Drug Classification System

– in the House of Lords at 2:20 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench 2:20, 2 March 2006

rose to call attention to the drug classification system; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, the subject of our debate is clearly not a great crowd puller on a Thursday afternoon. It is nevertheless a subject of great importance, but I do not wish to restrict the debate to consideration of the drug classification system. It is a subject of great controversy and is highly topical as 1 March saw the publication of the 100-page annual report of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board and a 60-page report The Evidence Base for the Classification of Drugs, which was prepared by the Rand Corporation for the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. The United Nations report received quite a bit of press coverage because it voiced concern about the increasing use in the United States of methamphetamine or crystal meth, which can be made from household products and is expected to spread to Europe.

We last addressed this subject in June 2003, some five months after the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. We now address the subject again, following the Government's recent decision to maintain the classification of cannabis as class C. That decision was much influenced by the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in its December report, which stated that,

"the slow decline in cannabis use since 1998 has been sustained following reclassification and there is no evidence at present of any short-term increase in consumption among young people since reclassification".

That came as a surprise to many, including the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, who admitted his surprise in his Statement to the House of Commons on 19 January, reported at col. 984 of Commons Hansard. In the same Statement, the Home Secretary announced his intention to publish a consultation paper within the next few weeks with suggestions for a review of the drug classification system, which dates from the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Rand Corporation report to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, to which I have already referred, will provide valuable evidence for that exercise.

But is this enough? It seems to me that what we should really be doing is reviewing the whole basis of our national drugs policy and initiating an open debate on the pros and cons of prohibition versus regulation and control. Such a review was last undertaken by the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs in May 2002. The committee considered the option of decriminalisation and control, but its report concluded:

"While acknowledging that there may come a day when the balance may tip in favour of legalising and regulating some types of presently illegal drugs, we decline to recommend this drastic step".

The Government accepted that conclusion and retain their blanket opposition to decriminalisation, regulation and control.

Nevertheless, I intend to go through once again the important arguments that fully justify a rethink of current policy. First and foremost, it is clear that the prohibitionist war against drugs is not being won. Drugs are readily available and supply has grown hugely over the past 30 years. The world trade in drugs is said to be the second largest market after oil. Can it be right that it should be wholly in the hands of criminal organisations? I believe that this is the strongest argument for change.

Then there are the costs involved. We are told that more than 50 per cent of the inmates of our overcrowded prisons are there for drug-related crimes. The total cost of drug-related crime and its social consequences is estimated to be up to £18 billion per annum, which compares with an annual excise revenue on alcohol and tobacco of more than £10 billion. Clearly, if drugs were subject to taxation and controls similar to those on alcohol and tobacco, a major revenue source would be available to finance all-important education programmes in schools, as well as vital rehabilitation and harm-reduction schemes around the country.

Another extremely important benefit of legalisation would be quality control. The licensing and regulation of individual substances would provide the same quality guarantees that exist for alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical products. Sales would be via licensed premises or pharmacies, depending on the substances concerned.

There is also the issue of human rights. To what extent is it the responsibility of the state to protect individuals from damaging themselves? We live in an age when the nanny state interferes more and more in our individual liberties. In the case of drugs laws, has it gone one step too far? It is clearly the duty of the state to prevent injury and damage to third parties and property, but our current drug laws manifestly fail to do that. The Rand Corporation report, to which I referred earlier, states that in the UK:

"Around four million people use illegal drugs each year. Most of those people do not appear to experience harm from their drug use, nor do they cause harm to others as a result of their habit".

However, unlike those who smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, they are criminals.

I have tried in the time available to draw attention to the main arguments for a change in national drug policy towards legal regulation and control. The arguments are very strong and I find it most depressing that the Government can continue to renounce them in favour of blanket prohibition. Why are politicians so reluctant even to discuss the pros and cons of decriminalisation and control? Apart from a reluctance to admit to failure, there is the fear of electoral condemnation. It is assumed that the British public is instinctively against legalisation and would reject any moves in that direction. But the British public has not been given the benefit of an open debate. There is also the presumption that legalisation would give rise to a massive increase in usage. The experience of the decline in cannabis usage after reclassification suggests that that might not necessarily be the case, given a properly informed and focused educational campaign.

The real difficulty is that this is not just a national issue, but a global one. We are bound by the 1998 United Nations convention on international co-operation in the drugs field, and there would clearly be serious risks in going it alone. So what can realistically be achieved? There are two initiatives that the Government might pursue. The first is simply to bring the subject out into the open and sponsor an independent study not just of the drug classification system as currently proposed, but also of current policies of prohibition versus the pros and cons of regulation and control. Secondly, we should talk more with our neighbours in Europe and see if any common ground can be established. It is perhaps an area where Europe could take the lead.

It is a huge and controversial subject. I look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords in our debate this afternoon, and I await with interest the reaction of the Minister. I am afraid that I have strayed somewhat from the basic theme of the Motion. Nevertheless, I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 2:30, 2 March 2006

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for introducing a subject which, as he said, we have not discussed for some years. I have no professional qualifications for speaking on this subject, but I used to be chairman of a charity that intervened when drug addicts were referred to it. It was called City Roads, and it was a very good institution. I learned a lot about drug addiction in those days. But I must also confess that I smoked cannabis in my youth and, not knowing that I would be in politics later on, I even confessed to enjoying it. Had I remembered, I would have said I did not enjoy it then but, sad to say, that probably brought my career to a premature end.

It is, as the noble Lord said, somewhat paradoxical that we have been fighting a war against drugs for, so far as I remember, 40 years, if not longer. The war has not been won, for several reasons. One simple reason is that, by banning drugs, we have made the price of them a premium, which makes it extremely profitable for people to trade in them. You often hear about the lack of development in Africa; people say that there is no infrastructure, there are no roads, and there is no enterprise. But drug dealers get everywhere—roads or no roads. Drugs can travel across the world. They can be delivered. People probably pay five or six times what they would pay if drugs were legal, apart from the fact that legal drugs would be safer. As the noble Lord said, there are health consequences of using drugs in their impure form, over and above any other health consequences of using them.

We are making drug dealing extremely profitable, and we are endangering the lives of those people who choose to be on drugs. We are supposed to be completely horrified and morally outraged by drugs, but is it likely that, 20 years from now, some trembling politician will say, "I used to smoke cigarettes, and I actually enjoyed it, I am sorry to say"? Our attitude to tobacco has gone towards stopping people smoking, and I think that our attitude to drugs should travel in exactly the other direction. Indeed, we ought to find out what actual harm various drugs do. I know that there are all sorts of alarmist stories, but the drug classification system does take harm into account. There is logic to the A, B, C classification, and having classified drugs in that way, we ought to ask ourselves if we should instead concentrate police resources and other resources on cases in which drug rehabilitation is needed, rather than waste a lot of resources on trying to arrest criminals.

What is important, as the noble Lord said, is that drugs are supplied safely and in a controlled way for various purposes to people who want them, and in a way that allows us to know who is getting what. If we know that, we may be able to warn them, just as we do now with labels on cigarette packets and food and so on, about the consequences of taking such a drug. Again, if people want to do these things and if they are adults of sound mind, I do not see why we should stop them. We still allow alcohol. I am not advocating the banning of alcohol but, on health grounds, one would logically go down that road because alcohol is a drug. So we do make distinctions between drugs.

We have become paranoid about drugs. In the past, as readers of Sherlock Holmes will know, many drugs were not banned at all. By legalising and decriminalising the sale and purchase of drugs and bringing them into the open through proper commercial channels where we can exercise control over their production and trace legally and officially the people who are buying them, we can follow them through and see whether there are adverse health consequences. That would be a very good and welcome step. We had the Runciman report a while ago. It was not fully acted on, but we should perhaps re-examine the whole subject.

