Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IDMU)


  1.  The issues raised by the Committee are complex, and cannot adequately be addressed within a limit of 1,000 words. We have however endeavoured to keep the length of this document to a minimum, whilst addressing all the major issues raised by the Committee, and questions arising therefrom.

  2.  IDMU is a small independent research consultancy specialising in the study of illegal drug consumption patterns, prices and effects. We are funded wholly via professional fees earned in providing expert evidence for the criminal and civil courts, with experience of over 900 criminal cases since 1991. The evidence mainly covers personal consumption and drug valuations, but includes yields of cannabis cultivation systems, effects of drugs (re criminal intent, driving impairment etc), and a range of other aspects, most notably therapeutic uses of cannabis. Our mission is to provide accurate, up to date and impartial information on drugs to all parties to the debate over drugs policy. Other than legal casework, we have provided consultancy for GW Pharmaceuticals, the House of Lords inquiry, the Home Office, Transport Research Laboratory and Northamptonshire Police.


  1.  Existing drug policy is clearly not working, for reasons outlined herein.

  2.  Decriminalisation is a vague term which requires clarification.

  3.  The effect of law reform on availability of and demand for drugs would depend upon the policies adopted. Alternative methods of control could reduce the availability of drugs, particularly to young people, who view legislation as a challenge rather than a deterrent.

  4.  The effect of law reform on drug-related deaths would depend on the drug and upon the policies adopted. Pragmatic reforms could cut the number of drug-related deaths significantly.

  5.  The effect on crime would depend upon the policies adopted. Options are outlined which could lead to a substantial fall in acquisitive crime.

  6.  Decriminalisation (permitting possession but not supply) could have advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage would be to leave the supply of drugs in criminal hands.

  7.  There are a number of practical alternatives outlined. A system of regulated and licensed supply could avoid many problems currently experienced, and raise substantial revenues (£1 to £5 billion per year) for the Exchequer from a combination of excise duties, greater productivity and reduced law enforcement costs.

  8.  The following appendices are provided with the report

    A  Medicinal Use of Cannabis

    B  Drug Driving

    C  Drug Trends (IDMU survey research data 1984-2000)

    D  How IDMU can contribute to policy development


  1.1  The question raises several issues:

    (a)  What are the goals of current drugs policy?

    (b)  By what criteria can existing policy be judged?

    (c)  How is current policy performing against such criteria, what are the successes and failures?

    (d)  To what extent are current successes adequate, and failures acceptable?

  1.2  The goals of drugs policy can range from the absolutist achievement of a "drug free society", to the pragmatic "harm minimisation" approach. For the absolutists, being seen to "fight the fight" at all costs, is more important than achieving practical results. Those favouring the pragmatic approach would seek to minimise the harm caused by drugs, both to the individual and to society.

  1.3  A range of criteria can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of drug policy—these can include:

    (a)  Prevalence—all drugs and/or more dangerous/addictive drugs

      (i)  Lifetime drug use

      (ii)  Current/recent drug use

      (iii)  Problem drug use (treatment episodes)

      (iv)  Drug arrests

      (v)  Teen drug use (age of first use)

    (b)  Drug-related deaths

      (i)  Poisonings/overdoses

      (ii)  Accidental deaths

      (iii)  Suicides

      (iv)  Deaths from health problems caused by chronic drug use

    (c)  Crime

      (i)  Drug-trafficking

      (ii)  Acquisitive Crime

      (iii)  Drug-related violence

      (iv)  Prostitution

    (d)  Market trends—all drugs and/or more dangerous/addictive drugs

      (i)  Drug availability

      (ii)  Drug Prices

      (iii)  Drug Purities

      (iv)  Attitudes to drugs.

  1.4  Taking a global view, there is overwhelming evidence that current drug policies do not work.

    (a)  Prevalence, particularly of Class "A" drugs is increasing.

    (b)  Lifetime prevalence will continue to increase for the next couple of decades irrespective of drug policies, until more users/ex-users start to die out through old age or ill health than new teenagers initiate drug use—evening out the demographic bulge.

