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As the noble Baroness said, we have a new man in the White House, and a new mood in America—one of great enthusiasm and optimism. As practically every commentator has said in the past few days, that new man in the White House is going to find that he has rather a heavy in-tray. Everybody talks about the two wars that lie in his in-tray, in Afghanistan and Iraq; of course, there is the third war, the war on drugs, which has been going on a great deal longer and has cost a great deal more money and lives, while producing absolutely no results.

We had a similar moment of hope and celebration in Britain, about 10 years ago. I remember when Mr Blair was elected Prime Minister, although clearly I am not of his party. I remember the day when he was elected and he was walking down Whitehall, when there was a mood of optimism and celebration in the country. I thought that at least one of the things that enthusiastic young Prime Minister would do, of my generation, would be to look at this difficult, awkward and complex issue of drugs with a new pair of eyes—a clean, younger pair of eyes—from a generation that understands it. Sadly, like so many of the great issues of 1997, Mr Blair ducked and sidestepped it.

It is important that we try to find ground that we have in common. This is not an adversarial debate; nor should it be a party-political debate. Everyone, on all sides of both Houses, would like to see a reduction in drug use and the harm caused by drugs. Nobody wants to be soft on drugs but, increasingly, fewer and fewer people want a war on drugs, either. The only beneficiaries of wars on drugs are the drug dealers, who make huge amounts of money out of them, and the main casualties of the wars on drugs are our young people and their families.

At the same time as the meeting in Vienna in March, the various NGOs came together and produced a report, Beyond 2008 Declaration. It is a wordy document. It is signed by 500 NGOs from 116 countries and 65 international NGOs. It will not surprise noble Lords that they have not, in their declaration, used one word where 25 will do, so it takes quite a lot of reading. They have said, in a very polite and NGO-ish

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way: “This is all very well, UN, but please take the focus off supply reduction and on to demand reduction”. This means treatment, education and prevention. At the risk of boring this House, the only way that we will ever really resolve the drug issue is through prevention. We still spend less than 10 per cent of the country’s drugs budget on prevention. We still spend well over 50 per cent on trying to control a health problem using the criminal justice system, which clearly cannot work.

Times are changing. The recent debate in your Lordships’ House on the reclassification of cannabis showed that if nothing else. Two former Secretaries of State spoke out against prohibition and in favour of looking at a regulatory form of control, something that would not have happened several years ago. Today’s debate could not have taken place in this House 10 years ago. I know; I tried to do it. The leader of my party has talked and written much about what he calls the “broken society”. It is perfectly clear that the single biggest cause of the breakage of our society is drugs. I hope we realise that dragging children before the courts in the West, firing phosphorous at farmers in Colombia and pouring billions of dollars into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan are not the answers to these problems.

In our last two debates on this subject, the Minister was, frankly, incapable of answering the questions that your Lordships posed to him. The brief that he was given simply did not cover the subjects that your Lordships wished to address. The Government had not even looked at what Members of this House were looking at. They were speaking in different languages. As I said, this is not a party-political debate. This is not a criticism of the Government. The debate is gathering speed, the language has changed and the Government have been left behind. They will be left even further behind by the new presidency in the United States. We will watch and listen to the Minister’s reply politely and encouragingly, but the House will note very carefully whether or not it is an adequate reply, because that is what we now need.

11.58 am

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Meacher for bringing this important UN declaration to your Lordships’ notice. I quote from the declaration:

“Drugs destroy lives and communities, undermine sustainable human development and generate crime. Drugs affect all sectors of society in all countries; in particular, drug abuse affects the freedom and development of young people, the world’s most valuable asset. Drugs are a grave threat to the health and well-being of all mankind”.

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement by the states members of the United Nations. Some years ago, one of my goddaughters died of a drug overdose mixed with alcohol. She was a vivacious young woman, a graduate of Oxford University. She had been through treatment three times. At her funeral, the church was full of young people. On another occasion, the only son of a friend of ours killed himself in a car crash. He was high on cocaine and alcohol. Again, at his funeral, the church was full of even younger shocked friends.

When one witnesses these tragic young deaths, one feels helpless at the waste of lives which could have had such hopeful futures if not for the scourge of drug

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and alcohol misuse. Controlling and preventing drug abuse must be the greatest challenge across the world for all responsible countries. The United Nations should have all the support it can get on this. Item 10 of the UN’s political declaration expresses,

and resolves,

This is a huge and dangerous task. The production of drugs seems a most complex matter. I am told that the Taliban in Afghanistan kept drug production down. Now, however, production has risen again, and some of the warlords are the biggest drug barons. It seems a no-win situation.

