Drugs — Debate

– in the House of Lords at 11:36 am on 22nd January 2009.

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Moved By Baroness Meacher

To call attention to the 1998 United Nations Declaration on Countering the World Drug Problem and the 10-year review in Vienna in March 2009; and to move for Papers.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 11:37 am, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, in proposing the Motion for this morning's debate, my aim is to provide support to the Government in making maximum use of the window of opportunity provided by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs session to be held in Vienna in March. I am aware of the geopolitical backdrop to the consideration of the UN conventions, which provide the framework for the criminalisation regime that has been in place for 40 years across the world.

I want at the outset to recognise and congratulate our Foreign Office officials who, I understand, have been playing an important role in developing a helpful EU position paper on drug control. They have been working in the context of the Bush Administration's position of full support for criminalisation in what is described as the "drugs war".

Just before I came into the Chamber, I was handed the EU position paper. I have not had a chance to do more than glance at it during Questions, for which I apologise, but I can refer to two brief statements in it. The first is that, in future, scientific evidence and results should be the basis for formulating drug policies. I warmly welcome that statement in a EU document, because it is precisely my position and I feel that it has not been the position of the Bush Administration, who have dominated this debate for many years now. Secondly, the EU position paper states that the health principle has not received sufficient attention in the past. I hope that every Member of the House would support that point and many others in this important document.

The new US President provides new hope in this important policy area, along with so many others. Perhaps I can be allowed a few seconds to offer my humble but heartfelt congratulations to Barack Obama on his extraordinary victory. He posted on his website, on his first day in office, a string of commitments. One of those commitments, believe it or not, had to do with moving to a drug reduction and health focus in drugs policy. I find it remarkable that this man, on day one, refers to what we are talking about in this debate. I could go into detail but I think that I have said enough to make the point.

Just as President Obama wants to relegate the phrase "the war on terror" to the history books, I believe that he may replace the "drugs war" with a harm-reduction approach in the future. Sadly, the March commission meeting is too early to benefit substantially from this new and radical Administration in the United States. Everyone at that commission should take account of that day-one commitment by the new President, and everything that it puts in its declaration should be influenced by that new approach.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I make it clear that I regard narcotic drugs as dangerous, particularly so for people with severe mental health problems. My concern is that the current punitive regime increases those dangers considerably. Our aim must be to reverse the relentless rise in the serious harm caused by these drugs. This debate is just one small step along a very long road, but if we do not take steps we will certainly never arrive at our destination.

The slogan for the UN's 10-year strategy of 1998 was:

"A drug-free world—we can do it!", which is reminiscent of Barack Obama, no less. However, since the first UN convention outlawed narcotic drugs, their use has risen by 300 per cent. We have to recognise that the UN slogan is not realistic. Human beings have always used mind-changing substances and surely always will. As many informed experts in this field have said, the task is therefore to find the best regime for limiting so far as possible the harm caused by these substances.

In a very helpful meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Brett, this week, he reminded us of the political constraints limiting the Government's ability to come out with clear statements and policies in this area. Our Government will want to tread carefully. Nothing can be achieved quickly. I respect all of that.

So what do we want from our Ministers? The first step would be to send a senior Minister to the Vienna commission meeting in March, but my understanding is that the plan is to send a junior Minister. There is no doubt that in an international meeting the seniority of the government Minister representing a country affects the seriousness with which that country is taken and the influence that it can have.

My understanding is that the EU is pressing for the unintended consequences of the criminalisation regime to be recognised in the declaration of the UN commission. I was looking for the words in the document, but they are obviously hidden somewhere; however, I understand that that is what the EU is committed to. Our first request to Ministers is that the UK draws particular attention to the enormity of the unintended consequences and hidden costs of the current regime in our ministerial speech to the commission. I would be grateful if the Minister today could give me some assurance on that. We also request that the Minister goes out of his or her way to press for the inclusion of a reference to unintended consequences in the declaration. It is great to have this sort of commitment in Europe, but now, with Barack Obama as President of the US, I cannot see any reason why this declaration cannot be a little more radical than it would otherwise have been.

The unintended consequences and hidden costs of the regime are well known, but it is worth summarising them briefly for the record. Violent criminal entrepreneurs now control a criminal market in narcotic drugs worth £300 billion a year. Think how much Governments would welcome that money right now to help us with the banking crisis. Property crime and prostitution are massively inflated by the needs of low-income dependent drug users to feed their habit. The Government estimate that this small population of dependent heroin and cocaine users is now responsible for 54 per cent of robberies and 70 to 80 per cent of burglaries—how much better we would sleep in our beds if those burglaries were reduced by anything like that number—as well as 85 per cent of shoplifting and 95 per cent of street prostitution. Of course this situation applies across the globe. Researchers have estimated that half the crime in the US can be put down to the sellers of drugs or people on drugs trying to steal money to feed their habit.

The current regime inspired by the UN conventions criminalises millions of otherwise law-abiding people and makes an unparalleled contribution to our prison overcrowding. The Government's No. 10 Strategy Unit estimated that drug-motivated crime resulting from the current criminalising regime costs this country £19 billion a year, which is one-third of the total cost of UK crime.

The risks of these narcotic drugs are increased by the unregulated gangsters and drug dealers, who have no incentive to ensure that the drugs are clean and pure. Governments have no method of controlling the purity of these drugs, whose danger is therefore vastly greater than even that of the original drug.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda are making vast profits from the international drug trade. As Anatole Kaletsky points out, our efforts to promote economic development, education and political reconstruction in Helmand province are failing because the local people do not trust us. They see us as alien interlopers, taking away their one opportunity to make money, which is by growing drugs.

If the UN commission's declaration in March openly discussed these unintended consequences and hidden costs of the current regime, it would take the world an important step forward. We have given the 1961 UN convention 40 years to prove that it can be effective in reducing the use of—or, ideally, eliminating—drugs, but the opposite has happened: the use of drugs has increased year by year for 40 years.

My second request is that the UK Minister's speech at the Vienna meeting pushes the envelope on the limited feasibility available under the UN conventions. Countries are permitted to avoid using penal punishments. Some countries are already using civil penalties or flexing the UN rules to introduce regulation. I hope that our Minister will make clear UK support for evaluated pilots of alternative approaches to the control of drug use. This is crucial. Once we have evidence that alternatives to criminalisation can work, we can ask our politicians to come out of the cupboard and promote alternatives to criminalisation.

Already, we have some useful examples—it is not that no evidence is available. Portugal decriminalised possession of drugs for personal use and has taken a health-led approach. It has lower levels of use and misuse than the UK. Surely that is indicative. The Netherlands decriminalised possession of cannabis for personal use and de facto decriminalised possession of other drugs for personal use. It, too, has lower levels of drug misuse than the UK. Switzerland has had a successful, legally regulated and controlled supply of heroin for 1,400 addicts via clinics that also provide psychosocial support. This policy has the majority support of the population. Once you can prove that you can do it, the population will come behind you. The UK has heroin prescription trials. So far, participants have reduced criminal acts from 40 per month to six. Let us just think of the positive implications of that policy if we were to extend it across the country. Do the Government plan to do that?

We know that Julian Critchley, the former director of the Cabinet Office's anti-drugs unit, came to believe that regulation would be less harmful than the current strategy. He went into that job with no policy on drugs, but once he understood the situation, he came out in favour of regulation rather than criminalisation. It is interesting that he said that his views were shared by the "overwhelming majority" of professionals, including police, health service workers and members of the Government. The problem is that Ministers, understandably, will not come out on this issue until we have the evidence to support them. That is the purpose of today's debate.

I recognise that this is a tricky and difficult topic for Ministers, so the first step must be to pilot alternative approaches. If regulation would lead to reduction in the harm from narcotic drugs—and there is some evidence that it would, as I have said—Governments need to move forward urgently with pilots and research to build the evidence base to support a new UN convention. If we continue with the current regime, we can expect an illicit drugs market worth £1.6 trillion in 10 years' time. Surely we must avert that catastrophic situation. With our Ministers' commitment, the UN commission just might start the ball rolling. I beg to move.


Dear Baronnes Meacher,

Thank you very much for introducing this invaluable debate.

My particular interest is that in September 2008 I submitted the thesis in connection with my Master's degree in Law. The thesis is entitled "Cannabis - Classification - Misuse of Drugs Act 1971" and considers the UK criminal justice and public health response to drug-related offending in England and Wales.

The thesis considered the arguments in the Lords debate in November 2003 prior to approving an order reclassifying Cannabis to Class C.

The responses to your speech broadens and updates the discussion and provides an opportunity for further discussion in the public domain, one of the recommendations in the final chapter of my work.

with every best wish
Jenepher Parry Davies LL.M.


Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative 11:50 am, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, the whole House is very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for introducing this debate. It is a very rare sort of debate in your Lordships' House. Indeed, I have a suspicion that if the noble Baroness had not introduced it, the Government in the form of its junior Minister might have slipped off to Vienna without consulting any of us. That is partly the problem that we have had. All these things have been organised and arranged behind closed doors, between Governments, for 30 or 40 years—and we can see where that has got us.

Where the United Nations thought it was going to get us was to what it was going to call a drug-free world. Looking back on that now, after 10 years, we can see that that was a slightly ambitious idea. It will be interesting to see what the UN claims in Vienna in March; there is a temptation for it to say that it looks as if drug use may have stabilised in some parts of the world. Maybe it has, actually—it was going to stabilise in the end, somewhere. But if it has stabilised, it has done so at far too high a level, one that is too expensive in many ways, both personally and economically, for society to stand, and which must be reduced further. I hope that the UN does not claim that as a success, as I do not think that it has much to do with that stability anyway.

