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10.51 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), with whom I largely agree. He put the case carefully but persuasively. Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents an inner-city seat where the community is plagued by the drugs menace, and where the hardest and most serious implications of that are the number of people who deal in serious drugs for profit and produce a huge amount of crime and social disruption as a consequence. We share that analysis, and I am grateful that there seems to be increasing agreement about what is going on out there in the real world, on which we can base our policy reactions in Parliament.

On the Liberal Democrat Benches, as the Minister knows, we welcomed the Home Secretary's referral of the cannabis classification issue to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That was long overdue, but it was none the less welcome in the early days of a new Home Secretary. We believe that that announcement and its logical implication, which is the reclassification of cannabis, is only the start of the reform that is urgently needed. It must not be the end. There is a case for much wider reform as a matter of great urgency. Now that the Government are willing to have the debate that the new Home Secretary called for, I hope that they will listen to the voices and, on the basis of the evidence, move on quickly.

The United Kingdom is increasingly out of step with many neighbouring countries in drugs policy. Much of the world and much respected opinion here at home has moved on in recent years in terms of thinking through responses, but we are only just beginning to have the open and honest debate for which many people have been calling for several years.

As I commented to the Minister, we continue to have one of the most punitive regimes for drugs use in the world, and certainly in Europe, yet our drugs problems continue to get worse, not better, and the law clearly is not working.

We could spend some time sharing facts and experiences, so I shall simply summarise the current British position from material provided by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which has a clear continent-wide view. Its most recent report states that the UK has one of the highest levels of drugs use and misuse in Europe. More than half of our 16-year-olds have already tried an illegal drug. The annual number of convictions for cannabis use has gone up from 15,000 in 1980 to 78,000 just before 2000. Between a third and a quarter of people aged between 16 and 29 have used cannabis in the past month.

More worrying than the cannabis issue—which is why I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central—is the finding that the number of hard drugs addicts has gone from about 1,000 in the UK 30 years ago to more than 200,000 today. The number of deaths attributed to heroin or morphine use in England and Wales has risen by more than 100 per cent. in four years—a terrifying edge to the drugs problem. The average age of heroin users is going down, whereas in many other countries it is going up. The greatest increase in hard drugs use is among the under-21s. If that is not a statement of the need for radical action, I do not know what is.

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I reiterate the figure in the recent Library note, which is generally agreed: the drugs market in this country is estimated to be worth £6 billion. Before the drugs tsar was first appointed—when he was still chief constable of West Yorkshire in the mid-1990s—he said:

That has not changed over the past seven years. That is why we need a much more radical response.

I commend to colleagues in all parts of the House—the more people we can carry with us, the better—the work of Drugscope, which is regarded as the most impartial collector and disseminator of information. The organisation happens to be based in my constituency, and is a well known, well established and well respected charity. I hope that hon. Members will contact Drugscope for advice or to check facts and figures.

If we are to be honest and open, we need to look at the difficult questions that politicians have shied away from. We may have to make some hard and controversial choices, but that does not mean that they are the wrong choices. The House must be brave enough to say that, and increasing numbers of voices are doing so.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who is laying out the evidence on which we should make our decisions. Further evidence comes from the MORI poll commissioned by the News of the World a couple of weeks ago, which showed that 65 per cent. of the population supported the legalisation of cannabis. As regards the House making brave decisions, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the House has been cowardly, and that it is the public outside who are changing the opinions of the House, rather than the other way round?

Simon Hughes: I agree. Public opinion is clearly ahead of Parliament on the cannabis issue, and the credibility of politics is losing out because we are less and less in tune. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out that she was the youngest Member of the House. One of the problems is that we are not a balanced Parliament in terms of age. We do not have lots of young people helping in the formal process of policy making. It is therefore even more important that we listen to what they say.

One of the reasons why young people do not vote is that they increasingly think, that we do not understand at all what goes on in their lives. We can change the form of voting and enable people to vote by post or by telephone, but if they do not hear a debate that reflects the reality of a Friday night or a Saturday night on the Old Kent road or in the middle of Manchester, we are not likely to win their respect, their confidence or their participation in the democratic process.

I agree that we must take account of the opinion poll evidence on the cannabis issue, which is clear. There is much other creditable recent evidence, including the two important reports of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Psychiatrists, and the Police Foundation inquiry, now a year and a half old, chaired by Dame Ruth Runciman. A report was published this week by the former chief constable of Gwent, which makes it clear that someone

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who was a senior police officer believes that the way in which we deal with heroin use has been entirely unhelpful, and that we need to give people legal access to a place where they can go openly and have heroin prescribed, to get them away from the sordid backstreet operation through which that drug has been obtained in the past.

I make a further potentially controversial point, which does not assume a particular opinion on the issue. Parliament came to a view 30 years ago that we had to legalise abortion, not because everyone thought that that was morally right, but because unless we did so, we were perpetuating the sequence through the generations and condemning women who did not want to go through with the birth to being at the hands of the racketeers, the exploiters and those who were not validated as professionally competent.

