Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 640 - 659)



  640. In terms of that adjustment which you are advising, should we strip away the education programmes? You say in your evidence that it has very little impact on prevalence at all. Should we do away with that altogether?
  (Mr Trace) The other side of it is that they are pretty cheap. If you compare education programmes with investment in treatment or investment in supply-side measures then they do not take a lion's share of the resources. There are real operational dilemmas here. I also say in the evidence that it is very important for me to reiterate that while good education on drugs is not likely to contribute significantly to your reduction in prevalence it is still a good thing for a Government to be doing. What we are trying to do in our schools with more personal, social and health education is absolutely excellent. Telling young people about drugs, the risks and how to avoid health damage from drugs is a good thing. All I am saying is do not spend on it to reduce prevalence, because it will not achieve it for you, but spend on it for other reasons, absolutely.

Mrs Dean

  641. On the issue about young people and whether the education will reduce prevalence, is it not too early to say? Obviously the education of a child should go on for a long time and we have only had three years of it. We are talking now of a youth of 14 who could only have started on any change in the way that we develop that education two or three years ago at the age of eleven.
  (Mr Trace) Yes, it is a very important point and I should like that as a caveat on my comments. All my comments are my interpretation of what has happened over the last four to five years. It is very true to say that we shall not have an absolute conclusion from the amount of work we have done over the last three years and its impact on long-term prevalence for five to ten years. It would be wrong for anybody to draw an absolute conclusion from the figures in front of us at the moment. All I am saying is that as a professional and someone who has advised on policy, that is an area where I am pessimistic.


  642. Going back for a moment to drugs education, you said that it does not actually make much difference as far as prevalence is concerned. Is there a danger that it spreads knowledge to kids who would not otherwise come into contact with the world of drugs?
  (Mr Trace) There is the danger of that. I have not seen any studies which have indicated that happens to any great extent. There is the argument and I think this is the argument you are putting forward, that some young people are in blissful ignorance about drugs as they go through their early teenage years and then they go to the drug education session and everybody starts talking about drugs and they carry on talking about them in the playground and that raises some curiosity amongst some people where the curiosity was not there before. It is clear that process can happen. What I would say to you is that I have seen no studies which indicate that happens to any measurable degree.

  643. Is there a danger that the message young people get is ambiguous, that it is really something which is quite normal when you are young, despite the fact that even now it remains a minority activity?
  (Mr Trace) This is a real dilemma for the providers of drug education and health education to young people. If they get the balance wrong towards the condemnation of the action, then there is very good evidence to say that the messages are entirely ignored. This is the argument about zero tolerance education policies. If you go into schools, and this is pretty well established now by research, and you say to kids that the main message is that they must never use drugs and never touch them and anybody who uses them will come to harm, then the kids will not respect the messages because the experiences in the playground and in their daily lives are contradictory to that. If you go too far the other way and say "Hey kids, drugs are great", then obviously you can be accused of—

  644. You do not need to go that far. You just have to imply that it is normal.
  (Mr Trace) Fair enough. If you do lose the balance towards your education saying there is nothing abnormal in using drugs, nothing risky in using drugs or it will be approved of by peers and authority, then you run the risk, absolutely, of creating drug users where there were no drug users before. All I would point to again is the surveys and when you ask kids about their choices, whether they use drugs or not, that does not figure highly. You do not hear a lot of people saying the drug education said it was all right so I used. Those are not the main processes going on, but it certainly is a risk. It is the dilemma of all designers of drug education programmes to achieve that balance. In this country it is done pretty well, despite the fact that as soon as you fall off that particular tightrope the Daily Mail will run a front page piece on it. It is very difficult for practitioners to work in that climate.

  Chairman: Let us move to the kind of changes you would like to see made.

Mr Cameron

  645. Judging from what you have said, you want to add two new goals rather than remove any of the existing four. Is that right?
  (Mr Trace) We would have a better balance with those six indicators across the top.

  646. In terms of reduction in young people's use and reducing the availability of drugs, you think the actual targets are not going to be met.
  (Mr Trace) The decisions about whether to change the target figures are for the Government now; that will not be for me.