I hope that the failure of the concentration on supply controls will be talked about and admitted, because that is really where the whole problem lies. The noble Baroness alluded to some of the costs; here in Britain, the crime cost of drugs alone is about £19 billion every year. But there are even wider costs, which will be reflected in every other country in the world, in different ways, but in some countries in an even worse way. Colombia is now what you might as well describe as a narco-state; it is a country entirely dependent on, run by and ruined by the narcotics industry. Meanwhile, what can one say about Afghanistan? The sad business is that in going in there and trying to sort it out, the allies have made the situation in respect of the drugs trade and therefore the economics of that country significantly worse. It really has been an absolute policy disaster, and one of which we should be deeply ashamed. Then there is Mexico, which would not have been on this list two or three years ago. It is quite clear now that one of the most important countries in the Americas, which bridges the two continents, north and south, is now rapidly descending into a narcotic state, with 8,000 people killed in the past two years there as a result of the American war on drugs.

As the noble Baroness said, we have a new man in the White House, and a new mood in America—one of great enthusiasm and optimism. As practically every commentator has said in the past few days, that new man in the White House is going to find that he has rather a heavy in-tray. Everybody talks about the two wars that lie in his in-tray, in Afghanistan and Iraq; of course, there is the third war, the war on drugs, which has been going on a great deal longer and has cost a great deal more money and lives, while producing absolutely no results.

We had a similar moment of hope and celebration in Britain, about 10 years ago. I remember when Mr Blair was elected Prime Minister, although clearly I am not of his party. I remember the day when he was elected and he was walking down Whitehall, when there was a mood of optimism and celebration in the country. I thought that at least one of the things that enthusiastic young Prime Minister would do, of my generation, would be to look at this difficult, awkward and complex issue of drugs with a new pair of eyes—a clean, younger pair of eyes—from a generation that understands it. Sadly, like so many of the great issues of 1997, Mr Blair ducked and sidestepped it.

It is important that we try to find ground that we have in common. This is not an adversarial debate; nor should it be a party-political debate. Everyone, on all sides of both Houses, would like to see a reduction in drug use and the harm caused by drugs. Nobody wants to be soft on drugs but, increasingly, fewer and fewer people want a war on drugs, either. The only beneficiaries of wars on drugs are the drug dealers, who make huge amounts of money out of them, and the main casualties of the wars on drugs are our young people and their families.

At the same time as the meeting in Vienna in March, the various NGOs came together and produced a report, Beyond 2008 Declaration. It is a wordy document. It is signed by 500 NGOs from 116 countries and 65 international NGOs. It will not surprise noble Lords that they have not, in their declaration, used one word where 25 will do, so it takes quite a lot of reading. They have said, in a very polite and NGO-ish way: "This is all very well, UN, but please take the focus off supply reduction and on to demand reduction". This means treatment, education and prevention. At the risk of boring this House, the only way that we will ever really resolve the drug issue is through prevention. We still spend less than 10 per cent of the country's drugs budget on prevention. We still spend well over 50 per cent on trying to control a health problem using the criminal justice system, which clearly cannot work.

Times are changing. The recent debate in your Lordships' House on the reclassification of cannabis showed that if nothing else. Two former Secretaries of State spoke out against prohibition and in favour of looking at a regulatory form of control, something that would not have happened several years ago. Today's debate could not have taken place in this House 10 years ago. I know; I tried to do it. The leader of my party has talked and written much about what he calls the "broken society". It is perfectly clear that the single biggest cause of the breakage of our society is drugs. I hope we realise that dragging children before the courts in the West, firing phosphorous at farmers in Colombia and pouring billions of dollars into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan are not the answers to these problems.

In our last two debates on this subject, the Minister was, frankly, incapable of answering the questions that your Lordships posed to him. The brief that he was given simply did not cover the subjects that your Lordships wished to address. The Government had not even looked at what Members of this House were looking at. They were speaking in different languages. As I said, this is not a party-political debate. This is not a criticism of the Government. The debate is gathering speed, the language has changed and the Government have been left behind. They will be left even further behind by the new presidency in the United States. We will watch and listen to the Minister's reply politely and encouragingly, but the House will note very carefully whether or not it is an adequate reply, because that is what we now need.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 11:58 am, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Baroness Meacher for bringing this important UN declaration to your Lordships' notice. I quote from the declaration:

"Drugs destroy lives and communities, undermine sustainable human development and generate crime. Drugs affect all sectors of society in all countries; in particular, drug abuse affects the freedom and development of young people, the world's most valuable asset. Drugs are a grave threat to the health and well-being of all mankind".

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement by the states members of the United Nations. Some years ago, one of my goddaughters died of a drug overdose mixed with alcohol. She was a vivacious young woman, a graduate of Oxford University. She had been through treatment three times. At her funeral, the church was full of young people. On another occasion, the only son of a friend of ours killed himself in a car crash. He was high on cocaine and alcohol. Again, at his funeral, the church was full of even younger shocked friends.

When one witnesses these tragic young deaths, one feels helpless at the waste of lives which could have had such hopeful futures if not for the scourge of drug and alcohol misuse. Controlling and preventing drug abuse must be the greatest challenge across the world for all responsible countries. The United Nations should have all the support it can get on this. Item 10 of the UN's political declaration expresses,

"deep concern about links between illicit drug production, trafficking and involvement of terrorist groups, criminals and transnational organized crime", and resolves,

"to strengthen our cooperation in response to those threats".

This is a huge and dangerous task. The production of drugs seems a most complex matter. I am told that the Taliban in Afghanistan kept drug production down. Now, however, production has risen again, and some of the warlords are the biggest drug barons. It seems a no-win situation.

If there were no drugs or alcohol in our society, about two-thirds of the young offender institutions might be empty. When I started as a member of a board of visitors, now called monitors, it was for an open establishment for young people aged 15 to 21. Alcohol was always a problem for them. Now, however, it is a closed prison with a very high fence for inmates of 15 to 18. Most of them have been involved with drugs. So many of them leave, some still of school age, without family support or a supportive community. What hope have they of staying out of trouble?

I cannot agree that making all drugs legal would solve the problem. We have witnessed the problem of addiction from over-the-counter and prescribed drugs that are legal. It is a coincidence that the All-Party Parliamentary Drugs Misuse Group launched its inquiry into physical dependence and addiction to prescription and over-the-counter medication on Tuesday this week. As an officer of the group who heard evidence, I recommend this inquiry to your Lordships. I hope that the recommendations will be taken up by the Government and PCTs. I congratulate our chairman, Dr Brian Iddon, Member of Parliament for Bolton South East, who I consider to be one of the hardest working MPs, and Gemma Reay, Brian's parliamentary researcher, for producing the inquiry's report in its comprehensive and readable form. It took some hard work to produce.

It was the quotation of the press kit to the 2006 International Narcotics Control Board annual report, published by the United Nations Information Service on 1 March 2007, that persuaded Brian that the APPG should conduct this inquiry:

"The abuse and trafficking of prescription drugs is set to exceed illicit drug abuse, warned the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in its Annual Report released today (1 March 2007). The Board added that medication containing narcotic drugs and/or psychotropic substances is even a drug of first choice in many cases, and not abused as a substitute. Such prescription drugs have effects similar to illicit drugs when taken in inappropriate quantities and without medical supervision. The 'high' they provide is comparable to practically every illicitly manufactured drug".

We found that addiction to over-the-counter painkillers is becoming a serious health problem. More than 30,000 people may depend on drugs containing codeine, with middle-aged women most at risk. Some are taking more than 70 pills a day, putting themselves in danger of liver dysfunction, stomach disorders, gallstones, constipation and depression. We found that the internet was making it easier for people to buy bulk supplies of drugs, including Solpadeine and Nurofen Plus. We found that many doctors were unaware of the problem, and that addicts were rarely given adequate support. These benzodiazepine drugs are supposed to be taken for four-week periods only, yet some GPs keep patients on them for years. We hope that there will be stronger regulation of internet pharmacies and that GPs and pharmacists will have training in spotting addicts. Restricting the availability of codeine over the counter is very important. I personally met two splendid women who ran tranquilliser help groups, one in Yorkshire and one in Humberside. I do not know whether they are still in operation as I know that funding was a problem. This type of addiction can lead to suicide. Would it not be possible for PCTs to help with the funding, as it needs to be local and near people's homes? There is much to be done across the world and near to home. I hope that this debate will make many people more aware of this scourge of addiction, which causes misery to so many people.


It should be noted that the Baroness seems to have misunderstood the difference between benzodiazepines and the opiate codeine. They are completely different drugs, and have totally separate physical problems associated with each other.

To help clear it up for anyone reading this, it should be noted that codeine (which belongs to the same "family" as heroin) is the over the counter drug associated with liver dysfunction, (although it would be practically impossible to take 70 a day as you would most defiantly die. However, it is not the codeine that causes liver dysfunction, but rather the fact that codeine products always come with at least 500mg paracetamol (which causes the liver damage at high doses.) Codeine itself (as well as heroin and most other opiates) is from a medical perspective quite a harmless drug, if but with a high chance of dependency (although also a relatively benign physical dependency).

Meanwhile benzodiazepines can be taken in large doses, if you have a tolerance (these were probably the 70-a-day habit she referred to). These have a reaction similar to alcohol, (and so you should watch it if you need to drive) and also have a similar "form" of addiction (eg both can be fatal if you try to go "cold turkey").

While the Baroness has mistakenly not distinguished between the two (very separate) drugs, she does raise some good points which can be applied to both, but I think the most important point would be to do with the lack of basic drug education that even GPs seem to lack. This kind of thing should be common knowledge.

Submitted by Amien Johaadien Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench 12:06 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I speak in support of my noble friend Lady Meacher and congratulate her on her excellent presentation. I was also pleased to hear the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, who both have a lot of experience in this very difficult field.

The United Nations has taken a significant interest in the global drugs problem going back to as long ago as 1946, and more particularly since 1988, when the UN met under the slogan "A drug free world, we can do it!" to announce its support for the global prohibition of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Since then, there has been a total refusal to admit that prohibition has been a failure, as exemplified by the following extract from the executive director's report following last year's meeting of UNODC in Vienna, in which he claims:

"Member states have made significant progress over the past 10 years in implementing the goals and targets set at the twentieth special session of the General Assembly, but that, in a number of areas and regions, Member States have not yet fully attained the goals and targets agreed in the Political Declaration adopted at that session".

