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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 May 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Drug Misuse

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

9.34 am

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I thank the Minister for moving the motion, and welcome her to the Front Bench.

It may help if I give the accepted definition of drug misuse. It is best defined as the non-medical use of drugs intended for use only in medical treatment and the use of drugs that have no accepted medical purpose. Such drugs are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That Act does not cover solvent misuse.

The main drugs that are misused are opiates, such as heroin; stimulants, such as cocaine, amphetamines and Ecstasy; tranquillisers; hallucinogens such as LSD; and cannabinoids, such as cannabis.

First, let me say that I have done plenty of things that I ought not to have done. I am not an expert on drugs but I want make practical suggestions on the culture that affects the number of people who take up drugs and the way that they use them in front of other people and what might be an additional effective way of coping with the undoubted problems of drug misuse.

To those who want to consult the real experts, I commend a book by Commander David Stockley called "Drug Warning". It is subtitled "An Illustrated Guide For Parents, Teachers and Employers", and is published by Optima.

David Stockley was a commander in the Metropolitan police. The information is factual. I recommend that parents who find that their child is involved in drugs read the book so that they understand what is involved. The author reminds us of some of the warning signs that a young person may be using or experimenting with drugs. He says that there is no simple answer, but mentions out-of-character behaviour; loss of appetite; being either unusually sleepy or unable to sleep at night; bouts of talkative, excitable and overactive behaviour; being unusually irritable, aggressive or even violent; changing moods, from happy and bright to moody and confused, for no apparent reason; telling lies or acting secretively; losing interest in school work; and truanting. He further mentions changing friendship patterns; losing interest in hobbies and sports; money or valuables disappearing from the home; coming to the notice of the police for unruly, disorderly behaviour or dishonesty; unusual spots, sores and marks on the body or arms or around the mouth and nose; and stains and chemical smells on clothing and about the body.

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I read that list not to frighten people--although some aspects of the misuse of drugs may be frightening--but because when people get involved in something that they regret, or will probably come to regret, it is important that they do not go on experiencing their problems alone. It is important that those around such people, especially young people--parents, teachers and people in the community--are in a position to ask whether there is a problem and say that it ought to be shared with them. Young people should not go through difficulties alone. It weighs and preys on them and changes their lives unnecessarily.

I want to acknowledge, although not concentrate on, another point. I realise that the debate will go wider than my contribution. Most crime is not drug-related, but some people involved in drugs, especially the heavier end of drugs, are responsible for irruptions of crime that can be severe in local areas. When we lived in Stockwell, there was a drug dealer in the block of flats opposite. When that flat was in constant use, the amount of crime in the area was horrendous. People might expect almost weekly to suffer some assault on their car, their home or themselves. I do not want people to get the idea that all that we have to do to solve crime or drugs is take away the criminal behaviour that surrounds drug dealing and some of the pushers, however. I do not wish to go into crime in great detail, but it matters even on a small scale.

I talked to a constituent in Worthing last week. She was an elderly woman who had lost a locket given to her by, I think, her godmother. It was of no particular value to anyone else. Its street value was probably so trivial that a smoker who did not smoke cigarettes for a day would probably save the same amount. To my constituent, however, it was a link to someone who had mattered a great deal to her. I do not want to start bringing out the tears for all these things, but they show that it is worth working hard to deal with such behaviour and try to reach a level, which I hope we can reach in this country, at which crime, or at least personal crime of the kind that I have described, is virtually unheard of.

The leadership given by the Government on drugs will be welcomed. I hope that they make progress. The work is built on the work that Tony Newton led when he was Lord President of the Council, and on the 1994 document "Tackling Drugs Together", the annexes to which contained not only information about the link between drug misuse and crime but an overview of drug misuse statistics. Obviously, only a part of the figures can be known, but it is important that, in our monitoring of progress and setting of targets, such an approach is brought from the annexes to the front.

