Drugs: Government Consultation Paper

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:21 pm on 29th October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 7:21 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in saying that it has been a great privilege to be part of this debate tonight, and to have listened to acknowledged experts on all parts of the drugs scene. Like the noble Baroness, this is my first Home Office debate, and I look forward to many more of this standard. I also thank the Minister for bringing this debate to this House and his comprehensive introduction of the consultation paper. I agree with several noble Lords that his overview was somewhat complacent, particularly in light of what we have heard today.

The consultation, as has been said, has just ended. I have noted that it is intended that a response to it will be issued within three months, but that that response will appear on the Home Office website. To save all of us plodding through the website—and it is quite a plod—trying to find the responses and what the Government are proposing, perhaps the Minister can ensure that those of us involved in this debate might have that response sent to us. I also hope that, at the end, the Minister will be brave enough to bring those responses—and the Government's response to them—back to this House so that we can have a further debate on what has emerged from the consultation.

No one underestimates the calamitous effect that the misuse of drugs has on young people, families, communities and crime, nor the difficulties in bringing it under control and limiting the damage that as been done to the lives of those involved. This debate has demonstrated that drug abuse is a real and dangerous threat to our society, despite the fact that the Government have devised significant policies to grip the problem. As has been underscored by number of speakers tonight, comparatively little progress in diminishing the situation has been made in effect. However we look at statistics and however much we quote different year starts and different statistics, the facts are alarming.

To throw out a few of my own statistics, which I am sure will be taken up and argued about by others, the United Kingdom currently has the highest level of problem drug use. As my noble friend Lord Mancroft pointed out in his excellent speech, it has the second highest level of drug-related deaths in Europe.

The economic cost from drug and alcohol abuse is estimated at about £39 billion a year. The British Crime Survey has reported a 14 per cent rise in drug offences over the last three months of 2007, which is a staggering increase of 66 per cent over 2003. The Home Office's statistical bulletin on drug misuse shows that class A drug use has increased by 26 per cent since the Labour Government came into power and the number of young people who claim to have used cocaine over the past year has increased from 3.2 per cent in 1998 to 6.1 per cent in the latest statistics. That is a desperate picture.

Families of young drug users are becoming increasingly anxious at the lack of progress on bringing those rises to an end. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the briefing that is to take place tomorrow afternoon in Portcullis House, mounted by families of young people who have used or are using cannabis. The organisation is called Talking About Cannabis. The Government's decision to lower the classification of cannabis to class C—one which, effectively, carries no penalty—has left a lacuna in the hierarchy of drug offences. It was a decision that disregarded the dangers posed by new, high-strength strains of cannabis such as skunk, which causes, as we have heard, severe psychosis, personality changes and other mental illnesses.

It is debatable—I throw it out as my contribution to that debate—that if being in possession of or smoking cannabis carried a higher penalty, it would surely deter the shocking 35 per cent of under-15 year-olds who are believed to use it and who will be much more susceptible to other drug use later in life. I am therefore glad that the Minister has been able to reassure us that reconsideration is being given to the reclassification of cannabis as a class B drug. We can only hope that this matter will be taken very seriously and that the views of the parents who are meeting tomorrow will be taken into account. I appreciate that there are other views on reclassification and noted what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

This becomes of even greater relevance when one notes the recent Joseph Rowntree report on cannabis. It shows that there is a widespread variation in the awareness among young people of the dangers of this drug, the downgrading of which has, I am afraid, led to mixed messages and muddle as to its effect. Spiralling drug abuse exists in a symbiotic relationship to spiralling crime. Sadly, that has become all too clear in the last few months as violent crime and gun crime have bought death and injury to young, innocent people on our streets. The Government, despite a whole host of measures—many of which are in this consultation document, from education programmes for the young to rehabilitative programmes for offenders—have failed to tackle this serious drug abuse, which means that a major cause of crime does not just persist but thrives.

I know that the Minister will agree that it is the human cost of drug abuse which is the most alarming. The pain and misery drugs cause to the lives of addicts and their family and friends is immeasurable. The amount of crime perpetrated by those desperate to support their habit accounts for almost half of all those committed to prison for offences from the most minor to the most grievous, and the number of children who have to be taken into care because of one or other parent being involved in drug-taking is a significant amount of a family court's workload.

