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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1109—continued

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: As the hon. Gentleman knows, such tests are already carried out. However, we are conducting research that could support the use of a visible test, and we may have something to help the police to test addicts by next August.

Simon Hughes: That is very encouraging news, and many families will be reassured by it. I know of

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constituents—they have since become friends—who have lost relatives in collisions involving someone who was under the influence. They feel an enormous sense of injustice at the fact that the law has not treated them equally.

Mr. Hawkins: As the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to point out, I have worked on this issue for a long time, and I am delighted that he agrees with me. Indeed, in the end there may be all-party agreement on it; I certainly hope so. We intend to introduce our own Bill during this Session to try to improve the opportunity to collect evidence and to try to give the police the additional testing powers that they need. I am prepared to discuss with him, and with the Minister, how we might take that forward. In other words, there may be no need to wait until August; if all parties agree, we could produce something in this Session.

Simon Hughes: On all such issues, I am entirely happy to collaborate with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and with the Minister and his colleagues. None of us gains by taking a party political view on this matter. If we can get the right legislation soon we can change attitudes about drug use. Changed attitudes to drink driving and drinking at lunch time have rendered those activities less frequent. If the same thing happened with drugs, that would be very welcome.

One great international point affects us all, and that is that we will not be able to control demand until we control supply. The Minister is right to say that countries such as Afghanistan and those in south America must be the focus of our attention. I know that Ministers in the Department for International Development, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and elsewhere understand that. However, unless we can change the agriculture in those countries and make sure that people do not make a living from exporting heroin and other drugs at high prices, we will not be able to deal with the problem. Traffickers come here from the drug-exporting countries, and we know what happens as a result.

The Liberal Democrat party always seeks to respect international law, and the drugs problem is covered by international agreements and Geneva conventions. We are not allowed to legalise the use of narcotics, and my party accepts that constraint. However, the difference between us and the two other main parties is that we believe that the evidence in connection with cannabis, in particular, points to the clear conclusion that personal use and growing for personal use and social supply to another person should not be treated as criminal activities. We agree with DrugScope and other organisations—and by implication with the Home Affairs Committee—that the logic is that cannabis should be downgraded to a category C drug, as the Home Secretary intends. However, it is nonsense at the same time to make the possession of cannabis an arrestable offence for which a person can be imprisoned, as provided in the Criminal Justice Bill that had its Second Reading yesterday.That is a mixed message, if ever there was one. I have said as much to Home Office Ministers, and I repeat it this afternoon. We need the message to be clear. Some drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, are very dangerous, and other drugs, such as ecstasy, present an intermediate danger. I do not

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argue that cannabis is not dangerous, or that it may not be proved to be more so, but the evidence shows that it is in a different league. The hundreds of thousands of people who use it every week should not risk arrest for personal possession of cannabis. Anything else is a nonsense.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I do not accept that the message is mixed. The hon. Gentleman should look at the provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill to facilitate an arrestable offence with regard to class C drugs, and at the guidance drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers, to which the police service has a real commitment. The provisions will limit how and when an arrestable offence is used. Such an offence should be used where a public order problem arises, and when there is blatant and continued use of cannabis. Police officers should not expect to have to face people who flatly refuse to comply with a request. That is the intention. Taken together, the ACPO guidance and the proposed new criminal justice framework do not transmit the mixed message that the hon. Gentleman fears.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely understand what the Government are trying to do. I have looked at the ACPO guidance, but I still do not think that the approach will work. People who go around with cannabis are at risk of being arrested and even imprisoned, if only for a short period, as are people who might be thought to be committing a breach of public order offence by, say, winding up the police. To be honest, that represents a misdirection of resources.

It must be better and clearer to say to people who smoke cannabis on their own that that remains a crime but that the policy is one of no arrest, no prosecution. The same applies to people who give cannabis to their mates for nothing, and to those who grow it in gardens or window boxes. However, people who start flogging cannabis on the streets are dealing, and can be prosecuted. People who stand outside school gates and deal cannabis will be clobbered with a severe sentence. Dealing is a commercial activity, and needs to be firmly dealt with.

I know what the difficulty in countries such as the Netherlands has been. The Dutch policy of having legitimate entry by the front door of a cannabis café but illegitimate entry by the back door to the suppliers of the cannabis strikes me as hypocritical. Until the UN convention can allow country opt-out, for which I hope the European Union will push, the best course of action is to keep cannabis use as a crime but have a non-prosecution policy for personal use, not for dealing. I put cannabis into that category for all sorts of reasons: it is widely used, it is the least harmful and there is no evidence of it causing death.

That is why we put ecstasy into the intermediate category and support the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations that it, too, be downgraded.The question that I am always asked is whether I would suggest downgrading ecstasy to the family of Leah Betts. I would and do suggest it to them, because although there are a handful of deaths from ecstasy

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there are 10 times as many from amphetamines. Of course there is a risk, but the evidence-based conclusion is that ecstasy has nothing like the same risk or addiction as other drugs. I would be happy, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, to refer this question to the advisory committee so that it can give us its evidence-based view. If its members say that it should be downgraded, we should follow that recommendation. I would be much happier with that than with a party political view.

I understand the media issues; I understand the personal grief and trauma that is involved. No one wants any other youngster to take ecstasy and risk dying, which is why the clubbing guide is welcome. However, ecstasy is not in the same league as heroin and crack cocaine. It is nonsense to keep it in the same category and it should be downgraded.

Bob Russell: Although it is obvious that cannabis is not in the same league as heroin, does my hon. Friend accept that we should not send out the message that it is okay, especially when it is known that cannabis is considerably stronger now than it was 10 years ago?

Simon Hughes: I absolutely agree with that. If we are to introduce evidence-based legislation, we need to be able to change the categories as the evidence changes and drugs because more or less pure or more or less strong. We have to be able to respond to what is happening in the real world where people are flogging drugs.

If cannabis, ecstasy and heroin are put in one rolled-up category, more people will be pushed into the hands of the dealers. If people who use cannabis socially have to get their supplies from someone who wants them as a regular customer, the supplier will want them to buy something that costs more and makes them more dependent. It is obvious to me that addiction lies down that road.

I am no expert on this subject, although, like the Minister, I read about it. I come to this as a lay person looking at the evidence. In its summary, Home Office research study No. 253, headed XThe road to ruin? Sequences of initiation into drug use and offending by young people in Britain", says:

that is, starting on cannabis and proceeding to other drugs—

The best evidence suggests that people do not go automatically from cannabis to other drugs unless the person who flogged them the cannabis tries to get them on to harder drugs. People are then prone to that happening and are likely to be caught.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Does he recognise that many clubbers who use ecstasy are polydrug users and that those who sell it to them are polydrug dealers? That is one reason why it would be so dangerous to separate ecstasy and downgrade it.

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