Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform (DP131)

1. Summary and Recommendations

1.1 The All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform (APPGDPR) is pleased to make a submission of evidence to the Home Affairs Committee Inquiry on the UK Drug Strategy. The APPGDPR was formed at the beginning of this year in response to widespread criticism of current “war on drugs” policies at both national and international levels and to promote evidence based, health focussed approaches to the formation and implementation of drug policy. The size and range of our membership is in itself an indicator that there is increasing cross party interest and support for new approaches to drug policy.

1.2 We have focussed on a limited number of key areas in respect of the UK drug strategy.

1.3 Although the current Drug Strategy builds on considerable achievements in the fields of treatment and harm reduction we still have a drug policy which gives those caught for possessing drugs the stigma of a criminal conviction which diminishes job opportunities introduces restrictions in travel and so on. In 2009, 35,227 sentences were handed down for drug possession offences.1 A new approach is needed. In order to assist the development of alternatives we make the following recommendations:

1.3.1We urge the Home Affairs Select Committee to recommend that The Government undertake a feasibility study into alternative forms of regulation for new legal highs.

1.3.2We believe the evaluation framework for the Drug Strategy should be made public as a matter of urgency. It should represent a policy evaluation rather than a programme evaluation following examples from other countries which assess the broad social benefits of drug policy and compare different forms of regulation. The evaluation framework will need to draw also upon the expertise of bodies like the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and relevant Government Departments (including Health and Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the criteria for the evaluation should be based on recognised indices of harm.

1.3.3To emphasise the need for health as the primary focus, we urge the Home Affairs Select Committee to recommend the transfer of the lead for Drug Policy from the Home Office to the Department for Health.

1.3.4It would be desirable for UK Drug Policy to reflect UK policy on human rights in respect of its drug related aid to other countries. It is suggested that decisions on such aid programmes need to follow the guidelines prepared by Harm Reduction International.

2. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform

2.1 The All-Party Parliamentary Group was set up early in 2011 to examine and promote evidence based and health focussed approaches to national and international drug policy. It is a broad group of just under 70 members drawn from all parties and includes members with long experience at a senior level in professions including: the Police, Security, Health, Criminal Justice, Social Services, Law, Education, Pharmaceuticals, Government and Finance. In the last year it has undertaken a considerable body of work. This includes:

2.1.1The organisation (with Release and others) of a major international event on drug policy reform which included the participation of 14 Countries and the UK launch of the report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The following themes were addressed:

2.1.1.1country studies in the liberalisation of drug policy;

2.1.1.2the experience and a cost-benefit analysis of the reform of cannabis policy;

2.1.1.3regulated heroin supply; and

2.1.1.4the potential for reform of the UN conventions on drugs.

2.1.2We are in the process of organising an Inquiry into The challenge of legal highs and the potential role of regulation in reducing the harms that they may cause. This work as so far led to tabled amendments to the then Policing and Social Responsibility Bill with respect to its proposals for “temporary banning orders”.

2.1.3In conjunction with the UK Drug Policy Commission, the APPG organised a seminar on the question of governance in drug policy and how this can be made effective when so much of drug policy is contested and politicised.

2.2 We will draw upon this experience to address the questions asked by the Home Affairs Committee. We are not as well placed as others, at this stage, to address in detail some of the particulars of the UK drug policy landscape being examined by this Inquiry such as the location of the National Treatment Agency. The word maximum set by the inquiry does not allow for a lengthy consideration of all the questions but the key areas where we would like to comment are set out below.

3. Key Questions to be Considered

3.1 The availability of “legal highs” and the challenges associated with adapting the legal framework to deal with new substances

3.1.1 So called “legal highs” represent a serious new challenge for drug control. The number and speed at which new and potentially harmful products are appearing on the market represents a challenge to the current system of prohibition with cuts in policing and the criminal justice system in crisis.2

3.1.2 In the first place will the proposed temporary drug control orders meet the challenge? The underlying assumption behind the legislation is to get new psychoactive substances identified and classified within the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) quickly so that suppliers and dealers can be prosecuted within those powers. There is a process of taking advice from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) on the potential harms of new products which is too short for a reliable assessment of a new product to be made and a further assessment after the years temporary ban will still not guarantee a comprehensive and robust assessment of potential harms.

3.1.3 What is the ACMD assessment for? If it is to underpin decisions on temporary and permanent bans under what circumstances will a new psychoactive substance that is not alcohol not receive a ban? The ACMD may well find that the available evidence on a particular substance suggests that potential harms are low but when they will rarely, if ever, have all the evidence they need, they will inevitably make risk averse reports, supporting control at both the temporary ban and year review stages. Also, scientific indices of drug harms which consistently place cannabis below alcohol (for example) in terms of harm generated have not led to decisions consistent with that evidence on control and classification.

3.1.4 If an allied goal of the ACMD work is to gather evidence on a new substance to inform awareness, education and prevention work then it faces the problem that deployment of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) is an efficient means of driving drug markets underground and beyond the easy reach of scientific assessment.

3.1.5 There is a risk that the valuable time of the ACMD will be spent on costly but futile exercises which will be used by successive governments to justify their decisions.