In other words, all is well. Prohibition is still the rule.

While it is beneficial in theory that member states have an agreed common policy on the drugs problem, it is beneficial only if the policy is successful in solving the problem. If it does not solve the problem, it is likely to be counterproductive in that it inhibits experimentation of other possible ways of tackling the problem. This is clearly what is actually happening. The United Nations' policies are inhibiting experimentation.

I am one of those who is shocked by the statistic that the drugs trade is the second largest international market after oil and is totally in the hands of criminals. I find it hard to understand how sophisticated democratic Governments can tolerate this situation. Decriminalisation and regulation of the drugs market would disenfranchise the criminal fraternity and generate substantial tax revenue, which would be available to finance rehabilitation and harm reduction facilities. It would ensure quality control and finance a publicity campaign stressing the dangers to health of drug abuse. We have managed to reduce massively the use of tobacco, without making it illegal, and there is no logic for treating drugs differently from tobacco and alcohol.

I come back to the role of the United Nations and to the forthcoming Vienna convention. The UK participates in its own right and as a member of the European Union. Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect radical changes in core policies, but there is one proposal that our Government's representative could discuss with our European colleagues, with a view to putting it jointly to the convention: the UN should establish an international commission with a specific brief to explore alternative strategies and to produce a report within a fixed period. Such a commission should have as wide a brief as possible. As part of its research, the commission will obviously examine the experiences of countries and regions such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Canada and South Australia, which, in spite of UN rules, have experimented in one way or another with the drugs problem. If such a commission proved unacceptable to the UN, it could perhaps be acceptable at the European level as a starter.

The important challenge is to get the drugs debate out into the open, free of discredited dogma and evidence-based in its conclusions. A properly constituted UN research commission could achieve this.

Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench 12:11 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on initiating this debate. This topic has enormous implications, a huge impact on individuals, families, communities and states, and on economic and social policy worldwide, yet is so little considered and so little debated in this Parliament. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness.

I want to concentrate on some of the consequences of the UN system of drug control and suggest that it should be brought firmly within the United Nations human rights framework. I declare an interest as a senior research fellow in the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London, which produced a toolkit for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in conjunction with the WHO and UNAIDS on the prevention of HIV and AIDS in places of detention. This is, of course, relevant, because drug users injecting in prisons put themselves at great risk of contracting hepatitis and HIV by sharing needles.

I speak from the perspective of someone who is connected with prisons and has visited them in many parts of the world, and I have been involved in criminal justice reform in some very poor countries. From that perspective, the current international regime on drugs, which emphasises law enforcement too much, harm reduction too little and human rights not at all, has been highly counterproductive.

The prisons of the world are full of people who are there because they have been in possession of small amounts of banned substances or because they need a constant supply of such substances to make their lives possible, and they engage in other crimes to sustain that. Some are there, of course, because selling these substances is their business, their daily work, although I have to say that only the lowest levels of this business enterprise seem to end up in the world's prisons. Many of these people are sick, mentally or physically, or both.

The prison population of the world is rising, and has increased from 8 million in 1999 to 9.8 million now. A reasonable estimate is that between one-fifth and one-quarter of these people are in prison because of activities connected with the illegality of drugs. Overcrowding is increasing; 110 out of the world's 218 prison systems for which we have information are overcrowded. I have often seen rooms with 50 bunk beds, three high, holding more than 120 prisoners. I have seen and, I may add, smelt them. In some places, prisoners sleep standing up, tied to window bars; they even suffocate because of prison overcrowding. Many come to prison not using drugs, but leave doing so. The illegality of those substances opens up many opportunities for corruption, in prison systems already prone to deep-seated corruption.

The effect on prison life is to increase the dangers and violence—the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned Mexico, in whose prisons there are drug gang murders almost every week—and to increase the spread of disease through the sharing of needles. The battle to stop illegal drugs from coming in leads the authorities to take measures that greatly worsen prisoners' treatment, requiring them to urinate in front of prison staff, for example, to ensure that samples are not falsified for drug testing, while grilles are put up between prisoners and family members who visit.

Counternarcotics laws that criminalise possession and use have created considerable problems in criminal justice systems around the world. In countries where poor people have no access to medicine or painkillers, substances that have been used for generations become illegal under counternarcotics laws, yet no affordable substitutes are available. According to the House of Commons International Development Select Committee, in Afghanistan,

"in the absence of readily available alternative medication", opium

"is often used as an analgesic and even to tackle teething problems in babies".

Whole swathes of a country's population are thus criminalised.

That criminalisation fills the prisons of such countries with people at the lowest level of drug activity, leaves the highest level of the market untouched and further impoverishes poor people. Then, the drug control system discourages harm reduction measures, such as issuing clean needles. If we issued them, say the prison administration, we would be condoning a crime. Therefore, for these and a number of other reasons, we urgently need a change in the UN regime—one that brings the UN drug control system within the UN human rights framework, reaffirming the right of all to,

"the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health", as the UN international covenant says.

Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, pleaded for a new approach at the meeting, last March, of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He said that as a result of the control system,

"public health, which is clearly the first principle of drug control ... was displaced into the background".

He said:

"A system appears to have been created in which those who fall into the web of addiction find themselves excluded and marginalised from the social mainstream, tainted with a moral stigma and, often, unable to find treatment even when they may be motivated to want it".

He also said:

"The concept of harm reduction is often made into an unnecessarily controversial issue, as if there were a contradiction between ... prevention and treatment on one hand and ... reducing the adverse health and social consequences of drug use on the other".

He called for the drug conventions to,

"proceed with due regard to health and human rights".

I was glad to hear what my noble friend Lady Meacher said about President Obama's website. Now that we have had regime change in the United States, and the Foreign Secretary's excellent speech explaining why it was a mistake to see ourselves as engaged in a war on terror, can we stop having a war on drugs? I know, from experience, that when the UK Government decide to work hard at an international level to achieve a good outcome, they are very effective and successful. The progress of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture is testament to that. This is an area where such commitment is vital, and I hope that the Minister will take that message on board today.

Photo of Baroness Murphy Baroness Murphy Crossbench 12:19 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, the House owes a great debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lady Meacher for introducing this debate. It is very opportune because we do not have a great deal of time in which to persuade the EU to take a different approach before the meeting in Vienna this year.

I should at this point sit down, saying merely that I agree with every word spoken by my noble friends Lady Meacher, Lady Stern and Lord Cobbold and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. No doubt others will continue this theme.

I understand that the Chinese were the first to pin their faith on prohibition to control opium, in 1792. The penalty for keeping an opium den was strangulation, which I dare say was quite effective in individual cases. However, noble Lords will recall that 30 years later the opium wars erupted because of officially sanctioned British smuggling of opium from India to China in defiance of China's drug laws. China's defeat in both wars left its Government with no option but to tolerate the opium trade. It is always as well to remind ourselves that it was the British that pushed the opium. The worldwide, highly successful, illegal drug industry—tolerated, if not sanctioned by some Governments—now controls the provision and sale of drugs of all kinds, as we have heard, and the United Nations concordat has failed to stop the industry's growth. There has to be a better way.

Despite some of our well developed drug policies, strategies and services, the UK has an unusually severe drug problem compared with our European neighbours. The problem is that we simply do not know enough about which elements of the Government's drugs strategy are working—or how they work, if they do. There is insufficient independent rigorous research and analysis to inform the development of policy, and political and media debates are often ill-informed and polarised. We talk about being tough or soft on drugs, but neither phrase is appropriate. Undoubtedly, the political climate stifles innovation. Our aim should be to minimise overall harms that drugs do to individuals, their families and society and to keep an open mind about all kinds of approaches informed by proper research.

Last year, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs reviewed progress over the previous 10 years and launched a period of "global reflection". That will culminate in the 2009 ministerial segment in Vienna to discuss the future direction of policy. In 10 years, we have seen no reduction in harm; rather, we have seen the profound damage done to individuals and society by the current criminalisation policy. That has led to an extraordinary imbalance in public spending, not just here but abroad. The November 2008 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction attempted to collect public finance statistics across Europe relating to the balance of expenditure. It has been very hard for the centre to get accurate figures but it estimates that annual expenditure currently amounts to about €34 billion. The vast majority of it, as we have heard, is spent on prisons and police activity, with less than 7 per cent being spent on health. In the UK, less than 0.5 per cent is spent on research into effective prevention policies, treatment approaches or, indeed, policy research. There are no figures to indicate how much is spent on education. The monitoring centre simply does not record it and nor do the Government here. That must give us pause to rethink in the way that my noble friend Lady Meacher advocates.

There is evidence, albeit generally weak and mostly from overseas, of some prevention programmes which work and which could be used to develop interim strategies, but we need far better evaluation. It is far from clear whether current enforcement practice reduces harms at all or whether it represents value for money. So I say again that there is a need for comprehensive research into some of the variation, not only in policies on research but also in policy implementation locally. Now that we devolve so much implementation to the local level through primary care trusts, local authorities and other agencies, we almost never have any clear idea of whether those policies are being implemented effectively. Perhaps it does not matter if we do not know whether they work.

We need an urgent review of systems and structures for delivery and better coordination. I am not advocating decriminalisation alone. I remind the House that 40 years ago we partly decriminalised personal use of heroin for a short time. That does not encourage us to drop the decriminalisation policy. I, like others, am advocating that we should move away from a wholesale criminalisation policy to a much greater multi-faceted approach.

The dangers of misuse are quite widely known, but they need to be reinforced by a major public health campaign. How much really effective youth education could be delivered for the more than £1 billion or so that we currently spend on this ineffective policy? Young people respond well to accurate and balanced information, but are rightly sceptical of scare stories. It is useless, for example, to prohibit ecstasy when their experience tells them that it is usually harmless, is available at every party they go to and they see it in use.

