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Cannabis Reclassification Debate

 Hansard 29 Oct 2003 : Column 329 - Dangerous Drugs

 1.48 pm

 The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I beg to move,

 That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 11th September, be approved.

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 200102, on The Government's Drugs Policy: Is it Working?, HC 318-I, and the Government response thereto, Cm 5573, together with the Home Office Departmental Report 2003, Cm 5908, and the Sixth Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 200203, on The Illegal Drugs Trade and Drug Culture in Northern Ireland: Interim Report on Cannabis, HC 353, and the Government response thereto, Sixth Special Report from the Committee, HC 935.]

 The order will reclassify cannabis as a class C drug on 29 January 2004. The use of illegal drugs and class A drugs in particular is one of the greatest scourges of our times. Drug misuse impacts on the well-being of individuals and families, as well as striking at the very fabric of our communities. Most hon. Members see too many cases in their constituencies where drugs have destroyed lives and fed the cycle of crime, violence and decay. Having been in this job for some months now, I can say that drugs and the crime connected to them are most prevalent in some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in the country.

 When some 250,000 people are hooked on heroin or crack, a group responsible for 60 per cent. of acquisitive crime; where many street robberies are driven by the urge for money for the next fix; where the presence of one addict can create a neighbourhood crime spree that leaves dozens of victims and consumes many hours of police time, this Labour Government are absolutely right to focus on the most dangerous drugs, to intervene most vigorously in the most damaged communities, to seek to break the link between addiction and the crime that feeds it and to reduce the harm that drugs cause by addressing the chaotic lifestyle of those users who are harming themselves and others.

 Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): Is the Minister aware, in respect of what she presents as statistics, that she is using surveys relating to 16 to 19-year-olds, when it is 14-year-olds who are most at risk? In taking cannabis, those young people are 60 per cent. more likely to damage their brain. Have the Government taken that into account in making these proposals to the House?

 Caroline Flint: I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are considering and have considered all the relevant evidence. More importantly, we have taken into account the work of the statutory advisory committee, which provides the scientific evidence on which to base our decisions. I tell my hon. Friend that I am acutely aware of the conditions that lead young people to start using drugs, misuse alcohol and cigarettes, end up with teenage pregnancies or a life of crime. The Government are taking steps to deal with those problems, whether it be through sure start; getting

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 330

money through to the poorest income families or trying to raise the opportunities and aspirations of those who feel that the education system does not offer them enough. Those are all part and parcel of trying to give our children and young people the skills and confidence to assert themselves and not end up abusing themselves through drugs and, unfortunately, becoming involved in crime.

 Educating young people about the dangers of drugs, preventing drug misuse, combating the dealers and treating addicts are the key elements of the Government's drugs strategy. Our programmes of intervention bring those arrested into treatment so that we can begin to break the cycle of committing crime to fuel a drug habit.

 Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Does the Minister recognise that there are three essential components to any credible drugs policy: enforcement, education and treatment? If our education policy is not credible and we tell young people—whether they are 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18—that all drugs are the same and that there is no difference between cannabis and heroin or between cannabis and the evil of crack cocaine, we are doing young people of this country a grave disservice.

 Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. We have long had a system of classification for class A, B and C drugs and our proposals are about having a more informed view today, in the 21st century, of the comparative harms that various drugs can do. On that basis, we can have a better dialogue with those who may be tempted to take drugs and protect them from the worst abuses.

 Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): The order applies to the whole of the UK, but is the Minister aware of the great concern about it in many parts of Scotland? Has she consulted Ministers in the Scottish Parliament and, if so, what was their response? Can she understand why some Labour Members cannot support the order here today?

 Caroline Flint: I totally understand the passionate views on all sides of the debate. It is a complex issue and a complex area. I assure my hon. Friend that in talking to my predecessor, consultation was held with Ministers in Scotland and there was support for the reclassification. Discussions were also held about Northern Ireland. I appreciate that passionate views are held on both sides of the House—

 Several hon. Members rose—

 Caroline Flint: I hope that if I am allowed to continue my speech, I can elaborate more fully on why this strategy is the right way forward.

 Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Minister has called for an informed debate. In that spirit, does she agree and accept that the cannabis that is freely available today is between 10 and 15 times stronger than that available 20 or 30 years ago? Is it not therefore perverse to be downgrading its classification in legislation?

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 331

 Caroline Flint: I am afraid to tell the hon. Gentleman that the scientific evidence does not fit his analysis. The evidence of our forensic science unit is that the cannabis that it has sampled is not stronger than it was some years ago. Many of the statements made about the strength of cannabis do not fit the facts in respect of the largest supplies of cannabis that come into this country.

