Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Evans: I have been a Member of Parliament for 12 years and I have done well in the private Member's Bill ballot five times. I do the lottery and I cannot work out why I have never won.

Laura Moffatt: If I get the opportunity again to be a Member of Parliament and apply in those ballots, I shall be right behind the hon. Gentleman when he puts his name down.

I take a special interest in the subject of our debate because, before I entered the House of Commons, I was a registered nurse and I often cared for people who had to be admitted to hospital for a range of diseases and conditions that resulted from drug taking. Having spent a lot of time with those who were sadly addicted to substances, I firmly believed that it was a complex matter that could not be tackled with simplistic responses. Soon after being elected, I became and continue to be one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on drugs. We have done much work on considering the problems of addiction.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley raised some interesting issues. However, his proposed response is too simplistic and does not get under the skin of the problem of substance misuse. I should like to explain why I believe that.

We all use statistics and statements from groups to support our aims and objectives and leave out the less supportive statistics. I should like to say a little about those whose reaction to the reclassification of cannabis is more favourable. I repeat "reclassification"—I am against any legalisation of drugs. The evidence about not only the physical but the psychological effects of cannabis on people is serious and we should not take it lightly. However, I am in favour of reclassification. The Bill is centred on setting up an organisation effectively to support the hon. Gentleman's view that cannabis should not have been reclassified, but I believe that it is important to decouple cannabis from the most serious, class A drugs that regularly kill people.

I take a close interest in my drug and alcohol team in West Sussex. It happens to be one of the best in the country because it is always considering how to get
25 Feb 2005 : Column 566
information to young people and ensuring that they understand what it is all about. After reclassification, we were all a little nervous about whether it would promote use among young people because they did not understand that cannabis remained an illegal drug. Of course, that did not happen. The Government's work after their £1 million campaign, in which the drug and alcohol teams participated, showed that 93 per cent. of young people completely understood that cannabis remained an illegal drug. They might have continued to take it, but they understood its classification.

We must consider, therefore, why young people continue to use the drug. After all the years of trying to get under the skin of those who use illegal drugs, we continue to struggle to find solutions, including penalising methods and encouraging people away from use. I took on board the hon. Gentleman's statement about Robbie Williams. We all find it shocking that he was worried simply about getting fat and ugly. I think that he is a bit of all right, so I can understand why getting fat and ugly was a problem for him. However, we are finding that, strangely, young people respond more to messages about body image than to those that say, "You're going to die if you take this." The same applies to smoking. If we tell young women that they will have horrible wrinkles and a saggy bottom by the time they are 40, they start to think about their cigarette smoking. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's anecdote about Robbie Williams was not as damaging as he suggested, but I understand his concern.

The hon. Gentleman clearly set out two aspects of the Bill. The first element is a "three strikes and you're out" campaign on dealing. We all despise those who make money from the awful trade, out of which it is sadly all too easy to make money. However, I have found that dealing is a complex matter. The dealers with whom I have had most contact in my community—not to buy, of course—are also users. That makes the issue more complex. I hope that I do not appear to be some woolly libertarian who does not take such matters seriously. I am genuinely trying to explain that simply taking punitive measures against dealers does not work. That is why I support doing everything that we can—and everything that the Government are doing—to provide treatment, help and support to users, especially of class A drugs. That is how we encourage people to give up drug taking, so that they no longer have to make money to support their drug use. This is a difficult issue and a simple style of sentencing will not easily make it any better, which is why I am suspicious of that approach. This is not the first time that such an approach has been proposed. Before the 1997 general election, a Bill that was not enacted put forward a similar proposal.

Mr. Evans: The provision on the statute book recommends a sentence of seven years. Sadly, however, since 2002, it has been used only half a dozen times, so the vast majority of people are getting away with these offences. I support what the hon. Lady says, however. If drug dealers who are also drug users are convicted, it is pointless to keep them in prison without the proper rehabilitation, care and treatment that they desperately need, because they will go straight back to taking drugs when they come out.

Laura Moffatt: That is a sensible and coherent response to the problem. However, the difficulty is that,
25 Feb 2005 : Column 567
once prison has become part of a drug user's life, it is difficult to break the cycle. Prison is often one of the most difficult places in which to keep people away from drugs, and there is often a reluctance to use punitive measures as a response to dealing and drug taking. I remain convinced that such measures are not the only proper solution for those who deal in and take drugs.

I am not sure that we need a commission on cannabis, because I am convinced that it has long-term psychological effects on people who use it in vast quantities. There is even some evidence that weekly use can cause difficulties. The hon. Gentleman's Bill refers to those who are affected by other people's use of cannabis. That can be especially relevant in regard to driving and to people in the workplace. However, I am wholeheartedly against a strict measure for testing for drugs in the workplace. I firmly believe that a much better approach exists. My local drug and alcohol team have developed a fantastic toolkit to encourage employers not to go straight in with mandatory drug testing but to find ways of supporting their staff and of giving them access to treatment for their drug use. Using the workplace as a forum in that way makes it more of a place of safety for everyone, and helps people to understand that it is dangerous to take drugs in the workplace as it might endanger their colleagues. It also gets across the message that it is important to get them off the drugs, rather than driving them into taking more serious drugs. We have found that that can happen in prison, because cannabis can be detected in a urine sample for up to 30 days, while many class A drugs—particularly opiates—have gone after 48 hours. This is a difficult and complex matter.

I serve on the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health Bill, and we have paid many visits to places that treat people with mental health problems, as well as looking in detail at why people get into those situations and at the effect of drug taking on mental illness. It is a difficult issue. Does the mental illness come first, followed by self-medication with cannabis to make the person feel calmer and less anxious? Or can there be a dual diagnosis, in which a person takes cannabis and then becomes psychotic? The jury is still out on that one. It is an interesting issue to study. I am not entirely sure that a commission could get to the bottom of it, because there should be a medical response to such cases and it should be medics who look at those issues. There is plenty of evidence to show that there are problems around cannabis use, but it is difficult to determine whether the psychosis has been prompted by its use, or whether it is being used for self-medication by someone who is feeling unwell. But it is the job of the medical profession to make that determination.

Mrs. Gillan: I agree with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying on this important matter. Does she agree that it is sad that, during the passage of the Drugs Bill earlier this year, the Government resisted amendments tabled by her colleagues on the Labour Benches to involve GPs more intricately in the assessment process for addicts and other drug users? I believe, as I am sure she does, that the involvement of the medical profession is
25 Feb 2005 : Column 568
paramount in assessing how people might benefit from a course of treatment or a programme to get them off drugs.

Laura Moffatt: I thank the hon. Lady for that interesting intervention. The opposition to those proposals was on the ground of logistics. I hope that it is obvious from what I am saying that I believe that experts in drug abuse and substance misuse should play an integral part in such processes. Indeed, I firmly believe that they have. We have only to look at the amount of money that has gone into community action against drugs. A GP in my constituency takes a great interest in assisting drug users through the Addaction project, which is funded in part by the Home Office and which allows people proper access to care and treatment. Medics should be at the heart of any discussions and decision making on both treatment and sentencing.

This is an important debate. I had my first opportunity to call out the results of a Division earlier, and nobody at all had come through the Aye Lobby. I was upset about that. I know that there are only 14 of us here, but it is important to get these issues on record. Although I take issue with the components of the Bill, it is important that we discuss these matters in detail.

10.38 am

Next Section IndexHome Page