To be published as HC 1774-i

House of commons



Home Affairs Committee


Tuesday 24 January 2012

Sir Richard Branson and Dame Ruth Dreifuss

Dame Ruth Runciman and Roger Howard

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 87



This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.


Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.


Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 24 January 2012

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Alun Michael

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Sir Richard Branson, Global Commission on Drug Policy, and Dame Ruth Dreifuss, Global Commission on Drug Policy, gave evidence.

Chair: I invite our two witnesses to come to the dais. May I ask members of the Committee to declare any interests over and above what is in the Register of Members’ Interests?

Dr Huppert: I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drug policy reform.

Nicola Blackwood: I am patron of the Ley Community, which is a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Oxfordshire.

Q1 Chair: Thank you.

Sir Richard, Federal Councillor Dreifuss, thank you very much for coming to give evidence today. This is the Committee’s first evidence session in our major inquiry into drugs. The last time the Committee considered this question was 10 years ago; in fact, I think only Mr Winnick is a survivor of the last report. We made a number of recommendations, not all of which were accepted by the Government then, or indeed have been accepted now. We will be looking again at those recommendations and also at the development of drug policy over the past 10 years. As we all know, the number of people who use drugs has increased enormously and therefore the work of the Commission is of great interest to us.

Sir Richard, in your article in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, you said that that the war on drugs had been lost and basically that policymakers all over the world had spent a trillion dollars on fighting this war to no effect. Why did you say that?

Sir Richard Branson: We wondered whether we could make literally just a 30-second statement, just to open up, if that is possible.

Chair: Yes, certainly.

Sir Richard Branson: First, I would like to thank you and the members of the Home Affairs Select Committee for inviting Ruth and myself to give evidence on the findings of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. We understand that this is the first hearing for 10 years, and we welcome the opportunity to give evidence and to answer questions.

The Global Commission investigated in depth the workings over 50 years of the existing drug control system and we found that it had totally failed to stop the growth of the drug trade. The commission proposed a few simple principles to change how Governments deal with drugs. First, drug policy should be based on scientific evidence and empirical data. Secondly, drug policy should focus on the rights of citizens and on protecting public health to stop unnecessary suffering. Thirdly, Governments should take a flexible approach to drug policy co-ordination, and Governments around the world have started to recognise the waste and the human toll of our existing approach. There are models to look at such as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal, where decriminalisation 10 years ago has led to a large reduction in heroin use and other drug use, and massive drops in property crimes, HIV infections and violence.

I hope that this hearing can start a new debate around drugs policy and we look forward to discussing this with you today. We need obviously to reduce the crime, health and social problems associated with drug markets in whatever way is the most effective. Also, if I may just ask Ruth to say a couple of words herself.

Q2 Chair: Federal Councillor, could you be very brief because we are going to ask you a lot of questions. You were for 10 years the Chairman of your own Committee in Switzerland, so you know that Members are keen to ask questions.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: Exactly, so I just want to say on which points I can give some evidence from my experience and as a member of the Global Commission. As you say, I was for 10 years Minister of Health and, as such, responsible for drug policy in Switzerland. During the time of my responsibility, we introduced a change in the law and introduced new kinds of harm reduction measures and treatments so, in this field, I think I can give you some evidence you want to hear.

Q3 Chair: That is why you are here-both you and Sir Richard-to answer questions on the commission, and Members will have questions to put to you.

Going back to my initial question, why was it lost? The commission consists of five ex-Presidents, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former US Treasury Secretary. All these people-your fellow commissioners-including Federal Councillor Dreifuss were in charge of this policy, but you are saying it failed. Why did it fail?

Sir Richard Branson: I think that most of these Presidents who are now on the Commission feel that they made the wrong decisions when they were in power and in a position to do something about it, and that is why they decided to become members of the Commission. I think Ruth is one of the few exceptions to that because she did do a lot in Switzerland that made a big difference there. Most of the commissioners feel they made the wrong choices in trying effectively to do to drugs what was done to alcohol for 20 years in America: trying to deal with it as a criminal problem rather than a health problem. What the Commission did was to look at countries like Portugal, Switzerland and other countries, and to realise that there were better ways.

Q4 Chair: We are coming on to Portugal. Thank you for raising Portugal, but it is different from the United Kingdom though. The three biggest countries in Europe for the consumption of drugs are the United Kingdom, France and Italy; Portugal and Switzerland are very small countries. When you went over and congratulated the Portuguese on decriminalisation, did you not see an increase in drug use? Did you see an increase or decrease in drug use?

Sir Richard Branson: A decrease. First of all, yes, Portugal is a smaller country than Britain, but if you break Britain up into smaller units and tackle it city by city, I think there is no reason why you should not get the same results as in Portugal. Ten years ago, Portugal had a massive drug problem-heroin was rampant. They decided to move drugs from the Home Office to the Health Department, and they said to the Health Department, "You are now in charge. Nobody will be sent to prison in Portugal," and not one person has been sent to prison for taking drugs in the Past 10 years. They have then, if you look at heroin, set up places where people can go to get clean needles throughout Portugal, and they have helped people who have heroin problems get off heroin. The number of people taking heroin has dropped by 50%.

Q5 Chair: Federal Councillor, you are a politician. The message that goes out if you decriminalise, even in a country like Switzerland, is pretty stark. Does it not send the wrong message to the public in that if you decriminalise, it actually says that you can use these drugs?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: No, the contrary. If you say it is a public health problem, you have to cure people who are ill-who are dependent on the drug. I think that is a stronger message than if you criminalise them. I am sure also that young people-and they are the ones we need to avoid entering in drug consumption-do not want to be considered as ill people. They want to have a kick; they want to experiment something perhaps at the margin of what is allowed. When you medicalise it, it is exactly the thing that can avoid them entering into that. We had no increase in consumption in Switzerland during the 15 years of experimenting and introducing the new policy. I think the main problem is that we are confronted with criminal organisations changing the substance and bringing in new things-new "kicks", if I may use that word-and that is the problem.

Q6 Chair: We will come on to that. Finally from me, I do not know whether you have seen in the papers this morning that new sentencing guidelines have been proposed under which there is going to be more leniency to those who are regarded as mules who carry drugs, even unwittingly, and, in effect, tougher sentences on those who deal in drugs. Would you support those who are caught in the middle of this whole issue-a retail trade that is worth £332 billion in the United States-should be treated more leniently than those who are organised criminals involved in this?

