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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1090—continued

Mr. Mullin: What the hon. Gentleman says sounds as if it makes sense, but I would want to study the matter further before venturing a firm opinion. I am in no doubt, however, that drugs need to be categorised according to their degree of harmfulness. After that, it becomes a scientific issue. On ecstasy and perhaps one or two other drugs, the science is clear.

The logic that applies to ecstasy applies to cannabis, too. The Committee therefore welcomes the Home Secretary's proposal to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. He has since said that he proposes to extend police powers of arrest not just to cannabis users but to all other category C drugs. At first glance, that seems to be a step backwards rather than forwards, and I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point when he replies.

A policy of harm minimisation requires realistic, honest education targeted on those at most risk. It should address the harmful effects of all drugs, including alcohol and cigarettes. On illegal drugs, it should focus on those that are most harmful, which, in most cases, means heroin. The message needs to be simple and unambiguous: heroin is a loser's drug. That message should be directed at communities with the highest incidence of heroin abuse, and at the most vulnerable young people, who are often underachievers and school drop-outs, and those from communities in which work for the unskilled has collapsed, as it has in some of the ex-pit villages of Nottinghamshire, south Yorkshire and County Durham. In that respect, I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in highlighting the problems in his area. Above all, the education message should be delivered by people with street cred—not by men in suits—and ideally by recovered addicts.

In conclusion, I should mention that some people believe that we ought to go further. We took a good deal of evidence on that. Some of those who gave evidence to us argued that we should decriminalise all drug use, concentrate law enforcement entirely on dealing, and,

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for users, concentrate only on education and harm minimisation. That is more or less what has already happened in countries such as Portugal. We rejected decriminalisation because, apart from the obvious political realities, we thought that it would send the wrong message to the 50 per cent. of young people who at no time in their lives touch illegal drugs, many of whom, according to research, are deterred precisely because drug taking is illegal, and, of course, because they care about the effects on their health. Nevertheless, we should study carefully what is happening in Portugal and elsewhere to see what we might learn from it.

Others argue that all currently illegal drugs should be legalised and regulated in the way that cigarettes are. Some surprising and serious people hold that view, including a former chief constable, a former British ambassador to Colombia who had first-hand experience of the devastating impact of the American-sponsored war on drugs in that country, and Mr. Fulton Gillespie, a most impressive witness, whose son had died of a heroin overdose, and who believed that his son would still be alive today if heroin were legalised and regulated. Their arguments were that prohibition has failed, that most of those who have been killed by heroin died because it had been adulterated by criminals or because they had taken the wrong dosage, and that we need to get the trade out of the hands of criminals.

All those arguments have a certain logic. We rejected them because they ask us to gamble gains that are at best theoretical against the inevitability of a significant increase in the number of users, especially among the very young. The one question that the legalisers could not answer satisfactorily was what they would do about crack cocaine, which as I have said, leads to violent and unpredictable behaviour. Those arguments will not go away. We should be under no illusion: if existing policies fail to stem the tide of heroin—past policies have utterly failed, as the street price of heroin, although stable now, is as low as it has ever been—new ones will have to be tried. Some old arguments will have to be revisited and some old prejudices set aside in favour of what works.

For now, however, the path is clear. Our policy must be based on three clear pillars: prevention, treatment and harm reduction. That is what our report recommends, and I am glad to see that that is the direction in which the Government are moving.

2.49 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): A number of different issues need to be considered in relation to the Government's drug policy. I want to start, however, with what has been noticed and commented on widely this week in the media. We have seen headlines such as XLabour drops key target on drugs". The accompanying article said:

Anyone who has examined in detail what the Government promised to do when they appointed the drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell—with the huge fanfares that everyone who follows the issue will recall—will

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recognise what has happened. The Government have conceded that everything that they were trying to do and that they told everyone that they were going to do has failed.

I do not blame the Minister personally. I know that he works extremely hard and is very diligent. However, I urge everyone who follows our proceedings to note that the Government have abandoned the targets and are starting again only a few years after they announced with such a fanfare what they would do. They must therefore face serious criticism.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) rose—

Mr. Jon Owen Jones rose—

Mr. Hawkins: I will give way much later to the arch-legalisers from south Wales. We have crossed swords many times and I have told them before that I will never agree with their views about legalisation. I may give way to them much later on one or two points of detail. I shall start by considering what the Government are doing before I deal with the crackpots on the Labour Back Benches.

The Government suggested that Keith Hellawell would be the answer to the nation's drugs problems. When I saw Mr. Hellawell reacting on television to questions about the Government's new announcement, he described it as all spin to cover up failure. That is the Government's much-heralded drugs tsar talking. His words should be taken seriously.

Fortunately, police forces and media commentators still listen to Mr. Hellawell. He is still the authority—and is treated as such—that Ministers from the then Home Secretary downwards praised so highly when they appointed him. We had a change of Home Secretary and we all know that the new Home Secretary fell out with the drugs tsar. As with so many much-trumpeted Labour appointments, the drugs tsar paid the penalty for falling out with the new Home Secretary. The Government's failure has been made clear by their drugs tsar.

We have seen other descriptions in the media of what the Government are now saying will be their revised targets. We have seen them described as Xtough love" and as the Xnational heroin service". Addicts will be given free drugs even though that policy has failed before. Press commentators are right to warn all law-abiding members of society about the dangers of drugs and about the dangers of weasel words.

Two of the weasel words that the Government repeat constantly refer to so-called Xharm minimisation". I have considered these matters for four years as a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team, and for many years before that, including those years when I prosecuted and defended drugs cases in some of the most deprived areas of the east and west midlands. I have seen the way in which weasel words are used. Harm minimisation is often treated by campaigners as code for giving up and as code for legalisation. We must start using clear facts in the terminology that we use.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who opened this important debate, and to the work that his Select Committee has done. As he rightly said, it produced an extremely thorough and

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detailed piece of work. All parties and those outside the House have benefited hugely from the detail of that investigation and from the evidence that the Committee collected. However, those of us on the Opposition Front Bench do not have to agree with all the Committee's conclusions, and I know that the hon. Gentleman, who takes these matters as seriously as I do, recognises that fact. He also recognises that I and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, have repeatedly said that we welcome what the Home Affairs Committee did in investigating the matter so thoroughly. There are conclusions, such as the fact that certain drugs should remain class A, with which we entirely agree.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) rose—

Mr. Hawkins: We also agree, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and the Minister know, that clear emphasis should be placed on intensive rehabilitation. Like the Home Affairs Committee, we have called for a huge increase in the amount of rehabilitation available, particularly for those addicted to class A drugs.

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