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Lembit Öpik: I think there has been a misunderstanding. I was not arguing that that was a reason to criminalise cannabis; I was arguing that we should seriously consider decriminalising the supply side, to maintain consistency in the system.

Mr. Hoban: I take the hon. Gentleman's comments on board. He and I have a difference of opinion on this. My concern is this: reclassifying cannabis as a category C drug, and giving young people the impression that it might be safe to use, may encourage them to use it more often, and to go to dealers who sell more than one type of drug and will introduce them to class A drugs. An unintended consequence of the Minister's proposal to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug may be the ability to obtain class A drugs much more easily.

Mr. Hawkins: For a certain proportion of young people, is not the feeling of doing something dangerous and illegal part of the appeal? Might not the decriminalisation of cannabis tempt more people to go straight to hard drugs in order to have the same feeling?

Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Members on both sides of the House have bandied figures about, suggesting that millions of people use cannabis. Let us not forget that only 14 per cent. of those between the ages of 16 and 29 used it in the last month. While many may use it once, perhaps to enjoy the experience of illegal behaviour, that may not be a consistent pattern. It may not appeal to all young people. Not all young people are regular cannabis users. What worries me is that decriminalisation, and the sense that the drug might be safe, will cause more young people to try a wider range of class A drugs. We do not want them to do that.

2.13 pm

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: This has been an excellent and well-informed debate, although it was slightly skewed towards the side in favour of legalisation. It would be

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difficult for me to respond to all the points that have been made, but I will write to all those who have asked substantive questions that I have no time to answer now.

I do not want to send a message to anyone that we are not prepared to listen to what is said. We have shown that we are trying to lift the debate and to listen as a Government, and today's discussion has, I believe, contributed to that impression.

I want to give the Government's perspective to balance the argument. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) has been involved in the issue for a long time and encapsulated some of the opinions on the Back Benches when he congratulated us on our timidity. We want to keep to an evidence-based debate. He said that if the fight against drugs is a war, it was lost before we started it. He cited the United States and the tremendous effort there to fight the war against drugs, which has been extended to source countries. Someone in the US departments with responsibility for alcohol, drugs and tobacco, the FBI or the CIA might be doctoring the statistics from America. Perhaps there is an evil person in the Home Office who does the same thing, because I have not gone around with a clipboard to compile the figures. According to the statistics from the US national household survey on drug abuse, there has been a substantial fall in drug use in the past 20 years. Cannabis users have fallen from 23 million to 11 million and cocaine users have fallen from 4.4 million to 1.5 million. That is a substantial decline. The figures fly in the face of the arguments that the Dutch model works and the models here, in the US and Sweden, which has far lower levels of drug use—

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I have little time to respond.

We can all throw around statistics to support our opinions, but we must be careful and ensure that we listen to other people. I just hope that my hon. Friends are as prepared to listen to me as I am prepared to listen to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham also cited a couple of personal experiences that proved to him the need to legalise drugs. Let me tell him about a couple of personal experiences that make me a little worried about that approach. The only time that I was confronted by drug-related violence, I escaped without difficulty because it was not a serious attempt. It had nothing to do with the supply of drugs. I was confronted by someone who was clearly out of their head on cocaine and, as a result, decided to threatened me. It was frightening. That problem would not be solved by the legalisation of that substance.

Many people who advocate decriminalisation and legalisation say that there would be no increase in the availability of drugs, but that is not true.

Mr. Jones: I did not say that.

Mr. Ainsworth: Will my hon. Friend calm down and listen to me, as I listened to him, because that would be conducive to a good debate.

Many people who advocate legalisation and decriminalisation accept that availability would increase. They bluntly say that it would be a price worth paying.

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I started to smoke when I was 10 because cigarettes were freely available and I knew no better. I steadily progressed to a serious nicotine addiction that took a great deal to lose. I did not manage that until my mid-20s and in the meantime did a lot of damage to my health.

I know that I grew up in a different age when illegal drugs were not as available as they are now. I take seriously the point that my hon. Friend made about needles in the streets, but if the availability of drugs such as cocaine and heroin increases substantially, the chances of children aged 10 developing the problems with those drugs that I had with tobacco must increase. That is something, although not the only thing, that must be put into the calculation when we consider where and how far we go with any changes in policy that we might want to advocate.

Our drugs policy has been described as an abject failure, but our strategy is relatively recent. People might think that we will get change overnight, but we will not. I have no desire to turn this into a party political issue—Opposition Members made some good speeches—but I remind my hon. Friends that we had a Conservative Government for 18 years. Some of the initiatives that are now being taken were massively underfunded as a result.

I am surprised that, until the past couple of years, no strategic customer group was working on the supply side of drugs to bring together the work of Customs and Excise, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and other groups to try to cut off the supply of drugs. That simply did not happen. Relationships between those organisations left a lot to be desired until they began to work together. They have become a bit more effective since.

I am sorry that I have to depart from the main issue before us, but I must deal with the speech of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). He made only two substantive points. The first was that the Home Secretary must have come out with his statement at the Select Committee on the spur of the moment to cover up something else. The hon. Gentleman suggested that that was dreadful and said that no thought or strategy was involved.

The main evidence that the hon. Gentleman had for that extraordinary load of nonsense was an answer that I had given in Home Office questions. He claimed that it proved that the Home Secretary had not shared his idea with me and that I knew nothing about it. Let me make it clear what I said at Home Office questions the day before my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his announcement. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked:

My answer, which supposedly proves the hon. Gentleman's point, was:

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is not representing me in any capacity, because that answer shoots a great big hole in his argument.

The hon. Gentleman's other substantive point was about the reclassification of cannabis. He expressed the fear that that would lead to an increase in its use and

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would damage severely the efforts of law enforcement officers to take effective action against the traffickers of the drug. That is a serious point, which must be considered.

However, a couple of days ago, I answered a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West and the figures that came out surprised me. They showed that arrests for purely the possession of cannabis had risen from 14,857 to 22,303 between 1996 and 2000. However, arrests for supplying or offering to supply cannabis went down in that period from 1,559 to 1,001 and arrests for possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply had gone down from 2,765 to 2,194.

As I tried to tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, the Home Secretary has several motives for making the change. First, the Government are trying to improve the message that we are sending out. Several hon. Members have said today that if that message is to be credible, it must differ according to circumstances. Young people will not listen to us if we try to tell them that cannabis is every bit as bad as heroin or cocaine. Our message is that although we do not want people to take cannabis, it is much more dangerous to take heroin or cocaine, and we put them in a different category.

A second consideration is our desire to bring the law into line with the practice of police forces the length and breadth of the country. We also want to make the best use of police time and focus their attention on what we consider to be important. Those were our reasons, and they were thought out during the recess, which was why the announcement was made at that time. It was not done on the spur of the moment to cover something up.

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