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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1087—continued

2.32 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): That makes a pleasant change, Madam Deputy Speaker.

May I start by welcoming the Government's new drugs strategy, which was published recently? I am glad to see that it now contains some more realistic targets, with one notable exception: the suggestion that opium production in Afghanistan can be reduced by 70 per cent. in five years and entirely eliminated in 10 years. I think that that is what Sir Humphrey would call Xa brave decision, Minister".

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Courageous.

Mr. Mullin: At least the Minister has the comfort of knowing that, when the day of reckoning comes, he is unlikely to be still in the post that he now occupies.

I particularly welcome the increased emphasis on harm minimisation, the commitment to increased resources for treatment and to making heroin available on prescription to chaotic users. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for having taken seriously the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I hope that he will give further thought to our proposals regarding safe injecting houses.

I have been a member of the Home Affairs Committee for eight of the past 10 years, and I think I can say that our inquiry into drugs policy was one of the most detailed that we have conducted during that time. I would also like to think that, in due course, our report may prove to be one of the most influential, but the jury is still out on that. We held 11 oral evidence sessions with 45 witnesses, including experts from the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland and, besides their evidence, we also took into account over 200 written submissions.

As we quickly discovered, there is no one true path. On the contrary, there is an absolute difference of opinion among experts of every relevant profession—

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doctors, police and social workers. Opinions, all advanced with equal passion, range from those that argue that prohibition has failed and therefore should be abandoned to those that argue that because all drugs are harmful—and they are—existing bans and proscriptions should be maintained or, indeed, tightened. In between, there are many shades of grey.

May I thank all those, from whatever side of the argument, who helped to guide us through that minefield? In particular, I thank Ruth Runciman, who provided us with valuable help and advice at an early stage in our inquiry and whose report for the Police Foundation on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is essential reading for serious students of drugs policy and proved extremely helpful to us during our deliberations.

Perhaps it would be helpful if, at the outset, I were to place on record a few basic facts about drug abuse in this country. First, all illegal drugs and most legal ones are to a greater or lesser extent harmful. That message cannot be repeated too often. However, it is a mistake to pretend that all drugs are equally harmful; they are not, and most young people know that, even if we do not.

Secondly, legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, are responsible for far greater damage to individuals and to the social fabric in general than illegal ones. To take only the most obvious example, about 120,000 people a year die from tobacco-related diseases compared with about 1,600 who die each year from illegal drug abuse. In addition, an unknown number of injecting drug users die prematurely from HIV and hepatitis C.

Thirdly, although a substantial number—about half—of our young people dabble in drugs at some stage in their lives, they usually use so-called soft drugs, and happily most of them soon grow out of it. So more than 2 million young people in any year use drugs, usually cannabis or ecstasy. Fourthly, there are about 250,000 so-called problematic drug users in this country—the highest level in Europe—and they are responsible for about half of all acquisitive crime in this country.

Heroin users are by far and away the biggest problem. They destroy not only their lives, but those of their families and their communities. Despite the best efforts of police and customs, the number of heroin addicts in this country has risen remorselessly over the past 30 years. In 1970, there were only about 1,000; today there are around 200,000. Let no one argue that our drugs policy over the past 30 years has been such an overwhelming success that all we need to do is carry on down the same old road.

Most of the remaining 50,000 problematic drug users are addicted to crack cocaine. Unlike heroin, which dumbs down people, crack can lead to violent and unpredictable behaviour and is responsible for a growing amount of gang warfare in London and elsewhere.

Once those basic facts have been digested, certain conclusions are inescapable. First, a policy based upon retribution alone will not work. Given, as I said, that more than 2 million young people dabble with illegal drugs in any year, it is obvious that they cannot all be locked up or even fined. In any case, what is the point of criminalising tens of thousands of young people who are in every other respect law abiding, most of whom are

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unlikely to inflict lasting damage on themselves or anyone else—although some do— and who will grow out of it anyway in due course?

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I wonder whether my hon. Friend watched television last night and saw a remarkable young man, destined for great things—perhaps he will be Prime Minister one day—Master Will Straw. Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that, in the opinion of some hon. Members, the best thing for Master Will Straw, as a supplier of what will now become a category C drug, would be for him to spend a very long period in jail? What good would that do?

Mr. Mullin: As I think my hon. Friend wants me to say, it would do no good at all. As I recall, however, Will Straw's father took the appropriate action at the time, which, I hope, put him on the straight and narrow.

Secondly, law enforcers should overwhelmingly target those who deal in drugs for profit, especially those that cause the most harm—heroin and crack cocaine.

The third inescapable conclusion is that drug addiction is overwhelmingly a health problem and should be treated as such. It is now widely recognised in this country and others that harm minimisation is a thread that should run through all policy on drug abusers, concentrating in particular on those who are doing the most damage to themselves and to society. Overwhelmingly, that means heroin users. The prize for society as a whole is large. If we can reduce the number of heroin users, we will reduce the amount of burgling and mugging by addicts seeking to fund a habit. Research conducted for the Home Office shows that for every £1 spent on treatment, about £3 is saved in costs to the criminal justice system.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Can the hon. Gentleman tell us his view or that of his Committee on whether the experiment in Lambeth produced the right response from the authorities—concentrating on the hard end and not spending time and effort on soft drugs? Does he accept the view of the Home Office research study, which shows that cannabis, on the balance of the evidence, is not a gateway drug, and that little evidence exists to suggest that somebody who starts on cannabis moves automatically or naturally from there to other more serious drugs?

Mr. Mullin: I have not read the research to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I agree that cannabis is not necessarily a gateway to other harder drugs; it is in some cases, but cigarettes are just as likely—in some cases, more likely—to lead to harder drugs. With regard to the Lambeth experiment, I have no detailed knowledge of it, except to say that one of the effects of conducting such an experiment in isolation in one borough is to pull in so-called drug tourists, which somewhat skewed the way in which the experiment was viewed. It must be right, however, to focus remorselessly on those who deal in the hardest drugs and those that cause the most damage to society as a whole.

My fourth inescapable conclusion is that harm minimisation means that we need to be realistic about the relative harm caused by different types of drugs. At

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present, the law is an ass. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ecstasy is classified alongside heroin and crack cocaine as a class A drug, supply of which attracts a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, and possession of which attracts a maximum sentence of seven years. Furthermore, existing law makes no distinction between dealing for profit and so-called social supply: a group of young people sharing among themselves. The Select Committee concluded that the law should recognise such a distinction. Purely on the basis of the science, we also recommended—as did the Police Foundation previously—that ecstasy should be reclassified from class A to class B, for which, incidentally, substantial penalties are still available. I am sorry that the Home Secretary did not take that up.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I wholly agree with the Home Affairs Committee's conclusion that it is absurd for ecstasy to be grouped with heroin and cocaine, because that diminishes the arguments against heroin and cocaine. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that it should not be included in class B with amphetamines and barbiturates? Did the Home Affairs Committee consider broadening the bands and having wider categories for all illegal drugs?

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