I do not want to play down the dangers of drugs nor the profound harm. As a psychiatrist, I know that my colleagues in general psychiatry services all have to be experts in drug misuse and dual diagnosis in a way that my generation did not. Just as tobacco and alcohol controls are far better achieved by fiscal policy and easy access to opportunities to get help with misuse, so cultural change through public education and through much greater investment in masses of help for those who misuse drugs are likely to prove better strategies for reducing harm. I ask the Government what approach is being taken to examine the balance of government drug expenditure and what steps can they take to try to persuade others in Europe that we need a different United Nations concordat this time round.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 12:27 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend for calling the important and timely debate. It is also an honour to follow my noble friend Lady Murphy, given her detailed understanding and her long professional experience in this area.

I wish to concentrate on one of those facets to which she referred: the supply of children and young people who want to take drugs and want to continue to take drugs when they know, from their experience, that they make them feel worse and worse. Why do so many young people want to take drugs which they know to be harmful and then persevere with that over long periods when they see their health deteriorating and when they see their looks going?

What can all parties do long term to improve the quality of childhood in this country? It requires a clear, cross-party, long-term commitment to improve the experiences of young people's childhood. I suggest that one reason young people take up drugs and alcohol and stick with them is often because they are very unhappy with their lives, have low self-esteem and perhaps take drugs to forget how bad they feel, or to attack themselves. They feel they do not deserve to be treated well.

I say that because of my experience listening to young people coming off drugs and alcohol and hearing their life stories. You hear that their fathers and mothers were alcoholics, their grandfathers were alcoholics and their brothers and sisters were alcoholics or drug users. One young man, who cared for his alcoholic mother, said that one morning she would be all light and brightness towards him and the next morning he would go upstairs with a tray of bacon and eggs, or whatever he had made for her, and she would almost throw it in his face. These young people have such histories that they have very low self-esteem and are very vulnerable to people who are often hooked on drugs.

I remind your Lordships of last year's UNICEF survey on the welfare of children in the 21 most developed countries, in which the UK came lowest. One of the areas looked at was the relationships children enjoyed in their families. It highlighted that in Italy it is still the norm for children to sit regularly with their families over a meal and enjoy the relationship with their parents. A Minister in this House, who was advocating the use of more early years childcare, said that children are entering primary school unable to speak because, rather than sitting with their family and talking, they are sitting in front of the television. There is no opportunity for them to sit together, enjoy relationships with their parents and speak.

If we wish to cut the supply of children and young people keen to try drugs and to stick with them, no matter how they harm them, we must address the need to support parents better, have adequate housing for families and support the professionals who work around them. I am encouraged by the Government's work on the childcare workforce and what they are trying to do with the social work workforce with their taskforce on social work. It is encouraging that they are looking at how we can improve social work courses so that social workers are better equipped when they start working with children and families. They are seeking to recruit higher calibre people—social work requires the best people—and are looking at how to support new social workers in their practice.

The Conservative Party's initiative and its attention to social work also encourage me. The report produced by that party No More Blame Game looks at social work and calls for a champion for social work, a chief social work officer to make clear to government social workers' development needs.

We cannot write these families off. They need help if we are not to have generations of young people involved in these activities. Last week, I met four consultant social workers from Hackney Council. It was encouraging to hear those fairly young—to my eyes—people talking about their work with families over the past year under a new initiative, a new form of approach, in Hackney. Only one of them was English because one has to look abroad for good quality social work training at the moment. We have some fantastic social workers, but they are a mix because we have not given a commitment to social work in the past. Hearing what they are doing in Hackney, with its poor history in this area, gave me hope.

It also gave me hope to read in Hansard what the right honourable Mr Iain Duncan Smith said recently in a debate on early intervention supporting families:

"The key is getting a 20-year programme of change that we agree on. We need not agree on all the mechanisms to be used, but we should at least agree on the objectives. If we do that, we will have achieved something that is about good government. We go on about the nanny state, but we are already the nanny state in these areas, and an ineffective one. The costs of that are enormous and we still fail to change people's lives. This is not about having no government or smaller government, but about having effective government".

Earlier in his speech, he said:

"More than 30 per cent. of those in prison come from care homes, although only about 0.6 per cent. of all our children have ever been in care".—[Hansard, Commons, 13/1/09; cols. 15-16WH.]

The most neglected children are getting involved in drugs and the criminal justice system. That is an important facet of reducing supply.

We do not need constant new initiatives, constant changes or constant new structures, as well intended as they may be. We need a consistent policy supporting parents, families and the professionals who work around them. We also need to resource that consistently. We need to consider how to resource the social work and other professionals working around families in the long term, and not suddenly cut their resources so that they have too large a caseload without proper supervision, so that the best leave the profession and we find ourselves back where we are again. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative 12:35 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for her eloquent opening speech. It was not quite up to Obama's standard, so she will have to work on it a bit. This has not been a debate. A debate is somebody here saying one thing, somebody there saying another and somebody over there saying a third thing. This has been a chorus of abuse for the present drug policy.

On the evening of the election for hereditary Peers all those many years ago for our temporary stay in this House, I was on "Have I Got News for You" and what's-his-name—the man who got sacked for cocaine use and for playing with tarts—turned to me and said: "Lord Onslow, you're pro the legalisation of drugs, aren't you?". I said, "I will answer that question seriously because I think it's the most disastrous social policy that we have in this country. I do not approve of drugs. I think anybody who takes them is silly, but to follow the present policy is absolutely mad. They should be available under controlled legality, and we should cut out the crooks and the ungodly". The audience cheered me to the rooftops. Perfectly reasonably, it was not put in the programme, not because it was wrong, but because it was taking something seriously.

I have always held this view. I am old enough, or perhaps privileged enough, to remember Lady Wootton, who sat on the Liberal Front Bench. She made a programme saying that pot was not too bad for you. Incidentally, we have had the farce of the reclassification of cannabis. The Government have blatantly ignored their professional advisers because they think they are in league with the Daily Mail and had better try and do something popular, as messing up the economy is not popular. We have got to look at this programme again. A noble Lord on the Cross Benches who is a judge told me that 75 per cent of the people who came in front of him at his Crown Court were involved in drug crime of one sort or another. It is not the better off and the privileged who suffer. It is those on the poor estates, where there are drug needles lying in lifts, people get bashed up and the underprivileged get burgled by the even less privileged. It is a terrible, ghastly social problem. The total failure of the present policy is making it worse.

I take a drug: it is called drink. Possibly, I take too much of it. Several of my forebears have died of it. One of them was sent back from Hong Kong because of drink. In 1914, he was in hospital in Paris, complained that all the milk was being given to the wounded soldiers, and died, so I am not particularly proud of him. Drink is a drug, and it causes more deaths than heroin and the illicit drug trade combined. Smoking is also a drug. I do not smoke any more. I used to, but I felt that it was a silly thing to do and gave it up. I am not being smug about it. Thirty years ago, practically everybody in this House smoked. Now we do not. Smoking has come down enormously.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, produced the argument about Afghanistan. Let us imagine that, instead of the Afghan opium crop being criminalised, it was bought legally, under very strict control, and was then used either for diamorphine for the National Health Service or under a controlled programme for people who have become drug addicts.

The point about supplying drugs in that way is that there is no incentive to go on producing more. Members of the ungodly who make money out of drugs have an incentive to increase their market. The essential thing is to ensure that those who supply the drugs—there will always be demand for them, let us not kid ourselves about that—do not have an incentive to increase the market to increase their profits. Criminality, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, said, involves corruption in prisons, police forces and other law enforcement agencies. The more that you corrupt law enforcement agencies, the more society collapses. That is not unknown in this country. It is considerably better known in several other countries. That has a disastrous effect on civilisation.

That is why we should change our views. I am absolutely certain that there will be an unholy alliance between the two Front Benches and the Daily Mail and the Sun to say that we must continue with criminalisation—anyone can take me out to a very expensive dinner in Whites or some five-star restaurant if that is not the case, but I am sure that it will be. We must change, because the current situation is doing so much damage to our society. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made the point about the damage that it does to children. There are failures in society of which we should be ashamed, and we should not continue with a policy that makes things worse.

Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 12:42 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is to be congratulated on initiating this debate. I shall echo many of her sentiments. I also applaud the powerful global sweep that we have just been offered by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern.

The UN resolution on drug demand reduction adopted by the General Assembly in 1998 was well intentioned. Its focus on the problem drug user was welcome. But the resolution lacked clarity on what success would look like and how it might be achieved. I declare an interest as the strategy adviser to the previous Prime Minister. I led the 18-month-long study on drugs, mentioned more than once already in the debate, conducted by the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit, alongside the Home Office in its old, mighty form and other government departments and agencies.

I was involved in a number of such long-term studies when I was in government, but none took as long as that one. The reason was—again, there are echoes from earlier in the debate—that despite a welter of activity in the UK and around the world, hard evidence was difficult to come by and it took a large, capable team a very long time to quarry, to assess and to analyse the data available.

We finally identified a cohort in the UK of about 300,000 heavy users of heroin and crack. I have no doubt that that cohort will have grown since. Those problem drug users had a massive and adverse impact on themselves, their families and on the rest of us. Most problem drug use arises from—and intensifies—deprivation. It costs the wider society tens of billions of pounds a year in harms caused.

The health and welfare cost was significant, but the biggest economic impact was through crime. Five years ago, offending by problem drug users to fund their habits cost the economy £16 billion. Problem drug users commit 80 per cent of all burglary and about half of robbery and fraud. Crack addicts can be very violent indeed.

At any one moment, 80 per cent of the 300,000 heroin and crack users in the UK were not in receipt of treatment of any kind. On the other hand, most encounter the criminal justice system and the treatment agencies over and over again, as if in some continuously revolving door. Some spend short terms in prison. Others experience multiple treatments from multiple providers, constantly slipping out of the system, constantly relapsing.

Our best estimate of long-term abstinence in the UK and around the world as a result of treatment was 20 per cent. For nearly all problem drug users, their addiction will be a lifelong condition. Even those who have abstained for long periods can relapse.

