EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Hawkins: I will not give way, as I want to develop my argument.

The Home Secretary, the Minister and their colleagues continue to stand up in debates such as this and say, ''Of course, we have not actually legalised cannabis.'' However, if one visits schools and talks to sixth formers, one discovers that almost every young person in this country—they see a limited amount of media—thinks that the Government have legalised cannabis. I challenge the Minister to go into any sixth form class in the country and persuade the students that the Government have not given them the signal that cannabis has been legalised. The Government have made a complete mess of the situation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has said. Logical positions could be taken in the approach to drugs, but the Home Secretary and the rest of the Government have taken none of them. They have muddied the waters and made the position worse.

Having said that, we agree with the Government on some points. We share a concern about the damage done by hard drugs. I was surprised and disappointed at the Minister's statement that he had had no signs of the work in Sweden, which we have seen and to which my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset referred in his speech at our party conference last week. There was a mixed message, however, in that the Minister went on to welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that we wanted a huge expansion in the number of treatment places. The Minister must surely recognise that that is something that we learned from the success of the Swedish system.

Members of the European Scrutiny Committee were right to ask the questions that they asked, especially about the problem of hard drugs coming in through Turkey, and to challenge the Government over the way in which the debate has proceeded. I welcome the Minister's comment that firmer targets are needed, but I am concerned that the whole approach to the issue will not be effective.

10.1 am

Dr. Palmer: I should like to focus on a specific issue. It is characteristic of areas on which there is no broad consensus on the most effective remedy that people develop hobbyhorses and become convinced that a particular scheme will solve the entire problem. I share that tendency to some extent. I am especially interested in the scheme referred to by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, which was originally introduced in Switzerland and allows some legal supply of heroin to hard-core addicts through general practitioners. The scheme has been extremely effective in Switzerland in reducing both crime and addiction, but it was originally greeted with great hostility by the European Union, which objected to the fact that a country in the middle of western Europe was breaching the wall of complete rejection of legal use in any form. That view has changed over the years, and in Britain a large-scale pilot is being conducted for a similar scheme, which we all hope will succeed.

I shall briefly revisit the arguments for the scheme. When other approaches to solving addiction have

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failed and the addict is able to satisfy his or her addiction only by access to criminals, there is a double risk of increased criminality. First, the addict is supporting the criminal racket by buying drugs from criminals. Secondly, because of the expense involved, it is natural to discuss with the criminal ways in which he or she can obtain money to finance the habit. The criminal will suggest criminal ways of doing that, thereby increasing the overall level of criminality. In obtaining supplies from the general practitioner, the addict is taken out of the orbit of criminals and the market is destroyed, because he will not pay money to the criminal supplier for something that he can get free from the GP. In addition, because he is having a regular dialogue with his GP, it is possible to persuade the addict to consider alternative treatments and to work on him to come off the addiction gradually. The impact on burglary and other petty crime that is undertaken to raise the necessary cash is significant.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): My hon. Friend's point about the addict being brought into the ambit of the general practitioner in order to be weaned off the drugs was very similar to the argument put forward when the methadone programme was introduced big time seven or eight years ago. However, people who went on to methadone have stayed on it ever since—that has been its biggest failure. Therefore, I am not optimistic that we can translate the same hope on to heroin. It did not work with methadone.

Dr. Palmer: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. It was a significant factor in the Swiss experience. The same problem had occurred there with methadone, but heroin has been different. The scheme has significantly reduced the level of addiction. Switzerland is a very conservative society, and there was a national referendum on the issue after the budget had been running for a couple of years. Perhaps to general surprise, the policy was confirmed by a substantial majority. When the population saw the results in reduced crime and addiction they became convinced that it was an experiment that ought to continue. I appreciate the reservation of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), but although it is too early to tell whether it would work in Britain, it seems to have done so in Switzerland.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that it would be helpful if we encouraged our partners to join us in investigating the issue—some of them already have. I also draw the more general conclusion that in this area, in which it is notoriously difficult to make a breakthrough, we should be reasonably open minded about individual countries taking initiatives on a pilot scale to see whether they work. There is a need for experimentation at local level in order to determine the best approach.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West, I do not feel strongly about the legalisation of cannabis. For all its virtues and drawbacks, cannabis does not appear to be the main driver of criminality, which is the issue that most concerns my constituents. On the whole, I would support my hon. Friend, but it

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is not something, as many colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench—

Paul Flynn: I do not know whether my hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the splendid polemic on drugs by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) in a book that he published some time ago. It had to be taken out of the book when he went on to the Front Bench, but if anyone wants to hear a marvellous argument for the decriminalisation of all drugs, they should read the hon. Gentleman's book.

Dr. Palmer: I have great admiration for the forensic skills of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton when he dissects Conservative policy on the issue. However, the problem is too serious for the sort of party political debate in which we have all been indulging. I do not want to detain the Committee longer than necessary. My point is simply that a degree of humility and open mindedness on the issue is important. We must recognise that no country in the world has really cracked the problem.

10.10 am

Simon Hughes: I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe and to echo the tone of his comments on the most important general point, which is that none of us are succeeding well enough to think that we have the answers. Different countries in Europe provide very different models, and we should allow that experimentation of national policy to flourish. I fully understand the Minister's point about the Netherlands. To put it bluntly, the failure of the Dutch system is that it is hypocritical. It suggests that the use of cannabis is permitted, but it has not decriminalised the supply chain between the supplier and the place where the ultimate user buys it, because it cannot do so. That is why I put the general point, which follows on from the point made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe, that it would be helpful if the EU negotiated in the United Nations for the narcotics convention to allow the EU as a whole, or individual member states of the EU if they so wish, to decriminalise some or all of the activities in relation to one or more drugs. That would not break the subsidiarity principle.

