EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004

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Dr. Palmer: Most members of the Committee accept that existing drug policy is not obviously successful, to put it mildly. Does my hon. Friend accept that the policy of drug legalisation also has its difficulties? To be honest, I have not smoked cannabis, but if it were legal, I would be curious enough to give it a try. I am sure there are many people in that situation. There is a risk that legalisation would expand the market, perhaps expand addiction, and then—even though the supply was legal—drive people into committing crime to support their legal addiction. There are problems both ways.

Paul Flynn: We do not have to look at the theory. We can look at what has happened. The countries that I examined in detail were the two most pragmatic countries in Europe, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and the two most prohibitive, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The results were fascinating. Taking the figures from Sweden and the United Kingdom, and using 1986 as a base year, the only two countries that doubled their drug harm in that period were Sweden and the UK. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath shakes his head—I hope to hear his figures that contradict that. The matter has been before the Council of Europe for 18 months, and no one has contradicted those figures.

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Mr. Hawkins: I have in front of me the European Parliament's research—the working paper on the drug policies of the Netherlands and Sweden and how they compare. May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman ought to rely on that rather than dangerous nonsense? When he suggests that cannabis medically does no harm, I hold him personally responsible for peddling dangerous nonsense, and he should be ashamed of himself.

Paul Flynn: That is a fatuous intervention, and I am sorry the hon. Gentleman made it. I have never at any time suggested that any drug does no harm. I have been a lifelong campaigner against all drugs. If he looks at the document, he will find that there is a low level of drug use in Sweden, but it is increasing at a faster rate than it is elsewhere.

The most striking thing is that 25 years after there was regulated decriminalisation of part of the trade in the Netherlands, the use of soft and hard drugs there is less than it is here in all grades, and the number of deaths is far fewer than it is here, after we have had 30 years of the harshest prohibition in Europe. The evidence is there. I believe that that situation is reversible, despite the electoral aberration that that country suffered recently.

There is a significant matter that Sweden can celebrate. The greatest example in Europe of a success in relation to drug harm is in Sweden. An average number of women there use nicotine. Sweden's drug deaths from nicotine among women exactly match the European average, but deaths among males are half the European average. The reason for that, which is significant, is that half the males use nicotine without smoking. They use it in the form of snus, a drug that is illegal, incredibly, in this country. However, in Sweden, it has cut the number of male deaths from cancer by half. That is because nicotine in itself is not a harmful drug. It is no more harmful than caffeine, but if one wraps it up, sets fire to it and smokes it, one inhales 400 chemicals, 60 of which are carcinogenic. If one ingests it in other ways, it is a relatively harmless drug. We banned the use of that oral form of nicotine in this country because we thought that it would lead to oral cancers and it does not; it does so very rarely.

The point is that we are in denial of the truth: when we see an example of harm reduction that works successfully, we tend to deny it. As politicians, we fall back on the easy line, and say that we are going to be tough on drugs. All Governments over 30 years have said that, but none have claimed to be intelligent on drugs or courageous on drugs until the past 12 months, during which we have seen the Home Secretary's actions. They are the first steps. Many people believe that cannabis is now decriminalised. In many cases it is, de facto, decriminalised.

I was delighted to hear about one of the least progressive police forces in the country, which was the last to investigate cases and to imprison two men for using cannabis medicinally. In the past month, it took up a case of a man who was clearly guilty of breaking the law because he was using cannabis to help his serious illness. Magistrates refused to convict the man although he had definitely broken the law. In other

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parts of the country, juries are refusing to convict. Politicians should examine what has happened. Public opinion has overtaken us and we will see that the police, magistrates and the community in general will refuse to obey a foolish law. It is up to us to catch up with public opinion.

Holland's greatest success, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey suggested, has been a lower use of cannabis than in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said that it might be a bigger attraction if it were legal. I would not smoke it whether it were legal or not—I would not smoke anything. Holland has removed the attraction of the forbidden fruit. In this country, young people think that cannabis is fascinating, wicked and dangerous, which is what they want because they all know that they are immortal and will live for ever. However, those arguments would not work if people could use cannabis in a cake and go to take it in a café with their grandmother. Where is the fun in that? It takes away part of the appeal. The best thing that we can do is to persuade young people not to smoke cannabis, which would give an immediate health gain.

In the Netherlands, the two markets have been separated. A break away from one drug to another is more likely to happen in Britain than elsewhere in Europe because the marketing, sale and pushing of heroin, cannabis and cocaine are in the hands of the same people, which allows users to progress easily from one to another.

