Drugs: Government Consultation Paper

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:49 pm on 29th October 2007.

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Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench 5:49 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, I am pleased that the Government have found time for this important debate, albeit right at the end of this Session, and I welcome the opportunity to comment on the consultation paper before they make the final decisions on their drugs policy for the next 10 years.

The paper deals with all the issues on which there is general agreement: the importance of harm reduction, treatment and rehabilitation, education for the young on the dangers to health and the need to reduce reoffending. However, the problem is not in the areas where there is agreement but in those where there is disagreement, and the most important of these is the issue of prohibition. The consultation paper contains no rehearsal of the arguments for and against the present policy of prohibition; indeed, it seems to be a taboo subject.

Prohibition was expected to rid the world of drugs by now. It has manifestly failed, and the Government cannot possibly argue that it has been a success. Obviously, no Government like to acknowledge failure but we now have a drugs trade which is reckoned to be the second largest world trade after oil and is totally in the hands of criminals, costing this country up to £17 billion—or £19 billion, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has just said. To continue with present policies is to accept and effectively tolerate the existence of the criminal gangs that control the trade.

In Section 6.1 of his excellent submission to the consultation paper, Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales, lists six generally accepted key harms that arise from prohibition. They are: the creation of five types of crime; the creation of crisis in the criminal justice system; the economic costs; the undermining of public health; the destabilisation of producer countries; and the undermining of human rights. It is a formidable list, the details of which he sets out in his submission.

Question 37 in the consultation paper asks:

"What could we do more efficiently?", and,

"Where is value for money not being delivered?"

The answer is to seek a workable alternative to the policy of prohibition, and of course the obvious alternative is to get rid of criminal involvement by legalising and regulating all currently illegal drugs. But, sadly, this alternative is forcibly rejected by the Government. In a response to the Home Affairs Committee in 2002, the Government 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".

As I understand it, the Government have two principal arguments for rejecting legalisation and regulation. The first is, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, in our debate on 2 March 2006:

"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".—[Hansard, 2/3/06; col. 417.]

While that is clearly a risk, I think that in practice it would be substantially reduced by stressing that the move to legalisation was targeted exclusively at the criminal gangs that control the trade. Legalisation would reduce and, it is hoped, eliminate drug-related street crime and get rid of the street corner salesman, whose life is dependent on pushing his sales and encouraging his customers to move up the scale to stronger substances. All that should be welcomed by young and old. Other benefits would be quality control and income from taxation. It need in no way reduce the Government's message that all drugs are harmful; indeed, the anti-drugs campaign could be strengthened and be as effective as, for example, the campaign against tobacco.

The Government's second argument is the international dimension. The drug problem is global. Legalisation in one country could make that country a target for frustrated drug users from other countries and generate new criminal distribution activity. We are also signatories to the three United Nations drug conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988. Unilateral action may therefore be somewhat limited.

What then should the Government do? I think that they should set up a commission to examine independently the arguments for and against legalisation and regulation. It might be established together with representatives from other countries and should in any case research the experience and aspirations of others. It should also examine the role of the United Nations and the relevance today of the three conventions.

It could be made a European issue. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Germany are all open minded. Only France and Sweden would be likely to be against any move towards decriminalisation. Beyond Europe, Canada and Australia are open minded, and only the United States is the ultimate protagonist of zero tolerance, which is hard to explain, given its experience of alcohol prohibition in the past century.

Sadly, our Government seem wedded to the zero-tolerance stance and, in putting forward these suggestions, we are probably just wasting our time. In his speech to the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago, Gordon Brown said that he would be sending out a clear message that drugs are never going to be decriminalised. Note the word "never". This statement is distinctly depressing and amounts to an open-ended licence to the criminal gangs that control the trade. We can only express the hope that Gordon Brown can be persuaded to change his mind and, as part of the 10-year policy review, at the very least support an open, independent, international inquiry into the pros and cons of legalisation and regulation versus prohibition.

Finally, on the question of cannabis reclassification, it will come as no surprise that I would not support the reclassification of cannabis from class C to class B. Indeed, I would support recommendation No. 46 of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's report, "Drug classification: making a hash of it?" of July 2006, to,

"decouple the ranking of drugs on the basis of harm from the penalties for possession and trafficking".

The Government rejected that recommendation.

In conclusion, I repeat my basic concern about how our sophisticated democratic Government can live with a situation where the second largest traded commodity after oil is totally in the hands of criminals.


Dilys Wood
Posted on 1 Nov 2007 3:29 pm (Report this annotation)

What a refreshing change to hear an option other than this continued failing prohibition.
I attended the Cannabis & Children briefing and was horrified at the mis-information and hysteria displayed. The event was a platform for prohibitionists who misguidedly believe that reclassification to B will lead to reduced uptake by young people - clearly not true.
Legalisation and regulation of supply will protect children far better than prohibition.
Anything other than a radical new approach is simply not good enough.