EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman said one thing with which I passionately disagree: that it is only hard drug use, not the use of soft drugs, that is connected with other crime. I ask him, in all seriousness, if he has

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come across anyone who is addicted to heroin or cocaine whose first contact with the drugs industry was not through cannabis? It is the pathway to hard drug addiction.

Simon Hughes: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's direct question is yes, I have. Cannabis is sometimes the pathway because the person who supplies the cannabis, to whom people go for drugs, then tries to sell them the harder drug. As many of the hon. Gentleman's Conservative colleagues and some of the traditionally Conservative press, such as The Daily Telegraph, have said, the logical answer is to separate the places where people go to get cannabis from those supplying hard drugs. It is obvious market economics. Drug dealers who supply people with relatively harmless, cheap drugs will try to sell them a bigger and better product. It is no different whatever is being sold: whether it is drugs, Belgian chocolates or white goods such as washing machines, it is the same principle. Sellers want people to buy more of what they are supplying and to become more dependent on their supply.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath and his party are fundamentally wrong to believe that if we took out cannabis, which is used by 44 per cent. of the country, which people do not regard as dangerous and which is, on all the evidence, much less dangerous than other drugs, it would increase progress into harder drugs. The evidence in the European monitoring centre's report and that of the EU drugs policy is clear: it found a strong association between problematical drug use such as heroin and/or crack addiction and criminality. Most offenders were more likely than the rest of the population to be consumers of prohibited drugs. The reality is that car nicking and house breaking are fuelled by people who are paying for hard drugs. By and large, people do not go burgling to get the money for a bit of cannabis at the weekend. In my constituency, people who use Ecstasy are not known as those who cause the most trouble. I am sorry to say that I have known many people who have used Ecstasy, but they are not the people whom the police are after for serious drug use.

It is important—it comes back to where I began—to have good European co-ordination in dealing with the demand and supply of illicit drugs. It is important, too, to understand what the facts and figures show, however uncomfortable that message may be. The level of hard drug use is unacceptably high across the EU and especially in the United Kingdom. Sadly, we are still one of the worst performers. It is therefore vital that we get accurate monitoring. Targets may not be wise because they sometimes have to be dropped, but it would be good to know exactly what is going on and to have clear comparisons so that we could learn from that rich experience. The Swedes may be very successful. If so, we need to learn that. That argument is not generally accepted. It is early days for the Portuguese, but they appear to be relatively successful. The Dutch may be about to change policy, depending on which Government are in office after the next general election in the new year.

Diverse solutions should be pursued across the EU. I hope that we can break out of the straitjacket of

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international constraints that prevent us from being bold and imaginative. We have to win the argument at home, but the more diversity of approach there is across the EU and the more accurate information there is, the better. We have to police external boundaries and reduce the supply, but supply cannot be reduced until demand is reduced. Demand is not reduced if the link between supply and demand is criminals who are making money out of it. I hope that, under its new enlightened home affairs leadership, the Conservative party will not fall for the old solutions. Many other Conservatives, including those in the press, have understood that they have not worked and that we need to move on.

10.26 am

Paul Flynn: I welcome the tone of the debate. The word ''humility'' has been used. It is an appropriate stance against the massive failure on our continent. Every year, 30,000 people die from illegal drug misuse. There is also misuse of legal or medicinal drugs. There is a huge problem and we are only just looking at how to assess it.

Drug laws have changed on two occasions. There were big changes in the 1920s. Almost all European countries changed their policies after the right-wing Government in America introduced prohibition of drugs and alcohol. We did not follow them down that route, but we prohibited certain drugs. It was quite irrational. They were not dangerous or addictive. It is interesting that cannabis was never used recreationally in Britain until it was prohibited. The prohibition of illegal drugs did not eliminate their use; it increased it.

The next great change took place in 1961 with the single convention on narcotic drugs. The United Nations believed, quite seriously and for good reasons, that it would eliminate drug use in the world. It did not. Do we have any solutions? We do not as such but we know that some policies will reduce harm.

