Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): We all recognise the experience that the hon. Lady describes. I represent one of the few inner-city constituencies held by the Conservatives and I assure you that the concerns of drug-related agencies have been brought to my attention. Does not that undermine what the Government are trying to do elsewhere? The Proceeds of Crime Bill and the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 are geared towards supply. Much of what you say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language. He must not use the word "you." I think that he has finished his intervention.

Laura Moffatt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. I suspect that he will realise that I believe that spending on treatment and care for addicts should be increased. I make no secret of that. However, enforcement is important. The drug strategy can be used as a basis, but it should evolve. I hope that the Bill to which he referred will help.

We must ensure that there is stability for those who can be treated in the community. Residential detoxification is important, but people have to return to their communities and the people around whom the drug culture developed. It is important that they are supported. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on supported tenancies. Sussex Oakleaf housing association has a supported tenancy scheme to keep ex-drug users in their own homes. It is crucial to ensure that the bills are paid and they do not go back to chaotic drug use. It is difficult to say that that is necessarily part of a drug strategy, but we should think of the strategy in the context of the wider community.

Other issues also need our attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) rightly pointed out what a load of old duffers we are for the most part. Perhaps we do not understand that our well meaning messages are badly received by young people. Will the Minister consider greater use of youth forums to take part in partnership discussions with the Home Office on issues such as the messages that we send to young people on drug education? My main concern is to keep young people safe from drug use. The debate on legality and illegality is important, but safety is crucial. Will the Minister consider using young people to help the Home Office, through its agencies, to get the right message to them to stop drug use starting? We have a chance of doing that if we get the emphasis right.

9 Nov 2001 : Column 525

1.9 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): This has been a fine and informative debate. It is useful that we have used the Runciman report as a reference, but I am surprised that it has not received the commendation that it deserves. It is a fine document that suggests several realistic ways forward.

There is no doubt that drugs are one of the most contentious and eagerly debated issues in society. If the public are asked to name the issues that most concern them, drugs invariably and inevitably come in the top five in any list. However, the debate on drugs is one of the least defined and least informed, and that is surprising because drugs as we understand them in their contemporary sense have been with us for four or five decades. As a society, we are experienced in dealing with drugs, but that experience seems to have taught us absolutely nothing.

In the past few decades, drugs use has spiralled out of control to the extent that drug taking among young people is now almost routine. On the darker side of the drug-use spectrum, the economies of some of our most deprived inner-city communities have become almost completely drugs dependent. Drugs are big business. The revenue generated by the illegal drugs trade accounts for probably more than the GDP of small and even medium-sized nations.

Strategy after strategy has been employed to try to deal with drugs problems, but without success. Targets are set but are never met. We employ drugs tsars to achieve absolutely nothing. New campaigns are launched but are sunk beneath an ever-increasing tidal wave of new and impending problems.

As the Minister and the Secretary of State have suggested, we need—I think the Runciman report provides it—an inclusive debate that takes young people, in particular, on board. We need an inclusive and informative debate to which young people think they can contribute.

Two different debates appear to be happening at the same time. The first is held by adult society and particularly by the politicians, who like to legislate and take decisions. We have our preconceptions about drugs use; we come to the issue in a completely different way. We like prescriptive solutions; we like to make laws, launch campaigns and develop strategies and approaches.

The other debate is held by young people. Their terms of reference are sometimes a million miles away from ours. Their understanding of drugs issues is entirely different from ours. As I said, drug taking has become routine for many young people—it is just something that they do. Some of them are amused at our efforts to legislate, but many are irritated by what they see as the hypocrisy at the heart of our debate. We are prepared to legislate and launch campaigns on illegal drugs, but are not prepared to deal with the much more serious problems caused by alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency. At best, what we do inconveniences young people; at worst, we give them an unwarranted police record. The debate held by young people would probably not even be begun to be understood by the majority of people in the House.

Then there is the sinister side of drugs use. I refer to the drugs use that is fired by desolation, despair and depression; that inhabits our socially excluded inner-city communities; and that finances the drugs economy with

9 Nov 2001 : Column 526

all its connections with the criminal underworld. This is the drugs use that is responsible for all the drugs-related crime that affects nearly all communities in the United Kingdom; this is the drugs use that must become our priority because it sucks the life out of our very communities.

