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13 Jan 2003 : Column 492—continued

8.54 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): The motion recognises the irrefutable link between hard drugs and crime and the need for mandatory treatment and

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rehabilitation for young heroin and cocaine addicts. I hope to persuade the House that the Government's updated drugs strategy published last December, focused as it is on providing more and more treatment, is deficient and is heading for inevitable failure. As admirable and as necessary as it is, the simple provision of treatment will do nothing to deter drug use or reduce the number of drug addicts.

Such a strategy cannot succeed without robust prevention measures to stem the never-ending flow of new addicts and an equally robust enforcement of the law. Given that the majority of drug abusers come into contact with the police after committing another crime, such as burglary, shoplifting or assault, tolerance, understanding and the provision of treatment without meaningful sanction will do nothing to deter repeat offending. Indeed, it will encourage it. Nor will it bring offenders to understand the devastation that they have caused to their victims' lives. The violation of a family home and the loss of personal possessions, often of sentimental value and irreplaceable, can permanently deprive the victims of their sense of security and peace of mind.

To the law-abiding majority in this country, the recent statements by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice were an outrage. They were a licence for burglars to go about their vile activities without fear of punishment. If the appalling crime of burglary is so widespread that the police do not have the means to deal with it and if our prisons are too overcrowded to accommodate all the burglars, the answer is to increase the number of police on our streets and to build more prisons, not to make burglary a non-crime, which is what happened with cannabis possession. When I opposed the downgrading of the law on cannabis in the Home Affairs Committee report on drugs policy, I asked, tongue in cheek, how long it would be before the strategy was applied to other crimes such as burglary. Little did even I think that it would happen so quickly. I shudder to imagine what will be the next crime to be neutralised in that way out of expedience.

Let us not kid ourselves that lenient community sentences are anything other than a slap on the wrist. Many are never completed and monitoring of attendance is patchy at best because of a lack of resources. If offenders face no real consequence as a result of their actions, they will see the offence itself as being of no consequence, its effect on their victims as being of no consequence and, indeed, the victims themselves as being of no consequence. That is what the policy will teach them. Never has there been such a gulf between justice and the law.

Similarly, just as treatment cannot succeed without prevention, so attacking the supply of drugs cannot succeed without also attacking the demand that sustains the market—although it is, of course, a fundamental element of drug strategy. It is unrealistic to regard all drug addicts as victims. They must take some responsibility for their actions alongside the dealers. The market is demand led. That is why prevention is so important in enabling the provision of treatment to be sustainable in terms of cost and the numbers needing it.

The declassification of cannabis is pivotal to the success of any drugs policy. Whereas it is acknowledged that hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin do the greatest damage, there is overwhelming evidence from

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both medical professionals and the police that the majority of hard drug users start on cannabis. I am utterly convinced by the gateway theory. That is why the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C was so wrong. In February 2001, the Government rejected that idea, yet eight months later they changed their mind—a decision which I suspect owes more to the difficulty of managing the scope of the problem than to a reassessment of the inherent dangers.

The message is now so confusing that many young people think that cannabis is harmless, legal or both. Its mind-altering capabilities are complex and the cannabis on sale today is several times stronger than it was in the past. It is able to induce psychosis, mood swings, confusion, delusions or even hallucinations.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Is the hon. Lady aware that there are roughly 23 different forms of cannabis? If a person purchases cannabis in a Netherlands coffee shop, the person selling it will offer advice. It is not true to say that all cannabis available in this country today is of such high quality. There is a wide range of qualities.

Angela Watkinson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we should require dealers to explain the strength of the cannabis that they sell. I would much prefer it if they did not sell it at all.

