BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 27.10.02

Film: IAIN WATSON reports on the debate between those for and against de-criminalising soft drugs as the government prepares to announce legislation to downgrade the status of cannabis.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Now the question of what to do about drugs - especially so-called "soft" drugs - is always a very touchy one for politicians in power. Privately many of them think it's crazy to have laws that make criminals of people who smoke the odd spliff. But publicly they're very nervous about being seen to be soft on drugs. This government has grasped the nettle. They allowed an experiment in Brixton where the police turned a blind eye to pot smokers and announced they wanted to reclassify drugs such as cannabis so that personal use would no longer be punished by the law. There's expected to be a Bill included in the Queen's speech in a few weeks. But now, as Iain Watson reports, there are Labour backbenchers getting cold feet. IAIN WATSON: The Labour heartlands have come to London...John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire is leading a delegation from the former coal fields to ministers at Westminster but they aren't asking for jobs, subsidies or handouts - instead, they want a helping hand to tackle the scourge of heroin sweeping through their communities; John Mann's travelling companions have each contributed to a report based on a three day inquiry into drug abuse in his area, a problem he says central government has overlooked for far too long. JOHN MANN: The perception is that drugs is an inner city problem, and I'm sure it is an inner city problem, but it's also a problem in former mining communities, what we've seen is the pits shut in the 80s and the early '90s shut over night, and peoples' aspirations have been reduced with that. WATSON: In Bassetlaw, it's estimated that at least seven hundred people are addicted to heroin. With de-industrialisation comes despair. Bassetlaw is an old coal mining constituency lying between Nottingham and Sheffield, but here the colleries have now been replaced by call centres; as a sense of community has been in decline, drug use has been on the increase. The MP for this Labour heartland is anxious to tackle the problem but he says it can only be helped if the Government takes a much tougher line on drugs. ACTUALITY. So how long has this factory been shutdown? WATSON; This decaying and dangerous structure is just outside Worksop, the main town in John Mann's constituency's found a new use as a down market modern day opium den. ACTUALITY: There's a needle just here. You can see here, all around here all the paraphernalia, we've got a spoon here. WATSON: John Mann's inquiry into heroin abuse came up with findings which he hadn't anticipated ..that most young addicts had started out on a drug more associated with peace and love than desperation and despair. MANN: What we found was that young people had experimented with a range of drugs, but what they did say, and it did surprise me, and it surprised the panel, was they compared the experience of taking cannabis, with the experience of taking heroin. Of course heroin is more powerful, has a greater impact. It gives them a greater hit and a greater buzz, but what they felt was, and they said it many, many times to us, because they could control their cannabis use, because the experience was similar they felt they could control their initial use with heroin. WATSON: The Hope drop in centre in Worksop allows young heroin addicts safe haven off the streets during the daytime. Emma Layhe is twenty one and her heroin habit has already cost her her liberty; she was shoplifting to pay for her forty pound a day addiction and has already been in prison four times in her young life. When did you start taking heroin? EMMA LAYHE: When I was fifteen. WATSON: Why? LAYHE: I started with me cannabis and other softer drugs then heroin came into the town so I tried it and I been on it ever since WATSON: So when you took cannabis at first that encouraged you to try other drugs? LAYHE: Yes. WATSON: Next summer the Government intends to downgrade cannabis from a class b drug - which includes amphetamines - to class c, ranking it alongside some painkillers; while there will be tougher penalties for drug dealing in most cases, possession of cannabis for personal use won't lead to arrest. John Mann says the Government has got it wrong. MANN: We don't want to see any mixed message about drugs. We want zero tolerance of all drugs and that includes cannabis. What we've found is that young people have been experimenting with a range of illegal drugs, and our view is that if you tolerate drugs, then that gives the wrong message to young people in the community. WATSON: Sue and David Matthews' lives have been ruined by heroin - not because they've ever used it, but because their twenty two year old son has been an addict for seven years and he's now been sent to prison for theft. They want to see the Government put resources into much needed treatment for heroin users rather than making the reclassification of cannabis a priority. SUE MATTHEWS: It's a terrible thing isn't it, when you're relieved that your son has gone to prison, to be locked up for twenty- three hours a day with no treatment for his addiction but it's got him off the street and there's no help here in Worksop for him, so he's better off in there . If he's getting any drugs while he's in there it won't be the same amount as what he gets out here. DAVID MATTHEWS: Cannabis is a stepping stone for, for younger people like my son, it's not used at their age recreationally it's used on an every day basis, like smoking cigarettes, they just use it and use it until there's no buzz in it and they have to move on to something else, I think it's very very wrong that the government are declassifying cannabis, I think it's a big mistake and they really should reconsider what they're doing. WATSON: People here in Bassetlaw have seen at first hand the damage which hard drugs can cause so they're worried that even the reclassification of cannabis could be a sign that the government is going soft and ignoring the concerns of voters in Labour's heartlands. Yet there's a growing number of backbench MPs who say that a more tolerant attitude to drug taking is the key to reducing drug use; and they are looking to one of Britain's near neighbours for inspiration. Historically, Amsterdam has been famous for its canals and, of course, its tulips but these days it has become known for its relaxed attitude to a rather different form of plant life. If you are looking for a pick me up in