Drugs — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 22nd January 2009.

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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.


Posted on 24 Jan 2009 1:35 pm (Report this annotation)

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.