Let me give one more example of how this has quite a strong effect in the international context. The fact that America has adopted a very anti-drug attitude has clearly upset many Latin American countries. The recent election of Morales in Bolivia was all to do with the resentment that Bolivians felt about their one product—cacao leaves—being banned in America. All that happens is that it is transported illegally and the Americans get heavy and send agents down there. That is one example. I do not see why Bolivia should be prevented from growing cacao leaves if it wants to. Think of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we are trying very hard not to let these people grow any opium. But what do we do under the common agricultural policy? We buy up these crops and pay people good money for them. I have said this to Hilary Benn, and I will say it again here: a much more sensible policy would be for the Government to establish a monopoly of purchase. They should not prevent production, but should let them grow the crops and buy them up. Those crops might have other uses, or they can be burnt.

We waste much more money under the common agricultural policy on European sugar, but do not let me go down that road or I shall foam at the mouth. We really have to rethink our drug policy because, again as the noble Lord said, it has become a big trade because we have made it profitable by making it illegal. So long as we make it illegal, we will not win the war against drugs.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative 2:39, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I cannot help commenting on the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I think that it was President Nixon who resolved to buy the Afghan poppy crop in the mid 1970s. Professor Milton Friedman questioned it as a policy and President Nixon did not buy the crop. At that time, the United States' entire consumption in a year was one tonne and the crop was 10 tonnes. He was so alarmed that he refused to buy it, at what we would now regard as a cheap price. It is interesting to note, three or four years after the allies' invasion of Afghanistan—one of the main reasons for which was to eradicate the poppy—that this year's poppy crop will be 40,000 tonnes. What a really successful policy that was. That is the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, draws to our attention today.

Most of us who have been involved in drug issues realised long ago that while cannabis was in class B, it would sit more comfortably in class C. The reason no one has made a fuss about this since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed 34 years ago is that it does not really matter and nobody really cares. Most people, including me, do not know what the precise criteria are that lead one drug to be put in class A, B or C, except that we assume that what you might colloquially call the most nasty or dangerous drugs are in class A, and the softest, weakest and least harmful in class C. I have worked in the field for 20 years, and I have never met anybody who could tell me precisely the definition, or why there should be three categories. Why not have six, eight, 25 or 312? I have absolutely no idea and neither does anybody else.

We know that class A drugs attract higher penalties and that class C drugs attract lesser penalties. That is probably all that we know. The controversy surrounding classification arose only when the Home Secretary of the day, David Blunkett, proposed to reclassify cannabis from B to C and immediately created a great row. If you stand back and look at it, on the scale of important things to do in drug policy, this one comes pretty near the bottom.

I am not sure whether your Lordships or Members of another place who spend their lives in what is now called the Westminster village—the strange, introverted world of politics—know this, but despite drugs being the most serious, damaging and costly social issue facing Britain today, the question of which class of drugs cannabis is in is a matter of supreme unimportance, as it makes no difference to those who take them or might take them, their parents, teachers or policemen.

The Power commission report on the state of our democracy, which was published and launched with great fanfare on Monday, made a great point about how the political establishment has become divorced from reality. There is no better example of this than the drugs issue. Politicians are so busy not sending the wrong message and being tough that they have completely forgotten that, outside Westminster, a whole world does not care whether they are weak or tough, and merely wants them to be effective. At the moment, the policy is completely ineffectual.

The trouble with reclassification is that when the row took place, the Home Secretary lost his nerve, and having decided to lower the classification, raised the penalties, which effectively meant that we were back where we started. The only effect of the change was therefore that everybody—the general public, parents, children, policemen, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh—was even more confused than when they started. The Government will doubtless tell us that the result has been a reduction in cannabis use. Lots of organisations will tell us that there has been an increase. I say to your Lordships, "Just wait and see". We have seen reductions before, and we know that people do not tell the truth about their drug use or their sex lives, which is why those surveys are so inaccurate. We know, however, that over a period of years we see an inexorable rise. If there has been a bit of a blip this year, it would be great if it really meant that drug use was levelling out and lowering, but I doubt it. Let us wait and see.

We now have another furore because the Government have talked about changing the classification back from C to B, on the basis of some new evidence. The report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, to which the Home Secretary is rightly obliged to listen, is prayed in aid by both sides in this argument. Again, I urge your Lordships to exercise a bit of caution. There has always been a link between cannabis and mental health, and there always will be. We do not understand the link. Quite a lot of research has been done, and more research comes out every year. Like most research, it produces not an answer but more questions. The incidence of schizophrenia has not increased in society in this country or across the world, but the incidence of cannabis use has. Presumably, the link between mental illness and cannabis would therefore also go up—it is kind of obvious.

New research that came out recently shows that people with a propensity for mental illness may be attracted to cannabis because it does something for them that it does not do for other people. We do not know what that link is; we do not understand it yet—we need more research. But the bottom line—horrible phrase—is that although there are some interesting new snippets, there is no evidence to suggest that there is a massive increase in mental illness due to cannabis use and there are no grounds to change the policy again.

Rather as the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said, if you think that as a cornerstone of our national policy on drugs, illegal drugs should be classified in three groups, it is not entirely unreasonable to think that cannabis should be in class C. That is not saying that the Government managed the process well, because they did not, and that is what has caused the problem.

The debate surrounding the reclassification of cannabis is only a small part of the picture. If you think it is a difficult area, as most of us do, you have to look behind reclassification, as the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said, to the Misuse of Drugs Act, which is the centre of the Government's policy and has been for 34 years. I can think of no other social policy whose centrepiece is an Act of Parliament that is 34 years old and was pretty much cobbled together in the first place. However, we can agree with the philosophy behind the Act.

The perception 34 years ago, when much less was known, was that drugs were not a good thing. They are bad for the people who take them; drug-taking injures the health, harms the families of the drug-taker and damages the communities in which those families live. Putting aside the fact that most people take drugs without any harm, injurious effect or legal problems, that philosophy is pretty much right. It is desirable that we as a community, a society and a government reduce drug use. That has to be a good idea.

The philosophy is simple: drugs do harm, so you ban them, so nobody can take them, so the harm you fear does not come about. Problem solved. The trouble is, it did not and does not work like that. It is not that prohibition is wrong but that it does not work. We cannot ban these drugs because people want them; if they want them, somebody will supply them, particularly as they make a huge profit out of them. As the noble Lord said, this is reputedly the second biggest industry in the world. Like all illegal industries, it feeds on a black market.

The rise in crime in the western world during the course of my adult life is entirely down to drugs—nothing else. That crime is a direct consequence of a government policy to create prohibition. That is why our criminal courts are stretched to breaking point, why our prisons are overcrowded and why our police cannot do the job our citizens want them to do every day. That is why WPCs get shot on the streets of Nottingham, as that lady was two weeks ago; she was shot by a cocaine dealer, with a gun. That is why he was there—he was in the drugs trade. That is why policemen get shot at; that is why we have gun crime and gang crime. That is why each successive criminal justice Bill contains a tiny measure which will suddenly tip the balance after 30 years and make everything all right. But it does not—it will not work and it is rubbish. The emperor has no clothes. The policy cannot, does not, and will never work. But it will not be discussed and it will not be changed because elected politicians can never appear to be weak.

If you are not tough on drugs, you are weak. But we are not tough on drugs. The week before last, a pop star called Pete Doherty, whom I had never heard of before, was arrested and convicted of seven counts of possession of class A drugs—his second or third offence. He got a six-month community order. What more do you have to do to go to prison?

Prisons are not full of people taking drugs; they are full of people who were working in the illegal drugs industry and end up on drugs because they have gone to prison, paid for by you and me. The illegal drugs problem is costing the British taxpayer £16 billion a year, with £12 billion of that spent on the criminal justice system. Last year's report by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, for the Cabinet Office made it clear that that has absolutely no effect on the level of drugs on our streets or the harm that drugs cause.

