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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1134—continued

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I agree with my hon. Friend, but if he feels that we have not yet made a hit of the ARA that is because the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 only became law in the summer, so it is not yet fully established. We have trained 86 extra financial investigators for individual police forces and set up a centre of excellence—so watch this space. We fully intend to use all the powers in the Act.

Mr. Bailey: I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. To a certain extent, they pre-empt my next few points. However, when we interviewed the officials who were setting up the ARA, they said that the estimated number of staff was 100. That compares with 44 in the CAB so, if we bear in mind the fact that the population of Eire is 3 million while that of the UK is 60 million, the evidence that we took in April this year suggests that there is no great appreciation of the potential importance of the role of the agency, despite my hon. Friend's reassuring words.

I hope that the Home Office will take this seriously because it is a way in which we can make a significant impact. We will emerge with a social and financial virtuous circle. As half the money will be put into a recovered assets fund that can be recycled to deal with drug dealing, the more successful we are, the more money we earn to invest in the very processes that have been successful in the first place. There is a financial benefit and there are social benefits that accrue from tackling drugs.

In my constituency, there is a communities against drugs scheme, and I want to emphasise its success. There have been mutterings—I say no more than that—that if local authorities have not spent the money allocated to them in this financial year, they will have it reclaimed. My constituency was slow to get going, but there is now a range of initiatives that are proving effective, including four effectively targeted police operations in which 45 people were arrested, £50,000 was confiscated and £12,000 worth of drugs was obtained. There is a drugs information line that has had 100 calls, as well as parents support groups and school initiatives. I plead with the Minister not to be precipitate in removing any money from such local initiatives because my local authority has ideas, is working on them and will use the money effectively.

5.36 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee when it investigated drugs policy. Two weeks before the investigation began, the Home Secretary informed the Committee of his intention to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C. At that moment, I knew that whatever proved to be the outcome of the Committee's deliberations, cannabis would indeed be downgraded to class C; a serious misjudgment, in my view.

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) for his great patience in dealing with the many amendments that I tabled to the Select Committee report. He will

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know that I felt unable to add my name to those of the rest of the Committee on the final report. The Committee's investigations, spanning several months, polarised the debate into two schools of thought; the relative importance of harm reduction versus prevention.

Important though harm reduction undoubtedly is, it cannot stand alone as a policy and is doomed to failure without stringent prevention measures, backed up by enforcement. The notion that treatment can be provided to any existing drug addict who either wants it or is prescribed it as part of a criminal sentence, plus unlimited provision for the constant stream of new addicts, is a fantasy and is unaffordable. That is why I contend that of all the strategies available for reducing drug abuse in this country, prevention is by far the most important.

We must prevent the young people of today from becoming the drug addicts of tomorrow and swelling the ranks of those already addicted if the amount of treatment needed is ever to become manageable.

There are many who would say that drug use should be a matter of individual freedom and choice and, indeed, if people were able to take drugs in isolation and without harming anyone but themselves, there might be an argument for that. The tragic fact is that it is not just the individual who suffers. It is also their family, friends, work colleagues and the wider community in terms of drug-related crime and benefit dependency. This is a freedom too far, where the freedom of the individual impinges on the freedom of too many others.

The metropolitan trendy elite might find it amusing to take drugs socially, but they can afford to check in to an equally trendy and elite clinic for treatment whenever they need it. How unlike the residents of council estates who are no longer able to hold down a job because their drug dependence has robbed them of the ability to observe the normal disciplines of everyday life; the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, to arrive on time at work, to carry out the duties of their job and to interact with other people in a socially acceptable way. They so often also lose their moral fibre and turn to crime in the overwhelming need to meet the cost of their drug habits. However, it is not a fair or complete picture that paints drug addicts as simply victims and places all the blame on the dealers.

People who have disregarded all the available education and advice on the results of drug taking must, to varying degrees and depending on circumstances such as their age, take their share of responsibility for that decision, alongside the dealers. The market is demand led. That is why prevention is so important. Proper prevention, linked to proper education in schools and colleges, would reduce demand at one end of the market, while harm reduction reduces it at the other.

The main focus of new drugs policies is on the treatment of existing users of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. Those hard drugs do serious damage to the physical and emotional health of the user. However, there is overwhelming evidence—both medical and from the police—that the majority of hard drug users start on cannabis. That is not the same as saying that all cannabis users progress—I suppose that Xregress"

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would be the more appropriate word—to heroin and cocaine, but it is fair to say that most hard drug users arrive there via the cannabis route. That is why downgrading cannabis is wrong. It gives out entirely the wrong message, especially to young people, that cannabis is harmless, legal or both.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Watkinson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I will not because of the lack of time.

