Drug Use and Possession: Royal Commission — Question for Short Debate
Baroness Meacher (Crossbench)
My Lords, I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for initiating this debate. The case for a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is of course overwhelming. No one today would seriously argue that the possession of cannabis should be punished with a maximum penalty of two years or an unlimited fine, as in the Act. Likewise, surely no one would argue that seven years in prison should be on the statute book at all as a possible response to the possession of a few ecstasy tablets.
It is important for us to be clear about the meaning of success in the drugs field these days. The big change in the last 40 years has been the universal recognition that the call for a drug-free world was nothing but a pipe dream. The key question is what policies will minimise the level of drug addiction and of personal and societal harm. I applaud the Government's emphasis on recovery, but that policy would be vastly more effective if it were introduced alongside the decriminalisation of drug users.
Many countries have introduced health-oriented approaches alongside decriminalisation, with positive results. The Portuguese policy, as already mentioned, of decriminalising the possession of up to 10 days' supply of all drugs, linked to active treatment, has astonished the faint-hearted. Far from leading to a drugs tourist industry-which was well predicted-and soaring levels of drug addiction, the policy is recognised internationally to have been a resounding success. In many ways, the most important finding is that for young people-13 to 15 year-olds and 16 to 18 year-olds-the prevalence rates have declined in Portugal for virtually every substance since decriminalisation. This is the more remarkable because it goes against the trend of the surrounding countries that still have tough criminalising drug laws.
Of course, Portugal is not the only country that has moved away from criminalisation. Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, 13 states in the US and many other countries have liberalised drug policies in a range of ways. In no case have these liberal policies led to a general increase in drug use, more crime or more harm to individuals-quite the opposite. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, we need evidence. Actually, we have it and lots of it. The Czech Republic is particularly interesting. It introduced criminalisation in 1999, undertook a detailed scientific study which showed that criminalisation had been a disaster, and in 2010 reversed the policy and decriminalised drug use. Even the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime concluded in a recent document that,
"punishment is not the appropriate response to persons who are dependent on drugs".
Surely our Government needs to take account of the UNODC.
We do not impose criminal penalties on patients suffering with cancer or heart disease. Of course, it is self-evident that such a response would be not only unethical but also counterproductive. Exactly the same arguments apply to drug addiction-punishment is unethical and counterproductive. The new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, which I chair, together with the Beckley Foundation, supports further research on drug policies and the drafting of a new UN convention permitting-not asking-countries to introduce more liberal drug policies.
We are now 50 years on from the single convention of 1961, when it was hoped that drugs could be eliminated through tough, criminalising policies. These policies have failed. A royal commission lasting I hope no more than 12 months would be sufficient to pull together the evidence. If this were followed by sensible drug policy reform, it would do more to generate a safer world, reduce conflict and weaken al-Qaeda and criminal gangs across the world than any other initiative I can think of. The case for change has been made. I hope the Minister will be able to respond positively.