Sir Richard Branson: The commission has asked countries to experiment with different scenarios from in the past, and it has said that it feels that mules should be treated more leniently than the people behind the mules, who often resort to violence and major criminal activities, and that they should come down hard on those people. For the courts to decide that fines are more appropriate than prison sentences, I suspect that other members of the commission would welcome that.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: Yes, I think you have to have punishments that are proportional and efficient. You have to have a different tariff, I would say, for different types of crime. Mules and street dealers are not the aim we have to put all our means on, but the criminal organisations are the aim we have to pursue.

Q7 Alun Michael: You referred to that aspect of the policy, as did the Sentencing Council. The Sentencing Council seems to have said nothing about what works in terms of reducing supply. Do you have any comment on that?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: I did not exactly catch your question. Can you repeat it?

Alun Michael: The question that I believe is very important in dealing with what level a sentence should be is: what works in terms of reducing whatever the nuisance is that you are seeking to address? Do you have anything to say about the effectiveness of sentencing?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: I think we have to look at which kind of sentence and the harms of such sentences. For instance, for a young-

Q8 Alun Michael: That is a different issue, with respect. I was just asking specifically about what works in terms of reducing supply. If you do not have any evidence on that, that is fine.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: The question of supply is, from my own experience, terribly simple. You take somebody from the street-a street dealer-and then the day after you have another man standing at the same place.

Q9 Alun Michael: Sir Richard, in what was a very succinct summary of your position at the beginning-and I congratulate you on that; they are usually much longer-you ran through a number of countries where you said that decriminalisation had been tried and had been effective. Within those you referred to Holland, which is very often cited as an example. I looked at the situation of Holland some years ago; in fact, they did not decriminalise drug use. What they did was introduce a policy on policing and enforcement of tolerance, as long as things were not getting out of hand, and they then moved away from that approach as the result of the impact of drug tourism on their cities. Why do you cite that as an example of success?

Sir Richard Branson: The decriminalisation was a reference to Portugal. Portugal is the one country that has decriminalised all drugs, so not one person has gone to prison in the last 10 years. That has saved the country a lot of money in prison costs.

Q10 Alun Michael: So you were not drawing a similar parallel in relation to Holland?

Sir Richard Branson: No, that was simply Portugal.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: May I add something?

Chair: If you could do it briefly, because we will cover these issues.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: Just on Holland, this tolerance was reduced so as not to have a conflict with neighbour countries but, for their own population, the Netherlands continues to have the same policy because they think it is reducing dealing and the harm of having the open deal in the streets. I know this also from Switzerland; we had to look with our neighbour countries at how to have a known policy without jeopardising their rules, and this is very important, I think.

Q11 Lorraine Fullbrook: Sir Richard, I would like to go back to some of the comments you made about Portugal. You said that heroin use had reduced by 50%. Therefore, there are still 50% of people who were previously using heroin are still using heroin, and they are given clean needles, which presumably are supplied by the Health Department in Portugal. Who supplies the heroin to those 50% of users?

Sir Richard Branson: Presumably it is illegally supplied to them.

Q12 Lorraine Fullbrook: So that does not take out the Mr Bigs from the drug-

Sir Richard Branson: A reduction of 50% is a great step in the right direction. It is not just a reduction in heroin; there has been a reduction in other drugs as well. The number of deaths related to heroin has dropped by over 50% as well, and the number of HIV infections has dropped by over 50%.

Q13 Lorraine Fullbrook: But that is presumably because clean needles have been used.

Sir Richard Branson: Exactly, it is a combination. In England, drugs are not regulated at all and there is no checking on drugs. Three people died in hospital recently from taking ecstasy tablets, but they were not ecstasy tablets. They were laced with PMA, so the kids did not know what they were taking. At the moment it is a completely unregulated market with nobody checking up on what our kids are taking.

Q14 Lorraine Fullbrook: But there is still, surely, a criminal element within Portugal where people are buying heroin?

Sir Richard Branson: Yes. What the commission has said is that it wants countries to experiment with new systems. Portugal’s particular system is to say, "Nobody who takes drugs will be put in prison, but we are not regulating and taxing drugs," so they have not gone that far. Therefore, you still do have an underground world selling drugs, but much less so, because if people can get methadone treatment from clinics set up by the Government, they do not have the need to go into the underworld to get their drugs. Most people now go to the clinics and then when they are ready to wean themselves off drugs, instead of them being frightened about being put in prison, there is somebody there to advise them on how to get help and get off drugs.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: May I just add that Switzerland-

Chair: Yes, we will come on to Switzerland a little bit later.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: I mean there is legal heroin also.

Q15 Nicola Blackwood: Sir Richard, in your article yesterday, one of your paragraphs said, "Drugs are dangerous and ruin lives. They need to be regulated". In the UK, obviously we have full criminalisation, but we still allow the police force discretion as to whether to charge or to offer diversion programmes into treatment. Can I ask what specific improvements of the UK regulation you would recommend?

Sir Richard Branson: At the moment in the UK 100,000 young people are arrested every year for taking drugs, and the figures are growing. Some 75,000 of those young people are given criminal records, which means it might be difficult for them to travel or get passports to certain countries. What the commission would urge is that by moving drugs into the Health Department and away from the Home Office, if people have problems, just like in Portugal, they should go in front of a panel of health experts to try to help them. If my brother or sister has a drug problem or my children have a drug problem, I do not want the law to get involved, and I do not think that most people I know would want the law to get involved. We would want them to get help.

Q16 Nicola Blackwood: Have you studied the Home Office’s drug strategy?

Sir Richard Branson: I have not myself personally; I am sure that the commission as a whole would have done.

Q17 Nicola Blackwood: The drug strategy does include early intervention for young people and families, intensive support for young people, and a number of policies that include the Department for Education, the Department of Health-all the different Departments-that are intended to provide diversion programmes and avoid exactly the routes that you are proposing. What I am asking is: are there specific regulatory policy changes that you think would change the route processes you are criticising?

Sir Richard Branson: That may be the case in writing, but there are still 100,000 young people.

Q18 Nicola Blackwood: This is a new strategy. It has just been published.

Sir Richard Branson: Okay. Then if, next year, those 100,000 people are not prosecuted for taking drugs but are helped-and particularly if those people who have serious drug problems are helped-I think that the commission would welcome Britain doing that. The commission is not saying, "This is how each individual country should behave." We are just suggesting that the current way does not work; let’s come up with new ways.

Q19 Dr Huppert: Thank you very much to both of you for coming to speak. Following on from Lorraine Fullbrook’s questions, when the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed, the vision was that it would eliminate all illegal drug use within this country. I think we clearly have not achieved that; a 50% reduction would be quite a good step. Are you familiar with the recent report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction that came out earlier? It says that despite the UK’s spend on drug strategy-I think it is 0.48% of GDP-it is in the top few for use of cannabis, top for amphetamines, top for ecstasy, and second for cocaine, although that was the highest for use by young people in the last year, so we will probably catch up there. Given that we are spending more than any other European country and having the worst outcomes, does that suggest that we ought to have a rather different strategy?

