Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses: (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. But not the costs on victims of crime.
  (Sue Killen) No. It is that wider cost to society which will obviously be much larger that we are trying to get a handle on at the moment.

David Winnick

  81. I was dealing with the cost to the NHS and the figures are the ones I quoted which come from your own paper.
  (Rosemary Jenkins) Yes, that is right but we think they are probably under calculated because it was a small pilot and we shall be looking at what comes out of the major study and we shall be having a look at those figures once that study is completed.

  Chairman: I now want to turn to the core divide between all those who attempt to address the drugs problem and that is decriminalisation versus non-decriminalisation.

Mr Prosser

  82. The Chairman has made the point that we have reached the core essence of our terms of reference. We are a little surprised that in the Home Office's first memorandum there was no mention at all of decriminalisation. Was that by default, or was that by design or some other reason perhaps?
  (Sue Killen) What we focused on in the first memorandum we gave you was an overview of the drug strategy, what we were doing in it, things we were focusing on, amounts we were spending, how it seemed to be going. That is our main focus: to deliver a result on drugs. In the description of what the Committee were going to focus on one of the issues you were going to be looking at was an assessment of how the drugs strategy was going.

  83. Our focus is very clearly on decriminalisation as well as the areas of the investigation. We shall be using that term quite a lot in the future. Is there such a thing as a Home Office definition of decriminalisation? Some people refer to decriminalisation as just a general relaxation of the regime and others are quite specific and refer to it in terms of permitting the use of drugs although enforcing the ban on their supply. What is your view?
  (Sue Killen) It is a definition I was possibly fairly inadequately trying to give at the beginning when we were talking about cannabis. Decriminalisation is to retain prohibition on the drugs but to replace criminal sanctions with civil or administrative ones. If you go on to legalisation, you are moving it out of a regime of sanctions completely.

  84. What studies have the Home Office done to date on the possible effects of decriminalising drugs of all classes?

  (Sue Killen) Are we talking about decriminalisation of all drugs? Our focus has been on looking at what will make the drugs strategy more effective. At least in terms of my experience, if you are looking at class A drugs and the really harmful drugs, decriminalisation would only come into it tangentially rather than being a main focus of the work we do. Our starting point has been how to make what we are doing more effective, rather than the debate on the types of sanctions we put into it. Obviously we have looked at this slightly more in relation to cannabis and we debated that issue earlier on.

  85. So no study has been made at all of the effect of decriminalisation on the use and misuse of drugs and harmful effects of drugs.
  (Sue Killen) It really does depend how you define it, because we look at it in relation to other things. Our main emphasis has been on looking at what is most effective and our view is that getting people into treatment is the most effective way of reducing offending and drug use. Therefore a system which maximises our potential to do that is what we have been looking for.

  86. So the answer is no.
  (Sue Killen) The other issue we have looked at is the question of what is likely to make people use more drugs. The evidence which is there from the Police Foundation work and the youth lifestyle survey is that the way drugs are treated does actually influence the extent to which people might choose to take drugs. I do not know how you take that as an answer. I would say that we have looked at it tangentially in looking at other things and in looking at what works in other countries and what might work here. To my knowledge we have not sat down and done what you might call a major separate study on decriminalisation of all drugs including class A.
  (Vic Hogg) It is fair to say that successive governments have made clear that they regard drugs and the harm drugs cause as extremely serious and a priority in terms of ensuring proper control, hence the Misuse of Drugs Act and the fact that it has been with us since 1971. There is also the point that we are signed up to a number of UN conventions, including the 1988 convention, like many other countries in the world, which actually states that supply and production of defined drugs, which broadly speaking are the ones defined in the 1971 Act and subsequent regulations, should be a criminal offence. We have signed up to that. We have also signed up within the same convention to the proposition that possession should also be a criminal activity. There is a caveat in that convention that requires states to criminalise possession, subject to constitutional principles and basic concepts of individual legal systems, which enables a number of countries, Italy, Spain, Portugal not to criminalise possession of certain drugs because it does not fit with their particular legal systems. They have civil or administrative penalties which in fact can be quite harsh. In Italy, for example, under their civil regime, possession of certain drugs can lead to the confiscation of your driving licence or passport for up to four months.


  87. We appear to be in denial here, do we not? There is a huge debate raging in the outside world on whether decriminalisation is or is not a good thing. I appreciate that it is one which politicians are notoriously reluctant to address, but it does embrace lots of serious people, including chief constables, some of whom come down on one side some on the other. Although you have obviously given considerable thought to the drugs policy, you have not even addressed this, have you?
  (Sue Killen) Obviously the earlier answer I gave was interpreted in that way. I think it does. In focusing on what works you need to look at all the options. One of the things we do do is spend a lot of time consulting the field and talking to people out there who are actually dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. An issue which is raised with us would be classification in relation to cannabis, but decriminalisation in general and particularly of class A is not something which is routinely raised with us.