I wish to draw a parallel with the experience of tackling drink-driving, with which I was associated for a time. If we run campaigns on drink-driving in accordance with the temporary interests of the media, we are unlikely to get it right. We had to have some sense of the incidence and pattern of drink-driving, the people affected and where it happened. We need an approach that will get at the culture of people doing things that are wrong. Clearly, drinking is not unlawful and driving is not unlawful, but the combination of the two is.

We spotted that we would not make progress without dealing with young men. There is a parallel with drug misuse, which is predominantly, although not exclusively, a young male activity. We realised that, if we did not deal with young men and their drinking and driving, where they drank, and the type of social life that they had, we

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would not be involved in the areas in which we could make a difference, or get them to make a difference. We spotted the fact that they were the ones who had to make a difference--one of the themes of what I want to say this morning.

We--society, not the Government--cut drink-driving by young men from about 2 million occasions a week to about 600,000 occasions a week within two years, with no change in the law, sentencing or enforcement. So two thirds of an illegal, socially unacceptable, body-damaging habit evaporated. The reason why it happened is not known to most people, because, although it is perhaps the biggest cultural change since the war, there has not, to my knowledge, been a five-minute radio or television programme or a 600-word article in any of our broadsheet newspapers about how it happened. Although I occasionally say out loud what my view is, saying it before the House of Commons is probably the best way of keeping it a secret. But I will try anyway.

Ten years ago young people listened in large numbers only to Radio 1, the only national pop music station. No other cultural medium was accessible to most young people. When Johnny Beerling, the controller of Radio 1, said that drink-driving issues should be dealt with in news and current affairs on Radio 1, we knew that the right audience was being involved. People were not being preached at, but they were involved.

Pop music stations are now more diverse. Radio 1 does not have the same dominance, although it is still important. I commend to youth magazines and radio the importance of raising drugs issues as news and current affairs. It should not be a public service message from a 44-year-old Minister--I do not know how old the Minister is--but probably a discussion led by a 58-year-old disc jockey. It is important to make the message part of people's culture if we want to spread information and give people choices.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): How does the hon. Gentleman react to the week-long debate on cannabis that was conducted on Radio 1, in which 25,000 people rang in to give their opinions, of whom 87 per cent. said that they wanted to see cannabis decriminalised?

Mr. Bottomley: If the most important issue in a week-long discussion on Radio 1 was whether cannabis should be decriminalised or remain a criminal offence, I think that Radio 1 missed the point. Decriminalisation of cannabis may be an issue of some interest, but what really matters is the information given on page 31 of The Express yesterday. When young people were asked:

40 per cent. said yes. I do not know whether the question distinguished between misuse of illegal drugs and pharmaceutical drugs, but if 40 per cent. of young people say that they are worried, that strikes me as a worry that we ought to share. We should not share our worries with them; we should share their worries.

When young people were asked:

87 per cent. said yes. If 87 per cent. are worried, we should share their worries. We should not try to impose ours on them. It is in the nature of politics that relatively

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few people are elected to the House of Commons at the age of 21. Bernadette Devlin was and Paul Channon was, but I am not sure that many others have been. By our nature, we are rather older. So if 60 per cent. of young people say yes when asked:

    "Are you worried about the effect of drugs on someone else?",

we should be concerned and share those worries.

My part in this debate is not to discuss whether things should be criminalised or decriminalised. It is to consider whether the House can start taking the worries about misuse of drugs as seriously as we appropriately did the worries about drink-driving.

Drink-driving now kills about 550 people a year. In the 1994 document "Tackling Drugs Together", the statistics show that deaths through the misuse of drugs number way over twice that figure. They are at the level at which deaths from drink-driving were when I became an assistant Minister at the Department of Transport in 1986. So the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) has rightly, indirectly, pointed out the importance of having this debate and cutting the number of people who start to misuse drugs and the number of years or months for which they are involved in drug misuse, and of being far more open about what is happening.

At this point I want to come on to my second major point--my second of two. I have one or two other things to say, but the two major points are, first, that we must take a cultural approach in addition to other things that are happening. The Minister may explain what Keith Hellawell is doing. She may talk about the Government's update of the "Tackling Drugs Together" approach. My contribution is, first, to say that we must make the cultural approach to the misuse of drugs important. That means information, understanding and action that does not rely only on policemen, the courts and sentencing.