Sir Richard Branson: Yes.

Chair: We like brief answers.

Q20 Dr Huppert: May I follow up on that? As I understand it, and you may know more than I do, the UK and Ireland are the only two countries in Europe where the lead agency to deal with drug strategy is the Home Office or its equivalent. I think in Malta it is the Prime Minister’s office; everywhere else it is a health lead. How important is what the lead agency is-whether we start off thinking of it as a public health problem or a criminal justice problem?

Sir Richard Branson: Extremely important. I think if it comes under health, it will be treated as a health issue, and every single bit of concern will be about the individual and making sure that they get better, especially those people who have had too much alcohol or drugs. They should be helped. The commission urges Governments to treat drugs as a health issue, not a criminal issue.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: In Switzerland, my experience is that we began to change our policy because it was a sanitary urgency with the continuation of the pandemic of AIDS, and also because the police force was despairing about having an endless job, beginning always with the same people and the same ineffective activities. I think they were very happy to have the leadership of the Health Ministry, but it was also our duty to have a good collaboration between all people working at the front on drug problems. I think the most important thing is that they learned to co-operate, to understand also the different practice and to help each other. Just to take one example: at the beginning, the police took syringes as evidence for the crime. You could have a place where you received clean syringes and policemen were taking them just after this distribution. We have to learn to work together, and I think this was an important process in Switzerland, but under the lead of the health authority.

Q21 Dr Huppert: Was there still a good relationship and involvement with the police agencies to deal with organised crime and those groups that siphon off a huge amount of the money?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: I think the police have to concentrate on the organised crime. They also have to concentrate on money laundering and the global issue of drug trafficking. The fight in the streets-with the people involved in the street deal-is just a hopeless fight.

Q22 Chair: We will come on to criminality later on.

Sir Richard, you did mention the fact that it was a health issue, but you are on record as saying that you have smoked cannabis. Is that right?

Sir Richard Branson: I would say that 50% of my generation have smoked cannabis and that 75% of my children’s generation have smoked cannabis. There are between 3 million and 5 million cannabis smokers in the UK.

Q23 Chair: It has not been detrimental to your health or the health of anyone you know?

Sir Richard Branson: If I was smoking cigarettes, I would be extremely worried.

Q24 Mr Winnick: Perhaps it is a generational matter, Sir Richard. I must confess, if it is a matter for confession, that I have never taken a drug in my life, apart from prescriptions.

Sir Richard Branson: I think that is generally wise.

Chair: May I say to members of the Committee that there is no need for further confessions? One is enough.

Q25 Mr Winnick: When you advocate decriminalisation-there will be other questions about that-can we get it absolutely clear that you are in fact recommending is the sort of policy practised in Switzerland, Portugal and Holland. Am I right?

Sir Richard Branson: The commission is suggesting that policies like Portugal’s or Switzerland’s are ones with which Governments should consider experimenting. If Governments in some countries wish to go further with, say, cannabis, by deregulating and taxing cannabis, that is something we think they should experiment with as well, because at least you can then make sure that the cannabis is of good quality. I mean, skunk is something that is too strong, whereas almost normal marijuana is found by The Lancet and other magazines and studies to be less harmful than alcohol. All the commission is saying is let us experiment with different approaches than have happened up to now.

Q26 Mr Winnick: Sir Richard, there is no question, therefore, of advocating that drugs of the sort we are talking about should be sold, say, in supermarkets like cigarettes or alcohol with the phrase "Buy some heroin and you will get cannabis free"? There is no question of that being your policy.

Sir Richard Branson: The drug commission has not advocated policies as such. It is asking Governments and organisations like your own to look at what is right for particular countries, and obviously we would not advocate heroin or cocaine to be sold in supermarkets.

Q27 Mr Winnick: Would I be right to take the view that among the strongest upholders of the status quo in Britain would be the drug criminals and the drug barons? Sometimes, as we know, such criminals are acting on the international scene. Wouldn’t they have a very strong interest that the status quo-successive Governments have pursued such a policy-should be maintained?

Sir Richard Branson: Absolutely.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: It is clear. There is now the possibility to make big money with the trafficking of drugs. The regulation of this market by the state would take away this possibility for making big money. We have figures on how a gram of cocaine is gaining value between the producer and the end consumer in the States. It is clear, yes. I would say that the biggest interest for maintaining the status quo in the field of repression and law enforcement is the criminal organisations.

Sir Richard Branson: It is estimated that $300 billion a year goes into the underworld from drugs.

Q28 Nicola Blackwood: Federal Councillor, we have heard a little bit from you already about the shift in Switzerland by moving the focus of drugs policy from essentially what we would have as the Home Office to the Department of Health, and therefore considering it as a disease issue-an addiction issue, rather. Can you tell us, first, how you managed that politically? In the UK, there is a real difficulty with focusing that level of resource on drugs policy as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: First, we have still law enforcement and it is still the one of the four pillars that takes most money-more than treatment prevention and harm reduction. The process was very interesting. It began with multi-partisan research of solutions, and I think that your Committee will also do a big step in this direction. Several parties were looking for a change in the policy in the situation of emergency. We had a large demand from cities, neighbourhoods, and families of drug addicts coming to central Government, so we had just to look at how to accompany new ways to monitor them scientifically and to publish the scientific evidence. We have the chance-and the difficulty-to vote very often on public issues in Switzerland. We had something like 15 votes at local, cantonal or federal level on the drug policy, and each of the campaigns and votes was preceded by a political campaign and discussion. I would say that Switzerland became the people of Europe who were well informed on the drug issue, and they accepted the change of our policy and accompanied it.

Sir Richard Branson: If I could say one thing: treatment is a lot cheaper than prison and much more effective. Between 60% and 80% of all break-ins are drug related, so if you can treat people and get them off drugs, they will not have the need to get their fix and they will not need to break in. There is an enormous benefit to individuals in society if you can treat people.

Q29 Nicola Blackwood: Could you discuss the specific forms of harm reduction and treatment that you pursued in Switzerland, and in particular whether this was maintenance or abstinence-based?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: We always had abstinence-oriented treatments and they are still at the same level-the same number of persons are entering in that. We have a huge experience in methadone and substitution treatment generally from over 30 years. This is the largest number of treatments we offer and we have the people ready to enter it. We have the same number, more or less, as the treatment aimed at abstinence in heroin-based treatment. These people were taken off the street.

