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Controlled Drugs (Law Enforcement)

Volume 348: debated on Wednesday 12 April 2000

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1 pm

There are three ways in which the enforcement laws on drug abuse can be improved to reduce the harm and deaths caused by drugs. The first way is to allow natural cannabis to be prescribed to the seriously ill. The second is to take the soft drugs market out of the hands of irresponsible criminals and give it to legal businesses that can be licensed, controlled, policed and regulated. The third is to treat hard drugs addicts as patients, not criminals.

I have been greatly encouraged by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's announcement this week that his judgment had been wrong and that he had changed his mind on an issue affecting devolution in Wales. I cherish the thought that that was the result of reading my book on the subject. It took 18 months to convince the Prime Minister that he was wrong. I hope that in 18 minutes, and with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I can convince the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), that British drugs laws are doing more harm than drugs themselves.

Even though the message that our drugs laws are not working has been clear for many years, Governments have refused to fix them. They have based their views not on evidence but on bigotry and mythology. Governments cannot always do good, but we can ask them at least to avoid doing harm. By inflicting avoidable pain and anxiety on the seriously ill, the Government are now doing harm. Thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens use medicinal cannabis to relieve chronic pain and distress caused by multiple sclerosis, AIDS or the side effects of chemotherapy. A simple change in the law, recommended by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology and the Runciman report, would allow doctors to prescribe cannabis in the same way as heroin is prescribed, in rare instances.

The law is in disrepute. Last year in Wales, two seriously ill patients were imprisoned for using natural cannabis. In the past 18 months in England, six juries have—rightly—refused to implement the law. In one case, a man was carried shoulder high from the court after being charged with supplying cannabis to up to 100 people. The juries are doing the job that the Government have dodged. Judge Devlin said:
A jury is the insurance that the criminal law will conform to the ordinary man's idea of what is fair and just. If the law is cruel, juries will not enforce it.
Parliament, too, will not enforce a law that prevents juries from acting in that way. I hope that the oppressive measure currently going through the House will be thrown out, because it will deny juries the chance to act as the conscience of the country and refuse to act oppressively against seriously ill people.

Yesterday, the Government acted courageously against damaging prejudices in another place, so why do they become pale shivering wrecks when they consider the drugs laws? There is an unanswerable case for drugs law reform. Where is the courage that the Home Secretary showed on Monday, when he introduced a Bill about the hardest of all hard drugs, containing measures to make that drug, not less, but more available? He was implementing a pragmatic measure in the White Paper, to reduce the harm caused by our most addictive and poisonous drug: alcohol. Does the Minister of State not blush in shame at the fact that The Daily Telegraph has taken a progressive line against the forces of conservatism represented by the Government?

As rapporteur for the Council of Europe health committee on drugs misuse, I have examined drugs policies in 41 countries and accumulated a great encyclopaedia of evidence. Two incontrovertible conclusions can be drawn from the experiences of those 41 countries: harsh drugs laws based on prohibition do not reduce drug harm, but may increase it; and pragmatic, intelligent laws based on decriminalisation do not increase drug use, but often reduce it.

The Runciman report exposed the repeated misrepresentation by the British Government, the drugs tsar and the popular press of what has happened in the Netherlands. The report said that the committee was "impressed" by the results of 20 years of decriminalisation in Holland. Cannabis use in that country did not increase as a result of decriminalisation; in fact, it followed the trends in all other countries. Holland now has much lower use of cannabis, especially among 16 to 19-year-olds, and it is used in safer ways and in milder forms than are used in this country. The population of problem drugs users has remained stable, with a rising average age, and almost all are in touch with treatment.

Holland's is a success story: decriminalisation has proved to be the best way to block the gateway from the use of soft drugs to hard drugs. The best way of doing that is to ensure that there is not only one market, as we have in this country. British drug experimenters—the majority of our young people—have to cross the line between legality and illegality to use soft drugs, and they have to frequent areas in which they are likely to be exposed to the pushing of hard drugs as well. The results are self-evident: prohibition increases drugs harm, whereas decriminalisation decreases it.

