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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1137—continued

5.47 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): If somebody had told me in 1997, when I came to the House, that we would have such a debate just five years hence, I would

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not have believed them. Only one or two people in the House at that stage were willing to put their heads above the parapet and suggest some of the ideas that have been accepted by the Government recently. We were regarded, if you will pardon the expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as crackpots.

I am therefore very pleased to take part in the debate today, and I congratulate the Government on the radical steps that they are prepared to take. Clearly, the current policies were not working, radical thinking was necessary, and development of the policy was essential. That is what we have seen in the last few months. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and all the members of that Committee on their hard work in taking evidence and producing an excellent report, which came on top of the report by the Police Foundation, whose committee was chaired by Lady Runciman.

Not a great deal of time remains, so I shall concentrate on a matter that has not been mentioned in today's debate. Many organisations have written to me in my capacity as chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, and I shall start by addressing the question of the guidance notes in a recent consultation on an amendment by section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 to section 8(d) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Following the Wintercomfort case in Cambridge, I raised the possible consequences in a debate in this place on 9 November last year. Since then, guidance notes have been circulated for consultation and section 8(d) is just about to be amended. In fact, the consultation period ended on 8 November this year.

Several organisations are concerned about some of the proposals. Previously, it was illegal for organisations to allow cannabis and prepared opium to be used on their premises. The pattern of drugs misuse since 1971 has moved on and it is admitted that future legislation needs to cover heroin, cocaine and crack, amphetamines, LSD, ecstasy and so on. The reason stated for the change in the regulations is that the police need powers to deal with the closed drug markets, mainly the crack houses and, in particular, the crack houses in London.

Section 8(b) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 already applies to the supply of all controlled drugs on premises, and it has been used. Indeed, a number of authorities in London—for example, Camden, Lambeth and Hackney—have developed policies to deal with crack houses quite efficiently.

Unlike heroin, which is a depressant and for which substitute drugs are available, cocaine either as the salt or the base, which is otherwise known as crack, is a serious stimulant that can make its users extremely aggressive, and no substitute drug is available. Cocaine is the biggest difficulty that we now face in the drug market.

Outside London, cocaine was not a great problem until recently, but concern is growing in large cities, such as Manchester, and even in places such as Bolton, which is part of greater Manchester. The supply of cocaine in the north is being accelerated by the fact that flights from the Caribbean rim now come into Manchester airport. Swallowers or mules—call them what we will—now come into Manchester airport in the same way as they come into Schiphol airport.

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I was at Schiphol a few weeks ago, watching the treatment of drugs swallowers. Fifteen drug offenders are arrested each day at the airport and the authorities admit that they miss many more. Forty people came in on a flight from the Caribbean rim recently and they were all carrying up to a kilogram of cocaine in their gastro-intestinal tract.

Organisations working in drug treatment and those working with the homeless, in particular, feel that the proposed changes to the law will be unworkable if they are enacted and will be detrimental to drugs users, voluntary organisations and the public at large. It is feared that the changes will result in an increased number of homeless people on the streets, and nearly all of them will have serious drug problems. They will be unable to access accommodation for a long time and support services will not be readily available to them.

The guidance notes require those who know that drugs are being used on premises to contact the police as soon as possible. I submit to my hon. Friend the Minister that that alone might result in a lack of trust between the homeless people with serious drug problems and the organisations trying to help them. Organisations also fear that police forces will apply the law inconsistently across the country, although there is the backstop of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Agencies whose aim is to get drug users off the streets and stabilised before treatment is possible are particularly concerned by the new regulations, although the Government admit that special measures will have to be made available for the people who welcome in serious drug addicts. However, the proposed consultation document contains no mention of the paraphernalia that drug users use to inject themselves or of the sharps bins that will be required on the premises. Some clarification of that aspect is necessary.

Surely we should welcome it if all serious drug users who live on the streets come inside and at least stabilise themselves, even if they do not offer themselves up for the treatments that will be made available much wider than hitherto. It must be recognised that the only chance of survival for a small but growing cohort of very chaotic drug users is long-term maintenance on heroin or diamorphine. So I am pleased that the Government are to extend the prescribing of clinically pure heroin.

Although the draft guidance notes enable police to take into account harm reduction factors when deciding whether to prosecute, it will remain illegal to allow substance misuse on premises, whatever the motivation. A decision to act illegally would have serious consequences on the charitable status of many organisations.

The organisations are also concerned that if they are caught in the act of helping someone with a serious drug problem and are prosecuted under the regulations, they will lose their insurance. So organisations that help homeless people with serious drug problems face the risk of going out of business.

There are curious anomalies, too, which I hope the Minister will consider. Although allowing the use of cannabis on premises will carry the maximum penalty of five years imprisonment once it is reclassified, the user's

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offence will carry a maximum penalty of only two years. Who would want to report a drug overdose on their premises if the police are likely to prosecute under the amended regulations? That might encourage people whose friends have overdosed on the premises to remove the body to avoid prosecution.

