HC Deb 21 July 1994 vol 247 cc621-9

2 pm

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

It is an unexpected pleasure to see a bearded Minister on the Government Front Bench today. At last there is a breakthrough for the fraternity of bearded Members who, under a previous Government, were treated like untouchable parliamentary lepers who were doomed to stay on the Back Benches.

It is a genuine and unexpected pleasure to see the new Minister, the Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) in his place. I hope that he will inspire others. One Minister actually shaved his beard off under the reign of Madam Thatcher in order to achieve a place on the Front Bench. I hope that he will take courage and now regrow it in these new days of liberty and freedom.

I am less enthusiastic about the response that I will receive from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who has held that office for rather a long time. The new Minister may carry on his intelligent and searching character from his Select Committee work, but I fear that we may be due for a response from the Minister of State, who has been long in office, which is predictable, based on a history of what has happened in this field over several years and is then followed by a period of self-congratulation for the Government.

Drugs are a massive problem. They have damaged and destroyed the lives of millions of our people, but so many of our decisions in respect of drugs are framed on ignorance and prejudice. Perhaps the simplest way to measure the problem is to consider the number of deaths from drugs.

According to official Government figures, no one has died from an overdose of cannabis. In the past year, 94 people died from taking heroin. Two hundred people died as a result of taking paracetamol, which is probably in every home in the land. Two thousand people died from using other drugs. Twenty-five thousand people died from using alcohol and 110,000 from using tobacco. However, as a nation, we spend £100 million encouraging our children to use tobacco and we arrested 40,000 people last year for using cannabis.

When we consider the history of drugs, it is strange to contemplate how we have reached our present position. In the last century, our grandmothers and their grandmothers could buy any drugs, not just in chemists but in local shops. Queen Victoria was a regular cannabis user. She used it every month of her adult life. Cannabis was used by many of the famous names in poetry and literature. They could buy a range of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and cannabis from their corner shops.

In 1928, we decided to criminalise cannabis and certain other drugs. We did that for an entirely irrational reason. The man in charge of a lunatic asylum in Alexandria, Egypt, claimed that all the inmates took cannabis. He assumed from that that the use of cannabis led to insanity. However, he did not point out that almost the entire population of Alexandria—men, women and children—also used cannabis, but they were not insane.

One argument in favour of banning cannabis which was made in the House a short while ago, and about which I was curious, is that it destroys brain cells. I decided to discover upon what that claim was based. Only one experiment has suggested that cannabis destroys brain cells. In that experiment, monkeys were forced to smoke 63 very intensely strong cannabis cigarettes under such conditions that they drew into their lungs only cannabis smoke and insufficient oxygen. They suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning and that destroyed their brain cells.

Cannabis has been used widely throughout the world. It is claimed that 60 million Americans have used it and that there are 1 million regular users in Britain. I hope that we can have some new thinking about our current laws. Our laws are not only not stopping the increase in the use of drugs, but are actually fuelling that increase. We are repeating the mistakes that have been made in every country in the world.

I challenge the Minister to tell me of any country that has followed our line—that is, cracking down on cannabis and hard drugs—and where that has not led to the certain result of increased use and increased crime. America is the prime example. It had a very strong case against alcohol —one can always make a case on alcohol abuse much more than one can in respect of other drugs. Alcohol is an extremely damaging drug. Understandably, in 1919, it was decided to prohibit it. The result was a doubling of the use of alcohol. Even worse than that, four times as many people died from alcohol abuse, possibly because they were taking too much of it in unhealthy circumstances or because bad alcohol was on the market. Thirteen years later, when the use of alcohol was decriminalised, the situation reverted.

America inherited an empire of criminals who had grown rich in well-organised crime. We are now doing exactly the same in this country with illegal drugs. We know of the increase in crime. At least 40 per cent. of homes in our constituencies are broken into, and people commit petty crime in pursuit of goods to sell for money to fuel their habits or drug addictions. If we carry on like that, we will end up as they have in America. In America in 1962, just 4 per cent. of people between 18 and 25 were cannabis users. After the United States Government spending $8 billion a year, using their army, navy, air force, coastguard and diplomacy in the war on drugs—they call it a war on drugs—more than 70 per cent. of young Americans in that age group regularly use soft drugs. It is counter-productive.

I do not want an increase in cannabis use. I want cannabis to be regarded as boring and uninteresting. At the moment, it is regarded by young people as a challenge —something with which they can kick against other generations. One argument is that decriminalising the use of cannabis will lead more people to use it and will encourage them to go on to hard drugs. I heard one cannabis user answer that argument by saying, "My father has drunk five pints of bitter every Saturday night for the past 40 years and he has never gone on to methylated spirits." We know that groups of people will go on to abuse any drug, but there is a great gulf between those with personality weaknesses who go on to total hard drug abuse.

