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Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): We can all trade figures on drug use in the Netherlands. Is the hon. Lady aware that there was a 50 per cent. increase in heroin addiction in the Netherlands between 1988 and 1997 and that the level of cocaine use by Dutch people aged between 14 and 16 is the highest in Europe? The evidence that she is presenting about the benefits of Dutch policy seems to be in doubt.
Ms King: I see the former Cabinet member, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), shaking his head and suggesting that the hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong. I cannot respond to them here and now, but let me repeat that the proportion of people suffering drugs-related deaths is lower in Holland than here. That is something we should want to replicate.
Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Does my hon. Friend at least accept that the argument is more complex than is sometimes acknowledged? For instance, someone said earlier that we and the Swedes had the most restrictive, law and order oriented policies in Europe, and cited that as the reason for our high levels of drugs use, but Sweden has lower levels than Holland.
Ms King: Of course, I take my hon. Friend the Minister at his word, and I would want to consider that evidence. The whole point is that we need an evidence-based approach, and we have not had that up to now.
We can draw important lessons from how other European Union countries have dealt with the problem. There is benefit to be had from treating demand problems as primarily health problems and minimising the social exclusion of young people through drugs offending. It would also be beneficial to separate the market for cannabis from that for heroin. If those members of the establishment about whom we were talking earlierMembers of Parliament must accept that they are in the establishmenthad to go to a heroin dealer to get their glass of port, they would be extremely distressed.
Finally, I want to consider the issues of addiction and treatment. In Britain, on average, drugs use commences at the age of 15. It becomes a problem at 17, but help is not sought until 22. It is in that window between 17 and 22 that the drug users lifestyles deteriorate and problems become monumental, putting the users and others at risk. They may enter a life of crime to feed their addiction or compromise their health by using non-safe injecting practices, resulting in hepatitis C or HIV infection. Their behaviour will have led to a loss of stability, of family and friends, and the natural maturation processes are slowed. Many put themselves outside the normal routes to progress through stability in family life and through education and work.
My plea is that we tackle drug abuse from a health rather than a criminal justice angle. In so doing, I believe that we will reduce crime and restore some integrity and security to the communities that need it most.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and I largely agree with what she said so lucidly. I shall endeavour to be brief, as I know that other hon. Members who have taken a consistent interest in the subject for longer, perhaps, than I have, wish to speak.
I was reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that I raised the issue of alcohol prohibition in my maiden speech, when I quoted the shortest-ever maiden speech to the House, which was given during the 1920s, when prohibition was in force in the United States. It was made by a Labour Member representing a coal-mining constituency, who was incensed by Lady Astor banging on from the Conservative Benches about the need to ban the demon drink and outlaw the sale of alcohol. Eventually, as I said in my maiden speech, he could stand it no more, so he leapt to his feet, caught the Speaker's eye, and in six brief words gave his maiden and only speech:
One thing I learned when I was in the financial markets that is true also in the political world is that when something is inevitable, it happens sooner than one expects. In July, I published a pamphlet that began with the words:
First, however, I shall explain how I became convinced that reform of the cannabis laws was both inevitable and desirable and, discuss the extent to which the change announced by the Home Secretary will end the damage done by attempts to prohibit the sale and use of cannabis.
On a more serious note, with reference to morality and legality, as a Christian, I have a profound moral objection to drug abuse, by which I mean abuse of anything, be it alcohol or cannabis, to the extent to which it deprives one of one's self-control and undermines one's conscience, thereby leading one to other acts that may be damaging to one's neighbour or ultimately to oneself and society as a whole.
There are many things, however, that are immoral but not illegal and which it would be foolish to make illegal. Adultery is immoral, but none of us would seriously suggest that the state make it illegal. If we were more willing to teach and do what the Minister said we should not dopreach what is right and wrong and what is moral and immoralwe would need less recourse to the law and have a freer and more responsible society.
Before I thought through all those arguments, I used to rehearse fairly mechanically, as one does, the line to take and the arguments for the status quo in constituency meetings with young people and their parents and grandparents. I hope that I am so sufficiently convincing and experienced an apologist that I convinced some that the status quo was sustainable, but each time I became less and less convinced. The arguments seemed to crumble in my hands when I was faced with the evidence.
The two main arguments that have been used to sustain the policy of prohibition are that cannabis is damaging to one's health and that it is a gateway drug. I read a great deal of medical research on the health issue. Instead of relying on my assessment, I quoted The Lancet review of the evidence in my pamphlet, which is available from the Social Market Foundation at £5 or from my website free of charge. The Lancet published the evidence in 1998 and concluded:
There has been a tendency to dismiss the evidence. People say, "That's just The Lancet; I found an article in an obscure journal that says there is such and such a health risk." I prefer to rely on a review of all the evidence, published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, rather than picking a study by a lay person who has not subjected it to peer review. Almost all the comprehensive reviews of the evidence, not only that by The Lancet, show that the health risks of moderate use are not great.
I do not want simply to win the argument. In the past two or three months, I have tried to single out the most difficult arguments to tackle, and I shall speak about the two strongest counter-arguments. The first concerns schizophrenia. There is evidence that cannabis can precipitate psychotic episodes in those who are liable to
Schizophrenia affects only slightly more than 1 per cent. of the population and appears to be genetically preconditioned. Those who rely on the evidence I described effectively acknowledge that the health risks for 98 per cent. of the population are those that The Lancet found. However, there is a risk to the 1 or 2 per cent. who are liable to schizophrenia. Cannabis use will not cause the condition, but it may induce it earlier.
We must acknowledge that hundreds of mentally ill people die every year from paracetamol and aspirin overdoses. Nobody gives that as a reason for outlawing their sale. I cannot help believing that people seize on the schizophrenia argument to try to outlaw cannabis for the other 98 per cent. of the population. We should make people more aware of the health risks for schizophrenics; legalisation will make that possible.
The other strong health argument involves cancer. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out, no one has died from a cannabis overdose, but if people smoked as much cannabis as ordinary cigarettes, they would probably be more likely to contract cancer than regular tobacco smokers. However, almost no one smokes cannabis as heavily as heavy smokers smoke tobacco, so the argument is somewhat artificial. We must acknowledge that the health risks exist and we should try to ensure that people know about them. That will be possible only if we move to a system more liberal than the current one or that proposed by the Government.
The other key argument is that of the gatewaytaking cannabis leads to using hard drugs. There is clearly no chemical predisposition caused by taking cannabis that leads people to take hard drugs. That is essentially the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that, because people do one thing first and another later, the first caused the second. It is like saying that most people who ride motor cycles previously rode bicycles, but that if bicycles did not exist, they would never have got on a motor cycle or that we could stop people moving on to motor cycling by banning bicycles.
The underlying gateway argument is that cannabis leads to hard drugs and that we therefore need to prohibit cannabis, but that is the reverse of the truth. Making the supply and possession of cannabis a criminal offence drives people through the gates of the law into the illegal world in which they must acquire their supplies from people who may also push heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs.
The simple fact is that, so long as the possession and sale of cannabis remain criminal offences, that reverse gateway effect will apply. Legislation is the only way to overcome it, which is why I propose that we should empower the magistrates in each area to license one or more outlets to sell cannabis in small quantities for retail use to those over 18 from premises which would carry no alcohol, which would lose their licence if there were the slightest reasonable suspicion that they handled any hard or illegal drugs and which would be bound to carry a health warning on what they sold and in their premises.