Drugs legislation must be determined to deal with such drugs use and strategies and approaches must be determined to tackle the dangerous drugs that bring so much misery to so many of our communities. Drugs legislation must become focused on the most dangerous drugs and on those that do the most harm.

The idea of forming one all-encompassing strategy to deal with all types of drugs is almost too absurd to contemplate. What we need are a number of strategies to deal with the different drugs problems and issues that society faces. For example, the inner-city despair that heroin causes is entirely different from middle-class after-dinner cannabis use. The routine taking of ecstasy by young people out clubbing at the weekend is entirely different from the desolation and despair of the crack dens. Different problems and different issues require different solutions and different approaches. There is not one distinct problem just as there is not one distinct solution.

To underpin all the different strategies we need a legal framework that is credible, particularly for young people, so that it will not be routinely broken, making the law look foolish. Current drugs laws are not easily understood by young people. They do not understand or are hopelessly unaware of the A, B and C classifications and the legal sanctions and penalties attached to them. For example, cannabis is currently a class B drug, but some cannabinoids are class A, which would seem utterly bizarre to many young people.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman's experience is slightly different from mine. I have found that young people understand the categorisations but simply regard them as unreasonable, which is one justification for ignoring them.

Pete Wishart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remark, but that is certainly not my experience. Young people taking ecstasy in nightclubs are completely unaware of the legal tariff associated with that drug. Ecstasy is a class A drug, which means that we have decided that it is one of the most dangerous, but young people are not aware of the legal sanction that can be applied if they are found guilty of possessing it.

I find little to disagree with in the Runciman report on reclassification. The SNP suggested reclassification several years ago, and we are pleased to see that the idea has been taken on board. An important element of the report, which I mentioned earlier in an intervention, is that we must be serious in expressing our societal disapproval of drug taking. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) gave an example, pointing out that through application of the law on driving offences we express society's disapproval of those offences. That idea is applicable in drugs legislation.

Too often, the debate about soft drugs, particularly cannabis, is a legal one. Should we legalise cannabis or continue to impose legal sanctions and penalties? A possible third way, suggested by the Runciman report

9 Nov 2001 : Column 527

and by the comments of the Home Secretary and the Minister, is to consider reclassifying cannabis as a class C drug. We can continue to express societal disapproval without criminalising young people, and we can discourage them from starting a career of drug taking and experimenting. However, we must acknowledge that drugs use is likely to be a feature of our society, so we should offer as safe an environment as possible.

It is a tenable position to question our current drugs laws without giving wholehearted support to legalisation or even decriminalisation. As I said earlier, I would be concerned that if we legalised or decriminalised cannabis tomorrow, the people who supply and push drugs would remain in place and would make more vigorous attempts to sell more dangerous drugs. We should begin to place less emphasis on the legal debate by reclassifying cannabis, and then we could assess whether we needed to go further and introduce full decriminalisation or, indeed, legalisation.

There is an issue of resources. The public would be satisfied if we spent the bulk of the resources at our disposal on the drugs that are doing damage.

Treatment is as important as prevention. In the 1999 Scottish elections, the SNP suggested creating drugs courts for people whose drug taking was out of control and dependent on crime. We looked at successful American models and came to the conclusion that they could be used in Scotland. The Scottish Executive now agree and are prepared to pilot drugs courts experiments throughout Scotland.

Drugs courts are important because they compel the dependent criminal drug user to confront his lifestyle, and the regime includes treatment programmes for drugs problems as well as addressing criminal activity. The courts are not a soft option; the treatment is rigorous. In some communities drug-related crime accounts for almost 70 per cent. of recorded crime, and we need solutions that address that underlying cause. Drugs strategies will not work unless treatment programmes are available to keep problem users on the straight and narrow.

A drugs strategy—or, more appropriately, a series of drugs strategies—should be realistic and achievable. It should be clearly understood and properly defined. We have been told consistently over the past decade that we are fighting a drugs war. If that is so, we have definitely lost. The language of the debate should be changed. Let us enter new territory and have an inclusive debate. Only then we will be able to start to get on top of our drugs problems.

Next Section

IndexHome Page