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12.15 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Why is this debate so important? It is because, as we all know, drugs misuse ruins lives and fuels crime and anti social behaviour. In Tower Hamlets, where I live, everyone is affected by drugs, whether they have ever taken a drug in their lives or not.

The starting point is clear—how do we protect individuals and communities against drug abuse? We must take an evidence-based approach that prioritises harm reduction above everything else, and that means putting harm reduction above our human tendency to moralise and judge.

I want our drugs policy to target the drugs that harm us most and cause the greatest destruction in our communities. Which drugs harm us most? Every year in Britain, 10 people die from taking ecstasy and 2,100 from taking other illegal drugs; 30,000 die from alcohol use; and 120,000 die from smoking. No one in Britain has ever died from taking cannabis. It is instructive to consider the fact that although cigarettes kill the most people, they do not destroy our communities as some other drugs do. In my view, the drugs that do most to destroy our communities are heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol. Those are the drugs that we need to do most to deal with, using well thought out and well funded harm reduction strategies.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that supply, demand and harm reduction strategies must be more balanced, and that that is what the Government are trying to do. He also said that we must get an effective message across to young people. Again, I am pleased that since 1999 the Government have increased the proportion of secondary schools with drug education programmes from 86 to 93 per cent. Sadly, however, we have to accept that the drugs policies of successive Governments have sabotaged the attempt to send an effective message to young people. Worse than that, they have criminalised many young people, 42 per cent. of whom have tried cannabis at some point.

I cannot help mentioning the glaring contradictions raised by the speech of the Conservative shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Since entering the House, I have not heard such a weak speech from any Front-Bench spokesman. That genuinely saddens me, as on this subject we need strong and intelligent debate. The hon. Gentleman's speech showed a complete absence of intellectual rigour. He spoke with passion about cannabis suppliers getting up to 14 years in jail, but completely failed to answer the telling point that those who supply drugs that cause much greater harm, and kill far more people, often end up with a peerage instead of a jail term. Why is that? Mainly, it is because most members of the establishment choose to relax with

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a glass of wine or a cigarette. They do not, on the whole, roll themselves a joint. Their choice of recreational drug is considered acceptable, but the choice of millions of other people in Britain is criminalised.

The problem was well set out in an extremely thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). He points out that the problem is not recreational drugs use, whatever drug is used, whether it is alcohol, tobacco or even cocaine—although not crack cocaine. It is not recreational drugs use that is the problem; it is addiction.

Mr. Prisk: Despite not being a member of the establishment and therefore not knowing whether or not they gently roll a joint, or whatever the terminology is, may I ask whether the hon. Lady thinks we can ever strike a balance between what she defines as recreational drugs use and addiction? Where would she draw the line? Where does recreational drugs use end?

Ms King: It is not possible to draw a line in the sand. I consider that if I have had more than three glasses of wine, I have crossed the line and tipped from recreation into drunkenness. That is my view, but down in the Bars I regularly see many other Members of Parliament tanking up on pint after pint or bottle after bottle of alcohol. There will never be an obvious or simple answer to that question. The question to ask is, when does drug use start to ruin one's life? When do one's usual daily activities start to suffer? At what point does one become unable to carry out other functions?

I pay tribute to two organisations, Addaction and Transform, and to the authors of the Runciman and the Police Foundation reports. Everyone involved with them has argued for an evidence-based approach, so let us look at the evidence.

There is a strong relationship between hard-drugs use and crime. It is estimated that between 50 and 70 per cent. of street and house crime is drugs related. Nowhere is the effect more devastating than in an area such as Tower Hamlets; no one suffers more than low-income groups. A Home Office study revealed that 13 per cent. of criminals in custody were convicted of drugs offences—that is twice the proportion recorded 10 years ago. Of all those arrested, 65 per cent. tested positive for one or more drugs. It is estimated that goods to the value of £1.3 billion are stolen each year by people who use class A drugs.

Given those facts, it is easy to understand the temptation to try to deal with addiction from a criminal justice perspective, but I believe that sending people to prison is not always the best answer—although, obviously, it depends on what else they have done. Sending people to prison does nothing to rehabilitate them or to protect society. Of all male offenders aged between 17 and 21 who were discharged for original drugs offences, 49 per cent. were reconvicted. That is a stunning indictment of the system. The evidence shows that the system does not work. It is estimated that one in five inmates take drugs in prison. Mandatory drugs testing revealed that 18.3 per cent. of inmates use drugs inside prison, and many experts fear that in some prisons the proportion is nearer 60 per cent. The drugs treatment strategy in prisons has been reviewed as part of the Government's 10-year strategy and more money is being

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directed to treatment in prisons, but I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister stated in his closing remarks, or in writing, what further measures the Government will take to improve treatment and rehabilitation in prisons.

I want the House to reflect on the situation in what has been described as the heroin capital of London. I and other residents of Tower Hamlets are greatly distressed that the borough in which we live and which has so many positive characteristics has acquired that terrible tag. The price of heroin in Tower Hamlets is the cheapest in London. There are kids in Tower Hamlets who can buy heroin for less than it costs them to buy chocolate. Drugs agencies in Tower Hamlets have seen a 50 per cent. increase in heroin abuse in two years. The greatest increase in that abuse has been within the Bengali community, where drug use has risen from about 10 per cent. of those coming in to 40 per cent. A further rise is expected.

Previously, hard drugs abuse was mainly confined to young white men. However, the situation is changing rapidly. Is our response changing rapidly to deal with that? More than 50 per cent. of the increase in heroin smoking among the under-20s can be attributed to the rise in the reported incidence of drugs use in the Bangladeshi and Asian community. There is speculation among service providers that that could be an underestimate of the true picture.

The influence of ethnicity on illicit drugs use is an under-researched topic. I ask the Minister to take that up when he replies. There is a degree to which ethnicity overlaps other social variables such as unemployment and deprivation. I understand why there is that correlation, but we must undertake further research. Black and minority ethnic drugs users are less likely to use drugs agencies. Their reasons include a lack of awareness about the agencies. They complain that there is little cultural sensitivity or understanding once they get to an agency. Another factor is the ethnicity of the drugs agency staff. In particular, there is a lack of provision for women who may have a drugs problem. The number of women in that position is set to increase.

The national context is one of increasing drugs use among black minority ethnic communities. That is not unexpected given the concentration of these communities in areas of high unemployment and deprivation, coupled with experience of both overt and covert racism. However, that is not the issue with which we wish to concern ourselves today. We want to think about how we can help such people break drugs addiction.

We should consider how other European countries are dealing with the problem of drugs abuse. It is obvious that we have much to learn. We have the highest level of drugs use and misuse and the largest prison population in Europe. In contrast to our policy, many other EU countries have effectively decriminalised the possession of all drugs to focus resources on treatment and the supply side. Logic dictates such an approach, and I support it.

The average age of heroin users in the Netherlands is 36, and rising. The average age in the UK is 26 and falling. The Dutch are widely and wrongly believed to have legalised cannabis. In fact, cannabis is illegal in Holland. The Dutch policy has, in effect, created a regulated market for the small-scale supply of cannabis to adults through coffee shops. The Dutch have a similar

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level of cannabis use to other countries but there is a lower prevalence of the use of cannabis than in the UK, especially among young people aged 16 to 19.

The Dutch have a stable population of problem drugs users with a rising average age. A high proportion of those users are in touch with treatment agencies. The ratio of drugs-related deaths to other deaths is the lowest in Europe. I want our ratio of such deaths to become lower.

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