As the noble Lord said in opening, this is a complex subject, difficult to deal with in a short debate. I will leave your Lordships with a question at a human level. We either change the policy or we continue it pretty much as it is. The question that your Lordships have to ask yourselves at a human level is simple. If, like me, you are a parent—some of your Lordships are; and some, extraordinarily enough, are grandparents—when your child, grandchild or their friend goes out to buy a drug—we know that 25 per cent of them buy cannabis and others will buy other drugs—do you want them to buy them from a state-controlled outlet at a reasonable price knowing what they are buying in the safest possible way, which I think is a better idea; or do you, like the Government, want them to go out and buy an unknown substance at a vast price from an armed and extremely dangerous criminal on a darkened street? I know which I would prefer; I look forward to hearing what the Government prefer.

Photo of Baroness Murphy Baroness Murphy Crossbench 2:51, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I want to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for raising the debate, not least because I agree with every word he said, and every word the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, and with that tour de force by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. I am a psychiatrist, and your Lordships will expect that I will address some of the issues to do with mental health and cannabis. It is worth repeating some of the recent evidence, if only because I totally accept that it is less than clear and we need to carry out better research. The evidence emerging over the past 20 years will become much clearer. I am reminded of the evidence on the harmful effects of smoking, and how that emerged from the first early warning signs. I will speak a little about my experience on the drug issue.

I am slightly concerned, particularly after the balanced report that I would have expected from the advisory committee on the misuse of drugs, that the evidence has been prayed in aid to both causes. It is typically well-written and well-researched and advice comes from a cautious scientific committee, but nevertheless they are looking at current evidence that could be said to be methodologically sound. That means that it is a cautious interpretation. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, and we probably all agree, we want to minimise the overall harm that drugs can do to individuals, their families and society. I suggest that cannabis should not be reclassified as a class B drug; all the evidence points to further decriminalisation and probably also for many other drugs rather than a return to a punitive approach.

I should say straightaway that I part company with my fellow members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists on the issue. We are as one on the evidence of harm but differ in our approach to policy. What is the current research evidence linking cannabis use and mental illness? There are many community psychiatrists like myself who have witnessed a major increase in admissions of young people for transient and episodic scizophreniform psychoses, particularly in the inner city. That has not affected the national statistics, but if we look at inner city London and the admissions for schizophrenia and schizophrenia-like illnesses among young populations in inner urban areas, we will find that there has been an increase in drugs in those diagnoses and there has certainly been a dramatic increase in so-called dual diagnosis with psychotic illnesses of people taking both cannabis and also some other drugs.

Of course, many of us had an increasing suspicion for many years that cannabis was the chief culprit for some of this. However, because so many people take a mixture of drugs, we never know when we are doing clinical work—we have no evidence; all we see is the people before us and we receive an overwhelming clinical impression of the effect. Certainly the interpretation of studies has always been difficult, but prospective studies from populations in Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand suggest that the lifetime risk of schizophrenia or schizophrenia-like psychotic illnesses is between two and four times as great over and above what it would be normally for both light and heavy users.

We might say that that is still low, as the lifetime risk of incidence of schizophrenia and schizophrenic illnesses is between 0.8 and 1 per cent of the population. It is therefore extremely small. Nevertheless, an increase has a profound socio-economic and human effect on the family of those individuals who suffer from it. We should take it a little more seriously in terms of the general harm. I am not talking just about awakening a genetic predisposition. The effect is probably not simply a bringing forward of psychoses in predisposed individuals, although that clearly occurs too. The studies are not methodological and watertight. We need much better designed prospective studies and we must not downplay the current state of evidence, because we will see over the next few years a rise in some anxiety about its overall impact.

However, it seems to me that pro-drug websites for regular users seem to be minimizing the risk and the serious educational challenge that exists. The risk seems to be dose-related—the higher the dose, the longer the period of exposure and the worse the effect—but that needs confirmation. These episodes of illness are clinically very difficult to treat because of the continuing use of the drug and the interference with antipsychotic medications. They tend to be highly relapsing conditions and—this is a personal view; we do not have any studies to demonstrate it—the lifetime outcome seems to be poor. We need to know a great deal more and have much longer studies of the outcomes.

Of course, there are many rather more obvious and well-accepted side effects to heavy use of cannabis, notably the impact on driving and accidents generally; the adverse effects on a pregnant woman's foetus; and so on. Again, those risks are linked to heavy consumption and therefore the evidence of serious harm to a proportion of drugs users exists. Despite that, I see no sense in turning back the clock. About a quarter of young people use cannabis regularly. As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, the figures are rather stable at present. It is hard to know whether they are going slightly up or slightly down, but they have not been changed since reclassification. I remind your Lordships that it was reclassified because in reality, especially in inner city areas, the police did not enforce the class B regime anyway. They were already implementing a class C approach.

In inner east London we have known for years that the police would not prosecute for modest possession and were entirely uninterested in the endemic drug culture of our hospital mental health wards. Turning the clock back would have no impact at all. The horse has already bolted, young people smoke cannabis, and that is that. I do not see any evidence that the heavy approach ever worked. The empty rhetoric about getting tough and cracking down merely uses up a lot of police and court time, fills the pockets of criminals supplying illegal drugs and turns occasional drug users and misusers into criminals too. I would much rather we brought cannabis and indeed all potent psychotropic drugs under the same controls and fiscal opportunities as alcohol and tobacco, both of which are far more dangerous to more people than cannabis.

We need a greater balance of government expenditure to go on realistic public education, especially in primary and secondary schools, about the realities of drugs and the real risks for some people. I believe that young people will respond well to accurate and balanced information, but they are rightly sceptical of inaccurate drug scares. They need to keep their eyes on the website to learn about the realities. We need far greater short-term and longer-term rehabilitation services for those already damaged by the drug, which would be a far better way to reduce the harm and allow parents and teachers to take a more realistic approach to this widespread habit.

The recent debate about reclassification has helped raise awareness of the dangers of cannabis, but this needs to be reinforced by a major public health campaign. How much effective youth education can really be delivered by the £700 million or so that I was told we are spending on implementing an ineffective criminalisation policy on drugs?

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench 3:00, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I apologise for missing the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, but thank him for introducing this debate. I am afraid that I had not reckoned on the previous debate finishing slightly early. I was in the City. Hurry as I might, I did not quite make it in time.

I have known quite a few people who have been involved with drugs or been serious addicts at various times in their lives. I do not have an addictive personality and I have not had a problem with drugs, though one or two people might accuse me of occasionally having a tipple too much of alcohol.

Over the years, I have become aware that every culture has a drug; every culture needs some form of release. A certain percentage of people in any society cannot handle day-to-day reality. They become stressed easily or they have some mental problems or whatever. They need something to cushion them from that reality. Whatever you do, you are never going to change that. What worries me about our drugs policy is that we end up criminalising something that is much more of a medical problem. That is the wrong way to go about it. Whether cannabis leads to various things or heroin produces this, that and the other is a chicken-and-egg problem. Did the fact that a person had certain tendencies and certain mental problems lead them to use a drug which helped them with that problem, whether the drug was legal or not; or was it the other way round? There is a great assumption that everybody is born normal and that we would all become well-balanced bureaucrats were it not for all these other influences in life. Life is not like that. Humanity is a broad spectrum which extends from extreme risk-takers and those who want excitement, to those who have mental problems and cannot handle life, to others who want intense safety and no danger in their lives.

Our mistake was to start to criminalise something that was really a problem with people's personalities. As a result, we handed huge potential profit to the drugs suppliers. If we really want to tackle the problem, the first thing that we need to do is to take the profit out of the supply chain. That does not mean that one makes drugs more criminal. Under the Prohibition, several large American political families made their huge profits. Some of us may be rather looking forward to the prohibition of tobacco-smoking as offering huge potential for making a lot of money in the next few years.