The mind-altering qualities of cannabis are so complex that, despite momentous medical advances, doctors still do not fully understand them. Some 75 per cent. of young people who suffer psychotic illness have a history of cannabis abuse. Even people in robust mental health suffer negative effects from the odd joint. Those effects may include a short-term lack of resolve, a lesser ability to work, drive a car or operate machinery and an unwillingness to make a physical or mental effort.

Beyond that, there is an unknown percentage with a mental or chemical predisposition for psychotic illness, and cannabis can trigger altered moods, confusion, delusions or even hallucinations in those people. Some ethic communities in which cannabis use is endemic suffer hugely increased levels of psychosis—up to 20 times greater than the general population.

Reducing the number of cannabis users would, in turn, reduce the numbers of new heroin and cocaine addicts, thereby reducing demand. Any relaxation of the law that makes drugs more accessible or reduces penalties will result, inevitably, in increased use and marketing, and be counter-productive to a national policy of reducing drug abuse.

The Government publication XSafer Clubbing" contains guidelines on the safer use of ecstasy in nightclubs. The formal acceptance of drug taking as an integral part of a night out is a classic example of the prevention versus harm reduction argument. Such harm reduction includes the provision of chill-out rooms and making drinking water available, giving the impression that ecstasy will be safe if water is drunk. In fact, drinking too much water can be just as harmful as not drinking enough.

The role of the police is now reduced to minimising use and co-ordinating with harm reduction policies. What does that mean in practice? In effect, it means non-interference and acceptance. To prevent more fatalities, we should aim for co-operation between police, nightclub owners and local licensing authorities in working towards drug-free clubs. What we have instead is capitulation on the grounds that offenders are too numerous to deal with under current police resources. If the same policy were suggested for burglary, for example, which is equally prolific, there would be a public outcry.

A drugs policy focused on harm reduction for hard-drug users is destined to fail because of the ever-increasing demand for expensive treatment, which has to compete for national health service funding with the whole spectrum of health issues.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth rose—

Angela Watkinson: I am sorry; I am short of time, and I am reading as fast as I can.

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The national drug strategy, published on Tuesday, seems to interpret harm reduction as meaning making it easier for people to take drugs and considering making them free of charge and freely available. That will be an extraordinary policy for any Government to introduce. It involves a removal of sanction or any deterrent and would amount to an acceptance of drug habits and effortless access. What message do the Government think that that would send out? It is like saying, XDon't worry, if you choose to take illegal drugs and develop a habit that ruins your health and your finances, the taxpayer will look after you without so much as a slap on the wrist." It amounts to a total removal of accountability and personal responsibility, and it will do nothing to reduce the number of drug addicts.

The Government must put much greater emphasis on prevention. The first essential in prevention policy is proper drugs education. Some of the literature that is currently in use, which passes for education, is information of the most undesirable kind. Lifeline, a Manchester-based charity, in a booklet about cannabis, shows how a joint is rolled. The first piece of advice in a section entitled


Other Lifeline publications are full of four-letter words, shockingly graphic illustrations or instructions on how to inject. One of the favourite phrases is Xinformed choice". Anyone advocating Xinformed choice" for other widespread illegal activities, such as speeding or shoplifting, would be severely censured. Why should it be different with drugs? Even if they were properly informed about drugs, and most are not, there should be no choice. Drugs are illegal. Anyway, children are not mature enough to choose. They are not miniature adults. They should never be put in the position of making critical life decisions. In 2000, DrugScope, our largest drug charity, distributed a booklet on cannabis in its XWhat and Why" series. One of the illustrations shows a young man in the midst of a crop of cannabis plants, wearing a cap that says, "Have fun, Take care". What sort of message does that send to our children?

Harm reduction education does not tackle drugs; it accommodates them. Ofsted inspections must start to address that problem. The majority of teenagers do not use any illegal drugs, and never have done. The biggest weapon that we have in prevention is normalisation and helping those under pressure to see the truth: that their abstention from illegal drugs and tobacco is the norm at any age of childhood, adolescence or adulthood.

The problem is vast in scope, and is a great challenge to the Government, but in making hard drug taking easier and downgrading cannabis—the drug that so often leads to a hard drug habit—the national drug strategy is defeatist and counterproductive. The additional funding allocated to tackling the problem will be as effective as trying to fill a bath without putting in the plug. Prevention is that plug, and it must be given much higher priority. The war on drugs has not been lost; it has never been waged.

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