Drugs: Breaking the Cycle - Home Affairs Committee Contents

7  Alternatives to Prohibition?

213. In the terms of reference to our inquiry, we asked "Whether detailed consideration ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs dilemma, as recommended by the Select Committee in 2002 (The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working?, HC 318, 2001-02)." This was partly in response to the calls for the liberalisation of drug policy by a number of current and former South American Presidents as discussed in Chapter 1.

Comparison with alcohol

214. The Government's 2010 drug strategy also covers alcohol addiction as the Government "recognises that severe alcohol dependence raises similar issues and that treatment providers are often one and the same." It is emphasised that alcohol plays "an important part in the cultural life of this country, with large numbers employed in production, retail and the hospitality industry. Pubs, bars and clubs contribute to community and family life and also generate valuable revenue to the economy." However, it notes that alcohol is a regulated product and that "some individuals misuse it, contributing to crime and anti-social behaviour, preventable illness and early death."[263]

215. The comparison between drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1974 and alcohol is one that has been raised throughout this inquiry. Some witnesses have argued that prohibition didn't work in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century and that criminalisation of drug use is simply repeating a failed experiment.

The war on drugs was never winnable, on the basis that the numbers of people who use have risen year on year on year to such extraordinarily high levels; it was never going to be a war that was going to be winnable; in the same way that the war on alcohol, in terms of prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, was never going to be winnable, unless the numbers could be kept down to a level low enough to keep organised crime and criminality out of the supply side.[264]

However others have argued that this is a poor comparator:

If you have all day we can go into the problem of alcohol, which I think in this country should be much more severely restricted. I think we should return to the 1915 licensing laws, at the very least. But to prohibit a drug that had been in common use for hundreds or indeed thousands of years—or in the case of the United States had never been illegal—and to try and introduce laws prohibiting it; laws, I might add, that had exactly the same failure as our anti-drug laws, in that they prosecuted supply and transport but not possession. So to appeal to that, and say that failed and, therefore, any attempt to not so much prohibit as to interdict and discourage the use of drugs, to say that, because of that one particular, individual, specific failure, in a culture very different to our own, we can never attempt, ever again in the rest of the history of the human race, to try and prevent the spread of unpleasant, damaging and dangerous drugs, just seems to me to be, again, illogical and not evidence-based.[265]

216. Others have used alcohol as a warning rather than a comparison when asked about whether drugs laws ought to be liberalised, highlighting the fact that the harm caused by prohibition may well be outweighed by the benefits of reduced use as a result of that same prohibition.[266] Professor Strang told us that

If you look over the fence at the alcohol and the tobacco fields, where we have much better evidence, we know this is a price-elastic commodity, that if you make it easier for people to access these products and make it more price accessible, the levels of use will increase and the levels of harm that result from that will increase. On that basis, I would not be in favour of relaxing it.[267]

217. There are also contradictory arguments regarding the relative harm of alcohol and illicit drugs. In November 2010, Professor Nutt, Dr King and Lawrence Phillips (on behalf of the International Scientific Committee on Drugs) published an article 'Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis'.[268] Using a multi-criteria decision analysis, the ISCD identified sixteen harms. Nine relate to the harms that a drug produces in the individual and seven to the harms to others both in the UK and overseas. These harms are clustered into five subgroups representing physical, psychological, and social harms.

Figure 4: Evaluation criteria organised by harms to users and harms to others, and clustered under physical, psychological and social effects.

Source: David J Nutt, Leslie A King, Lawrence D Phillips, 'Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis', The Lancet, Vol 376, Issue 9752 (6 November 2010), pp 1558-1565

Using these criteria, the Committee ranked 20 drugs according to the harms to users and the harms to others. Finally they combined the scores to rank the drugs by their harmfulness. By virtue of its harms to others, alcohol was ranked as the most harmful drug.

Figure 5: Drugs ordered by their harm scores

Source: David J Nutt, Leslie A King, Lawrence D Phillips, 'Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis', The Lancet, Vol 376, Issue 9752 (6 November 2010), pp 1558-1565

218. We asked Professor David Nutt whether he thought drugs ought to be decriminalised:

Absolutely, yes, no question about that. I think the Dutch model, the Portuguese model, the current Spanish model are all very rational approaches. They would reduce harm in society because what we see now is a rising, rising, rising tide of damage from alcohol. There is no doubt a lot of people drink because it is legal and if there was an opportunity to use cannabis in a coffee shop-like model, they would not drink.[269]

He was also asked to explain why he considered tobacco to be less harmful than alcohol

alcohol harms a lot of other people in society through traffic accidents, through violence, domestic violence. Tobacco, by and large, just kills the people who smoke. Now we have legislation to stop people smoking in private places. Most tobacco smokers just harm themselves.