Q30 Chair: You did say earlier that this was provided legally, so the Swiss authorities provide heroin legally to people with these problems?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: Absolutely. We have heroin recognised as a medicine by our medical authority, but I think it is the same here in the UK. The difference with UK and Switzerland is that we did not allow general practitioners to enter into this treatment. We have specialised clinics-it is only specialised clinics-so that there is absolute control of the substance in clinics linked with social integration programmes.

So this is the treatment. In harm reduction, I think we were quite a pioneer, with not only needle exchange-every country is now doing that-but with safe consumption rooms, and needle exchange and treatment in prisons also.

Q31 Nicola Blackwood: Could you tell me what percentage moved from the maintenance programmes into the abstinence programmes and then out into normal life and contributing back-being off drug dependence?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: You mean from the budget?

Sir Richard Branson: No, how many people moved back into society from going through the programme.

Q32 Nicola Blackwood: What was the success rate of the programmes? You can write to us.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: It is difficult to give the numbers. Perhaps I can give you, if you want, the information afterwards.

Nicola Blackwood: You can write to us. It would be very interesting to see.

Chair: If you could drop us a note, it will save us coming to Switzerland.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: We will send you the complete information.

Q33 Mark Reckless: Sir Richard, you referred to treatment to get people off drugs. To clarify, are you emphasising the abstinence-based treatment or referring to much the treatment we have now in the way of methadone maintenance?

Sir Richard Branson: Whatever treatment works. Research is needed to see what the latest, most effective treatments are, so we are not advocating any specific treatment.

Q34 Mark Reckless: But most effective in what sense? What are the criteria you would use to assess that?

Sir Richard Branson: I am not an expert on treatment, but I would recommend that the commission looks at the various treatments that are going on around the world and recommends the absolute best treatment.

Chair: We will be doing that. Not going around the world, but certainly looking.

Q35 Lorraine Fullbrook: Sir Richard, I have two questions, one of which goes back to some comments you made about moving drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health. Don’t you think it would be best across both Departments? The Health Department would help the individuals you are talking about, but the Home Office would still have to be involved to catch the criminal barons who are moving the stuff, and along with drug barons comes money laundering, firearms, people smuggling and people trafficking.

Sir Richard Branson: The Home Office can concentrate on organised crime and the Health Department can concentre on the individuals who have drug problems. Of the 100,000 people who are arrested every year for minor offences, as I said, 70,000 are given criminal sentences. Some 20% of police time is spent dealing with those minor offences and that 20% of police time could be spent on going after the criminal gangs. They spend over £200 million just on paperwork and dealing with those minor offences. Again, that £200 million could be spent on going after the criminal gangs. I do think it is a win-win all round.

Q36 Lorraine Fullbrook: Across both Departments?

Sir Richard Branson: Yes.

Q37 Lorraine Fullbrook: As you heard earlier, the Government’s drug strategy, which has just been launched, is an intervention and diversion route, basically to reintegrate people into society. As a major employer, what do you think business can bring to this? What help do you think major businesses can bring?

Sir Richard Branson: I can use only Virgin as an immediate example. We are proactively trying to take find jobs for people who have left prison in the Virgin Group because we think that if people can get back on their feet again-

Q38 Lorraine Fullbrook: Were they specifically jailed for drug offences?

Sir Richard Branson: I am sure there will be a mixture of some people with drug problems and some people without. However, I think employers generally need to try to do their best to help people get back on their feet again.

Q39 Chair: If you find somebody in your organisation who was taking drugs, presumably you would dismiss them, would you?

Sir Richard Branson: Not necessarily. Hopefully we would try to help them if they were taking drugs and find out what the problem was. They certainly would not automatically be dismissed. They have a problem.

Mr Winnick: We would hope not.

Q40 Chair: Presumably it would depend on what they were doing and the circumstances.

Sir Richard Branson: There are people within every company who have drink problems. There are people who are addicted to smoking. There are people who maybe take too much marijuana, or even more serious drugs, and they need to be helped. I think that should be the approach for society as a whole.

Mr Winnick: Highly commendable.

Q41 Alun Michael: The Global Commission’s report looks at West Africa and suggests that it is a place where aid and development could stifle the emergence of a new market. Can you say a little bit about this? What are the practicalities of that?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: The problem is that Western Africa is now becoming a hub in the international roads between Latin America and Europe. Being that, it also has to see an explosion in consumption. So what we have to do-

Q42 Alun Michael: I understand that, but you refer specifically to aid and development offering the opportunity to stifle the emergence of that market. How do you see that working?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: We are now, under the leadership of Kofi Annan, looking to bring together different leaders in the region to have a better approach to this problem-mainly the linked health problems-and also to enforce the police in these countries to fight against the corruption and to have better governance. I think this is what we intend in development aid. It is in the field of Governments’ fight against corruption and health issues, and police enforcement.

Q43 Alun Michael: Sorry, I don’t quite understand what you see in practice as being the connection between international aid and-I think I am using the words in the report-stifling the emergence of a new market. As you said, there is a market developing. We are seeing a growth in that. We are seeing the development of a hub. What practical steps through international aid are you proposing to stifle that market?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: As I said, we have to see what the needs are. I see the main needs-I think Kofi Annan sees the main needs-as technical co-operation in the fields of public health, police forces and good governance. That is the priority. To think that just having better economic development avoids people entering into a drug deal is, in a certain sense, an illusion.

Q44 Alun Michael: Sorry, let me just try once more. You referred again to governance and to policy, but you made a specific suggestion in the report that international aid can effectively stifle the emergence of a new market and provide incentives for reducing drug supply. I am not hearing how you see that working.

Sir Richard Branson: If we may, we will send you a note on that.

Chair: That would be very helpful, thank you.

Q45 Mark Reckless: During the 1990s, at least, drug policy in Switzerland was very different from that of neighbouring countries. What impact did that have on your relations with your neighbours and how did the Swiss Government deal with that?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: The only problem we had to face was that at a certain time, although it is no longer the case, farmers were producing cannabis and selling it in the spirit of the tolerance of the state for such production. Our neighbours were afraid that, as the Netherlands is, Switzerland might be the place where their citizens would go to buy cannabis products, so we had to discuss with them how to have control at the border and how to avoid this attractiveness of Switzerland for the neighbour. We had very good discussions with our neighbours. They understood very well and we found solutions.

On the other hand, our neighbours and other European countries were very interested in what we were doing, and because we had an open-book policy about what we were doing, they were visiting Switzerland-we had fewer tourists for drug purchase than tourists looking at our policy. I do not know how many Ministers and civil servants I received to explain what we were doing, and they were very interested. As you know, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium have followed what we were doing in heroin prescription and adapted it for their countries.

