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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 February 1995

The House met at Ten o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Drug Abuse

Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]

10.4 am

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise this very important subject today and to be part of establishing a new tradition, only recently started, of Wednesday morning debates.

I want to discuss the size of the problem of drug abuse among young people. It is notoriously difficult to get accurate statistics, but Home Office figures suggest that, of young people living in inner-city areas, some 42 per cent. of 16 to 19-year-olds, and 44 per cent. of 20 to 24-year-olds, have taken drugs at some time. We had a recent reminder of that in my constituency, with a haul of £25 million of drugs on board a catamaran that was towed into our new Sovereign harbour, and another reminder when there were some expulsions from a prominent local public school.

The figures vary quite dramatically. Home Office figures show that the total number of drug offenders has risen by 190 per cent. since 1983, in a 10-year period. Of course, the Home Office also makes the point that there is likely to be a significant understatement of the figures of drug addiction and drug use. In a survey in 1993, it was said that only 52 per cent. of boys and 57 per cent. of girls had not been offered any of the named drugs in year 11, aged 15 to 16. Those are, on any view, dramatic figures.

Nor, indeed, are the problems limited to urban areas. The East Sussex Drugs Advisory Council--ESDAC--produced the statistic that the incidence of drug taking in the north Wealden district of east Sussex was almost the same as that of Brighton, and that more than one fifth of 14 and 15-year-olds had tried an illicit drug, and, of those, 5 per cent. were likely to develop problems because of drug abuse. I am particularly grateful to Mrs. Penny McKay, of the Eastbourne community drugs team, for producing other figures, such as those from the South Thames (East) regional drug misuse database, which suggest, for example, that the average age of first use of cannabis is under 15 years old. There is evidence that young people most often experiment with substance misuse between the ages of 10 and 14. For example, solvent abuse is the highest cause of unnatural death between the age of 10 and 16, after road accidents. We must ask ourselves why. What is the attraction?

The British Medical Journal , in its own investigations, felt that the most common reasons cited were

"to feel big, show off, look grown up . . . because friends do, trendy."

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I should like this morning to concentrate only on cannabis, the most widely used of the so-called "soft" drugs. As the Government consultation document, "Tackling Drugs Together", said, the burden is on those who wish to legalise or decriminalise soft or hard drugs. One of the arguments that is made for legalisation or

decriminalisation is that those drugs are no worse than alcohol or tobacco. That is rather a bleak argument. I am particularly impressed by something that was said by Detective Chief Superintendent Des Donohue, head of Dorset CID, who, a few years ago, received a Churchill fellowship to study the police response to drug abuse. When the point was put to him, he said:

"If I had been a bobby in the 16th century I would have nicked Sir Walter Raleigh for the illegal importation of drugs.

We are stuck with the social problems of drink and tobacco but that's no reason to legalise cannabis."

Another argument often used is that legalisation would reduce the criminality that tends to surround the use and supply of drugs. Of course, if one legalised burglary, the crime statistics would doubtless improve. But that is not the way to tackle that particular problem.

There are also some practical difficulties. First, how could a workable system be established that distinguished between possession of drugs for personal consumption and possession for trafficking purposes? Secondly, I assume that even those who advocate legalisation would want a system to protect children and young persons. Thirdly, how would we deal with the question of driving under the influence? There is much evidence to suggest that driving under the influence of cannabis, which can take a week or so to leave the human system, is rather more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Would not the legalisation of so- called soft drugs such as cannabis act as a gateway to harder drugs such as heroin, and would not that be extremely damaging? The best idea, surely, is to introduce drug education into as many schools as possible to show our youngsters at an early age how damaging the use of cannabis can be.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is right. I shall develop the "gateway" or "pathway" argument shortly.

Legalisation would also involve Britain's withdrawal from the United Nations convention on narcotic drugs, thus risking our international isolation. It has been argued that legalisation would reduce the allure and attraction of drugs, but I consider that argument flawed. I also think that comparisons with tobacco and alcohol are meaningless, as those substances are not legally restricted in any real sense except in respect of minors. Why should drug barons and others who currently make a good living from organised crime not seek to control an ever-expanding market, albeit a legalised or decriminalised one? As for the "libertarian" argument--the John Stuart Mill approach--I fear that we are dealing with the real world, not that of philosophers.

