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Mr. Jon Owen Jones: On the international convention, would the hon. Gentleman agree that a consensus is emerging across Europe and elsewhere—in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, for example—that the conventions should be altered? We drew them up in the 1920s, when we made a list of the drugs that were relatively unknown or not widely used in the west and said that they should be illegal, while those that were widely used should be legal. That was the rationale, and it is time to change it.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is a bit like the prompter at the side of the stage, but I had not forgotten my next lines. I was going on to say that, although we are constrained at the moment, there are good reasons why we should seek to move on. One is that Europe is moving on, and in the context of the European Union there is an opportunity to consider the evidence, to share the development of the policy and, in some cases, to move from criminalisation to decriminalisation.

An argument also exists for examining the conventions as a whole and considering whether they are still appropriate. I believe—as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) clearly does—that conventions such as these should not stand for all time; they need to be revisited. It is now time for us to open the debate about whether, in this day and age, with 30 years' extra evidence available, it is appropriate to treat all drugs, from the most serious—the heroins of the world—to the least serious in terms of health effects, in the same way with regard to what countries are required to do.

Commentators regularly get these issues wrong. People must understand that there is a debate about what should be legal, and a second debate about what should be criminal. We must distinguish between the two, but both be on the agenda. It is nonsense to argue that—in the case of cannabis use, for example—we should replace one whole set of criminal sanctions with another whole set of what are administrative sanctions, so that people get a fine instead of other penalties. To replace one by the other would fundamentally change very little.

In relation to drugs such as heroin, I ask the Government seriously to consider the arguments put by Francis Wilkinson and others. Over the years, the Home Office has had pilot schemes at work to give people the opportunity to go to registered, recognised, publicly

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available centres—at doctors' surgeries and elsewhere—to receive their supply of heroin, if they are addicted. That seems to be a far safer option.

We must adjust the balance of spend between the two thirds of the money that we spend trying to control the supply of drugs and the lesser amount that we spend trying to deal with people who have become caught up with drugs and become addicts. Any prison governor will tell us that they often have to discharge prisoners who have been inside for offences prompted by drugs without having been able to do anything to deal with their drugs problem. When those discharged prisoners get out, they will say that they have not got the support that they need to be able to return to the ordered lifestyle that they would like, away from the temptations and pressures of drugs.

I do not intend to get involved today in the debate about driving-related issues. Drug-related driving offences must be dealt with in the same way as alcohol-related driving offences. Many people who should not be, are on the roads causing danger and death to other people.

Tinkering with the law is not enough. We need a thorough review not only of classification but of the appropriateness of criminality in relation to various offences. We need to ensure that those who are doing the dealing and distributing are the criminals. We need to educate our young people, in particular, about the differences between different drugs. Above all, we need policies that will be hugely more effective in stopping people getting into regular drugs use in the first place, or, if they do, that will allow them to get out of that afterwards. We could do it, but it will require a bold Government over the next few years, and it will require other people and parties to be equally supportive.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If all hon. Members present are seeking to participate in this quite intense debate, brevity will be their friend.

11.14 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): First, I apologise for the fact that because of a constituency engagement, it will be impossible for me to be here for the wind-up speeches. As an old lag in these debates—I have taken part in every one since 1987—it is pleasant to feel less lonely than I have in some of the previous ones.

These matters are of great importance—they are literally matters of life and death. Because of decisions that we have not taken, and because of acts of omission in this Chamber, there have been at least 5,000 avoidable deaths in the past 10 years, and if we do not alter our policies there will be at least 10,000 in the next 10 years.

Ten years ago, I introduced the first Bill on medicinal use of cannabis. All that was required was a simple change in the law, so that cannabis could be treated in the same way as heroin and prescribed to people on a named-patient basis. Such a measure could have been passed by any Government with an ounce of understanding or compassion. There is no change: Ministers come and go; Governments come and go; and the same delusion goes on, and has done since 1971.

