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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I do not want to make a long contribution, which is somewhat out of character with the debate so far. It has been an interesting debate, however. I want to make two main points, mostly related to treatment services and the connections with mental health.
The Opposition support this Bill. It is only a start, however, and will not on its own address the continuing surge in drug use in this country. It must be seen in that context. It might grab some headlines, but it is only one small part of the jigsaw, which we need urgently to piece together. I will support the Bill, because I will support anything that clamps down much more heavily on those who make a living out of peddling this poisonous and destructive trade.
Throughout this debate, we have heard many figures from different Members. The figures make terrifying reading, however, particularly in relation to abuse and use by young children. British crime survey figures indicate that 12 per cent. of 16 to 59-year-olds have taken illicit drugs in the last year alone, of which 3 per cent. used class A drugs. There are 3 million cannabis users in the country, a quarter of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24, and we know that users are getting much younger all the time. Two in five 15-year-olds in the UK have tried cannabismore than in any other country in Europe. Certainly, I support any measures to clamp down on anybody trading in drugs around schools and other youth facilities and preying on impressionable youngsters.
We also need to clamp down on drugs cafés, with which the Bill does not appear to deal. Worthing has had a rather grisly experience of cannabis cafés and how they can lead to the hard drug trade and suck in serious crime and serious criminals to a profitable activity. A couple of years ago, in Worthing, no fewer than three cannabis cafés set up trade in the town centre, one in my constituency, and the other two in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). The one in my constituency was originally set up under the benign, well-intentioned guise of being the headquarters of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance. It was set up almost as a social service, in particular advertising its services to elderly people suffering from multiple sclerosis and rheumatic problems who could come along and have discounted drugs made available to themvery community spirited of it, I am sure.
The problem was that it was not just the equivalent of a bingo club to which people could come and go and dabble in soft drugs as they please. It became a nightmare for local residents, attracted all sorts of low life, with dealers hanging around near schools, and caused havoc in local mental health residential establishments' halfway houses, whose staff were run ragged because patients were attracted to it. Violence occurred around it, with problems of noise and so on.
Despite the fact that what was going on was quite plain, it took more than a year to shut down that establishment, notwithstanding several raids by the police and intensive, costly policing. It celebrated its first birthday party with a great big cakegoodness knows what was in it. I was kindly invited to that party, but I declined the invitation. It gloated, however, that it had
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been allowed to carry on this trade for more than a year. Eventually, due to a lot of hard work by the local council and local police in particular, that café was closed down, to the great relief of local residents.
Soon after it was closed down, a delegation of those who had run it came to one of my surgeries to complain that it had taken the police so long to close them down. What a waste of police resources it had been to take more than a year to close down what was clearly an illicit activity. It sounds rather comical, but however well intentioned or not one might think that the original people who set up the establishment were, it had been overtaken by some more sordid sorts. More serious hard drugs were circulating through it, and it was becoming a real cash cow and a lucrative little business, with all sorts of criminals getting attached to it. That is what can happen. Regardless of what is and is not in the Bill, the Government must make it much easier for the policeas I hope that certain parts of the Bill may doto stamp on such activities the minute that those involved put their heads above the parapets. I support any measures that make it harder for such establishments to open up in the first place and easier for the authorities to close them down as soon as possible. I also support any moves that make it easier to close down dealers who, as we have heard from several hon. Members, use children, often as young as 11, 12 or 13, as their runners.
Dealers are extremely clever in outwitting the police and police raids, and I have seen that problem in my constituency, where they have been getting away with it at one notorious place, which is literally within 100 yd of a local police station. We must make it easier to prosecute those who are clearly running rings round the law as it stands.
A worrying fall has occurred in the price of drugs. As one newspaper put it, it is now cheaper to buy a line of cocaine, which has fallen in value to as little as £39 per gram, than it is to buy a cup of coffee from a high street coffee emporium.
I want to raise two main concerns this afternoon. Any strategy to reduce drug use cannot rely purely on law enforcement against the perpetrators and must drastically increase the number of rehabilitation facilities and the extent of drug awareness and education programmes in order to reduce the clientele for drugs in the first place.
The treatment sector is still massively underdeveloped and too many programmes are not seen through. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned that too many people drop out earlythey are allowed to do sofrom treatment programmes, which must be tightened up. We need many more treatment programmes, but they must be suitable and well policed.
A little while ago, I visited a clinic for people with various addictions. I sat in a room with people who have drug, mental health or addictive shoplifting problems. I took off my jacket and introduced myself by saying, "I'm Tim. I'm a politician." That seemed to be one of the worst problems in the roombeing a politician is rather more addictive than many of the problems for which those people were being treated.
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I was struck by one individual, a young lad of 16 or 17, who had been on heroin and other serious drugs and who had run up a criminal record, mainly by knocking off cars to steal the radios and fuel his drug habit. He had attended various NHS establishments to obtain treatment, where he was invariably fobbed off with methadone as a substitute for his habit. Methadone had not got him off heroin, but the free dose had pepped him up sufficiently to knock off more cars and sell more radios in order to buy heroin, which is what he really wanted. He was in a vicious circle, which that innovatory clinic, based in Kensington, fortunately got him out of by using a completely different treatment. Treatment too often consists of what is easiest and most convenient, because suitable treatment is not available. We must examine how we can treat such people much more intelligently.
Last year's reclassification of cannabis was accompanied by a wishy-washy, low-impact advertising campaign, which cost the Government rather less than £1 million, to remind people that cannabis was still illegal. It failed dismally, because as we know, nine out of 10 children think that cannabis is legal, and it also failed to mention any link between cannabis and mental health problems. Ironically, when cannabis was reclassified and when the advertising campaign was supposedly highlighting the dangers of drugs, drug education officers were being withdrawn from schools due to a shortage of funds. While central Government were sending out the message that cannabis is not especially harmful, the real message that all drugs are poisonous and harmful, which we must start to put across in schools, was not getting through.
Tim Loughton: I cannot give the names, but at least two education authorities were cited at the time, a year ago, and it was mentioned in the national press as well. It is not just anecdotal. There were serious pressures on drug education officers in schools at a time when cannabis was being declassified and it was most necessary to get across the vital message that had been distorted by the actions that the Government had wrongly taken.
I share the concerns of Turning Point, in particular, about the need for treatment in the community for drug users who have not committed a crime and for whom prompt access to suitable, appropriate treatment could keep them off the slippery slope of drugs and crimethe vicious circle that I mentioned.
In all the areas that I have mentioned there is a need for much better joined-up, inter-agency working between the Prison Service, youth offending teams, schools, youth services, health services, social services and the police. We need to ensure that the professionals are on the ground working at the sharp end with people who have these problems. If we do not get those structures right, the Bill will not count for much. It is just one part of the jigsaw.
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