Perhaps your question is also about our relationship with the international UN body in control of crime and drugs. This was a more difficult relationship, because we were obliged-and also very eager-to present our conclusions each year on what we were doing. Often the remarks were critical and we had to discuss the compliance of Switzerland with the convention. Nobody could say that Switzerland was not complying and implementing the commitments stated in the convention-with one difference. We are sure that we are in the frame of the convention with the consumption rules and Vienna is still denying this. This is the only measure we took where we are still in discussion about how far it fits inside the frame of the convention.

Q46 Chair: Cutting off drugs at source is obviously absolutely crucial, as is the operation of international criminal gangs. The list of people on your commission, as I mentioned earlier, includes the former Presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and a number of other countries where the drugs come from. The Committee will be visiting Colombia later in the year because 50% of the drugs that come into our country originate from there. What does the Commission propose about what should happen at source? These former Presidents presumably admit that the war has failed, as in the Commission report, so what was their recommendation on what should be done to these people right at source? If the drugs do not come from Colombia, they do not enter the United Kingdom.

Sir Richard Branson: Take heroin as an example. You have clinics where people go to get their fix of methadone or heroin, which is supplied by Government. Let us say that methadone is bought by Governments from Afghanistan or wherever. You then have effectively pulled the rug out from underneath the drug barons who would otherwise have been supplying it to these people on the streets. You have avoided those people on the streets breaking and entering to get their money and, hopefully, when they are ready, you will be able to send these people to clinics to get them off heroin.

Q47 Chair: You are advocating the legal purchase of drugs from countries like Colombia, are you?

Sir Richard Branson: No. I do not know where Switzerland specifically got its heroin from, but in order to have a programme to help to wean people off drugs, you are initially going to have to supply them with their methadone fix or whatever until they are ready to get off drugs. If the state administers it, that immediately pulls the rug out from under the cartels-they therefore do not have a market any more.

Q48 Chair: Federal Councillor, it is an international approach, is it not? One country cannot do it on its own, as your report indicates.

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: Yes.

Q49 Chair: From your level as a former President and someone who dealt with these issues for over 10 years in Switzerland, do you think that the mood is changing among international leaders, and not just former leaders who have signed up to the fact that they may have made mistakes? Do you see a cultural shift among the present leadership of these countries?

Dame Ruth Dreifuss: Yes. When you listen to the President Santos of Colombia and if you listen to the President of Mexico, they all agree that the debate should take place. They do not agree with a change at this moment, but they know that they cannot just continue as they did without questioning what they did. Former Columbian President Gaviria, who is one of the members of our Commission, said, "I was the chief of the war on drugs in my country and we did very well but we didn’t solve the problem". The fight was hard. We could fight but we have a harsher war now in the country. Mexico is just now in a situation of quasi-civil war. They know that this is not the solution. They do not know exactly how to change, but they want this debate and this change is existing.

In the political discussion in the UN, we are looking for more consistency because any of these specialised organisations has another constituency. In Vienna, you find the people for law enforcement, in Geneva the people for public health, and in New York the people for development-the policy is not consistent. I think that the General-Secretary of the UN is aware of that and tries to bring together these different approaches of the drug problem.

Q50 Chair: Finally, Sir Richard, as far as the UK’s drug policy is concerned, this is the quote of a young member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002 who said, after the publication of our report, "Drugs policy in this country has been failing for decades. Drug abuse has increased massively. The number of drug-related deaths has risen substantially and drug-related crime accounts for up to half of all acquisitive crime". He is now the Prime Minister, so you must be heartened that Government policy is going to be moving in that direction.

Sir Richard Branson: I think what it illustrates is that if you talk to any individual in positions of power or responsibility, they know that the current system is not right and they know that a health-based system is right; they are just worried whether, politically, they can be brave enough to push it through. David Cameron was not then Prime Minister. He now is Prime Minister, and obviously we hope that we can give him the facts to make him brave in changing current policy for the benefit of society as a whole.

Since you gave me one quote, the head of Interpol 18 years ago said, "Western governments will lose the war against dealers unless efforts are switched to prevention and therapy. All penalties for drug users should be dropped. Making drug abuse a crime is useless and even dangerous. Every year we seize more and more drugs and arrest more and more dealers but at the same time the quantity available in our country still increases. Police are losing the drug battle worldwide". That was Raymond Kendall, who was Secretary General of Interpol in 1994 and also, I think, a very well-respected policeman in the UK.

Chair: I have no quotes to match that, I am afraid. The battle of the quotes is over.

Sir Richard Branson: Your quote was absolutely fine.

Q51 Chair: We should declare an interest. We will be travelling Virgin when we go to Colombia, and that is not because of your interests in the commission.

Sir Richard Branson: I would like to say that we do use fuel on our planes and we don’t just fly high.

Chair: We wanted to know whether this was going to be proposed for Virgin Galactic when people went to Mars at your suggestion.

Sir Richard Branson: We will see whether we are allowed to first.

Chair: Sir Richard, Federal Councillor, thank you very much. We kept you longer than anticipated but we are most grateful. If you could send us those notes, that would be very helpful.

Sir Richard Branson: Also, good luck on your research.

Chair: Thank you very much.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dame Ruth Runciman, Chair, UK Drugs Policy Commission, and Roger Howard, Chief Executive, Drugs Policy Commission, gave evidence.

Q52 Chair: Dame Ruth, Mr Howard, thank you very much for coming. I apologise for keeping you waiting longer than was anticipated, but you had the enviable position of listening to the evidence of the Global Commission. I have to start by asking you, Dame Ruth, has the war on drugs been lost?

Dame Ruth Runciman: My answer to that is an unsatisfactory one; I don’t think in those terms at all. I think part of the problem that we face, and indeed one of the reasons why we set up the UKDPC, is that the polarities between the war on drugs and legalisation seem to pit sides against each other in terms of "lose", when there are many nuances that we need to be considering very carefully.

Q53 Chair: Is the war on the drugs successful? Are we combating an increase in drug use?

Roger Howard: As Dame Ruth said, in the UK we do not think that we have had a war on drugs. We have had some pretty sensible and pragmatic drug policies over the last few years.

Q54 Chair: But surely we want to stop people using hard drugs for health reasons and for reasons of crime and criminality.

Roger Howard: Indeed, we do, and so we do not use that terminology "war on drugs", as Dame Ruth said. We find it particularly unhelpful.

Q55 Chair: So what is a better terminology?

