I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise this very important subject today and to be part of establishing a new tradition, only recently started, of Wednesday morning debates.
I want to discuss the size of the problem of drug abuse among young people. It is notoriously difficult to get accurate statistics, but Home Office figures suggest that, of young people living in inner-city areas, some 42 per cent. of 16 to 19-year-olds, and 44 per cent. of 20 to 24-year-olds, have taken drugs at some time. We had a recent reminder of that in my constituency, with a haul of £25 million of drugs on board a catamaran that was towed into our new Sovereign harbour, and another reminder when there were some expulsions from a prominent local public school.
The figures vary quite dramatically. Home Office figures show that the total number of drug offenders has risen by 190 per cent. since 1983, in a 10-year period. Of course, the Home Office also makes the point that there is likely to be a significant understatement of the figures of drug addiction and drug use. In a survey in 1993, it was said that only 52 per cent. of boys and 57 per cent. of girls had not been offered any of the named drugs in year 11, aged 15 to 16. Those are, on any view, dramatic figures.
Nor, indeed, are the problems limited to urban areas. The East Sussex Drugs Advisory Council—ESDAC—produced the statistic that the incidence of drug taking in the north Wealden district of east Sussex was almost the same as that of Brighton, and that more than one fifth of 14 and 15-year-olds had tried an illicit drug, and, of those, 5 per cent. were likely to develop problems because of drug abuse.
I am particularly grateful to Mrs. Penny McKay, of the Eastbourne community drugs team, for producing other figures, such as those from the South Thames (East) regional drug misuse database, which suggest, for example, that the average age of first use of cannabis is under 15 years old. There is evidence that young people most often experiment with substance misuse between the ages of 10 and 14. For example, solvent abuse is the highest cause of unnatural death between the age of 10 and 16, after road accidents. We must ask ourselves why. What is the attraction?
The British Medical Journal, in its own investigations, felt that the most common reasons cited were
to feel big, show off, look grown up … because friends do, trendy.
I should like this morning to concentrate only on cannabis, the most widely used of the so-called "soft" drugs. As the Government consultation document, "Tackling Drugs Together", said, the burden is on those who wish to legalise or decriminalise soft or hard drugs. One of the arguments that is made for legalisation or decriminalisation is that those drugs are no worse than alcohol or tobacco. That is rather a bleak argument. I am particularly impressed by something that was said by Detective Chief Superintendent Des Donohue, head of Dorset CID, who, a few years ago, received a Churchill fellowship to study the police response to drug abuse. When the point was put to him, he said:
If I had been a bobby in the 16th century I would have nicked Sir Walter Raleigh for the illegal importation of drugs.
We are stuck with the social problems of drink and tobacco but that's no reason to legalise cannabis.
Another argument often used is that legalisation would reduce the criminality that tends to surround the use and supply of drugs. Of course, if one legalised burglary, the crime statistics would doubtless improve. But that is not the way to tackle that particular problem.
There are also some practical difficulties. First, how could a workable system be established that distinguished between possession of drugs for personal consumption and possession for trafficking purposes? Secondly, I assume that even those who advocate legalisation would want a system to protect children and young persons. Thirdly, how would we deal with the question of driving under the influence? There is much evidence to suggest that driving under the influence of cannabis, which can take a week or so to leave the human system, is rather more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.
Would not the legalisation of so-called soft drugs such as cannabis act as a gateway to harder drugs such as heroin, and would not that be extremely damaging? The best idea, surely, is to introduce drug education into as many schools as possible to show our youngsters at an early age how damaging the use of cannabis can be.
My hon. Friend is right. I shall develop the "gateway" or "pathway" argument shortly.
Legalisation would also involve Britain's withdrawal from the United Nations convention on narcotic drugs, thus risking our international isolation. It has been argued that legalisation would reduce the allure and attraction of drugs, but I consider that argument flawed. I also think that comparisons with tobacco and alcohol are meaningless, as those substances are not legally restricted in any real sense except in respect of minors.
Why should drug barons and others who currently make a good living from organised crime not seek to control an ever-expanding market, albeit a legalised or decriminalised one? As for the "libertarian" argument—the John Stuart Mill approach—I fear that we are dealing with the real world, not that of philosophers.
It is interesting to note that even the Dutch Minister of Justice recently announced to the United Nations that his country was reviewing its so-called "coffee shop" policy, whereby cannabis dealing and use are tolerated at certain outlets, because of a perceived sharp increase in the availability of drugs.
Let me deal next with the arguments against the legalisation of cannabis. The argument about its effect on human beings has raged for many years, but there is no conclusive proof that so-called soft drugs are non-addictive or completely harmless. As the Royal College of Psychiatrists put it,
There can be no reasonable dispute that cannabis can cause acute mental impairment in terms either of intoxication or a transient but very bizarre and worrying psychological experience.
There is a growing body of medical opinion on other physical effects. A recent article in The Big Issue—not a publication renowned for its slavish support for pro-establishment views—set out some of the evidence that is emerging, particularly in America, of damage caused by cannabis or marijuana. Apparently, research shows that it can damage the human immune and reproductive systems and the brain. There is also strong evidence that the drug is more carcinogenic than tobacco. According to Professor Sridhar of the university of Miami's cancer research centre,
Cannabis smokers develop cancer 15 to 20 years younger than you would expect. I am convinced it is a highly dangerous drug.
At a time when most commentators agree that there is a need for even more health education and even more effort by those leading social policy to persuade people to give up substances such as alcohol and tobacco, would it not be wrong for hon. Members or anyone else to 'be seen to endorse a product that involves many of the same difficulties? It would run contrary to all the current social thinking.
My hon. Friend is right. The fact that we allow the legal consumption of alcohol and tobacco does not mean that, if we started with a clean sheet in respect of both commodities, we would find ourselves in our present position.