Another problem is that if one ends up pushing people into the hands of the criminal fraternity for their supply chain, the criminals will tend to move them on to things to which they are not necessarily suited. They will try to move people from soft drugs to hard drugs. I do not agree with the argument that soft drugs do not lead to hard drugs. Who in this House started drinking whisky before they had a pint of beer? One does not usually start on the whisky. It would be natural to try the less hard drug first. If one puts those people in the hands of others who have a financial incentive to move them to a harder and more addictive drug, one is doing exactly the wrong thing to achieve one's aim. Therefore, the whole idea that one classifies a drug to send a signal is completely the wrong approach. One ends up imprisoning people who need to be handled gently.

I have looked up some figures, though I had trouble finding them. In 1970, we had 1,299 registered heroin addicts. I remember that there were reckoned to be about as many unregistered addicts. Those were the days when the doctors controlled the supply. I know that most people talk about cannabis, but these problems are interrelated. Heroin was studied more, so more figures are available. It is apparent that while doctors controlled the supply of the people who had a problem and therefore needed to be kept on some drug—it does not matter whether one uses an opiate or some other form of drug to control their mental problem—the system worked. There was not the same, huge pressure on the wider community. That may have occurred anyway as part of a global trend, but it would not have been so bad. However, we suddenly took control out of the hands of doctors and left no support system for a while, as a result of which people fell into the hands of the pushers. The criminal groups moved in and, a few years later, we had a major problem. To anyone who is interested in the matter, I would recommend a book called Heroin Century written in 2002 by Tom Carnwath and Ian Smith. It was sent to me by a friend whose son had a problem, because we were discussing it. I agreed with the arguments in the book. They did not form my opinions; I already had opinions which the book very much reinforced by presenting research by two GPs who had worked in a practice which had had to deal with these problems. One of them had never taken drugs; the other was a reformed addict.

Many people take the absolute view that once you are hooked, you are hooked for ever. That is not necessarily so. People grow out of drugs. I have never been into smoking cannabis—I am not a smoker—but could one honestly say that one could avoid being at a party at university at which something was passed round at the end? I do not know how many noble Lords present could stand up and say that they were never at such a party.

Noble Lords:

We can.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, are those noble Lords claiming that they have never been at a party where a joint has been passed round? Either they have lived in a very sheltered world—an ivory tower—or they really do not know what has been going on around them, in which case I am very worried about their powers of observation. For every one or two of those noble Lords, I could produce friends who probably do. However, I have noticed that my friends have largely grown out of these things. I have not noticed joints being passed round for a long time. Behaviour is never irretrievable. People grow up and they grow out of things. We need to be aware of that. So we sometimes go overboard about these matters. The taking of drugs needs to be treated not so much as a criminal problem as a medical problem.

Another problem is that we are becoming increasingly obsessed with safety. One cannot take risks; all risk is removed. One cannot indulge in anything that is dangerous or might hurt. One cannot climb trees; one cannot do contact sports; one cannot do anything. What is happening to the risk-takers? If one is by nature a risk-taker who enjoys an adrenaline rush, one is either going out to do very silly, dangerous things or one is going to kill the impulse with some drug which blankets one's natural metabolism.

We have to bring some risk-taking back into life and accept that some people will be injured doing silly things like I used to, such as climbing cliffs, jumping out of aeroplanes and climbing mountains with the wrong kit. For the greater good, maybe we should go down that route. Otherwise there will be some very bored people who will turn to things like drugs to ease the pain of not being allowed to do anything with their lives. Their playing fields are being sold, there is nowhere for them to go and nothing for them to do. You have to look at that side.

If we are going to control and decriminalise drugs to an extent, how should we do it? Some of it can be done through GPs; some of it, if it is considered less harmful, can be done through controlled doses. We have huge experience, through alcohol and tobacco suppliers, of controlling drugs. They do not always get it right, but in general we have a very good means of control. I think we need to look at this more in those terms, rather than trying to lock a whole lot of people up for what is basically a mental problem.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 3:09, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving your Lordships the opportunity to discuss the serious problem of drug abuse. It is some time since this menace to society has been discussed in your Lordships' House. I should explain that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, has just arrived; therefore I am speaking before him.

When the classification of cannabis was downgraded, I was concerned because of the confusion. It went from class B to C and some types went from class A to C. That was liquid cannabis, cannabinol and cannabinol derivatives—tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. There are over 20 varieties of cannabis plant, from hemp, which contains 0 per cent THC, to skunk, which contains very high quantities of THC. Skunk can be very strong indeed. There is no doubt that the different classifications can cause confusion to the police at street level.

For young people, who seem most at risk, classification does not seem to come into their drug-taking. They are more interested in the effects, in what it will do to them and their friends. It is difficult to understand why so many young people are attracted to drugs; but so many want to challenge society and rebel against their parents and school. I asked one of my goddaughters why she had taken drugs. She said:

"At that time I wanted to be as naughty as I possibly could".

Many seem to want to shut themselves away from the realities of life. A young man called Daniel said about life with a cannabis addiction:

"At first, with cannabis, it became so much easier to float by unnoticed. But then you became paranoid. You are quick to assume the world is not going to make a place for you. Through drugs I have come close to destroying myself, but sometimes the only option is to be in this oblivious state. No one, at 23, who has been into cannabis for years, can get away with saying it does not mess your head up. If you are smart, and have potential, and you do drugs for too long, it takes you further away from a healthy, balanced way of living, which is what you secretly wanted in the first place—with that first joint".

There is such a confusing message. In 2001, 490 patients were admitted to hospital as a result of excessive use of cannabis. There were 710 admissions in each of the past two years. Several recent studies have demonstrated the links between cannabis and schizophrenia. Professor Robin Murray, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and one of the leading researchers in the field, estimates that 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness if they had not used cannabis. In the UK, 250,000 people experience psychosis, a term that refers to symptoms, including delusions and hallucinations, rather than a specific diagnosis. Cannabis, whatever the classification, should not be called a safe drug. It is not just the number of cases of schizophrenia and psychosis that is a concern but the thousands of people who have lost a future. Perhaps that is one reason why we must employ so many people who come from eastern Europe.

Cannabis promotion is in a state of confusion. If you look up "skunk" on the Internet, you will find advertisements for Secret Seeds, your online SeedSuperStore, or cannabis seeds from Cannabis Heaven, with a grow guide detailing 39 chapters of growing secrets to ensure your maximum success. Surely that sort of advertising is wrong; it is marketed towards young people. If advertising for underage drinkers is wrong, surely promoting dangerous seeds is wrong. Is there anything that can be done to stop this? No doubt, it is promoted from other countries.

One added problem is the mixing of drugs with alcohol. I wonder how alcohol would be classified, as its mixing with drugs is something that makes it more dangerous. I have attended two funerals of young people who both died from a combination of drugs and alcohol—one son and one daughter of friends. It was so sad to see so many young people at the two churches who came to say goodbye to two wasted and lost lives.

There have been some terrible murders or stabbings in the past few years. Are the Government going to look into the working of the National Probation Service throughout the country after it has been found to have let John Monkton's murderers roam the streets, when one of them, Elliot White, should have been in custody pending a court appearance in regards to cocaine and heroin? The classification of those class A drugs made no difference; the probation service still let that family down. Will the service learn lessons—or are there many other dangerous drug users not being supervised throughout the country by the probation service?

The problems of dangerous drugs change and seem to get worse. The problem is global. What is happening about crystal meth, which is said to be more potent and deadly than crack? There have been warnings from the police and health experts of its dangers; it is also known as "ice". Is it a class A or class B drug? The effects can be devastating, including psychosis and heart and lung problems, and it can cause extreme violence. It can be injected. What is the increase in HIV and hepatitis C among drug users who inject? We have not had an update recently.

