UK and across the Chamber, including those of the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) and the compelling contribution from my colleague in the Alba party, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill).
I also pay tribute to frontline workers in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency: Pauline Buchan, Kelly Rodgers and their team at the Kirkcaldy Cottage Family Centre and Dave Dempster and team at ADAPT. They are dealing with this problem head on. As a result of the current crisis in Scotland, I have spoken to them recently and will continue to meet them and give them all my support. The challenge that they face is a frightening number of drug deaths. In 2019, 1,264 drug deaths occurred in Scotland. Behind each number is a person with hopes and dreams. Not one of them dreamed of becoming addicted to drugs or having a criminal record; it happened in the context of the prohibition under the 1971 Act. It is unacceptable and change is essential.
To become a drug user is not a rational choice. The idea put forward by Nancy Reagan—the ineffective “Just say no to drugs” soundbite—sounds easy, but often it involves just saying no to poverty, just saying no to abuse, just saying no to neglect and deprivation, just saying no to hopelessness, just saying no to joblessness and just saying no to childhood trauma. “Just say no” serves only to demonise and stigmatise, criminalising and othering the most vulnerable in our society and communities—addict, dopehead, junkie, waster, stoner, user—and just like poverty this is not an accident.
Users are blamed for their substance use, their social circumstances and the failure of the scant treatment schemes available to them. Substance misuse is undoubtedly associated with deprivation and unemployment, and users are blamed for the lack of opportunity and shamed for their failure to meet neoliberal notions of a productive citizen. The pejorative of strivers versus skivers, as used by Mr Cameron, really illustrates that sentiment. All the while, the structural causes of substance misuse and inequality are ignored and dismissed, reinforcing that stigma. Demonising and criminalising vulnerable people serves only to misdirect the public from the abject failure of drug and social health policy.
Let me tell the House briefly about a case in my constituency of a person with deep childhood trauma who became involved in drug misuse. They were supported by services in my constituency to overcome that challenge, go to university and secure a business degree, but every opportunity that they tried to secure for a new future was rejected because of their background and the criminality, all related to drugs. They have since returned to drug use. That is absolutely heartbreaking. Current drug policies are criminalising people who have already suffered greatly, exacerbating that deep trauma.
The 1971 Act, and the continuation of prohibition, serves only to lock some of the most vulnerable people in a cycle of hopelessness. Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law in the UK, has rightly characterised the Misuse of Drugs Act as “50 years of failure”. Tinkering around the edges of drug legislation simply will not do. Dependency is a health issue, but it is not the core problem; it is but a symptom of iniquitous social policy and the state’s indifference to grinding poverty. The money spent on criminalising our most vulnerable would be much better spent and more effective if it were redirected to public health and social policy initiatives.
It is essential to devolve to the Scottish Government every lever required to adopt a public health approach. The failure to do so is a dreadful dereliction of duty. Control over drug policy must urgently be reviewed. As a minimum, I suggest that the devolution of all policy to Scotland is essential to help us to save lives.
In a sense, it is a real pleasure to take part in this debate, as has been said, principally because it has been a terrific one with some fantastic contributions from all parts of the House. I commend the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for securing this debate on an incredibly important topic, and for their persistent pursuit of a policy-based approach to the subject. I could offer the same commendation to lots of Members in the Chamber, including hon. Friends.
In other ways, I very much regret having to take part in this debate. First, because, as other Members have said, I do not think it should be home affairs or policing spokespersons speaking today; it should be health spokespersons and we should be debating this issue absolutely through the prism of public health, not criminal justice. Secondly, like every hon. Member in this debate, I wish that we did not have to be here because drugs had been suppressed or eliminated a long time ago, but clearly we are as far away from that being a reality as we ever have been. That is fundamentally why Members are pushing for reform. There is no sign of significant change under the current regime.
Hon. Members have illustrated eloquently that this is a crisis, in terms of scale and the impact that it is having on individuals. Addressing this crisis will absolutely require the use of the full range of tools at the disposal of Governments: measures to address poverty and inequality; education; prevention; tackling stigma; treatment; harm reduction; recovery; mental health; housing; and, of course, law enforcement and criminal justice too—every arm of government must be involved.