3.1.6 The social consequences of such a system will be costly to the taxpayer and to communities as well as to vulnerable individuals (albeit it, that possession of a banned substance will not be an offence under temporary “banning orders”.

3.1.7 Our starting point should be to find the most effective ways to discourage substance misuse, and to protect from harm those who are going to use such substances. There is interest in Europe3 in using different forms of regulation with respect to new “legal highs” and the New Zealand Law Commission4 has produced a detailed proposal as to how they could be put into practice within the New Zealand legal framework.

3.1.8 In the UK there is a complex and well established network of regulation applied to alcohol, tobacco, foodstuffs and medicines at all stages of production and supply, designed to protect consumers and maintain product standards . We think that these instruments have the potential to be adapted to regulate effectively new “legal highs” coming onto the market and have begun our own inquiry into the practicalities of such a system. We have carried out an initial scoping study5 which is briefly summarised below.

3.1.9 Although there are many regulatory instruments that may be relevant to the control of psychoactive substances only those for tobacco and alcohol are for the regulation of a psychoactive substance used for recreational purposes. Other regulatory instruments that may be considered for registration and development control and licensing such as those for pharmaceuticals will have to be adapted to such a purpose and we will need to examine whether this is feasible.

3.1.10 We would expect bodies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), UK Borders Agency, Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) and National Health Service (NHS) to continue to have an essential role in an alternative model of regulation. The Home Office Drugs Licensing Unit, Medicines Health Regulatory Authority and the Local Authority licensing authorities have much experience with other complex and potentially toxic substances. The Criminal Justice System will continue to have a role in enforcing what is likely to be primarily a system of fines to ensure compliance with the regulatory systems.

3.1.11 Without prejudging the outcome of our Inquiry we submit that the seriousness and potential unmanageability of the challenge of new “legal highs” using existing control measures demands a fresh approach from Government. We recommend that the UK Government, with far more resources at its disposal than our All-Party Parliamentary Group, commissions its own independent feasibility study into alternative forms of regulation for new psychoactive substances. The ACMD has undertaken work on this issue but is not independent of the Home Office.

3.2 The criteria used by the Government to measure the efficacy of its drug policies

3.2.1 We believe that Drug Policy should be evidence based so we are very interested in how the Government measures the efficacy of its drug policies. At our recent International event on drug policy reform we were impressed by the Czech Drug Policy where a cost benefit analysis was carried out after legislation to criminalise the possession of drugs for personal use. The results of the analysis found that no benefits in terms of availability or use of illicit drugs, or in the level of social costs followed criminalisation. This approach to testing policy options has informed more recent Czech drug policy which has reduced drug possession from the status of a crime to that of an administrative offence.

3.2.2 We are not clear what criteria are being used currently to measure the efficacy of UK drug policies. We note that in the 2010 Drug Strategy the Government was “currently developing an evaluative framework to assess the effectiveness and value for money of the Drug Strategy”6 More than one year later we have not seen the evaluative framework. Is it yet available? The National Audit Office7 reported last year that it had recommended annual reports on progress with the Drug Strategy Action Plan and that to date the Home Office had worked with other government departments to collect baseline information on spending arrangements and the existing evidence base. It was also providing guidance for evaluations of programmes to make them more consistent to facilitate a meta analysis. We are not aware of any consultation with the ACMD about the framework or the Home Office activity above. We would expect that their expertise on such an important issue would be fully utilised.

3.2.3 We believe the evaluation framework for the Drug Strategy should be made public as a matter of urgency. It should represent a policy evaluation rather than a programme evaluation following examples from other countries which assess the broad social benefits of drug policy and compare different forms of regulation. The evaluation framework will need to draw also upon the expertise of bodies like the ACMD and relevant Government Departments (including Health and DCLG) and the criteria for the evaluation should be based on recognised indices of harm.

3.3 The extent to which public health considerations should play a leading role in developing drugs policy

3.3.1 We view a central health focus to Drug Policy to be of paramount importance. Although health and treatment are strong elements in the UK drug strategy the lead lies within the Home Office. Similarly, the lead for most other national drug strategies, the UN and the European are led by crime and justice interests. The Portuguese Drug Policy from 2010 which was presented at our recent international event was one notable exception. Portugal not only decriminalised possession of drugs but provided for drugs policy to be led by a health department. The policy allowed health and treatment services for those dependent on drugs to flourish leading to a significant improvement in health outcomes.

3.3.2 We are also aware that the pioneering work on regulated heroin supply in Switzerland for seriously problematic drug users was due in part to the leading role played by the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health. The developments in Switzerland have been described as changing public perceptions from viewing drug users as “marginalised people responsible for their own fate” to seeing them as ill, dependent and victims. These changes in public perception have themselves reinforced the Swiss health oriented approach.8

3.3.3 The situation in the UK is different in that a relatively well funded network of treatment and harm reduction provision operates in parallel to extensive policing and criminal justice activity to enforce the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and to respond to crime associated with illicit drug use.

3.3.4 It is the failure of enforcement activity to significantly impact on the relatively stable and high level of availability and prevalence of drug use over the last 10 years that indicates the need for some of the alternatives being suggested above to be seriously considered.

