Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

6.28 pm

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, it is my first and very pleasant duty to thank on behalf of the whole House the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, not just for initiating this debate but for co-ordinating the letter to Ban Ki-Moon, working with the UNODC and going to Vienna, which I am quite sure, as she suggested, has had a considerable effect.

I do not think that this is a discussion paper; it is more a positioning paper, which reveals a radical and welcome change in the United Nations's stance. It is radical because, as we have heard, the United Nations has until now focused almost exclusively on the elimination of drug use and suppression of the drugs trade. Now, suddenly, we see that focus switch towards the only effective way to tackle the drug problem, which is to reduce the demand for drugs by providing appropriate help and healthcare to drug users and addicts. The change is welcome because a growing number of people in public and political life have pressed for a move away from gesture politics towards a more mature and pragmatic policy which will have a significant social and economic benefit.

What has brought this about? It is quite simply a change in the direction of American policy. For years, the United Nations was unable to move even if it had wanted to-which I do not think it did-because its most powerful member and paymaster, the USA, was determined to go on promoting its war on drugs and its "just say no" campaigns.

With the arrival of the Obama Administration, however, that has changed. The language has changed. It seems that-not overnight, but carefully and slowly-the Administration will wind down the war on drugs. It is this change in US policy that has taken the shackles off the United Nations and allowed it to move in this new and very welcome direction.

Crucially, the UNODC is accepting, indeed encouraging, member Governments to act in a way many do already, but, more importantly, in a way which it had previously argued was in breach of the

15 Jun 2010 : Column 952

conventions. This paper invites us to take a position started by the previous Government. In reality, very few people in the UK are sent to prison for possession of drugs alone. We remain in the position, however, where an enormous proportion of those currently in prison, probably over 50 per cent, are there for drug-related crimes. This paper invites us-and I am confident the new coalition will accept this-significantly to increase both the availability and the quality of treatment in the criminal justice system and the wider community, with the specific objective of getting people off drugs rather than maintaining them on drugs indefinitely, giving them appropriate support when they leave prison, and helping them to lead healthy and, I hope, happier lives as positive members of society.

Throughout this paper, the UNODC reiterates that drug dependence is a health and social problem, but health and social problems cannot be solved by using the criminal justice system. We therefore cannot say, "We will give you the help you need until the moment you need it most, when you relapse, whereupon we will withdraw that care unless and until you get yourself arrested". That is a pretty good summary of what happens in too many cases in the UK.

The paper also raises some interesting points about coercive treatment. I agree that this is an unattractive route and I hope the Minister will confirm that that is not within the Government's thinking.

I make two other points in passing. The first concerns the difference between users and those addicted to, or dependent on, drugs. Not everyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. If you do not believe me, go and look in the Bishops' Bar this evening. Not everyone who uses drugs is an addict. Addicts and alcoholics are ill. They need treatment, even if they do not always want it. At some stage whether we like it or not, society is going to have to get used to the idea that large numbers of our fellow citizens have made informed decisions to use drugs in the same way that their fellow citizens use alcohol. The vast majority do not have health problems and do not commit crimes and, on balance, they behave better in public than many of their fellow citizens who drink. That is for another day, but that other day is coming.

Lastly, I draw attention to the comments in the paper about drug courts. They exist in the UK to a limited extent, and it would be very interesting to hear the Minister's views.

We are barely a month into this new Government and it would be unfair to expect a detailed response from my noble friend on the Front Bench today. Indeed, it is a pity we are not having this debate in a few months' time when we could reasonably expect a more detailed answer. If that is the case, perhaps I could ask my noble friend to come back to the House at a later date and make a fuller statement on the Government's policy. Even so, I hope he will say that the Government welcome this paper and that it is, indeed, the general direction in which the Government would like to move.

If the Obama Administration, the United Nations, the Public Accounts Committee and the Permanent Secretary to the Home Office in the report that was published by the Public Accounts Committee in April

15 Jun 2010 : Column 953

find common ground on a policy issue of this complexity, you can reasonably conclude that a consensus is starting to form. It seems there might be a consensus forming in your Lordships' House this evening, and I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will join, if not lead, that consensus.

6.34 pm

Baroness Afshar: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Meacher for placing this debate on the agenda. I strongly support her position of decriminalising drugs, and that of the UN. I would also like to disclose my membership of the UK Drug Policy Commission, as a commissioner. However, everything I say here is entirely my view and does not express the view of the commission in any way.

