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Drug Addiction

Volume 976: debated on Friday 21 December 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr Le Marchant.]

11.12 am

Until recently there was a widespread impression in Britain that the dreadful toll of ruined lives and premature deaths caused by narcotic drug abuse on the decline. That, I regret to say, is not so.

On 30 October, Lord Denbigh, chairman of the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, drew the attention of the other place to the fact that there had been a 20 per cent. increase in drug abuse in 1978 and a further escalation in the first six months of this year.

According to the latest Home Office figures, there are now 4,000 registered addicts, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The official figures refer only to cases of addiction known to the Home Office, that is to say, cases registered at drug addiction clinics. Narcotics agents in the field and drug experts put the figure nearer to 50,000, which would make Britain second only to West Germany as the main European market for illicit drugs. If that is so, God help us.

Drug addiction has been recognised in this country for many years as a cause of concern. But in the past, when addressing themselves to the problem, successive Governments have invariably seen it as one of dependants who have become addicted through the prescribing of drugs for therapeutic reasons, or over-prescribing by doctors, usually for profit, as we saw in the 1960s. The Government's response then was to cater for this group principally through maintenance prescribing at regional centres attached to district hospitals.

This policy, although seeking to control the spread of addiction, did not foresee and take into account the large-scale illegal importation of drugs that we are now witnessing. As a consequence, the drug addiction clinics find themselves dealing with only a minor part of the addict population. The majority are therefore wholly dependent upon the street market for their supplies.

It goes without saying that the majority of these unfortunates sooner or later turn to crime—even to violent crime—in order to find the means of buying the drugs they need. We are beginning to see the consequences. One is the deterioration of the quality of life in our inner city areas. We do not need to go to New York or to Rome to see the squalor or the degradation caused by drug abuse; it is on view here in our capital city. Another is the increasing fatality rate, and the disturbing fact here is that this is affecting all sections of society. If people from well-known families, coming from materially secure backgrounds, are falling victims to chronic drug taking, what chance is there for the disadvantaged in our society who are caught in the same net?

Where do we start to find a solution? The United Nations premise that we cannot control supply without controlling demand is correct. Supply and demand support one another in the development and maintenance of drug abuse and we can agree that drug control policies which exclude measures to reduce demand are doomed to failure.

It is ironic, therefore, that as drug abuse increases in this country the treatment services are coming under threat. Mr. David Turner, co-ordinator of the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, said recently that the non-statutory residential services are beginning to face acute financial difficulty. Whatever the reason for that—I am not going into it now—society really must make up its mind how it wants to tackle the problem, by care and education or by punishment. There is no doubt as to which is the more expensive. The cost of residential rehabilitation is on average £56 a week. The cost of imprisonment is £115 a week.

All this would be serious enough if drug abuse were purely a British phenomenon, but of course it is not. Because of our geographical position and ease of communication, we are peculiarly vulnerable to the development of the illicit drug traffic. It is imperative, therefore, that we recognise that all Western nations—ourselves in particular—are now facing a threat the like of which we have never faced before, and that we understand its implications. It is a threat that we ignore at our peril.

Consider the warning that was uttered by Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the United States Senate sub-committee on criminal justice, at a recent meeting in Washington of the NATO committee on challenges of Western society. He said:
"The abuse of narcotic drugs, especially heroin, which for many years has plagued the United States, is reaching epidemic proportions in Western Europe. A flood of opium, morphine and heroin is pouring out of the unpoliced tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan into the Western world, so much so that those areas have replaced the fabled Golden Triangle' of South-East Asia as the major source of the world-wide illegal drug traffic. It is a flood that threatens to overwhelm us all, unless we find the means of dealing with it, and find them soon."
Senator Biden went on to say:
"Nothing threatens the internal security and social fabric of any nation as directly as the prospect of massive heroin addiction and the related crime and violence it breeds."
He was speaking as an elected politician with full knowledge of what the heroin epidemic had cost his own country in the 1960s. He said:
"To our misfortune, we led the world with a spiralling addict population and an accelerating crime rate. In 1970, the greatest cause of death among our youth was not the automobile, nor even the war in Vietnam. In 1970 in New York City there were 1,000 deaths from heroin overdose, a rate that had grown five-fold in 10 years. Addicts who had developed $30 to $100 a day drug habits turned to shoplifting, mugging, burglary and armed robbery to pay for heroin. Perhaps as many as 800,000 addicts were committing at least $2 billion a year in crimes against property, which often included crimes against persons to support the high cost of their addiction. The crime rate went through the roof, with an impact on the morale of law-abiding citizens, from which we have not yet recovered."
As a result, the American authorities were obliged to mount a massive and costly campaign to treat these addicts and to reduce the demand for drugs. Their programmes eventually cost them $3½ billion and they are still spending today $300 million a year on treatment of addicts.

