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To consult as widely as possible and most effectively to establish dialogue on the key issues, officials in the Home Office produced and launched on 25 July Drugs: Our Community, Your Say to support the consultation process. An electronic copy of this document was circulated by e-mail to all Members and Peers on 20 September. I hope that all noble Lords have received it and been able to give it consideration. Its approach is to pose a number of broadly focused questions regarding the general direction of the drug strategy, complemented by questions with a narrower focus on specific suggested strands of work, which are: young people, education and families; public information campaigns; drug treatment, social care and support; reducing drug-related crime and reoffending; and enforcement and supply activity.

In seeking views on those subjects, we circulated around 5,000 copies of the document to delivery partners and stakeholders, and some 300,000 shorter leaflets were made available to members of the public in doctors’ surgeries, libraries, police stations and other public places. Both documents were also available to download on the website.

This represents the widest and most comprehensive consultation conducted by the Government on drug misuse. We must be clear, though, on the nature and extent of this consultation and we should recognise the limits of policy of this kind. The objective was to invite views from the widest possible range of people whose lives are affected by drugs in any way, either directly or indirectly; or who simply had a contribution to make. The responses will help inform the direction and content of the new drugs strategy but within the existing legal framework and the international conventions which underpin it. The new drugs strategy will set out actions to reduce drug-related harm, not a legislative programme.

The key focus of the Government’s drugs work is clear and unmoving—reducing harms to communities and the tough enforcement of our laws to punish those who deal in drugs and commit offences. That is a key strand of our total approach. The consultation sought the views of respondents on the classification of cannabis. Notwithstanding the decrease in use shown by the British Crime Survey, we need to look at the impact that reclassification has had and to address the public’s concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use, and in particular the use and availability of increased strengths of the drug. Our final decision on the classification of cannabis will take fully into account the advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which will consider the responses to the consultation as part of its review, while retaining its emphasis on the evidence base. We should not use this debate to second-guess the outcome of that review.

That concludes my opening comments. I look forward to responding to the many points that noble Lords will raise.

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My noble friend Lord Richard asked a question about drug-related crime which it may be convenient for me to respond to now. The relevant figure comes from the recorded crime figures, which include a figure for recorded acquisitive crime. Drug-related crime makes a substantial contribution to acquisitive crime. These figures are published annually in the crime statistics for England and Wales, which incorporate the British Crime Survey and recorded crime data. I hope that helps my noble friend.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Government consultation paper, Drugs: Our Community, Your Say.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

5.37 pm

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, so kindly reminded us, this debate comes at the end of the Government’s consultation on their new drugs strategy. Consultations are never perfect and are often easy to criticise, but as consultation papers go this one was noticeably thin and woolly. Frankly, its language is bland and while there is nothing much to disagree with, there is nothing much to excite the soul either.

More interestingly, bearing in mind that the object of the exercise is to build a new strategy, it contains no concrete strategic proposals of any sort, and merely invites readers to agree with the details of the plan. There is a bit of fine tuning here and there, but, to tell the honest truth, there is nothing of any substance. Indeed, the foreword by the Home Secretary could quite easily be interchanged with the forewords written by the previous three authors of drug strategies—David Blunkett, Jack Straw and Michael Howard. I looked them up and read them; they are almost the same.

One area I draw to the House’s attention is the Government’s use of figures in the paper, which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, mentioned. They are important because they are the basis on which the Government persuade us of their arguments. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, one example is the number of addicts accessing treatment, which increased from 85,000 in 1998 to 181,000 in 2005. That is a success, but it is somewhat mired by the detail. After all, the objective of treatment is not to see how many people you can cram in—although it is good to see the number increasing—but to make them better. During that period the number completing treatment “drug free” decreased from 5.8 per cent to 3.5 per cent. That is a truly appalling figure. One of the reasons for that is that the National Treatment Agency has chosen cheaper treatment rather than the most effective, which meant that last year more than 1,200 of the best rehabilitation beds were empty and some facilities even closed at a time when we are trying to increase capacity. That is not very clever in my view.