I would like to begin with what would happen if we thought the unthinkable and decriminalised drugs at the point of production. Coming from Iran and being familiar with the Middle East, I can assure the House that decriminalisation of drugs in general, and poppies in particular, would have an enormous impact on the conflict in Afghanistan, and in particular on the support given by farmers to the Taliban. Although during the Taliban era poppy production was banned, it gradually began to seep back in and has taken huge momentum since the departure of the Taliban, for the simple reason that these people live on arid land with very little water. About the only two things worth growing are poppies and cotton. Any economist in his right mind would know that growing poppies might actually ensure survival when growing cotton is very unlikely to do so. In simple economic terms, there is not very much choice for these farmers.

What can be done is to recognise that poppies can be used for medicinal purposes and that they can be contracted to produce poppies for pharmaceutical reasons. That has been done in India and Turkey. In the 1970s, when I was a member of the Iranian Co-operative and Rural Affairs Ministry, it was done in Iran. We found that legalising poppy production helped pharmaceuticals and did not increase the numbers of addicts in the country. Recently there has been a similar agreement between pharmaceutical companies and farmers in Didcot, with Macfarlan Smith. Clearly, as my noble friend indicated, that has not resulted in a marked increase in addicts, but it has increased the number of happy farmers in this country. Legalising production of drugs would help us internationally. As for the national economy, it would be hard to do better than as presented in my noble friend's explanation with regard to cost-benefit analysis.

My personal experience of working with young people shows that, unavoidably, most dabble with drugs in their early years. I must admit that, although I do not drink, I certainly did smoke pot in the 1960s. It was great fun. I did not do anything to anybody when I was high; I danced a lot and listened to music. I lived to tell the tale, and I assure noble Lords that I am not a criminal. Criminalising drugs "otherises" a whole category of people, many of them young people with a bright future in front of them. The difficulty of being labelled as a criminal, even for those who do not actually go to prison-though many do-is that once you are regarded as an addict to heroin or crack you

15 Jun 2010 : Column 954

are no longer employable. A great deal of evidence suggests that only those who are well supported by their families and have a context of support, healthcare and pathways to employment survive their occasional experimentation and possible addiction. It is a great loss of opportunity for improvement. Prisons are universities for drug-dealing and those who come out of prison-and even those who go in-come out with absolutely no alternative but to join the black market. It is a costly alternative. Surely it would make sense to see drugs as a problem exactly like alcohol and others and to treat those people rather than criminalise them.

6.39 pm

Lord Rea: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, deserves double congratulations, both on bringing this important United Nations report to our notice and to the Government's and, as she has described to us, on playing such a significant part in initiating the process that eventually led to its publication.

Its observations and recommendations are not revolutionary in themselves. Most of its points are already well known and understood by those, like myself, who have been involved in helping problem drug users. What is remarkable, as both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, have pointed out, is that this reasonable and humane paper has emanated from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, a body that up to now has been on the draconian wing of the worldwide debate on drugs. This was thought to be largely due to the strong influence of the United States, with its tendency to use custodial sentences for drug users, thus having the highest prison population in the world. As well as the other reasons given by the noble Baroness, though, perhaps the change of heart has something to do, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned, with the change of the American Administration.

The paper is the distillation of a discussion between 20 international experts held in Vienna last October. In his foreword, Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UNODC, says:

"This paper outlines a model of referral from the criminal justice system to the treatment system that is more effective than compulsory treatment"-

I emphasise, more effective. What the paper advocates,

A useful feature of the paper is the list of references to the recent research on which its conclusions are based. I recommend that those in the Home Office and the Department of Health who are responsible for drugs policy pay careful attention to the papers that are cited.

The central message of the document is that drug abusers should be regarded as sick or sad people rather than bad people. This is not to say that they do not get involved in crime or become skilled liars in order to obtain the substances on which they are dependent. The document points out that treating drug users as criminals does not deter them from continuing their habit, and that treatment for drug abuse in a coercive setting is less effective than in a negotiated voluntary setting.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 955

I look forward with interest to the contribution of my noble friend Lady Massey, under whose leadership the National Drug Treatment Agency has greatly increased the availability of treatment. I suspect that she is in sympathy with the approach of the UN document. The National Audit Office reports that numbers in effective treatment in the UK rose from 134,000 to 195,000 between 2004 and 2008. I hope that the noble Baroness can give us some figures on the effectiveness of this and on whether there is evidence that drug-related crime rates have fallen.