In 1971, we changed our policies in response to the single convention and the result is alarming. Before 1971 there were fewer than 1,000 heroin and cocaine addicts in Britain. According to Home Office figures there are now about 280,000. The drug laws are not working. Before 1971, people who were using heroin could get supplies from the national health service. One of them was the author of ''National Velvet'', a very dignified lady living in a leafy English village. She took massive quantities of heroin because she became addicted when given morphine during an operation. She took those huge quantities every day of her adult life. She died serenely and peacefully in her bed at the age of 91.

Contrast that with what happened two years ago when one batch of heroin killed 50 young people in Ireland and Scotland. They were not killed by heroin. If it had been clean and taken under hygienic conditions and they had known its strength, they would not have been affected. They were killed by prohibition. They were killed because we have introduced a law that means that the supply, manufacture and distribution of the drug are in the hands of irresponsible criminals. That batch of heroin

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was contaminated. That is what we must look at now, rather than the waffle in these documents, which are a disgrace. They could be talking about a different continent. Nothing in them informs us about the ferment of trial, experiment and debate currently taking place in every part of Europe. They are little more than a wish list of expectations and might-have-beens.

I congratulate the Minister on the Government's change of policy direction since last year. I refer him to my splendid website, which analyses Government policy in 1998 in comparison with their most recent policy. Viewers are invited to spot the difference. The proposals before us show that the Government are seeking achievable aims, which is something new. Tragedies increased every year. We never opted for achievable aims, which poses the question of what aims are unachievable. Rather than avoid taking hard decisions or challenging editors of the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard—people who treacherously ask the Government to change policy and then attack them for doing so—we should examine outcomes and understand what really happens in the drugs world.

I mention drug education because it is a convenient way of dealing with the problem of not knowing what to do about drugs. Governments have simply thrown some money into drug education, but that is inadequate. Let me tell a story to illustrate what I mean. I once visited Holland with a woman who was responsible for giving drug education lessons in schools. She explained to the Dutch audience that the effect of cannabis was to make women promiscuous and men impotent—about as unsatisfactory a position as could be imagined. It was gratifying to note how many of the Dutch males present were willing to give their time and energy to prove to that lady that the effect of cannabis on males was not as she believed. The truth is that we have talked nonsense to our children about the dangers of many drugs. It reminds me of what I was taught at school many years ago—that certain sexual practices would make us go blind. No scientific basis has ever been provided for that.

The DART and DARE trials in America are another example. A device was produced and every time it was condemned as useless and a waste of money, the vast prohibition industry in America said that what was taught five years ago was not as good as it should have been but that the new practice was fine. That has happened four times over the past 25 years. There is no way of getting through to young people on the basis of information that they later find to be false. That will not persuade them not to do what their peers are doing. That will not counter peer pressure. We should reflect on examples of drug laws working and reducing drug harm.

We have all received terrible phone calls from constituents, often from mothers. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, we might hear that their daughters are in prostitution, their sons suicidal. When tragedy results, what can we say to

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those mothers? One told me that she was buying heroin for her son. She wanted a clean supply and knew where to get it in the right strengths. I told her that what she had done was the act of a loving parent. She was keeping her son away from the illegal drug trade, which might well have resulted in his death.

Other parents on a Radio 2 programme said that a mother had instructed her son to commit a crime because it was the only way in which he could get treatment. The mother said that she did not want to see her son dead. If he committed a crime, he could go to prison where treatment was available. Unfortunately, despite the posturing by a series of Governments, we failed—until last year—to deal effectively with such problems.

I have attended debates in this House since 1987. Whenever drugs were discussed, a similar pattern was discernible. The Government and Opposition agreed that new schemes were necessary and that more money should be spent here and there, yet hanging over the Chamber every year were statistics that condemned us: more people were buying and using drugs, leading to more drug crime and more people's lives wasted. It is not insignificant that our country has the harshest drug laws in Europe and the worst outcomes. A report produced for the 43 countries of the Council of Europe examined outcomes effectively.

I agree entirely with what is said in the document: we need the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which does a splendid job in making a reasonable comparison between countries. As a rapporteur for the Council of Europe's social, health and family affairs committee, I had the task of preparing a report on that, which happily was accepted unanimously by the 63 members of that committee, representing 43 countries. It is an enormously difficult task to look objectively at what works and what does not.

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Prepared 17 October 2002