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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1150—continued

6.36 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I want to talk about two of my constituents, Mick and Pauline Holcroft, of Ledbury, who have allowed pictures of their daughter, Rachel Whitear—Mick Holcroft is Rachel's step-father—to be used in an anti-drugs video for secondary schools. They say that they want to Xmake people think" about the dangers of heroin, and to challenge stereotypes of drug abusers, because if it can happen to Rachel, it can happen to anyone.

Rachel's mother and step-father believe that she first took heroin when she was 18, after being introduced to it by an older boyfriend who was an addict. At first, she kept her habit under control and was accepted by five universities. However, her addiction continued and her parents noticed that her personality had changed from fun-loving and outgoing to unhappy, insecure and unreliable. She died of an overdose in rented rooms in May 2000, aged 21, just days after phoning her parents to say that she was leaving her boyfriend and coming home. Her body lay undiscovered for three days. The police photographs show Rachel's body keeled over on the floor, with a hypodermic syringe in her hand. The photographs of Rachel after her death are pretty harrowing.

If one were trying to put together an ideal background for a young person to grow up in, and in which to be happy and successful, the Holcroft family would be it, but even in that environment it was possible for this tragedy to happen. Mrs. Holcroft said:


Rachel's step-father, Mr. Holcroft, said:


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I think that I speak for the whole House when I say that we would all like that temptation to be made as difficult to encounter as possible. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear."]

I sought the view of the Police Federation, which is the representative body of all police officers in England and Wales below the rank of superintendent. According to it, a large majority of such officers believe that cannabis should not be legalised or decriminalised. The role of the police is to enforce drug laws effectively. As we move further into the performance culture, their ability effectively to police the misuse of drugs will increasingly depend on working with other agencies. Those agencies will need to have complementary objectives and targets.

Widespread concern has been voiced about the unavailability of appropriate treatment for drug users. The current position is unacceptable. More than 70 per cent. of crime is believed to be drug related. Between 70 per cent. and 80 per cent. of criminals in prison have drug problems, yet they leave prison without receiving treatment. It is unacceptable that the police should be held accountable for crime levels when treatment that could have a real impact on the commission of crime is not provided.

The advocates of legalisation or decriminalisation present the apparent failure of the criminal law to prevent increased use of illegal drugs as a powerful argument for their cause. The same argument could be used to justify decriminalising burglary and assault and sweeping away all road traffic laws, but it is not. In recent times, a number of criminal offences, such as attempted suicide and homosexual acts between consenting adults, have been abolished. That was done because it was believed to be inappropriate to treat such acts as criminal, not because the criminal law had failed to prevent their occurrence.

Legal prohibitions on tobacco and alcohol have not prevented young people below the statutory ages from smoking or drinking, but there is no responsible body of opinion that would justify decriminalising those offences. We do not believe that there is an overwhelming body of public opinion that favours the major relaxation of current anti-drug laws.

I do not believe that we need a change in the law or in drug classification to change police priorities. Police officers use their discretion daily. The so-called Lambeth experiment was nothing new: police officers prioritise their work every day.

There is no real contradiction under current legislation between a lenient police attitude towards possession for personal use and the continued targeting of criminals who import and distribute the drug. Advocates of the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis choose to ignore the fact that the drug's THC content—the active ingredient that encourages physical and psychological dependence on cannabis, and which is highly abusable—has risen from less than 1 per cent. in the 1960s to as high as 30 per cent. today.

There is evidence from other countries—in particular from south Australia—that a more liberal approach to drug legislation results in an increase in petty theft and

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petty crime. The liberalisation lobby also claims that legalising drugs would end the black market and the activities of organised gangs. That assumes that the powerful international drug cartels would simply fade away into the night. The more likely scenario is that they would fight to maintain their lucrative street trade.

The advocates of change do not say how they would control drug manufacture and supply. Presumably, the enormous cost of legalising the drug trade would be offset by tariffs and taxation. Once they were introduced, smuggling would follow and the illegal traders would be back in business.

Some argue that the decriminalisation of drugs would destroy the criminal empires of those who currently make fortunes out of drugs. They often cite the end of alcohol prohibition in the US, and suggest that that ended the era in which criminal gangs exploited prohibition. The historical facts are different: gang crime in America soon recovered, as the criminals concentrated on other racketeering.

The Government are right to reject the calls of those who urge the legalisation or decriminalisation of so-called soft drugs. There is no evidence that that would lead to a decrease in the numbers of people using drugs. Worrying as the overall increase in the numbers of young people who have taken drugs may be, those numbers would be even higher if the criminal sanctions were removed.

The siren calls for decriminalisation and legalisation are not cries for reality. They are the voices of surrender and despair. I hope that the House will bear in mind the bravery displayed by Rachel Whitear's parents, and especially by her mother, Pauline Holcroft. If we can learn anything from that tragedy, it is that the fight against the evil of drugs in our society must continue unabated.

6.44 pm

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I listened to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) with great interest because I too am a dad. If I were asked what I wanted for my three children, I would not answer that I wanted them to grow up to have fantastic careers, or even stable happy family lives. I would say that I wanted them to grow up to avoid hard drugs. If they do that, everything else becomes possible for them, according to their talents and efforts. By contrast, if they do not avoid hard drugs, it is much more likely that their lives will be ruined.

Yet if we are truly to tackle addiction and the crime to which it leads, we have to understand three critical truths, two of which have been understood by the Home Affairs Committee. First, all drugs are harmful but some drugs are much more harmful than others. Secondly, addicts are ill and need treatment, not punishment. Thirdly, prohibition does not always work. I believe that by their recent announcements, the Government have indicated that they have also understood at least the first two of those truths.

