Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Home Office following its oral evidence of 30 October 2001

  When talking about the various models for drug controls, there is sometimes an understandable confusion about the terminology. While there is no agreed international definition for all the terms, the Home Office uses the following definitions:


  A system under which the unlawful possession, cultivation, supply and import/export of controlled drugs are criminal offences. Most western countries follow this model.


  There are a number of variants, but the basic principle is that some or all drug activities are prohibited but punishable under civil, not criminal law.


    (a)  Total—no legislative or regulatory restriction;

    (b)  Regulatory—various models, but common theme is that the Government controls some or all of the activities. Controls on sales to certain age groups (eg alcohol and tobacco) are examples.


  Advocates of legalisation suggest the following benefits:

    1.  Reduction in deaths and illness due to drugs sourced from the criminal market.

    2.  Reduction in crime—acquisitive crime to feed a drug habit and "turf wars" between suppliers.

    3.  Taxation revenues would benefit the Government not the criminals.

  Before looking at each hypothesis it is important to look at the impact on use. Even those who advocate legalisation recognise that there arguments are damaged if legalisation leads to a significant increase in use. The following points need to be made:

    —  Prohibition deters experimentation. 30 per cent of adults questioned by MORI for the Police Foundation Inquiry cited illegality as the main reason for not taking drugs. Perhaps more significant, are the findings of the 1998-99 Youth Lifestyle survey. 64 per cent of respondents to this survey who had never taken cannabis before agreed with the statement "I do not take cannabis because it is against the law". Evidence suggests that the earlier young people are when they first experiment with drugs the more likely they are to develop problematic drug, so prohibition can also act as a deterrent for young people;

    —  Holland. The Dutch coffee shop policy was formally adopted in 1976. The evidence suggests, that although the policy itself did not lead to an immediate increase in use, the commercialisation that followed the growth of coffee shops did. Since 1983, four published national surveys of drug use in the Netherlands, in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 have shown a substantial increase in reported lifetime prevalence. For example, prevalence among 18 year olds was 15 per cent in 1984, but reached 44 per cent by 1996. While there is no UK data for the same period, the Dutch increases are totally different from experiences in the USA which showed a marked downward trend between these years. It should also be noted that Dutch cannabis use had been declining somewhat in the years prior to the 1976 change. To rebut these arguments it is suggested that Dutch rates have not risen above UK prevalence rates. This is true, but misses the point about the impact of the coffee shop policy;

    —  Legalisation of cannabis was given the go-ahead in Alaska in 1975. By 1990 the State had voted to recriminalise. In the intervening period, State and national surveys showed a significant disparity in prevalence. For example, the 1982 US National Household Survey and a survey done the same year by University of Alaska School of Addiction found that 49.5 per cent of the State's 12-17 year olds had used cannabis compared with 26.7 per cent nationally. Similar surveys in 1985 showed that the State prevalence for this age group had risen to 51.6 per cent compared to 23.7 per cent nation-wide; and

    —  alcohol and tobacco. Research undertaken by the Office for National Statistics in 1999 showed that 35 per cent of 15 year olds surveyed had taken a controlled drug at some time. But 61 per cent had tried tobacco and 84 per cent alcohol.


    —  The cost to the Criminal Justice System of drug offences is £1.2 billion a year. (Course: the Economic and Social costs of crime—Home Office Research Study 217). But not all drug related crime is to feed the drug habit. Research by the Department of Justice in America has shown that six times the number of murders occur under the influence of drugs as are committed to obtain money to buy them. And those career criminals who engage in "turf wars" are highly unlikely to stop their illegal activities simply because drugs are legalised; they would seek new courses of illicit revenue and crime. Organised crime activity in the United States did not disappear after the repeal of prohibition.


    —  See Annex—Additional evidence from the Home Office for the Home Affairs Committee enquiry: Comments in response to articles by Nick Davies, The Guardian.


    —  Regulated markets do not eliminate illicit supplies (eg alcohol and tobacco smuggling);

    —  regulation carries its own administrative and enforcement costs. Unless drugs were freely available to everyone, including children, it would not be possible to stop the black market operating at the margins of the regulated system; and

    —  taxation would certainly bring revenue to the Exchequer and this could be used to help offset the public health costs of increased use. But establishing the level of taxation would be difficult. Setting the price too high, would open the door for the illegal market. Setting it too low could feed that market. It is important to remember that the current street prices of drugs, which are in essence agricultural or semi-refined agricultural products reflect the illegality and the risks to the supplier. For example the Rand Institute in the United States has estimated that the street price of cocaine is more than 30 times its production cost.


    —  We have not carried out a detailed analysis of the effects of decriminalisation. This is not a model broadly favoured by any party to the drug debate, because it leaves supply in the hands of the criminals. But the argument in favour of decriminalisation is that it would not criminalise the user. The Government sees the following disadvantages to decriminalisation.


    —  Criminal Justice interventions with problem drug users can have a positive effect in reducing drug misuse and drug related crime. An evaluation of the pilot arrest referral scheme found that one in two offenders were no longer using illegal opiates or stimulants six to eight months after referral. We have developed a number of interventions in the Criminal Justice System which provide opportunities at different points in the system to maximise engagement particularly for those who have already accessed treatment. The points of access are at the point of arrest—arrest referral schemes; at court, Drug Treatment and Testing Orders; in custody mandatory drug testing in prisons and the CARATS programme. The system of civil penalties could include treatment requirements, but without sanctions there would be no way to coerce the treatment.


    —  The current Criminal Justice System allows for the exercise of considerable discretion when dealing with drug offenders. Informal warnings, cautions, fines and court appearances are all options. Models of decriminalisation tend to be less flexible. For example, the South Australia Expiation Notice system saw the number of cannabis offenders dealt with increase by almost three-fold in the five years between 1988 and 1993.


    —  Operating a civil penalty system does not avoid utilising police resources and time. The system has its own costs. Using the South Australia model again, most offenders (about 55 per cent) are not paying their fines. This results in prosecution with all the attendant costs and leads in practice to heavier penalties than would be the case had a criminal penalty been imposed in the first instance—the number in prison for cannabis offences increased as a consequence.

December 2001

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