This answer is surprising because it is generally accepted that whilst alcohol may influence the behaviour of those who imbibe it, it bears no responsibility in itself. Rather those that are responsible are they that choose to drive whilst drunk or commit acts of violence. When we put this suggestion to Professor Nutt, he seemed not to accept it.

Most domestic violence is alcohol-fuelled. Okay, you can debate whether it is causal or not but the fact is less alcohol in the home equates to less violence. [...] Alcohol is a major factor in violence across society, in the home, on the streets, at social events. It is not causal but it is an unfortunate aggravating factor so if you reduce the amount of intoxication you will reduce violence, we know that. There is a great example in my book about Euro 2000 when two separate countries had two different ways of dealing with the drinking British football supporter. The country that gave them less strong alcohol, the Netherlands, had much less violence than the country that gave them strong alcohol, Belgium. We know therefore that less alcohol means less violence; that is a fact.[270]

219. We would emphasise that alcohol, like all other drugs has no sentience. It may impair the judgement of those who consume it but the responsibility must nonetheless lie with the individual. If you accept the argument that alcohol is itself responsible for violence then it also stands that heroin is responsible for acquisitive crime or that cocaine may be responsible for football hooliganism. Use of all psychoactive substances can lead to the impairment of judgement with various associated harms. The difference is that alcohol is widely available and more socially acceptable. In the UK, there are around 10 million adults in the UK who smoke cigarettes. Each year, smoking causes around 115,000 deaths, while alcohol causes 35,000 whereas illicit drug use causes about 2,000 deaths.[271] However, it does not necessarily follow that because some dangerous substances are readily available, others should be. Dr Clare Gerada, giving evidence as Chair of RCGPs and an ex-member of the ACMD, also raised the issue of the health risks posed by cannabis smoking when stating her opposition to decriminalisation of cannabis:

Cannabis is not a particularly good drug to be on. It causes lung cancer. It causes oesophageal cancer. It causes failure at school. It is an addiction in its own right, so in terms of its health issues, I would not advocate a young person, or any person, using cannabis.…we are here, I think, to protect people from entering a life of substance misuse that could cause them harm. I would say cannabis is not a good drug to be using at any age. We have just spent the last 60 years sorting out tobacco, let us not drop in the same problem now with cannabis and make it much more available and pretend that it is a safe drug. It is not a safe drug.[272]

We are concerned that while significant public education efforts are ongoing about the public health risks of smoking, similar efforts are not apparent on the health risks of cannabis. This is despite the fact there is substantial medical evidence about the serious health risks posed by cannabis use, not just as a possible gateway drug, but in its own right.

Decriminalisation and Legalisation

220. We took evidence from organisations which supported the decriminalisation or legalisation of drug use as well as asking the rest of our witnesses whether they believe that such systems are viable. Decriminalisation is defined as

meaning that drugs are still illegal, but either the police decide not to enforce the laws (a de facto model) or that possession and use are dealt with through the civil system (a de jure model).[273]

An alternative model is Legalisation (or legal regulation) which would regulate it meaning regulation of drug production, supply and use. There are a number of examples of frameworks which could be used for regulating production, supply and use of currently-controlled drugs. The spectrum of regulation referenced by one of our witnesses, Transform[274] is described in detail below.
Regulation Description example market controller
Prohibition/Criminalisation Prohibiting/criminalising non-medical production, supply, possession and use, with punitive sanctions. Intensity of enforcement and severity of penalties can vary. Decriminalisation of personal possession and use can operate within a prohibitionist framework. heroin, cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy, etc. criminal entrepreneurs, corrupt police and officials.
Regulated marketsA range of regulatory controls are deployed covering drug production and trade, product, gatekeepers of supply, and user. Some drugs, preparations, and activities remain prohibited. prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, alcohol, tobacco. moderate to intense regulation by government agencies.
Free market legalisation, or 'supermarket model' Drugs are legal and available for essentially unrestricted sale in the 'free market', like other consumer goods. caffeinated drinks. corporate/private enterprise, with minimal regulation by government agencies, voluntary codes for retailers.