The great danger now is that with our young people experimenting with drugs—a third of them do, whatever we say and whatever we urge—they enter the world of illegality and mix with the pushers and the people who make money out of drugs. The likelihood is that they will be tempted, either by subterfuge or because they are under the influence of another drug, to go on to hard drugs. If we take them out of that market, there will be a chance that they carry out their experiments and then put the drug aside as something of no interest.

Let us consider countries that have adopted that course. I am sure that the Minister read two reports this year, one by a left-wing think tank and the other by a right-wing think tank. They came from very different perspectives, but they reached the same conclusion—that the only way to cut crime and drug use is by decriminalising soft drugs. The worst figure on drug abuse is from America. In America, 1.5 million children are on amphetamines because they suffer from attention deprivation. It is tragic that people abuse a drug in such a way for no purpose. All drugs are damaging. Some benefit us, but they are all damaging in the long run.

Germany recently decriminalised cannabis for personal use. Italy and Holland have already done so. The head of Interpol strongly urges it. There are many such voices in America. The Health Minister in Portugal is urging decriminalisation. Police, judges and magistrates are urging that course. I am not suggesting that we follow Holland, which has gone from a black market to a white market. I am not suggesting that we should have drugs of any sort freely on sale. Drugs should certainly still be controlled.

If we look at that course, I believe we will see that it is the only one which we can take to undercut the market. The main reason why there has been an increase in drug use is not because drugs are enjoyable or that people are inherently wicked. The engine driving the increase in drug use here and in every corner of the world is profit. One would expect the Government to understand market forces.

If someone has a drug habit, the best way to pay for it is to persuade his pals to take up that drug habit. If someone is an addict of a hard drug, it may cost £500 a week to fund his habit. The only ways in which that can be paid for is by going into crime, prostitution or drug trading. In Bristol, local police said that it required £500 to feed a habit, and a person may have to steal something like £2,000 to £3,000 worth of camcorders and videos. The crime rate goes on rising.

There are examples in places such as Widnes where courageous doctors have taken a different path. In Widnes, the black market in hard drugs was virtually wiped out by treating the addicts as patients, because that is what they are—they are sick. If a drug is prescribed in a clean and hygienic way, the addict can take it without the fear of arrest. The drug will not be taken in sordid surroundings, and the addict does not have to share needles, thus lessening the chance of getting AIDS.

If the drug is taken in reasonable surroundings, there is a better chance of the person's building up self-esteem and going on a course of rehabilitation that may get him off the habit. It is working in Widnes and in other parts of the world. One remarkable example of what happened in that town is that, with the market in hard and soft drugs having collapsed, one of the local chain stores was willing to part with £2,000 to fund a drug conference. The hard-headed reason why it did that was because shop-lifting in the shop served by the patients of a doctor involved in treating addicts dropped to one twelfth of what it had been before.

We are in a society that is riddled with drugs, and we are having terrible problems. I wish to say something in the short period I have remaining about medicinal drugs, because that is another terrible story. One may imagine that there are a huge number of hard drug addicts, but there are 400,000 addicts of medicinal drugs. Those people have gone along in good faith to their doctors for treatment. I do not blame the doctors, but I very much blame the pushers in the drug companies who make money out of those drugs.

We had a terrible period in this country when benzodiazepines were prescribed like smarties to people who found that they developed a life-long addiction. We already prescribe such drugs on the national health service, and we should also look at a drug which causes twice as many deaths as heroin each year—paracetemol. The Minister should look the next time he goes to a chemist or in his medicine cupboard at the warning for that drug. One needs to take very few of them before it is a fatal dose, and that drug occurs in 50 different guises in some very popular drugs.

It is a killer on a massive scale. If 200 people died in an accident in this city, there would be a major inquiry and we would be very worried. But that is the number who die every year from paracetamol, and the total who die from either accidental or deliberate overdoses of prescribed drugs is 2,000 a year.

We must decide whether the drugs that we take are necessary, and that strikes at the core of our relationship with drugs and at the problems in our society. I believe that we must hit at the drug trade by hitting at the drug market. The last thing which is required is the line that the Government have taken. In order to get some spurious transitory popularity, they posture as hard men who will crack down on the drug trade. What they did was to produce a proposal—I believe it is now a law—to multiply the fine for possession of cannabis fivefold. That was denounced not merely by the people who take drugs or people involved in drugs but by the magistrates, the police and everyone. They all said that it was a daft idea.

