Psychoactive Substances Bill – Committee Stage

On 23rd June 2015 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Psychoactive Substances Bill during its first day in committee. The Bishop of Bristol, Rt Revd Mike Hill, made a brief intervention during the debate on an amendment about legalisation of certain drugs, tabled by Lord Howarth of Newport.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I want to speak to Amendments 17 and 18, which I have tabled rather impertinently as amendments to Amendment 16 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Here I think that the substantial measure of agreement and meeting of minds that we had in the previous debate on education will rapidly dissipate.

I remind the Committee that it is my belief that prohibition has broadly failed and that it is because of that failure that we have the problem of new psychoactive substances. I believe that our objectives should be to protect people, particularly young people but people of all ages, from the dangers of drugs and to minimise the harms that they may cause. In nothing I say do I mean to imply that I would encourage the consumption of drugs—we are looking for the least bad solution to a very intractable and very important problem. My proposal is therefore pragmatic, but I believe that the least bad way to go is selectively and cautiously to legalise certain drugs and very strictly to regulate their availability.

The purveyors of psychoactive substances, after all, seek to create and distribute substances that mimic the effect of controlled drugs, and they do so quite unscrupulously. They do not mind how corrupt, how adulterated, how toxic and how dangerous those substances are, and that is the problem that we are up against. It seems to me therefore that it would be more prudent and more responsible, rather than to have a blanket prohibition or ban, to make legally available one substance in each of the three principal classes of drugs. The first would be a stimulant—it might be MDMA, better known as ecstasy. The second would be a depressant, which might be cannabis—the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, spoke of the significance of the ratio of THC to CBD within any individual variety of cannabis. If you have no THC, you have no “high”, as I understand it, so I guess that there would have to be some element of THC if people were to use the drug. We would seek to provide a version of cannabis that was the safest kind—that does the trick in the sense of making people feel that this is the substance that gives them the experience that they are looking for. Thirdly, there should be a hallucinogen: perhaps magic mushrooms or mescaline. In all those cases, I propose that we legalise and regulate drugs that are of relatively low risk, of which society has long experience, and which in many societies have become socialised and in their use normalised.

The Minister was quite quickly dismissive of the experiment that has been initiated in New Zealand. It is perfectly true that the expert committee, having carefully considered the policy adopted in New Zealand, decided it could not recommend it, and that the policy has run into a number of practical difficulties there. But essentially the New Zealand approach was to find a way, very carefully and selectively, to legalise the use of drugs that have been demonstrated to be of low risk, and I do not actually think that the story of the New Zealand experiment has yet reached an end.

At all events, I emphasise that there would have to be strict regulation and quality control and that these drugs should be introduced only in circumstances of the best security that we can provide to their users. There should be regulation of their composition and their strength; there should be control over how they are transported; manufacturing should be licensed and strictly regulated, as should retailing; there should be no sales to children; I believe that no advertising should be permitted; marketing would certainly have to be very strictly regulated; and so forth. That is the type of regime that we already operate in our society. That is how we deal with alcohol and tobacco—two drugs, as the noble Baroness said, which are, by any reasonable standard of judgment, more dangerous than cannabis—and with medicines. So there are already models. There is already a basis of selective legalisation and regulation on which we can build—and, no doubt, which needs to be improved.

The availability of these drugs should be accompanied by advice as to their safe use, exactly as happens when you collect a prescription for medicine; there should be full information. Of course, as we have already argued, this all needs to be set in a context of education, to help people to make mature and wise decisions.

Bishop of Bristol June 2015The Lord Bishop of Bristol: I just wanted some clarification. One thing that worries me is whether, in the end, the direction of Amendment 18 will not prove to be a bit confusing. I think it was John Maxwell who said that when people say, “Yes, but”, nobody ever hears the “Yes”. If you say, “No, but”, does anybody hear the “No”?

Lord Howarth of Newport: I hope that I can offer some reassurance to the right reverend Prelate, if he will follow me in the argument that I want briefly to unfold. Let me continue by noting that there would be the advantage, as with alcohol and tobacco, that the Government could tax these substances and use the lever of taxation to influence the preferences of consumers and their behaviour. Of course, the Exchequer would benefit, and I know the great importance that the Minister and, indeed, all of us attach to the reduction of the deficit. A new source of taxation would be not unwelcome, I think, to the Exchequer. What I am recommending is, in effect, a market solution, a kind of reverse Gresham’s law. I believe that relatively good drugs would drive out bad drugs. It works in the Netherlands, where safer varieties of cannabis are made available in licensed shops and there is no demand in that country for the synthetic cannabinoids that are so fashionable and so popular in this country—and so very dangerous to their users.

Of course, there will always be people who are inveterate and irremediable risk-takers, and young people will always be tempted to challenge authority. But I suspect that most consumers would be very happy if they knew that they could obtain legally a psychoactive substance that they could be assured was relatively safe. After all, that has been the attraction—albeit the illusory and deceptive attraction—of so-called legal highs. Why would people go to dodgy dealers to buy white powders about which they knew nothing if they had a safer and legal alternative available to them? There may be a fear that the legal availability of certain drugs would lead to an increase in consumption; but I mentioned in an earlier debate the report by Dr Deborah Hasin of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, in which she found that there is no correlation between the availability of medicinal cannabis and increased consumption by teenagers. Public opinion has allowed the state governments of Colorado, Washington and Oregon and the District of Columbia to legalise and regulate cannabis. The same process has happened although with a very different model in Uruguay. This is a less dangerous approach than the prohibitionist approach, which we have had nearly 50 years of experience to demonstrate does not work. What I am putting forward is by no means perfect, but I believe it would be safer and better than the kind of anarchy that, paradoxically, prohibition creates. I would be grateful if the Minister would, if he does not agree with me, explain why he does not agree with me.

[The amendment was withdrawn after debate]