 Several hon. Members rose—

 Caroline Flint: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick).

 David Winnick (Walsall, North): Although I would rather people did not take cannabis, it is a fact that many do so without going on to hard drugs. Is not it also a fact that the last survey undertaken showed that more than 120,000 deaths in a single year were caused by smoking, in addition to the deaths caused through alcohol abuse? Should not the people who are condemning what the Minister is suggesting also take that into account?

 Caroline Flint: People take all sorts of substances either in moderation or in excess, which can create different levels of harm. We are trying to debate the different levels of harm produced by controlled drugs. As I was telling the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), the Forensic Science Service suggests that new growing techniques in the late 1980s and 1990s have led to some new products coming on to the market with average tetrahydrocannabinol levels two or three times greater than for other cannabis products. However, in general, the THC content—the particular content that affects the strength of cannabis—varies widely, but much of it does not differ significantly from the cannabis used years ago.

 David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the Minister have any sympathy with a constituent, a father of young children, who rang me last night and implored me to vote against this measure? What a bad example the House is going to set to parents who are trying to protect young children who are constantly targeted at the school gate in both primary and secondary schools. Does the Minister sympathise with that example?

 Caroline Flint: I have sympathy with all parents who want to protect their children from the harms that exist in our society—whether it be drugs or other pressures and dangers that they face along the way to adulthood. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we need to have an honest discussion with our children. We have to make them better informed. Children and young people talk to each other and can see for themselves the different effects of drugs, so if we do not conduct an honest discussion, they will not listen.

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 I reaffirm to the House what I said in parliamentary questions earlier this week, which is that the measure is not about legalisation, but about having a mature discussion on the relative harms of drugs.

 Several hon. Members rose—

 Caroline Flint: If I may continue with my speech, I hope to elaborate on how the guidance of the Association of Chief Police Officers will provide greater clarity on how to police this matter.

 John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Does the Minister not accept that the message going out to young people is that cannabis is no longer as dangerous as it was before?

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 332—continued

 Caroline Flint: I can tell my hon. Friend that the whole point of having three categories of classification is to assess scientifically the relative harms of different sorts of drugs. That was why we examined the various effects of cannabis in comparison with stimulants and then with class A drugs. I believe that that represents a credible way forward.

 Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that 42 per cent. of 15 to 34-year-olds experiment with cannabis at least once. Surely it must be desirable to break the link between the soft drug user and the hard drug pusher, so will the Minister undertake to at least reconsider the arguments for legalisation, taxation and regulated sale as advocated eloquently two years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)?

 Caroline Flint: I am afraid that I would not concede that point. We have already considered the matter. I am aware that some hon. Members want full legalisation, while some want to maintain the status quo and not reclassify at all. Our evidence suggests that legalisation—the order is not, as the hon. Gentleman's question makes clear, about legalisation—would lead to an increase in the consumption of cannabis. I should reiterate that cannabis taking does cause some harm, though not as much as other drugs.

 Several hon. Members rose—

 Caroline Flint: I want to make some progress with my speech, which might well answer some of the questions. I have already taken several interventions. I shall make some progress and see whether I can give way again later. I want to get to the end of my speech and I am aware that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

 As I said, young people are our highest priority. Direct expenditure on tackling drugs has risen to more than 1 billion this financial year and will rise to nearly 1.5 billion from April 2005—an increase of 44 per cent. Much of that money will go towards prevention, education and working with young people to dissuade them from taking drugs, as well as with those for whom drugs has already become a problem. We have launched the FRANK campaign, using carefully researched advertising designed to affect attitudes to illegal drugs.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 333

The message is that drugs are not cool and can ruin lives. Education policies are now in force in 96 per cent. of all secondary schools, and drug action teams have developed young people's substance misuse plans. The right strategy must use what works. We must be honest and credible and rely on science, not prejudice.

 Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston): I used to run a rehabilitation centre. All those who attended it started on cannabis. Will the Minister explain whether a child who gives a cigarette to a friend will be committing a crime?

 Caroline Flint: With respect to my hon. Friend, there are many reasons why people start to take drugs, or get involved with them. Many start by smoking tobacco, or misusing alcohol. I have met a number of drug users over the past four months who not only use class A drugs, but are also alcoholics. A number of different issues are involved. The evidence is not conclusive that cannabis is a gateway to class A drugs. In fact, the evidence is that the vast majority of cannabis users never move on to class A drugs.