  88. It is being routinely raised with you now. Have you seen our terms of reference?
  (Sue Killen) I have seen your terms of reference.

  89. I should like to think they were the starting point for your evidence. Do you have them in front of you?
  (Sue Killen) I have such a mass of information but I am sure I have them here somewhere.

  90. Let me help you. Point one which we dealt with at some length: does existing drugs policy work? Your evidence certainly addresses that. Point two: what would be the effect of decriminalisation on (a) the availability of and demand for drugs (b) drug-related deaths and (c) crime? Does your evidence address that at all? It is there. It is number two on the list. There are only three points there.
  (Sue Killen) We did give you a brief further note which looked at decriminalisation just in general terms.

  91. Point three: is decriminalisation desirable and, if not, what are the practical alternatives? Do you think that is addressed?
  (Sue Killen) All I would say is that our emphasis has been on looking at what does actually work and decriminalisation is obviously an issue one looks at in relation to that. I can give you evidence based on the analytical work which has taken place in government which is obviously based on work which we have been asked to do in relation to policy development. That is what I am able to do.

  92. You do not think you ought even to address this debate going on in the outside world, if only in order to rebut the assertions being made.
  (Sue Killen) We have an open mind. We are constantly looking at what would be more effective in terms of delivering the drugs strategy.
  (Keith Hellawell) To address the question straight on, I know of no comprehensive study to look at the effects of decriminalisation of all drugs. I know of none in this country. That is my first, straight answer. The second point on the definition of decriminalisation, is that there is some definition in these papers. There is no internationally accepted definition of decriminalisation which makes it a very difficult area in which to operate when speaking to other countries. Perhaps people's perceptions of what has happened in some of our EU colleagues' countries on decriminalisation has been to bring their systems in line with our systems. This may well surprise you, but the constitutional position of the police service here allows discretion by every police officer. The constitutional position in most of the other European countries does not allow that discretion. It is either a criminal offence or an administrative offence.

  93. Many serious people who have had to come to grips with the drugs epidemic have come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly and it may well be that we shall prove they are wrong but they have reached the conclusion, that the best way forward is to collapse the criminal market that exists and the way to do that is to decriminalise. I do not say whether they are right or wrong. The purpose of having the inquiry is to try to belie that point but if nobody will even address it among the official witnesses, how are we going to proceed?
  (Keith Hellawell) There is just one thing. The work I did on behalf of government following the Police Foundation report did look seriously at the recommendations of the Police Foundation report and did look at the consequences in respect of cannabis of a full range from status quo through to what you are describing as decriminalisation of that drug. I have not seen the product of that work, but that work was going on with the Association of Chief Police Officers and all the interested agencies specifically in relation to cannabis.

  94. I think we are talking about a great deal more than cannabis.
  (Keith Hellawell) Forgive me, but I am talking in terms of answering your question that work has been looked at following the Police Foundation report in relation to cannabis.

  Chairman: I come back to the point I made earlier. I understand that politicians are traditionally very wary of this area but one of the advantages of select committees is that they can occasionally think the unthinkable, or at least address the unthinkable, hence points two and three out of three in our terms of reference. You may want to go away and consider whether in some written evidence the Home Office wants to address points two and three in our terms of reference in rather more detail than it has so far and perhaps take on a few of the arguments which are going on in the outside world—and we all know what they are—and rebut them if that is the appropriate way forward.

Mr Prosser

  95. It may need the recommendations of this Committee, whatever they may be, to press or encourage the Home Office to carry out that study. May I probe a little deeper? Before us we have five experts in the field of drug taking, drugs misuse, etcetera. If you have not conducted your own inquiry, you will certainly have recognised other documentation and inquiries made by other agencies, not all coming up with the same conclusions but a lot of them pressing for this whole issue, this movement towards deregulation or decriminalisation. I do not know, I am new to the Committee, but if you are allowed to give a personal view, with your background and expertise, would there be any comments coming from any of the witnesses on the possible merits of decriminalising any of the classes of drugs?
  (Vic Hogg) I should like to return to the position that successive governments have said that controlled drugs cause enormous harm, not only to the users but to the communities where drug misuse causes social nuisance. This is seen as a particularly serious problem. Against that background, we, certainly in my time, have not been asked to undertake any detailed study of the impact of decriminalisation. It is fair to say, other than small groups with a vested interest, nobody has said that drugs should be decriminalised. The last major piece of work was the Police Foundation report which did not argue for decriminalisation in any shape or form. We have to concentrate our efforts where there is clear evidence of what works. We have obviously looked at what has happened in other parts of the world; South Australia has been mentioned where they moved to civil penalties. The fact is that it has proved very difficult to recover the penalties; only 50 per cent or so of penalties are actually recovered, therefore that system falls into disrepute if people can ignore the particular sanctions. I mentioned earlier some statistics on the Dutch experience where there has been growth in the prevalence of cannabis smoking over the years since they changed their policy. This goes back some years to the 1970s. Alaska decriminalised but had quickly to change their position because what they found was that more and more youngsters were experimenting. That is the factual answer to the question you are asking. I am not aware of any evidence coming forward supporting the arguments of the people who have argued for decriminalisation.

