Sunday, March 05, 2006

UK's House of Lords discusses drug policy

Comments by Lord Meghnad Desai, of the British House of Lords

2 Mar 2006 : Column 396

2.30 pm

Lord Desai: My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for introducing a subject which, as he said, we have not discussed for some years. I have no professional qualifications for speaking on this subject, but I used to be chairman of a charity that intervened when drug addicts were referred to it. It was called City Roads, and it was a very good institution. I learned a lot about drug addiction in those days. But I must also confess that I smoked cannabis in my youth and, not knowing that I would be in politics later on, I even confessed to enjoying it. Had I remembered, I would have said I did not enjoy it then but, sad to say, that probably brought my career to a premature end.

It is, as the noble Lord said, somewhat paradoxical that we have been fighting a war against drugs for, so far as I remember, 40 years, if not longer. The war has not been won, for several reasons. One simple reason is that, by banning drugs, we have made the price of them a premium, which makes it extremely profitable for people to trade in them. You often hear about the lack of development in Africa; people say that there is no infrastructure, there are no roads, and there is no enterprise. But drug dealers get everywhere—roads or no roads. Drugs can travel across the world. They can be delivered. People probably pay five or six times what they would pay if drugs were legal, apart from the fact that legal drugs would be safer. As the noble Lord said, there are health consequences of using drugs in their impure form, over and above any other health consequences of using them.

We are making drug dealing extremely profitable, and we are endangering the lives of those people who choose to be on drugs. We are supposed to be completely horrified and morally outraged by drugs, but is it likely that, 20 years from now, some trembling politician will say, "I used to smoke cigarettes, and I actually enjoyed it, I am sorry to say"? Our attitude to tobacco has gone towards stopping people smoking, and I think that our attitude to drugs should travel in exactly the other direction. Indeed, we ought to find out what actual harm various drugs do. I know that there are all sorts of alarmist stories, but the drug classification system does take harm into account. There is logic to the A, B, C classification, and having classified drugs in that way, we ought to ask ourselves if we should instead concentrate police resources and other resources on cases in which drug rehabilitation is needed, rather than waste a lot of resources on trying to arrest criminals.

What is important, as the noble Lord said, is that drugs are supplied safely and in a controlled way for various purposes to people who want them, and in a way that allows us to know who is getting what. If we know that, we may be able to warn them, just as we do now with labels on cigarette packets and food and so on, about the consequences of taking such a drug. Again, if people want to do these things and if they are adults of sound mind, I do not see why we should stop them. We still allow alcohol. I am not advocating the banning of alcohol but, on health past, as readers of Sherlock Holmes will know, many drugs were not banned at all. By legalising and decriminalising the sale and purchase of drugs and bringing them into the grounds, one would logically go down that road because alcohol is a drug. So we do make distinctions between drugs.

We have become paranoid about drugs. In the open through proper commercial channels where we can exercise control over their production and trace legally and officially the people who are buying them, we can follow them through and see whether there are adverse health consequences. That would be a very good and welcome step. We had the Runciman report a while ago. It was not fully acted on, but we should perhaps re-examine the whole subject.

Let me give one more example of how this has quite a strong effect in the international context. The fact that America has adopted a very anti-drug attitude has clearly upset many Latin American countries. The recent election of Morales in Bolivia was all to do with the resentment that Bolivians felt about their one product—cacao leaves—being banned in America. All that happens is that it is transported illegally and the Americans get heavy and send agents down there. That is one example. I do not see why Bolivia should be prevented from growing cacao leaves if it wants to. Think of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we are trying very hard not to let these people grow any opium. But what do we do under the common agricultural policy? We buy up these crops and pay people good money for them. I have said this to Hilary Benn, and I will say it again here: a much more sensible policy would be for the Government to establish a monopoly of purchase. They should not prevent production, but should let them grow the crops and buy them up. Those crops might have other uses, or they can be burnt.

We waste much more money under the common agricultural policy on European sugar, but do not let me go down that road or I shall foam at the mouth. We really have to rethink our drug policy because, again as the noble Lord said, it has become a big trade because we have made it profitable by making it illegal. So long as we make it illegal, we will not win the war against drugs.

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