At the same time, the Americans stepped up their domestic and international law enforcement efforts. That alone has cost them $2 billion since 1969, and they are currently spending $500 million a year.

They quickly saw that none of this would have much effect unless they could reduce the production of opium at source, and so they offered financial assistance to countries willing to join in a combined effort. It was, on the whole, a success story. With the co-operation of France, Turkey, Mexico and the United Nations, supplies from overseas were reduced and, for the first time in 10 years, the number of heroin addicts in the United States declined, dropping by more than 100,000 in the past few years. The death rate from heroin overdose fell quite dramatically.

Now the scene has darkened again. With the breakdown of authority in Afghanistan and Iran, efforts in those countries to end opium production have been badly disrupted, law enforcement has been gravely weakened and, as a result, heroin supplies are now flooding into Western Europe in ever-increasing quantities.

American experts believe that the scale of opium production in this area dwarfs anything that we have ever known before. They estimate that it will provide the base for 80 tons of heroin a year—well over 10 times the current American consumption. That excess is now seeking and finding its market in Western Europe.

Deaths from heroin overdose in West Germany alone have increased massively and are now exceeding those in the United States. The death rate in Italy is rising. Senator Biden told the NATO meeting:
"We are finding high rates of addiction among American servicemen in Europe. In some of our military units there, routine heroin use may be as high as 20 per cent. We have no reliable statistics on the rate among other NATO forces."
Last month an American Congressional team visited West Germany, took evidence from army personnel and concluded that 20 per cent. of American service men were taking hard drugs and that 90 per cent. were regularly taking soft drugs. Leaving aside the defence implications of this staggering revelation, I must ask the Minister of State whether this infection is spreading to other NATO forces in Germany and, if so, what is being done about it. I gave him notice that I would ask that question.

The Americans fear that this new wave of drug taking in Europe will spread and reinfect the United States, despite their prodigious investment in trying to contain the problem over the past decade. Similar fears have been voiced in this country. Mr. David Turner, to whom I have already referred, was reported in The Daily Telegraph of 20 July as saying:
"I believe Britain could be on the brink of a heroin epidemic."
It is crystal clear that we are confronted with a problem that no single country can solve by itself. We can each contribute by curbing domestic demand and by tightening up our own law enforcement, but, without a truly international effort directed primarily towards stopping the production of drugs at source, we shall make little progress. We need a global strategy for a global problem..

In his address to the NATO committee, Senator Biden argued correctly that the production of opium was closely and inevitably related to rural poverty in the Third World. He made the point that, while the opium poppy is attractive as a cash crop to Third World farmers, the rewards are not so great at the field level. The major profits are made much further down the distribution line. His view was that it would not be inordinately difficult to persuade those farmers to turn to alternative crops.

Those of us who have studied developmental problems in the Third World would not wholly agree. Whatever the return, cultivation of the poppy gives a far higher yield than rice or other crops. But basically the senator is right to recognise that a switch is possible only if we accept that in the economic development of the Third World lies the ultimate solution. He was absolutely right to urge that the development assistance committee of the OECD should include narcotics control as a factor of bilateral and multilateral assistance programmes by insisting on the exclusion of opium production from the irrigation and agricultural projects that it sponsors. He was right, too, in saying that additional assistance should be given to the United Nations fund for drug abuse, which has played a most useful role in traditional law enforcement, crop substitution and research in South Asia and other opium producing areas.

It follows that these multilateral efforts should be supplemented by the bilateral arrangements that each NATO member makes with producing countries. I hope that my remarks on this subject will be duly noted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is now responsible for our aid programme.

The first requirement of any global strategy is that individual nations should recognise that they have a mutuality of interest in this matter. We all stand to gain wherever the production of opium is stopped, wherever the evil trade of narcotics is frustrated, and wherever the spread of addiction is checked.