Every concerned person who looks at drugs leaps at the notion that supply should be staunched. But the illicit drugs industry has built over decades into a vast worldwide business comprised of tens of thousands of interlocking organised crime networks and hundreds of thousands of individual, front-line user-suppliers funding their own habits. In so far as drug production can be depressed in originating countries, historically it has just displaced production elsewhere. There is as yet no example of sustained success in substantially disrupting supply. The big, depressing picture over decades is that supply volumes have soared and prices have dropped. Seizures worldwide run at about 20 per cent of production. For the drug industry, that is no more than the cost of doing business.

There are many good reasons for countering criminal networks but, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, reminded us at the beginning of our debate, we invest far too much money in a chimera: that we can solve the drug problem by attacking supply.

There is a chorus and consensus in this debate, by which I am slightly surprised. The overwhelming drive of drug policy in our country and other countries should be to focus on reducing the harms that arise from drug use. To do that, we need to set aside prejudice, unevidenced assertion and the vested interests —not to be underestimated—of the multiple agencies who identify with the status quo.

There are no easy ways forward to reduce the harms caused by heroin and crack addiction. In this country, we need a brand new legal framework to enable us to identify, grip and hold on to the problem drug user to stop them constantly slipping away from us and causing widespread social harm. We then need a treatment regime tailored to individual need that offers a range of medical and social interventions directed at reducing harm of every kind. For some, this would mean heroin prescription, and we as a society should not fight shy of that. Finally, we need a new, clear, simple organisational regime to bring accountability, authority and funding into line.

None of that is politically easy in any country, least of all ours, but let us hope that this year's UN review will demonstrate rigour as well as noble and good intention.

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench 12:50 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for initiating this debate and for raising the specific issue of the forthcoming 10-year review of the United Nations declaration on countering the world drug problem, which will take place in Vienna in March. I will stick, so far as possible, to the issues relating to the review because that is the immediate issue; we may in the end revolutionise our system in this country, but we must first consider the review. It gives us an opportunity to comment on the problems that drug addiction causes for individuals and society and invites us to look at the need continually to examine—and, I would say, re-examine—ways of tackling these distressing problems. To that extent, I go along with the chorus referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. We must be realistic; even if we changed the system substantially, there would still be a lot of problems—violence, danger to health and so on; they would not be swept away immediately.

I say to the Minister that I am not critical of the Government; indeed, I have supported them on a number of occasions. More generally, I believe that those who are working in the difficult areas of drug addiction, preventing illegal importation, reducing drug-fuelled crime, educating our young citizens on the risks involved and seeking to help those suffering from drug addiction are doing their best in difficult circumstances. That list amply demonstrates the spread of the problem.

I am not critical but, like many of our fellow citizens, I am concerned because it is obviously in the interests of our country to cut back crime that is directly related to hard drugs and prevent, where possible, mental health problems that are related to drug usage. We are doing our best but the results are not as good as we would have hoped. The level of drug-fuelled problems is much higher than we would have wanted. The World Drug Report 2008, which the Minister made available to us—thank you very much—shows that although the world drug problem is being contained, the world is under threat: I read that to mean that the UN's view in that document is that it will probably get worse.

The Minister may know that I have taken an active part in legislation on mental health. I am the patron of a mental health charity, Rethink, and I am aware that drug usage is not always—perhaps never—the sole cause of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and depressive illness. None the less, drug usage probably contributes to the development of some of these conditions; there are social problems and the loss of quality of life for individuals and carers.

For a number of reasons, I support the plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. We should give some priority to the UN review on countering the drug problem. The review is imminent and, if we are to play some role, this debate is timely. It is not clear how much knowledge and experience we have to contribute or how much we can learn from other countries, but it is certain that the drug trade and practices are an international matter. As many noble Lords have said, illegal drugs are one of the world's largest trading products and are a serious concern to many countries. We need to make the most of the opportunity of the review to see what we can learn, how we can improve our record and how international co-operation can cut back supplies and improve the health of our citizens.

I understand that the European Union was seeking to reach a common position to respond to the United Nations review. I see no difficulty in that. If we care enough, we can influence that position satisfactorily. Even if the search for consensus makes it necessary to have a common position that does not correspond totally to the wishes of some noble Lords, we should be able to provide in the text of the common position sufficient pegs to make possible at least a thorough examination or re-examination in the UN context in future years of ways of achieving better results in the struggle against the harm caused by drugs. Although the review in March is a fixed point, it may also involve an ongoing programme and I would expect further regular reviews over time.

I turn to the UN declaration on countering the world drug problem and the context of the review. I attach importance to the explicit commitment to the concept of harm reduction and the eradication—accompanied, if possible, by alternative developments—of dangerous crops. We must keep those two basic ideas at the forefront. We should not step back from a forceful approach to those points, and the convention remains a framework for national law in this regard.

I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that there is another opportunity to examine ideas discussed, advocated or adopted in other countries. We should have an envelope, if that is the correct term—it is a good term—in the review that does not inhibit sensible examination of such ideas.

The Minister's opportunity to give full answers to this debate may be limited by the fact that we are currently working in the European Union to construct, as far as is feasible, a common position. Most importantly, there is a very good chance of including in the common position an accent on evidence-based practice as a feature of any forward programme resulting from the review. That would be consistent with a point in the original declaration of 1998, which deals with this possibility. That implies that we, in common with our international partners, should do our best to collect that evidence. It would involve some experimentation on methods without prejudicing the basic principles of harm reduction and the elimination of dangerous drug crops. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point about evidence-based practice.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench 12:57 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for this opportunity to discuss this problem. I have no axe to grind except as a citizen who is threatened by the spin-offs from the problem. I have never been addicted and I do not have a desire to indulge in illegal drugs. I am worried about the misdirected use of taxpayers' money in dealing with this.

I was amused to read that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Shanghai opium commission; I wonder how much further down the road we are. I join other noble Lords in seeing a separation between supply and demand. There is a crossover on the demand side in that some addicts fund some of their habit by supplying on a small scale, but they are not the real suppliers. I see the supply side as involving people who are in it as a business and who supply regularly as big dealers. We should adjust our laws to reflect that.

I turn to the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. Most of us need an escape, sometimes from pressure and sometimes from tedium; it differs for different people. Each society has a drug, but what that is varies around the world. In reaction to pressure and tedium, the Victorians used to take laudanum, which I seem to remember is opium. They found it very effective—it is, after all, a natural drug. The real problem is that some people cannot handle drugs and they go overboard. That is why we should treat addiction as a medical problem. Behind this is a second medical problem, which concerns not just addicts. It is the collateral damage of, say, dirty needles spreading HIV/AIDS. If we treat this as a medical problem, we will deal not only with the addicts but also with a lot of others who could be damaged by this procedure.

The problem with bureaucracies, Parliaments and Governments is that they think that they can control things and people, but they cannot. The world is too complex for that. Too many poor people who have to make money will find ways around methods of control and will breach them. Some countries have people at the top who are definitely involved in crime, although there are many other countries that do not. Any large body of people will include people who are corrupt. We need to realise that we can never have perfect control.

That makes me think back to the demand issue. We have to look at incentives rather than at trying to control behaviour. One incentive of the Swiss decriminalisation approach, which says, "If you are addicted, come along and we will try to solve your problem", is that addicts can be given a safe supply of a decent, uncontaminated drug and so not cause other medical problems. I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, referred to the fact that we had a decriminalised regime here 40 years ago, which I can remember. About two nights ago, I sat next to someone who was a pharmacist many years ago. He remembers supplying addicts over the Boots counter late at night with clean needles and proper heroin at the correct strength, which was controlled by doctors. At that time, we did not have a large problem. I seem to remember we had about 7,500 registered addicts and probably about as many again who had not registered and received their supplies from elsewhere. We did not have a big drugs problem until the Government decided to send out a message and criminalise drugs. The world went mad. All the big suppliers moved in and created a bigger market.

When I consider how far we have moved on, I look at the waffle. For example, among other things, the declaration from the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on countering the world drug problem said that participating Governments should commit themselves to,

"achieving significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction by the year 2008".

All we have done is focus on supply and not on demand. How far did that get us? Last year, 10 years later, it was said:

"In 1998 UNGASS generated much excitement by its commitment to review progress against clear objectives for the global drug control system over a 10-year period. However, as the UN agencies and member states have come to realize how difficult it will be to claim success against 1998 objectives, this commitment to transparent and objective review has receded to varying degrees".

In other words, it is desperately trying to obfuscate the fact that it has failed.

"The 2003 mid-term review passed without any meaningful examination of progress and future options, and there are some in the UN system, and many member states, who would like to see the 2008/9 process pass by in the same way—the default option, of course, being 'business as usual'".

In other words, there was a lot of talk and nothing effective.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, picked up on the interesting speech made by Mr Costa, to which I should like to refer. On supply, what is wrong with the proposal voiced by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that we buy up the opium crop? Mr Costa said:

"Yearly, world markets are still supplied with about 1,000 tons of heroin".

I do not know what that translates to in terms of opium, but I should love to know whether that figure is correct. If it is, we are not looking at a huge amount of opium to buy. Economically, it would be a jolly sight cheaper than what we are doing at the moment. Mr Costa had a few punchlines. He said that,

"media reporting expresses equal apprehension about the status quo ... too much crime and too much drug money laundered ... too many people in prison and too few in health services ... too few resources for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation ... too much eradication of drug crops and not enough eradication of poverty".

That is right. On the matter of scale, Mr Costa said that,

"there are no more than 25 million problem drug users—that's less than 0.5% of the world population. There are more people affected by AIDS".

We suddenly realise that we may be putting our resources in the wrong places. He said that,

"deaths due to drugs are limited to perhaps 200.000/yr", which is not a large figure in some ways. Perhaps we are looking at this issue the wrong way around.

I seem to remember that a definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, which is exactly what we are doing. In 2001, the National Audit Office report, Modern Policy-Making: Ensuring Policies Deliver Value for Money, stated:

"The costs of failing to identify flaws in policy design and implementation and not learning lessons from previous policy initiatives can be substantial".