The Liberal Democrat party believes that we should decriminalise the growing personal use of cannabis and the supply of cannabis for personal use. That is not the most radical of proposals. We held back from talking about the general legalisation of drugs, in part because we are committed to the United Nations convention on narcotics, and no party can argue for a United Nations international agreement on one activity while opting out of another.

I strongly urge Ministers to ask that the EU action plan should be able to allow member state Governments to take permissive decisions to decriminalise the possession and supply of cannabis for personal use. If the Netherlands and Portugal were being consistent with their declared current policy, they might wish to decriminalise the whole cannabis supply chain. That principle is central to the debate. It is much more honest and honourable than the difficult argument about administrative penalties and the pretence that it is an administrative matter, or the

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front door-back door inconsistency of the Dutch system. I understand that the Portuguese have gone the furthest down this road, but they are constrained because they are also signatories to the UN convention on narcotics. Most importantly, I seek to persuade the Minister to include that option in the EU drugs policy. Clearly, it would have to be negotiated internationally, and it would be better if it were negotiated on behalf of the EU.

I support the motion, but its one weakness is that it removes the need for priority to be given to achievable time band targets. The motion also refers only to the fight against drug abuse and trafficking. It would have been better if it referred to the reduction of harm and other issues that we have discussed such as education, which are central. As the Minister said, young people are not stupid. A well-educated cohort of young people throughout Europe who understand the difference in consequence, according to all the evidence, between use of cannabis, Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and crack cocaine is one of the best protections for the future. People at least then make informed choices and are much more likely to be honest about where they go to seek treatment.

I am conscious that colleagues may wish to contribute, but I have several more points. First, it is important to have regular debates such as this on EU policy as a whole and, more properly, on the comparisons between what happens in different parts of the EU. It is therefore also important that, in future, the powers that be, whoever they are, ensure that if a document is deposited in Parliament in July 2001, we consider it in 2001, not 2002 or 2003. I hope that we can remedy that problem.

It would be helpful if the Minister would elaborate on what is happening on UK Government drugs policy. He rightly said that there had been no policy change since 1998. We used to have the annual report and national plan—indeed, I have the first three here—but I think that that series stopped being produced, and we await an announcement on the Government's new drugs strategy.

I should be grateful if the Government would seek to obtain maximum agreement among the parties before the strategy is finalised. That might seem unlikely in one sense, because of our apparently very different views. With the intention declared by the Home Secretary, the Government have moved towards a more realistic view on cannabis. The Liberal Democrats have moved much more clearly towards the position that possessing cannabis for personal use should not be criminal and that people should not be prosecuted for that anywhere. Action should not be taken in just one part of the country.

The Conservative party appears to be saying that the most important thing should be intervention to prevent addiction from growing among the young, and treating the young. I do not criticise the Conservatives for saying that. We can argue about whether their suggested model is the best one, but there is scope for agreement on harm minimisation, treatment and intervention.

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There is a pilot scheme to get heroin users and addicts out of the hands of criminals and into a safer place. That is entirely desirable, although I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde that there is differing evidence about what is effective at getting people off an addiction. Merely substituting methadone for heroin does not necessarily get someone back into a drug-free lifestyle, but existing evidence needs to be tested on such issues.

We are the EU's worst performing country in regard to drug addiction, and the situation has been relatively better in England and Wales than in Scotland and Northern Ireland. There, drug use has increased considerably, whereas in England and Wales it has gone in different directions.

Like every other Member of the House, the salient issues for me are those that most affect the communities in which I live and the constituents whom I represent, such as the tragedy of people whose son, daughter, daughter-in-law, girlfriend or boyfriend has become addicted. Nothing was more painful than when a 26-year-old girl, whose family I have known for years, came to my door absolutely riddled with drugs and asking for help. She was going into prostitution to get the money. That was the pathetic result of a family tragedy: her father died and she went completely off the rails. I see her hanging around, but giving her money is not the answer. We are all aware of such tragedies. They are real and often lead to fatalities, and we must be much more effective in dealing with them.

Another issue is the serious drug use that leads to crime. It is evident from Government figures and all the evidence that it is not the use of cannabis or Ecstasy that leads to criminality, but the use of heroin and crack cocaine. Separating the users from the suppliers gets the users out of the hands of criminals.

I spoke at length to the previous borough commander in Lambeth, Brian Paddick, and to the present borough commander, Brian Moore. They are different characters with an entirely different approach, but both told me that the hype about Lambeth becoming a new drugs haven is nonsense. My colleague, friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is party to that misrepresentation of what has been happening. The person who piloted the scheme and the person who probably would never have done so tell me that things are no worse. They both accept that the system is much more successful if it targets the dealers and heavy drug users. They both tried to do that and reckon that they have had success in that respect, and it has been hysterical hype to suggest that the policy has produced a sudden new emporium for people from all over London or elsewhere. I hope that we can be honest and will listen to those who have the facts and not give in to a public misperception, fuelled by the media, who want to misrepresent bold initiatives as being unsuccessful when they have been extremely successful.

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Prepared 17 October 2002