It is interesting to note that even the Dutch Minister of Justice recently announced to the United Nations that his country was reviewing its so- called "coffee shop" policy, whereby cannabis dealing and use are tolerated at certain outlets, because of a perceived sharp increase in the availability of drugs.

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Let me deal next with the arguments against the legalisation of cannabis. The argument about its effect on human beings has raged for many years, but there is no conclusive proof that so-called soft drugs are non-addictive or completely harmless. As the Royal College of Psychiatrists put it,

"There can be no reasonable dispute that cannabis can cause acute mental impairment in terms either of intoxication or a transient but very bizarre and worrying psychological experience."

There is a growing body of medical opinion on other physical effects. A recent article in The Big Issue --not a publication renowned for its slavish support for pro-establishment views--set out some of the evidence that is emerging, particularly in America, of damage caused by cannabis or marijuana. Apparently, research shows that it can damage the human immune and reproductive systems and the brain. There is also strong evidence that the drug is more carcinogenic than tobacco. According to Professor Sridhar of the university of Miami's cancer research centre,

"Cannabis smokers develop cancer 15 to 20 years younger than you would expect. I am convinced it is a highly dangerous drug."

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): At a time when most commentators agree that there is a need for even more health education and even more effort by those leading social policy to persuade people to give up substances such as alcohol and tobacco, would it not be wrong for hon. Members or anyone else to be seen to endorse a product that involves many of the same difficulties? It would run contrary to all the current social thinking.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is right. The fact that we allow the legal consumption of alcohol and tobacco does not mean that, if we started with a clean sheet in respect of both commodities, we would find ourselves in our present position.

Cannabis is very much an unknown quantity. It took some 50 years and literally thousands of research projects, papers and investigations to discover that smoking tobacco causes cancer. I believe that there are about 100,000 tobacco-related deaths a year in this country alone. It is hardly surprising, however, that cannabis is harmful: it contains more than 400 compounds that convert to over 2,000 chemicals when it is ignited.

The element THC, which is the main ingredient of cannabis, is important in terms of its strength in a given dose and the way in which it builds up in the body over long periods. Some scientists estimate that the present levels of THC in cannabis are some 16 times higher than at the time of the Woodstock festival, which some of the older hon. Members present may remember. There are also suggestions that cannabis can reduce fertility, as well as weakening the immune system and the body's protection from infection. Studies show that cannabis smokers are up to six times more likely to develop serious mental illnesses.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): In my constituency, as in my hon. Friend's, the problem of drug abuse among young people is particularly serious. The effect of cannabis consumption on health has been particularly marked in Blackpool, and Dr. Mohammed

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Musa, who works in my local drug advisory clinic, strongly believes that it adversely affects the general health of all drug users in the town.

Mr. Waterson: I am not surprised. I do not know whether Dr. Musa has a view on the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)--the extent to which the use of so-called soft drugs leads to the use of so-called hard drugs.

Picking one's way through the mass of literature on the subject, it is difficult to arrive at a clear, definitive medical answer. It would be dishonest not to accept that opinions vary, but I stress what I said at the beginning of my speech: the burden of proof must be firmly on those who wish to legalise or decriminalise those substances.

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley): Even the Government now state that, as well as affecting psychotic illnesses and lung diseases, cannabis affects the user's judgment, leading to pregnancy and numerous other spin-off problems.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the most dramatic illustrations of that point is contained in research into road and train accidents, particularly that conducted in the United States.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists,

"It is clear that a person who uses cannabis is statistically more likely to try other illicit drugs than one who does not."

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): The argument that the hon. Gentleman is about to deploy is a familiar one, but what he has just said is unexceptional. Obviously, someone who starts using cannabis is statistically more likely to move on to another substance; but it is equally true that someone who drinks a dry sherry is statistically more likely to end up as a total alcoholic. What point is the hon. Gentleman trying to make?

Mr. Waterson: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was at Woodstock. I was about to deal with his point, which some experts call the "pathway" argument. I am not saying that everyone who tries cannabis will move on to something harder, and I do not entirely disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. A number of studies show that, as people become adjusted to a drug such as cannabis, there is a tendency to increase the dose, or to move on to something that is somewhat stronger.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds): Is my hon. Friend aware that there are now variants of cannabis that can cause hallucination, so the idea that cannabis is some sort of safe drug with a recreational flavour is inaccurate? Skunk, a variant of cannabis, is imported from the Netherlands. Such variants can cause hallucinations that can drive people on to experiment with harsher drugs.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. I know that he has made himself very much an expert in those matters, and that he has spent a great deal of time and effort in his constituency trying to combat drug abuse problems, especially among young people.