That is where we are now. We have to stop treating just the symptoms. We have to look at doing something much more radical and start trying to cure the disease, the addiction. We must stop trying just to control supply.

That is why Vienna is so important. Our efforts must be international, otherwise we will just move the problem from one country to another. For example, if Holland is doing something clever, suddenly it becomes a magnet for everyone else because no one else is responding in a similarly intelligent way. Unless we do something in this direction, in 10 years' time we will see the same old depressing business as usual.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench 1:06 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has focused minds on this complex subject and has timed the debate well. Members of Parliament, the Government and those in Vienna should all be taking note of this extremely important subject. The drug question is complex. Drug trafficking is a multibillion dollar industry, associated with organised crime, corruption, arms trafficking, cybercrime and terrorism. At the heart of the production problem are the vast profits and the exploitation of those in poverty who have no incentive or markets for substitute crops.

We see a start to the enormity of the problem when we recognise that, in 2008, Colombia had 98,000 hectares of illicit coca crops. That can produce 600 tonnes annually of cocaine, much of which ensures that the murderous civil war in that country continues. Similarly, Afghanistan's 193,000 hectares of poppy crop, which can produce 880 tonnes of opium annually, undoubtedly prolong the war in Afghanistan.

I wish to make the need for consistency the theme of my remarks today. The United Nations and the United States Government, for example, produce different estimates of the area cultivated with illegal crops in Colombia. Accurate data on the scale of illegal crops and on the effectiveness of manual and spray eradication are essential. Despite the high technology used by satellites, their pictures are not as accurate as many believe. Estimates depend on the degree of resolution and what area the pictures cover, and this is in addition to the vagaries of cloud cover. To be fair, geographic complications arise. Plantings tend to be located in isolated, difficult-to-reach areas, distant from urban centres, with farmers tending to camouflage them. To minimise detection, plantings are also frequently mixed with legitimate crops and placed under the shadow of trees. The same necessity of accuracy applies to data on seizures of precursor chemicals, manufactured drugs and seized drug assets.

I say to the Minister how encouraging it is to know of the continued presence in Colombia of specialist personnel from the United Kingdom. I commend the efforts of Bogota's anti-narcotic police and others, including President Uribe, who has brought much-needed security to the countryside. There is general cause for alarm, however, about a new transit route to Europe that has opened via Venezuela and a number of west African countries, including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and various Francophone countries. Producer countries of differing precursor chemicals, which are essential to produce cocaine, such as Germany, Holland, Belgium and the United Kingdom, should do much more to monitor the illegal traffic of those products.

A political declaration is in the offing from Vienna that, I hope, will address the need for across-the-board consistency in policy and official data. It is certain that policy formulation will be strengthened. Perhaps I may make some specific suggestions, with time not permitting more today, on policy changes for UNGASS. First, an important change would be to devise a financial mechanism to allow UNODC policy formulation and evaluation processes to be independent of donor country policies. No more than 15 per cent of the agency's funds come from the UN general fund; the rest comes from donor countries for specific projects. This puts pressure on the agency's ability to criticise country policies. Secondly, current anti-drug policies are formulated and implemented within the framework of three drug conventions. It is UNODC's mandate to oversee the enforcement of these conventions. However, anti-drug policies may conflict with other conventions on human rights and the environment and it is important to explore these conflicts.

Thirdly, the executive director of UNODC has argued that anti-drug policies have some negative unintended consequences which must be removed. When policy is formulated from the perspective of only one or two disciplines without taking others into account, the probability of achieving objectives without encountering unintended consequences is low. Fourthly, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the International Narcotics Control Board and UNODC all agree that anti-drug policies should have a strong scientific basis. However, there is no consensus about what "scientific" means.

Fifthly, UNODC reports great advances in the enactment of laws on money-laundering, trafficking criminalisation, precursor controls and alternative development. It is now imperative for UNODC to focus on results in terms of asset seizure and expropriation, the decline of supply and other policy goals. Sixthly, it is important to generate measures of the amount of precursor chemicals seized relative to total precursor production. This type of data would improve policy formulation and implementation. Similarly, anti-money-laundering activities should be evaluated in terms of the amounts seized and the proportion of money that is actually expropriated relative to total drug-trafficking revenues. The experience of individual countries should be compared in order to derive recommendations that will strengthen anti-money-laundering legislation. Seventhly, harm reduction should be extended to the supply side. Eighthly and lastly, there should be no suppression of data.

Closer to home, an additional aspect of addiction not touched on in the 1998 declaration is highlighted in the report published yesterday by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drugs Misuse, to which other speakers have referred. The report details the problems faced by individuals who develop problems of dependency on a range of prescription and over-the-counter medication. This is an aspect that decision-makers in Vienna might wish to recognise.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and many others have spoken of the need for a wide-ranging debate on drug use. A conclusion of the Beckley Foundation's Global Cannabis Commission states that,

"regimes which do go beyond de-penalization or decriminalization have been characterized by inconsistencies and paradoxes".

Recent global anti-smoking legislation may have set a precedent that could adversely affect the ability to open a broad debate on drug use, even controlled use. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, that a pan-European Union policy on drugs is absolutely essential. For all that I have said today, I am certainly not opposed to, and would even encourage, a root and branch review of all aspects of the drug question. However, until that time comes, my remarks remain.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office 1:14 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, after the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem in June 1998, the Transnational Institute commented that the summit had been an,

"uninterrupted three-day sequence of political speeches ... no evaluation of current drugs policies took place whatsoever".

The institute spoke for many in making that comment. This debate has been quite the opposite, and tremendous gratitude is due to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, not only for her powerful introduction, which set the tone for the debate, but also for allowing us an opportunity to hold a debate that can serve as an exemplar of the approach that needs to be taken to this issue—one that talks about policies that work and those that do not, as well as a discussion about replacing the war on drugs with harm reduction. I hope that this debate will inform what the UK Government will say both at the EU level and at the UN review in Vienna. They also need to be brave enough to admit to what does not work because that is critical in terms of what they can bring to the debate at the UN.

The noble Baroness and others referred to President Obama. In his books, which are absolutely riveting to read, he has been brave enough to admit that he used drugs but then rejected the sort of life that cocaine use might have led to. It is refreshing to meet a US President who has actually worked on the streets and remembers all that he learnt from the experience. That sort of honesty, and not developing the scare stories referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, is critical to the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, said that problem drug users in this country number around 300,000. He was correct to distinguish between those problem users and other users. The Government also need to identify the 300,000 problem drug users and treat them separately from the many other occasional users. Whatever our opinion of those who occasionally use cannabis or ecstasy, they cannot be lumped into the same category as the 300,000 problem users. That is the sort of honesty we need to have in this debate.

The 1998 political declaration set four goals, and in the first part of my contribution I shall talk about demand reduction. It is an area that this country needs to think about when making a contribution to the UN and in future drugs strategies. A powerful case has been made all around the House for a new approach. I shall rehearse briefly the statistics that have led to my conclusion that this is absolutely necessary. The British Crime Survey shows that drug use among people aged between 16 and 59 in England and Wales is roughly twice what it was a decade ago. As the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, pointed out, the Centre for Social Justice highlights the fact that a significantly higher percentage of our population is addicted to drugs than is the case for our European neighbours. In 2007, the UK Drug Policy Commission said, against a background of increasing problems, that:

"Despite the increased investment in treatment, the majority of government spending on responding to illegal drugs is still devoted to enforcing drugs laws. It is however difficult to estimate government expenditure on drug policy, as it is not transparently reported. From the available data, we calculate that in the UK, as in other nations, enforcement expenditure (including police, courts and prisons) accounts for most of the total expenditure on drug policy".

That is a very difficult situation, and one borne out by other statistics I have researched. Members on these Benches believe that this is one of the fundamental problems, and an area where the Government really need to shift their thinking.

In 2008, seizures of class A drugs entering the UK recorded by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency were down for the fifth year running, and prices on the street for cocaine and heroin were both lower. This means that more drugs are coming in but we are seizing less. Legislatively, the Government have reclassified cannabis down and then up, ignoring the expert advice from the body that they set up to advise them, and they may now take the same route with ecstasy, which would be regrettable. It would fly in the face of an honest approach and reject the science that has led to that approach.

Other noble Lords referred to treatment. It is incredibly striking that, according to the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System, only 9 per cent of the 61,000 people who left treatment in England in 2006 were free of drugs. That suggests that treatment centres are still concentrating on throughput rather than on quality. That will have to change. After all, if we accept the figure of 300,000 quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, then we are not talking about millions, and such a number of people should, with sufficient will, be treatable.

In summary, the UK has seen prices going down, more drugs on the streets, seizures going down, more people using drugs, treatment not working, custodial sentences for users filling our prisons but not resolving addictions, and traffickers still operating largely unaffected. But before I leave this issue, I must give the Government one word of praise for their legislation on the assets of crime, which I think will bear fruit. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, said that we are doing our best. I suggest that the Government are doing their best in the wrong direction.

On the international situation, the UK has done a great deal to take on responsibility for curbing heroin production in Afghanistan but, despite this, the area devoted to opium poppy cultivation has surged to 193,000 hectares, which is double the 2005 figure. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that that area is greater than the area devoted to growing the coca bush in all of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. We must therefore concentrate our thoughts totally on Afghanistan. Coca is a traditional crop in Bolivia and we should bear in mind the comments of President Morales that it is the processing of coca into cocaine and its trafficking that is the problem. I am not sure that we should comment on that country's cultivation of coca for its own use. The situation in Afghanistan is undoubtedly blighting an otherwise improving drugs picture, according to the UNODC report in March 2008, and I urge the Government to concentrate all their thoughts on Afghanistan and to encourage the other countries in the UN convention to do the same.

In its publication Stabilizing Afghanistan, the Independent Women's Forum called for more resources to encourage the production of other crops; adequate, safe and secure water supplies; and organised and available access to fertiliser, quality seeds and training for planting alternatives.