The second requirement, however, is more difficult, namely, that we should act in unison and match our contributions to the scale of the problem. Here there is some cause for anxiety.

The decision by the Americans to withdraw their excellent drugs enforcement administration in Paris as an economy measure and to relocate it in Washington has caused alarm to law enforcement agencies in Western Europe. As far as I am aware, the Government have not expressed any concern on this matter. In their view, no doubt, this is a matter for the United States authorities However, there is concern among the police and customs officials and those engaged in combating this dreadful scourge. They genuinely believe that it will hamper the collection of vital intelligence and the co-ordination of effort in suppressing the traffic. Certainly no other agency is so well equipped to carry out this crucial role.

The Americans, on the other hand, have been critical of the Foreign Office refusal last June to discuss an American plan for buying out opium producers. I am not saying whether there is a case for that or not, but there must be greater co-operation among the major Powers engaged in this work.

Again, there are discordant voices on western attitudes to soft drugs. At a recent conference held by the United Nations international narcotics control board in Geneva, the representatives of 17 Asian countries, struggling manfully to control the drug traffic at source, took a combined stand against the trend in some parts of Europe and North America to legalise cannabis, which they see as providing opportunities for the pushing of the hard drugs that they are desperately trying to suppress.

There is no room for sloppy permissiveness and divided effort in what should be a concerted world-wide campaign to stamp out this evil trade. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there is a basis here for co-operation not merely between Western nations and the producing nations in Asia and elsewhere, but right across the ideological gulf. I noticed with great interest that in The Times of 10 December there was a report that a Western diplomat in Hong Kong had said that the Soviet Union was doing its best to stifle opium production in areas where it had some influence and seemed to be meeting with some success. That is encouraging news.

Narcotic drug abuse poses a common threat to all nations, irrespective of their ideological stance or grouping. It is a threat to established order everywhere. It feeds criminality; it ruins young lives; it kills and maims. Therefore, if we are genuinely concerned to stamp it out, I hope and trust that Britain will take a lead in promoting the widest possible international co-operation and will not shrink from making its contribution to the resources that such an effort requires.

11.30 am

The whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) for the concern that he has expressed and the force, vigour and passion which have enlightened his speech. That concern is echoed throughout the world. The parents of many youngsters will have been a little heartened by the fact that the House shares their concern in their private tragedy by trying to do something through the channels open to us.

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East has clearly demonstrated that this terrible scourge knows no frontiers; it is a worldwide problem. I echo his appeal that more should be done to combine operations to prevent the spread of the disease, to spread knowledge about what should be done when treatment is required, and to share the knowledge coming from the various committees which are at present studying this problem.

One of the great failings is that a multiplicity of different disciplines is involved. Is the Minister of State satisfied that there is sufficient co-ordination in his co-ordination committee? The hon. Member for Essex, South-East rightly addressed himself mainly to the responsibility of the Home Office under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the various international means that are available for combating the drug problem. As the House is aware, my concern is mainly with health matters and I address myself to that subject.

The problem of heroin is a great danger. I remind the House that last year in the United Kingdom the misuse of barbiturates was the greatest cause of death and hospitalisation among young drug abusers. The use of barbiturates is widespread. I could have given the House the exact figures, but for the moment I do not have them with me. However, the number of barbiturates swallowed annually runs into millions.

The second important question for the Minister of State is when does he propose to put forward a Bill to amend the regulations that cover barbiturates in the same way that other drugs are covered? All general practitioners are waiting for some sort of legislation, because they have to prescribe these drugs.

Despite the difficulties we have had with illegal sources of drugs, a bigger problem is the legal source of supply. As a former member of the North-West regional hospital board, I tried for four years to persuade a firm to stop producing amphetamines. They used to be known as purple hearts, but the name was changed to Paris blues. On the hospital board, within the vicinity of that company, one of the first things that we had to do was install a drug addiction clinic. I ask the Minister of State, therefore, to address himself to the problem of the escalation of barbiturates. We need to control them and we need amending legislation to do so.

It is generally understood that amphetamines are no longer in the armoury of medicine. There is only one real complaint, which is narcolepsy, for which barbiturates are of any value and all other treatment of patients can now be done by other drugs which do not have the same properties as amphetamines.