There has been increasing and welcome use of the drug rehabilitation requirement, the successor to drug testing and treatment orders, for drug users who have committed an offence. However, the NAO reports a lack of consistent research into its effects. Perhaps better results might be obtained if the social needs of drug offenders, particularly housing and employment, were given more attention. I am aware that the Government are aware of this, but implementation is erratic.

An innovation mentioned in the UN paper is the establishment of special drug courts in some countries. These can be staffed by personnel who are familiar with the special needs and characteristics of drug users, especially their tendency to relapse several times before finally giving up fully.

I commend this report to the Minister, and I hope that its contents will be scrutinised carefully and used to improve not only the lives of drug users but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has said, society as a whole.

6.45 pm

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for this debate on treating drug dependency through healthcare, not punishment. It will be interesting to hear the Government's response. We are discussing a huge worldwide problem. For some years, I chaired an organisation called Phoenix House, which has several drug rehabilitation houses in the UK; it also operates in Germany and the United States. It can be an alternative to prison, but it is a drop in a very large ocean. Drug abuse reminds me of King Canute, who could not stop the sea coming in. This debate makes me think: how can the worldwide tide of drugs be stemmed? How can the effect of drug abuse be lessened?

I have served on the parliamentary All-Party Group on Drugs Misuse for many years. Some years ago, a god-daughter of mine died of an overdose of drugs and alcohol. She was a graduate of Oxford University. Drug abuse covers all strands of society and causes much heartache and despair. A co-godmother asked me at the funeral, "Couldn't you have done something to stop this happening?". I am sure that many of us try to do our best, but being a Member of your Lordships' House cannot solve all these tragic situations.

For many years, I served as a member of a board of visitors, now called monitors, at a young offender institution. We used to get the odd case of drug abuse, but always alcohol problems. Now, the majority of the young inmates have taken drugs as well as alcohol. The situation is rocketing. Some people will say that

15 Jun 2010 : Column 956

you have to get a prison sentence to get treatment, as there are not enough centres for treatment in the community-and of those that there are, many are very expensive. On Sunday, I met a doctor who runs an A&E department in Middlesbrough and asked him how the situation relating to drug abuse is there. He said, "Rough", but also that as long as it is criminalised it will go on going up. Recently, there have been murders of prostitutes, all of whom were on drugs. Prostitution was the only way that they could afford their addiction.

As a member of the parliamentary groups on prison health, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, I am pleased that the discussion paper mentions the problem that while,

and to TB. It continues:

"The lack of continuity of HIV treatment on entering and leaving prison increases the risk of developing drug resistant strains",

of the HIV virus and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Which type of tuberculosis did the prisoner who died in Cardiff prison this April have? Also, what happened to the prisoner with extensively drug-resistant TB who was treated in St George's Hospital, Tooting, and referred there from Pentonville prison? He originated from Georgia. If these people do not continue taking their drugs, they are exceedingly dangerous to the community where they land up. The mobile X-ray unit that finds and treats hard-to-reach people who may have TB in London, many of whom take drugs, may lose its NHS funding this year. That would be an utter disaster. Many people are already doing vital work treating and helping people with complicated dual-health problems. They need support and funding, as this discussion paper suggests. Health promotion needs expanding. Can the health service and the third sector do it all? That is debatable.

6.50 pm

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on introducing us to this important discussion paper. I declare an interest as having, over many years, represented and prosecuted in many drugs cases, involving the use and possession of drugs, drug-related crime and the importation of drugs.

The paper accords very closely with Liberal Democrat policy, as set out in the report of the commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Walmsley some years ago. It is a serious problem that costs the economy a huge amount, as the noble Baroness herself pointed out-some £19 billion a year. However, the punitive approach has not proved successful for drug addicts and alternatives must be found to the sanctions of the criminal justice system.

