Tommy Sheppard | MP for Edinburgh East

Today I presented a Ten Minute Rule Bill on Problem Drug Use. It came about after the UK government dismissed the Scottish Affairs Select Committee's recommendations following our inquiry into drug use last year. The Bill aims to help tackle the drug crisis by decriminalising the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use and declaring a public health emergency and I was pleased to have support from across the political parties for it.

Those of you who have watched me speak before know that I tend to do so without notes, or with just a few key bullet points. But I don't just speak off the top of my head, I write it advance, often in my head. On this occasion I wrote out my speech. That's not to say I stuck to it as you'll see if you watch the speech but I thought, along with the official version that will appear in Hansard, and the video, some folk might want to see the original version so I've copied it below for you.

Original Version of Speech:

"Mr Speaker, I beg to move that leave be given to bring in a bill to a Bill to require the Secretary of State to declare problem drug use a public health emergency; to require the Secretary of State to review the effects of welfare sanctions on people who use drugs; to make the Department for Health and Social Care the lead department for drugs policy; to require the Secretary of State to respond publicly to recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; to amend the classification of drugs in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; to make provision for safe drug consumption facilities; to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use; to make provision about the stigmatisation of problem drug use; to amend the Equality Act 2010 to recognise drug dependence as a health condition; and for connected purposes.

This pandemic has shown just how fragile and vulnerable much of our society is. It has thrown some problems into sharp relief. But it has diverted our attention from others.

One such issue is the simmering crisis of drug addiction – a slow burning catastrophe which affects communities in every part of the UK.

Thousands of people are dying. Ten of thousands suffer chronic health. Hundreds of thousands have their lives diminished. And literally millions of people have their quality of life reduced by the drugs trade and its after-effects.

This is a multi-million-pound industry run by well organised enterprises.

My first point is that the law is no longer fit for purpose. The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act simply does not work. It does not prevent the misuse of drugs and it does not protect society from them.

Instead it compounds the problem in four ways:

  1. Making the act of possession and consumption illegal drives the trade underground. It means there can be no regulation and no control over what is supplied to whom
  2. Criminalising users makes them easy prey for criminal gangs – they fear approaching authorities for help - torn between the threat of violence from the streets, and the threat of arrest by the police
  3. It makes it difficult if not impossible for health workers to manage addiction and help users get control for fear of legal action themselves
  4. It creates ignorance, a lack of understanding of what different substances do and prevents advice being given for fear of being accused of encouraging use.

I can think of no other piece of legislation in a major area of social policy which has remained intact for so long. Half a century after its introduction it is surely time it was reviewed. Even more so because it so clearly has not worked. Problem drug use is a vastly bigger problem now than it was in 1971 and its getting bigger. It is a different type of problem, and our knowledge of how to deal with it has changed dramatically.

This bill does not seek to introduce a comprehensive set of new legislation.  But the government ought to begin that serious task. This problem is not going away. And it ought to ask, as other countries are now doing, whether the framework of prohibition should be replaced by one of regulation and licensing.

While the government thinks about that this bill seeks immediate and practical changes designed to help those problem drug users at the bottom end of the supply chain.

Before I go any further let me address two arguments often thrown at those of us seeking reform.

The first is that problem drug use is a consequence of social inequality, poverty and deprivation and will never be dealt with until those problems are tackled and resolved. Therefore, people like me are looking through the wrong end of the telescope and ought to be changing society instead.

Well, I don’t think there is a single person campaigning for drug law reform who would not agree that being poor, insecure, or abused doesn’t make problem drug use worse. Of course, it does. But we need to do both. In fact, by treating problem drug use as a health and not a criminal matter we bring the focus on the society in which it happens.

The second argument is that by reducing criminal sanctions upon drug users and adopting a public health approach we are in some way going “soft” on the problem, making it easier to access and use drugs and therefore increasing the problem.

We need to be very clear here. This is an argument without evidence. Drug laws have been changing quickly and dramatically through the word in the last 20 years. Nowhere have these changes made the problem worse. Nowhere.

On the contrary, in places like Portugal, public health approaches have reduced not only deaths, but the number of users and the amount they consume. Four deaths per million – compared to over 85 in UK.

And let us be very clear about another point. There is no restriction of supply in the marketplace of class A drugs. You can go on the streets of any town of city in this country and within an hour obtain whatever substance you wish for – and at a price you can afford. Raids and seizures are a small inconvenience to the supply chain, and already priced in.