Cannabis is very much an unknown quantity. It took some 50 years and literally thousands of research projects, papers and investigations to discover that smoking tobacco causes cancer. I believe that there are about 100,000 tobacco-related deaths a year in this country alone. It is hardly surprising, however, that cannabis is harmful: it contains more than 400 compounds that convert to over 2,000 chemicals when it is ignited.
The element THC, which is the main ingredient of cannabis, is important in terms of its strength in a given dose and the way in which it builds up in the body over long periods. Some scientists estimate that the present levels of THC in cannabis are some 16 times higher than at the time of the Woodstock festival, which some of the older hon. Members present may remember. There are also suggestions that cannabis can reduce fertility, as well as weakening the immune system and the body's protection from infection. Studies show that cannabis smokers are up to six times more likely to develop serious mental illnesses.
In my constituency, as in my hon. Friend's, the problem of drug abuse among young people is particularly serious. The effect of cannabis consumption on health has been particularly marked in Blackpool, and Dr. Mohammed Musa, who works in my local drug advisory clinic, strongly believes that it adversely affects the general health of all drug users in the town.
I am not surprised. I do not know whether Dr. Musa has a view on the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)—the extent to which the use of so-called soft drugs leads to the use of so-called hard drugs.
Picking one's way through the mass of literature on the subject, it is difficult to arrive at a clear, definitive medical answer. It would be dishonest not to accept that opinions vary, but I stress what I said at the beginning of my speech: the burden of proof must be firmly on those who wish to legalise or decriminalise those substances.
Even the Government now state that, as well as affecting psychotic illnesses and lung diseases, cannabis affects the user's judgment, leading to pregnancy and numerous other spin-off problems.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the most dramatic illustrations of that point is contained in research into road and train accidents, particularly that conducted in the United States.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists,
It is clear that a person who uses cannabis is statistically more likely to try other illicit drugs than one who does not.
The argument that the hon. Gentleman is about to deploy is a familiar one, but what he has just said is unexceptional. Obviously, someone who starts using cannabis is statistically more likely to move on to another substance; but it is equally true that someone who drinks a dry sherry is statistically more likely to end up as a total alcoholic. What point is the hon. Gentleman trying to make?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was at Woodstock. I was about to deal with his point, which some experts call the "pathway" argument. I am not saying that everyone who tries cannabis will move on to something harder, and I do not entirely disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. A number of studies show that, as people become adjusted to a drug such as cannabis, there is a tendency to increase the dose, or to move on to something that is somewhat stronger.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there are now variants of cannabis that can cause hallucination, so the idea that cannabis is some sort of safe drug with a recreational flavour is inaccurate? Skunk, a variant of cannabis, is imported from the Netherlands. Such variants can cause hallucinations that can drive people on to experiment with harsher drugs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. I know that he has made himself very much an expert in those matters, and that he has spent a great deal of time and effort in his constituency trying to combat drug abuse problems, especially among young people.
Another argument is that, if cannabis is legal, in a sense, it loses the attraction of being out of bounds, especially to young people, and they may choose to move on to something that appears to have a more superficial romance about it because it is illegal. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) talked about pathways. It is true that many addicts, perhaps even most addicts of, for example, heroin have previously used cannabis. Some of the studies that I have read show that it is equally true that alcohol is a pathway. Children who start drinking alcohol at a young age—and it is surprising how many do nowadays—will graduate to the other drugs that I am talking about. That is an important point.
The next argument against legalisation is that it reduces social disapproval of the use of those drugs. People may argue that drugs should be legal, but I doubt whether many people argue that they are positively beneficial. By legalising them, one would send a confusing message to our young people, a point made by Sir Paul Condon recently, when he said:
By continuing to debate the possibility of legalisation we are diminishing the dangers of drugs in the eyes of the young. We must take the utmost care not to make drugs appear attractive.
Merely by debating the possibility of removing legal constraints, we may unwittingly be encouraging their use.
Another argument often put forward is that legalisation would reduce the street price. Again, the evidence is clear that, if the availability and ease of access to drugs is increased, one will increase use and abuse, especially among young people. As Professor Griffith Edwards of the National Addiction Centre said,
access to drugs has been proved significantly to encourage use of drugs.
There is abundant research evidence from America, both in the medical profession and among American ground troops in Vietnam. In both situations, for different reasons, drugs were freely available and there was a much higher level of addiction than among the rest of the population.
On health costs, I have said that there is no conclusive proof that cannabis is non-addictive. There is ample proof that it damages health. If one considers the problems that we have in society with alcohol and tobacco, which are already legal, one may realise the sort of difficulties that a massive expansion, potentially, of drug use would cause, plus other costs to society.
What I call the social effects are often ignored. The regular use of drugs often involves a surrender to unreality, a retreat into a world that has neither pain nor achievement. That has a long-term effect on any society.
The evidence, therefore, is clear. I feel that no responsible group or political party would advocate legalisation or decriminalisation, except possibly one. As you will know, Madam Speaker, the Liberal Democrats voted to decriminalise cannabis at their last party conference. I see hon. Members shaking their heads. I am willing to give way on that point.
I hope that I might catch your eye later, Madam Speaker, to explain that the Liberal Democrats did not vote for that. I spoke in the debate and I shall ensure that the House understands exactly what we did vote for. We voted for a royal commission to consider a range of issues, including whether there should be a change in the legal position. That is clear and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will no longer misrepresent what we decided.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. This is an important and disturbing issue, which surfaced in my constituency. I have taken great trouble to ascertain the true facts about the wording of the motions, and the two separate votes that took place. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is free to say whatever he wishes in the Chamber, but some of the points made by his friends in my constituency border on the libellous. They are certainly attempts to rewrite history. For the record, let me assist the House.
There was a separate vote to refer these matters to a royal commission. It is probably not unusual for a Liberal Democrat party conference to pass motions that are contradictory because, after all, it does the same thing every day of the week in this place. However, it had a vote and then a separate vote, where conference called for
The decriminalisation of the use and possession of cannabis in order that the police and Customs and Excise are able to target their resources on the vital battle against the use of hard drugs.