There should be far more education on the dangers and effects of drug use. The Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust has sent me a list of the prisons in which it provides drug treatment programmes and CARAT teams. That includes 20 establishments. This week, Styal Prison has been highlighted on television as having 80 per cent of inmates who are involved in some form of drug abuse. RAPt does not include Styal in its list of prisons for which it is providing treatment programmes. With so many problems in Styal, will the Minister tell noble Lords what plans there are to give some help, which seems to be needed urgently in that prison?

The need for prevention and rehabilitation seems a bigger priority than classification, as all drugs are dangerous.


The reference to Styal Prison, highlighted on TV (March 2006) as having "80% of inmates who are involved in some form of drug abuse" is shocking. With "so many problems in Styal", Government must take urgent action to keep women out of prison whenever possible. Women convicted of non-violent offences should instead be given community sentences, which are more cost-effective. Those suffering mental illness should receive treatment in hospital, not be sent to a place of punishment.
A BBC report, published July 2006, reveals worrying levels of corruption in the Prison Service: smuggling drugs and phones into jails; "inappropriate relationships" with prisoners, etc.
Is there no-one in Government with the courage to deal with these problems?
[Bereaved mother of Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, 18, who died in the 'care' of HMP Styal, 18.01.03]

Submitted by Pauline Campbell

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour 3:19, 2 March 2006

My Lords, first, I make my profuse apologies for not being here to hear the opening statement of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I was stuck in a local traffic jam which was impossible to get out of. I crave noble Lords' indulgence, and I shall limit my remarks accordingly.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, and welcome the debate, because I feel that there are no easy or perfect answers to the question of classification of drugs. Prohibition on its own is no solution, as the USA found to its cost in relation to alcohol. But legislation also brings problems. Continuing with the alcohol analogy, we see binge drinking and alcohol-induced crime including drink-driving. So, even legalising does not eliminate the problem. If we must make a choice in that area, the Government are right to pursue a drug strategy—and I emphasise that word "strategy"—based on control.

In legalising or reclassifying drugs, there is no guarantee that we will be abolishing crimes associated with them. Indeed, drug-induced crime will obviously still continue, as will people committing crime while under the influence of drugs. The painful truth is that if we were to reclassify and legalise, it would be a signal. I welcome, then, the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, in relation to young people.

Those of us playing our part in the continuation of the species, namely by having children, find it instructive to talk to them about what they know of drugs and who takes what within their peer group. I am going through the teenage phase a second time, since I enjoyed it so much; I have a 16 year-old son and an 18 year-old daughter. Smoking, despite all the warnings, still seems to be carried on, as if to say, "We don't care—that's tomorrow's problem". The same applies, perhaps to a lesser extent, to cannabis. They will sometimes take alcohol as well and combine all three, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said. So, we are talking about trying to change attitudes by educating and influencing young people. It is no easy task that the Government have undertaken; nevertheless, I believe it is absolutely the right one.

In the past, it was true to say that we could criticise government for failing to make available enough treatment centres or to spend enough money on the issue, but things are improving. If we look at the figures, the Government are increasing investment in drug treatment from £253 million in 2004–05 to £478 million. That is quite vital. Whether it is enough is still probably open to doubt, but we know that spending money on treatment is worth while. On a cost/benefit analysis, it definitely pays off.

There is a vital need to do something in prisons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, also said. I would say that it needs to be done in all prisons let alone the ones that have been rated. One would have to live in a state of some naiveté to think that there is not a drug problem in every prison. In dealing with that, it is vital that education and treatment are freely available. I hope that the Minister will focus rather more on that.

I was also interested to note the recent decision taken not to control khat, the drug indulged in by means of leaf-chewing mainly by some members of the Somali and Yemeni population of this country. I have experience of that since large amounts of it were being sold not far from me. I am not sure that we made the right decision on that. Stories told by Somali mothers about the destructive effects of khat on their families or how young boys are introduced to its use cause concern. With drugs such as khat—indeed, with most drugs—it is interesting to look at the supply chain. Why is there more khat coming into this country than perhaps there used to be? One reason is that coffee farmers in Ethiopia and certain other countries find that the price of coffee really does not make growing it worth while. Therefore, they grow something that is worth while. We know that that is true also of heroin and a number of other drugs.

So, broadly speaking, I welcome the efforts that the Government are making. We are heading in the right direction. I do not believe that reclassification would be a simple answer to an extremely complex problem. As for what happened with cannabis—and this is not to say that I necessarily deplore that decision; it was probably reasonable and pragmatic—whatever decision we take in these areas, the law of unintended consequences will always be there ready to haunt you.

There are no easy solutions. However, the Government are heading broadly in the right direction. There is no cause for complacency even though some of the figures on hard-drugs seizures and the crime associated with drugs show a reduction. We know that we cannot afford to relax vigilance in this area. I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. I repeat my apologies for arriving late, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Children), Education & Skills 3:25, 2 March 2006

My Lords, this has been an excellent and, perhaps I may say, courageous debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for introducing it at a time when it has become clear that government drugs policy is not working and is wasting both taxpayers' money and the lives of many of our citizens and their families. I agree with the noble Lord's wise words about the need for change.

I have no argument with the current drug classification system, apart from, possibly, the position of magic mushrooms there. However, the system is just one tool in our armoury, and should be treated as such. Like the noble Lord, I do not think that it is the system, but the UK's entire drugs policy, that needs review. Unfortunately, policy is being driven by political cowardice and the resulting tiered and judgmental punishment system, rather than all the evidence in favour of a better approach—treating drug addiction as a medical problem.

As the spokesman on children and education on these Benches I have naturally looked at recent research on drug use and how it affects young people in particular. I was horrified to learn from the recent House of Commons Select Committee report on the effect of scientific advice on drugs policy that the Home Office has undertaken research that shows that among young offenders the main ages for experimenting with drugs are between 11 and 14, although those are not the ages of the highest use. Some 44 per cent of those said that they had committed crime in order to buy drugs, alcohol or tobacco. I find those figures significant, because they show that we need to put much more emphasis on drugs education in primary schools, not just secondary schools.

Sadly, of the £1.5 billion the Government spend annually on the drugs problem, three-quarters is spent on enforcing drug laws, only 13 per cent on treatment and 12 per cent on education. Clearly that is the wrong way round, and other findings I will mention later reinforce that view. The £1.5 billion is a tiny percentage of the financial cost to the country of drug misuse, as other noble Lords have said.

One of the aims of the 10-year drugs strategy launched by the Government in 1998 was to increase drugs education, and it is true that most primary and secondary schools have drugs policies. But many teachers lack confidence in teaching about such issues. There has been some success, given that a recent British Crime Survey and a European study show that the number of young drug users is falling for all drugs except cocaine. That is encouraging but not really good enough.

The Government's "Talk to Frank" campaign website is all very well and has proved to be a valuable resource for children and their parents and teachers. However, the trouble with a website is that you have to proactively choose to go on to it. It is not "in your face" as some would put it. We need a totally different approach. I have noticed that drink-driving among the younger generation is no longer widespread because it is no longer cool. It is their peers who put pressure on young drinkers not to drive and vice versa. That indicates to me that we should look to how that has been achieved to obtain the same result in relation to drugs.

Hard and effective messages about the damage drugs can do to young people's lives need to be driven home through their own methods of communication, so that they cannot help coming across them. We need to use the advertising breaks between the television programmes that they like to watch. The messages need to be shown at the cinema, in the magazines that teenagers and even children read—and even on their mobile phones. I do not mean the preachy kind of messages, I mean the kind that bring to life, using real people, the destruction and havoc that drugs can wreak on the lives of drug users and their parents. Let us not shrink from using emotions. The current series of ads against smoking that show teenagers angry and in tears at the prospect of losing their parents to lung cancer through smoking would surely encourage any parent to give up the dreaded weed. Similar techniques should be used to reach both children and adults about drugs.