I hope the Government take to heart the plea from Human Rights Watch and others that the UN war on drugs does not justify rights violations. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, mentioned Mexico and the 8,000 deaths there, and Thailand intends to return to its war on drugs, which led in 2003 to 2,800 extra-judicial killing—and those are only two examples. We cannot have a war on drugs that violates human rights and expect to make any progress internationally on solving the misery that drugs produce worldwide.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recognise that this is a global problem—I referred to Colombia—and that it is extremely important that we, as friends wishing to help that country get through its problems, should understand more about its internal affairs?

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 1:25 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, it will become immediately obvious that I am not speaking with my normal verve. If this becomes too painful for your Lordships and impossible for me, my noble friend Lord Bridgeman will leap up, grab my notes and finish off my speech. But, because this is an extraordinarily important debate, I want to take part and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for squawking at them.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for bringing the debate to the House today. We have heard a number of extremely important speeches, which have varied from the personal anecdotes of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, to the determined and straightforward research of the noble Lord, Lord Birt. We have covered a whole raft of the drug question. My noble friend Lord Mancroft drew attention initially to the question of growing crops; the economic problems of the countries that rely on the cultivation of drugs to keep them going and how that then impacts on the world. There are probably not many areas left untouched.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, started by repeating the political declaration made in the UN in 1988. I shall not repeat it but I reiterate that drugs destroy lives; they affect all sectors of society; and they are a grave threat to health and well-being. That has been amply borne out today. The statement might be accepted as blindingly obvious but—obvious or not—all of these points can be borne out by experience and evidence in this country.

It is a sad fact that it has been recorded in a report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction into the state of the drugs problem that the UK has the highest proportion of adult amphetamine users in Europe, and that ecstasy use remains consistently higher in this country than elsewhere. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, stressed, we know, too, that levels of crime are affected by drugs in that the number of those charged with both minor and more serious offences has increased. In 2007-08, there were 228,959 drug offences recorded, an increase of 68 per cent over the figure 10 years previously. But as serious is the fact that statistics published in October last year revealed that recorded drug offences for April to June 2008 had increased by 8 per cent. So we are nowhere near on top of the problem.

This does not seem to indicate that the Government are fully on top of the situation. We are losing control of the crime situation, both in regard to petty crime and the serious crime of importing and pushing drugs. I am a magistrate—I declare an interest as such—and any magistrate will tell you anecdotally that the true position is that the vast majority of crime, particularly petty crime, is committed by people who are hooked on drugs. The latest figures I have are for 2003-04—I do not know where we are now—and they estimate that the size of the UK illicit drug market is more than £5 billion and is considered to have the greatest impact on organised crime in this country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, my noble friend Lord Mancroft and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred to the tragedy caused in countries which rely on the production of drugs as the base of their economy. We have more than an uphill struggle if we are ever to get on top of that. The United Nations will have to do a great deal more than it is doing at the moment if those crops are ever to be driven out of the system.

Prior to our current desperate economic situation, many people would agree that the drug problem was one of the most serious, debilitating threats to our society and individuals. No one would pretend for a moment that it was a problem confined entirely to this country but it is apparent that, despite many initiatives, we are still one of the most adversely affected by it. One would expect that the Government's every sinew would be stretched to ensure that the matter was researched and strong measures were put in place to counteract it. It is disappointing, therefore, to note from the independent UK Drug Policy Commission that the authors of its most recent report were unable to locate any comprehensive published UK evidence of the relative effectiveness of different enforcement approaches. They were also not able to identify any published comparative cost-benefit or value-for-money analysis for different interventions within the UK. I checked that last night on the UKDPC website.

Have the Government not commissioned research into the strategies they have put in place to increase enforcement, or of those in which they co-operate with other EU and global countries? Perhaps the Minister, who is looking very perplexed, as if I am entirely wrong, will tell the House what bodies are scrutinising and giving policy advice and direction to any initiatives. Perhaps he could also say what the enforcement initiatives are in which the Government are ensuring this country is engaged.

Many speakers—my noble friend Lord Onslow, the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern—were in favour of talking about the prospect of decriminalisation. That is a perfectly respectable view. It is not one that I share, because we are an enormously long way from being able to do that, but it is a point of view that a great many people seem to share.

The "beyond 2008" conference in Vienna that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and the UK Drug Policy Commission have both called for better evaluation of drug policies in general. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, drew attention to the lack of these, as did the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. What evaluation and independent research takes place on the umpteen strategies on health, education, crime reduction, crime prevention, treatment and rehabilitation that are all to do with drugs? There are a great many of them but the problem stays stubbornly strong, despite the fact that it is recorded that about one-quarter—£380 million in 2005-06—of the total cost of delivering the drug strategy has been dedicated to reducing supply.

Efforts to reduce supply can be successful only if our porous borders are secured against the illegal importation of drugs, if the supply from those countries that earn a large income from their production is reduced and if those who are making a fortune out of the plight of others are apprehended. The first of those problems is largely one for us alone. Our borders must be policed by a border police force that has the capacity and the powers to search, seize, interdict and prosecute offenders. Despite creating the UK Borders Agency, and even now in the new borders Bill, no attempt is being made by the Government to bring the police force into the agency, which would give it a strong backbone. On this side of the House we have made it clear that we believe that that is essential.

The inability to prevent drug importation means that our young people, who do not seem to be deterred from taking drugs, have ready access to them. This country, after Denmark and France, has the third highest proportion of cannabis users in the EU. Fortunately, the Government have reversed their previous disastrous decision on cannabis and reclassified it to class B, but many mixed messages were given out by that one action. The UK also has the highest proportion in Europe of cocaine users between 15 and 64 years of age. As the Drug Policy Commission also noted, while the availability of controlled drugs is restricted by definition, it appears that additional enforcement efforts have had little adverse effect on the availability of illicit drugs in the UK.

While it is clear that the United Nations has a big role to play in urging countries on to greater efforts and co-ordinating, monitoring and scrutinising policies and their outcomes, it is inevitably individual nations that have to deal with this problem and bring it under control within their own borders. The debate today has done nothing to reassure me that we are anything like far enough along that road, but I hope it will have contributed something to the Government's thinking as many important aspects have been raised.

Again, forgive me for my voice today. I hope noble Lords have survived it; I, clearly, have only just made it.

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Government Whip, Government Whip 1:36 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I, too, have enjoyed the debate. It has had a most interesting mix of anecdotal, scientific and passionate views that reflect a range of opinion outside this Chamber. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear those views, particularly on the 1988 declaration and its review. It is inevitable in a debate on this issue that matters will stray from international to domestic policy. I was about to say that I was going to respond to a chorus of opinion but, having heard the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, I think the chorus is not quite as in tune as the parliamentary choir.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, the chorus was particularly noticeable from those who are not on the Front Benches. That is the bet that I originally placed, and it seems to be going my way. Everyone else says one thing and the two Front Benches say another.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, I missed that bit out from my speech to spare everyone, but I wanted to say that I was very sad that I would not be taking up that offer of dinner.

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, far be it from me to intrude on private grief. I was going, with some levity, to accuse the noble Earl of bribery because I, too, was thinking, "Is it worth changing my brief in order to have an experience I have never had—a five course dinner at White's?".

We are agreed that we want to see an honest review taking place in Vienna—the Government certainly want to see that. We also want an outcome that will take us forward in the world efforts against illicit drugs and, as has been emphasised, the harm they cause. To secure that, we need to build on what has already been achieved.

At the risk of justifying the forecast of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that this would be an inadequate response, it is worth taking a moment to give some context to the forthcoming review because that context influences the Government's approach. International efforts against drug trafficking and misuse have a long history, as the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, reminded us: right back to the Shanghai International Opium Commission of 1909. Since then, machinery has been built up through freestanding conventions, from both the League of Nations and, latterly, the United Nations. Today we have quite elaborate international machinery: three UN conventions; the UN commission of officials that meets annually to manage the system and set policy; the permanent executive to that commission, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime; and an expert body, the International Narcotics Control Board, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, referred, whose role is to keep countries that have signed up to the convention—most countries have done so—up to the mark. The INCB also has the job of ensuring that the amount of licit drugs produced, such as opium, is enough to meet the world's medical and scientific needs but is not so much that it risks leaking on to the illicit market.

As I have said, almost all countries in the world are signatories to the conventions and participate in the system—I say that with a health warning, because it means that one has to get that number of parties in agreement for any international convention or policy change.

That is the formal machinery and the context. I turn to the 1998 declaration. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing tide of opinion among some countries, particularly those which we have heard named in Latin America where coca is produced, that the international drug control system needed looking at, the argument being that the demand for drugs was driving the market. Reducing demand, rather than focusing exclusively on supply, was the best way to address the problem.

The eventual response by the world community to this concern was a decision to hold a UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs—an UNGASS, as we call it in UN-speak. I had 14 years' experience dealing with international conferences with the United Nations, a memory which causes me as much to shudder as to remind me of pleasant occasions. The result of that assembly was the 1998 convention, whose declaration is now the subject of review.

That declaration was not a radical document. Fundamentally, it urged the international community to do what the system already sought, but to do it better. It laid particular emphasis on demand reduction, highlighting the need for a balanced approach and domestic and international strategies to reduce both the illicit supply and demand for drugs. It specifically recognised demand reduction as an indispensable pillar of the world approach. To help the international community ratchet up its performance, it set out a series of guiding principles on how to work better—principles for supply-side as well as, significantly, demand-side issues. The declaration also set out a timetable. As we have heard from several noble Lords, 2008 was to be the year by which there was to have been complete success or significant progress towards the demand and supply-side goals set out.

Let us be clear: those goals have not been achieved. In this country, the drugs strategy is making some progress, but cocaine use is still worryingly high, as we have been reminded. Internationally, the world still suffers from a very serious drug problem, which, if anything, has grown worse over the 10-year period. I need not rehearse the details now, nor remind your Lordships of the increased effort that is needed in Afghanistan. It has been referred to and I shall return to it later in my response.

