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Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I may take the Minister up on her offer and ask her to speak for another 20 minutes, so much do we like listening to her. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It may have been a select list in terms of numbers but, to turn an old adage on its head, never mind the width, feel the quality. That has been evident in the contributions made today.

Inevitably, our attention has focused on the amalgamations. Accordingly, my forecast that they are a time bomb that is ticking under the Government may prove prescient. However, as the Minister said, many other important topics were raised, from HATOs to form-filling. I am quite sure that, with her customary conscientiousness, the Minister, together with her colleagues and advisers, will look at the important concerns that have been raised. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Drug Classification System

2.20 pm

Lord Cobbold rose to call attention to the drug classification system; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the subject of our debate is clearly not a great crowd puller on a Thursday afternoon. It is nevertheless a subject of great importance, but I do not wish to restrict the debate to consideration of the drug classification system. It is a subject of great controversy and is highly topical as 1 March saw the publication of the 100-page annual report of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board and a 60-page report The Evidence Base for the Classification of Drugs, which was prepared by the Rand Corporation for the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. The United Nations report received quite a bit of press coverage because it voiced concern about the increasing use in the United States of methamphetamine or crystal meth, which can be made from household products and is expected to spread to Europe.

We last addressed this subject in June 2003, some five months after the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. We now address the subject again, following the Government's recent decision to maintain the classification of cannabis as class C. That decision was much
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influenced by the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in its December report, which stated that,

That came as a surprise to many, including the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, who admitted his surprise in his Statement to the House of Commons on 19 January, reported at col. 984 of Commons Hansard. In the same Statement, the Home Secretary announced his intention to publish a consultation paper within the next few weeks with suggestions for a review of the drug classification system, which dates from the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Rand Corporation report to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, to which I have already referred, will provide valuable evidence for that exercise.

But is this enough? It seems to me that what we should really be doing is reviewing the whole basis of our national drugs policy and initiating an open debate on the pros and cons of prohibition versus regulation and control. Such a review was last undertaken by the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs in May 2002. The committee considered the option of decriminalisation and control, but its report concluded:

The Government accepted that conclusion and retain their blanket opposition to decriminalisation, regulation and control.

Nevertheless, I intend to go through once again the important arguments that fully justify a rethink of current policy. First and foremost, it is clear that the prohibitionist war against drugs is not being won. Drugs are readily available and supply has grown hugely over the past 30 years. The world trade in drugs is said to be the second largest market after oil. Can it be right that it should be wholly in the hands of criminal organisations? I believe that this is the strongest argument for change.

Then there are the costs involved. We are told that more than 50 per cent of the inmates of our overcrowded prisons are there for drug-related crimes. The total cost of drug-related crime and its social consequences is estimated to be up to £18 billion per annum, which compares with an annual excise revenue on alcohol and tobacco of more than £10 billion. Clearly, if drugs were subject to taxation and controls similar to those on alcohol and tobacco, a major revenue source would be available to finance all-important education programmes in schools, as well as vital rehabilitation and harm-reduction schemes around the country.

Another extremely important benefit of legalisation would be quality control. The licensing and regulation of individual substances would provide the same quality guarantees that exist for alcohol, tobacco and
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pharmaceutical products. Sales would be via licensed premises or pharmacies, depending on the substances concerned.

There is also the issue of human rights. To what extent is it the responsibility of the state to protect individuals from damaging themselves? We live in an age when the nanny state interferes more and more in our individual liberties. In the case of drugs laws, has it gone one step too far? It is clearly the duty of the state to prevent injury and damage to third parties and property, but our current drug laws manifestly fail to do that. The Rand Corporation report, to which I referred earlier, states that in the UK:

However, unlike those who smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, they are criminals.

I have tried in the time available to draw attention to the main arguments for a change in national drug policy towards legal regulation and control. The arguments are very strong and I find it most depressing that the Government can continue to renounce them in favour of blanket prohibition. Why are politicians so reluctant even to discuss the pros and cons of decriminalisation and control? Apart from a reluctance to admit to failure, there is the fear of electoral condemnation. It is assumed that the British public is instinctively against legalisation and would reject any moves in that direction. But the British public has not been given the benefit of an open debate. There is also the presumption that legalisation would give rise to a massive increase in usage. The experience of the decline in cannabis usage after reclassification suggests that that might not necessarily be the case, given a properly informed and focused educational campaign.