So, what should we do?

The first thing is to accept that narcotic substances exist, they always have done, and they always will do. Ever since we first walked on legs humans have been chewing leaves and drinking potions to counter pain or boredom. Sometimes this is driven by coping with bad things happening on one’s life but not always, sometimes it’s just innate curiosity and pleasure-seeking hedonism that is an inherent part of being human.

Most people do not have a problem with drugs. The number of problem drug users is a small fraction of those who have tried these substances.

But some people do have a problem, and they have it so much it takes their life.

The science on addiction is still developing. But we can be pretty certain that it is mainly a biochemical problem rather than a symptom of weak morals or bad behaviour. And it is pretty clear that it can affect all classes, races and genders. Almost every family knows a problem drug user.

And that is why we need to look at this as a problem that can be dealt with, not by trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist outside of the realm of a bunch of bad people. It can be managed, regulated and changed.

There is much we need to do. Much of it will be about getting to grips with the control of production and supply of what are currently illegal drugs. But that is for another day. My concern here is what can we do about those currently at the sharp end of the UK drugs industry: the people who are being killed by it.

First and foremost, this is a health problem. Drugs have a terrible effect on some people’s health. Yes, that leads to losing jobs and relationships, becoming poor, suffering abuse and violence. But these are consequences not causes.

5546 people died from problem drug use in the UK in the last year that we have statistics for – more than 20% of them in my own country Scotland. We are writing these people off. But every one of them is somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s brother or sister, somebody’s mum or dad.

We must stop treating people as bad, judging them as folk whose aberrant behaviour has led to their own demise.

By defining this as a public health problem we take it out of the hands of criminals.  By reaching out to the victims we weaken the street authority of the real criminals. By offering sanctuary and understanding we can gain the confidence of those currently alienated from the structures the rest for us take for granted.

Let me now turn to some specifics.

Much of this debate has been concerned with the legal framework for so-called drug consumption rooms. These are places where users can consume their own drugs under medical supervision.

It makes me furious when I hear people describe these as shooting galleries, implying a public facility being used for leisure or entertainment.

I have visited places like this in Germany, Canada and Portugal. They look like any other health treatment centres. The demeanour of the users and the character of operation are about as far away from most people’s idea of recreational as its possible to get.

I get it that some people simply cannot understand how allowing people to take drugs helps them deal with their problem. They will pillory this idea and counterpose it with getting people medical help, benefits advice, housing support and generally helping them get their lives back together.

They could not be more wrong. Drug consumption rooms are not an alternative to all these things. They are a simple exercise in keeping people alive long enough to be able to make other interventions. You cannot give advice to a dead person.

Because drug consumption is illegal it is done behind closed doors – often alone. Most of the five thousand people who overdosed last year did so unintentionally. They did not wish to end their life. They hid away to get their fix but by the time they realised something was wrong it was too late to call for help. They died alone. This is a festering tragedy that afflicts every community in this land. The real horror is that it is entirely preventable.

That is what supervised drug consumption rooms are about. They are essentially overdose prevention centres. If a user has a bad reaction, they can get assistance there and then. Whether it’s CPR after cardiac failure or treatment by naloxone. The point is that people do not die.

The other thing this bill calls for is decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. This is the case in Portugal and many other countries. Not only would this allow law enforcement to be directed elsewhere at more socially destructive crime, but it would allow health authorities to develop diversionary strategies where people who use drugs are directed towards health treatment and practical support. The experience shows this works. We do not have to imagine the effects of such policies. The results are there for all to see.

Finally, I want to ask how policy is made in this parliament. The role of select committees is to review legislation and executive action. They investigate, take evidence, study facts and make recommendations.

Over the last year the Scottish Affairs and Health Select Committees have done just that. Working independently of each other and cross party they have reached the same conclusion, that the law needs to be reformed along the lines set out in this bill.

In each case the response of the government has been woeful. I must ask what the point of select committees is if their recommendations are to be rejected out of hand and the government refuse to offer its own alternative.

This problem is not going away. The government cannot continue to keep its head in the sand. Action must be taken.

And if the government will not act at a UK level then I implore it to provide the requisite powers to the devolved administrators to act. If the UK cannot act on this as a single state, then let the countries of the UK lead each other and take action to save lives."