I commend to the House the action of the Ipswich doctors who formed the organisation CURB. That is an attempt by doctors to stop prescribing barbiturates and amphetamines. I hope that the British Medical Association will give more publicity to the efforts doctors are making to deal with this problem.

Pharmacists also have a problem because of the number of prescriptions that they receive from certain general practitioners. This is where co-ordination with the Department of Health and Social Security could be of value.

I recently had the honour to attend a conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That conference was equally seized of the problems that were outlined so urgently by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East. In our discussions we were concerned that what the hon. Member said was happening in the United States and in Europe was also occurring in Canada and New Zealand. In New Zealand every day in the national newspapers there is a full-page story about the problems of drug abuse faced by that country. One thing that emerged from that conference was an agreement that heroin abuse was continuing to spread and that the popularity of the use of cocaine was growing in America and Western Europe. We also agreed that there was a continuing rise in non-barbiturate sedative hypnotics, such as methaqualone and amphetamine-type drugs. The only ray of sunlight in this terrible catalogue that was received from delegates from all over the Commonwealth was that the use of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, was decreasing. That is at least one change over the last 10 years.

It is the multi-injection of several drugs in combination with alcohol that is leading to so much of the illness and death among our young people. The tragedy is that it is not the unintelligent or those who are socially or economically deprived who are involved. Often the most intelligent youngsters who are rebelling against society take drugs as a form of protest. That is a natural period through which most young people go.

One of the difficulties for the Minister of State is that often the consequences of drug taking are not a deterrent to the rebellious youngster, but a challenge. Therefore the Minister has to find ways not just to put out the right educational background on the consequences of drug abuse but to reach the youngster psychologically.

Will thes hon. Member for Brent, South(Mr. Pavitt) give the House his view on what sort of deterrent will help to reduce the number of pushers of hard drugs?

It is very difficult to answer that question, because it is a combined operation. It is a matter of dealing not just with the pedlar on the street but with an organisation, and often only the man on the street is penalised. I am sure that the Minister will give consideration to this when he replies.

The combined operations required are inadequate unless the Minister can tell us what has happened since the Wootton report. What has happened over the last five years, when a whole series of medical reports—I refer particularly to those under Professor Paton—have been available to the DHSS and the Home Office? This problem does not stand still. The hon. Member for Essex, South-East made that quite clear.

The problem is progressing. However, alongside that progression there is an increasing knowledge, which is of assistance. I hope that the Minister of State and his Department are informed of what is taking place so that they can make the necessary changes in the attempts both to stem addiction and to deal with the rehabilitation to save those who are half-damned from being completely damned.

There is so much more I could say, but this is a short debate. I wonder whether the House will forgive me, as this is the festive season, if I say that, although I should have liked to see someone from the DHSS on the Frent Bench, I welcome the Minister of State. I would be most grateful if he would convey to his officials the gratitude of Members such as myself who have inner city immigration problems for all that the Department does on helping to deal with five or six cases a week throughout the year. We are most grateful for the way in which these problems are dealt with. In that spirit I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply to the debate.

11.39 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) on the usual astute way in which he has detected the evils in our society and has sought to expose them to the light of day in this Chamber.

The time has surely come when we in Britain must urgently consider the now alarming evidence, not only from statistics but from accounts of experts throughout the world, of the spread of the epidemic of drug abuse.

My hon. Friend mentioned the flood of opium, morphine and heroin from the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the "golden triangle" in South-East Asia. This problem has now been aggravated by the breakdown in law and order in Iran, which, of course, acts as a corridor in that part of the world.

The United States agencies are alarmed as never before. The European agencies are alarmed and extremely concerned. I think that it is time that we began to put aside our attitude of complacency towards this problem.

The courts are hearing more and more about the spread of drugs, particularly barbiturates, and, unfortunately, in the past we have tended to be complacent. The Braine committee—nothing to do with my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East—which reported in 1961 concluded that there was little reason to fear an increase in addiction. In a short time that committee was forced to eat its words to such an extent that it reconvened in 1965 and produced a second report to show that there had been a substantial increase in cocaine and heroin addiction, and that the main source of supply was over-prescribing by a small number of doctors. Action was taken, principally by the establishment of certain tightly controlled treatment centres.

