EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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Mr. Ainsworth: All the accession states have now agreed to adopt the EU action plan as the framework for their own drug strategies, which has got to be good news because we are all suffering from the problems in those countries and the very existence of the European Union next door only adds to their problems. The Phare programme and others deal with drugs and are intended to help. The drug action plan has been agreed, so data will be available to compare our performance with other countries as well as our European neighbours.

Whenever possible, we have sought to extend aid packages beyond the accession states. Contact has been made and some agreement reached between the EU and some central Asian republics that are on the heroin route and suffer from their geographical location. They have tried to build their judicial and treatment capacity and to improve policing. Bilateral measures are necessary. Mutual co-operation and agreements should benefit British and EU taxpayers as well as the countries themselves.

Simon Hughes: Does the Minister agree that the action plan is weak and inadequate on harm reduction? Pilot schemes in this country have shown how beneficial clinics for treating people on heroin, for example, are. They bring addicts within the system because supplies are received from legitimate rather than criminal sources. Pilot schemes in Cornwall and elsewhere have demonstrated that. Will Ministers seek to incorporate such a policy direction in the proposals, even if only a pilot scheme across the EU to evaluate alternative options for hard drug users? Does the Minister agree that the action plan could be

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strengthened by becoming much more radical in its approach to harm reduction?

Mr. Ainsworth: Obviously, we believe that what is effective at a European level will largely mirror what is effective in our country. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are examining ways of strengthening harm minimisation within our own drug strategy. That will be reflected in the negotiating position that we adopt in the EU. The hon. Gentleman is partly right: we will be seeking to develop an adequate and effective harm minimisation strand in our drugs strategy, but I do not agree that such a strand is absent from the present proposals. We may be able to analyse that further in future debates.

Mr. Hopkins: Following earlier questioning, I detect that the Minister believes that my views are similar to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West. That is not strictly correct. My primary concern is about hard drugs, particularly heroin, which is an important issue in my constituency. Although radical solutions could work in certain circumstances, different solutions are appropriate for different types of drugs. Cannabis and heroin are different, so different approaches may be required, and general condemnation of all drugs may not be effective. Does the Minister agree?

Mr. Ainsworth: I was not attempting to cast any aspersions on my hon. Friend's opinions. He says that radical approaches are right for certain drugs, but he does not tell us what he means by radical. If he clarifies that, I can tell him what the Government's position is. We broadly agree that a different approach is necessary for different drugs, and our emphasis is on dealing with class A drugs. I visited my hon. Friend's constituency the other day, and I have similar problems in my constituency. I have no doubt that the main problems are caused by heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. That is what causes acquisitive crime, deaths and massive distress in our communities. Of course we need a different and a credible message if we are to be effective on the educational front. Our police and other resources should be directed where they are most needed. I agree with adopting a different approach for different drugs, but I am not sure what my hon. Friend means by radical. If he clarifies that, I will tell him whether I agree with him.

Mr. Johnson: I am not sure what the Minister has in mind, but I direct him to the discussion document by the horizontal drugs working group, which I imagine is a cross-European panel on drug use. I do not know whether he is a member of the horizontal drugs working group, but if he is, or if he knows someone who is, I would like to know what goes on in the group and whether, in listening to discussions about the use of soft drugs as opposed to hard drugs, the Government are taking account of what the Dutch say. What does the Government think about the Dutch experiment and about the differentiation between hard and soft drugs? Has it led to Commander Crackpot and the merriment in Brixton? Is there a stealthy change? The Minister spoke earlier of convergence in policies. Will there be a convergence on class B drugs? Are the Government interested in the Dutch approach and are they tiptoeing towards it?

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Mr. Ainsworth: The horizontal group is not called that because it lies down or is spread across the whole of the European Union. It is called the horizontal group because it straddles the different strands of the legislative process in the EU. There are third-pillar issues where national sovereignty is still supreme, and first-pillar and second-pillar issues where there is different legislation. The drugs area affects all those different legislative pillars, which is why it is called the horizontal group. It is because they have to relate to all the different strands of European legislation.

Is there a convergence? Are we going Dutch? No, we are not. We made our policy clear in our response to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It is not intended to be a sliding scale towards some other policy. The Home Secretary proposed the reclassification of cannabis from B to C, not its legalisation or decriminalisation, for two reasons. The primary reason was to get the educational message right, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West does not think will necessarily have any effect. Young people are not stupid and if the educational message is not based on medical reality, it will not be believed. The harm that cannabis actually does puts it in class C, therefore so should our legislative framework. We will not get through to young people if they think we are saying something that is not true. If they perceive us to be saying that cannabis is as bad, almost as bad, or much the same as crack cocaine they will not listen to us.

Our secondary motive was to try to direct police effort as best we can at class A drugs and to ensure that that is given priority. It has been the priority of the police over the past few months, and there have been some successes. In Lambeth, Brixton and Coldharbour lane there have been concerted efforts to close down what has for some time been an open cocaine market, and there has been some success in that respect.

Paul Flynn: The Government's 1998 drug strategy contained certain targets: reductions of 25 per cent. and 15 per cent. a year. In their most recent pronouncements, those targets seem to be missing. Has there been a change of policy?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have not yet announced the outcome of the review of the drugs strategy. My hon. Friend cannot provoke me into announcing our response to the reformation of the drugs strategy, because I am far more frightened of the Home Secretary than I am of my hon. Friend, but it will be announced fairly soon. The hon. Gentleman will be able to analyse the changes we have made and to decide whether he agrees with any or all of them.

Simon Hughes: Does the Minister agree that the drugs policy should reflect a much clearer view, and that there should be an entirely different approach to soft drugs, perhaps with no penalties? Does the Minister agree that, regardless of whether the Government want to pursue such a policy, the European Union should recognise that some countries may want to decriminalise the use of some drugs—as my party believes is right in relation to cannabis—and that that can be done only if the case is put in the United Nations for the renegotiation of the

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Geneva convention on narcotics to allow countries that wish to do so to treat certain drugs differently from the way in which they treat other drugs with regard to criminalizing the users?

The Portuguese and the Dutch have gone down that road, but they have had to pretend that they are acting within the law, whereas they are in fact breaching international law. Would the Minister consider proposing that the EU should allow countries, if they wish to do so, to opt out of the UN convention on narcotics with regard to soft drugs?

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that we would need another debate to discuss our stance on the treaties. There are obligations on us as well as on other countries. The hon. Gentleman should not misrepresent the situation in Holland. As he knows, it does not have a decriminalised supply of cannabis; the front doors of its coffee shops are decriminalised, but the back doors are not. The supply is still in the hands of organised traffickers, and I do not think that that is a situation that we would be prepared to see in this country, as it goes against all the principles that we have tried to uphold. If a law exists, it should be effectively enforced. If the Dutch take a different approach, that is to a certain extent a matter for them. However, we do not want to go down the road that they have gone down.

Paul Flynn: Before the Afghan war, the United Nations reported that the Taliban had reduced poppy production in the area that they controlled by more than 90 per cent., but that in the area controlled by the Northern Alliance there was a 300 per cent. increase in the amount of land cultivated for poppies. Has the Minister any news on what has happened after the war? Has there been any reduction in the area of Afghanistan that is cultivated for poppies? Has there been any reduction in the amount of drugs from there that are coming to this country? If the Americans—along with other countries—were to crack down in Afghanistan as they did in Colombia, would we not be in danger of creating a Colombianisation of that entire region of Asia, which would result in wars, drug gangs and drug armies throughout Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Burma and most of Pakistan?

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Prepared 17 October 2002