  647. If you were in charge would you change them?
  (Mr Trace) If I were in charge I should be very worried. I should be sure we were not going to meet them. Whether you respond to that by changing them and reinforcing your efforts is a policy decision.

  648. Is it not a bit of a fudge to add two targets and not take any away?
  (Mr Trace) It is all about balance of resources and balance of concentration of state effort. The fact that I think two targets have been underplayed, the public health target and the social exclusion target, does not mean that work is not going on at all on those. There are some very good harm reduction pieces of work in the UK at the moment and it is actually one area where we are very successful. We do lead Europe on that one.

  649. Are there not going to be conflicts at times if you are going to target harm and you are also targeting use? Are there not going to be moments when those two targets are going to come into conflict? To give you one example, if the way of reducing harm amongst heroin uses is to give out heroin on prescription via doctors so they have a clean supply, you may find that use will go up because it is going to be easier to get hold of heroin. You are tackling the problem of harm but use is going up. Your strategy becomes rather woolly and meaningless.
  (Mr Trace) It is an absolutely valid point. Generally it is conceptually accurate to have all those six targets across and there are prevalence targets, there are supply side targets, there are harm targets. That is the right way to run the drug strategy. There will be times when these come into collision, not just between prevalence and harm but also between supply and treatment targets or crime targets and health targets. There are always rubbing points where if we did X then one would go up, the other would go down, if we did Y, the other way round. My general advice is that when there is that dilemma between prevalence and harm, the more important thing to achieve is to reduce the harm.

  650. So you would rank the targets. If we had all six equal targets and they are in conflict then your strategy becomes meaningless. You would rank them and you would put harm at the top.
  (Mr Trace) Managerially in policy you would have to have some way of resolving conflicts in targets and yes, I would put harm at the top.

  651. Recreational use. One of the things you say in the memorandum is "... the inexorable move towards greater freedom of choice and purchasing power means that it is inevitable that we will need to become accustomed to high prevalence levels, concentrating instead on minimising the harmful consequences". Do you think there is a danger that you have thrown in the towel a bit on use?
  (Mr Trace) Yes. All I state is as somebody who has been in the field for a long time and in policy for a time saying that broadly I think these are the sorts of strategic decisions we have to make now. Yes. You mentioned presenting this to the public, if you say we accept in the UK that there is going to be a level of prevalence with us of illegal drug use, and remember it is all illegal drug use, if we are going to accept that and concentrate on the harm—then what effectively you are doing, there is no way around it, is saying that the attempts we have made over the last 40 years to reduce prevalence have not worked and we are going to put less effort into them. There is no point in dressing that up as anything else.

  652. Why not be more frank about it and have harm as your number one target and maybe even drop use as a target? Surely some of the things you are going to want to do to reduce harm, educate people about ecstasy or, as they do in Holland, test pills in clubs, might increase use but would reduce harm.
  (Mr Trace) I do not think I can be any franker than my last answer. We should concentrate on harm and we should accept that prevalence in this country is going to remain at a level. It may come down five or ten per cent, it may go up five or ten per cent but that is not the main issue. I do not see that there is a fundamental reason not to have both targets in our strategy but yes, you have to be honest in the strategy and say the most important thing for us and where there are rubbing points such as the ones you have raised, the most important thing is to reduce harm.