The spread of drug abuse has continued at an alarming rate. There was a 20 per cent. increase last year over the previous year in the number of registered drug addicts. Yet it is not registered addiction that matters; it is the illicit use of drugs. My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East was probably not wrong to conclude that there were a terrifying 50,000 possible drug addicts in this country.

The Home Office figures could give us the position. I have asked for these to be updated but this has not yet been done. I urge the Minister of State to give us today the latest figures—the numbers of seizures of drugs, convictions of drug addicts and pushers, and the number of registered drug addicts. Are these numbers increasing, and if so by how much? Are the figures worse than those of last year?

My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East quoted the conclusion of David Turner, of the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse. Mr. Turner went on to say:
"The panic about drugs in the 1960's was over 750 addicts. We now have over 4,100 officially, yet we are told that everything is under control."
Is the present figure more than 4,100? If so, how much greater is it? Are we still to be to told that everything is under control?

Certainly the police must be congratulated on their quite brilliant successes, particularly Operation Julie, and we must be grateful that organised crime has not been conspicuous on the drug scene in this country. If Kemp and Todd could have made such large sums of money by amateurish use of the drug market, what on earth would happen if the big gangs got in on the scene? Will the Government now recognise the danger of an epidemic and keep the facts and figures constantly before the British public?

What international activities are we engaged in to check the spread of drug abuse and what co-ordination is there among us and other countries of Europe, and Europe and America? The British public are entitled to know the protective measures that are being taken by the Government.

Has the time not come to end the sociological mythology that cannabis does not lead to hard drugs? It may be a medical fact that there is no link between the two, but psychologically and in practice there is quite blatantly a link. In the number of years that I have been practising at the criminal Bar I have defended a number of people who have been addicted to drugs. I do not ever recall an occasion on which such a person did not tell me that he had started on cannabis or other soft drugs. We must bring this fact home to young people. They must realise that there is a link, whether it is psychological or medical.

We are concerned for the very fabric of our society. Nothing will destroy that fabric more effectively than undermining the morale of our young people. Nothing undermines that morale more than the spread of drug addiction and the crime that follows. We must look to the future, and even if drug abuse in this country has not reached the epidemic proportions of the United States and some other European countries, we must act to stop it now. We must show a determination to keep the threat of abuse in check. The British people are entitled to that. They are entitled to know that their Parliament debates these matters and that their Government will show no complacency about the dangers and act to protect everyone in this country.

11.45 am

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), who has a flair for grasping the quieter opportunities in this House and bringing up matters of great importance. There is no doubt that this is what he has done this morning, and I am grateful to him.

I was very touched by the kind words of the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) about the officials of my Department and the way in which they handle difficult immigration cases. I assure him that his words will be passed on.

This has been a useful if short debate, and I shall try to answer as many points as I can in the next 15 minutes. There is absolutely no doubt about the importance of the subject and I fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East presented such a grave picture of what is happening in the world today.

I do not need to dwell on the human degradation that contained drug abuse entails, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that control is essentially an international problem. He used the term "a global problem" and he was right to do so.

The recognition of the need for international co-operation in this field goes back many years. Beginning in 1909, when the first international conference was convened in Shanghai to consider the opium problem, countries have increasingly come together in the common attempt to stamp out the illicit trade not only in opium and its derivatives but in the many other drugs that, over the years, have come to be recognised as dangerous, or at least very harmful.

International effort in this field is directed and co-ordinated by the United Nations commission on narcotic drugs, in which the United Kingdom plays a full part. Some 109 countries are parties to the United Nations single convention on narcotic drugs 1961. Therefore, we recognise that this is very much an international picture.

The report of the 26th session of the United Nations commission, held earlier this year, paints a gloomy picture of the trends in drug abuse from one country to another. It mentions, among other things, a continuing spread of heroin abuse, as well as abuse of other apiates, such as morphine and synthetic narcotics; a further rise in the popularity of cocaine abuse in the Americas and Western Europe; a continuing rise, except in certain countries, in the abuse of non-barbiturate sedative hypnotics such as methaqualone and, to a lesser extent, tranquilisers, such a valium. Amphetamine-type substances are increasingly being abused and this abuse is reaching serious proportions in several countries. There is a continuing widespread abuse of cannabis and a further accentuated tendency towards multiple drug abuse, frequently in combination with alcohol.