Roger Howard: Whether it is public health or through policing and enforcement, we have a big task on our hands to try to reduce the harms that come from drug use and drug supply. I think that we all share that mission to try to bring down the level of harm in our society.

Q56 Chair: Is it coming down?

Dame Ruth Runciman: In some respects it is. We have in this country a remarkable history. In terms of the harm reduction of HIV, we have one of the great successes in this country as we have among the lowest rates of HIV among injecting drug users in the whole world. Fifteen years ago, that would have seemed a very astonishing achievement.

Chair: You will need to speak up just a little, Dame Ruth, because of the acoustics-

Dame Ruth Runciman: I am sorry.

Chair: No, it is not your fault; the acoustics in this room are not perfect.

Dame Ruth Runciman: I am so sorry.

Chair: That is very helpful. Thank you.

Q57 Dr Huppert: Dame Ruth, you produced a report of an independent inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2000 and there has not been a formal Government review of that. What were the summaries of your report?

Dame Ruth Runciman: You are referring to the Police Foundation Report?

Dr Huppert: Yes.

Dame Ruth Runciman: It was entirely to look at the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Q58 Dr Huppert: What were your conclusions?

Dame Ruth Runciman: We had a lot of conclusions, which became a source of much muddle to people, because I have spent the past 10 years assuring people I am not a legaliser. We recommended some change in the classification of drugs. We recommended some changes in the way offences were defined. We did the first big poll on people’s attitudes to the law and found that it was not the great deterrent we thought it was and that the health harms of drugs were of much greater interest to people. We were convened by the Police Foundation to look at the Misuse of Drugs Act for the first time in the 30 years, at that point, since it had been enacted. That was our task.

Q59 Dr Huppert: Just to be clear, would you stand by the report now? Is it still valid?

Dame Ruth Runciman: It is. I looked at it only recently and thought what a good report it is, which is very rare.

Q60 Dr Huppert: The commission recommends a programme for research, development and evaluation of strategies, and I would hope that we would all agree that evidence-based drugs policy is clearly something we should aspire to and on which we should insist. One issue, though, is how that interacts with public opinion. Dame Ruth, you just mentioned that. Do either of you have any sense of recent polling evidence, for example, about where the majority of the British public are on the various options that there might be?

Roger Howard: It has been numerous. The Home Office has done research, as have various people. Like any poll, I think that if you ask a particular question, you will get a particular answer, so we are fairly cautious about the vox pop public opinion poll. What I think is interesting is that when there have been some small and modest attempts to have deliberative-type engagement with the general public, people begin to look and see the responses to drug problems in quite a different light. For example, we did a large national survey that mirrored the one that the Department of Health commissions on mental health trying to look at people’s attitudes towards people with mental health problems. We did a similar one. We commissioned the same market research company and this was a very big survey. Like a lot of polls, it tells you two different things. On the one hand there is a lot of sympathy for people getting drug treatment and help to overcome their problems; on the other hand, individuals do not want such people living next door to them, which is not surprising, is it?

Q61 Dr Huppert: You will know all of the polls better than I do. If you had a strategy that focused on treatment for users and strong criminal action against drugs barons and the organised crime side, do you have any sense-has there been any polling-as to whether that would be popular?

Roger Howard: As I just said, I think that the evidence we have and that other organisations have looked at on attitudes towards treatment is very strong. It is very supportive, and I would imagine that for anyone sensible there would be strong support for dealing with serious organised crime. I do not think anyone would want to see the pressure let up on that.

Q62 Lorraine Fullbrook: In your legal highs report, you say that the ability of traditional drugs policy to keep pace with the current levels of change is in question. Presumably you are talking about the legal highs that are changing week by week and coming in from China. Can you highlight some of the issues that we are facing with the legal highs-I presume that the changes from China on a weekly basis are one of them?

Dame Ruth Runciman: The challenges we are facing are as you have just described. We have grave reservations about the temporary ban response at the moment because we think that a synthetic drug put on a temporary ban is then not likely then to be unbanned, and we are likely to get a growing number of drugs about which we know too little under the Misuse of Drugs Act and that are unenforceable. What we would like to see is some-"experiment" perhaps is the wrong word-form of looking at consumer protection as a way of dealing with this very new and very pressing problem, in particular with trading standards, because that would bring a lot of advantages, including an ability to insist that the onus is on sellers to demonstrate the safety of the product and what the product consists of. We could have regulations that can’t apply to the Misuse of Drugs Act on where it can be sold, what the age limits are and so on. We would like to see some carefully evaluated work under consumer protection legislation to deal with this very difficult and complicated new problem.

Q63 Lorraine Fullbrook: Can I just clarify that you don’t agree with the Government’s temporary ban on the legal highs that we have?

Roger Howard: No, that’s not what Dame Ruth was inferring.

Dame Ruth Runciman: We have reservations.

Roger Howard: We have reservations about what it is intended to do and what it can achieve, and I think this is because over the past two or three years we have seen a rapid explosion in these new substances. Last year, 41 new substances were identified to the European Monitoring Centre. My understanding is that you can expect more this year when they make their announcement; it will be probably nearer one a week. What we are saying is that to base good scientific assessment of the harms of these drugs, we doubt whether a year is going to be sufficient to be able to do a thorough assessment. Our suspicion will be-it remains to be tested, of course-that once a drug is in there, I think it is very unlikely you will ever see one coming out again. It may go in a lower classification.

Q64 Lorraine Fullbrook: Do you think that there is a legislative framework in place to deal with these, or do you think we need to design a new one?

Dame Ruth Runciman: In fact, one of our recommendations is that this is a good opportunity to look at our regulatory framework in total and reassess it. That is one good reason to do it, among many others.

Q65 Lorraine Fullbrook: Is it not being naive to ask sellers of these legal highs to conform to consumer trading standards?

Roger Howard: No. We do this with alcohol and tobacco, and we do it with food regulations. May I just steer you towards looking at the New Zealand Law Commission? It did a huge report looking at their misuse of drugs legislation. One of their conclusions is virtually the same as what we are saying: the New Zealand Government should look towards their consumer protection legislation. Other countries use medicine legislation to begin to control these novel psychoactive substances. I think we should be clear. We are not saying that, at some point, if these prove to be harmful, they should not then be controlled within the misuse of drugs legislation. We are not saying that everything can be controlled in time to-

Q66 Lorraine Fullbrook: But there are so many coming out every week. How would you possibly do that to put them through health and safety rules and regulations to discover if they are harmful?

Roger Howard: We share the view of the New Zealand Law Commission. The onus should begin to shift on to the seller to prove that that product is safe. If that is not done, trading standards or the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority-whichever mechanism is used-have the powers to be able to confiscate those products, and it may be that civil action, or indeed criminal action, could be taken against those people.