The vote on that was 426 in favour and 375 against.
Only because the hon. Gentleman is being so misleading, I should point out that he read part of a sentence—I have the motion as passed here. I hope that he will listen and not misrepresent the position again. The wording of the sentence is:
Conference calls for the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate and consider strategies for combating drug misuse, including
and there is a list of six things, of which the last is the question of decriminalisation. The royal commission, therefore, would consider six issues, one of which is what the legal position should be. For heaven's sake, the hon. Gentleman must not lie in the House.
I did not intend to spend a long time on this and I am running rather late, but it is time to nail that gross misrepresentation by the Liberal Democrats. I do not blame them for being embarrassed by the vote. Their leader was extremely embarrassed. I seem to remember that he stormed off the platform. They should be embarrassed. This is a disgrace.
As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey is so much in love with the facts, and I am looking at the Liberal Democrat agenda paper for Monday 19 September last year—
I sometimes wonder. I have already accepted that that conference passed a separate motion by a separate vote to refer the matter to a royal commission, but, at the same time, it passed by another vote a separate motion. I have already read out proposal 6 in Amendment 1, put forward by the Saffron Walden constituency and moved by Alan Dean.
Lest the hon. Gentleman would try to persuade the House either that black is white and white is black, or merely that this is a brief aberration on his party's part, let me remind him of his own words in his role as community affairs spokesman. He said:
Lots of absolutely perfectly respectable, normal members of society take drugs as normally as many of their fellow citizens smoke, drink beer or have sex.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to withdraw those words, I am happy to give way.
Nor was that vote just an aberration. At the Scottish Liberal Democrat annual conference in 1993, delegates also voted to decriminalise the possession of cannabis. I draw a line under that part of my speech.
Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning not only the Liberal Democrats' vote at their party conference to legalise cannabis, but the vote to make contraception available to 11-year-old girls without reference to their parents? Did he share my horror on reading in The Times this morning that this year they are going to debate euthanasia? What is happening to the Liberal Democrat party?
I had no intention of doing so, but I shall make two points. First, I would not wish to remind the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey of more than one issue on which his party is attempting to distance itself from the actualité. Secondly, has my hon. Friend read the comments of Mr. Alan Hope—Councillor Alan Hope, I beg his pardon—of the Monster Raving Loony party who, after the Liberal Democrat conference, said:
They are becoming loonier than we are. We are being out-loonied by the Liberal Democrats …We can't believe some of the loony policies they are advocating—legalising cannabis, condoms for 11 year olds and abolishing the monarchy. You can't get loonier than that"?
I was quoting from the Western Daily Press. Let us move on now that I have put the record straight. The next time a Liberal Democrat councillor or spokesman in my constituency accuses me of lying or falsehood, as has happened here today, I shall take action. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to repeat what he said outside the House, we shall get to the heart of the matter. I am conscious of the fact that time is moving on. I have accepted many interventions and been provoked beyond what is reasonable.
What are we doing to deal with the problem? As a country, we spent more than £500 million on the problem in 1993. I have already mentioned the excellent work of the community drugs team in my constituency. The Seaside centre in my constituency has also done excellent work under the leadership of Pat Armstrong. ESDAC draws together all the threads of information and policy to combat drug abuse in east Sussex. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who has been stalwart in his fight to increase awareness of those problems in east Sussex and in his support for organisations such as ESDAC.
The Sussex police have been active in many ways, especially in providing schools with liaison officers. I had a letter from Peter Westcott, the deputy chief constable, which sets out in detail the measures in which the police have been involved. It is estimated that in the country as a whole some 1,300 police officers are involved solely with drugs work.
Of course, health education is very important and some excellent leaflets have been produced by the Department of Health, East Sussex county council and many other bodies. Hon. Members may have seen the draft circular on this subject from the Department for Education, which makes excellent reading. Drugs education is now firmly a part of the national curriculum.
I believe that the formation last year of the central drugs co-ordination unit, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Lord President, has done much to focus attention on the problem. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will have much to say about the impact of the consultation document, "Tackling Drugs Together". It contains many useful ideas and focuses commendably on the importance of educating young people about the dangers of taking drugs. It is interesting that that very detailed document firmly rejects arguments for the legalisation of drugs. In fact, in a sentence that sums up the theme of my speech, it states:
So, in general terms, the strongest arguments against legalisation of controlled drugs are the risks of wider use and addiction; these are very serious risks which no responsible Government should take on behalf of its citizens.
I agree. The Government must promote responsible policies that educate our young people about drug abuse.
In conclusion, the last thing that we want is the crackpot policy peddled by the Liberals, which would merely encourage drug abuse by our nation's young.
I am grateful for being called to speak and I welcome the debate on this matter, not least because it is the first since the Government published their Green Paper entitled "Tackling Drugs Together" to which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) referred. My colleagues and I were under the impression until today that only politicians of our hue debated this issue, so the hon. Gentleman has done his party a service by putting it on the agenda.
It is perfectly obvious that the topic is hugely important. It is generally accepted by police forces across the country that two thirds of thefts are drug related. In a recent sample taken in the north-west, 95 per cent. of young people convicted of criminal offences admitted to using drugs.
I shall deal with, but not linger on, the point that clearly obsesses the hon. Member for Eastbourne—what is and should be the legal position of drugs. For a long time, there has been a debate about whether there should be decriminalisation or legalisation of any currently illegal or criminal drugs. Many people such as members of the judiciary, police officers and academics agree with those Members of Parliament who support the proposition that the law should be reformed. The tragedy has been that, until now, the debate has taken place not among elected representatives of the people but in the media, which have often misrepresented it—although that is not true of the serious press, which has dealt responsibly with the issue.