The Government's consultation paper suggests that drug-related deaths have fallen from 1,538 in 1999 to 1,506 in 2005 and that there has been a 20 per cent reduction in the number of young people taking drugs. That seems to be slightly at odds with the figures I have quoted and others have mentioned tonight. But I put it to the Minister that after six years of a supposedly successful policy, saving only 32 lives, even if they are special, may not be entirely the progress which we would have wished for.

The noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Adebowale, have great experience in the care of those needing treatment. I have known about Turning Point for many years and all that time I have had great admiration for the work the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, does in making sure that those on drugs and misusing substances get the care and support they need.

There are treatment programmes associated with criminal and social drug taking but a strong focus on abstinence seems to have been lost in the hierarchy of goals for treatment. Maintenance and management is often the option—whether for financial reasons, rather than for lack of facilities, is far from clear—rather than the tougher challenge of longer-term programmes which work to break the cycle of addiction. The result is that methadone has become the mainstay of the reply to drug dependency. It is administered as a measure intended to create stabilisation and ensure "retention to treatment". However, most alarmingly, the number of methadone prescriptions in England has almost doubled from just under 1 million in 1995 to just under 2 million in 2004—they are the latest figures we have, but I dare say that 2006 will show that the figure has gone up again. That is an increase of 86.5 per cent.

As noble Lords will know, it is very difficult to get addicts off methadone; it is simply swapping an illegal drug for a legal one, but the crucial problem the dependency—remains. One European study calculated that methadone was involved in 35 per cent of drug deaths. In the face of such facts, are the Government looking at other, better alternatives? We have been talking about places in residential care not being taken up. That is simply not acceptable. Residential care is the route for people becoming cured through the ability to maintain a long-term programme, and we must see whether money or programmes cannot bring that about in a better way. It is an important aspect of the treatment of people who are suffering from substance misuse.

We believe that drug addiction should not be tackled in isolation—that has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale—but as part of addiction as a whole. Alcoholism is often the portal to other substance abuse, especially for children and adolescents, and needs to be figured into any strategy intended to tackle drug dependency.

The Government have correctly identified that educating the young about the dangers of drug abuse is a key weapon in the fight against addiction, and they must be commended for their establishment of information and advice helplines and websites such as www.talktofrank.com and the Department of Health's teenage health demonstration sites as well as the Positive Futures programme and other programmes that get children out and, as the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, suggested, doing something active and using their physical strength.

Education needs to be reinforced by a campaign of deterrence. Have the Government considered using shock tactics on children to show the grave medical implications of addiction and spell out in very large, loud letters the implications of involvement in drugs? As my noble friend Lord Mancroft said, this consultation does not once mention preventing young people starting on the downward spiral.

The consultation paper points out that effective action requires a co-ordinated and flexible approach from all enforcement agencies and government departments. Estimates suggest that approximately 20 tonnes of heroin and 18 tonnes of cocaine are illegally smuggled through customs each year. The massive haul stopped by the Royal Navy last week demonstrates the necessity for constant vigilance.

We have had extremely thoughtful speeches today from the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Cobbold and Lord Jay, about the possibility of a commission looking at the entire problem. That is up to the Government to decide on, but it seems sensible at some stage for somebody to take on all the aspects of drug addiction from the minor to the major—and the major includes all the problems of poppy growing in Afghanistan, and the possibility, which I think is a revelation, of the poppy being used for regular and proper pharmaceutical purposes.

I look forward to the Minister's reply to what has been an extremely important debate. It has raised a huge number of questions, which went well beyond the limit of the consultation paper—perhaps everything about drug misuse always will go wider than that. But we have had some immensely useful contributions today, and I am sure that the noble Lord will agree with that.


Dilys Wood
Posted on 1 Nov 2007 3:19 pm (Report this annotation)

Cannabis is illegal and has been since 1928. Why then does the speaker believe that reclassifying to Class B would deter anyone from its use? This will simply criminalise more people, leading to more drug related prison sentences. Education and legalisation is the way forward. Prohibition does not work.
Even if cannabis is harmful there is no justification for its illegality and the prosecution of decent citizens who do not harm others.
I attended the Cannabis & Children briefing, it was a scandalously ill-informed group and these are not the people who should be making policy.
I fully agree with Lord Cobbolds comments, particularly his concluding statement - very thought provoking.