If there were no drugs or alcohol in our society, about two-thirds of the young offender institutions might be empty. When I started as a member of a board of visitors, now called monitors, it was for an open establishment for young people aged 15 to 21. Alcohol was always a problem for them. Now, however, it is a closed prison with a very high fence for inmates of 15 to 18. Most of them have been involved with drugs. So many of them leave, some still of school age, without family support or a supportive community. What hope have they of staying out of trouble?

I cannot agree that making all drugs legal would solve the problem. We have witnessed the problem of addiction from over-the-counter and prescribed drugs that are legal. It is a coincidence that the All-Party Parliamentary Drugs Misuse Group launched its inquiry into physical dependence and addiction to prescription and over-the-counter medication on Tuesday this week. As an officer of the group who heard evidence, I recommend this inquiry to your Lordships. I hope that the recommendations will be taken up by the Government and PCTs. I congratulate our chairman, Dr Brian Iddon, Member of Parliament for Bolton South East, who I consider to be one of the hardest working MPs, and Gemma Reay, Brian’s parliamentary researcher, for producing the inquiry’s report in its comprehensive and readable form. It took some hard work to produce.

It was the quotation of the press kit to the 2006 International Narcotics Control Board annual report, published by the United Nations Information Service on 1 March 2007, that persuaded Brian that the APPG should conduct this inquiry:

“The abuse and trafficking of prescription drugs is set to exceed illicit drug abuse, warned the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in its Annual Report released today (1 March 2007). The Board added that medication containing narcotic drugs and/or psychotropic substances is even a drug of first choice in many cases, and not abused as a substitute. Such prescription drugs have effects similar to illicit drugs when taken in inappropriate quantities and without medical supervision. The ‘high’ they provide is comparable to practically every illicitly manufactured drug”.

We found that addiction to over-the-counter painkillers is becoming a serious health problem. More than 30,000 people may depend on drugs containing codeine, with middle-aged women most at risk. Some are taking more than 70 pills a day, putting themselves in danger of liver dysfunction, stomach disorders, gallstones, constipation and depression. We found that the internet

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was making it easier for people to buy bulk supplies of drugs, including Solpadeine and Nurofen Plus. We found that many doctors were unaware of the problem, and that addicts were rarely given adequate support. These benzodiazepine drugs are supposed to be taken for four-week periods only, yet some GPs keep patients on them for years. We hope that there will be stronger regulation of internet pharmacies and that GPs and pharmacists will have training in spotting addicts. Restricting the availability of codeine over the counter is very important. I personally met two splendid women who ran tranquilliser help groups, one in Yorkshire and one in Humberside. I do not know whether they are still in operation as I know that funding was a problem. This type of addiction can lead to suicide. Would it not be possible for PCTs to help with the funding, as it needs to be local and near people’s homes? There is much to be done across the world and near to home. I hope that this debate will make many people more aware of this scourge of addiction, which causes misery to so many people.

12.06 pm

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I speak in support of my noble friend Lady Meacher and congratulate her on her excellent presentation. I was also pleased to hear the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, who both have a lot of experience in this very difficult field.

The United Nations has taken a significant interest in the global drugs problem going back to as long ago as 1946, and more particularly since 1988, when the UN met under the slogan “A drug free world, we can do it!” to announce its support for the global prohibition of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Since then, there has been a total refusal to admit that prohibition has been a failure, as exemplified by the following extract from the executive director’s report following last year’s meeting of UNODC in Vienna, in which he claims:

“Member states have made significant progress over the past 10 years in implementing the goals and targets set at the twentieth special session of the General Assembly, but that, in a number of areas and regions, Member States have not yet fully attained the goals and targets agreed in the Political Declaration adopted at that session”.

In other words, all is well. Prohibition is still the rule.

While it is beneficial in theory that member states have an agreed common policy on the drugs problem, it is beneficial only if the policy is successful in solving the problem. If it does not solve the problem, it is likely to be counterproductive in that it inhibits experimentation of other possible ways of tackling the problem. This is clearly what is actually happening. The United Nations’ policies are inhibiting experimentation.

