Drugs Policy - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:16 pm on 21st November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 8:16 pm, 21st November 2016

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for bringing this Question for Short Debate to your Lordships’ House. In the time allowed it is not possible to cover all the points I would like to, or to respond to all the points made by noble Lords. I know that other noble Lords will be with me on this: I hope that for all government policy decisions the starting point is a reasoned, evidential base at the heart of what the Government promote as a policy. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, referred to that, but the fact is that all three parties have failed that test over many years.

The Question before us concerns evidenced-based policies to promote public health and to place health rather than prohibition at the heart of our policies on drugs. Of course, we have two legal recreational drugs that can cause serious problems, namely tobacco and alcohol. I am fully aware of the debate about the legalisation of cannabis and the contention that it is less harmful than the two legal drugs I mentioned. My position is that I would not legalise cannabis for general use. It may well be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco but that in itself is not a good enough reason.

I do, though, see the point that the Government should give careful consideration to the case for the use of cannabis or cannabis products as a medicine. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, where there is medical evidence, the Government should consider the case for trials and consider rescheduling cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 4. These trials would be with named patients only. There should be further research seeking to establish for which ailments cannabis could be an effective and inexpensive treatment.

With the passing into law of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, there is no criminal penalty for the personal possession or use of new psychoactive substances, such as the synthetic cannabinoid known as Spice. There has been considerable press coverage of the harmful effects of this product, and I recall a debate in the Moses Room with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, when this very subject came up. There is no criminal penalty for possession of this product, but it is still illegal to produce and supply the drug—criminal penalties still apply. There seems to me some inconsistency between the Government’s policy on Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, and that on cannabis itself. The Government should look at that carefully and urgently to get both products on the same footing. Maybe the noble Baroness can address that tonight. If she cannot, maybe she can write to me after the debate.

I turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords. I accept, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and my noble friend Lord Rea, that many people in the UK are using cannabis for the relief of pain and in doing so are breaking the law. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, made an important point in saying that what we want is not revolution but evolution on an evidential base.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, addressed the serious issue of drugs in Glasgow. It will be important to evidentially assess the programmes and the results of work being done to deal with the serious problems there.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made an important point that the Government should review these matters on the basis of evidence and not get themselves stuck and be unable or unwilling to move.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for bringing this Question forward for debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.