The United Kingdom is certainly not isolated from these trends. There is a substantial, if unquantifiable, demand for inject able drugs and some unwelcome signs that sophisticated professional criminals, not previously involved in the drugs scene, are now moving into drugs trafficking. The number of drug seizures by the law enforcement agencies has been increasing, as has the quantity of heroin and cocaine seized.

At the end of last year about 2,400 people in the United Kingdom were receiving treatment as notified narcotic drug addicts. This was an increase of 400 over the previous year's figure and the first substantial increase for three years. Part of this is accounted for by improved notification, because the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security took special steps during 1978 to remind doctors of their statutory obligation to notify.

Provisional figures for 1979 will, I hope, be available early in the new year so that we can begin to assess better whether there is indeed a rising trend of notified addiction. However, the figures of noti- fied addicts need to be interpreted with caution. Their scope is clearly limited. They do not include those whom doctors have failed to notify, or addicts receiving drugs wholly from illicit sources, or addicts of non-notifiable drugs such as the barbiturates which are not yet controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I shall return to barbiturates in a moment.

I fully appreciate that the statistics do not provide an answer to the question of how many persons may be addicted to narcotic drugs but who manage to maintain their addiction by resort to the illicit market, and whom we therefore do not know about. My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East reported an overall figure of 50,000, which has been quoted by some of those who work in this area. I doubt whether that is a realistic figure. Perhaps the most scientific indication that we have had of the possible size of this unknown grey area of narcotic addiction is contained in studies carried out by Dr. Hamid Ghodes into the drug problems that were dealt with by 62 London accident and emergency departments. Dr Ghodes suggests that possibly there are as many persons who are addicted to a narcotic drug, and who are not notified to the Home Office, as there are notified. On that basis, the Home Office figures should be doubled to arrive at a realistic figure of the total incidence of narcotic addiction.

Therefore, even if we base our conclusions on the figure of 4,100 quoted in the press, which we do not regard as altogether valid, the total numbers of narcotic addicts fall considerably short of 10,000. However, that is bad enough. More significant as a warning light are the quantities of heroin that are seized by customs and police, which more than doubled in 1978. The trend is clearly demonstrated by the fact that in 1976, customs staff seized 16.65 kilos of heroin; in 1978, 58.40 kilos and so far in 1979, 37.636 kilos. Moreover, while as much as 90 per cent. of that seized in the earlier years was destined for onward transmission to other countries, the majority of this year's seizures seemed to have been destined for United Kingdom markets. This applies especially to the high purity heroin coming—as my hon. Friend said—from or at least via Iranian and other Middle Eastern sources. This has coincided with the period of abnormal unrest and instability in Iran, and that is a worrying factor.

I do not think that the facts entirely support the more alarmist reports in the press, but they give us cause for concern. However, we can be thankful that we have so far managed to avoid a heroin problem of the proportions that are now being experienced in Germany. The first line of defence against this threat is vigorous action by the law enforcement authorities, and they are making tremendous efforts. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware, from newspaper reports, of the recent crop of drug hauls, which have included large seizures in dangerous circumstances. Hardly a week goes by without a notable seizure being reported.

Only last week a group of 24 people were arrested, including Germans, Austrians and Iranians as well as Britons, who are alleged to be involved in the smuggling of substantial quantities of heroin. The German authorities have also arrested four people in connection with the same network. Seven people, including Turkish nationals, were recently arrested on charges involving the smuggling of heroin through Harwich. In both cases the drugs were deeply concealed.

The operations involve a great deal of intelligence gathering and co-operation between the police and customs and the central drugs intelligence unit in this country and the law enforcement agencies of other countries. If there were time, I could give many other examples of what has been happening, including a very good example of excellent co-operation which resulted in the finding of very large quantities of cannabis in a boat off the Cornish coast only a few months ago.

One of the difficulties is that the criminal organisers are usually careful to create barriers between themselves and the couriers which make it difficult for the law enforcement agencies to do more than catch the small fry. However, it is clear that our agencies are having some success, and I say again that that owes a great deal to co-operation with other countries.