Source: Transform 'After the war on drugs: Blueprint for regulation' (2009) p 16

221. There are several different policy measures which fall under the term 'decriminalisation'.

  • Threshold quantities: Many, but not all, decriminalisation policies use maximum quantity thresholds to distinguish between trafficking or sale offences (criminal prosecution) and personal possession offences (administrative penalties or non-prosecution). However, whilst some countries claim to have adopted a decriminalisation model, the threshold levels are so low that in practice the policy has no effect. Using the example of cocaine, Mexico allows possession of up to 0.5 grams of cocaine without prosecution while Spain allows up to 7.5 grams—a difference of 1,400 per cent.
  • Types of administrative penalties: Different jurisdictions have different sanctions in place which an individual can receive for an administrative or civil drug use or possession offence. These include: fines, community service orders, warnings, education classes, driver's or professional license suspensions, travel bans, property confiscation, bans on associating with specified individuals, mandatory reporting, termination of public benefits, administrative arrest, or no penalty at all.
  • Roles of the judiciary and police: Some jurisdictions, such as the Australian states with civil penalty schemes and the Czech Republic, allow the police to issue fines for small drug offences in the field, similar to issuing a traffic violation. Other jurisdictions, such as Brazil and Uruguay, require individuals arrested for drug offences to appear in court before a judge to determine the charge and receive an appropriate sentence, if any.
  • Implementation: Despite the existence of a statutory, judicial, or regulatory decriminalisation policy, a jurisdiction's inability or unwillingness to implement that policy in practice can make assessment of a policy's merits challenging. In Peru, for example, researchers report police regularly detain individuals arrested for decriminalised drug offences for long periods without charge. In practice, for those in detention, such a system does not resemble decriminalisation despite Peruvian law instructing no penalty for certain minor possession offences.[275]

222. There are a number of countries which have some form of decriminalisation: Argentina; Armenia; Australia (South Australia, Western Australia, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory); Belgium; Brazil; Chile; Colombia; Czech Republic; Estonia; Germany; Italy; Mexico; The Netherlands; Paraguay; Peru; Poland; Portugal; The Russian Federation; Spain; Uruguay, and the United States of America (State of California).[276]


223. Several witnesses drew our attention to Portugal's drug policy, a key component of which is the 'decriminalisation' or 'depenalisation' of possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. In fact, although the term 'decriminalisation' is commonly used to describe the regime in Portugal and some other countries, 'depenalisation' is more accurate as while criminal penalties are not applied, the possession of small quantities of certain drugs is still technically an offence. We decided to travel to Portugal to examine the policy in more detail, and to establish a more rounded picture of the treatment of drug-users, and those involved in the production, import, export, and supply of illegal drugs in Portugal. Three Members of the Committee visited Lisbon from 18 to 20 July 2012, for a programme of meetings and visits which was organised by the British Embassy in Lisbon. We are grateful to HM Ambassador Jill Gallard and her colleagues at the Embassy for organising an interesting and informative visit.

224. We were warmly received by our Portuguese hosts and we are grateful to all those who gave up their time and expertise to assist us in understanding the Portuguese experience of dealing with illegal drugs. HE João de Vallera, the Portuguese Ambassador in London, hosted us to lunch before our visit, which gave us an opportunity to discuss the Portuguese policy before we visited the country.

The road to depenalisation

225. Portugal's international isolation under Salazar's Estado Novo regime provided it with a degree of insulation against the growing acceptance of recreational drug use in Western Europe and North America during the 1960s. Significant cannabis use came to Portugal after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, as the end of the colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique saw the return of many Portuguese nationals from the colonies, where cannabis use had been widespread. The sudden growth in cannabis consumption was followed by heroin along the same supply chain, via East Africa.

226. By the 1990s, problems associated with drug use had become a major concern. Several people suggested that the tipping point was a Eurobarometer survey in 1997 which identified drug use as the biggest social problem facing Portugal, in the eyes of the general public. The following year, the government appointed a committee of experts to develop a new drugs strategy. The committee recommended the depenalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, as part of a wider range of measures which included education, harm reduction and treatment for addicts.[277] Dr João Goulão, the National Drugs Co-ordinator and a member of the 1998 Committee, was keen to stress that depenalisation was not a "magic bullet" but, he suggested, it removed some of the obstacles to addicts seeking treatment. The central principle behind the committee's recommendations was that drug addiction was a disease; that drug addicts were sick; and that treating them as criminals did nobody any good.

227. A new law was passed in November 2000 to establish "Dissuasion Commissions" to deal with those caught in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. This legislation was not uncontroversial at the time, and its opponents feared that it would remove disincentives to drug use and turn Portugal into a haven for drugs tourism. However, during our visit we were struck by the broad consensus in support of the policy. Even MPs, including many on the right, who had originally opposed the legislation in Parliament told us that their fears had not been realised, and the limited criticism we did hear tended to focus on matters of detail—such as the quantities of drugs which were defined as being for personal use—rather than the principles behind the policy. Indeed, despite asking everyone we met about their views on the policy, we did not encounter a single person who opposed it.

The Dissuasion Commission

228. We visited the offices of the Lisbon Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, one of 18 in mainland Portugal. The President of the Commission is a clinical psychologist and the two vice-presidents are a sociologist and a jurist. Doctors, social workers and other people with an appropriate qualification in the field of drug addiction can also be nominated to commissions. The Commission is supported by a Technical Team of three social workers and a clinical psychologist. The Commission typically sees around eight people a day.