Mr. Hawkins: For the first time for a long time, the hon. Gentleman has said something with which I agree. He said that part of the attraction for young people is the danger of doing something illegal. I agree with him 100 per cent. If cannabis were legalised, the first illegal drugs with the attraction of danger would be the hard drugs—the most addictive drugs and the drugs that kill. Does the hon. Gentleman not see that the logic of his argument is one of the strongest reasons why cannabis should not be legalised?

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman should go back to the position in Britain before 1971. Cannabis was illegal then but the attraction was not there. We have given an incentive to the black market, which does not pay taxes and is irresponsible and indifferent to its customers' health. The market has grown fat and rich under the rules of prohibition.

There is a practical example from the Netherlands. Cannabis is usually used responsibly there: people use it at the weekends and do not drive after using it. It has become one of the recreational drugs. We should consider the really harmful drugs—alcohol and tobacco—that are not mentioned in the document, and the great scourge that they are to lives.

The greatest example of drug abuse that wrecks people's lives in Britain is probably the use of neuroleptic drugs in prisons and residential homes for adults. Those drugs are used in prisons to keep prisoners, especially female prisoners, quiet. A book called ''Darkness Visible'' shows how young female prisoners are given neuroleptic drugs if they mutilate themselves. The drugs make them wander around in strange ways as though they are muppets, to use the

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prison slang. The routine use of such drugs as a chemical cosh in residential homes for the elderly to turn lively argumentative older people into zombies is an awful sight and a continuing disgrace. Although we rightly worry about deaths from Ecstasy—they used to run at approximately 12 a year but have increased to a couple of dozen a year—those figures are dwarfed by the enormous number of deaths from the simple, respectable drugs that can be found in people's medicine cabinets—antidepressants and painkillers. One brand of painkiller killed 600 people last year and antidepressants regularly kill 500 people.

When examining the harm done by drugs, we should look critically at any failures created by politicians over the years. The massive loss of life and huge amount of crime caused by drugs are entirely unnecessary. The problem is not the drugs themselves but the drug laws: they are not working.

10.45 am

Mr. Ainsworth: May I first deal with comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West? I also welcome the tone of the debate. He and I may disagree on aspects of this issue, but we have had several debates on drugs over the past year and we are now able—I hope that we never return to anything less—to discuss the issues openly, sensibly and calmly. I welcome that change. We must continue to analyse what is a real problem and deal with it as best we can. We will always have differences of opinion, but they should be discussed in the tone in which we have conducted our debate today.

Some of the most passionate arguments advanced by my hon. Friend about the problems that we confront are not necessarily arguments for legalisation. They are powerful arguments for growth in the capacity for treatment, which should be a priority. It has been the Government's priority for some time and I am glad to see that it is also the priority of a leading member of the Conservative Opposition, even if that change of tone, style and priority has not reached every part of the Opposition Front-Bench team.

To put the record straight with regard to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West, cannabis has not and will not be decriminalised. He asked about the medicinal use of cannabis. We are trying to deal with that issue as quickly as we possibly can. Studies evaluating the medicinal use of cannabis derivatives are under way with a view to making drugs available as soon as that evaluation has been completed, if it is justified. He said that he knew of cases in which magistrates have refused to take action, but, equally, we can cite cases in which magistrates have taken strong action—against those running cannabis cafes in Stockport recently, for example.

Nobody should be under the illusion that cannabis has been legalised or decriminalised, or we will get people into serious trouble. It is an illegal substance. It is illegal to traffic in it and will remain so. People will be prosecuted if they do.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned the need for heroin prescription and the experimentation in Switzerland. He knows about the matter because he examines such issues in detail. Heroin prescription is not illegal in Britain but, in all probability, heroin is under-valued as a prescribed drug. The Home Affairs Committee exposed that issue, as he knows. The main problem is not the legal framework but the confidence of the medical practitioners. We aim to increase confidence by agreeing new guidelines with medical practitioners to enable them to feel comfortable about prescribing diamorphine as an alternative to methadone in appropriate circumstances. We are not opposed to heroin prescription: it has its place within a range of treatments.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked me what went on yesterday and I said that I did not know. What I think happened is that there was continued discussion on minimum and maximum penalties, and we came fairly close to reaching an agreement on that. There was some quite positive feedback from yesterday's meeting. However, the main country that had a problem on that matter was the Netherlands, and it does not now have a Government—as the hon. Gentleman will know from the contents of this morning's papers—so there will be a delay before there is a definitive decision on the matter. However, I think that there was a degree of positive movement with regard to reaching an agreement on minimum and maximum penalties.

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