Legalisation or decriminalisation is certainly on the agenda in the country at large. According to some opinion poll soundings, more than 30 per cent. of the people support the argument for decriminalisation. If one walks around the streets of an urban constituency such as mine and talks to young people, one of the first issues that they raise is this very question because, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, many young people not only talk about drugs but often turn to them as their first choice recreational activity. That may apply more often to 15-year-olds, but also much younger children are involved, including those in primary schools.
Let me make it absolutely clear once and for all, although I am prepared to debate the matter with the hon. Gentleman in the House, in Eastbourne or anywhere else, that my party and, as it happens, I personally, have not been persuaded to support legalisation or decriminalisation. We believe, however, that there should be an informed and objective debate.
No, I am trying to be brief and I wish to make this point categorically.
There are, of course, strong arguments against decriminalisation and legalisation, some of which the hon. Member for Eastbourne outlined. It is reasonable to argue that, if one alters where the line is drawn between what is forbidden and what is legal, the subsequently forbidden fruit is the fruit which is potentially more dangerous. Decriminalisation or legalisation may make it more likely that drug addicts or drug users will move here, as they have previously moved to Holland, a country which, I accept, is rethinking its position. Legalisation might not necessarily cut crime because crime would simply be connected with more serious drugs.
I disagree fundamentally, however, with the idea that having a debate determines whether more young people use drugs on the street. That is nonsense. Huge numbers of youngsters use drugs and they think that we are completely out of touch because we do not discuss the issue, and they do not understand why not. I am also not persuaded that the price goes up rather than down if drugs are legalised or decriminalised.
The Green Paper stated every reason against legalisation because its brief was to do so. That is not good enough. The matter must be looked at independently. Lord Nolan and his committee are respected because they take an independent view of matters of major public concern and everyone is looking forward to hearing what they conclude, because it is authoritative and not party political. If standards in public life can be the subject of objective analysis, recommendation and conclusion, exactly the same can be done with another central issue in today's modern society: how to deal with the amount of drugs in our society and on the streets. The Green Paper says:
it is clear that the debate can be conducted in good faith by responsible people who can respect each other's views.
Amen to that. It means that the hon. Member for Eastbourne and his colleagues must not misrepresent what is decided in a democratic party, where, unlike them, we have the right to vote and debate amendments to motions.
No, I shall not give way.
The motion that was finally agreed by last year's Liberal Democrat conference says:
Conference calls for:
The establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate and consider strategies for combating drug misuse, including:—
No, I shall not give way because I am trying to be speedy.
The motion was clear, but, of course, must be read as a whole. The Liberal Democrat party and the responsible members of the press who were at the conference understand that. Other politicians have understood that, too. Yesterday, the 'Prime Minister confirmed that he is not yet persuaded, but thinks that there should be a general debate on the single European currency. Equally, there should be an independent and well-informed debate on drugs. That is where we stand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), who is on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, has also made it clear that the Liberal Democrats' Scottish conference voted, on an advisory basis, in favour of decriminalising cannabis.
No. The Scottish conference does not make policy for the federal party, because the legality of drugs is a United Kingdom matter. Federally, the party made its decision at last year's federal conference.
In 1984, the Government set up an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which recognises the need for effective, broad-based education programmes. The Department of Education and Science, as it then was, provided £4 million to fund the appointment of drug education co-ordinators for each local education authority in England and Wales. They did very well and worked with schools and the youth service, but that initiative has fallen by the wayside and funding for those preventive health education workers ended in 1993 and was switched to schools.
Co-ordination through local authorities is far more effective than trying to get the work done with small amounts of money in individual schools. The Secretary of State acknowledged the key role of health education co-ordinators, but only £32 million was provided between 1986 and 1993 for that project. Moreover, it is not to be repeated. An average LEA with about 300 schools now receives about £30,000, which means that each school is expected to provide training for a total of about £100. With only that sum, teachers cannot be properly trained and equipped to deal with such a huge issue.
The Green Paper and the Department for Education's draft circular "Drug Prevention and Schools" have some encouraging aspects. The emphasis has changed from an uncompromising search for total abstinence, which was the original Home Office position in 1989, to acceptance that substance abuse has become a part of modern-day society and that education should concentrate more on constraining its expansion and lessening suffering.
I am glad to see that the Minister agrees. Schools have been encouraged to develop a repertoire of responses to drug-related incidents. The Office for Standards in Education has been instructed to inspect the quality and effectiveness of schools' drugs policies as part of its school inspections. Alcohol and tobacco are also now in the DFE's draft circular, although they were not mentioned in the Green Paper. If we are to discuss drugs abuse among young people, the misery caused by the long-term health problems of alcoholism and tobacco addiction should be included.
It is important to discuss how we should persuade young people to make the right decisions. Given that the figure for illegal drug use among 14 and 15-year-olds is thought to be between the 14 per cent. that is given in the Government's document, albeit without statistical back-up, and the much higher and more realistic figure of 36 per cent., we must ask why young people decide to take drugs. A prevailing view seems to be that it is because they are under pressure, yet professionals on the subject say that it is because young people want to try drugs, as they want to try all sorts of other things. The Green Paper does not seek to tackle the root of the problem. Yesterday, we debated poverty and unemployment. Many issues contribute to young people's use of drugs, but poverty, lack of social activities, the rundown of the youth service, lack of work and broken homes are among those issues. We must tackle the causes that lead young people to make those decisions, and I hope that we shall do so.
The debate on this subject has only just begun in the country. I am glad that the Government are beginning to enter the mainstream of the debate, but we should have an objective assessment of the position for the future. My colleagues and I have argued for that and the Nolan committee shows that it is worth while. I hope that the Government will not now have a knee-jerk reaction, suggesting that only they and their advisers can get the matter right. Let us have a royal commission—even a standing royal commission—but, for the present, let us give education authorities the resources to co-ordinate dealing with the drugs problem in schools throughout their areas and the youth service the resources to work on the ground. We must be tough with dealers. We must recognise that young people know more about what is going on than older people, so we must take their advice and listen to them. We shall then understand how to deal effectively with drugs, which often harm their lives.