We have debated and will continue to debate all the different policy responses, but today the focus is on the Misuse of Drugs Act at 50, the legislation that underpins and, I am afraid, casts a shadow over everything else we do to combat drugs. I share the analysis of the vast majority of hon. Members who have spoken that, in the 50 years since it was passed, the evolution and, sadly, the growth of the drugs trade has been extraordinary, as has been our understanding of it, but our legislation has tragically failed to move on in response. Indeed, many would argue that it was the wrong response at the outset, as the hon. Member for Reigate eloquently said.
Two things. Yes, the metrics in Scotland are very bad. The metrics for the whole United Kingdom are terribly bad—[Interruption.] Some metrics; I am not sure which particular metrics the hon. Member is referring to. However, that is not the point. With respect, I also do not think the point is to ask, “What is the cause?” We could say that, in some ways, the Act has caused all sorts of harms, but it is beyond dispute that it has failed to fix the problem. We are all calling for an evidence-based debate on whether we can do better, and whether different legislative approaches can do better. I cannot really see how Government Members can say that this is as good as it gets. Yes, there are other things that both Governments—all Governments—are doing, but if this is as good as it gets, we are a hopeless bunch. I think we should try to provide some hope to our constituents. That is what we are trying to do today. This debate should not really be about whether reform is needed but should rather be an evidence-based debate about the nature of that reform and how far we should go. I think even Government Members think changes can be made. Some of us will want to go much further, which I will come to right now.
There is an abundance of evidence on not only the need for reform but what sort of reforms work, coming from health and medical experts; law enforcement, as we heard; those working on the frontline with those with addiction; and those who have experienced addictions directly. International best practice can be a guide as well. That is why report after report, including reports from cross-party Committees of this House, have all called for reform. I will focus on three brief recommendations that both the Health and Social Care Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee flagged up.
First—as I said, so I do not need to expand on it anymore—this policy area should be led by the Health and Social Care Department, not the Home Office. Secondly, both Committees said that, at the very least, we need to pilot and look at the use of overdose prevention facilities or drug consumption rooms. We heard from numerous hon. Members how these have been shown to save lives and reduce harm. They assist in ensuring that those who most need it can access support and treatment, and they protect the public from antisocial and dangerous public injection.
Thirdly, both of those cross-party Committees said that there should at least be a consultation on decriminalisation of possession. The SNP believes that there is already enough evidence for that, and we acknowledge that international evidence shows that that leads to less problematic drug use and less harm as a result, and less waste of police and justice resources. Let us at least look at it and review that.
I absolutely appreciate that the Government will not announce today that they will rip up the Misuse of Drugs Act and start again. However, knowing that the Government will not do that, and knowing that they are conservative and cautious about the possibility of reform, they surely to goodness must at least trial and research some of these possible new approaches. If they do not want to do that, they should devolve powers so that we can try—to Scotland, but also to other parts of the UK willing to pilot a new approach. As has been said, we will all benefit from what we learn as a result; whether it is a success or a failure, let us try. Instead of being scared of public opinion, test it. Put it to a citizens assembly and build consensus. I believe that the more folk understand about this issue, the more they see the need for reform. If nothing else, people see that it is their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters who the Government are criminalising rather than helping.
Finally, I have one or two nuts-and-bolts questions that I would be keen for the Minister to answer. First, as has already been asked, will he respond positively to the request for a four nations drugs meeting, which could hopefully include discussion of drugs overdose prevention facilities? Can he update the House on the issue of pill press regulation? What is his latest position on naloxone and widening distribution? Will he also look at drug checking facilities and allowing that approach to be trialled? Let us work constructively, follow the evidence and leave no option unexplored as we seek to tackle this crisis. That should include the possibility of radical reform of drugs legislation.
It is always a pleasure to follow the SNP spokesperson. Before I begin, in the last hour, the Manchester bombing inquiry has published its first report. While the findings no doubt will be debated, I think it is right and appropriate that we send our sympathy and thoughts today from this House to the families and those who are bereaved, and indeed to the city of Manchester.
It is fitting that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), who is such a tenacious campaigner on the issues that we have discussed today, secured this debate, along with the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt). I congratulate them and all Members who have spoken in this afternoon’s thought-provoking and impassioned debate. The perspectives that we have heard—from those who have worked in the NHS or the police, and from colleagues with a long-standing interest in this area—have been hugely beneficial.
We know that drugs, and the wider causes and effects, are a huge issue for our country. We know that the restless grip of drug abuse and substance addiction has a shattering and pervasive impact on people right across this country, in every community. It not only causes desperation for individuals and families alike, but affects the very fabric of our communities and wider society.