229. The Commission deals with drug users who have been caught by the police in possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use, where there is no other evidence to suggest that they are involved in supplying drugs. For each drug, the precise amount that constitutes possession for personal use is defined in law, at a quantity that is supposed to equate to around ten days' supply. Those amounts are set out in the table below.
Plant/Substance Threshold quantity
Cocaine (hydrochloride) 2g
Cocaine (methyl ester of benzoylecgonine) 0.3g
Cannabis (herbal)25g
Cannabis (resin)5g
Cannabis (oil)2.5g
Phencyclidine (PCP) 0.1g
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) 0.5g

Provided by the Dissuasion Commission visited in Portugal

230. Users are issued with a notice by the police requiring them to attend the Commission within 72 hours. They are first assessed by a member of the Technical Team, who then discusses the user's circumstances with the Commission. This is followed by a hearing, which is in practice quite informal and takes place in an ordinary conference room. The main objective of the hearing is to decide whether the user is addicted or not, and to establish a picture of his or her drug use.

For a first offence, if the user is not an addict, proceedings are suspended at this stage. If the user is an addict, then proceedings are suspended if he or she agrees to undergo treatment. The Commission may suspend proceedings if the user has a previous record of possession, but will in practice usually apply a sanction for second and subsequent offences. Suspension lasts for up to two years, after which proceedings are discontinued. During this time, proceedings can be resumed if the user re-offends, or ceases to participate in any treatment on which the suspension was dependent. The treatment provider is required to notify the Commission of the user's participation every three months. The Commission may also decide to dispose of proceedings with a verbal warning, if it considers that this will be an effective deterrent against further use.

231. The Commission has a number of penalties at its disposal. They include

  • Banning from the exercise of a profession or occupation, namely those subject to licensing requirements, when such exercise jeopardises the well being of the consumer or third parties;
  • Banning from certain places;
  • Prohibiting the consumer from accompanying, housing or receiving certain persons;
  • Forbidding the consumer to travel abroad without permission;
  • Requiring the consumer to be present himself periodically at a place to be indicated by the commission;
  • Disenfranchisement, removing the right to be granted or to renew a fire arms license for defence, hunting, precision shooting or recreation;
  • Seizure of objects belonging to the consumer which represent a risk to him or her or to the community or which encourage the committing of a crime or other offence;
  • Privation from the right to manage the subsidy or benefit attributed on a personal basis by public bodies or services, which shall be managed by the organization managing the proceedings or monitoring the treatment process, when agreed to by the consumer.[278]
  • Impose a fine, though these may only be applied to non-addicts, the principle being that fining a drug addict is likely to push them towards further acquisitive crime.

232. Once a penalty has been decided, its imposition on an addict may be suspended in favour of an order requiring the addict to present him or herself for treatment, with a frequency deemed necessary by the treatment provider. The imposition of a penalty on a non-addict may be suspended if the Commission believes this to be the most effective way of preventing future consumption.

233. We were told that it was possible for someone attending the Commission to deny that they had been in possession of drugs—in effect, to plead not guilty—but that it was very unusual for this to happen, as users did not see the Commission as a hostile intervention. Users did not leave the Commission with a criminal record and the fact that they had attended was confidential (except for minors, whose parents were involved). It was also unusual for people to fail to attend. The emphasis was on treatment, and sanctions were used only as a last resort. It was suggested that a periodic attendance order might only be issued about once a year, for example. Ultimately, we were told that somebody who simply refused to comply with the Commission would be guilty of the offence of 'disobedience' but this was virtually unheard of.

234. The proceedings and the outcome of the Commission meetings are then placed on a central register which allows other Dissuasion Commissions to access the information and ensure that repeat offenders are treated as such. The central register is also a vital tool in assessing the prevalence of drug use, creating a profile of drug users and also establishing the availability of each type of drug in each of the provinces. Not only does it assist in evaluating the success of the policy, it also aids law enforcement in creating a picture of supply.

Treatment of drug addiction

235. It was pointed out to us on more than one occasion that depenalisation and the introduction of the dissuasion commissions was only part of the story. Much of Portugal's success in tackling drug-related harm was down to the provision of effective drug treatment services. We were told that most of the patients at the Centro das Taipas, the country's oldest specialist drug-treatment centre, were self-referrals.

236. We were told, as we have been in the UK, that alcohol is the biggest problem drug. Of the illegal drugs, heroin and cocaine are generally regarded as the biggest source of problem drug use and significant resources are directed at treating those with opioid addiction, who account for more than 60% of all patients undergoing drug treatment (compared with around 15% undergoing treatment for cannabis use and slightly less for cocaine). The proportion of new patients presenting with heroin addiction is, however, falling, with ongoing treatment focused on the "old" cohort of heroin users, many of whom are aged over 35.