I hope that this is the beginning of an important debate that will be objectively carried on outside this place from now on.
I join other hon. Members in welcoming the debate and in thanking my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), for initiating it.
I find myself in complete agreement with many of the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), but I do not agree with his attitude to legalisation, to which I shall return in a moment, nor with his statement that the issue has not been debated. It has been much debated both within and between our parties. Most significantly, it was debated by the Council of Europe three years ago when it had 23 member states, and every representative of every party of every member state unanimously supported a motion against legalising drugs. To say that the debate has not begun is misrepresenting the pace. Today's debate is a useful continuum.
The fact of the matter, as is accentuated in the Green Paper, is that cannabis as well as other more serious drugs is harmful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne pointed out, it is harmful to the heart, the nervous system and the reproductive organs, particularly those of young girls. It is also harmful because of its influence on a number of psychoses. It is a tragedy that those who argue for the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis play down those harmful effects, so that young people who are tempted to try cannabis and other drugs are reassured by those people's belief that it is harmless. That idea must be scotched and I hope that the debate will contribute to that.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) suggested that the young know a lot about drugs, but does my hon. Friend agree that the medical evidence that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) have quoted demonstrates that young people do not have access to that evidence?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend and I thank him for reiterating that point. Every doctor with knowledge about the problems of drug misuse has accentuated and reaccentuated the possible dangers of a drugs habit. We must do the same in the House and outside.
Legalisation would be harmful. Those who support it have conceded victory to drugs users—the weak-willed members of society and those people who feed that habit. That defeatist attitude sends exactly the wrong, negative message to our youth and that of the world.
The black market exists because demand exists. It will continue to exist whether cannabis is legalised or not as long as that demand exists and until more is done to reduce it. Legalisation of cannabis, should it ever happen, would inevitably lead to more frequent misuse of drugs and the mental and physical suffering that goes with that—just as we have found with alcohol. Alcoholism is still a far greater problem in this country and around the world than drug misuse because alcohol is readily and legally available. If we cannot learn from the problems of alcoholism and apply them to drugs, we are denying history to the detriment of the current generation and future ones.
I welcome the Green Paper, which accentuates the importance of demand reduction and the need for ever-greater emphasis on health education and prevention. We await keenly the Government's reaction to the consultation period, which has recently finished. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will offer us a keyhole insight into the Government's likely reactions.
I have the honour to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary drugs misuse group. We put together a precise submission to the Government and I should like to stress two elements of it. The first is the hoary old question of funding, which must be considered. It is crucial that the necessary funds are made available to pursue the policies outlined in the consultation document. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey that funding should be available to teachers to educate young people about drugs. It should also be available for better treatment of drug addiction within the national health service. The list goes on. Allocating the necessary funds for the Government's eventual plans to be published in their eventual White Paper will require some hard bullet biting.
My second point relates not to funding but to strategy. The Government have set their way by publishing the consultation document. They have drawn together the various Government Departments in England and they must now continue that co-ordination by including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I praise the co-ordination unit and all those who work in it, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but that co-ordination is required in strategic terms across the country. In this united kingdom we still fall down because we do not have a United Kingdom strategy to further the Government's efforts in every part of it and their contribution towards the fight against the problems of drugs misuse worldwide.
I, too, welcome the debate that has been initiated by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). I endorse what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said about the need for a continuing debate on a subject of great social significance in this country and around the world. We should debate politically sensitive matters in the House without predictable knee-jerk reactions.
I have considered this matter for some considerable time and I have personally come to the opinion—I stress "personally"—that we should legalise so-called soft drugs such as cannabis. I proposed that a royal commission should consider all the possible options for tackling the drugs problem long before the Liberal party did so. The evidence of medical people and those involved in enforcement should be further scrutinised to see whether we have got it right in Britain and whether people have got it right anywhere else.
I hasten to add that my call for the legalisation of cannabis is dictated by my own views and is not in any way connected with the policy of my party, which remains as determined to resist legalisation as the Conservative party. Our Opposition Front-Bench spokesman will make that quite clear today. I should also say that I am speaking for no more than a minority of Members who agree with me. Many hon. Members are prepared, however, to consider that possibility more openly.
It is worth dealing with the point about establishing a pathway, because I am quite certain that some hon. Members have used cannabis in the past. A number of hon. Members have told me privately that they have done so, but that they are not prepared publicly to endorse the use of soft drugs or any other drugs because of the political implications of doing so. They have not turned into potheads or ended up mainlining heroin any more than anyone in this House who has had a dry sherry in the past has turned up as a hopeless alcoholic in the Strangers Bar or anywhere else. Certain people will, of course, naturally move on from drinking sherry to alcoholism or from using cannabis to using heroin. That will happen naturally to some people, but the vast majority do not make that progression and that must be recognised.
The crucial argument is that medical evidence suggests that at least 4 per cent. of the population—it could be more than double that—are prone to become addicts. We do not know who they are, but we must protect them.
The hon. Gentleman could be correct, but he is being imprecise when he says that it could be 4 per cent. of the population or double that. I should like to deal with precise facts rather than anecdotal evidence. That is the important point. I agree that there are obsessive people in our society, as there are anywhere else, who will progress from one particular habit to another. Someone who starts by a turning a car over and stealing a radio might eventually become a serial killer—there would be a connection—but, for the vast majority of people, that causal link simply does not exist. I am simply asking the House to be prepared to consider coolly and rationally a subject as significant as the one that we are discussing, and not to rely on anecdotal evidence and knee-jerk reactions.