If anyone were foolish enough to impose such a fine, it would simply mean that the user of the drug had to commit more crime to pay the fine. The police throughout the country virtually do not fine or arrest anyone for possession of cannabis for personal use. That is the line taken by my police authority and many others. The police are turning against the law and not enforcing it. Only in certain areas are people arrested for use of cannabis. The Government increased the fine to make a vacuous political point.

I wish that the Government would look anew at the whole range of this massive problem. I wish that they would look at our relationship with drugs. We are a society which has become deeply dependent on drugs. We expect that there should be an answer for every sorrow that we feel, every bereavement, every pain and every moment of boredom. We reach for the box of pills and expect an answer there. We have forgotten that it is inevitable in the human condition that we suffer pain, boredom and bereavement. All we do by taking drugs is postpone that pain, often at terrible cost.

I urge the Government to take action now to set up a royal commission that can consider drug use in the great detail that is necessary and, in the end, liberate millions of our people from drug dependency.

2.16 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

Let me first pay the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) the compliment of saying that I know that he takes considerable interest in drug issues. It is a pity that he has not got himself better briefed on the facts of the case. Although we may differ in our approach to tackling the drugs problem, he and the rest of the House will agree when I say that drug misuse is one of the most serious problems which face our society. However, I must say, in all honesty, that some of the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman expressed were absolute tosh. I shall come to them in a moment.

The drugs problem has many different facets, each of which has to be tackled in its own way. First, drug misuse is a serious health problem. Addiction can have dangerous physical effects. Drug-taking can, and all too often does, lead to death. We have a responsibility to current and future generations of young people to try to change their attitude to behaviour which can have such devastating physical consequences.

Secondly, drugs are a serious social problem. Beyond the individual's physical pain and misery are the social costs, the destruction of an individual's ability to cope with ordinary life, the destruction of any relationships they might have, the destruction of families, who cannot understand it when one of their members becomes addicted, and the destruction of whole communities and neighbourhoods by drug dealers and their evil trade.

Thirdly, drugs are a crime problem. Any strategy to tackle drug misuse must give priority to reducing the misery that drug-related crime inflicts on us all. We know that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has estimated that drug addiction costs this country £2 billion a year in property crime. That is half the recorded value of all stolen property. Few, if any, experts are convinced by that extraordinary estimate and neither am I.

The calculation is based on premises that do not stand up to close examination. The potential cost of £87,600 per heroin addict per year was based on high black market costs of heroin and high daily doses. Not all heroin addicts consume heroin daily, for a variety of reasons including lack of availability, personal disinclination and being either in treatment or in custody. It was further assumed that the whole of their addiction was financed solely from committing crimes and acquiring goods that were then sold and that the stolen goods were sold at only a third of their value.

Funding for drug addiction comes from many other sources. That formula makes no provision for addicts' legitimate sources of income such as benefits and earnings, or from the proceeds of prostitution, begging or the sale of drugs. Such generalised calculations need to be approached with caution. Nor is there any point in wasting time speculating on the exact relationship of drug-related crime, when our policies are designed to bear down on all crime, including drug abuse, and to ensure that our strategies embrace prevention as well as enforcement activity.

I have said enough to underline the seriousness of the drug problem and the threat that it poses to our society. The very seriousness of the problem has tempted some, including the hon. Member for Newport, West, to suggest that the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs may be the answer.

Some find the idea of legalisation more attractive when confined to removing the controls on cannabis and other so-called soft drugs. There is still scientific debate about the long-term effects of cannabis misuse. There is evidence that cannabis can give rise to acute and transient mental disturbance and drug-induced psychotic illness. Whatever the longer-term effects might be, in the short term cannabis makes users light-headed and unable to concentrate, and any measures that would increase the availability of cannabis would have serious consequences for the health and safety of the public, particularly if cannabis were used by those working in the transport industry or operating industrial machines.

There is also emerging evidence that a much stronger strain of cannabis known by the street term "skunk" is becoming increasingly available on the illicit market. Even less is known about the long-term effects of that drug, which some estimate is five times more potent.

It is also totally misleading to compare the incidence of cannabis-related health problems with those of alcohol and tobacco. The latter substances are not controlled by law and consequentially are used far more widely. To say that alcohol or tobacco kill many more people than drugs do, and therefore we should legalise drugs, is a cock-eyed way of looking at the problem.

If a scientist came along today and said that he had invented a new product called tobacco or alcohol, would it be legalised? It is impossible to look at the historical development of alcohol and tobacco and reach the conclusion that they should be banned today. That is not a possible or sensible route to take, but it is nonsense to say that, as we now have drugs such as cannabis, which are apparently less evil than the destructive effect of tobacco, we should legalise them to put them on the same statutory basis. Why should we risk adding to the nation's health problems by legalising cannabis?

