20 Jul House Of Lords Debates The EU Drugs Strategy

House Of Lords

You can watch the debate here starting at 4:24.

However, here are the highlights. The full transcript is here.

Lord Hannay reported on the Home Affairs sub-committee of the House of Lords inquiry:

The point that I wish to emphasis the most, and to which we returned more than once, is the need for an informed and objective public debate on the drugs policies of the different member states.

In the course of our inquiry, we learnt about the policies of a number of member states, from the Swedish zero-tolerance approach to the experience of Portugal.

What the committee did not do was consider whether to make any recommendations for a change in the law of this country towards the decriminalisation of possession and use.

The press have an important role to play. However, I am afraid that some organs of the United Kingdom press are notoriously lacking in objectivity on this subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in her evidence, singled out the Daily Mail. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, told us that it had behaved “grossly irresponsibly”. In the unlikely event that the Daily Mail reports this debate, I shall no doubt be accused of seeking to have drug trafficking legalised. I hope not. Even the Daily Mail should recognise that there is an argument to be made that imprisoning drug users is not necessarily best for them, best for society, or even the best use of our prisons.

Lord Mancroft responds:

The interesting thing about this report is that it is so dispassionate and refuses to come to a conclusion, but recognises the importance of what has happened in Portugal, where there has been a reduction in the use of the criminal justice system, an increase in the treatment system and a resulting reduction in drug use. There has been a complete change in what has happened in that country. Could we do that here? I do not know. Nobody knows, because we have not done it. However, I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, when he referred to the fact that we have not had that debate. One of the reasons we have not had that debate is not only because of the irresponsibility of the press, which scares politicians off from doing it, but because important social debates of this sort need to be led by the political class, particularly by the Government of the day, and successive Governments for the last 20 years have declined to engage in this debate. They have not said whether it is right or wrong but have just refused to engage.

Lord Howarth responds:

We do need rational public debate. Policy-making is made very difficult by the attitude of certain elements of the media. The editor of the Daily Mail declined to meet the All-Party Group on Drug Policy Reform. It may make it easier to sell papers, but it is not constructive to demonise drug users.

It seems to me that the benefits of decriminalising possession and using regulation would be to release users from the embrace of the criminals and cut the ground from under this vast and murderous criminal industry. It would make it much more possible to increase advice and help for users and get more of them into treatment. It would enable control of the composition and quality of the substances that are consumed, and there would be the benefit of tax revenue from that consumption. No society has ever been drug-free and the strategy should be one of damage limitation.

Lord Teverson responds:

One cannot decriminalise the consumption of drugs and keep the criminalisation of the supply chain. What happens in that circumstance is that one sits slightly more smugly as a consumer in your population, but you still lay waste to the developing world and the transit countries through which those supply chains operate, because no difference is made to the way the system operates there.

I particularly agree with this part of the Government’s response, which reads:

“It is vital that this debate is focussed on clear evidence and analysis and we will continue to champion the use of evidence at local, national and international level”.

However, the track record of UK Governments on evidence-based drugs policy has been particularly bad.

Lord Cobbold responds by delivering Baroness Meacher’s speech in her absence:

Will the Minister agree to an evaluation of the possible decriminalisation of drug use in the UK-which is of course quite different from legalisation-as a possible response to the growing evidence of the cost effectiveness of such policies?

Again, it would be most helpful if the UK Government would establish an independent review committee to consider the appropriateness of the Home Office as the lead department for drug policy in this country. There are alternative models within Europe and an evaluation of these would be helpful. Following the reasoning of the Hannay report, it would of course be wise to incorporate this matter within a wider review of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Lord Judd responds:

I attach great significance to those sentences where we talk about the health dimension being at least as important as the enforcement dimension. I wish that the debate could move more into the role of health. Since our report was published, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has commended the Portuguese approach. The cost benefits of a health-focused, rather than a criminal justice-focused, approach are particularly relevant at a time of so much economic stringency and cuts in public funds, because we must be certain that the money being spent is not being wasted and is being used as cost-effectively as possible.

Lord Mackenzie responds:

Illegal drugs are a scourge in modern society. I think that we all agree on that. I have seen at first hand the misery, psychological damage and, yes, death, caused to young, old, rich and poor by improper drug use. Only last week we read in the press of two tragic but different cases. One was that of a psychologically damaged 26 year-old woman, Hannah Bonser, allegedly addicted to cannabis, who for no apparent reason attacked and stabbed Casey Kearney, a 13 year-old stranger. It was for no other reason, it appeared, than that she was being told in her head to do it. This case illustrates the damage that newer, more powerful cannabis can inflict on the mind and should be compulsory reading for those who would relax controls on this mind-altering substance. Bonser was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Lord Henley, the drugs minister, responds:

Lastly on the subject of decriminalisation, I do not think that this is the time or place to go on to that wider subject. However, the legal framework that we have in this country-the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971-allows the criminal justice system some flexibility to deal with the best way to reduce reoffending and gives both the police and the judiciary discretion to take into account all the circumstances of the offence, such as when it involves possession of a relatively small amount of some drug.