I am one of those who is shocked by the statistic that the drugs trade is the second largest international market after oil and is totally in the hands of criminals. I find it hard to understand how sophisticated democratic Governments can tolerate this situation. Decriminalisation and regulation of the drugs market would disenfranchise the criminal fraternity and generate substantial tax revenue, which would be available to finance rehabilitation and harm reduction facilities. It would ensure quality

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control and finance a publicity campaign stressing the dangers to health of drug abuse. We have managed to reduce massively the use of tobacco, without making it illegal, and there is no logic for treating drugs differently from tobacco and alcohol.

I come back to the role of the United Nations and to the forthcoming Vienna convention. The UK participates in its own right and as a member of the European Union. Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect radical changes in core policies, but there is one proposal that our Government’s representative could discuss with our European colleagues, with a view to putting it jointly to the convention: the UN should establish an international commission with a specific brief to explore alternative strategies and to produce a report within a fixed period. Such a commission should have as wide a brief as possible. As part of its research, the commission will obviously examine the experiences of countries and regions such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Canada and South Australia, which, in spite of UN rules, have experimented in one way or another with the drugs problem. If such a commission proved unacceptable to the UN, it could perhaps be acceptable at the European level as a starter.

The important challenge is to get the drugs debate out into the open, free of discredited dogma and evidence-based in its conclusions. A properly constituted UN research commission could achieve this.

12.11 pm

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on initiating this debate. This topic has enormous implications, a huge impact on individuals, families, communities and states, and on economic and social policy worldwide, yet is so little considered and so little debated in this Parliament. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness.

I want to concentrate on some of the consequences of the UN system of drug control and suggest that it should be brought firmly within the United Nations human rights framework. I declare an interest as a senior research fellow in the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London, which produced a toolkit for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in conjunction with the WHO and UNAIDS on the prevention of HIV and AIDS in places of detention. This is, of course, relevant, because drug users injecting in prisons put themselves at great risk of contracting hepatitis and HIV by sharing needles.

I speak from the perspective of someone who is connected with prisons and has visited them in many parts of the world, and I have been involved in criminal justice reform in some very poor countries. From that perspective, the current international regime on drugs, which emphasises law enforcement too much, harm reduction too little and human rights not at all, has been highly counterproductive.

The prisons of the world are full of people who are there because they have been in possession of small amounts of banned substances or because they need a constant supply of such substances to make their lives possible, and they engage in other crimes to sustain that. Some are there, of course, because selling these

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substances is their business, their daily work, although I have to say that only the lowest levels of this business enterprise seem to end up in the world’s prisons. Many of these people are sick, mentally or physically, or both.

The prison population of the world is rising, and has increased from 8 million in 1999 to 9.8 million now. A reasonable estimate is that between one-fifth and one-quarter of these people are in prison because of activities connected with the illegality of drugs. Overcrowding is increasing; 110 out of the world’s 218 prison systems for which we have information are overcrowded. I have often seen rooms with 50 bunk beds, three high, holding more than 120 prisoners. I have seen and, I may add, smelt them. In some places, prisoners sleep standing up, tied to window bars; they even suffocate because of prison overcrowding. Many come to prison not using drugs, but leave doing so. The illegality of those substances opens up many opportunities for corruption, in prison systems already prone to deep-seated corruption.

The effect on prison life is to increase the dangers and violence—the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned Mexico, in whose prisons there are drug gang murders almost every week—and to increase the spread of disease through the sharing of needles. The battle to stop illegal drugs from coming in leads the authorities to take measures that greatly worsen prisoners’ treatment, requiring them to urinate in front of prison staff, for example, to ensure that samples are not falsified for drug testing, while grilles are put up between prisoners and family members who visit.

Counternarcotics laws that criminalise possession and use have created considerable problems in criminal justice systems around the world. In countries where poor people have no access to medicine or painkillers, substances that have been used for generations become illegal under counternarcotics laws, yet no affordable substitutes are available. According to the House of Commons International Development Select Committee, in Afghanistan,

opium

Whole swathes of a country’s population are thus criminalised.

That criminalisation fills the prisons of such countries with people at the lowest level of drug activity, leaves the highest level of the market untouched and further impoverishes poor people. Then, the drug control system discourages harm reduction measures, such as issuing clean needles. If we issued them, say the prison administration, we would be condoning a crime. Therefore, for these and a number of other reasons, we urgently need a change in the UN regime—one that brings the UN drug control system within the UN human rights framework, reaffirming the right of all to,

as the UN international covenant says.

Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, pleaded for a new approach at the meeting, last March, of the

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Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He said that as a result of the control system,

He said:

“A system appears to have been created in which those who fall into the web of addiction find themselves excluded and marginalised from the social mainstream, tainted with a moral stigma and, often, unable to find treatment even when they may be motivated to want it”.

He also said:

“The concept of harm reduction is often made into an unnecessarily controversial issue, as if there were a contradiction between ... prevention and treatment on one hand and ... reducing the adverse health and social consequences of drug use on the other”.

He called for the drug conventions to,

I was glad to hear what my noble friend Lady Meacher said about President Obama’s website. Now that we have had regime change in the United States, and the Foreign Secretary’s excellent speech explaining why it was a mistake to see ourselves as engaged in a war on terror, can we stop having a war on drugs? I know, from experience, that when the UK Government decide to work hard at an international level to achieve a good outcome, they are very effective and successful. The progress of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture is testament to that. This is an area where such commitment is vital, and I hope that the Minister will take that message on board today.

12.19 pm

Baroness Murphy: My Lords, the House owes a great debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lady Meacher for introducing this debate. It is very opportune because we do not have a great deal of time in which to persuade the EU to take a different approach before the meeting in Vienna this year.

I should at this point sit down, saying merely that I agree with every word spoken by my noble friends Lady Meacher, Lady Stern and Lord Cobbold and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. No doubt others will continue this theme.

I understand that the Chinese were the first to pin their faith on prohibition to control opium, in 1792. The penalty for keeping an opium den was strangulation, which I dare say was quite effective in individual cases. However, noble Lords will recall that 30 years later the opium wars erupted because of officially sanctioned British smuggling of opium from India to China in defiance of China’s drug laws. China’s defeat in both wars left its Government with no option but to tolerate the opium trade. It is always as well to remind ourselves that it was the British that pushed the opium. The worldwide, highly successful, illegal drug industry—tolerated, if not sanctioned by some Governments—now controls the provision and sale of drugs of all kinds, as we have heard, and the United Nations concordat has failed to stop the industry’s growth. There has to be a better way.

Despite some of our well developed drug policies, strategies and services, the UK has an unusually severe drug problem compared with our European neighbours.

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The problem is that we simply do not know enough about which elements of the Government’s drugs strategy are working—or how they work, if they do. There is insufficient independent rigorous research and analysis to inform the development of policy, and political and media debates are often ill-informed and polarised. We talk about being tough or soft on drugs, but neither phrase is appropriate. Undoubtedly, the political climate stifles innovation. Our aim should be to minimise overall harms that drugs do to individuals, their families and society and to keep an open mind about all kinds of approaches informed by proper research.

Last year, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs reviewed progress over the previous 10 years and launched a period of “global reflection”. That will culminate in the 2009 ministerial segment in Vienna to discuss the future direction of policy. In 10 years, we have seen no reduction in harm; rather, we have seen the profound damage done to individuals and society by the current criminalisation policy. That has led to an extraordinary imbalance in public spending, not just here but abroad. The November 2008 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction attempted to collect public finance statistics across Europe relating to the balance of expenditure. It has been very hard for the centre to get accurate figures but it estimates that annual expenditure currently amounts to about €34 billion. The vast majority of it, as we have heard, is spent on prisons and police activity, with less than 7 per cent being spent on health. In the UK, less than 0.5 per cent is spent on research into effective prevention policies, treatment approaches or, indeed, policy research. There are no figures to indicate how much is spent on education. The monitoring centre simply does not record it and nor do the Government here. That must give us pause to rethink in the way that my noble friend Lady Meacher advocates.

There is evidence, albeit generally weak and mostly from overseas, of some prevention programmes which work and which could be used to develop interim strategies, but we need far better evaluation. It is far from clear whether current enforcement practice reduces harms at all or whether it represents value for money. So I say again that there is a need for comprehensive research into some of the variation, not only in policies on research but also in policy implementation locally. Now that we devolve so much implementation to the local level through primary care trusts, local authorities and other agencies, we almost never have any clear idea of whether those policies are being implemented effectively. Perhaps it does not matter if we do not know whether they work.


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