A major overhaul of the country’s drug laws with a focus on treatment instead of criminalisation has been called for by a Labour spokesman in the House of Lords.
Lord Patel of Bradford pointed favourably to the example of Portugal, where criminal sentences for drug use have been scrapped.
He urged the Government to concentrate on the “evidence” rather than the “ideological and moral opinions of media commentators”.
His comments appear to be at odds with Labour leader Ed Miliband, who this month said: “I don’t think the answer is decriminalisation or legislation, I think the answer lies in better education, better prevention and better treatment.”
Lord Patel, who wrote a report for the Government in 2010 on reducing drug-crime and rehabilitating offenders, told peers: “All governments, my own included, sometimes failed to make the right decisions based on evidence due to the pressures that build up from public debate, which is itself often ill-informed due to exaggeration in the media and cries that the Government of the day are somehow being soft on drugs if they give way to the advice of experts.
“Let’s be clear about this – the evidence supports treatment rather than criminalisation and punishment.
“The recent experience in Portugal in using drug treatment panels rather than the traditional criminal justice system supports this.
“We have also seen a complete reversal of direction in some US states that have legislated to legalise marijuana.
“So it is disappointing that the Government does not believe that there is a case ‘for fundamentally rethinking the UK’s approach to drugs’.
“I would strongly urge the Government to ensure that our current drugs policy is based on research and evidence rather than ideological and moral opinions of media commentators.”
Winding up a debate on drugs for Labour, he called for a cross-party group to review drug policy.
Tory former cabinet minister Lord Fowler joined those calling for a new approach to drugscontrol, warning that the “old policies” had failed.
“We need to open a new dialogue and try for new solutions in this area. The old policies have failed and we must try, perhaps by pilot schemes, to find new and better ways forward.”
Lord Fowler said talk of a “war on drugs” might give comfort to politicians but does little to solve the problem.
“This one-dimensional approach has never worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future,” he said.
The debate came after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently accused the Conservatives of refusing to look “imaginatively” at new ways of tackling the UK’s drugsproblem, adding: “I don’t think we’re winning the drugs war.”
But Home Secretary Theresa May has insisted the current approach is working.
Class A drugs should be decriminalised and drug addicts “treated and cared for, not criminalised”, said Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton last month.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform (APPG) has called for a change in strategy, saying the possession and use of small quantities of drugs should be decriminalised and the least harmful should be regulated and sold in licensed shops, with labels detailing risks.
Baroness Meacher, chairwoman of the APPG, said: “Whatever our personal views about the morality of taking drugs, we all surely agree that good policy is that which reduces the level of drug addiction and harm to the individuals and others.
“Criminalising young people is contrary to that aim.”
Despite tough laws, the UK still has one of the highest levels of drug use in Europe, the crossbench peer said.
“Most young people use legal highs as a direct response to the contamination of traditionaldrugs in the illicit market. If we sort out the illicit market we would go a long way to eliminating so-called legal highs.”
Liberal Democrat Baroness Manzoor, in her maiden speech, said her work as a staff nurse and health visitor in the NHS had shown her the despair and misery drugs could cause.
She said responsibility for this policy area should be switched from the Home Office to the Department of Health to provide more support for those who want to get off drugs.
Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a former justice of the Supreme Court, said there “must be better policies” than the current drug laws.
The independent crossbench peer said: “Policies concentrating essentially on criminalising the drug trade in all aspects are counter-productive. Better health must be the goal.”
He added: “By the same token that the nation’s health might be improved by licensing rather than criminalising drug supply and use, so too might its associated criminality be reduced – and what a prize that would be.
“Perhaps liberalising the drug regime would involve some short-term political cost but the longer-term benefits would be colossal indeed.”
Baroness Butler-Sloss, an independent crossbench peer and former head of the family division of the High Court, said there were in excess of 7,500 cannabis farms in the country and there were strong links to human trafficking.
She told peers: “The traffickers are taking rented houses, pulling them to pieces, subverting electricity and the water and creating large, successful cannabis farms which are almost entirely run by the Vietnamese children.”
She added: “It is perfectly obvious that there has to be a rethink on drugs in this country and I think the Government should be brave enough to think how it could be improved.”
But Lord Condon, a former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, supported the current laws.
“The current policy on illicit drugs enables parents, teachers and others to give very clear guidance to youngsters about the health risks and the criminal consequences of criminal drug use,” the crossbench peer said.
“I honestly believe, from my experience with children and as a police officer, that the social stigma and lifestyle impact of the criminal consequences of illicit drugs activity remains a very, very powerful deterrent for many young people and prevents them from experimenting with drugs which they may do in a decriminalised regime.”
Neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield warned of the dangers of cannabis and of the “paradoxical signals” that would be sent out by relaxing the laws on a drug and yet saying it had to be avoided.
“Already the possibility of cannabis legalisation is all too easily glamorised as a cool and trendy campaign to support,” she said.
“There is little negative publicity offsetting this image in contrast, say, to tobacco.”
Home Office minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach, winding up the debate, said the Government had published “the most ambitious drugs strategy to date”.
He said there were “positive” signs that the Government’s approach was working.
“Drug use is at its lowest since measurement began in 1996 with the use of any drug in the last year falling from 11.9% in 2001/02 to 8.2% in 2012/13,” he said.
“Given that we are making progress, the Government is not currently persuaded that there is a case for fundamentally rethinking the UK’s approach to drugs, but we are not complacent.
“We must continue and learn from emerging trends and new evidence and international comparators.
“I believe the legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals. Such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime.
“Neither would a regulated market eliminate illicit supplies as alcohol and tobacco smuggling clearly demonstrates.
“Regulation also carries its own administrative and enforcement costs and could cause increases in drug use and availability. I don’t believe it’s a risk worth taking.”
Courtesy of Press Association
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