There has been a little bit of this in the past, but it has been discontinued, presumably because the cost of buying advertising time is great. But so is the cost of picking up the pieces when people become hard drug users, so the spend would be most worthwhile. Home Office research has proved that for every pound spent on treatment, at least £9 is saved in crime and health costs. I am not sure how easy it would be to make the same calculation about the cost-effectiveness of prevention through education, but I strongly suspect that the return would be even greater. The question we have to ask is: where should this money come from? I suggest that it should come from the discontinuance of some of the Government's current policies relating to drugs and a redirection of that money into treatment and education.

The recent report of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, to the policy unit, published recently in the Guardian and placed by that newspaper on the web shows a number of interesting and extremely significant conclusions. It shows that each harmful drug user causes an average of £75,000 worth of harm every year—nearly £60,000 of which is crime harms and the rest health harms. These people commit 56 per cent of all crime. In a year about two-thirds of these people will come into contact with either treatment or the criminal justice system but at any one moment 80 per cent of them are not in treatment but are out in the streets committing crimes to support their habit and destroying their lives and those of their families. Why? The noble Lord showed that in 2003, although 60,000 chaotic drug users were convicted in the courts, only 6,000 were given a sentence that dealt with their drug use. The courts seem to be dealing with the offence and not the underlying cause. The report also said that although 50,000 such people went to prison that year, only 5,000 of them received any treatment for their drug use. This is because of a combination of short sentences and lack of capacity in the prisons.

We have a revolving door into prison and ineffective treatment regimes. That is why the money should be spent on the most effective residential regimes and not those treatment programmes which are cheap and allow the Drug Action Teams to report large numbers in treatment rather than large numbers being effectively treated. I must declare an interest as a trustee of a residential drug and alcohol treatment charity called ADAPT, but my claims for the effectiveness of residential treatment are not biased but well proven.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, found no causal link between the availability of drugs and the incidence of drug use. Does that not show that all the money the police are spending trying to intercept drugs coming into the country is wasted? Should that money not be spent on education and treatment? We need to take away the markets of these evil people and re-open the debate about the decriminalisation of drugs. I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and others on this subject. We should spend the money saved on police enforcement on further taking away the markets through treatment and education.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, also recommended an increase in legal prescribing of hard drugs to chaotic users by medical practitioners. I agree with him and those, including the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, who said that drug treatment should be regarded as a medical problem. This has long been Liberal Democrat policy. Most of the fatalities are among those who do not know the strength or concentration of the drugs they are taking. Doctors prescribing clean drugs would be able to direct users into treatment where possible and could ensure that the amounts and quality of the drugs were safe, thereby reducing fatalities considerably. Prescribing is expensive, but is it not better to prescribe £15,000 worth of heroin per year than have the addict go out on the streets and commit four times that amount of crime?

We owe it to our children to protect them from the evils of drugs through effective and well thought out policies that are driven, not by prejudice or political expediency, but by facts. The report of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, are based on independently gathered facts. The conclusions that can be drawn from their findings are blindingly obvious, and have been outlined most effectively by many noble Lords today. The Government are culpable if they do not respond to them by radically changing the thrust of their policies and the way they spend our money, which is currently being so flagrantly wasted.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister for Constitutional Affairs & Legal Affairs (Also In Home Affairs Team), Constitutional Affairs, Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 3:35, 2 March 2006

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, has given us the opportunity to debate this subject and we are grateful to him for highlighting the terrible problem that is blighting our society. In my contribution I have not turned my mind to the legalisation of drugs, but concentrated on the situation in this country as of today.

As a parent and a grandparent, I can imagine the horror and misery that must be felt by the whole family when a young person, after experimenting with what they thought was a harmless and mildly naughty drug, has to spend the rest of his or her life dealing with the consequences of such a bad decision. I am only sorry that I cannot be more optimistic about government policy in this area, but instead add my voice to those who have been disappointed by previous and current steps by the Government.

We all know about the terrible effects that drugs, particularly cannabis, can inflict on users. New research is providing evermore evidence of the terrible mental and physical effects on cannabis users. These now include long-term illnesses such as schizophrenia, psychotic attacks and behavioural changes. Of course the great harm done by cannabis is not only felt by the user, nor is it just the drug's harmful medical effects that can blight people's lives. The networks of production and supply are a multi-million-pound business that funds all sorts of criminal activity. The sale and usage of the drug in a community leads to a neighbourhood becoming unsafe—or being perceived to be unsafe, which is in effect the same thing.

In the same way as a neighbourhood, a young person can also be sucked into a downward spiral of drug use, even without experiencing any of the adverse medical effects that will just as effectively blight his and his family's life. It has been clear for a long time that cannabis is a gateway for yet more serious drugs. Young people who start to experiment with cannabis frequently move on to more harmful, addictive and potent substances. By experimenting with cannabis, they come into contact with suppliers who can sell them other drugs and are only too happy to encourage greater usage, and, by becoming accustomed to the idea that a nominally illegal substance is in fact harmless and usage is not punished by the police, they are understandably less deterred from trying other drugs.

The Government's actions over the past few years have made the dangerous and demonstrably wrong belief that smoking cannabis is harmless and will not be punished by the police far more prevalent than it was, or needs to be. The Government frequently use the phrase "to send a clear message" to justify all sorts of knee-jerk reactions to current events. It is extraordinary that on this issue, where sending a message is of such critical importance, particularly to young and na-ve drug users, growers and suppliers, the Government fail to do even that.

Drug classification is a clear example of an area where Parliament can make a real difference in reducing harmful behaviour. Classification is not merely a tool for police to use for prioritising man hours, or for the courts to use to impose sentences of varying severity, although these are obviously important aspects to consider when changing classification. It is also critical in indicating clearly to the public medical opinion on the repercussions resulting from cannabis use and the severity with which it is viewed by the law.

Those wider effects of changes in the classification of a drug cannot be overestimated. The Metropolitan Police Authority's report on the effect of the reclassification of cannabis in 2004 showed confusion and misinformation among the public about the extent of the relaxation of penalties for cannabis possession, sale and production. As my noble friend Lord Mancroft said, some users, or potential users, even mistakenly believed that cannabis had been fully legalised, and many others believed that it had become of such low priority to the police that they would not be punished for flagrant use of it. It also had an impact on the public, who were reinforced in their belief that the police were unable and unwilling to tackle the low-level crime that blights communities and makes such an impact on people's lives.

Much of this confusion could have been cleared up by a statement that cannabis was once again a class B drug. The new medical evidence, the clear indications of the negative effects of the earlier downgrading of cannabis, and the opinion of so many of the professionals who deal with its effects, all show the wisdom of that step. Instead the Government have suggested a bewildering array of future reviews and reforms to a system that is now so unclear and inconsistent that it is hard to know, even with all the briefings I have received, exactly why certain drugs are in one category and not another. The confusion in consistency and the incompleteness of the current system is also clear in the treatment of other worrying drugs.

In particular, the refusal of the Government to place date-rape drugs, including GHB and Rohypnol, on the controlled list immediately is mystifying. The prevalence of those drugs and their use to abuse young women is now so widely appreciated that products such as special bottle stoppers that prevent the drugs being administered are sold to young people to take with them when they go out for an evening. Even the manufacturers of the drug have taken the problem so seriously that they now ensure that it will turn a drink to which it is added a bright colour. Yet the Government still refuse to make such drugs controlled substances. If ever there was a clear signal to would-be abusers that they are in no danger from the law, this is it.

The Government's only solution to the mess on the ground is an educational campaign, as so many noble Lords have said. Obviously, I fully welcome this as a much-needed step to address the effects of the original re-classification of cannabis and the continuing confusion over the classification system. I also welcome the simultaneous ACPO campaign designed to increase police effectiveness against the production of cannabis. Both are needed to prevent the further spread of cannabis use among young people, either because of a failure to appreciate the dangers, or because of an all-too-clear understanding of the slim chances of being pursued by the police for their actions.