One of the key measures of drug use that we have always used is the number of drug-related deaths. The Government say that they have declined by 2 per cent, but I noticed that the figure was a comparison between 1999 and 2005, whereas every other figure in the document compares 1998 with 2005. If you take

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those figures, the 2 per cent decline becomes a 10 per cent increase. I cannot believe that was done on purpose, but I would like the noble Lord when he winds up to explain exactly why that discrepancy in the figures occurs.

Overall, the statistics produced by the Government are odd. For example, the claim that drug use has stabilised does not bear comparison with the level of drug seizures or the fact that cocaine use is at its highest ever level in this country. Noble Lords are aware that statistics are like bikinis; what they reveal may be very interesting, but what they conceal is far more important. Over 20 years in the drugs field, I have learnt that the figures that we are given, genuine though they may be, need to be treated with a very large pinch of salt. It is unarguable, however, that by any measure—overall drug use, drug-related crime, drug-related deaths, level of drug seizures, cocaine use, or whatever—the UK has the worst drug problem in Europe by a long measure and the second worst in the world after the United States. If the Home Secretary, as she writes in her foreword,

she and I have very different ideas of what constitutes progress.

Realistically, there are only two things that you can do about drugs. You can try to reduce the demand for them, or you can seek to control their supply. To reduce demand, you provide treatment for the existing addict population and you try to prevent the rest of the population taking drugs in the first place. Somewhat obviously, you focus your efforts on young people. Rightly, the Government make strong play of their education programmes. While there is always room for improvement, here in the UK we now have pretty much the most comprehensive drug education in the world. In some parts of the country we have children in their second or third generation of drug education. It is worth remembering that in his foreword to the first ever drug strategy in the 1990s, Michael Howard wrote that many teachers would discover that their pupils knew more about drugs than they did. If it was true then, it is even truer now. If it is even half-true, why have we not seen a substantial drop in drug use? The problem is that the Government have not understood that education is only the solution inasmuch as ignorance is the problem; and ignorance is not the problem. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that drug education by itself leads to any meaningful reduction in drug use, and to pretend otherwise is deception.

The Government still do not seem to understand that education and prevention are two very different things. If there is ever going to be a solution to the drug problem, it is in preventing drug use in the first place; but the word “prevention” occurs only twice in the Government’s document. The second question in the consultation paper is, “What is the most effective way to keep children off and away from drugs?”. The answer is that we do not know, and we are not going to find out if the Government do not spend more than 13 per cent of the budget on researching drug prevention.

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We need drug prevention; we need evidence-based, carefully researched drug prevention. This is a major gap in the strategy.

All those points are really just scratching away at the surface. They are important, but they are tactical details, and they will not work if the overall strategy is wrong. It is wrong, and we all know it. Despite the Government’s increasing focus on reducing the demand for drugs, the reality is that it will all come to nothing if they cannot control the supply of drugs. They know that, which is why, despite the growing focus on demand reduction, 80 per cent of the budget is spent on attempts to restrict supply by using the criminal justice system.

The central plank of the Government’s policy—not just for the past 10 years but for the past 30 years—has been the Misuse of Drugs Act, which purports to enforce a practical prohibition on those drugs that are perceived to be harmful. With the exception of cannabis, most drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines, are not actually illegal, but rather they are “controlled drugs”, which means that their supply and use is strictly regulated. The trouble is that the regulations do not work and thus there is no control. Far from restricting the supply and use of those drugs, the current controls actually encourage their supply and use. It is not that prohibition is, per se, wrong, but rather that it does not work.

Chapter 5 of the consultation document looks at interdiction abroad, under the heading, “The UK market and supply routes”. The two objectives in invading Afghanistan were the defeat of the Taliban and the eradication of opium poppies, which provide 80 per cent of the world’s supply and 90 per cent of the heroin on UK streets. The past two years have seen a doubling of the poppy crop in Afghanistan. Does anyone think that farmers increase their production if they cannot sell their crops? Those poppies are coming here to be sold as heroin and, if the heroin coming into the United Kingdom increases, so does drug use.