237. Healthcare for drug users is organised through the public health service, and co-ordinated by the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction (IDT) and the Ministry of Health. This was described to us as, in effect, a parallel healthcare system for drug users, with complete vertical integration from the IDT downwards. The Government plans to transfer this network of drug treatment centres into the five regional health authorities, in order to provide better integration with other aspects of healthcare, as well as reducing costs which has caused some political controversy.


238. Preventing consumption of drugs is a high priority for the new Portuguese Government. Cannabis is seen as a particular problem as its use is very widespread. The Secretary of State for Health (who is also a physician) told us that he thought the social and medical harm associated with cannabis needed to be emphasised to young people since many regard it as harmless. We were told that mass-media campaigns had proved to be ineffective and more targeted ways of getting the message across were being tried. Medical professionals were involved in the training of school teachers, so that they could communicate accurate messages about the harms caused by drug use to their students.

239. It was suggested that the fall in heroin use was likely to be a result of people becoming more aware of the harmful effects but we heard conflicting views on the prevalence of cannabis use. Some suggested that it had increased since depenalisation but others did not believe it had.

Law enforcement

240. Portugal continues to make strenuous efforts to disrupt the supply of drugs, from street-level dealers to international traffickers. We spoke to officers from the Public Security Police (Polícia de Segurança Pública (PSP)), the national police force which operates in Lisbon and other urban areas; the Coastal Control Unit of the Republican National Guard; the Autoridade Tributária e Aduaneira (AT), the customs force which intercepts drugs at ports and airports; and the Judicial Police (Polícia Judiciária), the national force which deals with serious and organised crime. We received the strong impression that the Portuguese authorities continued to pursue drug traffickers and dealers with the same rigour that one would find in the UK, the USA and other countries where possession of small amounts of drugs is still an imprisonable crime. There is no suggestion that depenalisation of drug users has resulted in any more relaxed attitude to drug traffickers. 'It is also important to emphasise that the new policy in Portugal does not appear to be associated with a social toleration of drug use. Depenalisation need not imply 'coffee shops' on the Dutch model.

241. Officers from the PSP told us that the new law had reduced the suspicion of the police among drug users, making it easier for them to gather intelligence and to target dealers. Users were not always co-operative, since they feared repercussions if their assistance to the police became known to dealers, but this could be dealt with by the police taking care to protect their sources. It also liberated police resources to concentrate on more serious crimes, since the process of issuing a summons to attend a dissuasion commission was less time-consuming than the process of making an arrest. One senior officer told us that, having originally opposed the law, he now supported it, having seen it in operation.

242. It is important to note that in the experience of Portugal, depenalisation has by no means been the "cheap" option. One argument often heard in favour of decriminalisation is the potential savings available if the criminal justice system no longer have to spend time and money targeting recreational users. However, in his speech to the Committee's International Conference on Drugs, the Portuguese Secretary of State for Health was clear that depenalisation was not necessarily less expensive.

If you agree and accept that you are decriminalising the use of certain harmful substances and give opportunities for treatment, you must have in place good structures to attend to everybody who needs treatment. It is not necessarily going to be cheaper than putting people in jail, but apart from the humane principles that rule medicine and politics in general, one has also to consider that from the technical point of view we prefer to spend money that way.[279]

243. We were impressed by what we saw of the Portuguese depenalised system. It had clearly reduced public concern about drug use in that country, and was supported by all political parties and the police. The current political debate in Portugal is about how treatment is funded and its governance structures, not about depenalisation itself. Although it is not certain that the Portuguese experience could be replicated in the UK, given societal differences, we believe this is a model that merits significantly closer consideration.


244. In the US, eighteen states and the District of Columbia have laws which allow the use of 'medical marijuana', cannabis which is available on prescription.[280] On Tuesday 6 November, Washington State and Colorado legalised the recreational use of cannabis. Both had previously legalised the use of medical marijuana. The text of the ballot proposition 64 in Colorado read

Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning marijuana, and, in connection therewith, providing for the regulation of marijuana; permitting a person twenty-one years of age or older to consume or possess limited amounts of marijuana; providing for the licensing of cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and retail stores; permitting local governments to regulate or prohibit such facilities; requiring the general assembly to enact an excise tax to be levied upon wholesale sales of marijuana; requiring that the first $40 million in revenue raised annually by such tax be credited to the public school capital construction assistance fund; and requiring the general assembly to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp?[281]

Colorado's measure allows possession and purchase of as much as one ounce by those aged 21 and older, along with permission to grow as many as six plants in private, secure areas. The law requires Colorado's revenue department to adopt regulations by July 1, 2013, on procedures for issuing a marijuana business license, labelling requirements for marijuana products, restrictions on advertising and civil penalties for not complying with the rules.[282]