If enacted in full, the amended regulations might affect parents who buy their offspring heroin so that they can treat them at home. Registered social landlords, such as housing associations, and even private landlords are fearful of the new regulations and may not let drug users take tenancies with them. I urge the Secretary of State and the Minister to consider the proposals in the light of all the comments that organisations have made.

5.57 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing debate on what is probably the most intractable social issue confronting our society. Many hon. Members have said that drugs are a massive problem, and there is great concern and anxiety in every community the length and breadth of the UK about them. If we asked the public to name the social issues that most concern them, any survey would put drugs in the top five. The public are desperate for solutions and desperate to make progress.

The public have also heard it all before. There are a few significant differences in the report, but I have a sense of déjà vu. I am a new Member, but I have heard all the arguments before. That might have something to do with the fact that before I came to the House, I served as a director of a drugs charity that considered drugs issues. I was also in the Scotland Against Drugs campaign team. I have, perhaps, overdosed on drugs strategies in the past few years. Although there have been countless strategies, approaches and fresh starts, I am desperately trying to think of one that has made any significant progress on dealing with the drugs menace in our society.

We have set targets that have never been met. We have employed drugs tsars who go off in a huff after achieving absolutely nothing. We have set out new approaches that have been met by a tidal wave of new and emerging problems. What has underpinned successive strategies in the past three decades, as the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, is our unshattering belief in prohibition—that by keeping drugs illegal we will keep people off drugs. If we look at the history of those strategies, we must come to the desperate conclusion that they have been less than successful. Drug use has spiralled almost out of control under prohibition. Drug taking among young people is routine. A black economy has emerged, with associated gangsterism and petty crime, which creates havoc in many of our hard-pressed communities. If prohibition has underpinned so many of our strategies, the drugs war has been its popular cause.

The drugs war is the Vietnam of our social issues because there are so many correlations between them. The drugs war is fought on uncertain terrain, with limited intelligence against an elusive and determined adversary. Like the Vietnam war, the drugs war is well and truly lost. The only people who would go over the top in the drugs war are the Conservative Front Bench and a few of their fellow travellers on the Conservative Benches.

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We have continued to overlook the central relationship between drugs and young people. Recognition of that has been lacking during the debate. We still do not understand why young people take drugs. We have had drugs within our society for about 30 or 40 years. As a society, we are relatively experienced in dealing with drugs issues. However, we have learned little from that experience. After 30 or 40 years, we do not know why certain groups of young people take certain drugs. Why is that? The answer is that we have never bothered to ask them in a proper scientific and rational way.

Surely it would be the most obvious thing in the world to ask people why they take drugs and what benefits they think that they get from their consumption. Instead of engaging young people in a proper and constructive debate about their drug use, we bombard them with propaganda. We tell them that essentially drugs are bad for them, that we must educate them off drugs and that they must say no. We try to frighten them off drugs.

Some of the education initiatives probably have had success. I believe that they have probably saved quite a few people from pursuing a career in drugs. However, such propaganda has acted also as a macabre recruiting sergeant for drugs. The propaganda bombardment makes drugs seem dangerous and exciting and they then relate to the morbidity that especially young and middle teenagers experience. We tend to deploy the present strategy because in our adult debate about drugs we like a prescriptive solution. We like targets and strategies. However, that is a million miles away from the debate that young people have about drugs. Young people do not start to engage with our debate and they do not understand it, as we do not understand their debate. All that young people want is to have a good time and to get high.

As well as young people not understanding our debate about drugs, they could not care a whit about the legal status of drugs. If that legal status had any effect or any impact, we would see that in terms of ecstasy, which is a class A drug. If someone is caught in possession of ecstasy, or worse still caught dealing in it, he or she could face a lengthy prison sentence. He or she could face a considerable fine. The result would be a criminal record. However, on any given Saturday evening, about a quarter of a million ecstasy tablets are consumed. So much for the possibility of securing a lengthy prison sentence or a massive fine as a means to depress demand. Legal sanctions are nothing but a passing nuisance for most young people and a source of part of the buzz for others. Such was the fear of the law that even prospective Conservative Front-Benchers smoked their joints without fear of possible repercussions.

Prohibition has been less than a success, but I say to those who advocate legalisation or decriminalisation that those approaches would probably be even worse. Prohibition has not worked and has not underpinned our strategies, but there is no reason to suggest that legalisation would fare any better. We need to focus on the greatest killer of all drugs, the drug that causes us the greater number of problems and poses the greatest associated health risk, and that is alcohol. We know that alcohol has almost a monopoly on the legal drugs market. It is a good example of what would happen if drugs became legal. New products would be developed. Manufacturers of alcoholic drinks compete with one

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another to try to secure new markets to try to entice new customers. In the past decade, the industry has been especially successful in attracting new customers. We have seen the coming of alcopops for new entrants.

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