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Dr. Iddon: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a close link between prostitution and drugs in that many women have to exploit their bodies to pay for their drugs?

Mr. Lilley: That is true, if the drugs are illegal. So far as I know, it is not a correlated factor in the Amsterdam red-light quarter. The two happen to be adjacent because of the layout and policing of the area, just as lots of rather sordid things go on in Soho, and it seems to be traditional that they are linked in that area. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point.

The great success in Holland has been to break the link between the supply of cannabis and that of hard drugs. I visited the police, the drug rehabilitation clinics and the Salvation Army hostel for derelict users of hard drugs, and everyone agreed that going back, criminalising cannabis and restoring the link between the two supply routes would be a terrible loss to Dutch society. It should be emphatically put on record that no one wanted a return to that. In Holland, the age of heroin addicts and those addicted to other hard drugs is increasing, because they constitute a declining pool that receives relatively few new recruits from young cannabis users, who do not come into contact with the suppliers of hard drugs.

The greatest good that could be done by liberalisation is breaking the link between the supply of hard and soft drugs. Sadly, the reclassification proposed by the Home Secretary will not achieve that. It will, however, achieve one and a half of the four benefits that could be obtained by moving to legalisation. The authorities will be allowed to focus on tackling hard drugs instead of wasting so much effort on cannabis. Hard drugs are the real issue; they can enslave through addiction, drive people to crime and kill.

In this country, 80 per cent. of drug use is cannabis use. Most of the £1 billion to £2 billion spent on the attempt to prohibit drug use goes on trying to prohibit cannabis use. Two thirds of drugs arrests are cannabis related and three quarters of drugs seizures, by weight, are of cannabis. The change that the Home Secretary proposes will stop the cannabis tail wagging the hard drugs dog. It will allow us to focus on tackling hard drugs, not only by reinforcing the prohibition effort, but by allowing more creative effort to be put into policy formation and the health of users.

The change will half help in restoring respect for the law. Currently, the law is unenforceable, because it is indefensible. As a result, millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens break the law from time to time and use cannabis. Some 10 million people in this country claim to have done so, with 4 million doing so in the past year and probably 1 million in the past month. Some 100,000 people a year are arrested as a result.

All that increases the contempt for the law felt especially by young people, who see the differential treatment of cannabis, alcohol and nicotine as essentially

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hypocritical and demeaning. That effect would be diminished by the changes, although the Home Secretary will not alter the fact that the sale and use of cannabis will still be a crime. Those will not be arrestable offences, and that fact was spun to the media to suggest the end of any contact between cannabis users and the police, but they will remain prosecutable offences, although the police will have to prosecute by summons instead of by arresting people on the spot.

The change will mean that the police will have the option to enforce the law, but, in practice, they will not do so. They will no longer have to indulge in 300,000 stop-and-search operations on the street every year as they do at present. Those cause great friction between the police and some ethnic minority communities, which assume that they are being singled out. Only 12 per cent. of those 300,000 stop-and-search operations find evidence of drugs on the people concerned.

We will be left with an improved, but still odd, position, in which the police may arrest people, but will probably just issue a warning that falls short of a criminal caution. If someone is arrested a second time, they will be warned that, if they do it again, they will be warned again. That will still undermine the respect that young people feel for the law.

Pete Wishart: Is it not important to retain some societal disapproval of the use of soft drugs and cannabis?

Mr. Lilley: Society can disapprove of things without making them against the law. Most of us disapprove of adultery, but we do not try to make it against the law. We must end the belief that there is an identity between morality and legality. Only in totalitarian societies is the state seen as the author of the moral law. In free societies, the moral law springs from within our conscience and our religion, not from the state.

The change will improve the situation, but the law will remain in a contemptible state. That will undermine respect for it among the law-abiding, who will ask why we have such laws on the statute book if they are not enforced in practice.

The change will not achieve the other major gain that would stem from legalisation: it will not prevent the enriching and enlarging of the criminal underworld. We have made an important area of economic activity illegal, so the fruits of that activity are enhanced and the profitability increased, and all goes to the criminal underworld. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) pointed out, that also increases violence and lawlessness among those dealing in cannabis.

New studies show that much of the rise in violence that tends to occur when a substance is prohibited—for example, alcohol in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and cannabis in this country—is down to the fact that the people involved in the trade can no longer resolve disputes by resorting to the law, so they resort to the gun and to force. A legalised system would undermine that and siphon off a great source of wealth for the underworld. I hope that, instead of being attracted to such

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wealth-creating activities, many such people would join the free and legitimate economy, get proper jobs and become integrated in normal life.

Ms Oona King: The right hon. Gentleman refers to the increase in violence and the criminal underworld. In the light of events of 11 September, does he agree that removing the supply side from those groups would undermine their ability to fund terrorist activities, which depends to a large extent on drug supply remaining illegal?