    (c)  The key policy objective should be to minimise the number of people initiating or continuing to use Class "A" drugs.

    (d)  Our surveys suggest that the effect of an arrest on drugs charges is to increase the probability of that person progressing to use of Class "A" drugs.

    (e)  Drug-related death rates in the UK are much higher than many other countries, most notably the Netherlands and others with more liberal regimes.

    (f)  Current policies also fuel crime via maintaining the cost of addiction at high levels, and providing high profit margins for drug traffickers.

    (g)  Availability of drugs is increasing, drug prices are falling, in some cases dramatically, and purities are increasing.

    (h)  The public at large is growing increasingly tolerant of drug use, notably cannabis, although attitudes among drug users to different drugs appear relatively stable.


    (a)  the availability of and demand for drugs,

    (b)  drug-related deaths; and

    (c)  crime?

  2.1  The term "decriminalisation" causes much confusion. It may be used broadly to reflect a general move towards relaxing the current regime, or narrowly to mean permitting personal possession (eg below a certain limit) but maintaining criminal controls on drugs supply. By contrast the term legalisation would normally be taken to mean abolishing legal controls and permitting a free market in supply of drugs. Regulation or licensing would introduce a degree of control whilst permitting a legal supply of drugs—the degree of control could vary from the off-licence/tobacconist model for the less dangerous drugs, and/or on-licence such as cannabis pubs or cafes, to prescription only for the drugs of addiction.

  2.2  The key to reducing demand for drugs is to make drug use "boring" or "uncool", and reduce the excitement and glamour associated with the drugs scene. Availability, particularly to minors, could be reduced if age-limited legal sources were available, reducing the profits from selling drugs, and if addicts did not need to sell Class "A" drugs to support their own habits.

  2.3  Most drug-related deaths are caused by drugs of unknown purity, contaminants within illicit preparations, and unsafe practices associated with drug use.

    (a)  Heroin/Opiates

      (i)  Illicit heroin powders can range in purity from under 10 per cent to over 70 per cent—injecting drug users are therefore at risk if they take a "normal" dose of high purity powder.

      (ii)  Heroin addicts who are abstinent (eg through rehab or prison) lose tolerance to the drug, and are at risk of overdose if they relapse and inject a "normal" dose.

      (iii)  Recent outbreaks of heroin deaths have been caused by microbial or viral infections, serious health complications (abscesses, amputations etc) arise from other contaminants when injected.

      (iv)  Allowing GPs to prescribe heroin, in injectable form where appropriate, of pharmaceutical purity and of known dosages, could dramatically cut the death rate from overdoses and impurities—the experience in Switzerland and Australia.

    (b)  Stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine)

      (i)  Deaths attributed to cocaine and amphetamine generally involve cardiovascular effects (strokes, heart attacks) caused by the drug itself.

      (ii)  Relaxation of the law is unlikely to have a significant impact on stimulant-related deaths, unless this were to result in an increase in stimulant use, and of excessive binge use in particular.

      (iii)  Permitting low-dosage or natural preparations (eg coca tea) may be one way to provide a legal supply of stimulants. Caffeine use also carries risks.

    (c)  Ecstasy—Deaths attributed to ecstasy fall into the following categories:

      (i)  Dehydration/heat-stroke arising from the circumstances in which the drug is taken (hot, sweaty atmosphere, intense and prolonged physical activity),

      (ii)  Adverse reactions—toxic effects of the drug often involving liver failure,

      (iii)  Deaths attributable to impurities (eg ketamine/ephedrine/procaine combinations),

      (iv)  Evidence as to the neurotoxic effects of MDMA is compelling—long-term use of the drug is likely to result in chronic mental health effects,

      (v)  If "decriminalisation" were to result in increased use, deaths could increase. Steps should therefore be taken to screen all phenethylamine analogues identified by Shulgin with a view to licensing alternative drugs which carry more acceptable health risks whilst retaining acceptability to the users.