Human beings have used drugs and alcohol since time immemorial. Many of the so-called "illegal substances" that we call drugs, which we now ban, used to be freely available to people and were prescribed by doctors, even to members of the royal family. The Balmoral records, which were made available a year or so ago, show that laudanum and opium were prescribed for Queen Victoria's pre-menstrual tension. We have changed our attitude towards the use of drugs but, throughout history, human beings have used alcohol and have used drugs. It is simply that there are prevailing moods in societies that cause us to say at some moment that we do not like what is being done, which is why America moved to prohibition in the 1920s. We know about the chaos that that caused.
I feel it necessary to put on the record, as I have to do regularly when I become involved in this fairly politically sensitive area, that I have never used cannabis or any other illegal substance. I do not say that from any moral point of view, as the permissive 1960s appear to have passed me by altogether when I was at university—a matter of profound regret in my old age. I have tried to make up for those things that I missed in the 1960s, but. I hasten to add that one of the things that I have not tried to make up is the use of drugs.
The fact that I won a competition recently on a television programme to roll the longest joint, in which I beat a number of prominent pop stars who readily confessed to using the stuff, was merely a sign of my proficiency with nicotine in my earlier years when I "rolled my own". I still have that skill, although I no longer smoke nicotine.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned 100,000 or so smoking-related deaths. From a health point of view, it is far more damaging for people to smoke cigarettes or to drink alcohol than to use cannabis. Many of the health-related side-effects of using cannabis occur because cannabis is mixed with nicotine. That is the important thing. If someone were to take cannabis in a "space cookie" or a cup of tea, some of those medical side-effects would not be present.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that I argued that it took a long time, a great deal of use of cigarettes and nicotine and a great many studies to discover that nicotine was harmful—indeed, deadly—and we are much less far down the road in terms of cannabis. If use of cannabis were widespread, one might discover, some years on, exactly the same or worse effects.
Tobacco companies continue to resist the link between nicotine and lung cancer for straight economic reasons. I am happy for those matters to be considered, which is why I spoke about a royal commission. There is conflicting medical evidence, but if one is able to lay it out, as it were, and we are able to approach it objectively as legislators, and if, in the end, it is our considered opinion that the medical side-effects of using cannabis overwhelm any freedom arguments, of course it would be right for us to reaffirm our political position with regard to the enforcement of cannabis as an illegal substance. I am simply asking the House, as it is perfectly proper to do—unusual, perhaps—to examine the facts before adducing the arguments.
The title of the debate on the Order Paper is "The abuse of drugs by young people". It is right to link those two together. There are obvious links between the circumstances in which many young people find themselves and their use of illegal substances. The Cambridge study that was published today, which received considerable coverage on the radio and in the newspapers, shows that the link between unemployment and crime cannot be denied, however much Ministers might like to do so. They are responsible in great measure for high unemployment, so, for God's sake, they do not want to be linked with the fact that crime has also increased. We know that it has. One can no longer deny that link.
Many young people are using drugs because the use of drugs is linked with ignorance, with poverty, with the absence of hope and with unemployment. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, drugs offer relief—an escape from reality. Reality is harsh and unpleasant for many people, especially young people, and they want relief. It is escapism. It does not work, because one has to return to reality. It is the people who do not want to return to reality who tend to move on to harder and harder drugs, seeking a bigger and bigger fix because they cannot bear to accept reality.
The reality for many of our young people is one of hopelessness in our society. Where are drugs most readily available, and where is all the criminal activity associated with a supply of drugs rampant? The answer is, in the black communities, especially in the United States and indeed in this country, because those communities make up the social group that finds it most difficult to secure a stake in United States society or in this society. I do not want to make too much of that in a short debate, but a royal commission should be prepared to consider those issues.
We have a drugs problem in my constituency and in the borough of Newham. Newham is the most deprived local authority area in the country, so it tends to fit in with the image that I am describing, but the problem is not of cannabis as much as of solvent abuse—glue-sniffing. The substances that are used are not illegal as such. They are freely available in shops and people are able to buy them. In many ways, we tend to be sidetracked in the House on to issues such as cannabis, but there is an awful lot of abuse of substances that are available in shops which inflict far more damage on young people's health than cannabis would ever do. That has not been mentioned until now.
I say without fear of contradiction that drug abuse is a serious social problem in this country and elsewhere, and I think that it has two main causes: first, drugs are illegal and, secondly, large numbers of people use drugs. When it comes to it, what are we going to do with the 3 million to 5 million people in this country who use cannabis? Are we going to put them all in gaol? It will not work. One can no more ban the use of cannabis in this country than one could ban prostitution.
We have taken a step to regulate and control prostitution. I think that that is the way forward for the use of cannabis—regulation and control. When we do that, through legalisation, we shall be able to tackle the serious social problems that the use of illegal substances poses to our society.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on raising this important subject and in hoping that it promotes a wider debate on some of the issues. It is important also for another reason. The problem is not confined to inner-city areas. It affects outer estates, such as those that I represent, and rural market towns. Every part of Great Britain is affected to some extent by the abuse of drugs by young people. It is important, therefore, that we discuss those matters in the House and develop strategies for tackling those problems.
I start by setting the record straight on the position of the official Opposition on the legalisation of cannabis. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) characteristically and generously said that the opinions that he expressed were very much and distinctively his own, not those of the Labour party, and I can confirm that that is precisely the case. I might say of my hon. Friend, for whom I have boundless affection and respect, that, in relation to that issue, although perhaps not to many others, he shows an uncharacteristic attachment to market forces. However, no doubt he will reconcile that apparent contradiction in the fullness of time.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the legalisation of cannabis. Does he hold an opinion on whether the clear vote at the Liberal Democrat conference to legalise cannabis was helpful or unhelpful?
I shall come to that point. The hon. Gentleman is trying to prompt me into saying what the deputy leader of our party may or may not have said. I can hold a speech together without the hon. Gentleman's help.
