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7.21 pm

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in saying that it has been a great privilege to be part of this debate tonight, and to have listened to acknowledged experts on all parts of the drugs scene. Like the noble Baroness, this is my first Home Office debate, and I look forward to many more of this standard. I also thank the Minister for bringing this debate to this House and his comprehensive introduction of the consultation paper. I agree with several noble Lords that his overview was somewhat complacent, particularly in light of what we have heard today.

The consultation, as has been said, has just ended. I have noted that it is intended that a response to it will be issued within three months, but that that response will appear on the Home Office website. To save all of us plodding through the website—and it is quite a plod—trying to find the responses and what the Government are proposing, perhaps the Minister can ensure that those of us involved in this debate might have that response sent to us. I also hope that, at the end, the Minister will be brave enough to bring those responses—and the Government’s response to them—back to this House so that we can have a further debate on what has emerged from the consultation.

No one underestimates the calamitous effect that the misuse of drugs has on young people, families, communities and crime, nor the difficulties in bringing it under control and limiting the damage that has been done to the lives of those involved. This debate has demonstrated that drug abuse is a real and dangerous threat to our society, despite the fact that the Government have devised significant policies to grip the problem. As has been underscored by number of speakers tonight, comparatively little progress in diminishing the situation has been made in effect. However we look at statistics and however much we quote different year starts and different statistics, the facts are alarming.

To throw out a few of my own statistics, which I am sure will be taken up and argued about by others, the United Kingdom currently has the highest level of problem drug use. As my noble friend Lord Mancroft pointed out in his excellent speech, it has the second highest level of drug-related deaths in Europe.

The economic cost from drug and alcohol abuse is estimated at about £39 billion a year. The British Crime Survey has reported a 14 per cent rise in drug offences over the last three months of 2007, which is a staggering increase of 66 per cent over 2003. The Home Office’s statistical bulletin on drug misuse shows that class A drug use has increased by 26 per cent since the Labour Government came into power and the number of young people who claim to have used cocaine over the past year has increased from 3.2 per cent in 1998 to 6.1 per cent in the latest statistics. That is a desperate picture.

Families of young drug users are becoming increasingly anxious at the lack of progress on bringing those rises to an end. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the briefing that is to take place tomorrow afternoon in Portcullis House, mounted by families of young people who have used or are using cannabis. The

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organisation is called Talking About Cannabis. The Government’s decision to lower the classification of cannabis to class C—one which, effectively, carries no penalty—has left a lacuna in the hierarchy of drug offences. It was a decision that disregarded the dangers posed by new, high-strength strains of cannabis such as skunk, which causes, as we have heard, severe psychosis, personality changes and other mental illnesses.

It is debatable—I throw it out as my contribution to that debate—that if being in possession of or smoking cannabis carried a higher penalty, it would surely deter the shocking 35 per cent of under-15 year-olds who are believed to use it and who will be much more susceptible to other drug use later in life. I am therefore glad that the Minister has been able to reassure us that reconsideration is being given to the reclassification of cannabis as a class B drug. We can only hope that this matter will be taken very seriously and that the views of the parents who are meeting tomorrow will be taken into account. I appreciate that there are other views on reclassification and noted what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

This becomes of even greater relevance when one notes the recent Joseph Rowntree report on cannabis. It shows that there is a widespread variation in the awareness among young people of the dangers of this drug, the downgrading of which has, I am afraid, led to mixed messages and muddle as to its effect. Spiralling drug abuse exists in a symbiotic relationship to spiralling crime. Sadly, that has become all too clear in the last few months as violent crime and gun crime have bought death and injury to young, innocent people on our streets. The Government, despite a whole host of measures—many of which are in this consultation document, from education programmes for the young to rehabilitative programmes for offenders—have failed to tackle this serious drug abuse, which means that a major cause of crime does not just persist but thrives.