    (d)  Cannabis/Hallucinogens—few, if any, deaths are attributed to cannabis or the tryptamine hallucinogens (LSD, DMT, Magic Mushrooms) although the latter can cause long-term mental effects in susceptible individuals.

    (e)  Long-term health risks

      (i)  Health risks associated with clean opiates are relatively low, the major cause of ill health is unsafe practices associated with use (smoking heroin, unsterile injection) or impurities or adulterants present in illicit preparations.

      (ii)  Use of stimulants (amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy) increases long-term risks, notably of cardiovascular problems (cocaine/amphet) and serotonin depletion (ecstasy). Increased use would be expected to increase associated death rates.

      (iii)  Cannabis—Unlike in the USA, where herbal cannabis is smoked "neat", in the UK most cannabis or cannabis resin is smoked mixed with tobacco, which carries its own risks. Increases in smoking any substance are likely to increase long-term risks from cancer, pulmonary or cardiovascular disease. Increased use of alternative forms of administration (food or drink products, inhalers/sprays etc) in a legal market could reduce the risks from smoking. The health risks associated with the use of cannabis have been thoroughly investigated over the past century, and there is no evidence that increased use of cannabis would have a significant adverse impact on public health.

  2.4  The effect on crime would depend on the nature of the policy, and the type of crime involved:

    (a)  Acquisitive crime—This would include theft (burglary, robbery, shoplifting), fraud (petty credit-card fraud, benefits fraud, and larger-scale financial embezzlement).

      (i)  A substantial proportion of acquisitive crime is driven by the need to find money to buy the addictive drugs—heroin and, to a lesser extent, cocaine.

      (ii)  Any policy which permitted possession of heroin but did not permit a legitimate supply would be unlikely to cause a significant reduction in acquisitive crime.

      (iii)  Prescription of diamorphine preparations, at nominal cost, or even at cost price where there is the ability to pay, should result in a dramatic reduction in acquisitive crime.

      (iv)  Were acquisitive crime to fall dramatically, and stolen goods no longer need to be replaced by victims (on insurance or otherwise), there could be an adverse impact on manufacturing industry from such a reduction in consumer demand.

    (b)  Trafficking-related violence (turf wars etc)—the death rates would be broadly linked to the profit margins available, and risks involved, within the illicit trade.

      (i)  A policy which permitted personal possession but left supply of drugs in criminal hands could result in an increase in violent deaths (assassinations/murders) within the drugs trade, if such a policy were to increase demand.

      (ii)  A policy of licensed distribution of cannabis would only remove the profit incentive if levels of excise duty were not excessive. Any duty levied in excess of £1.50 per gramme would encourage "bootlegging" on a similar scale to that currently seen with alcohol and tobacco.

      (iii)  Prescription of heroin would remove the profit incentive in the drugs trade, rendering it uneconomic, abolishing turf wars for drug supply.

      (iv)  If the consequences of arrest on trafficking charges were to be less severe, there may be reduced motive to assassinate suspected informers within trafficking organisations.

    (c)  Drug-Induced Violence

      (i)  Stimulants—amphetamine and cocaine are associated with increased aggression and psychotic behaviour, particularly when used to excess. The incidence of such behaviour, and violent deaths arising from stimulant use, would be expected to increase with a wider increase in use.

      (ii)  Alcohol—Alcohol is a causal factor in the majority of violent incidents in society. If policies were to reduce alcohol consumption, fewer violent deaths might result.


3.1  Is decriminalisation desirable?

  3.1.1  If decriminalisation involves removing criminal penalties for possession (eg of less than a designated amount), but leaving supply of drugs in the hands of criminals, there would be some benefits, but many problems would remain.

    (a)  Benefits

      (i)  The move would be popular among users of drugs, reducing the levels of conflict between young people, police and society

      (ii)  Removing the threat of a criminal record (and/or expunging existing criminal records for simple possession) would reduce the financial impact of an arrest on the individual and society.