245. The amendment passed in Washington State (Initiative 502) will allow those aged 21 years and older to buy as much as one ounce of marijuana from a licensed retailer. The measure directs the state liquor control board to regulate marijuana and tax its sales at a rate of 25 percent. The board must set rules on marijuana advertising, licensing producers, processors and retailers, and limiting the number of retail outlets allowed in each county by Dec. 1, 2013. Additionally, the amendment makes it illegal for a motorist to have more than 5 nanograms of THC (an active ingredient of marijuana) per millilitre of blood in their system. Initiative 502 dedicates a percentage of the tax revenue for substance-abuse prevention, research, education, and healthcare, including $200,000 for cost-benefit evaluations by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.[283]

246. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law however and so anyone possessing under an ounce of marijuana in Colorado or Washington is still subject to federal enforcement. The Drug Enforcement Agency (the federal agency responsible for enforcing the controlled substances laws, under which marijuana remains a classified substance) would have to increase its presence in both Washington and Colorado—at present, with the exception of federal land and national parks, almost all possession arrests are carried out by police at local or state level.[284] The budgetary implications of this would be significant, especially at this time of austerity. However, there are a number of measures which the federal government could use to enforce the law.

  • Both legalisation measures passed make mention of taxation upon marijuana. The Colorado state ballot information booklet estimates that "state revenue from sales taxes and licensing fees is expected to increase between approximately $5.0 million and $22.0 million per year."[285] Potentially, the federal government could confiscate any money raised through the taxation of marijuana on the basis that it was the proceeds of an illegal transaction.
  • Both states require a licensing system for marijuana producers, processors and retailers. Such a system would identify those supplying marijuana and so the US Department of Justice could use this information to seize the marijuana and enforce criminal sanctions.
  • The Inland Revenue Service could invoke a section of the IRS code which disallows tax deductions if businesses traffic in schedule I drugs (such as marijuana). The removal of tax deductions would have significant financial implications for those businesses.
  • Rather than enforcing sanctions against the businesses, the federal government could threaten to enforce sanctions against the property owners where marijuana is being produced or sold (under federal law, any property leased to an illegal organisation can be seized and confiscated). The federal government could also threaten to investigate any bank which held accounts for marijuana-related businesses for money laundering of drug profits.[286]

There is no guarantee that any or all of the above will happen. Firstly, federal government is made up a wide range of agencies and officials and some may not wish to enforce laws in a state which has democratically chosen to accede from them. US attorneys (the chief federal prosecutor in each judicial district) have a considerable amount of discretion as to whether to prosecute a case. Each will have varying opinions as to the importance of the enforcement of federal drug laws relating to marijuana and some will have political ambitions which may help govern their decisions as to the value of such prosecutions.[287]

247. Although both Colorado and Washington have differing systems of cannabis legalisation, both are based on private business. In contrast, Uruguay announced in June that it was intending to legalise cannabis with a state monopoly on production and sale. Under the Government's proposal, Uruguayans older than 18 would be able to register for a monthly pot ration of up to 30 grams (1.06 ounces), though sales to foreigners would remain prohibited. Sales would be taxed, with proceeds funding treatment for addicts of harder drugs.[288]The bill to legalise marijuana and bring it under state control will be tabled in Parliament in the near future and given the Government's majority in the legislature, it is likely to pass within the next year.

248. The introduction of differing systems of marijuana legalisation will allow us to see what legalisation looks like in practice. All three systems are different as are any future marijuana legalisation systems likely to be - there have been seventeen proposed amendments to legalise marijuana in the US and all of the proposed systems have been different.[289] Following the legalisation of marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado and the proposed state monopoly of cannabis production and sale in Uruguay, we recommend that the Government fund a detailed research project to monitor the effects of each legalisation system to measure the effectiveness of each and the overall costs and benefits of cannabis legalisation.

Implications of discussing drugs policy - politics and the media.

249. The UK Drugs Policy Commission is a body that was set up in order to look at the evidence base for drugs policy. It is a charity whose core funding is provided by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and which receives some funding from the Home Office and the National Treatment Agency. Earlier this year they published their final report, based on collected data and interviews with those previously or currently involved in the formation of drugs policy. Their report emphasised that although many communities, families, treatment providers and increasingly the police do not agree that drug policy is working, there remains a surface political consensus about drug policy across the UK.

Probably most politicians are of the view that while drug policy may be imperfect, the alternatives are too risky or uncertain and, as one ex-Home Secretary said to us, the case for change has not been made adequately made.


