Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


The Home Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:



1.  There are few subjects more emotive than illegal drugs. It is widely recognised that existing efforts to deal with them have failed, but as to solutions there is an absolute difference of opinions among experts of every relevant profession—doctors, police and social workers. Opinions—all advanced with equal passion—range from those who argue that prohibition has failed and should, therefore, be abandoned to those who argue that all drugs are harmful and that existing bans and proscriptions should be maintained or indeed tightened. In between there are many shades of grey.

2.  The same division of opinion is reflected internationally between, on the one hand, countries such as Sweden which maintain a hard line against all forms of drug abuse and countries such as Switzerland and The Netherlands where the emphasis is cautiously moving away from law enforcement towards regulation and harm reduction. All three countries maintain that their policies are successful.

3.  With a handful of brave exceptions—Mr Paul Flynn and Mr Peter Lilley for example—drugs policy is an area where British politicians have feared to tread. To some extent, therefore, this report breaks new ground. Besides arriving at some conclusions, which we hope in due course to see reflected in government policy, we have also seen it as part of our function to give all sides of the argument a chance to set out their stall in the hope that their evidence will help to inform debate for some time to come. We hope to add to the "adult, intelligent debate" invited by the Home Secretary in July 2001.[1]

4.  We have taken oral evidence from a wide range of expert witnesses covering the full range of views. These have included Messrs Keith Hellawell and Mike Trace, authors of the Government's original 1998 strategy, Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain, organisations representing all ranks of the police, members of the medical profession, and non-government agencies such as Transform—the Campaign for an Effective Drugs Policy, DrugScope and the National Drug Prevention Alliance, which have wide experience in this area.[2] We have also brought over experts from The Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden to discuss their countries' drugs programmes. We have examined Ministers and officials from the Home Office and the Department of Health with responsibility for the Government's drugs strategy. Finally, we have taken evidence from the families of drug addicts about the impact of drug use on their lives and the difficulties of accessing local services. Some of our evidence sessions—notably those with the Home Secretary and Brian Paddick, the Metropolitan Police Commander in Lambeth—have already attracted widespread attention. We are grateful to the Home Secretary for choosing to announce his proposed changes to drugs policy at a public evidence session with our committee rather than on the Today programme. We hope this is an example that other Ministers will emulate.

5.  We have taken oral evidence from 45 witnesses over a total of 11 evidence sessions. We are also grateful to the more than 200 people and organisations who provided written submissions and to Manchester Drug and Alcohol Action Team, which hosted our very valuable and informative visit to drugs services in the area.

6.  Our terms of reference were as follows:

"The Committee expects to address these issues among others:
  • Does existing drugs policy work?
  • What would be the effect of decriminalisation on

 a) the availability of and demand for drugs
 b) drug-related deaths and
 c) crime?

  • Is decriminalisation desirable and, if not, what are the practical alternatives?

The inquiry will also examine the effectiveness of the ten year National Strategy on drug misuse launched in 1998 and the preliminary results of the three year research programme costing £6 million started in 1999/2000. It will look at the revised role of the UK Anti-drugs Co-ordinator and assess the effectiveness of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs)".


7.  We have received evidence on the drugs policies of several European countries, in particular that of Sweden, Switzerland and The Netherlands. While we can learn from international experience, it must be remembered that the habits of the drug-using population are often peculiar to each country, and what works for one nation may not work for another. Mr Mike Trace, Director of Performance, National Treatment Agency, former Deputy UK Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator and current Chair of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, told the Committee about the Monitoring Centre's work looking into the correlation between the prevalence, or extent, of drug use and the relative harshness of a country's control regime:

8.  This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the likely effects of different drugs policies, and recommend changes. However, it is necessary to distinguish between policy as it is enunciated, and policy as it is implemented. From the latter it is possible to draw some conclusions. As Mr Nicholas Dorn of DrugScope told us:

    "The studies so far have only looked at the enunciation of policy at the formal level, they have not actually looked at what happens in practice...what they are doing in practice is not the same as their policy. You cannot read off policies onto impacts. I am afraid we need a more complicated model".[4]


9.  At the outset it is important to keep a sense of proportion. Legal drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, are responsible for far greater damage both to individual health and to the social fabric in general than illegal ones. It should also be borne in mind that not all drugs are equally harmful. While the inquiry has not specifically considered the social problems caused by alcohol or tobacco, our work has proceeded with these comparisons in mind.

10.  Substance misuse is a continuum perhaps artificially divided into legal and illegal activity. Dr Colin Brewer, addiction psychiatrist and Medical Director of The Stapleford Centre, was of the opinion that:

11.  In Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain, Mr Keith Hellawell wrote: "it is clear to me that legally obtainable substances such as alcohol, tobacco, solvents and prescribed drugs used without medical control have close links with illegal drugs problems and should therefore be addressed, as appropriate, within the strategy".[6] The Welsh National Assembly has formulated a strategy which covers the misuse of both illegal and legal drugs, and we believe that there is merit in this approach.[7]


12.  In 1998, 27% of the population of adults aged 16 and over smoked cigarettes in England and in 1995, over 120,000 deaths were caused by smoking in the UK: 20% of all deaths.[8] The Royal College of Physicians has described cigarette smoking as "the single largest avoidable cause of premature death and disability in Britain" and "the greatest challenge and opportunity for all involved in improving the public health".[9]

13.  In 1998, 75% of men and 59% of women had drunk alcohol in the last week, and 37% of men and 20% of women had drunk over the recommended amount in the last week.[10] The toll on health of alcohol misuse is difficult to quantify due to problems of how data is collected. The Department of Health's Statistics on Alcohol: England, 1978 onwards, notes that, depending on definitions, between 5,000 and 40,000 deaths a year can be attributed to alcohol abuse.[11] A report recently published by Alcohol Concern suggested that one in four emergency hospital admissions of men is alcohol-related and that alcohol plays a part in about half of serious road crashes and about half of the incidents of domestic violence.[12] Moreover, in about 40 percent of violent crimes committed in the year 2000 the aggressor was under the influence of alcohol.[13]

1   Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2001. Back

2   Former UK Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator; former Deputy UK Anti Drugs Co-ordinator; Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain: The Government's Ten-Year Strategy for Tackling Drugs Misuse, Cm 3945, Cabinet Office, April 1998 (hereafter "Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain"). Back

3   Q. 703. Back

4   Q. 757. Back

5   Q. 565. Back

6   Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain, p. 6. Back

7   Tackling Substance Misuse in Wales: A Partnership Approach, National Assembly for Wales, 2000. Back

8   ONS General Household Survey, 1978-1998, cited in ev., p. 201; ONS Statistical Bulletin, Statistics on Smoking: England, 1978 onwards, Department of Health, 2000, (hereafter "Statistics on Smoking") p. 1. Back

9   Nicotine Addiction in Britain: A Report of the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians, 2000, p.183, cited in the Second Report of the Health Committee, Session 1999-2000, on The Tobacco Industry and the Health Risks of Smoking, HC 27-I, para. 2, p. xiii. Back

10   ONS General Household Survey, 1998, cited in Statistical Bulletin Statistics on Alcohol: England, 1978 onwards, Department of Health, 2001 (hereafter "Statistics on Alcohol") pp. 2-3. Back

11   ONS Mortality Statistics 1988-1999, cited in Statistics on Alcohol, p. 8. Back

12   Your Very Good Health?, Alcohol Concern, 2002. Back

13   The 2000 British Crime Survey, England and Wales, Home Office, 2000, cited in Statistics on Alcohol, p. 10. Back

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Prepared 22 May 2002