Let us consider for a moment exactly what we are doing in Afghanistan. On the one hand, we are engaged in reconstruction—improving infrastructure, rebuilding industries and creating jobs. But the largest industry in Afghanistan is agriculture and the largest sector within agriculture is poppy cultivation, which we are trying to destroy. How exactly does that work? I do not think that it does work. Indeed, you do not have to be an expert to realise that it cannot work.

But it gets worse. Farmers in Afghanistan have to borrow money—and usually the Taliban is the only source of money—to buy the seeds for their crops. So if we burn the crop, we not only destroy their income for this year, but we make it impossible for them to repay their debts to the Taliban for last year. In other words, we drive them into the hands of the Taliban. Not only have we missed our economic goal, but we have made a political solution less likely and the situation on our own streets a great deal worse.

For too many years, the debate about drugs has been polarised, as the Home Secretary writes. But, as she says, this is coming to an end, although not, I suspect, in the way that she thinks. The failure to control drugs is no longer deniable or acceptable. For

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too long, the debate has been between those who claim to be tough on drugs and those who are attacked for being weak—between prohibitionists and legalisers. That is ridiculous. All sensible people on all sides of this debate agree that we want a reduction in drug use, in the harm that drugs do, in drug-related crime and in the number of addicts clogging up our courts and prisons. As taxpayers, we should no longer accept the annual bill of £19 billion for no discernible benefit.

I pray that my children will never, ever take drugs, but I know that a significant proportion of their generation, from all walks of life, do and will take drugs. I would like the Minister to explain, when he comes to answer this debate, why the Government think that it is better for my kids or anyone else’s kids to buy drugs at an artificially inflated price—probably paid for by crime—of unknown strength and purity, which increases the risk of overdose, from criminals who are often armed and dangerous. The Minister could also tell us why the Government think that it is a good idea to follow a policy that benefits only criminals, international drug dealers and the Taliban.

For 30 years, we have passed more and more laws and given more and more powers to customs, police and the courts in an attempt to control the supply of drugs. The result is that we have the worst drug problem in Europe. Perhaps the most ironic question in the entire consultation document is No. 36, which asks:

If ever there was evidence of a Government who have lost touch with reality, it lies in that question.

Yes, we can and should improve the quality and quantity of treatment and education. Yes, we must develop evidence-based prevention programmes. Yes, we can criticise the current system as too wasteful and too bureaucratic, with too many targets and too much central control. We can legitimately level those criticisms at all areas of government. But these issues are on the periphery. There is only one point to make. This drug strategy has not worked and cannot work. That is not because any Home Secretary is weaker or tougher than the last; it is because you cannot address health and social problems using the criminal justice system as your main weapon. We cannot devote the necessary resources to reducing the demand for drugs when we are pouring money into the criminal justice system at home and a mad foreign policy abroad, simply to deal with the unintended consequences of a policy designed 30 years ago to prevent drug use by restricting supply.

In other words, government policy has created a free-for-all in drugs, where only criminals benefit and the whole community—young people in particular—suffers as a consequence. Nothing in the current proposals leads one to conclude that this Government either understand this or have the courage to address it.

5.49 pm

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I am pleased that the Government have found time for this important debate, albeit right at the end of this Session, and I welcome

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the opportunity to comment on the consultation paper before they make the final decisions on their drugs policy for the next 10 years.

The paper deals with all the issues on which there is general agreement: the importance of harm reduction, treatment and rehabilitation, education for the young on the dangers to health and the need to reduce reoffending. However, the problem is not in the areas where there is agreement but in those where there is disagreement, and the most important of these is the issue of prohibition. The consultation paper contains no rehearsal of the arguments for and against the present policy of prohibition; indeed, it seems to be a taboo subject.