  653. Thank you, you have been very frank. I just want to understand reducing drug-related social exclusion, your sixth target. How do you measure that?
  (Mr Trace) I do not know, is another frank answer. The real problem with this is that we said in 1998 that the link between drug policy and social exclusion policy—we were working very closely with the Social Exclusion Unit at the time—is a key factor in this whole debate. We searched at that time for some way of conceptualising that, saying how could we measure the extent to which we have improved the situation vis-a"-vis social exclusion, but it is so multi-faceted. It is about young people's development, it is bedded into the other New Deal agenda, it is bedding into the housing agenda, the regeneration agenda of poor areas. We know there are links all there and if you look at some of the social exclusion in the regeneration papers which have been produced by the Government through the last term, they all have drugs as a headline, they all say we really need to impact on the drugs market in poor communities, we really need to impact on the level of drug use amongst young people, if we are going to achieve social exclusion targets, but we have failed to find a meaningful indicator to show the way to count it, with a set of actions behind that. I am a little disappointed at our inability to join this agenda up, because basically if you look at the young people's agenda, we want young people to develop and have successful education, successful careers, one of the barriers to that is young people's drug use. It is very closely linked to young people's disaffection, young people's poor upbringing, young people's lack of attainment at schools. There is a lot of money in all sorts of government programmes going in to try to invest in these young people at risk, but I do not think we have achieved the impact on young people as we would have liked to. I think that is a problem and I am afraid I do not have a single indicator I could come along with and say if we counted it that way and put our resources behind that, that would work.

  654. You are very clear that with one of your new indicators, harm, you can have deaths, overdoses, really precise numbers, but with this last one you cannot.
  (Mr Trace) It is a real dilemma, but it has a very substantial impact on the quality of life in this country. One of the things I am really disappointed we have not done much research into, and I have tried to get some off the ground, is the impact that the existence of low level drug markets has on the decisions of young people to stay in school. In areas where I live in London and areas I know from my home town of Bristol, large numbers, very significant numbers, of teenagers would rather be a drug dealer than successful at school and college. That is very serious, not for a drug policy but very serious for our general social policy. I am not sure how to counter it, not sure how to respond to it, but I do not think we are paying it enough attention.

  Chairman: Can we turn to the effects of decriminalisation?

Bob Russell

  655. In your written evidence, the summary points, you made reference to the need to concentrate on reducing the consequential harms and you spelled out reducing health damage and crime, reducing drug related deaths and social exclusion. Your final summary says, "The way in which we police recreational use (i.e. cannabis) has very little impact on these harms, so investment in . . . these activities should be minimised". Are you therefore suggesting that some drug use should be decriminalised?
  (Mr Trace) It does not necessarily follow. I shall give you my line of argument and see whether that does lead us to that conclusion, but I do not think it does. The first thing I would say is that the main way into this issue should be about this issue of prioritisation of resources. Once again it was very little heralded but the 1998 document signed by 19 Cabinet members said that the concentration of drug policy would be on the drugs which caused the greatest harm. That is a very important statement and it was made three and a half years ago. We have applied that principle to most areas of the drug policy. Our education policies, our treatment policies, our enforcement policies internationally concentrate very heavily on heroin and cocaine and have done that very effectively. The area where we have not quite applied that principle is in street policing in the UK. There has been a slow trend moving away from arrests for cannabis towards heroin and cocaine arrests, but by and large of the 100,000 arrests we make under the drug laws in this country over 80,000 still are for cannabis. We get the figures a year late, so the figures we have available are for year 2000. Generally the figure for cannabis arrests has been coming down, but that has been marginal, slowly coming down. What we wanted police services to do, and you can understand this is very politically sensitive, was to give less and less priority to arresting very large numbers of cannabis users and concentrate on what they could do to disrupt availability of heroin and cocaine in their areas. I would say this is the one area where we have not faithfully implemented the principle we laid out in 1998 which is to concentrate on the drugs which cause the greatest harm. Clearly it is very strongly a national government dilemma because with the independence of police forces in this country and with the very close concentration of the press and others on this issue, what I would see as largely an operational and resource decision, about re-prioritising our arrest policy, became a very hot political potato. As an adviser, I would just say that the direction I want us to move in is moving resources away from low-level cannabis arrests and into other areas of the strategy and that has not happened all that much. That means I very much welcome Mr Blunkett's statements on the issue because that is the right sort of managerial approach to take to it, to say we want our police services to be amending their priorities somewhat on this.

  656. Is that the first step by the Home Secretary?
  (Mr Trace) I have no idea. It is the sensible step for this point in history. If I were advising now, what I would be saying is that step should be implemented and evaluated very closely. Another thing we do not know about is that it may be that if we move cannabis to class C and make it a non-arrestable offence, there will be significant increases in cannabis use in inner cities, or anywhere for that matter and that may bring more harms. We cannot categorically say that is not the case. I do not expect it to be the case, but we do need to take a step such as this, which is a very reasonable step, and evaluate it closely before we decide what the impacts are.