We know that the harms resulting from illegal drug use and the tragedy of drug-related deaths in this country have, I think it is right to say, been on a disturbing trajectory for some time. As has been mentioned, in 2019, there were nearly 4,500 drug-related deaths in England and Wales alone—the highest level since records began. That represents a shocking 52% increase over the last decade. The total cost to society of illegal drugs, including drug-related crime and social harm, is estimated to be £20 billion, and the UK has one of the highest drug-related death rates in Europe. It is clear, then, that we as a country are not where we would want to be, or indeed should be.
While this is admittedly a profoundly complex area, I am duty bound and obliged to say that the Government’s current strategy is failing badly. Whether on the key metrics of reducing harm to those vulnerable to drug addiction and those exploited in the drug trade, of providing adequate education and awareness of the associated dangers, or of backing our police with the tools needed to tackle the serious violence and crime that proliferates from drugs, the Government have fallen short. They failed to get a grip on the use, prevention and treatment of harmful class A narcotics, the use of which was on a downward trend between 2009 and 2013, but has since continued upwards.
Even the Minister’s own Department admitted that it was too slow to notice the rising levels of harmful substances such as crack cocaine back in 2014. The truth is that it has been playing catch-up since, because despite drug use and violence rising, we have had debilitating cuts, including underfunding of local government budgets and national services, and of course systemic police budget cuts. Frankly, that has eroded the foundations on which any credible comprehensive treatment or prevention strategy needs to thrive.
Our young people are being let down as well. We know that more of them are being groomed into violence that is fuelled by drugs—it was in a leaked research document that, again, the Minister’s own Department authored. Yet the Government have continued to gut young people’s services, with spending cut by 73%, 900 youth centres closing and 4,500 youth worker jobs being cut. How can the Minister justify that? The Government are nowhere near to matching the scale of the action needed.
Our focus has to be on protecting the public, and that means reducing harm—harm to users and harms to the community—and, similarly, tackling the insidious crime that underpins it. We recognise that a wide and comprehensive response is needed to reflect the diverse, complex arenas over which the issues surrounding drug use and supply intersect, but it means: effective prevention and early intervention measures; properly resourced education programmes; decent housing; as well as the tackling of potent social drivers of drugs abuse, such as poverty. It also means building and supporting substantive health services for vulnerable people based on dignity, respect and clinical need. We also need a strong and robust enforcement policy, and that has to be critical to the approach that we take.
We need to do more to disrupt and cut off the wider factors of drugs and serious and organised crime to prevent exploitation, grooming and criminalisation, especially with regard to young people and the scourge of county lines. The scale of that challenge is grave, and I do not underestimate it, to be fair to the Minister. There are approximately 600 county gangs operating in the UK. The Children’s Commissioner estimates that 27,000 young people in this country identify as gang members. That is an absolutely shocking and appalling figure. Murders where the victims are aged 16 to 24 are growing, and the figure has almost doubled in the past five years.
If we are serious about tackling this issue, we need to ensure that the police and their partners are given the tools they need to carry out their work and that they have the services required to support that. We know that deep cuts have inevitably affected the police’s priorities and overall operational capacity to tackle this issue, but despite that, the work that is being done has yielded impressive results. I pay tribute to the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty, and Lynne Owens, director general of the NCA. Their teams across the country have pursued a relentless campaign against these criminals, often putting themselves in harm’s way.
Just a few weeks ago, we saw a co-ordinated crackdown on county lines leading to more than 1,000 arrests, as well as the seizure of nearly 300 weapons and hundreds of kilograms of illicit substances from criminals. Some 80 drug-dealing lines vital to the operation of the network were identified. That is great work, and we need to boost those efforts and ensure that officers can be free to get on with their jobs effectively. The police are not the problem; the criminals are the problem, and I urge all colleagues right across the House to remember that in any of the discussions that we have.
This has been a constructive debate. It is right that we continue to monitor the drivers and effects of drug use on our country and consider evidence-based solutions. It is clear to me that we need a fuller, more holistic and comprehensive approach to what is a complex issue, but one that is also urgent, because of the effect it is having on our communities, as we have heard today. The challenge is great, and I will work where I can with the Government to support them in anything we can do to address it. Only then can we ensure that people are protected and that we reduce the devastating harm that comes from drug use and the trap of addiction.
I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for calling this important debate. Indeed, I am grateful to Members from all parts of the House for their commitment and passion in what has been, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) rightly pointed out, an interesting and thought-provoking debate.