      (iii)  The credibility of government messages among wide sections of society may increase. Our recent survey showed that the least trusted sources of drugs information were Government Ministers, the Drugs Czar and the Police.

      (iv)  Society as a whole could benefit from a more tolerant climate of individual rights and responsibilities, with a less authoritarian relationship between the Government and its citizens.

    (b)  Problems

      (i)  Leaving civil penalties in place for possession would not remove the "naughty" or "forbidden fruit" image of drugs, and would decrease the attractions of usage.

      (ii)  Civil fines would be paid by a small minority of users (those who are caught), and would therefore represent a very inefficient form of taxation.

      (iii)  If demand increases, the untaxed profits of drug traffickers would increase, and with this the levels of corruption and violence associated with any illegal trade.

      (iv)  Decriminalisation would mean users still having to get their supply from a source. If the "legal" source of drug (GP, licensing) is inferior in quality to the "illegal" sources, then the criminal control of the drug trade would not be halted. To be effective the criminal element that controls the supply of drugs must be put out of business. This can be achieved by ensuring the supply of drugs is at least of a standard users are already accustomed to. In the case of cannabis the easiest solution would be to allow anyone to grow their own supply for own personal use only. This would enable relatively law abiding citizens who only smoke cannabis to avoid visiting criminal suppliers.

    (v)  The Government would not benefit from Excise Duty revenues payable on (particularly) cannabis. Our surveys have indicated that such duties, along with reduced enforcement costs, could generate between £2 billion and £5 billion per year for the Exchequer.

3.2  If not, what are the practical alternatives?

  3.2.1  Status Quo—No change in legislation. Public opinion is steadily moving towards support of drug law reform and some form of liberalisation. Opportunities have been missed in the past (eg following Wooton Report and 1979 ACMD report) to reduce the criminal status of cannabis, and those failures are at least in part responsible for the levels of drug problems we face today (10 times as many drug users/arrests today as when the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced).

  3.2.2  Reduce penalties (reschedule cannabis to Class C, Ecstasy/LSD etc. to Class B)—These proposals from the Police Foundation in essence echo those of the ACMD in 1979. This would represent tinkering with the system, as the damaging effects of a criminal record for drugs on the individual and society would remain.

  3.2.3  Regulation/Licensing: In the long term, some form of regulated supply of cannabis must be considered. The extent to which licensing could cover existing illicit preparations would depend on international agreements (ie for cannabis resin or herbal imported from countries where production remains illegal), although domestic production could supply the bulk of the UK cannabis market. The objective of such models would be to satisfy existing demand without creating additional demand. Different models may be appropriate for different drugs:

    (a)  Prescription and dispensation from pharmacy—this could be appropriate for opiates, but would impact on NHS resources (GPs' time). Individual use could be regulated.

    (b)  Individual licences to possess/purchase—Users could apply for a licence (smartcard?) which would enable them to buy (eg opiates) in appropriate amounts at or near cost price.

    (c)  Licences to produce—cannabis growers could be allowed a "duty free" surface area or lighting wattage, but could apply for licences to produce larger amounts. Duty could be levied at quarterly intervals based on the available surface area, subject to regular inspection.

    (d)  Licensed supply

      (i)  Outlets such as "coffee shops" could be licensed to supply cannabis, with appropriate restrictions on advertising, age restrictions (as with alcohol or tobacco), and location (eg not within 1/4 mile of a school).

      (ii)  Alternatives would include a "club" model whereby licensed clubs could supply cannabis to their members, who would have to produce a membership card. Reciprocal agreements could allow cards to be valid in all clubs within an association.

  3.2.4  Free Market (Legalisation)—This would involve drugs being sold in normal retail outlets (eg supermarkets/tobacconists) without significant controls. Excise duties could be levied on producers and/or wholesalers as with tobacco or alcohol. This policy would probably lead to increased usage (particularly among middle-aged or elderly citizens), although this would also generate the highest duty revenues for government.

September 2001

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