Prohibition was expected to rid the world of drugs by now. It has manifestly failed, and the Government cannot possibly argue that it has been a success. Obviously, no Government like to acknowledge failure but we now have a drugs trade which is reckoned to be the second largest world trade after oil and is totally in the hands of criminals, costing this country up to £17 billion—or £19 billion, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has just said. To continue with present policies is to accept and effectively tolerate the existence of the criminal gangs that control the trade.

In Section 6.1 of his excellent submission to the consultation paper, Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales, lists six generally accepted key harms that arise from prohibition. They are: the creation of five types of crime; the creation of crisis in the criminal justice system; the economic costs; the undermining of public health; the destabilisation of producer countries; and the undermining of human rights. It is a formidable list, the details of which he sets out in his submission.

Question 37 in the consultation paper asks:


The answer is to seek a workable alternative to the policy of prohibition, and of course the obvious alternative is to get rid of criminal involvement by legalising and regulating all currently illegal drugs. But, sadly, this alternative is forcibly rejected by the Government. In a response to the Home Affairs Committee in 2002, the Government said:

As I understand it, the Government have two principal arguments for rejecting legalisation and regulation. The first is, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, in our debate on 2 March 2006:

While that is clearly a risk, I think that in practice it would be substantially reduced by stressing that the

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move to legalisation was targeted exclusively at the criminal gangs that control the trade. Legalisation would reduce and, it is hoped, eliminate drug-related street crime and get rid of the street corner salesman, whose life is dependent on pushing his sales and encouraging his customers to move up the scale to stronger substances. All that should be welcomed by young and old. Other benefits would be quality control and income from taxation. It need in no way reduce the Government’s message that all drugs are harmful; indeed, the anti-drugs campaign could be strengthened and be as effective as, for example, the campaign against tobacco.

The Government’s second argument is the international dimension. The drug problem is global. Legalisation in one country could make that country a target for frustrated drug users from other countries and generate new criminal distribution activity. We are also signatories to the three United Nations drug conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988. Unilateral action may therefore be somewhat limited.

What then should the Government do? I think that they should set up a commission to examine independently the arguments for and against legalisation and regulation. It might be established together with representatives from other countries and should in any case research the experience and aspirations of others. It should also examine the role of the United Nations and the relevance today of the three conventions.

It could be made a European issue. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Germany are all open minded. Only France and Sweden would be likely to be against any move towards decriminalisation. Beyond Europe, Canada and Australia are open minded, and only the United States is the ultimate protagonist of zero tolerance, which is hard to explain, given its experience of alcohol prohibition in the past century.

Sadly, our Government seem wedded to the zero-tolerance stance and, in putting forward these suggestions, we are probably just wasting our time. In his speech to the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago, Gordon Brown said that he would be sending out a clear message that drugs are never going to be decriminalised. Note the word “never”. This statement is distinctly depressing and amounts to an open-ended licence to the criminal gangs that control the trade. We can only express the hope that Gordon Brown can be persuaded to change his mind and, as part of the 10-year policy review, at the very least support an open, independent, international inquiry into the pros and cons of legalisation and regulation versus prohibition.

Finally, on the question of cannabis reclassification, it will come as no surprise that I would not support the reclassification of cannabis from class C to class B. Indeed, I would support recommendation No. 46 of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report, Drug classification: making a hash of it? of July 2006, to,

The Government rejected that recommendation.

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In conclusion, I repeat my basic concern about how our sophisticated democratic Government can live with a situation where the second largest traded commodity after oil is totally in the hands of criminals.

5.57 pm

Lord Richard: My Lords, I shall be brief. I have three points to make and then I shall sit down. Before I start, may I say that I am disappointed with the Government’s consultation paper. It asked a large number of questions, all on the periphery of the argument, and failed to ask the really important ones. The only reference in the document to the consideration of a real change in Government strategy appears on page 27, a part of which the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, drew attention.

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