Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses: (Questions 120 - 133)



David Winnick

  120. Am I not right that the traffickers are about the last people to want any change in policy? Would that not be the position?
  (Keith Hellawell) Not necessarily at all. The traffickers in legal substances such as cigarettes are increasing their trade because of the difference in balances of taxation in different countries. There is a wholly legal subject which is very highly lucrative. I find on some of the borders in Eastern and Central Europe that people are bringing cigarettes now through those borders because there are fewer penalties than there are for drugs and the benefits are as great because of the differences in taxation.

  121. Are you telling us that traffickers in drugs would be perfectly satisfied if the whole thing became legalised? Are you really telling us that?
  (Keith Hellawell) Only if the whole thing became legalised, that everybody of whatever age, of whatever status could have access to any substance they chose to experiment with or use, do you take away the illegal market.

  122. Whatever the arguments for or against legalisation or decriminalisation, whatever words one wants to use for any change in the law, is it not a fact that drug trafficking is causing the maximum amount of criminal activity at the moment and it could be ended along the lines of decriminalisation or legalisation as the case may be?
  (Keith Hellawell) I would not say that. Drug trafficking is one product on the international criminal agenda. The activities we have not talked about at all in which we are involved beyond these shores are beginning to make an impact on the availability of drugs in this country. The greater involvement with our EU colleagues and applicant nations in relation to heroin is going to make a bigger impact.

Mr Cameron

  123. I agree with you, Chairman. Listening to this I was getting quite concerned that Ministers were never given any radical options. When you look back 40 years, 40 years ago there were a few hundred heroin addicts who had their heroin prescribed by a doctor. There are now 50,000-60,000 registered addicts creating an enormous amount of crime. It would be very disturbing if some radical options were not at least looked at. We are now getting into that and it would be interesting to see what you come back with. One point about impure heroin. For the benefit of the Committee could Mr Hellawell just remind people how many people died in Scotland from that impure heroin and roughly how that compares with the number of normal deaths from heroin overdoses in any given year?
  (Keith Hellawell) Someone can give you the figures.
  (Rosemary Jenkins) There were 59 deaths from the contaminated heroin, mainly in Scotland although there were a few in England. There are just over 3,000 drug related deaths but those connected purely with opiates are round about 1,500.

  124. So 1,500 in a normal year and 59 just in this one case in Scotland.
  (Rosemary Jenkins) Yes, that is right. That was recognised by everybody as a severe but isolated outbreak which was dealt with very rapidly.
  (Vic Hogg) May I take the opportunity to correct what may be a misunderstanding about what happened in 1970 with regard to diamorphine prescribing? It was actually 1968 when the regulations changed but there was no ban on diamorphine prescribing for heroin addicts. What happened was that the system was made subject to a licensing arrangement which is operated by the Home Office. The figure has remained fairly constant at around about 120 doctors who are licensed to prescribe diamorphine to addicts specifically. The licences are free, there is no quota. The arrangement simply needs the agreement of the local medical expert and a licence is given. That should not have had a dramatic impact on the ability where appropriate for heroin addicts to get diamorphine prescribed where that was considered to be medically appropriate.

Mr Watson

  125. Do you have evidence of registered heroin addicts on drug programmes being prescribed methadone and an increase in the sale of methadone for them then to go and buy heroin on the black market? Are there any facts and figures you can provide on that?
  (Keith Hellawell) I do not know facts and figures, but certainly we were concerned about the slippage through systems. Over the last three years with the aid of the pharmaceutical industry, the pharmacists and treatment agencies, we have very much tightened up through doctors with some new clinical guidelines we have given them on the amount they should prescribe, but normally they would prescribe it, and circumstances in which people are taking their daily dose actually in the chemist's shop. That has reduced the slippage into the open market.

Mrs Dean

  126. In written information you want to give us about decriminalisation I think it would be important to address the legalisation aspect because that is what some of it refers to.
  (Sue Killen) May I just say that my view would be that legalisation would result in increased usage and that is probably a view which is generally held. If it is legal, more people are likely to take it.

  127. That would perhaps need us to receive some analysis from you. Obviously there are arguments the other way and some of those things we have discussed today. Yes, there are arguments both ways that we can see.
  (Sue Killen) The way you reduce addictive behaviour is to get people into effective treatment and deal with the addiction that is there.