Paul Flynn: The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is making is a fair one. In a market in which the consumer has a choice, most drug users, particularly alcohol users, choose the mildest form of drug, so most people use wine or beer rather than spirits. During prohibition in America all that was on offer was distilled spirit, which was highly concentrated. In a market such as that in Holland, in which there is a choice, the majority of people use a safer drug and take it in a way that avoids smoking, which is the most dangerous way of taking it.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I would claim that all forms of cannabis are undesirable and harmful. I should like to eradicate it altogether—a rather long-term strategy, I know, but that should be our aim.

The number of marijuana-related emergency room incidents in this country reached nearly 90,000 in 1999. Worst of all, the use of marijuana so often leads to a hard drug habit and all the misery that that entails. A sentencing regime that does not use the lighter penalties for class C drugs will inevitably find itself dealing with more and more class A offences, some of which could have been avoided. Reducing the number of cannabis users would in turn reduce the number of heroin and cocaine addicts. Cannabis is by far the most widely used drug, and a policy that does not take seriously the part that it plays in the spectrum of drug use cannot possibly succeed.

The scale of drug-driving is also increasing at an alarming rate. In a snapshot survey by police over the Christmas period, more than half of those stopped for erratic driving were found to have drugs present in their bloodstream. The variety of illegal drugs commonly in use means that a roadside test would be much more

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difficult to devise than the test used for alcohol, but research is urgently needed to find an effective test to help the police to start combating that growing problem.

The first essential in prevention policy is proper drugs education. Some of the literature that passes for education in our schools is information of the most undesirable kind. We have heard something on that subject from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Lifeline, a Manchester-based charity, in a booklet about cannabis, showed how a joint is rolled. The first piece of advice in XHow to survive your parents discovering you're a Drug User" is XDon't get caught in the first place." Other Lifeline publications are full of four-letter words, shockingly graphic illustrations and instructions on how to inject.

A favourite phrase is Xinformed choice". Anyone advocating informed choice for other widespread illegal activities such as speeding or shoplifting would be severely censured. Why is it tolerated in the case of drugs? Even if children were properly informed about drugs—and most are not—there should be no choice because drugs are illegal. Anyway, children are not mature enough to choose: they are not miniature adults and they should never be put in the position of having to make critical life decisions.

In 2000, DrugScope, our largest drug charity, distributed a booklet on cannabis in its XWhat and Why" series. One illustration showed a young man in the midst of a crop of cannabis plants wearing a cap that says XHave 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.

Thankfully, the majority of teenagers do not use any illegal drugs and never have. Our biggest weapon in prevention is normalisation. We must help those under pressure to see that abstention from illegal drugs is normal at any age—childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Prevention can and does work, as seen in America between 1979 and 1991. Parents got fed up with trendy excuses for drug taking, and collaborated with teachers, the police, Customs and Excise, social workers and students to foster the idea that taking drugs is not normal or socially desirable, and that it is indeed harmful. It worked. The number of drug users fell from 23 million to 14 million, a 60 per cent. reduction. Use of cannabis and cocaine halved.

An American survey done at the time of the campaign is very instructive. More than 70 per cent. of high school students who were non-users of cannabis were concerned about psychological and physical damage. Parental disapproval deterred over 60 per cent. Some 40 per cent. were put off by illegality factor. More than 50 per cent. were worried about progression to stronger drugs and slightly fewer thought that they might become addicted. Real drugs education must carry robust warnings of the disastrous effects of ignoring all the available advice—damage to health, education, career prospects and financial stability, the slippery slope to criminal activity to fund a habit, the misery and worry caused to family and friends and the cost to society at large through the NHS and the police. Young people need to be told that when they are offered drugs, the dealer whom they may have thought was a friend does

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not want them to have fun or a good time but simply wants their money—not only today or tomorrow, but next week and next month. In other words, the dealer wants a regular income and gives no thought to the suffering that lies ahead.

Policy has to tackle two separate but very closely related issues: treating and rehabilitating existing addicts and preventing young people from becoming addicts. Without prevention measures to address the latter, the former will never be achieved. Let us have as our national aim a drug-free society. It may take a very long time to achieve, but it is a goal on which we should not compromise.

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