I shall come to the Liberal Democrats in a moment. The Labour party believes that, whatever the merits or otherwise of cannabis, the party would send out entirely the wrong message to young people if it were to subscribe to the legalisation argument. The real crisis in our society at present is that too many young people become involved in the drug culture, for many different reasons. It is not appropriate for an official, a political party or the House to send out a message in favour of the liberalisation of any drug laws—particularly those regarding cannabis, which is commonly available. We do not support the legalisation move.
I have listened to the various exchanges between the hon. Members for Eastbourne and for Southwark and Bermondsey, but I am none the wiser as a result. Whatever happened at the Liberal Democrat conference, the impression created —
I shall finish the point that I am making and then give way, although my speaking time is limited.
Whatever the precise wording of the motion that was passed at the Liberal Democrat conference, the message that went out to young people in particular is that the Liberal Democrats condone the misuse of certain categories of soft drugs. I understand that the Liberal Democrats were attempting to have a serious debate and I am not knocking them for that. However, we must be very careful about the messages that we send to young people. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale).
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall try to help him in his confusion about Liberal Democrat views. Does he agree that the Liberal Democrat conference voted clearly for an amendment in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis which made no mention of a royal commission? Does he agree that that was deeply irresponsible?
I do not wish to follow that path. I want to make some serious points—I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman is not making a serious point—but, to be honest, I have not read the text of the amendment or the motion, as the hon. Gentleman has clearly done. I do not want to get involved in trying to confirm what did or did not happen at the Liberal Democrat conference. It is probably the most irrelevant of all events in the political calendar.
Does my hon. Friend agree that of more relevance are the two reports that were published last year—one from a right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and another from a left-wing think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research—both of which concluded that ending the prohibition of soft drugs will cut the profits made by the people pushing those drugs, reduce consumption of those drugs and also reduce drug-related crime?
My hon. Friend has known and trenchant views on that matter. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, he shows an uncharacteristic faith in the ability of market forces to resolve the problem. I do not subscribe to that view. I think that I have dealt sufficiently with the issue of the legalisation of cannabis.
In talking about young people and drug misuse and abuse, it is important to differentiate very clearly—as the hon. Member for Eastbourne has done in choosing the title for the debate—between younger people who use drugs and older drug users. The problems of each group are different and therefore must be dealt with differently.
Young people often first use drugs experimentally—that does not excuse it; I am simply commenting that it happens. In most cases, a brief period of experimentation with drugs is followed by abstaining from any drug misuse. Although most young people who experiment with drugs do not misuse or abuse them in later life—we are dealing with the pathways argument—a minority move on to addiction and the misuse and abuse of often harder drugs. We must be concerned about that pathway which exists, albeit in a minority of cases.
That is another kind of abuse of substances which are readily available in high street stores. It is a serious problem and one about which we must be equally concerned. I am conscious of the fact that, because I have given way so much, I have taken up more time than I should have. I shall try to move towards a conclusion.
The Green Paper entitled "Tackling Drugs Together" is very welcome. I wrote to the Lord President on behalf of the Opposition and, despite a few criticisms, I confirmed our support for the approach taken in the Green Paper. We must try to build a consensus across the Floor of the House and within the Government themselves: first, that the problems of drug misuse and abuse must be dealt with; and, secondly, that they should not be tolerated.
On that point, I do not believe that the case for reducing the number of customs control staff has been established properly. The Labour party and those who work in the service fear that the Government's recent announcement about redundancies in that area may curtail the ability of Customs and Excise to intercept—as it has done so successfully in the past—the illegal importation of drugs. I hope that the Minister will give more attention to that matter.
It is important that we send out two messages to the community: first, drugs are harmful and wrong; and, secondly, there is a growing consensus that the problem must be dealt with as part of mainstream politics and government. Those messages should be upheld at every opportunity.
I do not often have the opportunity to welcome a consensus approach in the House, but I welcome the offer by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) on behalf of the Opposition for a consensus approach to this matter. I also welcome his positive response to the Green Paper.
As for the hon. Gentleman's point about customs officials, the Government intend to target their effectiveness and we do not wish to see their excellent work in seizing illegal drugs undermined in any way. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's opposition to the decriminalisation of cannabis as a way of tackling the scourge of drugs. I hope that members of the Liberal party will come to their senses and join in that consensus in the House so that we can send the clear message that we will have no truck with drugs in our country.
The Minister is being uncharacteristically unfair. Surely he must understand by now exactly what occurred at the conference when we asked that a royal commission be set up to consider six matters, one of which was the decriminalisation of drugs. That is a most serious matter. Is the Minister suggesting that we should not have discussed it and opted in favour of establishing a royal commission?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady remembers how previous Governments set up royal commissions in order to kick problems into touch. Royal commissions take a very long time to consider matters and we must deal with the serious drugs problem immediately.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) distanced himself from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) when he said that the Scottish Liberal conference had voted for decriminalisation and added that, of course, in our federal system it does not make policy for the United Kingdom as a whole. The hon. Lady speaks for the Scottish party and she must take the consequences of what her party members voted for at that conference. It would send out a very positive message if she were to confirm that the Liberal Democrats will join the Labour party and the Government in denying that decriminalisation of drugs is the way forward. I shall happily give way to the hon. Lady to allow her the opportunity to do that now.
As the Minister invites me to intervene, let me explain again that the Scottish Liberal party made a decision that was supported by a majority, although many voted against it, including me. Is the Minister saying that we are not allowed to discuss such a serious matter and reach a conclusion? The conclusion that the Scottish Liberal party reached was that a federal United Kingdom Parliament would then legislate on such matters. That was the conclusion of the Scottish Liberal party, to which the federal party then has to listen.
Of course I am not saying that the Liberal conference in Scotland does not have the right to vote for the decriminalisation of cannabis—I am most grateful that the hon. Lady confirmed that it did so—but it is a thoroughly irresponsible message to send to the country and the Liberal party must take the consequences for what its members decide. It is no good Liberal Members coming to the House mealy-mouthed, trying to distance themselves from their decision. If the Liberal party is serious about tackling the problem of drugs in the country, it ought to join the Government and the official Opposition in having no truck with decriminalisation as a way forward.