I know that the Minister will agree that it is the human cost of drug abuse which is the most alarming. The pain and misery drugs cause to the lives of addicts and their family and friends is immeasurable. The amount of crime perpetrated by those desperate to support their habit accounts for almost half of all those committed to prison for offences from the most minor to the most grievous, and the number of children who have to be taken into care because of one or other parent being involved in drug-taking is a significant amount of a family court’s workload.

The Government’s consultation paper suggests that drug-related deaths have fallen from 1,538 in 1999 to 1,506 in 2005 and that there has been a 20 per cent reduction in the number of young people taking drugs. That seems to be slightly at odds with the figures I have quoted and others have mentioned tonight. But I put it to the Minister that after six years of a supposedly successful policy, saving only 32 lives, even if they are special, may not be entirely the progress which we would have wished for.

The noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Adebowale, have great experience in the care of those needing treatment. I have known about Turning Point for many years and all that time I have had great

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admiration for the work the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, does in making sure that those on drugs and misusing substances get the care and support they need.

There are treatment programmes associated with criminal and social drug taking but a strong focus on abstinence seems to have been lost in the hierarchy of goals for treatment. Maintenance and management is often the option—whether for financial reasons, rather than for lack of facilities, is far from clear—rather than the tougher challenge of longer-term programmes which work to break the cycle of addiction. The result is that methadone has become the mainstay of the reply to drug dependency. It is administered as a measure intended to create stabilisation and ensure “retention to treatment”. However, most alarmingly, the number of methadone prescriptions in England has almost doubled from just under 1 million in 1995 to just under 2 million in 2004—they are the latest figures we have, but I dare say that 2006 will show that the figure has gone up again. That is an increase of 86.5 per cent.

As noble Lords will know, it is very difficult to get addicts off methadone; it is simply swapping an illegal drug for a legal one, but the crucial problem—the dependency—remains. One European study calculated that methadone was involved in 35 per cent of drug deaths. In the face of such facts, are the Government looking at better alternatives? We have been talking about places in residential care not being taken up. That is simply not acceptable. Residential care is the route for people becoming cured through the ability to maintain a long-term programme, and we must see whether money or programmes cannot bring that about in a better way. It is an important aspect of the treatment of people who are suffering from substance misuse.

We believe that drug addiction should not be tackled in isolation—that has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale—but as part of addiction as a whole. Alcoholism is often the portal to other substance abuse, especially for children and adolescents, and needs to be figured into any strategy intended to tackle drug dependency.

The Government have correctly identified that educating the young about the dangers of drug abuse is a key weapon in the fight against addiction, and they must be commended for their establishment of information and advice helplines and websites such as and the Department of Health’s teenage health demonstration sites as well as the Positive Futures programme and other programmes that get children out and, as the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, suggested, doing something active and using their physical strength.

Education needs to be reinforced by a campaign of deterrence. Have the Government considered using shock tactics on children to show the grave medical implications of addiction and spell out in very large, loud letters the implications of involvement in drugs? As my noble friend Lord Mancroft said, this consultation does not once mention preventing young people starting on the downward spiral.

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The consultation paper points out that effective action requires a co-ordinated and flexible approach from all enforcement agencies and government departments. Estimates suggest that approximately 20 tonnes of heroin and 18 tonnes of cocaine are illegally smuggled through customs each year. The massive haul stopped by the Royal Navy last week demonstrates the necessity for constant vigilance.

We have had extremely thoughtful speeches today from the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Cobbold and Lord Jay, about the possibility of a commission looking at the entire problem. That is up to the Government to decide on, but it seems sensible at some stage for somebody to take on all the aspects of drug addiction from the minor to the major—and the major includes all the problems of poppy growing in Afghanistan, and the possibility, which I think is a revelation, of the poppy being used for regular and proper pharmaceutical purposes.

I look forward to the Minister's reply to what has been an extremely important debate. It has raised a huge number of questions, which went well beyond the limit of the consultation paper—perhaps everything about drug misuse always will go wider than that. But we have had some immensely useful contributions today, and I am sure that the noble Lord will agree with that.