Lessons can be learned from countries further afield than Holland: we can take into account the experience throughout the rest of the world. In 1987, south Australia introduced a policy of non-prosecution for cannabis use. Civilisation did not collapse. As the Runciman report says, there is now no difference in cannabis use between south Australia and the rest of Australia. During the 1970s, several states in the United States of America reduced to a small fine the penalty for possession for personal use. The rate of increase in cannabis use was lower in the states that depenalised than in those states that did not change the penalties: the states with the harshest penalties had the greatest drug use.

Can we have an intelligent and serious response from the Government on that point? Of the 41 countries of the Council of Europe, the two that have suffered the greatest increase in heroin use in the past 18 months are Sweden and the UK. They happen to be the countries with the severest penalties and the harshest laws. Prohibition increases drugs harm; decriminalisation reduces it.

One member of the Runciman committee went to Holland and his experiences in that country changed his mind entirely. I urge Ministers to visit Holland, where they might learn that our present laws to control the international trade in drugs have as much chance of success as Canute had when he commanded the tide outside this building to go back. The international drugs trade is the second biggest industry in the world. If we cut off one head of that great beast, two others will grow in its place. The only chance we have of reducing the problem is to adopt a pragmatic line of reducing harm.

The current position in Britain is dreadful. What we have—and the legacy that will be left by the Labour Government when they leave office—is greatly increased use of heroin and cocaine. Decriminalisation is occurring on a completely chaotic and irrational basis. Ninety per cent. of drug arrests in the UK are for simple possession; 80 per cent. of those arrests are for possession of cannabis. Sixty-two per cent. of drugs spending goes on enforcement, whereas only 13 per cent. is spent on worthwhile forms of treatment. In 1974, 3 per cent. of offenders were cautioned; now the proportion is 50 per cent.

Decriminalisation is happening according to postcode. You are eight times more likely to be apprehended in Dorset than in Northampton—

Order. As I am not going to either Dorset or Northampton, I am not likely to be apprehended at all. When the hon. Gentleman says "you", he is referring to me.

I am sorry. It is unlikely to be you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who is arrested, but there are 500 people in prison for cannabis possession alone. This country does not have a single prison that is free of drug use. Cannabis offenders go into prison as cannabis users and often come out as drug addicts.

I have been present in most of the debates in the House on the subject in the past 20 years. They all follow the same pattern: the Government boast of the success of their new schemes; they say that their policies are working and they are about to turn the corner. British drugs policy has turned the corner so often that we have been round the block a dozen times. In 1989, David Mellor said that we could be certain of one thing: that the use of heroin had peaked in Britain; but every year since then, heroin use has soared. Ministers from both parties use the same self-deluding, self-congratulatory line; meanwhile, children are dying in greater numbers in this country than in any other country in Europe. The mantra is that drug remedies are not working, but we refuse to see the truth.

The Minister of State recently said on television that he could not accept the Runciman report because Ecstasy kills seven people a year. That is tragic—the untimely death of a young person is always dreadful. However, there have been fewer deaths in Holland in 10 years than in any one year in Britain. No deaths in that country have been caused by inhalants, and the number of deaths caused by other drugs has fallen. We should put the policy in Holland into perspective. We should also consider the fact that, each year, between 500 and 600 people are killed by the simple drug paracetamol, which can be found in most people's home. If we want to reduce drug deaths, we must look at the bigger picture, which shows that children and the elderly are being drugged in an irresponsible and dangerous way.

The 10-year strategy is a cop-out—an excuse for not debating the issues, not acting and not thinking. In 10 years' time the drugs tsar will have retired, the Prime Minister will be Lord Sedgefield, and there will have been 1,000 more avoidable heroin deaths. A thousand families need not be bereaved if we consider now what is happening throughout the world, amend our policies and introduce the necessary reforms. Prohibition kills; decriminalisation saves.