It is hoped, too, that a thorough education campaign will help prevent future widespread usage of new drugs from taking hold in this country. An article in the Times yesterday on the subject not only listed some terrible statistics about the levels of cocaine and cannabis abuse in Britain, it highlighted the growing popularity, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, of methamphetamine or crystal meth, as it is known. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that the Government are not only addressing long-established substance abuse, but are anticipating future drug trends to prevent them ever taking hold here.

I am pleased that the Government are planning a significant review of the classification system. I hope that that will then clear up the perplexity over the various penalties and punishments that numerous changes have created in the past few years. However, I cannot help thinking that many young lives have already been irretrievably affected by the downgrading of cannabis, and that this wasted opportunity to send a message to users about the danger of their activity will not be given to us or them again. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, and can only hope that the promised public education campaign will produce extraordinary results without the support that the reclassifying of cannabis would have provided. At the end of this important debate, I now look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 3:45, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, on tabling this topic for discussion. It has been a very interesting and thought-provoking debate. All the contributions have had great merit and have added something distinctive to the quality and calibre of the discussion that the subject of drug classification always brings forward in your Lordships' House. At times, the debate descended into entertainment. I was amused or enlightened to hear from my noble friend Lord Desai that he had enjoyed cannabis when a student. I am sure that he is not alone in that experience. I would have expected nothing else of him.

However, I was a little worried about the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, finding it hard to pass up the opportunity of enjoying a spliff. I used to suffer far greater indignities and could never understand why I could not open my party seven at student parties and struggled to open the bottle of Hirondelle that always seemed to be forced on me at the time.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, I actually said that I did not enjoy smoking myself, but it was hard to be at a party at which someone was not smoking. It was the denial by only three Members of the House that they had ever been at a party which amused me. The rest of us tacitly, therefore, admitted that we probably had been.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, that is helpful, further elucidation. Those contributions were telling, welcome and entertaining in their own way. I was also very impressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, as I always am, for her invocation to the Government to become more scary in their campaign to frighten our younger generation about the dangers of drugs. We are certainly right to focus on that issue. It was also interesting to note that, in advancing her case, she quoted so favourably the noble Lord, Lord Birt. That is probably a first for the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Children), Education & Skills

My Lords, perhaps I may clarify one point. I do not agree with everything in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Birt. His comments that heroin consumption should be made a criminal offence is one with which I do not agree.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, we shall study that with interest and again I am grateful for the clarification. I had not meant to be so provocative at the outset of my speech.

The views of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, are trenchant and well-known. It is fair to say that they do not coincide with those of Her Majesty's Government on approaches to drug matters. That is not to say that the debate which he and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, together have advanced with such conviction is not worth having because I believe it is. It rightly focuses on a whole range of other concerns relating to the drugs issue.

The objective of all noble Lords in this debate is, I suspect, at one with their concern and commitment to reducing the harm done by drugs to individuals, families, communities and society at large. I believe that is a shared objective. The path to that objective may differ, but there is no doubt that the goal is the same.

The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, made an eloquent speech on the merits of reducing drug controls on illegal drugs by introducing a greater degree of regulation. It is for me to expand on why the Government oppose that view for the moment. For now, I wish to focus on the classification system for drugs in this country and on the forthcoming review. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made an announcement to Parliament on 19 January on various drug matters, some of which, like the recent report on cannabis of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, have already been touched on in the debate.

The primary purpose of the announcement was to make it clear that my right honourable friend accepted the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that cannabis should remain a class C drug. However, in accepting that recommendation, he made clear his desire for the system of drug classification in the United Kingdom to be subject to a full review. That has been welcomed by many Members of your Lordships' House during this debate and, indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, acknowledged the importance of that review.

The issue of cannabis is instructive here. The reclassification of cannabis in 2004 from class B to C was done, I believe, for all the right reasons and was based on the recommendations of the advisory council. However, many drew the wrong conclusions—that cannabis was no longer harmful and that in some way use was acceptable. The ensuing confusion may be partly the consequence in our view of an outdated classification system.

The current system of classifying drugs into the three classes A, B and C on their relative harms was established by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We are all aware that the patterns of drug misuse in the United Kingdom have changed quite dramatically in the past 35 years. It is in our view therefore appropriate that the system of control should now be reviewed to ensure that a clearer system is in place.

The Government's review on classification will begin in a few weeks with the publication of a consultation paper. Until the contents of the consultation paper are more widely known, I cannot comment in detail about it. The Government are committed to engaging with our key stakeholders, whose views will be taken carefully into consideration. I should say at the outset that the consultation document will take forward an improved system of control; it will not be considering options on legalising drugs. The Government have been very firm in stating that position. They have made it clear on many occasions that they firmly oppose legalisation and I repeat that commitment today. Indeed, the point was made in response to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, in this House on 26 January, when I clarified exactly our position.

From his many contributions to these debates, it is clear that the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, does not support the system of prohibition of drugs. But I am bound to say that the Government have no intention of legalising or decriminalising the recreational use of controlled drugs in the manner that he has advocated. Our opposition was made crystal clear in our response to the 2002 Home Affairs Committee report, The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working?. We said:

"We do not accept that legalisation and regulation is now, or will be in the future, an acceptable response to the presence of drugs".

The Government's view is that the drugs that are subject to our misuse of drugs legislation are controlled for very good reasons. Many, such as heroin and crack cocaine, are highly addictive and harmful to health. We believe that it makes sense for them to remain controlled drugs whose unauthorised production, supply and possession are, and will remain, illegal.

Legalisation of currently illegal drugs would run entirely counter to the Government's health and education messages. Our educational message, to young people in particular, is that all controlled drugs are harmful and that no one should take them. To legalise their supply for personal consumption would send a disastrously wrong message to the majority of young people, who do not take drugs, with the potential risk of increased drug use and abuse. The Government's objective is to reduce the use of all illegal drugs substantially. In our view, lessening controls would lead to increased consumption owing to more ready access to the supply of illicit substances. Increased use of drugs would mean a consequent drain on the health services and increased misery to individuals, families and communities. While our drugs laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug use, there is no doubt that they help to limit use and deter experimentation.

While it is likely that there would be a reduction in acquisitive crime if drugs were legalised, it is important to remember that other crime is associated with drug misuse—for example, crimes committed while people are in a state of intoxication. The legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals associated with drugs; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue and move on to other crimes or other aspects of the drugs world to seek their profits. Unilateral action by the Government towards legalisation would undoubtedly encourage drug tourism, as the Dutch have discovered. They are now exploring ways to tackle that problem.

However, there is a more fundamental point here. Drugs are a global problem. Very often they are produced in one country and consumed in another. A co-ordinated international response is vital in our commitment to tackle drug misuse. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the UN convention on drug control and takes its responsibility seriously. Legalisation, even for a few drugs, would cause substantial damage to international relations and diminish the United Kingdom's standing among our international partners.

That said, the Government accept that more needs to be done. In particular, this includes a far stronger emphasis on dealing with problematic drug users and the problems that they pose on reducing the harm from drug misuse to their own well being and that of others, given that they account for so much of the social and economic costs of drug misuse and drug-related crime, and on preventing young people, especially those most at risk, becoming the problematic users of the future. The Government are engaging those individuals causing most harm to themselves and to others in treatment, dealing with those who commit crime to fund a drug habit by providing a gateway into treatment at every point in the criminal justice system, and by investing in education and publicity campaigns to turn people away from drugs.

