HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc892-4
5. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

If he will make a statement on the progress of the Government's anti-drugs policy. [80296]

10. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

When he intends to publish the United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator's first annual report and national plan. [80301]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham)

The strategy was launched in April last year. The first annual report and national plan will be published shortly.

Mr. Bercow

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, out of 130 drug offenders referred for assessment for drug treatment and testing orders within the three pilot areas, only 38 have so far been sentenced to such orders? If those figures are accurate, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that available resources might be better channelled into law enforcement measures, thereby providing a more effective deterrent?

Dr. Cunningham

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's latter point. As the Government have made clear—and as I repeated in the autumn when I announced the allocation of a further £217 million to the work—we want to shift the burden of resources away from dealing with the symptoms of drug abuse into prevention, treatment and education. That is what we shall do. I cannot confirm the numbers to which the hon. Gentleman referred in the first part of his question, but I will look into them and write to him.

Mr. Winterton

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the first annual report of the co-ordinator will reassure the people of this country that successful prosecutions are being introduced to deal with people who possess drugs and, even more than that, that the pedlars in death—those who deal in drugs—will be treated most severely, so that the cancer in our society of drug dealing and drug possession is dealt with positively and aggressively?

Dr. Cunningham

Yes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) is well briefed by my officials, the Government's drugs tsar and others on the work that we are developing. I know that the hon. Gentleman is closely involved in work on those matters in his constituency. The simple test of the number of prosecutions of people found in possession of drugs is not necessarily the best way to judge the performance of the policy. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must focus more on breaking up the drug-dealing rings, the drug providers and the importers of drugs, rather than simply picking up the young, innocent victims on the streets.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Since legally prescribed methadone causes as many, if not more, deaths as heroin when it is misused on the streets, does my right hon. Friend agree with the latest report by the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths that we should look again at the way in which methadone is prescribed? Does he agree with Drugs North-West and others who believe that the Department of Health should look at the licensing of safer alternatives such as levo-methadone, which can be given at 50 per cent. dose, with 50 per cent. of the risk?

Dr. Cunningham

I will study the report with care, and I acknowledge the important work of my hon. Friend as vice-chairman of the all-party drugs misuse group. To illustrate how much we emphasise the importance that we give to those points, I should point out that, this week, I had a meeting with pharmacists on the very issue of the prescription and dispensing of methadone.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does the Minister think that the present laws on the use of medicinal cannabis by those people who suffer from chronic pain and the foul side effects of chemotherapy are sensible? Is it sensible to send such people to prison, as has happened in the past three months in two instances? Mr. Eric Mann is serving a 12-month prison sentence. He is an intelligent adult who has committed a crime—in the eyes of the law—without a victim. He grew his own cannabis and did not use the illegal market. He decided to use the only medicine that gives him relief from chronic pain. The Government, to their great credit, have decided to hold experiments in the use of medicinal cannabis, so why can we not have an amnesty until we establish that the world's most ancient medicine is effective for medicinal use?

Dr. Cunningham

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has acknowledged that the Government await the outcome of the inquiry into the medicinal uses of cannabis. However, it is not possible for me or any other Minister to take executive action to set aside the due processes of the law while that study is taking place.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Bearing in mind that one of the main planks of the Government's anti-drug strategy is—rightly—education, what assessment has the Minister or the anti-drugs co-ordinator made of the effectiveness of anti-drug programmes run by local education authorities, compared with those run by life education centres or Drug Abuse Resistance Education—DARE? Does he agree that the emphasis in all anti-drug education should be not merely damage limitation but proactive resistance to the taking of drugs?

Dr. Cunningham

I very much agree with the latter point. As for the hon. Lady's former point, a wide variety of drug education schemes are run and we do not prescribe what those schemes should be. As she will know, some are provided by voluntary organisations. I am considering with my colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment how we can improve drugs education in schools, but the principal objective must be to persuade young people that it is not in their interest to get involved in drugs in the first place.