My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on raising the question and I declare an interest as an officer of the all-party group. It is five years since I tabled a Question for Short Debate asking what consideration the Government had given to establishing a royal commission on the law governing drug use and possession. The timing was deliberate, coming 40 years after the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was promulgated and the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed.
I made two points by way of introduction. First, I stressed that I believe strongly in having evidence-based policy. As I said then, I am appalled at how much legislation is brought forward more on the basis of hope than evidence. Secondly, the best way to affect attitudes and behaviour is through education and persuasion. I repeat what I said then:
“The law alone cannot achieve change, and indeed it can be dangerous to rest on the law in place of education”.—[Official Report, 9/3/11; col. 1673.]
I drew the distinction between drug use and prohibition. Prohibition can have and has had appalling consequences—a point made powerfully by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. I advocated a commission or some other body of inquiry to examine the facts and to undertake an evidence-based inquiry.
The Minister replying to my question on that occasion said that the subject was one that excites disagreement. It may well do, but the only person who disagreed with me in the debate was the Minister. Everyone else who spoke, on all sides of the House, supported the case for review. In effect, what we were arguing for then is encapsulated in the call now by UN officials. It is crucial that the Government should recognise the problem as one of health, that we start from the problem of drug use and evaluate the evidence on the way to tackle the problem.
The danger is that the Government adopt a mindset that is resistant to change and, as a result of that mindset, are reluctant to consider dispassionately the evidence that does exist and are reluctant to commission evidence to help identify what needs to be done. Part of the reluctance appears to be a fear of public opinion. I think that fear is overblown and indeed not necessarily evidence based—but, in any event, what we need is what has been shown by some Governments elsewhere, not least on the American continent, and that is leadership to address what is a very real global and national problem.
I look forward to my noble friend Lady Williams confirming that the Government accept the need for evidence-based policy, for being as transparent as possible in sharing that evidence, and to hearing what the Government plan to do to acquire, evaluate and act on that evidence.