Another argument is that, if cannabis is legal, in a sense, it loses the attraction of being out of bounds, especially to young people, and they may choose to move on to something that appears to have a more superficial romance about it because it is illegal. The hon. Member for Newham, North- West (Mr. Banks) talked about

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pathways. It is true that many addicts, perhaps even most addicts of, for example, heroin have previously used cannabis. Some of the studies that I have read show that it is equally true that alcohol is a pathway. Children who start drinking alcohol at a young age--and it is surprising how many do nowadays--will graduate to the other drugs that I am talking about. That is an important point.

The next argument against legalisation is that it reduces social disapproval of the use of those drugs. People may argue that drugs should be legal, but I doubt whether many people argue that they are positively beneficial. By legalising them, one would send a confusing message to our young people, a point made by Sir Paul Condon recently, when he said:

"By continuing to debate the possibility of legalisation we are diminishing the dangers of drugs in the eyes of the young. We must take the utmost care not to make drugs appear attractive." Merely by debating the possibility of removing legal constraints, we may unwittingly be encouraging their use.

Another argument often put forward is that legalisation would reduce the street price. Again, the evidence is clear that, if the availability and ease of access to drugs is increased, one will increase use and abuse, especially among young people. As Professor Griffith Edwards of the National Addiction Centre said,

"access to drugs has been proved significantly to encourage use of drugs."

There is abundant research evidence from America, both in the medical profession and among American ground troops in Vietnam. In both situations, for different reasons, drugs were freely available and there was a much higher level of addiction than among the rest of the population.

On health costs, I have said that there is no conclusive proof that cannabis is non-addictive. There is ample proof that it damages health. If one considers the problems that we have in society with alcohol and tobacco, which are already legal, one may realise the sort of difficulties that a massive expansion, potentially, of drug use would cause, plus other costs to society.

What I call the social effects are often ignored. The regular use of drugs often involves a surrender to unreality, a retreat into a world that has neither pain nor achievement. That has a long-term effect on any society.

The evidence, therefore, is clear. I feel that no responsible group or political party would advocate legalisation or decriminalisation, except possibly one. As you will know, Madam Speaker, the Liberal Democrats voted to decriminalise cannabis at their last party conference. I see hon. Members shaking their heads. I am willing to give way on that point.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): I hope that I might catch your eye later, Madam Speaker, to explain that the Liberal Democrats did not vote for that. I spoke in the debate and I shall ensure that the House understands exactly what we did vote for. We voted for a royal commission to consider a range of issues, including whether there should be a change in the legal position. That is clear and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will no longer misrepresent what we decided.

Mr. Waterson: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. This is an important and disturbing issue, which surfaced in my constituency. I have taken great trouble to ascertain the true facts about the wording of the

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motions, and the two separate votes that took place. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is free to say whatever he wishes in the Chamber, but some of the points made by his friends in my constituency border on the libellous. They are certainly attempts to rewrite history. For the record, let me assist the House.

There was a separate vote to refer these matters to a royal commission. It is probably not unusual for a Liberal Democrat party conference to pass motions that are contradictory because, after all, it does the same thing every day of the week in this place. However, it had a vote and then a separate vote, where conference called for "The decriminalisation of the use and possession of cannabis in order that the police and Customs and Excise are able to target their resources on the vital battle against the use of hard drugs." The vote on that was 426 in favour and 375 against.

Mr. Hughes: Only because the hon. Gentleman is being so misleading, I should point out that he read part of a sentence--I have the motion as passed here. I hope that he will listen and not misrepresent the position again. The wording of the sentence is:

"Conference calls for the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate and consider strategies for combating drug misuse, including"

and there is a list of six things, of which the last is the question of decriminalisation. The royal commission, therefore, would consider six issues, one of which is what the legal position should be. For heaven's sake, the hon. Gentleman must not lie in the House.

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hughes: I am sorry, Madam Speaker. I withdraw. The hon. Gentleman must not misrepresent our position in the House.

Madam Speaker: I am obliged, of course.

