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Dangerous Drugs

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I beg to move,

The order will reclassify cannabis as a class C drug on 29 January 2004. The use of illegal drugs and class A drugs in particular is one of the greatest scourges of our times. Drug misuse impacts on the well-being of individuals and families, as well as striking at the very fabric of our communities. Most hon. Members see too many cases in their constituencies where drugs have destroyed lives and fed the cycle of crime, violence and decay. Having been in this job for some months now, I can say that drugs and the crime connected to them are most prevalent in some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in the country.

When some 250,000 people are hooked on heroin or crack, a group responsible for 60 per cent. of acquisitive crime; where many street robberies are driven by the urge for money for the next fix; where the presence of one addict can create a neighbourhood crime spree that leaves dozens of victims and consumes many hours of police time, this Labour Government are absolutely right to focus on the most dangerous drugs, to intervene most vigorously in the most damaged communities, to seek to break the link between addiction and the crime that feeds it and to reduce the harm that drugs cause by addressing the chaotic lifestyle of those users who are harming themselves and others.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): Is the Minister aware, in respect of what she presents as statistics, that she is using surveys relating to 16 to 19-year-olds, when it is 14-year-olds who are most at risk? In taking cannabis, those young people are 60 per cent. more likely to damage their brain. Have the Government taken that into account in making these proposals to the House?

Caroline Flint: I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are considering and have considered all the relevant evidence. More importantly, we have taken into account the work of the statutory advisory committee, which provides the scientific evidence on which to base our decisions. I tell my hon. Friend that I am acutely aware of the conditions that lead young people to start using drugs, to misuse alcohol and cigarettes, and to end up with teenage pregnancies or a life of crime. The Government are taking steps to deal with those problems, whether it be through sure start;

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getting money through to the poorest income families; or trying to raise the opportunities and aspirations of those who feel that the education system does not offer them enough. Those are all part and parcel of trying to give our children and young people the skills and confidence to assert themselves and not end up abusing themselves through drugs and, unfortunately, becoming involved in crime.

Educating young people about the dangers of drugs, preventing drug misuse, combating the dealers and treating addicts are the key elements of the Government's drugs strategy. Our programmes of intervention bring those arrested into treatment so that we can begin to break the cycle of committing crime to fuel a drug habit.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Does the Minister recognise that there are three essential components to any credible drugs policy: enforcement, education and treatment? If our education policy is not credible and we tell young people—whether they are 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18—that all drugs are the same and that there is no difference between cannabis and heroin or between cannabis and the evil of crack cocaine, we are doing young people of this country a grave disservice.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. We have long had a system of classification for class A, B and C drugs and our proposals are about having a more informed view today, in the 21st century, of the comparative harms that various drugs can do. On that basis, we can have a better dialogue with those who may be tempted to take drugs and protect them from the worst abuses.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): The order applies to the whole of the UK, but is the Minister aware of the great concern about it in many parts of Scotland? Has she consulted Ministers in the Scottish Parliament and, if so, what was their response? Can she understand why some Labour Members cannot support the order here today?

Caroline Flint: I totally understand the passionate views on all sides of the debate. It is a complex issue and a complex area. I assure my hon. Friend that in talking to my predecessor, consultation was held with Ministers in Scotland and there was support for the reclassification. Discussions were also held about Northern Ireland. I appreciate that passionate views are held on both sides of the House—

Several hon. Members rose—

Caroline Flint: I hope that if I am allowed to continue my speech, I can elaborate more fully on why this strategy is the right way forward.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Minister has called for an informed debate. In that spirit, does she agree and accept that the cannabis that is freely available today is between 10 and 15 times stronger than that available 20 or 30 years ago? Is it not therefore perverse to be downgrading its classification in legislation?

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Caroline Flint: I am afraid to tell the hon. Gentleman that the scientific evidence does not fit his analysis. The evidence of our forensic science unit is that the cannabis that it has sampled is not stronger than it was some years ago. Many of the statements made about the strength of cannabis do not fit the facts in respect of the largest supplies of cannabis that come into this country.

Several hon. Members rose—

Caroline Flint: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick).

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Although I would rather people did not take cannabis, it is a fact that many do so without going on to hard drugs. Is not it also a fact that the last survey undertaken showed that more than 120,000 deaths in a single year were caused by smoking, in addition to the deaths caused through alcohol abuse? Should not the people who are condemning what the Minister is suggesting also take that into account?

Caroline Flint: People take all sorts of substances either in moderation or in excess, which can create different levels of harm. We are trying to debate the different levels of harm produced by controlled drugs. As I was telling the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), the Forensic Science Service suggests that new growing techniques in the late 1980s and 1990s have led to some new products coming on to the market with average tetrahydrocannabinol levels two or three times greater than for other cannabis products. However, in general, the THC content—the particular content that affects the strength of cannabis—varies widely, but much of it does not differ significantly from the cannabis used years ago.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the Minister have any sympathy with a constituent, a father of young children, who rang me last night and implored me to vote against this measure? What a bad example the House is going to set to parents who are trying to protect young children who are constantly targeted at the school gate in both primary and secondary schools. Does the Minister sympathise with that example?

Caroline Flint: I have sympathy with all parents who want to protect their children from the harms that exist in our society—whether it be drugs or other pressures and dangers that they face along the way to adulthood. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we need to have an honest discussion with our children. We have to make them better informed. Children and young people talk to each other and can see for themselves the different effects of drugs, so if we do not conduct an honest discussion, they will not listen.

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I reaffirm to the House what I said in parliamentary questions earlier this week, which is that the measure is not about legalisation, but about having a mature discussion on the relative harms of drugs.

Several hon. Members rose—

Caroline Flint: If I may continue with my speech, I hope to elaborate on how the guidance of the Association of Chief Police Officers will provide greater clarity on how to police this matter.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Does the Minister not accept that the message going out to young people is that cannabis is no longer as dangerous as it was before?

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