The Government's view is that our not having made the progress that we wished does not mean that the 1998 declaration was a complete failure, or that we should tear down the existing system and set up a new one. I know from my personal experience of the United Nations that the danger of "new directions" is that it takes a long time to lay the foundations and start to build. Therefore, building on something that exists and can be improved is much more likely to succeed than scrapping it and starting again.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, enunciated, we, all our European colleagues and, so far as we are aware, most of the rest of the world stand by the principles that were established by the 1998 declaration. We stand by the existing international control system under the three conventions. However, the issues have moved on since 1998, and we want the forthcoming review to take account of this in a number of ways. I hope that some of them will give comfort to several participants in this debate.

First, intravenous drug-injecting is a significant vector of blood-borne diseases, including HIV/AIDS. The Government are committed to the achievement of the eight millennium development goals set by the millennium summit in New York in 2000. In June last year, we published our updated plan to support the achievement of goal 6, which is to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. We are determined that the March review should recognise this and support measures to prevent the spread of the diseases through intravenous injecting.

Secondly, on access to controlled medication by the world's poorest, we fully support the work of the International Narcotics Control Board in maintaining the balance between supply and demand of opiates, but we believe that the way in which the system is currently working inhibits access to controlled medication in many countries where it is badly needed. The reasons for this, and the answers to them, are complex. We are not in favour of policies that have no basis in fact or likelihood of success. It is certainly not as simple as selling off Afghan opium, which would cause great damage in Afghanistan. The Afghan Government acknowledge that they do not have the capacity to administer a licit scheme, the probable outcome being that opium would continue to be diverted into the illicit market. However, we want to see the review start a process to address this issue.

Thirdly, we want to see the review do more to encourage effective law enforcement effort. There is a pressing need to enhance efforts to collect and share information and data on the manufacture, supply and consumption of drugs, to analyse those data systematically, and to ensure that policy and operational decisions on all aspects of supply-and-demand reduction are evidence-based. We shall press that on our colleagues in Europe and beyond.

Fourthly, we want to see the review recognise the effectiveness of using intelligence in combating drug supply, particularly in combating trafficking in narcotic drugs and encouraging the sharing of intelligence between law enforcement agencies.

Fifthly, we want to see the review recognise that illicit production and trafficking of drugs fuels instability and insecurity in many parts of the world. Sixthly, we want to see the review call for the strengthening of regional and international co-operation in combating the cultivation, manufacture, trafficking and consumption of illicit drugs.

Seventhly, we want to see the review affirm the need to continue to devote particular attention to measures for the control of precursor chemicals. Eighthly, we want to see the review reflect our position that eradication of illicit crops in Afghanistan and elsewhere is targeted on areas where farmers have access to alternative sources of income.

That is the Government's position in our discussions in Europe—

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, the Minister seemed to ignore the fact that the evidence says that the policy as being presently run has resulted in the increased use of drugs. Are the Government ignoring that evidence?

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, as ever, the noble Earl is quick to his feet. I was about to answer questions posed by noble Lords in the debate. If I respond to him on that basis, I may be able to bring together some of the questions—

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister respond to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, that our Ministers press for a commission to take forward the pressure for an evidence-based policy and look at alternative approaches to dealing systematically with the drugs problem, to prepare the ground for consideration of a reformed UN convention? Will the Minister take that forward with his colleagues?

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am limited to 20 minutes. Therefore, if questions that I have not yet answered are not posed twice, I shall probably fit in more answers in the remaining nine minutes of my time. I shall come to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, in the order in which it appears in my list of interventions from noble Lords. If the noble Baroness waits for a couple of minutes, I think that she will find that I answer her question.

The noble Baroness raised ministerial presence at the conference. We consider it to be a high-level and important conference and that is why we will send the Minister who has the relevant authority and responsibilities in the Home Office, Mr Alan Campbell, to represent the United Kingdom Government. We will make sure that all contributions to this debate are brought to the Minister's attention before his speeches are written.

The noble Baroness and others also raised the sense of hope, which I share, created by a change of Administration in the United States. I know from my experience of previous changes of Administration, from Democrat to Republican and vice versa, in the UN system, that, because of the advise-and-consent system, top posts in the international sphere do not change as quickly as Governments in the United States. The appointment of civil servants is an administrative problem. However, we can hope that the tone set by the representative of the United States at the conference will display a marked difference from what we have heard in the past. In that sense, I hope that noble Lords will find a synergy between what we have said here in setting out the UK position and the statement made by President Obama on the first day of his presidency.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, expected my reply to be inadequate, and I may have fulfilled that. He made one comment that I found myself in some difficulty agreeing with, in which he described Colombia as a narco-state. It is a state with many difficulties after 50 years of civil war. The answer to his point was made rather well, if I may say so, by the noble Viscount; I share his view on Colombia's attempts to solve its problems, rather than dismissing it as a narco-state.

The next point was raised, very movingly, by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and others, who rightly gave us a reminder of the problems that come with drugs and the need to control them much better to deal with the harmful consequences.

The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, raised the question which has now been repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. All that I can say is that we will draw that request—underlined, in a sense—to the Minister's attention. I have to say that we have little prospect of it being accepted at the UN level, given the basis of our understandings of the positions of other countries and the degree of opposition to such proposals when they have been suggested in the sidelines of conferences in the past. However, the EU is committed in the 2009-2012 action plan on drugs to looking particularly at the amount and at improving the quality of what works in reducing drug demand. I hope that that gives some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, who raised some of the same issues.

On the question of whether you have phrases such as "war on drugs" or "war on terror", one difficulty that I have found—and I think that the previous Administration found the same problem with the community charge—is that once such a phrase gets into the media it becomes very difficult, whatever Governments do, to change the language. The language tends to remain what the media have adopted.

The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, in a very powerful contribution, raised a fundamental issue, also raised by many other noble Lords, on attention to demand. She made the point, which is shared by others, that more research is required. All the evidence is that supply reduction measures are expensive but, while drugs are illegal, there remains a commitment from government and the legal authorities to pursue criminals who trade in drugs. That is a statement of the obvious.

I shall not be able to do justice to all the contributions. To digress a moment, I should say that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked a series of questions on evaluation. I think that they would be better dealt with in a written response from me to her, rather than me just giving her a one-sentence response.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made a contribution that will read well, because it reminded us of the wider context in which drugs damage our society and in which our society is damaged beyond not only the generation taking drugs today but through the generations that will come.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, apart from the lifestyle lesson that I was fascinated to hear and the attempted bribery, which I found difficult to resist, raised very strongly the question of Afghanistan. I hope that the position is clear. The policy that was suggested is not one that the Government of Afghanistan could operate, so it would not be likely to succeed. But it is important that, whether in Colombia or Afghanistan, when we are seeking to remove the growing of crops for illicit drugs, we supply alternatives to those who seek a lifestyle supported by drug-producing at the farming level, and that they have other things that they can do.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, gave us a very powerful basis for his evidence and for the study that he took. Seeking not just a new way forward but a whole new legal basis is perhaps an issue for study rather than immediate response, so I shall resist responding.

The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, reminded us rather well that what we are doing here is rather a narrow part of the problem of drugs, and about how we move through the next few years in the UN system. I hope therefore that what we have set out as our position, which I am sure will be enhanced by the knowledge that Ministers will have of the contributions made by your Lordships in this valuable debate, will take us forward. I do not think that I can add any more at this stage, but I shall examine Hansard and look to see where I can amplify or supply answers in written form to the Front Benches in particular.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative

My Lords, I did not mean it rudely, and I hope that the Minister will forgive me if he took it that way, when I said that his answer would be inadequate. In fact, he has given a hugely comprehensive response to the many points raised. However, what I was fearful of has happened; the central theme that ran through so many speeches was that we as a nation—partly because of the UN treaties—devote far too much time, money and effort to the failed policy of trying to reduce supply and do not spend enough resources, effort, time, money and concentration on trying to reduce demand. That was the overwhelming theme that ran through this debate, and that is what the Minister has not answered. We believe that the Misuse of Drugs Act and how we try to control drugs actually just hands them to criminals. That is the central point.


Dear Lord Mancroft I am delighted to note your contribution to this vitally important debate. I have recently completed a Master's degree in Law, the thesis of which considered classification of cannabis (and all controlled substances) and the fitness for purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. My recommendations include a public discussion of this subject prompted by the PM's stated intention to reclassify cannabis to Class B contrary to the expert opinion of the ACMD. I praise your sterling...

Submitted by JENEPHER PARRY DAVIES Continue reading

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I did not take any offence and did not think that the noble Lord was being at all rude. I assure him that I am adequately responding, because he has a view that is not shared nationally. It may be shared in this debate and it is a valuable contribution to the debate, but the debate goes on. It would be wrong of me to pretend that the position held by noble Lords here is one that attracts support across the whole world, and which will allow a wholesale change of policy in March in Vienna. There will be a balanced approach to the question of supply and demand; the issue is that, having had policies that have failed, we will seek to improve to have policies that succeed. That is pushing in the direction of the point that a number of noble Lords have made. It is a small step forward and a small step towards an adequate response.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 1:57 pm, 22nd January 2009

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their extraordinarily eloquent, constructive and supportive contributions to this debate. It has been enormously helpful and I am very grateful to all involved.

I assure noble Lords that I will, with colleagues, seek discussions with the Minister who will represent this country in Vienna, in the hope that we can achieve as much as conceivably possible in the direction of an evidence-based policy and the establishment of a commission of some sort—whether European or broader than that—to consider the different approaches that have been explored and develop pilots that will be evaluated, in the hope of preparing for a better UN convention for the future.

Motion withdrawn.


I would like to thank Baroness Meacher for bringing up a very very important debate in which i feel a collective voice has listened and i hope to see further progressive action taken to restructure and base this so called "War on Drugs" on science and health rather than its current and failing regime. The reclassification that looms on the 26th of january will fall on deaf ears when it comes to drug dealers, smugglers, cultivators and users. Its nothing more than a waste of...

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