Does my hon. Friend find the hon. Lady's intervention rather strange, given that, as a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which discussed drug abuse in Scotland, she voted for the Labour chairman's draft report which called for the decriminalisation of cannabis and voted against an amendment by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch), seeking to remove that from the report?
The hon. Lady is stuck with a party which has voted for the decriminalisation of cannabis, and all the protests, floundering and flummery we have heard this morning show that, in their hearts, she and her colleagues know that it is an absurd policy. I feel very sorry for them and hope they will use all the power and rhetoric at their command to get the policy changed. It is deeply irresponsible and underlines more clearly than anything else how unfitted the Liberal party is to hold any office or responsibility in Britain.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He must realise that we voted to set up a royal commission, and the party political posturing by his party does him no justice whatsoever. Drug abuse is a serious issue and everyone in the House should be working towards eradicating it.
If it is such a serious issue, it is a pity that the hon. Lady was not here to hear the excellent debate, instead of cruising in at the end of the debate. If she considers it to be so serious, I should have thought that she would want to hear the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. I congratulate him on choosing this topic.
It is particularly difficult to assess the extent of drug misuse among young people, not least because it is a clandestine, illegal activity. However, all the evidence shows that drugs are a growing menace, particularly among the young.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, in the inner cities 42 per cent. of 16 to 19-year-olds and 44 per cent. of 20 to 24-year-olds have taken drugs at some time. Drugs are not restricted to inner cities; they afflict rural communities as well. There is not a community or school that is immune from the menace, nor is drug misuse a problem peculiar to Britain; all the indicators show it is a growing problem across Europe.
Whatever the experience of others, however, we must be concerned about what is happening in Britain. Why do youngsters get involved in drugs? For many teenagers, any illicit drug use tends to be occasional or experimental rather than habitual. For those young people who at the weekend take cannabis, LSD, amphetamines or other drugs, it is no longer a conspicuous statement of anti-authoritarianism; indeed, it is much more a matter of fashion, of "picking and mixing" among licit and illicit intoxicants, in the words of Professor Howard Parker of the university of Manchester. Some of the key leisure industries of our time—popular music and, above all, television, provide the necessary backdrop by placing drug misuse prominently in the fast lane of soap opera life. Key developments in the popularisation of drug use include its spread among young people of all social classes, coupled with the growth of an extremely pervasive black market.
Drug misuse attacks the fabric of our society and the welfare of individuals in different ways. We know that drugs may directly cause or contribute to other criminal behaviour. Without doubt, a proportion of all acquisitive crime is committed to obtain the funds to purchase drugs, but those funds also come from a wide range of sources—legitimate earnings, state benefits, prostitution, begging, and so on.
Drug addiction is a serious health problem in Britain. Addiction or experimentation with drugs has serious and dangerous physical effects. Young people need to know that they can never be sure what substance they are taking, how strong it is and how their minds or bodies will react. The deaths of young people who have taken Ecstasy at raves, perhaps for the first time, are all too tragic a reminder of the ultimate price which is paid.
As well as the physical consequences, drug misuse can have a devastating effect on a young person's life at school and college and in employment, training and personal and social relationships. Taking drugs is illegal and there is a real risk of prosecution or even imprisonment. Family life may be disrupted by the worry that children may be involved in drugs. Families can be thrown into turmoil when a young person is found to have a drugs problem.
On a wider scale, drugs can harm entire communities. The greatest concern is crime committed by addicts to pay for drugs. Drugs misusers, particularly those dependent on drugs such as heroin or crack cocaine, can become involved in committing acquisitive crimes to help to fund it.
Drugs are a threat to the whole of society, but the young are particularly at risk. Our first response to the problem must be to reduce the supply of drugs as much as possible. There are three essential elements to our fight against the dealers and traffickers who supply drugs to young people. First, we must have effective, vigorous enforcement action. Secondly, genuine tough penalties must be available to the courts to deal with those whose involvement in that evil trade is established. There was consensus in the House today that the pushers and traffickers of drugs should be given no place to hide. The legislative framework is already in place. Trafficking in drugs such as cocaine and heroin carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Thirdly, we must ensure that the courts have the powers to seize drug traffickers' ill-gotten assets, and we introduced that power in the Drugs Trafficking Offences Act 1986.
I believe that, with concerted and innovative action on the prevention and education front, we can have a positive influence on young people's attitudes and behaviour. We have examples that such changes can be made: witness the 60 per cent. reduction over the past 10 years in the number of fatal and serious road casualties involving drink driving—a reduction due in no small measure to the publicity campaign which started in the late 1970s.
We have heard today about the terrible threat posed by drugs. Drugs are widely available and young people are experimenting with them and putting themselves at great risk. Those who get hooked risk their health, the well-being. of their families and their lives. Drugs also generate crime and damage the lives of many innocent people in the process.
We must tackle drugs misuse together. We look to the police and customs to continue their vital work in tracking down the traffickers and dealers and in intercepting the drugs being targeted at us.
We look to the courts to punish severely those found guilty of trafficking and dealing. But we must all become involved to protect our young people from the scourge: parents, teachers, youth workers, police officers, probation officers and representatives of all the other agencies involved must work together with young people, with sensitivity and understanding, to inform and educate them about the dangers of drug misuse. Co-operation and partnership are the key.
The Green Paper contains our strategic plan, which proposes the most far-reaching action plan on drugs. It focuses on what the Government and other agencies, nationally and locally, can do over the next three years to tackle the problem. The strategy is founded on the principle of partnership. At the heart of that strategy are proposals to help young people to resist drugs. I am sure that the House would wish to do all that it can to achieve that important goal. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne on raising the subject in today's debate and welcome the Labour party's constructive approach to the issue.