All drugs are not equally harmful. Heroin and crack cocaine are desperately addictive and extremely dangerous, but other drugs are less so. Indeed, some prohibited drugs are less harmful than drugs that are legal. Alcohol is addictive, leads to violence, is damaging to health, and kills between 5,000 and 40,000

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people every year in England and Wales—yet it is lawful to buy, lawful to sell and lawful to use, subject only to constraints on age and access.

Tobacco is lawful too, even though it is addictive, causes cancer and kills 120,000 people every year in the UK. We do not like it, we cannot advertise it, we say that tobacco companies cannot sponsor sports—yet we cannot stop people using it. In the year 2000, only 11 death certificates in England and Wales even mentioned the word Xcannabis".

If we tell our children that cannabis is as harmful as crack and heroin, they simply will not believe us. Why should they? If they do not believe that, why do we expect them to believe us about crack and heroin? We should downgrade cannabis, because the message that that carries is not simply that cannabis is less harmful than crack and heroin, but that crack and heroin are killers and desperately dangerous.

There is a second reason why we should downgrade cannabis: the simple fact that we want to be tough on crime. When the police are not chasing people who are smoking a relatively harmless recreational drug, they can start targeting the crack and heroin dealers in death. We should all applaud that.

The second truth is that addiction to hard drugs is a sickness and, like all sick people, addicts need treatment, not punishment. At present, however, the treatment they get is all too often woeful. It takes my constituents months to get on to a rehab programme, which is why, like everyone else in the Chamber, I welcome the millions more to be spent on rehabilitation. It is why I also welcome, alongside the extended methadone treatments, the schemes for prescribing heroin.

It is stupid to refuse to prescribe heroin to long-term addicts who need it, and who otherwise will rob others to feed their habit. I have been to a clinic in London; I have seen a doctor prescribe to addicts. One was a middle-aged mother, happily married for many years. Why on earth should we force her into the arms of a dealer when she can attend a clinic instead? Another was the wife of a man in his sixties who had injected opiates for 30 years. Do we really believe that he will ever stop injecting opiates? He did not even stop when he could no longer inject into his veins. He simply injected into his muscles instead.

We have to change our approach to prescribing. Too often, treatment is restrained by moral judgmentalism when it should be dictated by medical expertise. As I understand it, the current advice from the Government is not to maintain the patient but to reduce his or her dependency by prescribing ever-decreasing amounts. As a result, because addicts cannot get enough methadone from their clinic, they top up by buying street heroin from their dealer. In what other medical discipline would a doctor determine how much of a drug someone needed and then deliberately prescribe less? I do not believe that that is good medical practice—I believe that it is medical cruelty.

I accept that there is a risk of abuse if higher amounts are prescribed. I know that, and so do doctors. They are well aware that there will be those who seek more than they need so that they can sell the excess. However, we can monitor the doctors and the doctors can monitor their prescriptions and their patients to ensure that the risk is minimised. They can see for themselves whether

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a patient is capable of injecting safely. They can test patients to see exactly what their tolerance is. They can test their hair samples to see exactly what they have taken and whether they are topping up or selling the excess on the street.

That is not to say that we should never try to reduce dependency on drugs. Of course we should, but we should seek cleverer ways of doing so than simply prescribing less of the drugs that people need. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that there is a drug available—Naltrexone—that blocks the effects of heroin altogether. That means that there is no point in people mugging an old lady for 30 quid to buy a fix, because they will not get a buzz from the fix.

The trouble with Naltrexone is that it is principally available in tablet form. Addicts will not take it in that form, because taking the tablet takes away what is often their only pleasure in life. There is a solution: implants that can wean the addict off for weeks are available, yet they are not licensed on the NHS nor routinely used in our prisons. That is absurd.

Why do we not make better use of Naltrexone implants? Why do we not make wide use of them in the judicial system? Why do we not urge courts to offer drug-addicted criminals an implant, as part of—or even instead of—imprisonment? Why do we not offer them to prisoners before they are released? I understand that at present prisons offer Naltrexone only in tablet form—and only in a third of men's prisons and not at all in women's prisons, even though heroin addiction is rife in all of them.

We reduce a prisoner's dependency and then we kick them out into the street—the same street that they used to live in, next door to the same dealer from whom they used to buy. By then their tolerance is lower, so when they buy from that same dealer, they overdose and die. What is the alternative to Naltrexone? Is it to detox addicts in prison and then retox them ready for release? That is absurd.

There is a third truth—unpalatable to many—but it arises from everything that I have said: prohibition does not work. It did not work when it was applied to booze in the USA; it merely handed the trade to the mafia. It is not working at present in respect of drugs worldwide. The global trade is worth up to $1,000 billion a year; it is worth £8 billion in this country—little wonder that drug-related crime is up.

Things do not have to be like that. We can encourage heroin addicts into the arms of doctors instead of the arms of dealers. If we were brave enough, we could take the trade in cannabis away from criminals, license it, regulate it, tax it and make it safe. Of course there would still be some street trading, but there would be less. Furthermore, there would be no mixed messages for the police, because anyone dealing with drugs on the street would be a criminal.

If we want to drive down street crime, we have to do more than police aggressively in areas where it is endemic. We need to do more than sentence punitively our most serious and recidivist offenders. We must also focus our minds on the causes of crime when a more liberal touch may be more effective.

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6.52 pm


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