It is our contention that the drug strategy is delivering tangible improvements in communities across the country. This debate is timely in looking further at the drug strategy. Another key objective is to keep drug users off the drugs that fuel crime by providing effective treatment services. I can report that there are now record numbers of drug misusers entering and—more importantly—staying in treatment. The figures show that the Government are making great strides in treatment provision: 89 per cent more people entered treatment in 2004–05 than in 1998; 27 per cent more people were in contact with structured treatment services in 2004–05 than in the previous year; and 75 per cent of individuals entering treatment in 2004–05 were retained or successfully completed treatment programmes, up by 20 per cent from 2002.

As a number of noble Lords have commented, treatment works and is cost effective. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, made that point. It is certainly the case that for every pound spent on treatment, at least £9.50 is saved in crime and related health costs.

Drug-related deaths in England have fallen to their lowest level since 1998—from 1,571 in 1999 to some 1,388 in 2003. There may be some slight variation in figures since then, but the simple point is that drug-related deaths are falling and we are getting the numbers moving in the right direction. More drugs workers have been recruited; there are now some 10,000 and rising, as of September 2005, an increase of almost 50 per cent from March 2002. To critics of our strategy, I simply say that we have fairly rapidly increased the investment in this important aspect of countering the drugs problem or drugs menace.

Drug-related crime has also fallen. Acquisitive crime fell by 12 per cent in the year to April 2005. In October 2005 more than 2,000 drug-misusing offenders entered treatment through the drug intervention programme. The Drugs Act 2005 brought into force the additional provisions on testing and arrest and on required assessment. These measures were successfully implemented across three forces in December 2005 and are to be implemented in all drug intervention programme intensive areas in England from the end of March this year. At the same time restriction on bail provisions will be rolled out to all local justice areas in England.

Much consideration was given during the course of the debate to the issue of cannabis. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, in particular dwelt at some length on that. I know that this is an aspect of government policy where there is appreciable debate. As I mentioned in my introduction, the announcement of the review of the classification system was in the context of the Home Secretary's decision to keep cannabis as a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Following a request from the Home Secretary in March last year, the advisory council produced an extremely comprehensive report on cannabis. One of the key conclusions was the stronger evidence of a link between taking cannabis and developing mental health problems. However, the overall risk remains very low. The advisory council stressed the significant harms of taking cannabis, particularly for those with existing mental health problems, such as schizophrenia. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, rightly said that there is a debate about the relative harm of cannabis use, and that debate will, no doubt, continue. However, the links to mental health problems and other harms from class B drugs, such as amphetamines, were considerably higher. In those circumstances, the advisory council concluded that the classification as class C was still appropriate.

The council also considered claims of increased strength. It found some evidence of stronger varieties of skunk types of cannabis, typically grown by hydroponic methods, although more research is required. The advisory council reported that skunk varieties were still a minority of the cannabis taken in this country. It is certainly the case that claims that cannabis strengths are generally 10, 20 or 30 times higher than the 1980s are without any supportive evidence.

One of the key priorities now is to deliver a large-scale education programme, for which noble Lords called in the debate, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The cannabis public information campaign will introduce a comprehensive package of education and public health measures. The aims are to provide effective education in school about the risks posed by cannabis and to send the right messages about the harms caused by cannabis. The campaign will target young people through the highly successful "Frank" campaign. The objective is to ensure that no one is left in any doubt about the harms and legal status of cannabis.

The Association of Chief Police Officers made clear its support for the retention of cannabis as a class C drug. The Home Secretary and the police have agreed that there needs to be focused police effort to take strong action to reduce the supply of cannabis. Plans for taking that work forward are being developed and will be announced in coming weeks.

Noble Lords are rightly concerned about the level of use of cannabis. Indeed, during the debate on the classification of cannabis in November 2003, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, successfully moved an amendment to reflect his concern that reclassification of cannabis might lead to increased use. Evidence from the British Crime Survey clearly shows that cannabis use is steadily falling. In the last year, the use of cannabis by 16 to 24 year-olds had fallen by 16 per cent since 1998. We do not see that as simply a by-product of reclassification. In addition, recent powers in the Drugs Act 2005 are strengthening the hand of the police: cannabis suppliers caught dealing in or in the vicinity of schools or using children as couriers will now receive tougher sentences from the courts.

The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, referred to the misuse of khat and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised the issue on 26 January. There was insufficient time on that occasion to set out fully the Government's position, but I am pleased to be able to do so this afternoon. The announcement on 19 January, to which reference has been made, contained a reference to the plant khat. Following a request from the then Home Office Minister, Caroline Flint, in February, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs began a study of khat misuse and whether there was a good case for making it a controlled drug. Khat is unlike other drugs because it is misused by only one or two ethnic groups, mainly the Somali community. There is little doubt that Somali mothers are particularly worried about it—the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to that. It is a very understandable concern. The advisory council made several recommendations about its control that were related to improving the quality of education, prevention and treatment. The Government have agreed to the council's recommendations in full, including the recommendation not to make khat a controlled drug.

Time is against me. There is much more that I could cover in this debate and in my summing up of its importance. Several questions were asked about particular issues, and I shall try to answer one or two of the more pertinent ones. There was particular concern about methylamphetamines, which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, talked about. She thought that some pressure should be applied to raise the drug's level of classification. The advisory council found that it was right to leave its classification as a class B drug. We have accepted that recommendation for the time being. The view is that, although this drug is highly addictive—it is known as crystal meth or ice—there is a fear that it will come into this country and that its use will be much more prevalent. So far, the evidence does not suggest that that is the case, but we acknowledge that the position on that drug could change quite quickly, and it is obviously important that we monitor the situation very closely. The Home Secretary has asked to be advised later this year, and the position on its classification will be kept carefully under review. We believe that to be the right approach.

A question was asked about rape drugs and their classification, which the advisory council is considering. It is worth pointing out that some of the quoted rape drugs already fall within the system of classification under class C. So we acknowledge and accept the importance of keeping that classification under review.

We think that there is much to be commended in our strategy, and that we have made great progress. Evidence of declining drug use shows that that is the case. We recognise, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, does, the importance and value of education. We continue to increase investment in the important area of education in schools, and I think that our record there is very encouraging, as the noble Baroness recognised. I gave several statistics earlier on the increased number of those in treatment, but it is clear that we must concentrate in future on increasing public awareness of the threat, the menace and the problems associated with all drugs.

The review of classification will be very helpful to us in ensuring that each drug that presents a particular difficulty is in the right position. No doubt there will be passionate discussions on whether the classification system, when reviewed, is the right one. Whatever the outcome of the review, I want to make it absolutely clear from the Government Benches that we are committed to maintaining controls on drugs included in the international conventions to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. It is important that the message comes clearly from Government that we are intent on reforming classification but that we reject any suggestion that the legalisation, decriminalisation or regulation of illegal drugs can be a solution. Internationally, that is an accepted policy position. We seek to work with our partners to achieve common objectives, and I think that, from the levels of investment that we are now putting into it and the changes in public behaviour that are being achieved as a result, our drug strategy shows that we are on the right path. We continue to adopt that approach.

I reject, in part, the friendly criticism made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that our policies are confused; I do not think that they are. Some of the statistics that I provided earlier clearly identify successes and suggest that we are going in the right direction. Indeed, they are built on policies that have been developed by successive governments. It is certainly right that we should review classification now. As I am sure the noble Baroness would willingly concede, a 35-year wait is a very long one, and we need to ensure that things are in the right place at the right time.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for providing us with the opportunity to have this debate today. It has been of great value. I have enjoyed it and have learnt a great deal from it, and I hope that others have, too.

Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench 4:10, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this fascinating debate. I am particularly grateful for the support that I received from the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Mancroft, my noble friend Lady Murphy and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, on the difficult issue of legalisation or prohibition.

I was not surprised by the response of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in respect of government policy. It is clear that the Government are totally satisfied with what they are doing, and in certain respects they are doing well. The furtherance of educational programmes, mentioned particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is important, whatever happens in the future. I still find it extremely depressing, however, that the Government are prepared to accept this massive trade, which is dominated by the criminal fraternity. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.