In the past, Ministers of both parties have found it convenient to blame the drugs trade and the wicked pushers; we do not lay the blame on ourselves. However, the drugs trade does not cause deaths. It consists of greedy people who are out to make money irresponsibly. If the trade can be turned into a responsible, licensed business, drug crime will be reduced and people will feel able to enter rehabilitation. Harm can be reduced quite spectacularly, as it has been in Switzerland, where experiments have been conducted in respect of injectable heroin.

In future, whatever the political colour of the Government, Ministers will not be able to get away with the excuse that people outside Parliament are responsible for deaths caused by drugs. Politicians decide drug policy. Responsibility for the deaths caused by drugs should be laid firmly at the door of Governments'drugs policies for the past 20 years, not on those outside the House.

1.13 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on the passion with which he spoke and on introducing the subject of drugs policy within these portals. I thank him for allowing me to speak for a few minutes. My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have an issue in common: we fought side by side in the streets and on the platforms of Norwich against a common opponent, Howard Marks, the high priest of the pro-cannabis party, who suffered a severe defeat at our hands.

We are debating a serious subject and I intend to speak about the medicinal value of cannabis and other drugs. For centuries, cannabis has been for used for medicinal purposes all over the world. Drugs can be beneficial or harmful according to the context of their use. Cannabis may be harmful when someone is driving a motor car, but it is beneficial to a multiple sclerosis sufferer. Sadly, legislation is not context-sensitive.

Beneficial effects are being rediscovered because, although illegal, cannabis is widely available. There is no legal commercial interest in cannabis, so little research is carried out into identifying new medical applications. With no commercial interest, it is difficult to secure funding for proper trials. To some extent, charities are being asked to fulfil that role. It is likely that other recreational drugs have effects that could be exploited for therapeutic purposes, although the discovery of such effects is unlikely because most drug research in this country is impossible without commercial backing. The law is a blunt instrument and, at present, it is incapable of taking into account the context of drug use when defining criminality.

The medicinal uses of cannabis include alleviation of tremor and spasticity and a variety of neurological conditions—especially MS; increasing weight and improving appetite and mood in cancer patients; reducing nausea associated with chemotherapy in cancer patients; and reducing intra-ocular pressure in glaucomas. Those are but a few of the medicinal uses of the drug. Though cannabis may not be the best drug to treat those conditions, without proper trials and experimentation, we shall never know. Medicinal trials on patients would provide a welcome a way forward in establishing the beneficial effects of cannabis. After such trials, the knowledge would be extended into the wider public sphere.

1.16 pm

I, too, welcome the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on securing it, although I felt that his speech was uncharacteristically offensive.

I do not speak, as did David Mellor or previous Governments, by going round the block. I shall deal directly with the points raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is also a personal friend, was characteristically constructive in advocating a scientific approach to deal properly with the issues. Some people argue that there is no need for a debate on these matters, but I disagree: there should be a debate and it is right for it to continue. In that context, I thank the Runciman committee and the Police Foundation for their work in producing a serious and well-considered report.

The hon. Member for Newport, West mentioned The Daily Telegraph. In the past, I have not responded to that point, but, on this occasion, I should like to draw to his and the House's attention the fact that the ultra-libertarian wing of the Conservative party is now running that newspaper, which explains the editorial position on these matters, as on others.

Let me return to the more serious aspects of the debate. First, I shall set out the statutory framework, which is provided in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It places all controlled drugs into three categories—A, B or C—according to their relative harmfulness. Class A includes heroin and cocaine; class B, amphetamines and cannabis; and class C, benzodiazepines and anabolic steroids.

No, I will not. I intend to conclude my speech within the time available to me.