 Pete Wishart (North Tayside): The Minister will have seen the recent EU report that suggests that 35 per cent. of 15 and 16-year-olds have taken cannabis. If we are to address the problem, we need drugs laws in this country that are credible to young people and which they can understand and respect. Young people are routinely breaking the law, and that leads to a lack of respect for law and authority. Should not we address that as a matter of priority?

 Caroline Flint: I am grateful for that intervention, and I endorse the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

 I have spoken about the underlying themes necessary for securing the right strategy. Those themes led my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to announce to the Home Affairs Select Committee in October 2001 that he was asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider the classification of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The fact is that cannabis use has increased steadily over the past 30 years, in spite of it being a class B drug. The treatment of all drugs as equally harmful and dangerous has lacked credibility with young people and devalued the educational message about its harmful effects, as hon. Members have noted. Individual police forces have developed disparate policies on the policing of cannabis possession, based on their own view of the relative seriousness of the offence. That has led to inconsistency and a lack of proper political accountability.

 David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): My point follows on from the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall). This order applies throughout the UK, but policing has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Is it the Minister's understanding that the effect of the order will be to allow the police to free up more time to target drugs such as heroin? In my constituency, heroin is far more damaging, pernicious and destructive to communities than cannabis.

 Caroline Flint: Absolutely. These are the pressures and challenges that face us as we get to grips with the most vicious outcomes of taking class A drugs, in respect of both individuals and communities, because of the crime that is thereby created.

 Our drugs laws and educational messages to young people must reflect the scientific assessment of the advisory council if they are to be credible, convincing and, ultimately, effective. The reclassification of cannabis will help the Government to convey a more effective and credible message, to young people in particular, about the dangers of misusing drugs.

 Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Will my hon. Friend the Minister comment on the fact that drug dealers obviously have targets? When the Government take the decision to reclassify, will not those dealers find it easier to persuade young people to use cannabis?

 Caroline Flint: The message must be clear—cannabis is illegal. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Opposition Members laugh at what is a very serious point. After reclassification, cannabis will remain illegal, and possession will remain an arrestable offence. The Criminal Justice Bill raises the penalties for dealing and trafficking to 14 years. That is a pretty strong message to those who would encourage young people to take drugs.

 Lady Hermon (North Down): I am grateful to the Minister for taking another intervention. A few minutes ago, she referred to consultations with relevant authorities in Northern Ireland. I am sure that she is aware that the trade in, and exploitation of cannabis, by paramilitary organisations—and especially by loyalist paramilitaries—funds their lavish lifestyles and their military activities, for want of a better term. Will the Minister say what consultations she had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and what their outcome was? I am sure that it was not in favour of the reclassification of cannabis.

 Caroline Flint: I understand that the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland is paying a lot of attention to the issue of drug trafficking. As I said in response to an earlier intervention, the Criminal Justice Bill increases the penalty for dealing and trafficking to 14 years. That runs alongside reclassification, and sends a strong message to the paramilitary organisations, gangsters and others about how seriously we take trafficking and dealing in these drugs. However, I repeat that we need to send a credible message to young people—in Northern Ireland, just as much as in England, Scotland or Wales.

 We want to get across to young people the simple message that cannabis remains illegal and that it is harmful. That is not helped by some hon. Members, who are attempting to distort the debate and to dilute that very strong message. Alongside schools, drug action teams and other bodies, we want to make sure that we make information available to young people, and that we get it to them. That involves using the media, and going to places where young people meet. We need them to listen to the credible message that we want to put across. We do not accept that a high level of cannabis use is inevitable. We want to make an impact on that usage through advertising and education, but we need an honest debate as well. We want to begin to turn young people away from becoming regular cannabis users.

 Ann Winterton (Congleton): Does the Minister accept that the result of this honest debate, which is fairly sophisticated, will fly over the heads of young children? Recent polls taken among older children in junior schools show that those pupils believe unequivocally that the Government are not just reclassifying cannabis, but making it legal. Sophisticated arguments do not wash when it comes to getting drug prevention measures across.

 Caroline Flint: The hon. Lady and others contribute to that confusion. The more such people say that reclassification is legalisation, the more the message is distorted.

 Ann Winterton: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister reconsider her words? I did not say that reclassification was legalisation. I was asking her a question and making a point about what young children believed, according to recent polls.

 Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): That is not a point of order for the Chair. It is a matter for debate, and the Minister will have heard what the hon. Lady said.

 Caroline Flint: I am delighted that the hon. Lady's remark should be on the record, and I shall make sure that I use it extensively.