Any relaxation in current laws could have much wider consequences than is often imagined. There is evidence that misusers of drugs such as heroin or cocaine also misuse a wide variety of drugs, including cannabis. Removing the controls on any drugs in Britain would therefore make it a prime attraction for a wide spectrum of drug takers, and traffickers would be quick to move in to meet the demands on other drugs. The most recent report of the International Narcotics Control Board suggested that international drug traffickers target countries with weak laws and controls.

I had a briefing from experienced officers in a police force who recently visited Jamaica to look at the controls on crack. They said that a reggae song on the local radio in downtown Kingston was urging dealers to go to Britain. The encouragement to come to London was the suggestion that The police don't bang, the courts don't hang and the sentence ain't tang". The police certainly do not "bang" and our courts do not hang, but we have some very long sentences for drug dealing, and London ought not to be an attractive place for international drug dealers.

International drug dealers will certainly move to the place where they think that they can get away with dealing. If this country signalled that it was going to drop controls on some drugs, for misguided reasons, we would be perceived as a soft touch. That would be disastrous for all drug use.

Mr. Flynn

The reason that we are a soft touch is that dealers can make more profit here because cannabis is illegal. The use of cannabis has dropped in countries where it is legal. For example, in Holland it has dropped from 6 to 2 per cent. When alcohol was decriminalised in America, its use dropped because criminals could not make a profit. Does not the Minister understand that simple point?

Mr. Maclean

I am glad that some members of the Labour party are trying to learn the economics of the market, but the hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. If he thinks that simply legalising drugs would somehow lower the price, that we would then have a free market and that criminal activity would cease, that is pie in the sky.

Our drug barons and dealers want to be in control, as we have seen. There would be intense competition among the drug barons and dealers to control the supply and maximise their profits. If the price dropped and more kids were encouraged into drug taking and drug use, it would be an appalling price for society to pay, simply because of some cock-eyed theory that it might be economically interesting to legalise drugs as it might pull the rug out from under the international drug market. No country in the world has come to that conclusion.

When some economists get together at seminars, they find it interesting to speculate on what the effect would be if countries legalised drugs. That would be a terribly dangerous experiment to conduct because millions of our people would become hooked on drugs. Not only that; I am convinced that it would not work.

If we legalised drugs, the drugs dealers and barons would not go away, saying, "That's us out of business. We can get the drugs at any local chemist, so there's no more market." Of course not; they will want to control the market in legalised drugs, and will resort to their usual violence to do so.

Mr. Flynn

What about Holland?

Mr. Maclean

I shall come to Germany and Holland —that was the point at which I thought that the hon. Gentleman was talking tosh. He suggested that everyone in the world—all academics, Governments, scientists, police and magistrates—thought that legalisation was a good idea. That is absolute nonsense. One has, of course, heard of some scientists somewhere—no doubt practising for a PhD—who have produced such theories, but I challenge the hon. Gentleman to name any Government in the western world, or any police force in this country, who believe that legalising drugs would help in the fight against drugs—either on the enforcement side or by persuading kids to come off drugs.

A recent meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs adopted a resolution that urged Governments not to derogate from full implementation of the international drug control treaties. As a party to the 1961 convention, the United Kingdom is required to adopt measures to prevent the misuse of, and illicit traffic in, controlled drugs. We would therefore be in breach of the convention if we took unilateral measures to legalise controlled drugs. Even delegates meeting at the United Nations—whom I suspect of having trendy opinions at times—concluded that it would be suicidal to drop controls against drugs and that, among other reasons, is good enough for me.

The hon. Gentleman pointed with approval to the approach that the Dutch and Germans have adopted towards the possession of cannabis. Everything is not always as it seems with his sweeping generalisations. The Dutch Minister of Justice announced at the United Nations in October that his country's so-called coffee-shop policy, whereby cannabis dealing and use are tolerated at certain outlets, is to be reviewed because of a sharp increase in the availability of the drug.

In Germany, the ruling by the constitutional court that possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use should not, in certain circumstances, be prosecuted attracted some notice. I fear, however, that the hon. Gentleman would be misleading himself and others if he suggested that that amounted to a significant move in the direction of legalisation. The Federal Government have made it clear that the ruling contains nothing new, while the Health Minister described it as "hopelessly wrongly interpreted". The Federal Government have also stressed that the existing law enables prosecuting authorities in the courts not to impose a sentence in minor cases of possession for occasional personal use when there is no danger to third parties, but possession of cannabis remains illegal.

The members of the European Community are united in the fight against drug misuse. At the Corfu European Council last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)