Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. Mr Davies almost revealed the point I am trying to get at with one of his answers when he said the problem with cannabis legalisation is it is just not important, the important thing is heroin. I think that was the point you were making?
  (Mr Davies) Yes.

  221. I am not trying to put words into your mouth at all, but just trying to work out whether the right way for policy to go is what Blunkett has done, maybe plus a bit more, or whether you want to have this all-singing, all-dancing legalisation? Many constituents of ours will say, "I have tried so hard to keep my children off drugs, I have been telling them it is wrong, the Government said it was wrong because it was illegal, but you have now removed that sanction and I think my child is even more likely than before to take drugs." That is the worry of the public. I wonder whether you are addressing that enough.
  (Mr Kushlick) We are addressing it in terms of the series of concerns we have including crime, health, treatment opportunities, better expenditure, public order, all kinds of things. The Government is looking at one area—prevalence—and saying "We can keep a little bit of a lid on this and . . .. to everything else." They have ignored a whole series of other indicators that you lose again and again and again if you just focus on prevalence. The last significant move in drug policy was around HIV and AIDS in the mid-1980s when we brought in needle exchanges. A lot of resources were thrown towards educating gay men about safer sex practices and we had a lot of stuff thrown at us about that—people on TV putting condoms on carrots—and nobody was saying, "Is this not giving out the wrong message to young people? Is this saying homosexuality is okay? Is this going to turn all our children queer?" Nobody was saying that, they were saying, "What we need is pragmatic, harm-reduction policies to stop people getting sick and dying." Why the hell is that not being done in drugs policy?

  222. But with cannabis getting sick and ill is not the issue.
  (Mr Kushlick) Cannabis is pretty much a non-issue. We call it "yawnabis".

  223. That is my point.
  (Mr Kushlick) It is a non-issue and it is a distraction. The other thing about Mr Blunkett's move is that it is a sop to those people who are calling for change so he can say, "I'm doing it, look." The more important issues are what we do about global prohibition and the way that affects the whole planet but particularly with respect to heroin and cocaine.
  (Mr Davies) There is a problem with the constituents here, and that is what we are talking about. It seems to be (a) public opinion has been ahead of political opinion for some years, which is why Widdecombe ran into what she ran into and why Blunkett's announcement a week or so ago got a very, very easy-going reception but (b) public opinion still has some way to go before it grasps the truth. I refer to what I have written in the paper as being the truth. If you suddenly went, "Slap, bang, legalisation", they would not understand it, there would be all kinds of confusion and hostility, so you can do it only if you get right back down and explain, which does involve eating some humble pie on the Home Office's part because of the previous misinformation. The second thing is this, you are worried about the parents saying, "Suddenly you are sending a different signal to my child", insofar as any of these drugs are damaging—and cannabis is implicated in lung cancer, memory loss and anxiety attacks; cocaine is implicated in strokes—continue to send those signals. I think all of us should be deeply comforted by what is happened with alcohol and tobacco, that despite their free availability the consumption of both has been declining in this country and it shows you the power of information. In my lifetime the fact that smoking can cause cancer has got through to people, so I stopped smoking, masses of people have stopped smoking. Do not stop telling people about the dangers to the extent they are there. Do not pretend heroin is not addictive, keep saying that, so the signal is still there, and it can succeed where necessary in curbing demand, and we have the evidence of alcohol and tobacco to support that.

  224. I take what you say about cannabis but do you not accept with the hard drugs, particularly cocaine and heroin, you are asking this country to take a huge risk? Cocaine is widely available, widely used, but not in every part of the country, and by legalising something like cocaine the use is going to go up, more people are going to experiment, you are taking a big risk.
  (Mr Kushlick) But what about the risk we have taken in prohibiting it? 59 people died last year as a result of using contaminated heroin. It does not happen with alcohol.

  225. I particularly asked about cocaine. With heroin, many people argue, and we talked about this earlier, you can take heroin out of the criminal justice system, and prescribe it, but you will never get cocaine prescribed through doctors. You are asking us as a Select Committee that we should legalise it and make it freely available?
  (Mr Kushlick) Absolutely because it is your responsibility to do that. It is all of our responsibilities to look at those four other methods of distributing drugs and take those decisions. That is a hell of a responsibility but it is one we all should bear. At the moment we have abrogated responsibility and said, "Let's let the US run the international show through the UN, through the UNDCP." We have abrogated responsibility through prohibition and have let the criminal market place run it.