 My point is that young people form their views about our drug laws according to the messages that they receive from people in positions of responsibility. Unfortunately, the view has been expressed continually—I have read it myself, and heard hon. Members repeat it—that reclassification is somehow about legalisation. We must work hard to deal with that, but young people know about drugs and they know people in their communities who take drugs. They may have rather more information than we might consider appropriate, but they are informed by their peer groups. We cannot attempt to influence young people if we do not have a credible message.

 Angela Watkinson (Upminster): The Minister has been generous about giving way, but does she accept that downgrading cannabis from class B to class C will lead to an increase in use? Does she agree that, because of its gateway properties, the use of cannabis will in due course lead to the greater use of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin?

 Caroline Flint: I do not think that the evidence for that stacks up. We should view the position as it currently is, and drug use has increased. That applies to class A and class B drugs. We have not had a strategy that has worked, and in particular we have had no strategy to which young people are prepared to listen. That is what we are trying to deal with.

 As I said earlier, I believe and the Government believe not just that we need better information and education, but that reclassification will provide an opportunity to

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introduce a consistent and properly thought out regime for the policing of cannabis in line with its status as a class C drug. As I also said, we have introduced proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to retain the power of arrest for the possession of cannabis; but following extensive debate during the Bill's passage through this House and another place, the Government have agreed to table an amendment providing for the power of arrest not to apply to other class C drugs such as tranquillisers and anabolic steroids.

 Over the past 18 months, the Association of Chief Police Officers has worked hard to compile guidance for forces on the policing of cannabis. It published the guidance on 12 September. I pay tribute to the constructive way in which it approached its task, and to the end result, which is very clear and straightforward.

 Under the guidance, which applies to all persons aged 18 and over, there will be a presumption against arresting a person who is found in possession of cannabis. A police officer may, however, arrest when a person is smoking in public view, when a person is locally known to have been repeatedly dealt with for possession of cannabis, when there is a locally identified policing problem or when the person in possession is in the vicinity of a school or other premises used by young people. It is important for people to read that guidance, and to see how clear and straightforward it is.

 Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Can the Minister justify the treatment of class C drugs in a different way when it comes to arrest?

 Caroline Flint: We considered the way in which the other class C drugs are used and provided. Having listened to the debates here and in the other place, we felt that the issue was not clear-cut enough for those drugs to be included in the same category as cannabis.

 The ACPO guidance provides for people under 18 to be dealt with under the statutory warning scheme set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. In most cases a formal reprimand will result for a first instance of cannabis possession. It will be administered at the police station. That is very important. We want to engage young people who are using illegal drugs such as cannabis, in order to establish whether there is any misuse problem.

 Over the past few months, I have been pleased to observe how, through arrest referral, the police on the front line are working with their drug action teams and referral workers to tackle issues related to arrest and charge. Expertise shared with the police and others will make it possible to establish whether a young person has an underlying problem that needs to be investigated, and whether that person needs to be referred for appropriate help.

 The proposed policing regime must not be misinterpreted as toleration of unrestricted public use of cannabis without consequences. It is not, as one Member suggested, a "baby step" towards legalisation. The overall regime for policing cannabis possession will ensure that action is properly taken by the police against someone who is causing a problem or who needs help, while avoiding the needless charging of large numbers of young people. It makes sense for parents as well as law enforcement.

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 The regime will also enable the police to redeploy their resources for the tackling of more serious offences, including dealing in the class A drugs—heroin and crack cocaine—that do the most harm. Last year's Lambeth experiment provided good evidence that when police resources are deployed to key priority areas, results can be achieved. During that pilot, the number of arrests for class A dealing offences increased by some 10 per cent.

 Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I thought the Minister might get round to the Lambeth experiment at some point. In fact, were not more people attracted to hard drugs because of a feeling that there was no policing in relation to drugs generally? People who were not normally likely to be in contact with hard-drug criminals were put in contact with them because of their easy access to cannabis.

 Caroline Flint: Many issues arose during the Lambeth experiment. As I hope my hon. Friend recognises, it led to a lot of joined-up discussion among a number of people and agencies—MPs, local authorities, the drug action teams, police and others—about how to tackle drug misuse in communities. The ACPO guidance has given us a clearer understanding of how cannabis use in particular can be better policed and dealt with.

 Dealing in any illegal drug remains a serious crime. I have already mentioned an increase in the maximum penalty for dealing in a class C drug from five to 14 years' imprisonment. The penalty for dealing in cannabis will remain at its current level following reclassification.

 There are many different views in the House on the correct response to the cannabis issue. Some Members advocate complete legalisation, arguing that it would cut the link between young users and criminal dealers. As I said earlier, the Government believe that that would inevitably lead to a massive increase in the use of cannabis and in health problems. Others believe that cannabis should remain a class B drug, arguing that it is a gateway to class A drugs, that it is smoked in higher concentrations than it was 20 or so years ago, and that it may be linked to mental illness and lung cancer. There has been a huge debate on those issues.

