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My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, on enabling us to debate this pressing issue. I should declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, because that is the subject to which I wish to refer.
Perhaps the most devastating of the many statistics included in the first House of Lords Library briefing is the fact that the number of under-16s admitted to hospital has increased by 93% since 2012. The Government are clearly worried about that figure and have introduced a wide range of initiatives. The Home Secretary clearly realises that drugs are at the heart of this problem and has launched a review of the illegal drugs market led by Dame Carol Black. Tragically, her review was castrated before it began because she was explicitly prevented from looking at drug law. Without reform of our drug laws it is difficult to imagine that this problem can be solved. The Government will struggle uphill all the way because they have a deep problem right at the centre of everything.
Of course there are very important remedial measures which Dame Carol Black will consider, such as the need to reverse the cuts to drug treatment services and the swingeing cuts to local authority budgets which have led to the closure of youth services, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, outlined so strongly. These services offered activity, support and just a little bit of hope to these very vulnerable people. I have not seen any mention of the need to restore the budgets of schools to enable them to re-employ class assistants and others to work with vulnerable children. I heard only this morning that a school has had to cut out completely its volunteer programme. It must cost thruppence-ha’penny—almost nothing—yet it has had to destroy that volunteer programme to try to make ends meet. Class assistants and volunteers work with the most vulnerable children who have behaviour problems. Without that support those children are excluded from school, and we have heard appalling numbers about exclusions over the past 10 years or so. Alongside these policy disasters, which urgently need to be reviewed, are the cuts to the benefits budget which have left youngsters looking for some money somewhere, and it does not take them long to find illegal drug dealers—a veritable gold mine, if you are prepared to take a bit of a risk.
The Children’s Society report on knife crime points to another policy needing revision, knife crime prevention orders. Branded as preventive, these orders are in fact targeted at children who may be the victims of exploitation. As the right reverend Prelate noted, the society rightly points out that any child found carrying a knife should immediately prompt a safeguarding response. Does the Minister accept that important recommendation? The Children’s Society’s concerns mirror those expressed in this Chamber when the Bill was going through. The orders risk criminalising young people and pushing them further from support rather than the other way round. Does the Minister accept that analysis and the need to revisit that legislation, or at least the regulations within it?
Even with those policy changes, if they occur, the Government will be working uphill, as I have said, unless they are willing to look at the evidence of the relationship between our drug prohibition laws and knife crime and many other societal problems, although today of course we are concerned with knife crime.
I hope that noble Lords will bear with me if I spend a couple of minutes explaining why I have fairly recently come to the view that the legalisation of cannabis for adult social use would do more to deal with knife crime than any other initiative. The Government seem to accept that most knife crime occurs because youngsters are caught up in drug gangs or carry knives in case they are attacked by a gang wanting to recruit them. The demand for cannabis is on a different scale from the demand for any other drug, so what would a legal cannabis market look like? The legal cannabis would be a well-balanced, uncontaminated product. Good up-to-date research has shown that that sort of product has no risk of causing psychosis. There has been a lot of publicity about cannabis causing psychosis, but it absolutely does not. The illegal stuff does but a legal product would not.
The only other possible risk from cannabis is of inhibiting brain development in children. If legalisation led to more children taking cannabis, I would not support it, but the US evidence suggests that that is simply not the case. In Colorado, the use of cannabis by teenagers has fallen, and in the other legalising states it has remained much the same as it was before the change in the law.
If the supply of safe cannabis were regulated and available only in pharmacies or other legal outlets, the illegal market would largely collapse. Yes, skunk would continue to be available from the drug dealers, but if young people could buy legal cannabis safely from somewhere else, children would not find their way to the illegal drug dealers. No doubt children would get hold of the legal product—they get hold of alcohol, after all—but it would be considerably safer than what they take at the moment. The important point is that the cannabis they got hold of would not be skunk. That is crucial. Skunk is horrible, dangerous stuff. What about class A drugs? We do not know the proportion of cannabis users who move on to class A drugs but we know that the gateway effect is crucial. This would end. There would be separate markets for legal cannabis and illegal drugs.
I realise that the Minister cannot respond to any of those comments until we get a new Home Secretary but, if and when we do, I hope that I can have a discussion with him about the possibility of revisiting the terms of reference of Dame Carol Black’s review.