It is seen as particularly controversial to suggest that drug laws should be amended, which is perhaps why ministers and senior professionals generally only speak their mind about drug policy once they have left office, or in the early stages of their careers. [290]

250. Former British ministers who have called for a reform in drugs policy after leaving include Bob Ainsworth, Clare Short, Tony Banks, Mo Mowlam, Roy Jenkins, Peter Lilley, Alan Duncan, Michael Portillo, Lord Baker and Lord Lawson.[291] In a poll carried out between May and June 2012, UKDPC found that 75% of MPs felt that it can be difficult to have an objective debate about the best solution because drug policy is such a controversial issue. 77% of the MPs surveyed disagreed with the statement that current policies are effective in tackling the problems caused by illegal drugs. However, only 31% of the MPs supported consideration of changes to the drug laws so that possession of small quantities of currently illegal drugs for personal use only is not treated as a criminal offence,[292] as is the case with the Portuguese system. In contrast, a YouGov poll of the general public for The Sun newspaper carried out less than a month later found that 60% of respondents supported the Portuguese system of depenalisation.[293]

251. The importance of evidence-based policy was also cited by the UK Drugs Policy Commission in their final report but noted that whilst research was improving in regards to work done by a cross-departmental drug research coordination group and the intention to boost international collaboration on drug research, "the reality is, at a time of austerity across all government departments, research has been afforded a lower budget priority. Government spending on research to support the drug strategy has declined over the past few years."[294] Government-commissioned research and data collection is vital as it can often fill a gap in knowledge which is not a priority of other commissioning bodies.

252. As with many different subject matters, use of anecdotal evidence and media reporting of research and data collection can sometimes lead to a distortion of facts. In November 2009, a data analyst published a blog called deadly drugs. Using information on drug related deaths from the office of national statistics, he analysed newspaper coverage to see what percentage of deaths had been reported upon. He found that whilst 2% of alcohol-related deaths and 7% of paracetemol-related deaths had received coverage, 100% of ecstasy-related deaths had been reported.[295]

253. In October 2009, Professor David Nutt was dismissed from his role as the Chair of the ACMD by the then-Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP. A pamphlet, based on a lecture given by Professor Nutt in July 2009, was published on the internet. The lecture covered a range of topics but the pamphlet was picked up by the media primarily on the basis that Professor Nutt had repeated his assertion (as published in a 2007 Lancet article) that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol. Cannabis had been re-graded as a Class B drug (against the recommendations of the ACMD) in January 2009, a decision which the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has recently conceded "caused confusion and dissent".[296]

254. Following the media coverage, the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, asked Professor Nutt to resign as Chair of the ACMD. When Professor Nutt refused, he fired him. He later explained his reasons for doing so in a letter to The Guardian

He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. [...] As for his comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point.[297]

Responding in The Times, Professor Nutt said:

I gave a lecture on the assessment of drug harms and how these relate to the legislation controlling drugs. According to Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, some contents of this lecture meant I had crossed the line from science to policy and so he sacked me. I do not know which comments were beyond the line or, indeed, where the line was.[298]

Between October 2009 and April 2010, a further seven members of the ACMD resigned—five citing concerns about the termination of Prof. Nutt's contract and two citing concerns about what they felt was a politically-motivated ban on Mephedrone.[299] It is perhaps unsurprising that in the aforementioned poll of MPs carried out by the UKDPC that 76% agreed with the statement that "the process of making policy about illegal drugs should make more use of evidence and research than it currently does."[300]

255. The Government's 2010 drug strategy states that "The UK is of course not unique in having to confront drug misuse. So, as we build upon this strategy, we are committed to continuing to review new evidence on what works in other countries and what we can learn from it."[301] When discussing the Portuguese system of depenalisation, the Home Secretary remarked that

I think it is rather—if I can put it like this—perhaps less clear than it is sometimes claimed to be. I know that it is constantly being adduced as an example of where decriminalisation and a different approach can have an impact on drugs—I was just looking for some figures that I know were in my briefing. However, I am not convinced that that has actually had the impact that everybody feels it has had.[302]

The Home Secretary was asked if she had discussed the Portuguese system with her counterparts there as, following a recent visit as part of this inquiry, we had been surprised by the high levels of cross-party support for the system. She replied

I personally have not had conversations with individuals in Portugal. ... Of course, we have looked at what has happened in Portugal and elsewhere, but the facts, as I say, give a slightly different picture than the one that is sometimes portrayed. ... I suspect we may come from a fundamentally different point of view in relation to drugs. I have some very clear views that we should be doing everything we can to deal with drugs, having seen some of the impacts of drugs on individuals and on families.[303]

256. In written evidence to the inquiry, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance of using an evidence base to form drugs policy. He said that

the Government acknowledges the value of keeping the debate open and I am grateful to the Committee for its work in this complex area. We attach great importance to keeping abreast of the evidence both here and abroad to inform our drugs policies.[304]

257. Drugs policy ought to be evidence-based as much as possible but we acknowledge that there is an absence of reliable data in some areas. We therefore recommend the Government allocated ring fenced funding to drugs policy research going forward. Such a funding stream would most appropriately sit with the Medical Health and Research Council so that the evidence base for prevention and recovery aims of the Drugs Strategy can be strengthened, although cross disciplinary applications in this area will be vital.