3.3.5 As mentioned at the outset, to emphasise the need for a health focus we urge the Home Affairs Select Committee to recommend the transfer of the lead for Drug Policy from the Home Office to the Department for Health.

3.4 The comparative harm and cost of legal and illegal drugs

3.4.1 We know that the harms associated with the legal substances alcohol and tobacco are greater than the harms associated with a number of drugs that are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. A harms based approach to Drug Strategy should include a review of these anomalies. Also the experience of regulating alcohol particularly at local level, will need to be analysed in relation to the possible regulation of drugs through similar systems.

3.4.2 We know much less about the comparative harms and costs should a drug like cannabis change in status from illegal to legal. This is the subject of ongoing work by Professor Stephen Pudney of Essex University who presented his interim report at the APPG event on the 17–18 November. We recommend that he is invited to give evidence to the Inquiry.

3.4.3 We would like to draw the attention of the members of the Inquiry to a cost benefit analysis carried out by Marian Shanahan and others (2011)9 which compared the costs and benefits of current cannabis policy in New South Wales, Australia with those envisaged for a legalised and regulated policy option. The study found no significant difference between the net social benefit of the two options. However, no account of the potential tax revenues from the regulation option were considered.

3.4.4 We recommend on of the UK drug strategy should include a cost benefit study comparing it to alternative forms of regulation.

3.5 Whether the UK is supporting its global partners effectively and what changes may occur with the introduction of the national crime agency

3.5.1 An important prior question to whether the UK is supporting its global partners adequately, is whether the basis on which this support is provided is appropriate. In this we take UK partners to include those countries which are either source or transit countries for drugs to be consumed in the UK.

3.5.2 There is evidence that enforcement activities in respect of drugs have been supported by the UK in countries where human rights abuses including the use of the death penalty for drug offences apply.

3.5.3 The UK is a donor nation contributing 24% of the funding to a Memorandum of Understanding on drug trafficking between China, Mayanmar, Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Thailand and Cambodia. All these countries except Cambodia retain the death penalty for drug offences. The programme includes the establishment of seventy plus border liaison posts to enable faster and more effective enforcement interventions and have, we understand, been active in more than seven hundred cases.10

3.5.3.1 In response to these issues we would like to draw to the Home Affairs Committee’s attention the recommendations of Harm Reduction International in respect of aid programmes which have been developed for drug related aid programmes in relation to the European Union. These could equally apply to those where the UK is directly involved.11

3.6 Recommendations

3.6.1 We urge the Home Affairs Select Committee to recommend that The Government undertake a feasibility study into alternative forms of regulation for new legal highs.

3.6.2 We believe the evaluation framework for the Drug Strategy should be made public as a matter of urgency. It should represent a policy evaluation rather than a programme evaluation following examples from other countries which assess the broad social benefits of drug policy and compare different forms of regulation. The evaluation framework will need to draw also upon the expertise of bodies like the ACMD and relevant Government Departments (including Health and DCLG) and the criteria for the evaluation should be based on recognised indices of harm.

3.6.3 To emphasise the need for health as the primary focus, we urge the Home Affairs Select Committee to recommend the transfer of the lead for Drug Policy from the Home Office to the Department for Health.

3.6.4 We recommend on of the UK drug strategy should include a cost benefit study comparing it to alternative forms of regulation.

3.6.5 It would be desirable for UK Drug Policy to reflect UK policy on human rights in respect of its drug related aid to other countries. It is suggested that decisions on such aid programmes need to follow the guidelines prepared by Harm Reduction International.

January 2012

1 Sentencing Council: Drugs Offences: March 2011.

2 Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment, HC 94, 2009–10.

3 EC: Commission staff working paper on the assessment of the functioning of Council Decision 2005/387/JHA on the information exchange, risk assessment and control of new psychoactive substances: Brussels, 11.7.2011 SEC(2011) 912 final: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/policies/drugs/docs/sec_2011_912_en.pdf (90112)

4 Law Commission (2011): Controlling and regulating drugs: a review of the misuse of drugs act 1975: Report 122, Law Commission, Wellington, New Zealand: April 2011.

5 Hurlow J (2011): Preliminary Report for the Drug Policy Reform APPG Inquiry into alternative approaches to the regulation of “Legal Highs”: All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform.

6 UK Drug Strategy 2010.

7 Summary of the NAO’s work on the Home Officer 2012: National Audit Office 2011.

8 Collin C (2002): Switzerland’s Drug Policy: Prepared for the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Parliament of Canada www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/371/ille/library/collin1-e.htm (90112)

9 Marian Shanahan, Alison Ritter, Rachel Ngui (2011): Developing a model to assess the consequences of cannabis policy options: Drug Policy Modelling Programme: University of South Wales
www.dpmp.unsw.edu.au/DPMPWeb.nsf/page/Translating+Evidence#Cannabis (080112)

10 Lines R, Barret D, Gallahue P(2010): Complicity or abolition: The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement: 2010 International Harm Reduction Association.

11 Ibid.

Prepared 8th December 2012