  226. In Holland, when the coffee shops were first produced for cannabis, use did go up a lot. I now understand cannabis use in Holland is below what it is in the UK. Could you make some forecast as to what do you think would happen to cocaine use if it was legalised?
  (Mr Kushlick) Let us take the worst case scenario and say it increases, but let us look at the benefits which accrue, and again it comes back to your indicators. If your main indicator is prevalence of use as opposed to prevalence of misuse, then, yes, prohibition may be keeping the lid on the thing to a certain extent, but the problems which accrue from doing that are so vast and so horrendous that it just completely contradicts any benefits and completely outweighs any of the benefits of reducing that prevalence. Let us say that use increases by two-fold, three-fold, four-fold, but if you are reducing the prison population by half, ending all of drug-related prostitution, reducing property crime by a half, ending the whole system of oppression which takes place through the police criminalising individuals who are otherwise law-abiding citizens, ending what goes on in Colombia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, the benefits are massive. So what you have to ask is, on cost benefit analysis what works best. One of the things we are calling for in Transform is an audit to actually look at that cost benefit analysis and look at expenditure, because we are throwing well over £10 billion at this project year in year out and what it does is create more crime, more prostitution, a catalogue of mishaps which increase year on year on year. That cannot look like good expenditure to the Treasury, and it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during the discussions between David Blunkett and Gordon Brown when he says, "What have you done with my money this year?" "Well, the prison population has gone up, drugs are more available, they are cheaper", and he is going to be going, "What the hell am I doing here spending my money, spending the taxpayers' money, on that kind of stuff", because it just does not add up at all.
  (Mr Davies) Cocaine is a really good example. Heroin is a benign drug, it does not damage your mind or body, cocaine is implicated in damage. What do we do with it? Number one, do not make it illegal, for all the reasons Danny has just been sketching, because it makes it more dangerous socially and physically. Think about paracetamol, think about aspirin, both of them implicated in physical damage—paracetamol in liver damage, really quite high, aspirin implicated in all sorts of stomach disorders—how do we handle them at the moment? We provide them through retail outlets, usually chemists, without prescription and we tell consumers, "If you take too much paracetamol, you can actually kill yourself", and nowadays I think they will not let you buy more than two packets at a time in case you are feeling suicidal, but it is there on the counter.

  227. Paracetamol is not addictive. People have serious mental addictions to cocaine.
  (Mr Davies) There are already models for how we can regulate and control the supply of consumer items which contain some risk. Alcohol is another example. The key thing is to bring it into the mainstream where we can see it and establish what the content of each thing sold is and give people correct information on the side of packs so they know what they are taking. The number of people who accidentally kill themselves accidentally through paracetamol—some people commit suicide—is absolutely tiny, ditto aspirin. Put cocaine under that sort of heading, whether it be a café or a chemist. In principle, we already do it, and it is so much safer and there is so much less crime than staying under prohibition.
  (Mr McNicholas) Can I put it on the record that the fact is most people do not want to take drugs. It is a minority pursuit but the amount of money we throw at it just blows the whole thing up so it has an enormous impact on the rest of society. If you were to legalise the drugs we are talking about overnight, Britain would not turn into a nation of drug users. Most people know what the facts are and simply do not want to take them. If you are of a personality who is likely to take drugs, or you do want to take drugs, you can get hold of them already, the supply is there, but most people choose not to simply because they do not like the idea of it.

Mr Watson

  228. You want a market similar to the market for alcohol, do you think Britain's policy towards alcohol is working?
  (Mr McNicholas) It is much better than US prohibition.
  (Mr Kushlick) What I have said is that there are four methods of distributing drugs, other than the criminal market place—over-the-counter, licensed retail, pharmacy sales and prescribing—so you have a choice of four. It is not just that everything goes over the counter. In terms of what we are ready for, we are all ready for a situation where we have some very powerful drugs which are prescribed, some very powerful drugs which are sold. Clearly our alcohol policy stinks as well—well we do not have one. Currently, according to the Home Office evidence and the Department of Health evidence last week, it is earmarked to be produced in 2004, which is, I have to say, pathetic, given alcohol has been a legal drug for so long and the health consequences involved with it are enormous. No, we do not have a good policy on alcohol, we have a lousy policy on tobacco and countless other substances, including prescribed drugs. We need to sort that out.

