My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for this debate. Some 15 years ago, when I was a police commander, I suggested that the police should not arrest people for having small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Now, 15 years later, some things have changed. Police officers can now issue a fixed penalty for possession of cannabis or simply issue a warning on the street—effectively decriminalising possession for personal use.
When this House debated the Psychoactive Substances Bill, I moved an amendment to decriminalise possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use, because in that legislation the Government did not seek to criminalise possession of small amounts of new psychoactive substances—“legal highs”, as they were known. Many of these new psychoactive substances are more dangerous than the drugs listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, so this made perfect sense to us. Others did not agree—but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned, another change from 15 years ago is that we now have a long-running example of what happens when possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use is decriminalised, and when drugs are treated primarily as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
It is very difficult to establish causal links between decriminalisation and what has happened in Portugal, but the reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly. HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise. Among Portuguese adults, there are three drug overdose deaths for every 1 million citizens compared with 44.6 per million in the UK. The use of legal highs is lower in Portugal than in any of the other countries for which reliable data exist.
So why, when the Liberal Democrats tried to decriminalise possession of small amounts of all drugs, did the Tory Government and the Labour Party oppose the move? Another thing I said back in 2002 was:
“Not being cynical but politicians always have this dilemma: do the right thing but if it’s not popular and you lose votes, you lose power and then you cannot do anything. Do the popular thing, win votes and keep power and you could end up doing the wrong thing because there are more votes in it. Does that mean politicians make decisions on the basis of how many votes it will win/lose them or on the basis that it is clearly the right thing to do (or only when the two coincide)?”.
I guess that some things have not changed. Can the Minister please consider asking her colleagues in Government to base drugs policy on evidence rather than prejudice and to treat drugs as primarily a health issue, not a criminal one?