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The Government are not convinced that shooting galleries, as they have been described, would be helpful at the moment. We want to build a consensus around the rapid development of heroin prescribing for the right patients. We want to do so in association with the country's medical services so that there is confidence in such prescribing. That confidence was undermined when the experiments that began in the early 1970s were misused, and drugs were sold on.
We believe that careful, managed and overseen prescribing will help enormously in reducing the terrible pyramid selling by users who capture others in their lair. Such prescribing will help to reduce the terrible harm and misery experienced by people injecting in the most violent and unhealthy circumstances, and to lessen the harm that that brings to them and to the community.
We are not turning our faces away from providing safe and clean areas: in fact, we are developing, together with the health service, new policies on what is known as the paraphernalia, to minimise the harm that people suffer. However, we need to build a consensus. We must make sure that people are secure in accepting that we are not simply setting up shooting galleries outside clubs, where people can use needles and drugs in an unsupervised and unordered fashion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South made a final point about the audit of drug treatment services in prison. I am very glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is present, as we must ensure that there is a much more coherent approach to health policies in prisons in general. Mental health in particular relates to the misuse of drugs. We must make sure that there is a coherent policy that spans not only what happens to people inside prison, but above all what happens to those who leave prison.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. I share his view that drugs policy is a difficult, sensitive but very important issue. If we are honest, we must admit that there are differences of view on the matter among members of all political parties.
Will the Home Secretary accept that, even though hon. Members will not have identical views, it would be a good idea to conduct consultation with people across the political divide over the next few months? In that way, the maximum consensus can by achieved before the strategy is finalised in the autumn, as the right hon. Gentleman said that he intends. I offer the services of the Liberal Democrat party to ensure that that conversation takes place, even if, in the end, we do not agree on all the outcomes.
Although the Home Secretary was right to identify the successes and progress that have been achieved, does he agree that the major national tests show that we are still failing in this area? The statistics show that addiction to drugs is rising, as are the numbers of people for whom drug use brings harm and death. If those statistics are the product of past policy, then the policy must be changed to try to turn matters around.
I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said about heroin, which is hugely important. If he rejects the shooting gallery option, does he agree that we must find a way of taking the heroin addict out of the clutches of the criminal profiteers and into the safe hands of the health service professionals? [Interruption.]
Does the Home Secretary agree with me that all the evidence is that although it is appropriate to lock up dealers and traffickers, doing so is entirely inappropriate as a way of dealing with the repeated habits of addicts? It adds thousands of people to the prison numbers, it is of very little use to them and does the Prison Service no good.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the new logic behind having different classifications of drugs yet the same maximum penalty for people dealing in those drugs, as will happen now with amphetamines and cannabis?
The Master of Rolls, among many others, says that the law on cannabis is not working. We, like others, have argued for a long time that cannabis should be reclassified as a category C drug. We also welcome the announcement of a common police response across London. [Hon. Members: "Come on"] However, does the Home Secretary accept that there is a horrible danger of sending a muddled message if the national policy means that people are not normally stopped for cannabis use and possession while if it is a public order matter, it becomes an arrestable offence? That sends a muddled message about whether or not it is acceptable to use cannabis.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, let me say that I was reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman as he is the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, but I want shorter contributions in future.
Mr. Blunkett: I will try to be short and snappy in reply, Mr. Speaker. For the first time in quite a few months, I agreed with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, except for his final point. If there is a will for people to come together and look at developing a consensus on the attack on drugs and drug abuse, we would be very happy to take that up.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's final point. I do not think that there is a mixed message in saying that if a drug is flagrantly displayed, used to provoke, in danger of causing disorder and makes the police's job more difficult, they have every right to arrest the people responsible. That will also help in respect of dealers. There has been some concern and misgiving about having differential penalties for dealers of different drugs, given that there is often confusion about whether dealers peddle one drug to lure people into taking another. We are intending to deal with the issue by raising the penalty to 14 years. However, we entirely agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says about developing harm minimisation programmes and prescribing for heroin. The real danger in many of our most deprived communities, and the cause of criminality, is the growth of crack. We have a major national and international challenge on our hands, and I think that we should agree to tackle it together.
Mr. Blunkett: The only comfort that I can give my hon. Friend is that the Secretary of State for Health and I have seen the results of the early phases of the tests. They have proved successful and, as with the use in medical applications of heroin derivative, so it will be with cannabis derivative. As soon as the final phase is completed and we have the results, which I hope will be very soon, we will give the Medicines Control Agency the opportunity to ensure that that derivative can be used and the benefits accrued to patients such as my hon. Friend's constituents.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): May I ask the Home Secretary what consideration he gave to creating an offence of substantial possession? If those in possession of cannabis will not now be arrested unless they deal to children or cause a public order offence, what will be the position of those in possession of substantial amounts of cannabis? Where the police do not have quite enough evidence to prove intent to supply and therefore cannot make an arrest for dealing, what is the position of those people? Will he consider the law in those countries that have an offence of substantial possession under which people carrying unlikely supplies of cannabis for personal use can be arrested?
Mr. Blunkett: This is a serious and difficult issue. As with so many issues that, unfortunately, have become adversarial in recently days, there is a very fine line to tread. The fine line in this circumstance is whether dealers distribute and therefore disseminate small amounts of the drug to avoid being arrested as dealers and therefore whether a specific amount of the drug would be a reasonable trigger to determine whether they are dealing or merely possessing the drug. The jury is out on that. We are not convinced that it would be wise to create such an offence at the moment, but the right hon. Lady has hit on a reasonable point. If we and the police became convinced that it would help, we would certainly consider such an offence.
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): Many hon. Members will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today, but I have to tell him that I am not one of them. I very much appreciate what he is seeking to do, but I am very concerned about the mixed messages coming from today's statement. May I raise an issue that has not been mentioned so far? The greatest killer drug in this country is tobacco. Young people are becoming increasingly addicted to tobacco, and that is a great problem for all parents. If we make it easier to consume cannabis, the only way to consume cannabis is through tobacco, so there will be a greater temptation for younger kids to try cannabis by smoking cigarette tobacco. That can be more damaging to our young people, by dragging them into tobacco addiction as well. I understand what the Home