258. We recommend that the responsible minister from the Department of Health and the responsible minister from the Home Office together visit Portugal in order to examine its system of depenalisation and emphasis on treatment.

259. As our predecessor Committee supported in their 2002 report, we recommend that the Government initiate a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma.

260. We welcome the Government's efforts to make clear its commitment to reducing drug misuse and tackling the consequences of drug misuse. We also recommend that the Government instigate a public debate on all of the alternatives to the current drugs policy, as part of the Royal Commission (see paragraph 132).

261. We have made a number of recommendations regarding the need for further evidence gathering. We believe that this would be most effective if it were co-ordinated through one body. The appropriate body to do this would, in our view, be the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is already tasked with advising the Home Secretary on classification decisions. It is logical that the body which is responsible for formulating scientific advice to ministers should also have a role to play in coordinating the gathering of scientific evidence on the subject.

263   Home Office , The Government's Drug Strategy (December 2010), p 7 Back

264   Q341 Back

265   Q289 Back

266   Babor et al, Drug Policy and the Public Good (Oxford University Press, 2010), p 79 Back

267   Q144 Back

268   David J Nutt, Leslie A King, Lawrence D Phillips, 'Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis', The Lancet, Vol 376, Issue 9752 (6 November 2010), pp 1558-1565 Back

269   Q302 Back

270   Q342 Back

271   UK Drug Policy Commission, A fresh approach to drugs: the final report of the UK Drugs Policy Commission, p80 Back

272   Qq177-184 Back

273   Ev 135 [Release] Back

274   Ev 152 Back

275   Release, A Quiet Revolution: drug decriminalisation policies in practice across the globe ( July 2012), p 12-13 Back

276   Ibid Back

277   An English version of the Committee's Report is available on the website of the IDT: www.idt.pt/EN/RelacoesInternacionais/Documents/2009/estrategia_eng.pdf Back

278   Law 30/2000, http://www.idt.pt/EN/Legislacao/Legislacao%20Internacional%20Ficheiros/Decree-law/l30_00.pdf Back

279   Ev 216 Back

280   http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000881 Back

281   http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Colorado_Marijuana_Legalization_Initiative,_Amendment_64_(2012) Back

282  http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite?blobcol=urldata&blobheader=application/pdf&blobkey=id&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobwhere=1251822971738&ssbinary=true Back

283   http://www.leg.wa.gov/Senate/Committees/documents/Initiatives/2012/502Summary.pdf Back

284   Caulkins et al, Marijuana Legalisation: What everyone needs to know (Oxford University Press, 2012), p 185 Back

285  http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite?blobcol=urldata&blobheader=application/pdf&blobkey=id&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobwhere=1251822971738&ssbinary=true Back

286   Caulkins et al, Marijuana Legalisation: What everyone needs to know (Oxford University Press, 2012), p 188-190 Back

287   Caulkins et al, Marijuana Legalisation: What everyone needs to know (Oxford University Press, 2012), p 188 Back

288   http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-09-12/uruguays-government-eyes-legalized-marijuana Back

289   Informal meeting with Professor Caulkins Back

290   UK Drug Policy Commission, A fresh approach to drugs: the final report of the UK Drugs Policy Commission, p 139 Back

291   Max Daly & Steve Sampson, Narcomania: A Journey Through Britain's Drug World (William Heinemann 2012), p 251 Back

292   http://www.ukdpc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/politicians-views-on-drug-policy1.pdf Back

293   http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/article4416608.ece Back

294   UK Drug Policy Commission, A fresh approach to drugs: the final report of the UK Drugs Policy Commission, p 138 Back

295   http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2009/visualising-the-guardian-datablog/ Back

296   Radio Times interview. Referenced in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9688040/Jacqui-Smith-admits-cannabis-reclassification-was-wrong.html Back

297   Alan Johnson 'Why Professor David Nutt was shown the door', The Guardian , 2 November 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/nov/02/drug-policy-alan-johnson-nutt Back

298   David Nutt, 'Penalties for drug use must reflect harm', The Times, 2 November 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6898671.ece. Back

299   Ev w244 Back

300   http://www.ukdpc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/politicians-views-on-drug-policy1.pdf Back

301   Home Office , The Government's Drug Strategy (December 2010), p 4 Back

302   Q67 Back

303   Qq 68-69 Back

304   Ev w380 Back

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Prepared 10 December 2012