Ronnie Cowan MP
May I add my congratulations to the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—which apparently is one constituency—and for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on their maiden speeches? I am sure they are already aware that the next time they speak they will not be listened to with such reverence. [Interruption.] I will do my best.
On drug policy reform, there are two problems we are trying to address: first, the crime surrounding illegal drugs, and, secondly, the harm done by addiction to drugs. The first technically looks quite easy. We could look to decriminalise and legislate for drugs; overnight we would take away all the power from the criminals. The second problem is harder, but would be easier when the victims are not being stigmatised and driven into the arms of criminals.
The Government report launched last Friday failed to address those core issues. Despite the few nods in the direction of healthcare, the UK Government have fundamentally missed the point again. The Home Secretary says she wants a strategy to deliver a drug-free society, and that, in a nutshell, is why it is seriously flawed, because the drugs are not the problem. We should be asking: why do people take drugs and why do some 10% of users develop an addiction? What leads people to abuse drugs? That is the issue. If Ministers think that coming down hard on criminals will remove drugs from society and therefore end the need for them, they are delusional. We have been trying that for years, and the situation has only got worse.
The latest figures show the highest number of fatalities since comparable records began 24 years ago, with 50 a week across the UK and deaths from heroin doubling in three years, yet the Government have brushed aside the testimonies from the Anyone’s Child campaign. Anyone’s Child represents people who have lost relatives to drugs, and they now bravely argue for legalisation and regulation to prevent others from having to share their agony.
I welcome the talk about a renewed focus on the importance of evidence-based drug treatment services, and moves to address underlying factors such as inadequate housing, unemployment and mental health problems, but the Government’s big message is still about tough law enforcement. When are they going to comprehend that drug reform is a health issue, and that the war on drugs that has been waged for the past 100 years has failed? They will never bring it to an end when their primary focus is on stamping down on dealers and users. In continuing to do that, we marginalise the very people we should be seeking to help. It is a cowardly report and an opportunity lost.
We could be learning from certain events in history, but we seem to be ignoring them. We have already mentioned the fact that the USA banned alcohol, but the people there still wanted alcohol. The US Government could have licensed alcohol manufacturers, established a state-enforced quality control system with a recognised distribution network, and licensed premises in which to sell alcohol, all of which would have paid taxes to the Government. Instead, they introduced prohibition. That encouraged criminals to produce substances of dubious integrity that they sold at whatever price they liked in establishments that were unfit for purpose. Those activities were all fiercely protected by unrestrained violence. Crime rates soared, people died from consuming the product, addiction increased and rivals died in violent turf wars. Corruption was rampant and communities lived in fear. Does that sound familiar? Today’s war on drugs mirrors those processes, except that they are now being carried out on a far larger scale because we have encouraged them to grow over a far longer period of time. Stamping down hard on the criminals who control the growth, harvesting and distribution of drugs has only increased the levels of violence, fear and corruption that they use to hold on to and grow their marketplace.
Once we have started a war that we were never going to win, ending it becomes increasingly difficult. The onus is on us to justify the time, the cost in human lives, the misery and the taxpayers’ money involved, and to justify why we started the war in the first place. If we cannot do that, the only option seems to be to plough on, doggedly proclaiming that we were right all along and steadfastly refusing to listen to alternative strategies aimed at resolving the issue. That is where we are now in the war on drugs. Rather like the generals in the first world war ordering tens of thousands of conscripts over the top in a futile show of strength, we cannot see a way out that would justify the losses and sacrifices that have been made. We therefore continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. We should note that when prohibition ended in 1933, the crime rate and the addiction rate plummeted.
Transform has published a report in response to the latest offering from the UK Government in which it points out that, according to the United Nations office on drugs and crime,
“taking a criminal justice-led approach to drugs creates a vast criminal market, siphons resources away from health, shifts drug dealing and trafficking around, switches users between drugs, and stigmatises and drives people who use drugs from seeking help.”
In other words, prohibition is a discredited and deadly way of making drugs stronger and more dangerous while funding organised crime.
The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse estimates that the combined cost to society of substance abuse is £15.4 billion a year. The cost in human lives and the suffering of addicts, their friends and families can never be quantified. As the war continues, we are seeing more addicts, more cost, more pain and no sign that things will improve. The current approach is not working, and we need a fundamental change of philosophy.
A growing body of well-informed people say that it is time to decriminalise and legalise drugs. These people are not lily-livered do-gooders or hippies left over from the ’60s; they are ex and current law enforcement officers. They have seen the problems up close and personal. They have spent decades locking people up, but they have come to the conclusion that their actions did not make a blind bit of difference. It is a tough call to recognise that they had it wrong, so the people from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—LEAP—should be listened to.
