Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is a great privilege to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I am not sure whether it will cause her or me more embarrassment among our supporters that we find ourselves sharing company and the same side of the argument.
Some years ago, when the debate about drugs erupted, as it does from time to time, the media went round more or less every Front Bencher and asked whether they had ever smoked pot. I was one of the very few who never had, and I have no intention ever of doing so. That gave me a clear enough head to look at this issue on the basis of evidence, which is what the hon. Lady’s motion urges us to do.
I focused on the important distinction between soft and hard drugs, and on whether cannabis should be treated differently from hard drugs. I concluded that it should be, and that we should move to the legalisation of cannabis. We could have a small number of legal outlets while banning the active marketing and promotion of cannabis, its sale to minors and its consumption in public places.
I concluded that a move to legalisation would have a number of advantages. First, about 80% of the effort in the so-called war on drugs goes on trying to prohibit cannabis. Much less effort and resources go into the prohibition of hard drugs, which cause the greatest harm and the greatest danger. Therefore, if we could provide some legal outlets for cannabis, we would be able to focus more of the effort on the drugs that do the greatest harm.
Secondly, I concluded that the effort of trying to prohibit cannabis was ineffective. Until recently, we had a higher prevalence and usage of cannabis in this country than in Holland, where there are legal outlets. Prohibition was therefore ineffective.
Thirdly, I concluded that we were undermining respect for the law by having a law that was widely disregarded, and one that was harder to justify in a country which, after all, legalises the sale of alcohol, which can do at least as much damage as cannabis, and legalises the sale of nicotine and cigarettes, which can have more lethal consequences in the long term.
One key argument often used by those who advocate keeping cannabis on a par with hard drugs, and criminalising and prohibiting its sale in this country, is that it is supposedly a gateway drug, meaning that it leads people ineluctably to sample cocaine, and then tempts them to go on to heroin. They say that, therefore, its sale should be prohibited. I believe that the reverse is true: because the sale of cannabis is illegal, we drive soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers. They can obtain cannabis only from criminal gangs, who will want them to upgrade to drugs that are more addictive and more profitable.
Dr Wollaston: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real gateway is tobacco use? Most people smoke cannabis with tobacco, and that poses the greatest risk of long-term harm.
Mr Lilley: I will, for the sake of argument, agree with my hon. Friend, but I think that is a rather different argument from the one I am addressing.
The most important single reason for legalising the sale of cannabis is to break the link between the sale of hard drugs and the sale of soft drugs. There are only two coherent and rational policies as far as soft drugs are concerned. The Swedish approach is one of toughly enforced prohibition. I looked briefly at the report and thought it was a bit weak on analysis of the Swedish situation, but I will look at it more deeply. The other is a version of the Dutch approach, which is now the approach of a number of countries, where legal outlets are available. The worst option is falling between two stools and decriminalising use while leaving the supply in the hands of drug gangs. That leaves us open to driving soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers.
I say these things not as someone who is soft on drugs and believes there is nothing is wrong with taking drugs. I believe that even if there were no health disadvantages from using drugs, there is a moral case against using them. However, just as I want to decriminalise and legalise, I do not want to de-moralise drugs. Ultimately, wherever possible moral choices should be left to individuals. In so far as we are going to be no worse off—the Dutch experience shows not a higher number of users, but fewer people pushed into harder and worse drugs—let us look at the evidence closely, and be willing to accept that although drug use may be wrong it does not automatically have to be criminal.
Lots of things are wrong. Adultery is wrong, but we do not make it a criminal offence. Lots of other things are against the moral law in which I believe, but we do not make them a criminal offence. Let us look at drugs without going to the opposite extreme of saying that any use of drugs is desirable and entirely value-free. Let us look at the evidence and see whether the policies we have been pursuing in this country have been ineffectual, have focused the effort where it is least needed and not where it is most needed, have undermined respect for the law, and have driven soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers. I hope the House will support the motion.