That classification determines penalties for offences under the Act. For example, the maximum penalty for possession of a controlled drug ranges from two years' imprisonment for possession of class C drugs to seven years for possession of class A substances. Assessments on classification include a judgment on the substance's toxic effect, the prevalence of misuse, and the effects on society. For expert advice on the classification of controlled drugs, the Government rely on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which was established by the 1971 Act. It must comprise no fewer than 20 members and the disciplines represented within the council include medical practitioners, pharmacists, chemists and experts on the social effects of drug abuse.

It is important to set out the current assessment of the medical and social effects. A 1997 World Health Organisation report confirmed that cannabis has both acute and chronic health effects. The acute effects include damage to people's ability to learn and to carry out many tasks, including operating machinery and driving vehicles. The chronic effects include damage to mental functioning, especially learning abilities, which may not be reversible for prolonged and heavy users. A cannabis dependence syndrome has been identified in heavy users, and the drug can exacerbate schizophrenia in people who are already affected by that illness. There are also the obvious health risks associated with smoking the drug. That is why the British Medical Association has concluded that cannabis in its plant form is unsuitable for medical use.

I turn now to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North about the need for research. The Multiple Sclerosis Society agrees that cannabis should not be prescribed in advance of proper trials, but, rightly, it argues for the types of trial that my hon. Friend advocates. The Government want research brought to a satisfactory conclusion as soon as possible, which is why we have licensed several laboratory and research projects over the past few years. The Medical Research Council recently awarded a grant of more than £1 million to enable another major research project to get under way, and the Medicines Control Agency has recently given permission to GW Pharmaceuticals Ltd. to proceed to clinical trials.

Those are important milestones in the development of a potential medicine for multiple sclerosis, and they are to be warmly welcomed. I hope that that goes some way towards meeting my hon. Friend's point about the need for more research. He and I received a delegation from the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Norwich. We discussed the benefits that the society's members felt proper medicinal use might bring. It is important to research and develop such a use, and that is what the Government are doing.

Why should there be controls on drugs? The Government have a clear and consistent view of the damage that drugs can cause to individuals, their families and the wider community, and of the link between drugs and crime and the corresponding need to maintain firm controls. I am familiar with the views of the hon. Member for Newport, West on the 1971 Act, and I concede absolutely and in public that he has a long-standing and sincere desire to see the misuse of drugs eradicated. He made that clear again in his speech, and I cast no aspersion on his motives in that regard. There is a difference in analysis, which I hope to explore in this debate, but I am not suggesting that he wants anything other than a reduction the misuse of drugs and their harmful effects. Ours is simply a discussion about how best to achieve that.

Some people have suggested that decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs would reduce both the harm they cause and the market for them, but successive Governments in this country and throughout the world have taken the view that that cannot possibly happen. I will not follow the hon. Member for Newport, West in discussing complacent statements about the drugs problem having been solved, because that is not the Government's view; on the contrary, we believe that we have much to do to tackle drugs issues. Today's debate about the legalisation or decriminalisation of certain drugs is only one part of the wider debate.

Most of those who favour legalisation recognise that the balance of the argument would be tipped against them if consumption significantly increased as a consequence of the legalisation of drugs. Common sense and the lessons of history suggest that that would be the case, and it might help if I outline the current levels of drugs use. According to surveys, 1.25 million people in this country used cannabis in the past month. In contrast, between 10 million and 11 million people have smoked tobacco, and 42 million people have consumed alcohol in the past month. However, the illegality of some of the drugs that I have described limits use and deters many other people from using them. Furthermore, the main effect of decriminalisation or legalisation would be an increase in the consumption of drugs, which would be a bad thing for various reasons. The Government's policy on all legal and illegal drugs should be motivated by a desire to reduce use, whether we are talking about tobacco, alcohol or other drugs.

Can the Minister explain why the Runciman report concluded that the decriminalisation of cannabis in Holland, Australia and certain states of America did not increase its use?