Mr. Waterson: I did not intend to spend a long time on this and I am running rather late, but it is time to nail that gross misrepresentation by the Liberal Democrats. I do not blame them for being embarrassed by the vote. Their leader was extremely embarrassed. I seem to remember that he stormed off the platform. They should be embarrassed. This is a disgrace.

As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey is so much in love with the facts, and I am looking at the Liberal Democrat agenda paper for Monday 19 September last year--

Mr. Hughes: We were there.

Mr. Waterson: I sometimes wonder. I have already accepted that that conference passed a separate motion by a separate vote to refer the matter to a royal commission, but, at the same time, it passed by another vote a separate motion. I have already read out proposal 6 in Amendment 1, put forward by the Saffron Walden constituency and moved by Alan Dean.

Lest the hon. Gentleman would try to persuade the House either that black is white and white is black, or merely that this is a brief aberration on his party's part, let me remind him of his own words in his role as community affairs spokesman. He said:

"Lots of absolutely perfectly respectable, normal members of society take drugs as normally as many of their fellow citizens smoke, drink beer or have sex."

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If the hon. Gentleman wants to withdraw those words, I am happy to give way.

Nor was that vote just an aberration. At the Scottish Liberal Democrat annual conference in 1993, delegates also voted to decriminalise the possession of cannabis. I draw a line under that part of my speech.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning not only the Liberal Democrats' vote at their party conference to legalise cannabis, but the vote to make contraception available to 11- year-old girls without reference to their parents? Did he share my horror on reading in The Times this morning that this year they are going to debate euthanasia? What is happening to the Liberal Democrat party?

Madam Speaker: I hope that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) will not pursue that line of argument. It is not part of the Adjournment debate.

Mr. Waterson: I had no intention of doing so, but I shall make two points. First, I would not wish to remind the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey of more than one issue on which his party is attempting to distance itself from the actualite . Secondly, has my hon. Friend read the comments of Mr. Alan Hope--Councillor Alan Hope, I beg his pardon--of the Monster Raving Loony party who, after the Liberal Democrat conference, said:

"They are becoming loonier than we are. We are being out-loonied by the Liberal Democrats . . . We can't believe some of the loony policies they are advocating--legalising cannabis, condoms for 11 year olds and abolishing the monarchy. You can't get loonier than that."?

Mr. Hughes: He got his information from The Sun , like the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Waterson: I was quoting from the Western Daily Press . Let us move on now that I have put the record straight. The next time a Liberal Democrat councillor or spokesman in my constituency accuses me of lying or falsehood, as has happened here today, I shall take action. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to repeat what he said outside the House, we shall get to the heart of the matter. I am conscious of the fact that time is moving on. I have accepted many interventions and been provoked beyond what is reasonable.

What are we doing to deal with the problem? As a country, we spent more than £500 million on the problem in 1993. I have already mentioned the excellent work of the community drugs team in my constituency. The Seaside centre in my constituency has also done excellent work under the leadership of Pat Armstrong. ESDAC draws together all the threads of information and policy to combat drug abuse in east Sussex. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who has been stalwart in his fight to increase awareness of those problems in east Sussex and in his support for organisations such as ESDAC.

The Sussex police have been active in many ways, especially in providing schools with liaison officers. I had a letter from Peter Westcott, the deputy chief constable, which sets out in detail the measures in which the police have been involved. It is estimated that in the country as a whole some 1,300 police officers are involved solely with drugs work.

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Of course, health education is very important and some excellent leaflets have been produced by the Department of Health, East Sussex county council and many other bodies. Hon. Members may have seen the draft circular on this subject from the Department for Education, which makes excellent reading. Drugs education is now firmly a part of the national curriculum.

I believe that the formation last year of the central drugs co-ordination unit, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Lord President, has done much to focus attention on the problem. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will have much to say about the impact of the consultation document, "Tackling Drugs Together". It contains many useful ideas and focuses commendably on the importance of educating young people about the dangers of taking drugs. It is interesting that that very detailed document firmly rejects arguments for the legalisation of drugs. In fact, in a sentence that sums up the theme of my speech, it states:

"So, in general terms, the strongest arguments against legalisation of controlled drugs are the risks of wider use and addiction; these are very serious risks which no responsible Government should take on behalf of its citizens."