  657. In your written evidence you say that hitherto rhetoric rather than reason has guided policy. You also mention the fact that hundreds of children are still excluded from school annually for drug possession, thousands receive a criminal record for the same offence. You just told us that 80,000 cannabis arrests are made every year or thereabouts. If cannabis were decriminalised, would that not mean that the one effect of such a move would be that the police and everybody else involved in the drugs scene would be able to concentrate their resources on the area which causes you most concern, namely the health and the criminal activity which goes with feeding the drug habit?
  (Mr Trace) Broadly that is the argument I would be making. A few caveats on that. Decriminalisation is not the only way to achieve that. Basically just a change in policing priorities can achieve that. You do not need to change the law, you do not need to make any national government position. Two other caveats in the school setting, about school exclusions, a number of those hundreds of exclusions will be justifiable on other grounds. Similarly for the arrests, a number of the 80,000 arrests will be consequential arrests. Somebody is arrested for a burglary and they are also possessing cannabis, cannabis is tacked on as an extra charge. Amazingly, last year, when we tried to find out how many of those 80,000 arrests were actually just on the back of another arrest, we do not keep the figures. There is a very interesting research study going on now, and in fact if I were not here I would be receiving the report on it at the steering group, which is looking into those issues and will give us a figure on last year's arrests, how many of them were cannabis tacked onto another arrest. It may be for example and this is not the figure because I have not seen it yet, that if 70,000 of those cannabis arrests are just tacked on the back of a burglary arrest or a violence arrest then the gain you can get by not arresting cannabis users is relatively small because very few of them are stand-alone arrests. If it is the other way round, if it is 70,000 of them are cannabis arrests only, then you are talking hundreds of millions of pounds saved. That is a crucial figure in my view.

  658. I shall just gently proceed a bit more on whether some drug use should be decriminalised. It is only six months since you ceased being the Deputy UK Anti-Drugs-Co-ordinator so we want a reasoned policy rather than rhetoric. Would you be advising the Home Secretary now about any drugs which should be decriminalised? How would you advise this softly, softly approach? In one sense you are saying that it should still remain a criminal offence, but do not enforce it.
  (Mr Trace) Yes. I would advise him to do what he did in July/August, whenever he made the statement. That is absolutely the right thing to do at this stage because while there are remaining discrepancies in what we would be doing under the law, it would be a mistake to go gung-ho and say cannabis is off the agenda, let us leave it to the market or leave it to some other structure. You should not rush into any of this and what he has done is absolutely the right step for now. I was at a conference last week in my capacity as Chair of the Monitoring Centre where all the European countries got together to analyse these discrepancies in their cannabis policies. We all have discrepancies. Half of the European countries have very tough laws, but do not enforce them. The other half of European countries have decriminalised and then have all the paradoxes which come along with that. It is a very complex matter when you get down to the detail of whether to decriminalise, whether to liberalise but keep criminal, whether to go through civil sanctions. None of the system is working very smoothly. We all live with a little bit of paradox in our cannabis policy. There is a very good process now where the political authorities across Europe are openly searching for the resolutions to those paradoxes, whereas a couple of years ago, what I characterised as rhetoric, we would all turn up to the European Union and we would all put our Justice Ministers up to say we would win the battle against drugs and we would win it before they did and we would have zero prevalence by the end of next year and so on. I am very pleased to see that we are now talking about the detailed managerial problems of prioritising these issues. I do think it would be a mistake to rush to radical legislative change too quickly on this.

  659. You said "the right step for now". When do you anticipate the next step will be taken if we are not going to rush?
  (Mr Trace) The timetable the Home Secretary has outlined assumes we implement late spring next year the fact that cannabis becomes a non-arrestable offence, class C. I would say spend 18 months reviewing the impact of that and then make your decisions. Have open and public debate then about whether it has made life better in the UK or worse.

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