The real difficulty is that this is not just a national issue, but a global one. We are bound by the 1998 United Nations convention on international co-operation in the drugs field, and there would clearly be serious risks in going it alone. So what can realistically be achieved? There are two initiatives that the Government might pursue. The first is simply to bring the subject out into the open and sponsor an independent study not just of the drug classification system as currently proposed, but also of current policies of prohibition versus the pros and cons of regulation and control. Secondly, we should talk more with our neighbours in Europe and see if any common ground can be established. It is perhaps an area where Europe could take the lead.

It is a huge and controversial subject. I look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords in our debate this afternoon, and I await with interest the reaction of the Minister. I am afraid that I have strayed somewhat from the basic theme of the Motion. Nevertheless, I beg to move for Papers.
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2.30 pm

Lord Desai: My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for introducing a subject which, as he said, we have not discussed for some years. I have no professional qualifications for speaking on this subject, but I used to be chairman of a charity that intervened when drug addicts were referred to it. It was called City Roads, and it was a very good institution. I learned a lot about drug addiction in those days. But I must also confess that I smoked cannabis in my youth and, not knowing that I would be in politics later on, I even confessed to enjoying it. Had I remembered, I would have said I did not enjoy it then but, sad to say, that probably brought my career to a premature end.

It is, as the noble Lord said, somewhat paradoxical that we have been fighting a war against drugs for, so far as I remember, 40 years, if not longer. The war has not been won, for several reasons. One simple reason is that, by banning drugs, we have made the price of them a premium, which makes it extremely profitable for people to trade in them. You often hear about the lack of development in Africa; people say that there is no infrastructure, there are no roads, and there is no enterprise. But drug dealers get everywhere—roads or no roads. Drugs can travel across the world. They can be delivered. People probably pay five or six times what they would pay if drugs were legal, apart from the fact that legal drugs would be safer. As the noble Lord said, there are health consequences of using drugs in their impure form, over and above any other health consequences of using them.

We are making drug dealing extremely profitable, and we are endangering the lives of those people who choose to be on drugs. We are supposed to be completely horrified and morally outraged by drugs, but is it likely that, 20 years from now, some trembling politician will say, "I used to smoke cigarettes, and I actually enjoyed it, I am sorry to say"? Our attitude to tobacco has gone towards stopping people smoking, and I think that our attitude to drugs should travel in exactly the other direction. Indeed, we ought to find out what actual harm various drugs do. I know that there are all sorts of alarmist stories, but the drug classification system does take harm into account. There is logic to the A, B, C classification, and having classified drugs in that way, we ought to ask ourselves if we should instead concentrate police resources and other resources on cases in which drug rehabilitation is needed, rather than waste a lot of resources on trying to arrest criminals.

What is important, as the noble Lord said, is that drugs are supplied safely and in a controlled way for various purposes to people who want them, and in a way that allows us to know who is getting what. If we know that, we may be able to warn them, just as we do now with labels on cigarette packets and food and so on, about the consequences of taking such a drug. Again, if people want to do these things and if they are adults of sound mind, I do not see why we should stop them. We still allow alcohol. I am not advocating the banning of alcohol but, on health grounds, one would
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logically go down that road because alcohol is a drug. So we do make distinctions between drugs.

We have become paranoid about drugs. In the past, as readers of Sherlock Holmes will know, many drugs were not banned at all. By legalising and decriminalising the sale and purchase of drugs and bringing them into the open through proper commercial channels where we can exercise control over their production and trace legally and officially the people who are buying them, we can follow them through and see whether there are adverse health consequences. That would be a very good and welcome step. We had the Runciman report a while ago. It was not fully acted on, but we should perhaps re-examine the whole subject.

Let me give one more example of how this has quite a strong effect in the international context. The fact that America has adopted a very anti-drug attitude has clearly upset many Latin American countries. The recent election of Morales in Bolivia was all to do with the resentment that Bolivians felt about their one product—cacao leaves—being banned in America. All that happens is that it is transported illegally and the Americans get heavy and send agents down there. That is one example. I do not see why Bolivia should be prevented from growing cacao leaves if it wants to. Think of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we are trying very hard not to let these people grow any opium. But what do we do under the common agricultural policy? We buy up these crops and pay people good money for them. I have said this to Hilary Benn, and I will say it again here: a much more sensible policy would be for the Government to establish a monopoly of purchase. They should not prevent production, but should let them grow the crops and buy them up. Those crops might have other uses, or they can be burnt.

We waste much more money under the common agricultural policy on European sugar, but do not let me go down that road or I shall foam at the mouth. We really have to rethink our drug policy because, again as the noble Lord said, it has become a big trade because we have made it profitable by making it illegal. So long as we make it illegal, we will not win the war against drugs.

2.39 pm

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