  128. Then there would not be the same marketplace out there. We would want some evidence of that. What does the Government plan to do to improve the evidence base on which drugs policy is grounded?
  (Sue Killen) We are constantly improving the evidence base. Pre-1998 one of the problems there was that we did not have a systematic research programme on drugs and we have had to build that up. It has looked in two areas really: more and more emphasis on what works, what is really effective so that we can put that into use; at the same time, developing trend data so that we can analyse what is effective and look at whether our policies are working or not. I have a list. Research priorities for the future. We are going to look at this as part of the stock-taking review, the spending review. So we shall look at research alongside everything else we are reviewing. The priorities they have listed are: to commission larger scale surveys so that we are able to detect smaller changes in drug use and improve our accuracy. On a lot of things we pick up that there is a change here but we do not really know what underpins it and we need to know far more about that so we need to build up the surveys we are doing. We need to develop the existing methodology for estimating the extent of drugs consumption in Britain. We need to understand what more is going on behind this. We need to look at those drug users not successfully engaged or retained by treatment, the ones we are failing with and support the National Treatment Agency in identifying ways of addressing this group. We need to identify what works with regard to local drug markets and regional drug markets. We have not really talked much today about the devastating effect on communities and the multi-faceted problems we have in trying to tackle those which drugs markets create, but we need to do more about that We also need to look with regard to drugs education in British schools; we talked about the blueprint programme but we need to build up on that. We need to gain a better understanding of initiation into drug use. We talked about the gateway effect and lots of other things. We need to understand far more why some people get addicted, why they get involved in drugs in the first place.


  129. Do you have any plans for research into what the effect of doing away with prohibition would be? Do you know of any such research? Obviously not.
  (Sue Killen) All I could say is that it is not in the list I have before me.

  130. Do you think this is an area we ought at least to be addressing somewhere along the line?
  (Sue Killen) I would say what I said earlier on which was that the emphasis of the work we are doing is on looking at trying to find out what works so we have an effective strategy which reduces the numbers of people who have abusive problems and it reduces the harm drugs cause. If the agenda there is set by Nick Davies and therefore work we shall be doing with Paul on guidance for heroin prescribing, on looking at how we can be more effective in treatment, if that is part of that then yes, we are definitely doing it.

  131. Do not get too hooked on Nick Davies. You and I both know that he is articulating arguments which are quite widely abroad and shared by a number of senior police officers to name but a few. I do not say whether they are right or wrong, but one of the purposes of this inquiry is to arrive at some conclusions about that and we need your help quite urgently.
  (Sue Killen) Absolutely. I would just emphasise one thing. Somebody said that we do not give radical options to Ministers. We might not be explaining our position particularly effectively, but that emphasis on trying to find out what works and looking at all the various options is absolutely crucial.

Mrs Dean

  132. I would agree that emphasis is right, but it is also important that you are able to address the alternatives. Even though many of us may think that they are perhaps not the right alternatives, those alternatives keep being put forward and you should be able to address them in some detail and therefore you need that evidence base to be able to do that.
  (Sue Killen) One of the problems you will have on an evidence base on decriminalisation and legalisation is that it will always be speculative. What we do not have is a control where we can point. I may be overdefending myself again but that is why I think we need to concentrate on what works and what will be really effective and share best practice on what does actually deliver results.
  (Keith Hellawell) There is a caveat on that. It is important that the Committee reads the conclusions of what happened in Alaska. We do have a control though it is only in relation to cannabis. One of the researchers described it as an unmitigated disaster. I would feel that you do need to have evidence. We do have an eight or nine-year period of legalisation of one drug and the consequences on health and other things are well researched.

  Chairman: These are good points. Our problem is that this time next week we have Mr Davies and a number of other people who share his views coming to see us. So we need some robust arguments to put to him. We should be most grateful for your assistance, in good time, that is to say by close of business on Thursday. It should be something you are almost able to do off the top of your heads because you know what all the arguments are. Take a few of the key assertions, quote them accurately and then rebut them, if that is what you want to do. Where something is uncertain, say it is uncertain and maybe more research is needed.

David Winnick

  133. It is a challenge. Who is going to have the high moral ground, you or those who want to change the law? It is quite a challenge, is it not?
  (Sue Killen) Our total interest is in making sure we know what works and listening to arguments from anybody in order to develop that. We will absolutely look at what more evidence we can give you and I would emphasise that it does not stop there. We are likely to get more stuff from York University which we can let you have. I would have hoped that we could have a reasonably open relationship with the Clerk to provide you with more information that you might need at various point.

  Chairman: Of course. At any time during the course of the inquiry. But between now and the close of business on Thursday—liaise with the Clerk for more details—a short paper rebutting the key arguments made by those who want legalisation or decriminalisation, whatever you wish to call it, would be most helpful. On that note, thank you all very much for coming. I am sorry to have put you through such an ordeal over the last two and a half hours. We look forward to seeing you again.

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