Chair: Mrs Fullbrook is highlighting this very important issue that sometimes one has to wait for the death of an individual in order for people to act, yet that process takes a very long time. For example, with "meow meow", it took a long time for that to be acted on after a young girl had died at a party. What she is saying is-

Q67 Lorraine Fullbrook: I don’t think you are being reasonable in suggesting that this is a trading standards issue, and I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that the number of synthetic or proactive drugs that come on to the market on a weekly basis could go through safety checks.

Roger Howard: No. We were not saying that they go through safety checking. The onus and the responsibility has to shift to the seller to be able to prove-we are not suggesting that you follow the medicines-

Q68 Lorraine Fullbrook: But do you really think that is feasible for the people who sell this?

Roger Howard: Other countries are looking at this and have proposed this, like the New Zealand Law Commission. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction is saying that there are a variety of powers that one can look at and they are steering people towards looking at those particular powers, so it would strengthen-

Q69 Lorraine Fullbrook: What is the main method of sale? How do people sell in New Zealand? Is it in a shop, at a street corner or through the internet?

Roger Howard: It is all mixed. These are coming through the internet and through post, and reselling goes on-as traditional drug markets have always done-through family, friends, siblings and people like that. That is the traditional route through which people get this.

Chair: Thank you. We will return to that later.

Q70 Alun Michael: You published findings recently that drug-related police expenditure and activity-and it is the activity that is the key thing-is expected to decrease as a result of the cuts. What do you see as the likely impact on police work generally and on local neighbourhood policing in particular?

Roger Howard: If I could just put this in context, this was part of a wider research project that we are undertaking to look at the impact of localism and austerity generally, and the first tranche of work was working with ACPO to look at the impact on policing. So this is the early product. Given your timetable, we are more than willing to come back to you and share with you later, with a supplementary note, the other findings that come from that research. With that in context-

Q71 Alun Michael: Those findings aren’t available as yet?

Roger Howard: Yes; the ones on policing are.

Alun Michael: Could you let us have that?

Roger Howard: Yes. What we found from the research-and I should caveat that this was undertaken just before last summer-was their perceptions of what would happen. I think that one would need to go back carefully, if we were methodologically rigorous, to check this out. My understanding is that is pretty much what we found-something like 50% of English forces were expecting that their expenditure on policing was going to decrease. Where this was going to hit was all what I might loosely call the intelligence-gathering arena, so it was forensic testing, test purchases and those particular sorts of activities. The police were making the point very strongly to us that these are the sort of easy things to cut in the first instance. The problem is if you want to build up an intelligence-led approach to policing-the evidence seems to be that that is an effective way-you potentially may be shooting yourself in the foot.

Q72 Alun Michael: Your brief answer is that it is going to damage intelligence-led policing on drug-related issues?

Roger Howard: Probably, yes.

Q73 Alun Michael: Can I just ask-and perhaps I ought to, in asking this question, declare an interest in that I have indicated that I shall seek the nomination to stand for election as a South Wales Police Commissioner-what would your advice be as to the way the Police and Crime Commissioners ought to approach the way that organisation of policing activity and expenditure on police activity in relation to drugs ought to be developed?

Roger Howard: I think it is too early for us to say, is a short answer on some of it, because I think the Police and Crime Commissioner development is evolving. We are asking people locally what impact it might be having and everyone is saying to us it is premature, but what we have concluded is-

Q74 Alun Michael: You are not even offering advice?

Roger Howard: If we may say on two areas. One is that we suspect that, in the coming elections, there may be some very cheap shots and cheap wins to be got from people bearing down on drug supply and drug dealing. I think that is one thing. I think the other is that what we are beginning to pick up a great worry that Police and Crime Commissioners don’t- The links between the new Health and Wellbeing Boards are to be forged, and I think our advice would be a very strong collaboration between Police and Crime Commissioners and Health and Wellbeing Boards.

Dame Ruth Runciman: Also, if I might add, with local community organisations where the policing of drug markets is so incredibly important in those particular partnerships.

Q75 Alun Michael: You are referring specifically to the English pattern of organisation?

Roger Howard: Yes, but our suspicion is that, even in Wales, that strong link with local communities for tackling drug dealing-visible drug dealing-is particularly important.

Alun Michael: Thank you.

Q76 Nicola Blackwood: You have described in your report the process to recovery from addiction as not an end result, but an ongoing process, and you have raised concerns about the rapid introduction of payment by results and some concerns about the problems that that may cause for different recovery and maintenance organisations. Could you explain your concerns to the Committee and tell us what you think the implications might be?

Dame Ruth Runciman: We think that in the field of drug misuse, drug treatment and so on, payment by results is a particularly complex issue because the most complex conditions will all require more than one provider. The issue of payment by results in this area does require a system whereby payments themselves are properly distributed between the various contributors, where there is a clear process for interim payments and final payments. The thing we need to remember particularly is that many of the contributors to results will be small organisations-small third-sector organisations-without the capital to sustain work while the fairly far distant outcome is achieved, so it is a particularly complex area. We think that it is possibly being introduced too quickly and that it needs to be very carefully evaluated.

Roger Howard: If I may, a couple of other quick points. One is that we worry about perverse incentives coming in and gaming the system, which is not uncommon, so I think there is a great concern about that. We are picking up, through our work, that there is a threat to the smaller voluntary organisations, and of course the Government wanted a diversity of providers and local community organisations. A lot of local commissioners are looking to this to get efficiencies of scale and things like that, and it does seem to be that some smaller organisations are suffering in that.

One of the other things that we would like to urge you to consider is that there are other different models to try to incentivise better outcomes. PBR isn’t the only show in town. It is putting an awful lot of pressure on a system. We are worried about fragmentation happening, and there are other ways and there are other examples that you can begin to incentivise. We would strongly urge that, before this is applied more broadly, you get the evidence for it.

Q77 Nicola Blackwood: I am not entirely clear. The results that they are after and they are being paid for, I presume, are staying off drugs and staying either on the methadone or in the programme. Is that right? Is that the kind of results? Is that what they are being paid for?

Roger Howard: That is one. This is the problem: nowhere in the world has tried such a complicated system of outcomes. Originally they started with four outcome domains, one looking at employment, one looking at drug use, one looking at criminality and one looking at general health and wellbeing. These were four outcomes. Nobody has ever tried a PBR system with such a complicated set of outcomes. They have taken out the employment one because this has been, in a sense, the DWP.

Q78 Nicola Blackwood: So, reduction in criminality, reduction in drug use and health and wellbeing.