The report explains that itself. That is the view to which it came. However, the hon. Gentleman mentioned Ecstasy in connection with Holland a moment ago, and I have the figure for the lifetime prevalence of the use of different illegal drugs among 15 to 16-year-old students contained in recent nationwide school surveys from some EU countries: 8.1 per cent. of those students in the Netherlands had consumed Ecstasy, compared with 3 per cent. in the UK. That is a significant difference, and the implication of consumption is real.

It is argued that the black market would disappear with decriminalisation, but I believe that the criminals would attempt to undercut the legal producers, and that the United Kingdom would provide an attractive base for organised crime. The Dutch police have told us that the semi-legal trade in cannabis in the Netherlands has helped to make the country a safer place for big-time crooks.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the law is enforced inconsistently across this country. It is the duty of the police to enforce the law as it stands. Although the statistics show that the majority of those arrested for the possession of cannabis receive a caution, cautioning rates vary from force to force, as he said. The Government agree that as much consistency as possible is desirable, but discretion is necessary to allow the police to take account of individual circumstances. To achieve greater consistency, the Association of Chief Police Officers last February issued guidelines to its members on case disposal options, including cautions, for drugs offenders. It is still too early to assess the impact of the guidance on that objective. The guidelines emphasise that one way in which the police service can demonstrate its fairness in its dealings with those it comes into contact with is by being as consistent as possible in case disposal, as I believe it is.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North about the context of drug use, the guidelines recognise that even an apparently straightforward case can involve a multitude of human, social and situational factors that can influence police judgment on the best way to proceed. It properly emphasises that the people best placed to make such judgments will be those who are most directly concerned and have first-hand access to all available information.

For example, under the final warning scheme, a first offence results in a reprimand, warning or charge, depending on the seriousness of the offence. A young offender cannot be given more than one reprimand: any further offending leads to a warning or a charge. No young person can receive more than two warnings. The final warning scheme has been piloted in five areas for 18 months since 30 September 1998, and it will be rolled out nationally from 1 June this year. Experience of the way in which the scheme works nationally will provide useful information if, in future, it is felt necessary to put adult cautioning on a statutory basis.

The hon. Member for Newport, West mentioned the courts. The balance must be drawn between achieving consistency and providing the courts with the discretion to carry out their job properly. The Court of Appeal issues sentencing guidelines where they appear to be necessary, and such guidelines have been in existence in respect of drugs since 1982. In addition, and as part of the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, a new statutory body, the Sentencing Advisory Panel, has been established to provide advice to the Court of Appeal on sentencing. Hon. Members may be interested to know that that panel is currently considering drawing up sentencing guidelines in respect of opium.

The Government are determined to break the drugs-crime cycle. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Newport, West said in his uncharacteristically offensive speech, we are not complacent, nor do we believe that the problems have been solved. There is a long way to go and we are committed to finding the right ways in which to proceed. The hon. Gentleman appears to believe that former Conservative Ministers in the Department have appeared complacent, but I doubt that they were complacent in the way that he suggests.

Our objective is to use each stage of the criminal justice system to identify drug-misusing offenders, to get them into treatment where appropriate and to monitor their progress through drugs testing. I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Member for Newport, West paid a great deal of attention to drug rehabilitation. I concede that the Government must do much more work to ensure that proper facilities are made available. We acknowledge that there is a failing that needs to be remedied, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted it.

The link between drugs and crime is now clearly established by research. Our research programme to drug test arrestees shows that nearly 80 per cent. test positive for an illegal drug. The same research suggests that property crime provides about 75 per cent. of the total illegal income of arrestees, of which about one third is spent on buying heroin and/or crack cocaine.

The Government want to create a healthy and confident society that is increasingly free of the harm caused by the misuse of drugs. A complex set of issues is associated with drugs misuse, which we are fully committed to tackling. We have set out a strategy and we believe that law enforcement agencies have a key role to play. I am glad that we have debated this matter today. It will continue to be actively debated by hon. Members in the House and by others.