I agree. The Government must promote responsible policies that educate our young people about drug abuse.

In conclusion, the last thing that we want is the crackpot policy peddled by the Liberals, which would merely encourage drug abuse by our nation's young.

10.34 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): I am grateful for being called to speak and I welcome the debate on this matter, not least because it is the first since the Government published their Green Paper entitled "Tackling Drugs Together" to which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) referred. My colleagues and I were under the impression until today that only politicians of our hue debated this issue, so the hon. Gentleman has done his party a service by putting it on the agenda.

It is perfectly obvious that the topic is hugely important. It is generally accepted by police forces across the country that two thirds of thefts are drug related. In a recent sample taken in the north-west, 95 per cent. of young people convicted of criminal offences admitted to using drugs.

I shall deal with, but not linger on, the point that clearly obsesses the hon. Member for Eastbourne--what is and should be the legal position of drugs. For a long time, there has been a debate about whether there should be decriminalisation or legalisation of any currently illegal or criminal drugs. Many people such as members of the judiciary, police officers and academics agree with those Members of Parliament who support the proposition that the law should be reformed. The tragedy has been that, until now, the debate has taken place not among elected representatives of the people but in the media, which have often misrepresented it--although that is not true of the serious press, which has dealt responsibly with the issue.

Legalisation or decriminalisation is certainly on the agenda in the country at large. According to some opinion poll soundings, more than 30 per cent. of the people support the argument for

decriminalisation. If one walks around the streets of an urban constituency such as mine and talks to young people, one of the first issues that they raise is this very question because, as the hon. Member

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for Eastbourne said, many young people not only talk about drugs but often turn to them as their first choice recreational activity. That may apply more often to 15-year-olds, but also much younger children are involved, including those in primary schools. Let me make it absolutely clear once and for all, although I am prepared to debate the matter with the hon. Gentleman in the House, in Eastbourne or anywhere else, that my party and, as it happens, I personally, have not been persuaded to support legalisation or decriminalisation. We believe, however, that there should be an informed and objective debate.

Mr. Heald: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes: No, I am trying to be brief and I wish to make this point categorically.

There are, of course, strong arguments against decriminalisation and legalisation, some of which the hon. Member for Eastbourne outlined. It is reasonable to argue that, if one alters where the line is drawn between what is forbidden and what is legal, the subsequently forbidden fruit is the fruit which is potentially more dangerous. Decriminalisation or legalisation may make it more likely that drug addicts or drug users will move here, as they have previously moved to Holland, a country which, I accept, is rethinking its position. Legalisation might not necessarily cut crime because crime would simply be connected with more serious drugs.

I disagree fundamentally, however, with the idea that having a debate determines whether more young people use drugs on the street. That is nonsense. Huge numbers of youngsters use drugs and they think that we are completely out of touch because we do not discuss the issue, and they do not understand why not. I am also not persuaded that the price goes up rather than down if drugs are legalised or decriminalised.

The Green Paper stated every reason against legalisation because its brief was to do so. That is not good enough. The matter must be looked at independently. Lord Nolan and his committee are respected because they take an independent view of matters of major public concern and everyone is looking forward to hearing what they conclude, because it is authoritative and not party political. If standards in public life can be the subject of objective analysis, recommendation and conclusion, exactly the same can be done with another central issue in today's modern society: how to deal with the amount of drugs in our society and on the streets. The Green Paper says:

"it is clear that the debate can be conducted in good faith by responsible people who can respect each other's views."

Amen to that. It means that the hon. Member for Eastbourne and his colleagues must not misrepresent what is decided in a democratic party, where, unlike them, we have the right to vote and debate amendments to motions.

Mr. Waterson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes: No, I shall not give way.

The motion that was finally agreed by last year's Liberal Democrat conference says:

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"Conference calls for:

The establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate and consider strategies for combating drug misuse, including:--

1. Greater resources to be given to HM Customs & Excise . . . 2. The police to be given more resources . . .

3. All schools to be obliged to offer advice and guidance to all pupils . . .

4. Immediate action to set up rehabilitation centres throughout the country;

5. Much stiffer penalties for all convicted drug dealers; 6. The decriminalisation of the use and possession of cannabis in order that . . . Customs & Excise are able to target their resources".

That is the list that we want on the agenda of a royal commission, and the items are of equal importance.

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