Mr. Lilley: That is a powerful point, although I have focused my attention on cannabis, not hard drugs. There is a distinction between the two, and it would be a much bigger step to legalise hard drugs. We should take the first step and legalise cannabis, but that would not have any impact on the Afghan situation.

Prohibiting the sale of cannabis has an effect on criminality. The counter argument that is always put is that if we stop people selling cannabis they will push hard drugs even harder, but the contention that criminal gangs do not push the high-margin, addictive substances as hard as they can and are distracted into selling cannabis instead is ludicrous. If it were true, we should prohibit the sale of ice cream so they would all be diverted into that activity, but no one proposes it, because it is nonsensical. Those gangs push hard drugs as hard as they can.

The fifth and final benefit to be gained from legalisation brings me back to where I began: it would leave people greater freedom for personal responsibility in these matters. I believe that the state should intervene only when an activity does clear social damage, when there is widespread support for trying to prevent that activity by law and when the law can achieve some practical purpose. None of those three is true in the case of cannabis.

In general, the more responsibility over their lives we give to people, the more responsibly they will behave—not all of them, but more of them. The more we nanny people and treat them like children, the more infantile will be their behaviour.

Mr. Bellingham: Like the Labour party.

Mr. Lilley: That is an important point, but not one I wanted to make at this juncture.

We should err on the side of liberalisation unless there are strong arguments to the contrary. The change proposed by the Home Secretary is welcome, but it is a first chapter, not the end of the story. The right hon. Gentleman will have to move further in due course, and I hope that he will be encouraged to do so by the general tone of this debate.

12.58 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have learned an awful lot from the contributions of all hon. Members who have spoken. The House is better able to take the drug strategy forward as a result of this proper debate.

I never believed for one moment that a 10-year plan had to be set in stone and never reconsidered or altered. The welcome decision to examine the issues around cannabis is very important. Arguments have been advanced by many organisations that work with people

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with drug dependency problems, such as Drugscope. They greatly assist the all-party drug group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South–East (Dr. Iddon), and I am one of the deputy chairs. For a long time those organisations have been calling for a reclassification. They welcome the debate, and I hope that we come to the right conclusion, as I am sure we will.

My interest in drug addiction came from a purely personal interest in the people whom I looked after in my ward when I was a night duty nurse. I was able to spend a long time with people suffering from medical difficulties related to their drug addiction. Profound things have been said by Members about the personal problems of such people, and the humane response that they need from us. That is important, and should be kept at the heart of the debate.

We must never vilify people who run into difficulties with drug addiction. Sadly, too many of us in the House of Commons alone are addicted, I suspect—although we do not know for certain—to drugs, not just prescribed drugs, or to alcohol. It is therefore right for us to give careful consideration to those who have encountered huge drug problems.

In the short time available to me—I know that others are keen to speak; I also know that many of us would like to ramble around the whole issue of drugs strategy—I want to concentrate on my particular interest, which relates to those needing treatment for their drug addiction. Many of us welcome the changes that have taken place. Enormous stability has been brought into the whole issue, and has affected all those involved in helping people with drug addiction. There has been a huge sea change in our approach as professionals, volunteers and politicians to those in our communities. The drug action teams have been instrumental in no small part, sharing good practice, and ensuring that the programmes in our communities are properly validated and are giving the very best service to those who need it.

Let me put a serious point to the Minister. I am involved with several groups, and am keen to support our drug action team in West Sussex—which, incidentally, has achieved beacon status, and works closely with voluntary groups in and around Sussex. What constantly sends us mad is the continual drive to attract money into the service. Programmes may be good and well validated, and I entirely agree that we must be careful to ensure that the work in our communities is valid and having a reasonable effect. We do not expect everyone to be able to come off hard drugs just like that; it is a long process for many people, who may falter and fall several times before managing to remain clean. We cannot expect instant success from such programmes. The need to scrabble around for money and bid for it, however, is a distraction, taking the minds of those involved off the valuable work that they are doing.

I am involved in, and am honorary president of, a group in Brighton called the Oasis project. It is a particularly good project, working entirely for women. Health societies pay for women who have been through the criminal justice system to attend the project. The benefits are enormous: the project prevents women from having to undergo custodial sentences, and allows them to keep their children with them. The children can go to a lovely crèche where they are properly looked after, while their mothers enter a programme that challenges them enormously but also gives them complementary therapies.

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They are given help and support through information technology and all the other things we have heard about this morning, which are important in allowing people to get back on to their feet and reject drug use. We could debate the legality and illegality of drugs for as long as possible, and this morning's debate has been superb.

When I talked to those people who were addicted to drugs—their lives were chaotic and they had lost their families—it was obvious that they did not want to be taking them. Irrespective of whether their drug use was supported by the NHS or they had to commit crimes to get the money that they needed to feed their addiction, they would rather not be on them. That is very different from how they felt when they started to use drugs. We cannot get away from the fact that the initial experience is good. I am told that the first hit is amazing. How do politicians counter that?

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