My second point is that it is outside my experience, but within my perception, that young people are not sold unlawful drugs the first time they are offered them. They are given drugs. If I am wrong in that and if young people are listening to this debate, they should let me know.I believe that almost every young person experiencing drugs for the first time, and possibly for the second, is given them by a friend, but after that, we are back into what research evidence shows. When people who are misusing drugs are asked where they get the money from, a significant proportion say that it comes from selling drugs to other people.

In effect, drug dealing is a pyramid-selling operation.I am told that I should not make comparisons with psychotherapy or Holiday Magic, but it seems to me that, if someone is on drugs, unless they happen to spend very little or are very wealthy, they are likely to get some of their money for their habit by selling drugs on to other people. To do that, they have to have a network and they cannot build that simply by happening to meet people at large parties or on the street. They are likely to ask their friends or people in contact with them, "Would you like to have some of this?"

Later on, when those people say that they would like some more, they say that the drugs have to be paid for. Once that happens, the pyramid goes on down, which ends in avoidable disadvantage, stress and handicap for the person who gets hooked. It also involves avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap for those who become victims of crimes. The scale of crime that is necessary to

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produce money to fund a drugs habit and the amount of cash paid to the person supplying the drugs is disproportionate to the great suffering caused.

Young people should be warned that the first time they are offered drugs it will probably be for free. They need to know that in advance: there is no point telling them afterwards. People have a choice whether to start using drugs or not to continue using drugs, having experimented with them. We should make the same plea as I make to smokers--I say that as someone who smoked for many years: I am still addicted, but I have not smoked for some time. They should try not to smoke in front of someone who is younger than they are. That would have been bad news for Deng Xiaoping, because he was one of the oldest people in China.

If we have a habit that we do not think should be spread to other people, we should try not to indulge in it in front of others. We may do it privately. However, 12-year-olds will be influenced if they see 14-year-olds taking drugs. They in turn will be affected if they see 16-year-olds taking drugs, who will be influenced if they see 18-year-olds taking drugs and so on up the age groups.

The information should be out in the open, and we should monitor the situation. If the Government's approach is working, it should show up not in the newspaper headlines--because newspapers and the media require more rapid results--but in the figures such as we had in the drink-driving campaign. Twice a year we had a pretty firm indication of whether drink-driving behaviour and the answers to questions about drink-driving were changing in the prime target group.

In 1987, if young men were asked, "Do you have to drink at a party to enjoy yourself, even if you are driving home?", the predominant answer was yes. By 1989, the predominant answer was no. That was associated with a change of culture. In 1987, the predominant answer to the question, "If you say that you're not going to drink at a party because you are driving home, will people think that you are a wimp?", was yes. By 1989, the predominant answer was no.

We need such a change of culture. If young people now were asked, "Do you think that misusing drugs is a sensible, good or cool thing to do?", I do not know what answer they would give. Such surveys are needed every six months or so, and the figures should be examined for each age cohort to establish trends over time. That may not draw much attention, but it helps those responsible for improving the position, and that is not only the Home Office, the Department of Health and parents groups--not that we have many effective parents groups in this country--but many others who want to make a difference and to improve the well-being and welfare of our young people.

Better work has been done over the past eight years and more is to be done in the next four or five years, and if the misuse of drugs is as common as it seems, the results should show a drop in such behaviour. Drug misuse involves people in inner cities and in more rural areas. It affects people who think that they have control over their lives and those who have not. It is not helpful merely to have a discussion such as The Independent on Sunday had about whether some drugs should be made legal. The problem is far more serious than that.

I welcome the sensible parts of the Government's approach. They are continuing the work that had been started under the previous Government. I hope that we

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can co-operate on this issue and test whether some of the claims being made make sense. When one listens to people on the streets talking about how they fell into a slough of despond for 10 years because of drugs, and about how they have tried to control their drug habit, one realises how important it is to prevent young people from becoming involved in drugs in the first place.

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