Amsterdam there's certainly no shortage of coffee shops; but the kind of products on sale here wouldn't be found in your local Starbucks. UN-NAMED SHOP ASSISTANT: Hello. WATSON: Can I have a coffee please... UN-NAMED SHOP ASSISTANT: Yes, sure. WATSON: And can I have a look at the menu? UN-NAMED SHOP ASSISTANT: Well here it is, there you go - this is the skunk and this is the hashish we got - Moroccan black hash. WATSON: How much can you sell? UN-NAMED SHOP ASSISTANT: I can sell five grammes a person maximum. WATSON: And you wouldn't be prosecuted for selling five grammes? UN-NAMED SHOP ASSISTANT: No, not for that, no. WATSON: It may seem rather bizarre that cannabis is on sale here quite so openly but experts in the Netherlands say this doesn't increase drug use; in fact it may even have the reverse effect. Since coffee shops opened more than twenty years ago, the sale of small amounts of soft drugs hasn't been legalised but it is tolerated. The aim of the policy is to get users of cannabis out of the hands of dealers who also sell hard drugs such as heroin. Across the city, the Jellinek Institute not only treats drug addicts but carries out research into drug use; Dr Janhuib Blans says his statistics show that the policy is working DR JANHUIB BLANS: Less young people are going into hard drugs, for instance, I'll show you this one. If you look at this one, for instance, in '81 it was almost fifteen per cent and if you go down to 2000 it is less than half per cent young people under twenty two years old using opiates. WATSON: How does the use of soft drugs and hard drugs compare in the Netherlands with the United Kingdom and some other countries? BLANS: Well, we do studies in Europe and the Aspect study is a famous one among fifteen, sixteen year old school kids. In the Netherlands, life time user of cannabis is twenty eight per cent among fifteen to sixteen year olds, school going kids and it is in the is thirty five per cent and if we look at heroin the Netherlands that's one per cent life time heroin user among those young kids and in the UK it is three per cent. CHRIS DAVIES: The first step should be to decriminalise both for the possession of cannabis and the social supply of cannabis. We need to separate soft drugs and hard drugs and I'm concerned that the approach being taken by David Blunkett of saying yes, cannabis will no longer be an arrestable, cannabis possession will no longer be an arrestable offence, but the supply of it will still be rewarded with a maximum sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment, actually leave cannabis users in the hands of the heroin dealers instead of establishing the separation which is so successful in Holland. WATSON: The Jellinek Institute also test drugs such as ecstasy; I asked if this didn't simply encourage drug use. BLANS: If I was the parent of a sixteen year old boy and I knew that the guy was using ecstasy sometimes, I would rather be very, very happy when he goes and has his pills tested and see what quality that it is, and what - how much milligram is in it, and is it wise to take them. WATSON: There's an increasing number of advocates for the Dutch approach to drugs back home in Britain; recently the all party home affairs committee of MPs didn't simply back the reclassification of cannabis, it wanted to see ecstasy downgraded too BRIDGET PRENTICE: We decided that ecstasy should be reclassified from class a to class b. Probably the main reasons for that are that it's a drug that people seem to take at the weekends and then go about doing their normal lawful business during the week. If we really want to get the message across and we do seriously, want to break the drug culture in this country, then we've got to distinguish between drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy and hard drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. That way people might actually believe the message and might start taking the message very seriously WATSON: But back in the Nottinghamshire coalfields, families whose lives have been blighted by heroin aren't interested in what they see as a metroplitan agenda to downgrade so called soft drugs - they want a clear message sent out that drug taking is wrong. MATTHEWS; They still think deep down that the drugs themselves, people are not meant to take that sort of thing and live lives like that. It's got to be wrong, they need to carry on with the laws strong against any type of drugs. WATSON: But there are those who say that the only way addicts will seek treatment is if the fear of prosecution is removed, and that bringing even the hardest of drugs such as heroin within the law will save lives and end the dependency of drug users on drug dealers. DAVIES: I favour legalisation of everything. I favour getting rid of prohibition, but within, within a, within a different frame work, the question then would be okay, well say heroin is legal but but where can you buy it, and the object that er, the object should be to undermine the criminal dealers. That pillar of the establishment, the Economist magazine, last year had a special feature on this subject and they concluded by saying that if we legalise all drugs, which they advocated, then the result could be, was likely to be an increase, a small increase in the use of drugs but a significant fall in the number of people who died or came to harm as a result of taking those drugs. Now if that were to be a consequence, it is one I could live with. MANN: For those people haven't got a clue what's going on in the real world in my community, here heroin addicts are injecting eight times a day. It's five pounds a bag for heroin. They have to therefore get fifteen thousand pounds of criminal income to feed their addiction. Heroin is cheaper than prescription drugs, and therefore if you legalise heroin, they're actually going to have to pay more money therefore they're going to have to steal more money to feed their addiction. People who are suggesting legalising drugs are looking at it from totally the wrong perspective and it's not a message that anyone wants to hear in my community. WATSON: The Bassetlaw delegation is determined that their call for zero tolerance of all drugs will be heard at the heart of Government. Their report will make David Blunkett's softer line on cannabis use more politically difficult to implement. Ministers are giving John Mann a warm welcome, but behind closed doors they will be studying research which soberly questions whether the continued criminality of both soft and hard drugs is the most effective way of discouraging drug use and ultimately of saving lives.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.