A week ago, I hosted a dinner in the House of Commons with 24 people around the table from the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Medical Association, The British Medical Journal, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the University of Cambridge, Transform, the Buchanan Institute, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords. Most of us self-administered psychoactive substances while we were there. All representatives spoke openly and honestly and the general consensus was that the current drugs policy is not working and that the war on drugs should be led by health, not criminal justice. Why is self-administrating a drug illegal? Technically, the answer is because we made that particular drug illegal and put it on a list. As I said, most of us self-administered psychoactive substances, but alcohol is not on the list. We have created a problem and now we cannot fix it—unless, of course, we decriminalised and controlled the production, quality and distribution of drugs. We could then tax them and use the money to provide better treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction services—rather like we do with alcohol, but hopefully much more effectively.
We have not always had our current attitudes towards drugs, and we have not always seen the violence and crime that surrounds drugs. A good few years ago, there was a regular annual festival of music and arts, and drug taking was a big part of the festival—it was acknowledged and accepted. The festival was frequented by many people, including a few celebrities. We probably know a few of their names: Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero—those kind of dudes. A hundred years ago, UK pharmacies would sell many products made from derivatives of heroin or cocaine. Cough mixtures contained opiates, and department stores sold heroin tins. In 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, 13,000 people had a problem with drugs. After 46 years of the war on drugs, we now have 380,000, and yet the Government still want to pursue that policy.
If we decriminalised or legalised drugs, the one issue we would be left with is the one that we should be addressing right now: why do some people become addicts? If we can solve that, we will go a long way to winning the war on drugs. So what do we know? Professor Bruce Alexander was used to performing experiments on rats and was familiar with the Skinner box, which was seen as a good place to study drug addiction. Scientists had perfected techniques to allow rats to inject small doses of a drug into themselves by pressing a lever. That required tethering the rat to the ceiling of the box and implanting a needle into their jugular veins. The drug passed through the tube and the needle into the rats’ bloodstreams almost instantaneously when they pushed the lever. Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs. Then, along with his colleagues Robert Coambs, Patricia Hadaway and Barry Beyerstein, he created “Rat Park”. It was heaven for rats, with areas to move freely, dig, socialise and breed. He gave those rats two water bottles, one of which was laced with morphine. None of the rats developed an addiction. The environment that the rats lived in was clearly a factor—not the only factor, but a major one.
The obvious question is whether we have tried this experiment on humans, and the answer, unfortunately, is yes. We gave it a name: the Vietnam war. Hundreds of thousands of young men were shipped thousands of miles from home and dropped into a hell hole. The US military quickly realised that a large percentage of them were smoking pot, so they clamped down. The men turned to heroin, as it was harder for the authorities to find and confiscate. At the end of the Vietnam war, with a large number of heroin addicts about to be repatriated to their home towns and cities, the authorities expected a massive problem, but it did not happen. Once back home among their family and friends, the vast majority kicked their habit within a year. Those who did not were among those living in the poorest conditions or who had other issues that had led to their addiction in the first place.
We see the same behaviour of increased addiction where indigenous people were forced off their land and into reservations and camps by white settlers in the USA, Canada and Australia, so what can we do? As we talked about earlier, some countries have recently pursued alternative policies involving the decriminalisation of drug possession. Argentina, Estonia, Australia and Portugal have all taken a health-centred approach to the issue. Portugal decriminalised drug use, and drug addiction declined when the penalties for personal possession were removed. Rather than being criminalised, people are passed on to a “dissuasion committee”—I am not fond of the term, which sounds a bit Orwellian—consisting of members of the health, social work and law professions. Those considered to be addicts or problematic users are forwarded to treatment and rehabilitation programmes. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, within 10 years of implementing those policies the number of drug addicts in Portugal has halved. If the UK achieved the same success, the Buchanan Institute estimates that the financial saving would be around £7.7 billion a year.
For the record, I do not take illegal drugs—that is my choice—but if I chose to take them within the privacy of my home, I honestly do not see what harm it would do to society at large. How would arresting me improve anything? Yet we regularly prosecute people and, it has to be said, primarily poor people.
We seem to have one approach to law enforcement for rich city slickers sniffing a line of cocaine in their penthouse suite, and quite another for a kid smoking a joint on a council estate. It is no coincidence that the areas of the UK with the highest levels of social deprivation are the areas with the highest numbers of drug-related deaths. According to the Prison Reform Trust, one in 10 people in custody today is there because of a drugs-related offence. Some of our prisons have had serious problems with synthetic drugs, or spice, in recent years. Those with the least access to money and lawyers, those who are less socially mobile, will always be more vulnerable.
Our attitude to drug consumption has to change. Only then can we see that the issue is addiction, and addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one. We must look to decriminalise and legislate. By doing so, we will take the power away from criminals and put the money into education, rehabilitation and reducing drug harm.