During the past 10 years, the House has imposed quite unnecessary additional anxiety on tens of thousands of people suffering from multiple sclerosis and who are in

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serious pain. Many of those people have taken cannabis while waiting for the knock on the door, because most of them were growing it themselves and knew that they were—according to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins)—"evil" people who could go to jail for 14 years for what they were doing. Since then, the public, the police, the courts and the juries have said that the laws that we have been supporting command no respect—that the law is an ass.

The control over the laws on cannabis has parted from this House, and it would now be impossible—especially after the announcement on the use of recreational cannabis—for any police force to arrest a seriously ill person for using cannabis medicinally. No jury in the land would convict; indeed, no jury has convicted for the past 18 months. We have allowed the law to pass into disrepute. We now know that the public and the police, who have been leading this move—police in Cleveland and Brixton, and the ex-chief constable of Gwent—are much more far-sighted than many of the politicians here, and particularly any Government. I am optimistic that, having taken this decision to go ahead and change the status of cannabis, we have reached a turning point. We have said that 30 years of prohibition have not worked, and that they have made the position far worse.

I serve as a rapporteur for the Council of Europe's Health Committee, for which I write reports about drugs. I want to reinforce what has been said there. I have examined the policies on drugs in the 43 Council of Europe countries, and carried out a precise analysis of the outcomes in the two most pragmatic countries—Switzerland and the Netherlands—and the two most strongly prohibitionist countries, which are Sweden and the United Kingdom. The picture is clear. Much has been said about the effects of legalisation or decriminalisation, as has happened in Holland. In spite of that, in every category—young, middle-aged and old—in Holland today, there is less use of drugs than there is here. We are by far the worst country in Europe. We have had 30 years of harsh prohibition, while Holland has had 20 years of intelligent decriminalisation.

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) asked about people going on to harder drugs. The success of the Dutch scheme lies in the fact that the two markets are separate. Young people can use drugs. They do not have to smoke them—they can take them in safer ways such as in food or drinks. They are not exposed to the pushing of hard drugs users. Another great success of the Dutch drugs policy is that the use of hard drugs has gone down every year for the past decade. Three quarters of the heroin addicts get their heroin in a clean supply from the medical profession and do not have to go on to the streets for it.

Prohibition in Britain is killing young people. The figures vary, but those that I have seen show that before 1971 there were fewer than 500 registered addicts. They were virtually all being maintained by the health service. Many of them, believe it or not, were veterans of the first world war. They had operations on the battlefield and became addicted to morphine. They were supplied with morphine by the health service for the length of their lives and many of them lived to be old contemptibles.

The case of Enid Bagnold is often cited as an example of the old British system. She was the greatly revered and respected author of "National Velvet", but throughout her adult life she injected herself with prodigious quantities

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of heroin, to which she had become addicted after a hip operation. She died, eventually, a peaceful, serene death at the age of 91.

Last year in this country, in just one incident, 59 young people were killed by prohibition. They were not killed by heroin, because they injected a far less powerful dose of heroin than the one that Enid Bagnold took under the old British system. They were killed because the heroin was contaminated. It was contaminated because the market that supplied it was an irresponsible criminal market and 59 lives were wiped out as a result.

As a constituency MP, I found it distressing when, a fortnight ago, a mother rang me up and said, "I don't know wether you will be shocked by what I say, but I am buying heroin for my son." Another mother said on the "PM" programme that to save her son's life, she told him to go out and commit a serious crime. Those are the actions not of evil people, as was suggested earlier, but of loving parents. They are actions that many of us, if we were in such a dreadful situation, might take ourselves.

In Britain in 2001, we have failed those young people who have the misfortune to be addicted to heroin. Like those who fall into alcoholism, their problems are caused by the way their brains work. Their brain chemistry gives them addictive brains. We know far more now about brain chemistry and we can say that addicts are not evil people. They could be our sons or grand-daughters. They are not wicked or evil people, but people who deserve to be treated as patients, not criminals. More than any other country in Europe, we treat addicts as criminals.