  Mr Prosser: I am not advocating decriminalisation, but I just wanted to ask questions. Perhaps I shall stop there because without the background of a study, it is difficult to get a view.


  96. I am an amateur in this field as well. Did any of our witnesses read a series of forthright articles by Nick Davies in the Guardian?
  (Sue Killen) Yes, and I saw the programme.

  97. That would be an obvious starting place, would it not? If we were going to rebut assertions which you may regard as outrageous, that would be the obvious starting point.
  (Sue Killen) That is why I am saying that this comes back to the core of how to deal effectively with drugs. Issues which were being looked at there were how to deal effectively with people who have drugs problems and in the articles I read he was particularly looking at heroin. We believe that we do need to have effective policies in order to deal with people who are in that situation. That is why we have introduced arrest referral, drug treatment and testing orders and are rapidly expanding drug treatment services. The emphasis has to be on getting people into effective drug treatment. Another issue which Nick Davies raised which has also led to commentary is this idea that if people are committing crimes in order to feed their drug habit, because I would empathise that an awful lot of people who are drug users come into contact with the criminal justice system not because they are found in possession of drugs, but because they are arrested for acquisitive crime. Because of the very, very strong linkage between class A drugs and acquisitive crime, these people will still come into the criminal justice system. One of the things he looks at and people have commented on is the greater use of prescribed heroin. There can be arguments for saying, if people are going out there to engage with the criminal world in order to buy heroin, why not just give them heroin and then they will not do it? There is also almost an emphasis in these articles on the idea that methadone treatment was done for moral reasons rather than for reasons of effective treatment, as though we would not give people heroin and we were giving them methadone because we had an objection to giving them heroin. The thing I would emphasise there is that methadone treatment works; the reason people are being given methadone is because the national treatment outcome research and other research shows that it works. The other thing is that you have to understand how addiction works. Methadone stays in people's systems for much longer. It is therefore an effective way of getting chaotic responses, chaotic lives under control. If you are giving people heroin, you are still getting them into a system where their addictive behaviour remains. If you have a shot of heroin, you react to it immediately, then you go down again. You need more, so you need far more during the course of the day. If you are involved in addictive behaviour, if I were to give you prescribed heroin, you may well go out into the street and actually buy something else to top it up because you are addicted. The amount you are given as part of a prescription will not necessarily satisfy you. As the Home Secretary said last week, we want to look at whether or not we should be doing more in terms of making use of prescribed heroin and we have set up a consensus event in order to do that. If I had the opportunity to sit and debate these issues with Nick Davies, the points I would make would be the ones I have made. Methadone treatment works and it is not as straightforward as giving prescribed heroin to people because what you are dealing with here is addictive and chaotic behaviour.

  98. One of Mr Davies' arguments was that heroin itself is not particularly damaging but impure heroin, polluted by dealers is and that most of the deaths which arise come from adulterated heroin on sale on the black market. Is that true or not?
  (Sue Killen) My understanding of it is that the majority of deaths in relation to heroin result from overdose and injecting and sharing. That is a much bigger problem than anything to do with contamination. That is the reason why we are emphasising a harm minimisation strand. This is it. What can we do that works?
  (Rosemary Jenkins) There is a very common misconception that we do not have heroin prescribing in this country and this is rather highlighted by the fact that the Swiss have been doing trials on heroin prescribing. The fact is actually very different from that. We have had heroin prescribing for drug dependence in this country since the 1920s and by the 1960s it was quite widespreadly available for people who wanted treatment. The change which happened in the 1960s-1970s and the change to prescribing methadone was based on clinical decisions that in fact the research that came forward suggested that methadone was a much better drug to create stability and therefore enable people to get back to some sort of a normal existence, to be able to get a job again and to be able to sort the housing out. The switch to methadone programmes was based on the fact that it was seen and continues to be seen within the research as a much better drug for people to manage their dependence. There is still a small group of people for whom the range of treatments available have been tried and still they have had no success. At the moment in this country—and I stress it is based on the clinical decisions of the doctors who are looking after these patients—about 300 are receiving injectable heroin through the prescribed and therefore legal route to receive that heroin. The Swiss trials only made an assessment in Switzerland of the position which is currently adopted in this country. There are some differences in the way the heroin is given out, but it was only a look to see whether they should have heroin prescribing within their total range of treatments. Sue has said, and I agree with her, that 300 may be the right number. It may be that when we look at it more closely we did not make it available to anyone else because clinically methadone is a better drug for them. We do know that there is some geographical variability in the availability of injectable heroin, so what we plan to do in the new year is to bring together people who do prescribe it. They are the experts in knowing how they make that decision with their clients.

  99. Did we make a mistake in 1970 when we switched from prescription to a ban? Is that not what created the black market?
  (Rosemary Jenkins) We do not have a ban. I am not an expert.

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