  229. Yes, but we have tobacco and alcohol in a regulated market and we still have a huge number of deaths, far more than heroin and any of the other underground drugs, and what we are trying to work out is would we have a similar explosion in abuse if we were to legalise drugs?
  (Mr Evans) Use or abuse?

  230. Use and abuse.
  (Mr Evans) The earlier questions were all about use.
  (Mr Davies) It is the wrong question. Do you make it safer or more dangerous by banning it? Alcohol is a terrific example, we know what happened when it was prohibited. That is the only choice we have, prohibition or legalisation. You can see what happened. It is not great what is happening, but it is better than the other. That is what we are inviting you to do with all these drugs, put them on to that better plateau. We will all be able to look back 20 years after we have done that and say, "But there was that problem there, there was that one there", in its core it will be a whole lot better than what we have now. They had this argument in the early 1920s about ending the US prohibition of alcohol, "Do we dare do this? What will happen?" They dared to do it and by and large they got it right. I know you can say there are things wrong with it.
  (Mr Evans) That only last for 13 years though, drugs have lasted for 80 years. The Americans had abolished prohibition by 1933 having introduced it in 1920, so it only lasted 13 years, but narcotics has lasted 80 years.
  (Mr Kushlick) The other issue is the way we market those drugs. It is incredible, you see footballers running around with Holstein on their shirts, and Marlborough still on Formula One, so the Government's policy is equivocal to say the least.

  231. What about Conor and his Mitsubishis though? You are not saying we can have a market where you can advertise Mitsubishi?
  (Mr McNicholas) No, but the point is that is effectively what is happening at the moment anyway. People are buying branded forms of ecstasy from dealers in a totally unregulated market. Ecstasy could not be more illegal in the system we have in this country, yet there are 2 million tablets being sold every weekend. I have spoken to young guys in Malaysia who have heard about their friends being executed the previous week for possession of ecstasy, and they are out the next weekend in the nightclubs and they are still taking it, because it does not matter how illegal you make it, the demand is still there. What you want to do is take that out of the hands of the mafia and the illegal dealers, so at least you know what has been supplied is safe, and you provide enough core education so you build a relationship of trust especially in schools between children and teachers, so the children start to trust the drug information they get. At the moment, you have teachers telling them, "Drugs are really, really bad for you and will really screw you up", but young children see their older siblings and quite often their parents going out at weekends, having fun and they think, "These teachers don't know anything."


  232. One would not have to travel that far to find people screwed up on drugs though, would one?
  (Mr McNicholas) They would probably have to go an awful lot further. Look at the number of adverse effects where ecstasy has been implicated versus the number of ecstasy-taking incidents over the year—bearing in mind we are talking about 2 million people taking ecstasy every weekend. Quite frankly, in the current situation it is a miracle more people do not die.
  (Mr Buffry) I would like to point out one of the main differences with cannabis is that it is a plant which can be grown at home, and it does not require any chemical processes to be applied to it or any purification to be applied to it. It is simply a matter of basically putting the seed in the soil, giving it sunshine and earth, and extracting the benefits from it when it produces the buds. Most people who use cannabis do it not simply because they get fun out of it but because they say they get benefit out of it. The number of people, for instance, in the Home Office figures who have suffered mental problems from cannabis is 566 out of an estimated 4½ million users (again government figures) so that is something like 1:9,000 people, so it is not very damaging at all. I have seen a chart produced by the American Medical Association comparing the toxicity and the addictiveness of drugs and according to them the most toxic and addictive drugs are heroin, closely followed by tobacco. About half way down the list is cocaine, closely followed by alcohol. A little bit further down the list is amphetamines, closely followed by coffee and caffeine drinks, and right down the bottom is LSD, ecstasy and almost zero on both is cannabis.