There is a parallel with drugs. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, we condemn many young people to going to traffickers, dealers, exploiters and pedlars who are not interested in their future. They want only money and reward for their activities, although the result, one, two or three years later, may be pain, suffering and death for those young people. I hope that we establish a policy in this Parliament that breaks the link between the young person who experiments with drugs simply because young people experiment and those who make money, irrespective of young people's interests.

Lembit Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not whether cannabis is a gateway drug but whether prohibiting it leads individuals to be exposed to alternative gateways and to people who can introduce them to other drugs?

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow made that point clearly. I do not accept the gateway view. To reinforce the point, the person who provides cannabis often wants the purchaser to buy something else at greater cost. People thus become reliant on those who are literally pushers—they push others into buying drugs that make them return because they are addictive. Pushers create a dependency market for which they have guaranteed customers who have less and less money and thus go thieving, burgling and nicking. Serious crime follows: blackmail, intimidation, harassment and the gun crime that has already been mentioned.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): If cannabis is removed from the market, does not the hon. Gentleman worry that more dangerous drugs will be pushed more vigorously?

Simon Hughes: No. The Runciman report clearly states that all drugs are not the same, and we must educate people to understand the difference. Just as the consequences of drinking low-alcohol lager and high- alcohol spirits are different for most people, there is a difference between using cannabis and heroin, and between taking one or two ecstasy tablets and regularly using crack cocaine. I do not accept that using one makes people likely to progress to the other when they can be educated to understand the difference. Education is vital.

A classification system is a good idea. Cannabis has some harmful consequences, but it is not especially harmful. Ecstasy is more harmful. It is a relatively new

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drug, and we do not know all its implications. However, taking ecstasy leads to a handful of deaths a year, whereas smoking causes 120,000 deaths a year and alcohol-related diseases account for 30,000 deaths a year. We must give people the facts and counter the prejudice. We must also ensure that we have a system that keeps people up to date.

We must establish an authoritative body that works in the open to keep up to date with events. Since 1994, my party has called for such a body. We originally proposed a royal commission, but that is a one-off exercise. We subsequently argued for a standing commission. I hold to the view that we need an authoritative, independent body that can say, "These drugs are available. Ecstasy has just arrived; these are the implications, this is our advice." It should be able to take evidence and give advice. With great respect to Keith Hellawell, whom I do not know well, someone who is under the Government's umbrella and is perceived as a Government person will not have such authority. That is the weakness of such a job.

I accept the policy aims that the Minister outlined. We must help young people to resist drugs misuse and protect our communities from drug-related antisocial and criminal behaviour. We must enable those with drugs problems to overcome them and live healthy, crime-free lives. We must stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets.

I do not advocate taking drugs; most people are better off without drugs, and using natural, not artificial remedies. Changing the law does not mean advocating drugs use or making drugs more acceptable, beneficial or preferable.

We should divide society into three groups. We should treat recreational drug users as normal people who use such drugs in the same way as alcohol or tobacco, which are also used, for better or worse, as recreational drugs. We should treat addicts as victims because they need help. That is clear from talking to people who have been to prison for a drug-related crime and have benefited from a regime that has helped them to deal with their problem. The pushers, dealers, profiteers and traffickers are criminals. Like hon. Members from other parties, I hope that, at the end of the review, we will distinguish between those who should be regarded as criminal and those who should not. For example, the personal use of recreational drugs should not be criminal—it is different from dealing in serious drugs, an activity that should be criminal. We must categorise those activities differently.

The key recommendation of the Runciman report is that if differences exist in the amount of harm caused, it is important to educate people about that. There is evidence that cannabis is harmful, but less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. It is therefore not logical to treat the personal use of cannabis as a crime when we allow people to use tobacco and alcohol. Many people now say precisely that and act accordingly, and that brings the law into disrepute. Policies must be credible as well as intelligent.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has already raised the next point, which I hope that the Government will tackle, and I have no reason to suppose that they will not. We are constrained by international legal obligations. I accept that international conventions require trafficking in narcotic drugs to be regarded as an offence. We cannot alter that unilaterally; we have to work within that parameter. However, the Portuguese

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have recently decriminalised possession of all drugs. It is therefore possible, even within the international parameters, to treat possession, the personal production of drugs such as cannabis, which can be grown, and social, non-commercial supply differently from commercial supply. The Portuguese have only recently made their decision, and we therefore do not know the result. However, I hope that we will consider policies that are intellectually and practically coherent.

We also cannot say that it is acceptable to use cannabis without an explanation of its source being equally acceptable. That is not sensible law. The weakness of the Government's policy is that they are prepared to change the status of cannabis to a class C drug, but people might be prosecuted for using it, depending on the day of the week, the location and the officer on duty. Someone may or may not be charged. We cannot have an arbitrary policy; there should be certainty and clarity.

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