There are obviously a wide range of views on the best way to tackle drugs and the harms they cause, and I remain open to listening to those views to ensure that our approach is both balanced and evidence-based. I recognise the importance of a balanced approach with tough enforcement against the right people in the right way, alongside treatment and recovery support for those dependent on drugs.
On the issue of drug controls, I think it is important that we come at it from the perspective of what keeps the public safe while enabling healthcare and legitimate business and research to flourish. Controls on harmful drugs continue to be adjusted in the light of new evidence and information, including, for example, the changes over recent years to allow specialist clinicians to prescribe, where appropriate, cannabis-based products for medicinal use.
Members should make no mistake: drug misuse has a profound and tragic consequence that is felt right across society, and that can occur even in the official and regulated sector, as we have seen sadly in the United States with the opioid crisis. It devastates lives, communities and neighbourhoods, with the most deprived areas facing the highest prevalence of drug-driven crime and health harms.
The Government recognise that this problem demands a whole system, cross-Government approach, and that is exactly what we are pursuing. The Home Office is working extremely closely with partners, including law enforcement, the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and others right across Government. Our activity in this area of policy is necessarily broad, but there are two key elements of the strategy that I would like to emphasise: first, the use of targeted enforcement to restrict supply; and, secondly, our focus on providing truly effective treatment and recovery services. This approach responds to the evolving threats and challenges that continue to emerge from drug misuse, including changing drugs markets, changing patterns of use, and an ageing and more complex group of people who need wide-ranging support to recover.
I do not have to commit, because that is exactly what we are already doing in five parts of the country. As the hon. Gentleman may know, I instituted a series of projects going by the acronym ADDER—addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery —in five areas of the country to build a new modus operandi on drugs, bringing police and crime commissioners and enforcement alongside health, local authority, housing and other therapeutic providers to see if we can shift the numbers in Blackpool, Hastings, Middlesbrough, Norwich and Swansea Bay.
If we are to refine and improve our response, we must have a comprehensive picture of what is happening on the ground. That is why part one of Dame Carol Black’s review on drugs—a number of Members mentioned it; its findings were published in February last year—was such a valuable and insightful contribution to our understanding of the problem. The report underlined the impact of the so-called county lines criminal business model, where illegal drugs are transported from urban areas to be sold in smaller towns and villages. That is one of the most disturbing and pernicious forms of criminality to emerge in our country in recent years, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned. We are making significant progress, which I will talk about shortly.
In July last year, the Department of Health and Social Care commissioned part two of Dame Carol Black’s review on drugs, focusing on prevention, treatment and recovery. It will build on Dame Carol’s work to ensure vulnerable people with substance misuse problems get the support they need to recover and turn their lives around. It will look at treatment in the community and in prison, and how treatment services work with wider services that enable a person with drug dependency to achieve and sustain recovery, including mental health, housing, employment and the criminal justice system.
In 2019, the Government appointed Dr Ed Day as the Government’s recovery champion to provide national leadership around key aspects of the drug recovery agenda and to advise the Government on where improvements can be made. His first annual report was published in January. When I have spoken to Dr Day he has talked passionately about the importance of recovery and the work he is doing with a huge number of fantastic advocates in the sector, including people with lived experience of drug misuse who are celebrating being in recovery. It is very motivating to hear their stories and the extent to which recovery can provide hope and help people to turn their lives around.
We also continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure drug misuse is tackled as a UK-wide problem. Following the UK drug summit, which I called in Glasgow in February last year, the Minister for public health and I jointly hosted a meeting in September, bringing together academic experts and Government Ministers from across the home nations of the UK to discuss topics such as drug-related deaths, treatment and recovery services, and the impact of the pandemic on illegal drug taking. The Government remain committed to tackling the harms caused by drug misuse on a cross-UK basis and I will, I am happy to confirm, be holding another such meeting in the autumn for all the home nations to discuss these matters further.
I am just coming on to what we are doing about harm reduction. As I said in my opening remarks, I think that should be at the forefront of our mind. Opinions may differ across the House on the balance between enforcement, and treatment and recovery, in the mix of dealing with this pernicious social problem. My view is that they have to be balanced. I am not sure that experiences around the world on decriminalisation, for example, necessarily give us quite the silver bullet that Members have suggested, but I will come on to that in a minute.