  233. Where do those figures come from?
  (Mr Buffry) From the American Medical Association Journal.

  234. Can you supply us with that?
  (Mr Buffry) I do not have it with me at the moment.

  235. Would you send it into the clerks please?
  (Mr Buffry) Yes.

  236. Thank you.
  (Mr Buffry) Secondly, on the availability of drugs, if all drugs were legal, accurate information would be provided, and I believe there are certain people who take drugs and certain people who will never take drugs. At the moment we say that 9 per cent of the adult population take cannabis, about 25 per cent of young people, the rest of them probably drink alcohol. In my experience a lot of people who have previously drunk alcohol to the point where they have had problems with it and then taken cannabis have actually drunk a lot less alcohol, and it is quite possible if more people used cannabis in preference to other substances including pharmaceutically-prescribed tranquillisers, the health of the population and the mood of the population would increase. It should not be necessarily regarded that all substances when taken are taken as an abuse. Cannabis specifically is used by many people as a self-medication and also by people in a religious sense, from Rastafarians, Buddhists and all sorts of religious groups who are presently prohibited by law from practising their religion. This comes back to Article 8 of the European Convention. The object of government to protect people and the criteria that is put on government on interfering with what people do in their private lives are clearly written in Article 8. In order to interfere there has to be justification because the practice is interfering with public health, public order and so on.

  Chairman: Thank you, we have the message.

Bridget Prentice

  237. This is all very interesting. Given the fact that the vast majority of people, including young people, do not take drugs, given that Mr Davies tells us heroin is not harmful apart from depressing the respiratory system—which presumably means you might die at the end of it, but that might not be harmful although it might be quite sad—why are we bothering? Why are we putting all this effort and billions of pounds into drug policy?
  (Mr McNicholas) It is a very, very good question, and it is something which should be thrown back at the authorities. You look at us sat here, we were described as individuals with vested interests, but that is because our interest comes from a perspective of the social harm not just because we think drugs are cool. The vested interests we are facing in our arguments are enormous. There is a massive international prohibition industry, it is a multinational corporation. It operates in the US, it operates over here. There are thousands of people who owe their jobs to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. As soon as we start breaking that down and start really looking at it and saying, "Hang on, why are these laws in place? Are we trying to reduce harm in society or are we trying to reduce prevalence, et cetera, et cetera", suddenly the whole house of cards starts to break down. It is a very good question. It is an awful lot of money which could be used much better elsewhere, plus you can actually flip the whole thing round and start drawing a social benefit in terms of taxation on these things which are currently in the hands of the mafia.

  238. I do not want anybody else to answer, that is a perfectly detailed response. Let us talk about taxation, and someone talked about the conversation between Gordon Brown and David Blunkett. If drugs were to be legalised and taxed, would the dealers or the illegal drug dealers not then still try to undercut the legal market with cheaper drugs? What would be the dangers in that?
  (Mr Kushlick) They currently do. That is the situation with alcohol and tobacco. If you get the price wrong, of course people will step in to undercut it. There are two issues here. The first one is, even illegally-smuggled alcohol and tobacco is legally produced, so it has a list of ingredients, it has the purity on it, in the case of cigarettes it will often have a health warning on it, and that is significantly different from what goes on in the illicit drugs market because there is none of that there. The other thing is, yes, all markets are price-sensitive, and if you get the price too high it will be undercut. The situation at the moment is that it is not us who determine the price, it is the market place and completely unregulated people all the way through the chain. The opportunities that legalisation provides to operate fiscally within that system are huge. At the moment there is none, absolutely none, so the price is just determined by anyone other than government. If government wants a say in it, it had better take the trade back.
  (Mr Davies) Certainly where you are prescribing a drug in order to shift consumers away from the black market and into legitimate supply, it would be a terrible mistake to tax it or to put any other form of financial or administrative barrier between the consumer and the drug.

  239. Do you actually think that any Government, even if it were going down the route of legalisation, would not want to tax it?
  (Mr Davies) You must stop them. You are right in your question. If you said, "The GPs can supply heroin, it is pure, the needles are clean, the dose is supervised, but it will cost you", you will still have the black market running. You must not create barriers around it.
  (Mr Evans) It depends on the level. I was wondering if I could go back to your first question, why are we doing this? I have a simple answer, the old prohibition system preceded our understanding of human rights, it preceded the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights, and I say that the system is an improper interference by Government into personal freedom. I think it is entirely misconceived. I think we have to intervene for medical, therapeutic, social, rehabilitation reasons, all sorts of reasons, but the intervention which was instigated by a very strange political deal in 1919-1920 is fundamentally misconceived. This whole, heavyweight establishment has been built up on this. Americans got out of it with alcohol in 1933 but the rest of the world has remained trapped in this drugs establishment ever since. There is no reasonable or logical foundation for it. Yours is the best question we have had this morning.

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