Drugs Policy - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 21st November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 8:20 pm, 21st November 2016

My Lords, that is good news, because somebody will agree with me tonight, I hope. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for securing the debate. I acknowledge the extensive work she has done in this area. Indeed, I thank all noble Lords, who have contributed very thoughtfully to the debate.

The Government used the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to share our experience of delivering an evidence-based, balanced drug strategy within the UN drug conventions, and to strengthen international co-operation in tackling drug harms. The outcome document of the special session combines ambitious goals with operational recommendations that all Governments should consider implementing. The UK Government secured particularly helpful recommendations on our priorities on new psychoactive substances, proportionate criminal justice and comprehensive recovery.

We have heard that United Nations officials at the special session called for evidence-based policies that promote public health. These calls are fully in line with the Government’s approach. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, can rest easy about agreeing with the Government’s position. The Government are taking balanced action to prevent the harms caused by drug use. This includes educating young people about the risks, helping dependent individuals through treatment and supporting law enforcement in tackling the illicit trade. We are currently developing a new drugs strategy, working across government and with key partners, to identify what further steps we can take to tackle this issue.

We continue to take a broad approach to prevention, supporting investment in a range of programmes that have a positive impact on young people and adults. These programmes give them the confidence, resilience and risk-management skills to resist drug misuse. This includes the resilience-building resources available online, such as FRANK and advice services, as well as toolkits from Public Health England to support local responses.

Tough enforcement is a fundamental part of our drugs strategy, with action to restrict drug supply and reduce drug-related crime a key priority for law enforcement. We are tackling drug dealing on our streets, strengthening the border and combating the international flow of drugs to the UK to disrupt drug trafficking upstream.

Recovery remains at the heart of our approach. More adults are leaving treatment successfully compared to 2009-10. That can be only a good thing. The average waiting time to access treatment remains at three days. However, we recognise there is still further to go.

Drug treatment is invaluable to individuals, their families and the communities in which they live. It is vital that there is access to a range of options that can be tailored to individual need to provide the best possible chances of recovery. Such treatment should be provided alongside the wider recovery support essential to achieving and sustaining recovery, which includes access to training and employment, stable housing, and wider health services.

The Government are taking a leading role on drugs policy at the international level. Steering international action to strengthen our domestic response will be a key element of the new drugs strategy. The Government used the special session to strengthen our global leadership in the international response to new psychoactive substances. Our comprehensive action on this issue in recent years has resulted in, first, the formation of the UK-led International Action Group on New Psychoactive Substances, a group of more than 30 Governments and international organisations which drives the international response; secondly, in the establishment of a global early warning system at the United Nations; and, thirdly, in the first two tranches of international controls on some of the most harmful new psychoactive substances. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on the Spice/cannabis differentiation, because I will not have a chance to respond on that point tonight. We will continue to press the international community to implement the recommendations of the special session outcome document, including on new psychoactive substances. They include enhancing the global collection of data on the health harms that such substances pose.

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, and others spoke about alternative drugs policies in other countries. We have heard this evening about some great successes in other countries which implemented policies that are not part of this Government’s approach, but we must be cautious when comparing the evidence between countries. Historical patterns of drug use, cultural attitudes, and policy and operational responses to drug misuse in a country will all affect levels of use and harm. Moreover, different countries have different means of collecting data, so it is often difficult to make direct comparisons.

Almost every noble Lord mentioned medicinal cannabis. I used to work with people who had multiple sclerosis—it was right at the beginning of the debate and what led to the development of Sativex. We recognise that people with chronic pain and debilitating illnesses are looking to alleviate their symptoms. It is important that medicines are trialled thoroughly to ensure they meet rigorous standards before being placed on the market and so that doctors and patients are sure of their efficacy and safety. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 enables the availability of controlled drugs which have recognised medicinal uses in UK healthcare, of which there are many. A clear regime is in place, administered by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. This enables medicines including those containing controlled drugs such as cannabis to be developed, licensed and made available for medicinal use by patients in the UK. For example, Sativex has been granted market authorisation in the UK by the MHRA for the treatment of spasticity due to multiple sclerosis. It was rigorously tested for its safety and efficacy before receiving approval. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is open to considering marketing approval applications for other medicinal cannabis products should they be developed. As happened in the case of Sativex, the Home Office will consider issuing a licence to enable trials of any new medicine, provided that it complies with approved ethical criteria. The Government’s view is that cannabis should be subject to the same regulatory framework as applies to all medicines in the UK—I do not think that noble Lords demurred from that premise. To do otherwise would amount to circumvention of a clearly established regime.

My noble friend Lord Mancroft talked about decriminalising drugs. I am afraid to say to him that we have no intention of doing that. They are illegal because scientific and medical analysis has shown that they are harmful to human health. A number of noble Lords cited decriminalisation in Portugal. Successes cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone, but I recognise them. At around the same time as implementing decriminalisation, Portugal made changes to its approach to drugs misuse, including widespread implementation of harm reduction programmes and investment in drug treatment. It is extremely challenging to disentangle the effects of decriminalisation from those of these wider changes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, talked about other approaches, for example in Switzerland and Glasgow, and the heroin-assisted treatment. There is evidence from the UK and other countries that supervised injections of diamorphine or pharmaceutical heroin in a medical environment as part of a structured treatment plan can keep patients in treatment and out of criminal behaviour. In addition to cutting crime, the treatment also drastically reduces the risk of overdose. The Government’s commitment to that evidence is set out in both the 2010 drugs strategy and the 2016 modern crime prevention strategy.

We do not plan to change the law to enable drug consumption rooms to be established and operate in the UK because while there is international evidence that they can be effective in addressing the problems of public nuisance and reducing health risks in a very specific set of circumstances where open drug scenes presented a significant risk to public health, this is a complex and legally divisive solution to a problem that we do not have in the UK.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations versus Schedule 4. Cannabis is controlled as a class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and, given that it currently has no recognised medicinal benefits in the UK, a Schedule 1 drug under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. We recognise the value of important scientific research and the Home Office licensing regime allows that to take place in the appropriate controlled environment.

I am running out of time and will not be able to answer every single noble Lord’s question. I will finish with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, because it is a quick answer. On the Spice question, there may be no possession offence under the Psychoactive Substances Act as the harms of such substances may not be fully assessed. However, once assessed and if proven harmful, substances will be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which includes an offence for possession.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I have not had time to answer everyone so I will do so in writing.