Roger Howard: Reduction in criminality, reduction in drug use and health and wellbeing. As Dame Ruth says, how you attribute each of those to different parts of the treatment journey is very difficult.

Dame Ruth Runciman: There has already been some difficulty and discussion in terms of the offending one. The offending one, in terms of an individual, is so difficult that it might have to be a cohort, because to pay by results in terms of reoffending eight months, 10 months or two years down the line is so difficult that it may be that the cohort within an area is part of the payments by results.

Q79 Nicola Blackwood: What are the alternative payment systems that incentivise better outcomes that you propose?

Roger Howard: One that we hoped the Government would have looked at, when we met with Oliver Letwin some time ago, is the centre being able to use some financial tools to incentivise local commissioners to improve their outcomes, rather than looking just to the service provider. Keep it at one level up rather than going down to the service provider and putting all that risk down at that level. That is one of the ways and then they could have a variety of ways. Whether in Cambridge, Oxford or wherever, one would begin to look at those sorts of local needs and be able to look to local commissioners to drive what is locally needed in a much better way.

Nicola Blackwood: Thank you.

Q80 Mr Winnick: Mr Howard, very briefly, you have been involved one way or another in this policy over a long period of time-and that is nothing to be ashamed about-but can I put this question to you, to some extent following earlier questions? Do you really think there is any realistic possibility that the UK-whichever Government happen to be in office-would change its policy on drugs?

Roger Howard: Change its policy? I look to Dame Ruth, whose experience of this is probably even longer than mine. I think we have seen an evolution of policy over many years. If you go back 25 years, you would never have had drug treatment people sitting down with the police. The police and drug treatment agencies work together very well these days and I think we have seen an evolution. If you ask me whether, politically, there can be a shift, I think we have gone part of that way, if we look at cannabis warnings and penalty notices for disorder. If you look at that, I think that we have seen Parliament agree to a gradual-you might call it-decriminalisation, but inching towards that process.

Q81 Mr Winnick: Do you agree with that, Dame Ruth?

Dame Ruth Runciman: Yes. I would like to add-we have already referred to it once-that the biggest possible single change that has taken place was the change in respect of harm reduction. In 1989-I declare an interest here as I chaired the ACMD’s AIDS and Drug Misuse Working Groups; the three reports that produced this change-this was extremely unpalatable to Government. Mrs Thatcher’s Government took a deep breath and implemented harm reduction, which would have been unthinkable five years before that. It was a major change and it had major results. I sometimes wish the Conservative party would remember the rather noble history it has in that respect. It was a very big change and that sort of change can happen again, it seems to me.

Q82 Mr Winnick: At the end of the day, it is a long-sustained and continuing policy of criminalisation, whatever welcome changes have occurred.

Dame Ruth Runciman: Well, as Roger just said, we think we are seeing a gradual decriminalisation in this country, particularly in respect of cannabis, at the same time as cannabis prevalence is going down, which is rather encouraging. We think that it is possibly time to be more overt about this, to look at it carefully, to take a step-by-step approach to decriminalisation, and to evaluate it carefully.

Roger Howard: Could I just add, very briefly, one other point? I think the previous Government’s investment in drug treatment for people going through the criminal justice system was also a major sea change, and I don’t think we should underestimate again that shift towards having sensible, evidence-based policies that have delivered change.

Mr Winnick: Very helpful.

Q83 Dr Huppert: May I come back to the legal highs position, because I wasn’t quite clear on that? There are new things coming out all of the time and obviously one wouldn’t want to ban them immediately without knowing what they are. That would clearly not work. The current process is that the Advisory Council has to make a recommendation that there seems to be evidence that it is harmful and then a decision can be taken, which only addresses dealing rather than possession or consumption. You are suggesting instead that you use a trading standards approach so that the onus is on the person selling it. Am I right in thinking that that could be a much faster response than having to get the ACMD to deal with it, and hence it would be possible to respond more rapidly to these new compounds?

Roger Howard: Yes, is the simple answer to that.

Q84 Dr Huppert: This approach would be a faster way of dealing with the harm that there is from these new compounds.

Roger Howard: Yes. I think the European Monitoring Centre is really saying it is not the weight of response, but the speed of response and the flexibility of response, and that can provide your first line of defence. As I say, if and when the evidence subsequently becomes available that these are harmful substances, it goes through the normal trajectory of review by the ACMD or whoever.

We leave you with one other thought, because I know you need to finish. One of the things that we are concerned about is-to go back to Mr Winnick’s comment about policymaking-that we finish our work at the end of this year, and one of the things that we have been very much vexed by is the process by which drug policy gets made in the UK. One of the things that we want to look at-we have currently started this work-is what we loosely call the governance of drug policy, how we make drug policy in the UK and indeed, if I may say, the role of parliamentary scrutiny, which is critical to this. We always look at the content of drug policy; we don’t look at how we make drug policy and that is one of the areas we want to look at.

Q85 Chair: One question about the European Monitoring Centre, which the Committee has in the past visited. Is it doing its job effectively? There seem to be no benchmarks for this organisation. It is a fantastic idea to have European monitoring of what is happening in various countries, but is it benchmarked?

Roger Howard: We could say the same about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. When these bodies are set up, we don’t give any measures, do we, of what we expect of them?

Q86 Chair: No, but the Advisory Council is different. I don’t think a lot of taxpayers’ money goes into the Advisory Council.

Dame Ruth Runciman: No. That is one of its great strengths.

Roger Howard: Superb value for money.

Dame Ruth Runciman: It is incredibly cheap.

Roger Howard: Too cheap.

Q87 Chair: Yes, compared with the European Centre, which has millions and millions of euros. When the Committee visited on the last occasion we were not that impressed. There were a lot of people sitting around tables and no kind of activity-that is quite different from us today, of course.

Roger Howard: If I may say, I think that then comes back to how countries use that intelligence and information to inform their debate. I think they collect the information. This is why we have said that one of the great weaknesses of the drug strategy-we have called it, forgive our language, a knowledge pillar-is about the accumulation of evidence, intelligence, research and evaluation, and that it is missing completely from various drug strategies, not just this one.

Dame Ruth Runciman: It is one of the big weaknesses in this country.

Roger Howard: It is one of the big weaknesses and I think that comes back to parliamentary accountability.

Chair: That is extremely helpful. Thank you both for helping us launch our inquiry into drugs. We are most grateful.

Dame Ruth Runciman: Thank you for asking us.

Chair: We might come back to you with further questions, because this inquiry will last a while.

Dame Ruth Runciman: We would be very pleased and we are very grateful to you for asking us.

Prepared 30th January 2012