7.36 pm

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I start by thanking all who have taken part in a stimulating debate that has been, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, broad-ranging. I tried to make some notes on points raised by noble Lords during the course of it. I suppose that there was, certainly at the outset, a big theme that the consultation was simply wrongly based because it focused only on a strategy which believed in prohibition and did not examine issues relating to the potential for the legalisation of drugs.

The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, said: “We are where we are”. The Government’s view is that legalisation is not a strategy that we wish to take on board. It is not an approach that we welcome for reasons which noble Lords have valuably summarised in their contributions.

My noble friend Lord Richard was disappointed with the paper. He said that he thought it was part of a failed policy. I take a different view. Views on the Government’s policy and strategy were certainly wide. There were those who thought we had made progress; those who thought we had made less progress; those who completely disagreed with the basis of it; and those who said we were looking at some of the wrong issues.

I was very interested in some of the contributions, particularly that made by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on supply-side issues, which was echoed in part by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. And I always listen with great interest and care to what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, says, not least because of his experience in the Prison Service—and lessons clearly need to be learnt from that.

The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, makes a very telling contribution when he talks about treatment regimes and some of those issues that we need to

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examine further. My noble friend Lord Brooke drew attention to the need to look at addiction in the round and not just separate out drug and alcohol addiction.

I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, to the generality of Home Office debates, particularly the ones on drugs. I have taken part in perhaps too many debates, in some senses because I have had to deal with the matter for some eight years. Nevertheless, I recognise that the challenges change. The noble Baroness made the point that the threats change all the time, and that fashions and styles and interest in different drugs change over time. I was reflecting on my many years of taking an interest in the subject.

One thing is absolutely crystal clear to me; there is a tremendous amount of expertise in your Lordships’ House on the issue. It is expertise that should not be ignored because it clearly enables Government to think more broadly. As noble Lords made plain during the debate, we know that drugs have a profound effect on people’s health, their life chances, their family and their entire community. As such, it is a subject of tremendous complexity and one that is unique in the intensity of the debate to which it gives rise.

I take it from that that we should not seek to shy away from that debate. That is why the Government have sought out a range of views and opinions that can inform the development of the strategy. Noble Lords may be critical of that, and that is right, but we have tried to confront the issues and we think it right that we do so because it is in our interest to have a broad debate. In particular, I was interested in the notion that there should be an independent commission. I am not sure that that is a role for government, but the idea of drawing on broader views outside government, given the breadth of this debate, has merit in itself.

It is clear that the Government should continue to strive to get more people into treatment. No Member of your Lordships' House would demur from that. I do not think that anyone demurs from the need to protect communities from drug-related crime and nuisance and to provide young people with the information that they need to be able to resist drug use. I was pleased that there was support and encouragement for the Frank campaign, which has had an impact. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, made that point. I know that my children are very aware of it. The elder of the three of them has been through both school and college. They are very aware of the impact of drugs and have found some of the information useful as they have grown older.

It is also clear what else should be done. People need additional services to support them to remain free of drugs. The particular needs of black and minority ethnic groups and other communities must be addressed. There needs to be a stronger focus on addressing the needs of young people. The purpose of the consultation exercise and this debate is to contribute to work that will develop a set of policies and actions that will individually and as part of a coherent strategy reduce the harms caused by drug misuse.

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Legalisation or decriminalisation of any drug is not within the purview of the purpose of the consultation. That is not to say that it is a debate that should not be had, but the Government have made our position firmly known—several noble Lords referred directly to the comments of the Prime Minister, who made his position very clear. As I said, I am aware that there are those who are very critical of the Government's review of our drug strategy and are similarly critical of our stance on the legalisation of currently controlled drugs. They see the prohibition of the production, supply and possession of drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine as contributing to the misery of so many whose lives have been blighted by their use of such drugs.

I think that most legalisers would acknowledge—they appeared in the confines of this debate—the harmfulness of many currently controlled drugs. Some called for an evidence-based approach to the law relating to the prohibition of such drugs in the hope of a move towards a regulated supply of those drugs. Although we understand that point of view, we as a Government have to make a judgment on what is best for public health. Central to our thinking is our responsibility for protecting the health and welfare of the British public. We have taken the position that prohibition is the best means to do that and we have been unequivocal in our stance of having no intention of either decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs for recreational purposes.