Drug dependency is brought about by a multitude of factors, as set out most clearly in the report. They include a history of social and personal disadvantage; temperament and personality traits; prenatal problems; poor education; adverse childhood experiences that lead to non-existent self-esteem; a lack of bonding

15 Jun 2010 : Column 957

within the family that creates social isolation; and, sometimes, psychiatric disorders. Drugs are seen by many such individuals as a panacea to relieve adverse conditions-a form of escapism. We are dealing, in most cases, with vulnerable and damaged individuals.

Heroin does not cause people to become violent, as alcohol does, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, said, it does make people unemployable. It has that great impact on our society, accordingly, of carrying these people along. I remember one defendant being asked, when cross-examined severely by the prosecution for having administered drugs to his girlfriend, who had died, "How do you know she liked it?". He said, in a chilling way, "Everybody likes heroin". It was freely available to him, and more available, he told me, in prison than it was outside. That is one of the factors that we must grapple with.

I cannot follow the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in referring to people who take recreational drugs in a moderate way. Those who think that taking cocaine socially is clever should remember that their affluence is promoting the importation of drugs by very serious and dangerous criminals, who do not hesitate to use violence to protect their trade in the cities of this country. As for cannabis, I am afraid I missed the 1960s; I was bringing up a family at the time. However, I recall prosecuting three men for growing cannabis. In fact, what they were growing was agricultural hemp and they had to smoke 10 spliffs to get the effect of one. Nevertheless, they got three years' imprisonment for it and what that did for them I cannot imagine. Imprisonment exacerbates all the problems. It exposes the individual to older criminals, gangs, illicit drugs within the prison estate-which I referred to-and a worsening addiction which, on release, can be the root cause of further reoffending.

It has been demonstrated that more than half of the prison population in the United Kingdom uses drugs, whether it is heroin or crack. If they are there for just three months, or serving a short sentence of that sort, they cannot be dealt with in any constructive way. No treatment can be effective within that period. As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, pointed out, prison presents additional health problems from HIV to TB to other factors due to overcrowding and prisoners being locked up for substantial periods. These worsen the psychological factors that led to the original drug dependency.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, referred to drug courts, as mentioned in the report. We on these Benches have watched the pilot scheme under which drug courts have been rolled out in England, particularly the west London drug court. Its statistics are impressive. According to Judge Julian Philips, a stipendiary magistrate since 1989 who was appointed judge in the west London drug court in 2005, there has been a drop of 20 per cent in shoplifting in the area. He said that his methods have been extremely effective. Perhaps others can speak about that. A confirmed addict needs £100 for one day's worth of drugs. That means that he has to fence £400 or £500 worth of stolen goods to feed his addiction. An average addict will commit 127 crimes a year. Following the approach adopted in west London, some 60 per cent of addicts do not reoffend during the

15 Jun 2010 : Column 958

course of a court order, and 20 per cent remain drug free. That compares with an average over the country of 3 per cent, as reported by national treatment agencies.

A complete review is needed of how the resources are used. We should not waste money sending drug addicts to prison but use those resources in a positive and constructive way along the lines that this most helpful paper sets out.

6.56 pm

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I, too, welcome the UNODC discussion paper, and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on securing this very timely debate.

Large numbers of offenders of all ages commit drug or drink offences. I believe that something like 80 per cent of the prison population has a connection with drugs or drink. I do not think that drug dependency is treated in most prisons, so the rate of reoffending is inevitably high and those people are less likely ever to be able to reintegrate into the community. As we all know, drugs are widely available in prisons. I was very shocked to be told yesterday by a barrister who does a lot of prison visiting that prisoners who go in taking cannabis move to heroin because it is less obvious in the blood stream when testing is carried out. They come out of prison heroin addicts. That is a terrible indictment of an element of our prison system.

As regards the human suffering of those who take drugs and those who live with, or are connected with, those who take drugs, there is, of course, a huge effect on families. As the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said in the previous debate, 80 per cent of drug users are on benefits and are, presumably, unemployable. The point that I particularly wish to bring to the attention of the House-it has not yet been referred to-is the effect of drug use on children. They are affected in all sorts of ways. When parents are on drugs, they do not give their children love, care and attention. Children who truant, commit crimes and move into gangs come from dysfunctional families. A substantial group of dysfunctional families in this country are those in which one or both parents take drugs. Children as young as 10 to 12 are recruited as runners and by the time they are 18 are dealers on housing estates. By the time they are 18, they are dealers. That is a terrible aspect of life in some parts of the country.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page