My Lords, the outcomes from the two recent cases involving nitrous oxide are not legally binding, and the Government have no plans to conduct a formal review of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 following the two recent cases. We are working closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency on our approach to future prosecutions involving this substance.
My Lords, it has not taken long for the courts to expose the unworkability of part of the legislation. Faced with the very serious and pressing problem of new psychoactive substances, will the Government now see reason and accept that prohibition—the orthodoxy of the last half-century and reiterated, on a peculiarly crude model, in the 2016 Act—has failed, with disastrous consequences for the growth of crime and the blighting of innumerable lives, not to mention the chaos in our prisons? Will the Government now base their policy not on wishful thinking and populism but on the evidence of science, the analysis of specific harms and the experience, here and in other countries, of what does and does not work?
My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord about the Psychoactive Substances Act not working because we have managed to close down more than 300 retailers across the UK who sold psychoactive substances. In 2016, there were 28 convictions in England and Wales and seven people were jailed under the new powers. Additionally, coming from Manchester, I would have to disagree with him, having seen some of the sights that I have on the streets of Manchester recently.
My Lords, the UN changed the basis of global drug policy in April last year at its special session. We now know that banning drugs will never create a drug-free world. The UN therefore wants nations to pursue evidence-based policies, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned, and public health policies to reduce addiction and the harms to our young people. The Psychoactive Substances Act runs counter to the evidence. It does nothing to reduce addiction; it increases the risks to young people. Yes, the head shops were closed but they were the last vestige of any kind of protection for young people, pretty inadequate though that was. I therefore reiterate the point: will the Minister give an assurance to this House that she will give the most serious consideration to instigating an independent review of all our drug policies? What are we doing? We are simply making matters worse. Will she come forward with evidence-based policies?
I do not disagree, and on previous occasions I have not disagreed, that evidence-based policies are absolutely the right way forward. In fact, WHO is undertaking some work of its own and it will report next year on the various elements of cannabis. We await with interest the results of that work.
My Lords, there was plenty of criticism of the Government’s approach to the Psychoactive Substances Bill, as it was, and the substances it covered. First, did the Government not seek advice on differentiating between the use and misuse of medicine? Secondly—this is one uncritical point about the Act—is it not a good thing that it is dealers and not users who are the focus of the Act, and should we not extend that approach to other areas of drug policy?
I wish that I had been there for the passage of the Psychoactive Substances Act now. It would have benefited me greatly, although some people seem to have scars on their backs from it. We have been talking about nitrous oxide, which has a medicinal benefit. However, in this case it was clearly used for recreation.
May I observe that the Act is not working quite as well as it might, and that in its Section 3 there is a specific reference to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? I urge the Government to have discussions with that body, which has performed so well and served the public so well since the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
Again, I wish I had been present for the debates that took place. I certainly take on board what the noble Lord said. I have not got an answer for him today, but I will look into the question that he asked.
The Government’s 2017 drugs strategy states on page 4:
“While use of new psychoactive substances among the general population is low … they continue to appear rapidly on the market, and use among certain groups is problematic, particularly among the homeless population and in prisons”.
What exactly is “problematic” meant to convey in this context that could not have been conveyed in more specific, clearer language? If the problem is among the homeless and in prisons, would a solution not be more social housing and affordable housing to rent and buy in the first instance, and a review of the lessons that should be learned from an excessive reduction in the number of prison officers over the past seven years in the second instance?
I guess that “problematic” means causing a problem to society. It is a particular problem with homeless people because such drugs are very cheap—ditto in prisons—and some psychoactive substances are not easy to detect, particularly spice. I forget the end of what the noble Lord said. Ah! It was about prison officers. Certainly, from some of the documentaries we have seen on television, it needs to become harder to get drugs into prison and there are more and more ingenious methods of secreting them into prison.