The customs and the police have our full support in this work. Liaison with other countries is very close, and is improving all the time. United Kingdom representatives on the United Nations commission on narcotic drugs recently encouraged an initiative to set up a regional conference on law enforcement issues relating to Middle East heroin, and representatives of our police and customs played a leading role in that conference, which took place in Geneva earlier this year and produced useful results. We also play a full part in Interpol and the Customs Co-operation Council. In addition, there was recently a ministerial conference in Stockholm in which my noble Friend Lord Belstead, took part on behalf of this country.

The international aspect of this matter is what is really crucial. I have seen at first hand the excellent forensic intelligence work that is carried out at the Home Office laboratory at Aldermaston, which has an important international dimension. Co-operation involves not merely exchanging samples, data and results, but certain countries agreeing to specialise in particular aspects of drug-related research. Much sophisticated work is taking place with other countries aimed at things such as the identification of the origin of seized drugs and the monitoring of trends in the distribution of illicit drugs, which assists with the early spotting of a new trafficking route and, in some cases, sources.

The United Kingdom also contributes to the United Nations fund for drug abuse control, which support both short-term practical law enforcement effort and longer-term crop substitution programmes in opium-producing countries. That issue was raised during the debate, and from having talked to Ministers from countries such as Thailand, I know that they well realise how important this matter is.

So far, I have concentrated on narcotic drug addiction, but, as we know, the problem goes wider than that. The abuse of certain barbiturates, as the hon. Member for Brent, South said—often in combination with other drugs and alcohol—is probably a numerically larger problem in the United Kingdom than that of heroin. Barbiturates are undoubtedly addictive, and both misuse and withdrawal can be highly dangerous. On the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Government have decided that they should be brought within the controls of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Those hon. Members who follow this subject will know that we intend to bring forward appropriate measures when we have resolved certain difficulties concerning the capacity of the forensic science service to play its part in these controls. The problem relates to the difficulty of proving that a seized substance is a particular barbiturate, as distinct from a member of a generic class of barbiturates. The costs of providing resources to meet the recommendations of the advisory council are substantial—at least £1 million initially, including manpower costs—and we have therefore asked the advisory council to consider the possibility of a generic control formula. This has also involved reference back to the bodies representing the medical and pharmaceutical professions, but I hope that this matter will be finally resolved when the advisory council meets again in mid-January. In the meanwhile, I should like to say that we have appreciated the work of CURB.

LSD is a very important source of drug abuse. Do the Government have any proposals to place restrictions upon the importation of some of the chemicals that are essential to the manufacture of that drug?

I shall write to my hon. Friend about that. The question of cannabis was also raised, and in some ways this is the most controversial issue. Earlier this year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs produced a report on the matter. It examined the question of the future control of the drug in this country and made certain recommendations for downgrading the penalties for cannabis offences. We are now considering these proposals, but I should add that we have no plans to legalise cannabis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East also referred to the risk of drug addiction among the armed forces. We believe that our armed forces are fortunate, in that they do not have a significant drugs problem. The rate of drug offences in the armed forces is well below one in 1,000 Service men annually, and I understand that the trend is one of decline. The majority of such offences concern soft drugs and there is no evidence of active drug pushers among Service men. That at least is reasonably encouraging.

The hon. Member for Brent, South concentrated on treatment, as one would expect him to do with his deep interest in health matters. As he knows, this is primarily for the DHSS, and I am afraid that time precludes me from saying very much about it. Of course we understand the great importance of that. My colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security believe that this is an area of great concern. There is an experimental community-based project for young poly-drug misusers funded by the DHSS and the London Boroughs Association, and I intend to look at that centre early in the new year and see what is going on. The Standing Conference on Drug Addiction is doing valuable work.

When the advisory council considers barbiturates and treatment, will amphetamines be included?

I shall look into that. It is specifically looking at the question of barbiturates, as it is following up its report and how to implement it effectively. The advisory council has always been very much aware of the amphetamine problem.

I hope that I have made clear the Government's regard for the problem. It is a serious one, and we shall continue to give our fullest support to the law enforcement agencies. We are watching this problem closely and, above all, we are playing a full part in the international campaign against drug trafficking. The Government are far from complacent.

On a more cheerful note, I wish you. Mr. Speaker, a very happy Christmas and I wish the House a happy Christmas. Perhaps the gold, myrrh and frankincense are more welcome presents from the East than the heroin that we have been discussing.