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Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on his luck and success in coming second in the ballot and, as has been mentioned, on providing another opportunity to talk about this very important subject. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on showing great insight and thoughtfulness in her speech, based on her previous
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profession and her involvement with the all-party group on drugs misuse. She has demonstrated her feelings on the subject and made an important contribution today.

As ever, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) brings a breath of fresh air to the House. For probably the first time in my eight years as a Member, I am in agreement with him in that I, too, think that we should broaden this debate. It is rather strange that the media and the public seem to get very excited about cannabis, given the facts about the short-term effects of its use. Although I accept that its long-term use can cause some harm, in the greater scheme of things we should be actively debating the effects of alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol kills some 120,000 people every single year and tobacco kills some 40,000 a year. The number of cannabis overdoses can be counted on one hand, and it is clear that the number of deaths attributed to it is none, or virtually none. Of course, every single drug user death or instance of suffering must be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, we need to inject a breath of fresh air into the debate, take a step back and have a proper discussion on the entire spectrum of drugs.

Mrs. Gillan: I agree that we should have a proper debate about drugs; indeed, we are endeavouring to do so. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the outcome of the debate in his party? Do the Liberal Democrats still advocate the ultimate legalisation of cannabis?

Mr. Marsden: Yes, that is our policy, but we would need to gain international consensus and agreement; indeed, the United Nations convention on narcotics use requires other countries to agree to such a change. It is our policy to work towards that ultimate aim, but we will have to wait and see exactly what is in our general election manifesto, which may be pending, on the policies of any future Liberal Democrat Government. The media get excited and distracted by the mere mention of the word "drug", but in effect I take drugs, as most Members probably do, if we count tobacco and alcohol. So let us have a sensible debate, because sometimes discussion about cannabis use is akin to talking about the colour of the napkins on the dining room table of the Titanic. Instead, let us focus on something a little more important.

On the Bill's specifics, we Liberal Democrats do not agree with mandatory sentencing. We understand the sentiment behind such a proposal and the frustration and amazement that people feel when they read in the newspapers that one judge has passed one sentence and another has passed a completely different one. However, I am not an expert on the law and I believe that such decisions should be left to the experts—the judges.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman understand the huge frustration felt by the police and, indeed, by the victims of the crime associated with drugs? A huge amount of time and effort is put into catching drug dealers, but when they come before the courts and are rightfully convicted, the sentences meted out are pitifully low. Seeing dealers get away with it, in effect, must destroy people's confidence in the judicial system.

Mr. Marsden: I accept that that may be true in certain cases, but overall our judiciary does an excellent job. I
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listened to the recent debate about the Home Secretary's proposal that politicians take decisions on matters such as house arrest. I have to say that I am very nervous about the prospect of politicians getting involved in such decisions because that is the thin end of the wedge. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, however, and we may well need to review the system, but the principle of allowing the judiciary the independence to decide on individual cases on the basis of the evidence before them should be retained.

I do, however, wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments about a commission; indeed, it is Liberal Democrat policy to establish a commission to examine all drugs. I echo what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said about the need to widen the remit of such a commission to include all forms of drugs. It should not simply review cannabis as a one-off but conduct an ongoing review of all the evidence.

Mrs. Gillan: Presumably, the proposed Liberal Democrat commission—I understand that it would be a royal commission—would not examine cannabis because, as the hon. Gentleman has just established, their policy of legalising it as soon as possible is already set in stone.

Mr. Marsden: On the contrary. I understand where the hon. Lady is trying to lead me, but she is wrong. Although it is our intention to legalise cannabis use, that could not come about because the United Nations convention on narcotics use would have to be amended. We would have to abide by international law, so we would not legislate to legalise cannabis because we could not.

We are also very mindful of the fact that, as I said, such a commission should conduct an ongoing review of the evidence. The long-term effects on mental health in particular—I have a long-standing interest in mental health issues—are not known. More research needs to be done and we need more information and data. If such evidence demonstrated further adverse effects on   mental health, such a commission would have to take that information into account in making its recommendations.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that the current drugs laws simply do not work. The UK has one of the highest rates of illegal drug use in Europe. Some 4 million Britons reportedly used illegal drugs in the last year alone, and it seems that those who want drugs have no difficulty in obtaining them. Crime associated with illegal drugs costs the UK £16 billion a year. Such crimes range from burglaries and robberies by addicts trying to feed their habit, to the very serious violent crime, gun crime and associated culture that seems to be increasing, particularly in our cities.

The prison population is at a record level and the increases are largely due to the imprisonment of drug offenders. We want a policy that is effective: we want to see addicts break the cycle of drug taking and crime. We
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must shift resources from the targeting of users and crack down on dealers. We must find the dealers and ensure that they are punished. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley spoke of making them suffer, although I am not sure that we should go too far in that regard.

Mrs. Gillan: If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that most people in prison had been imprisoned for drug offences.

Mr. Marsden: No, I did not.

Mrs. Gillan: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not, but that was the impression I gained. According to statistics published in September 2004, the largest group of people in prison had been imprisoned for violence against the person. Over 10,000 people were in prison for drug offences—they constituted the second largest group—but some 14,000 were in prison for violence against the person.

Mr. Marsden: I think that the record will show that I said that the number of people in prison for drug offences was on the increase. I was talking about the recent explosion in the prison population. I am happy to stand by the statistics quoted by the hon. Lady, which demonstrate that a huge number of people are being sent to prison for drug-related offences.

The focus should be on dealers and traffickers, not just on users. As has been said before, if we say—rightly—that we want a tougher approach to drugs, logically we should suggest banning and criminalising alcohol and tobacco, which surely have more harmful effects on society than any other drug group. I would not advocate that, but it is a logical progression. In focusing narrowly on one drug whose effects are minimal, although I accept that they may be harmful—more research is needed—we are wasting an opportunity, and also wasting resources that could allow the police to concentrate on class A drugs. Two or three years ago, the Lambeth project established that, over six months, about three police officers could use resources to focus on hard drugs after they stopped focusing on cannabis. If that were extended throughout the country, it could have a significant effect on the fight against the real hard drugs that do the damage.

Every pound spent on treatment saves £3 in costs to the criminal justice system. If the illegal drug structure is dismantled, there will be less street dealing, fewer robberies and less gun crime. The Liberal Democrats supported the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C. Although we acknowledge that cannabis may have certain effects, it is clear that the police should target what is really important. We want a tough approach. For instance, we want to create a new offence of dealing and thereby target the pushers. We want a new offence of dealing near schools to protect children, and an offence of pushing drugs near mental health institutions containing some of the most vulnerable people in society. Prevention is always better than cure. We want a greater emphasis on how resources are used, and we want more help for those who are addicted. They should not simply be punished—we want them to stop reoffending, get on with their lives and improve the quality of their lives.
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11.4 am

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