A report in the Western Mail yesterday about Peter Black, the Assembly Member with responsibility for these matters, mentioned an 18-month waiting list for treatment for heroin users. I did not know the wait could be so long, although I knew it could be six months. For those addicted to drugs, it is often a major life event—such as a bereavement, falling in love or relationship breakdown—that gives them an opportunity to get off drugs and break the daily routine of committing a crime to get the money for drugs, taking the drugs, sleeping it off and then going out the next day to begin again. They might get the money through prostitution, mugging or robbery, but the major event gives them the chance to break the cycle. To do so, they need treatment immediately, but they are almost always told to wait for six weeks, or six months, or even 18 months. We should hang our heads in shame that we have a smaller proportion of addicts getting treatment from the health service than any other country in Europe.

A new mythology is growing up about drugs-driving. It is a serious matter and none of us would suggest that anyone should drive under the influence of drugs. However, I have rarely heard such a vacuous speech from an Opposition Front Bencher as that from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who did not do me the courtesy of giving way. I had thought that his predecessor was as bad a Front-Bench spokesman on this subject as we could get, but the hon. Gentleman's speech was a disgrace.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider the conclusions reached by the Transport Research Laboratory on the effect of cannabis and other drugs on driving. Speed improves drivers' perceptions and reactions—it was used for training fighter pilots—but it is dangerous because it also increases their sensitivity to other distractions.

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It makes drivers worse. Alcohol convinces drivers that they are more skilled, but it impairs their reactions, and that leads to accidents. The effect of cannabis is to impair the reactions of drivers, but it convinces them that they are worse drivers so they drive more cautiously or not at all. That is the scientific evidence.

I do not want to continue the disagreement I had with my hon. Friend the Minister, but we need to consider the world situation. Prohibition started in the 1920s. Virtually every country has an Act prohibiting drugs dated 1921. Thankfully, we did not follow the fundamentalist philosophy that held sway in America and prohibit alcohol, but most countries prohibited drugs. In the 1960s, again under the influence of America, the United Nations spread the view that harsh penalties and imprisoning lots of people would reduce the use of illegal drugs. Very few countries still believe that. The best that we can achieve is harm reduction.

Before the debate, I read what has been said on the issue in the House over the years. We have heard a change of tone today, with a more pragmatic influence coming to bear on the policies, and that is welcome. However, I found a speech by David Mellor, the Minister responsible in 1989, in which he announced to the House:

It would be a salutary lesson for my hon. Friend the Minister to read the speeches made by his predecessors.

Our record on drugs prohibition disgraces us as politicians. The problem is not the drugs themselves but prohibition. The last two meetings of the Health Committee have been extraordinary. The Government—like the previous Conservative Government—maintained their view of the great dangers of heroin. However, the evidence was rewritten two days later and significant changes were made. The Government were asked to say why heroin was dangerous and they gave a long list of reasons. The worst aspect of heroin is that it is addictive. If it is prohibited, people have to break the law to get it—except the few, barely 300, people who get it from the health service. The list of problems which it was claimed make heroin a dangerous drug included aneurysms and abscesses, but they are all the effects of prohibition.

In Britain, the people who die from heroin use are those who take it in the back lanes, in foul conditions with dirty needles. Under the old British system of health service provision, death from heroin use was very rare. No country's approach is perfect, but other countries in Europe are adopting more pragmatic policies and we are now taking the first steps too. In Rotterdam in Holland, I visited a place called Paulus Kerche with a journalist and we saw people who had been registered as addicts for a long time getting clean heroin, of a known strength, and clean needles. There was a supervised shooting-up room, but the project also supplied lessons in IT, job interview techniques and CV writing. The community also produced its own newspaper. The addicts were not excluded or despised, or told that they were evil people. They were also given a chance to get off drugs.

We should emulate the practice in other countries. I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his task. In his post, he has the ability to institute great reforms that will save many lives and greatly reduce the levels of crime in the country.

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