In January this year, we announced £148 million of new investment to cut crime and protect people from harms associated with illegal drugs: £80 million for drug treatment services, the biggest rise in funding for 15 years; £28 million for the ADDER projects across the UK that I have already outlined, building a new modus operandi for tackling drugs and creating a foundation from which I hope we will expand; and £40 million to tackle drug supply and county lines. As the hon. Member for St Helens North illustrated, we are surging our activity against those awful groups, focusing on them as businesses as much as groups of criminals, and we are seeing significant success.
Although some have expressed the opinion during the debate that enforcement does not work, I would point out that our new approach—the new tactics that we have agreed with the police—is resulting in significant results. In Norfolk, for example, 16 months ago there were over 100 county lines; that is now down to under 20. Bangor in north Wales was declared county lines free, along with Swale and Tonbridge. Kent has halved the number of county lines moving drugs into that part of the world. There is a lot that we have done: over 780 lines closed; 5,100 arrests; £2.9 million of cash seized; and, importantly, 1,200 vulnerable young people safeguarded. That funding demonstrates our commitment in this area and the effect that we can have when we focus.
If I may crave your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to deal with one or two particular issues that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and I have been in ongoing correspondence and conversation about the impact of the legislation on research and the business that may come from it, and he raised that during his speech. As he will know, there are clinical trials already under way into the use of the compound psilocybin, and I am hopeful that they will produce positive results. If they do—if there is a proven clinical and medical use—then obviously, as we have in the past, we will have to adapt to that as we go. I have commissioned the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look more widely at barriers placed in the way of clinical research in all sorts of areas of narcotic and other drugs, to ensure that we are getting the balance right to enable that legitimate form of research, and the health benefits that may come from it, to be pursued.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), in a very thoughtful speech, raised the issue of cannabis. There have been quite a lot of calls for legalisation of cannabis. I point him to the Canadian experience. As he rightly identified, rather than legalisation producing a reduction in the illegal sector or its elimination, that business, like any other, has adapted to competition, producing a stronger product more cheaply, provided more conveniently, and it still exists in Canada. Obviously, we will be monitoring closely Canada’s experience and those of other areas that have legalised. However, as was pointed out, in Amsterdam, where consumption has been liberal, shall we say, for some time, I am not convinced that criminal gangs are not still pursuing their trade.
We have had a strong showing from the various factions of Scottish nationalism this afternoon, which is no surprise given the truly appalling number of drugs deaths that Scotland has seen over the past few years. I am not a man moved to anger very often, but I found my blood boiling at being accused of intransigence, dereliction of duty and ignorance when I literally went to Scotland 18 months ago to beg the Scottish Government to do something about this issue and to spend more money on health. The whole point of my immediately starting to convene a four nations drugs summit when I came into this job was to focus on the real tragedy—the scandal, the emergency—that there was in Scotland.
I was amazed that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) had the gall to say that she imagines the number of people who might have been saved if the UK Government’s actions had been different, given the number that could have been saved if the SNP had not sat on its hands for 10 years while the numbers mounted. Only a looming election saw it step up to its responsibility. I ask it, please, to look to the log in its own eye before it looks to those in others’.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who has unique experience in and perspective on this as both a former police officer and a doctor, showed us the truth of this very complex situation, which is that there is no silver bullet. This is a complex area where Government have a duty to listen, to look at the evidence and to consider what can be done both on enforcement and on public health to make sure that we try to minimise, reduce or remove this most pernicious of social evils from the areas of our society that are benighted by it.
I thank the Minister for his response—I am pleased that he is open to listening on this issue—and my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), for their contributions, although I agree with the SNP spokesperson that it is regrettable that those three individuals, rather than health representatives, should be responding to a debate on drug policy.
We await the second report of the Carol Black review. The first report set out the very significant problems very well. However, the Government were very clear, in the remit she was given, that she is not able to look at legislative change, and I think that it is regrettable. I agree actually with the Minister that there is no silver bullet. This is a complex issue, and all I have been saying really, and all that most people have been saying, is: let us look at the evidence, let us review the Act and let us see if it is still fit for purpose. I personally do not think that is too much to ask.
This is the first time we have had a debate on drug policy in this Chamber since 2017, which is a shame because it is an issue in many—probably most—of our constituencies. As politicians, we really need to address this issue thoughtfully and with careful consideration to find the right way forward. I hope it is not another four years before we discuss this issue and look at the best way forward by looking at the evidence of how we reduce harm to our communities.
Finally, I thank all the speakers who have taken part in the debate today and, again, the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.