In response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report, The Government's Drug Policy: Is It Working? in 2000—

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, far be it from me to interrupt the Minister when he is in full flow, but he has made his position very clear to the whole House. He acknowledges that many of us here do not agree with that position. The difference is that we have explained why we have reached the conclusion that some of us—most of us, including me—arrived at. The noble Lord has said, “This is the Government's position and the Government are not going to budge from it”. Fine, I understand that, but can he answer a very simple question: why?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, because we believe that our policy is not only right but evidence-based and that we are making progress. I know that the noble Lord dissents from that view and that other noble Lords take a similar view to a greater or lesser degree. It is for that reason that we have begun to set out our strategy and decided to consult further on the way in which that strategy should be perfected.

To make our position plain—it is worth putting this on the record—we do not accept that legalisation and regulation are now, or will be, an acceptable response to the presence of drugs. As I said earlier, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reinforced that view at the recent Labour Party conference when he said that,

Legalisation is not open to us in view of our international obligations. I know that some noble Lords dissent from that, but that is our view. The current policy of

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prohibition on drugs is international and is governed by UN conventions that make unlawful the production and supply of many harmful drugs and limit possession exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. It would be wrong for us to lose sight of that perspective. There is no effective cost-benefit analysis of such a policy, if one could be made. Any such policy would need to address the international dimension.

The impact of legalisation on levels of consumption globally is key to any meaningful cost-benefit analysis. Without accurate figures for this, it is impossible to ascribe meaningful figures to the likely public and individual health cost or properly to assess the impact on productivity and industry or on the level of industrial or traffic accidents. Such fundamental difficulties call into question whether the task is an appropriate use of research funding. The impact of drugs on health is the only legitimate reason for control, and there is overwhelming evidence that the widespread use of these drugs worldwide results in enormous social harm and economic costs associated with that use. That includes the many thousands of drug-related deaths, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C through injecting drugs, and the mental health disorders associated with the use of drugs.

The Government, like the international community generally, believe that the prohibition of narcotic and psychoactive drugs is a crucial element in keeping the level of drug use under control. Such drugs would become easier to access if they were to become legally available, and we would expect levels of use and the resultant harm and costs to individuals and society to expand significantly in the way in which alcohol and tobacco use has done. We do not intend to give a green light to such drug use. We do not take this robust stance lightly. We acknowledge that there are apparent benefits to an alternative system to prohibition, such as taxation, quality control and a reduction on the pressures on the criminal justice system, but in our view these are outweighed by the costs to the physical and mental health of individuals and society that result from dependence on, and addiction to, what are mind-altering drugs. Legalisation would not safeguard these very real public health interests or allay the concerns; nor would it necessarily significantly undermine international organised crime. For this reason, the Government will not pursue legalisation either domestically or internationally. It is all too easy to lay the problems of the use and misuse of drugs here and abroad simply at the door of prohibition.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I sense that he is about to leave that issue. Will he comment on the policing of the drugs business and on why some sections of the police are calling for legalisation?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as we have heard in your Lordships’ House, there is clearly a debate in policing agencies. The views of the chief constable, which were quoted in the debate, are well known but are not generally held in ACPO. They are certainly not held by the majority in ACPO, which is fairly self-evident.

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Many of the problems related to drugs are underpinned by poverty, unemployment and the erosion of family and community life. They are not created simply by prohibition. The Government are seeking to reduce the number of people who use drugs. The real impact on reducing drug use and drug harm has to be through the identification and setting of actions that will have the most impact. The Government’s view is that the national drug strategy itself, not law reform, has the real impact on reducing harm through education, prevention, early intervention, treatment and enforcement. Many of those issues were referred to in this evening’s debate. That is why the ongoing development of our drug strategy, following wide consultation, is such a priority. The national drug strategy is central to the Government's approach to drugs, drug use and drug harm reduction.

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