 The issue of whether cannabis is a gateway to class A drugs has been debated for many years. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at that and concluded that no causal link had been established, since many other factors act as gateways. I said a bit about that earlier in my speech. As for the suggestion that cannabis smoked today is up to 20 times as strong as that smoked 20 years ago, I have already pointed out that that does not match the evidence that the Forensic Science Service has analysed from cannabis seizures.

 Research on a possible link between cannabis use and the development of mental illness, particular schizophrenia, was published in the British Medical Journal as recently as last November. The advisory council considered the issue in depth, but concluded that no clear causal links had been demonstrated. On the other hand, the council believed that cannabis use could unquestionably worsen existing schizophrenia. It will continue to monitor any research developments, but it is important to distinguish between worsening and causing mental illness.

 Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will my hon. Friend give way?

 Caroline Flint: I want to continue my speech, as I am conscious of the time that I have already taken up. [Hon. Members: "He is on your side."] In that case, I may change my mind.

 As for the possible link between cannabis use and the development of lung diseases, clearly the smoking of any substance is potentially dangerous and a real health risk. However, those who seek to draw inferences from the number of premature deaths caused by tobacco smoking need to be very cautious. While the smoking of cannabis is undoubtedly harmful, it should be borne in mind that in general cannabis users smoke fewer cigarettes per day than tobacco smokers and that most give up in their thirties, thus limiting the long-term exposure that we know to be the critical factor in cigarette-induced lung cancer.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 338—continued

 Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will my hon. Friend give way?

 Caroline Flint: No, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).

 Mr. Prentice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

 I am interested in the therapeutic use of cannabis. It was available to doctors—in the medicine chest—before 1973. Many people out there take it because conventional medicines do not relieve their pain. What advice will the police be given when they find someone taking therapeutic cannabis?

 Caroline Flint: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary agrees that we need to work on that. We are currently awaiting the outcome of scientific research into whether cannabis can be used medicinally to alleviate pain. We shall have to deal with the issues as they arise, certainly in the context of policing.

 No approach to the drugs problem is simple or problem-free, but I hope that the strategy I have outlined will provide the best possible opportunity to introduce credibility to our drugs education, sharpen our messages about cannabis and give priority to law enforcement and treatment directed at class A drugs. The strategy has widespread support, not just from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Home Affairs Committee but from the police and all major organisations that work with drug misusers.

 I commend the changes proposed in the order, and hope that the House will support it.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): The motion is, in practice, only part of the jigsaw that the Government have constructed. The purpose of the jigsaw is clear: to get to the point at which there is crypto-legalisation of cannabis, in the sense that most young people will be only marginally deterred from taking it. They may be arrested, and they will be warned—and the warning will be that if they are subsequently arrested they will be warned. At the same time, the Government intend to strengthen the prohibition on the sale of cannabis, or rather to retain its present strength. The Minister made it clear that that is the admitted effect of the policies that she announced today.

 I recognise the force of the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). We may hear the same thing from the Liberal Democrat Benches in a moment. It is perfectly plausible to argue that there could be a significant beneficial impact by doing what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred to a moment ago, namely, taking cannabis outside the field of drug dealing by hard drug dealers, legitimising it properly and allowing people to buy it under regulated conditions. I do not favour that policy, but I understand the rationale for it. It is also possible to argue that we should try to prevent young people from taking cannabis by doing what is done in Sweden—trying to take more effective measures to deter young people from taking it.

 The policy that the Minister announced today is neither of those two things. It will have a clear effect, which relates to the questions about the gateway. I am not making an argument about whether cannabis as a substance, in any of its forms, is in principle a gateway drug. I accept the Minister's point; my experience, too, is that people with addictive personalities, who are on heroin, crack or cocaine, have typically moved through a cocktail that began with tobacco and alcohol and went on through cannabis, amphetamines and many other things. I am not making the argument that cannabis as a substance is more of a gateway than any of those other drugs but, and this is the critical flaw in the Minister's logic, there can be no doubt at all that if the only legal way to obtain cannabis in England is through buying it from a person who is, ipso facto, a very serious criminal—the Minister is ensuring that anybody selling the substance is exposed to a maximum sentence of 14 years, making the crime equivalent in its severity to some of the worst crimes currently committed—the Minister is putting young people in touch with very serious criminals—[Hon. Members: "No."] She is. If the Minister makes it the case that young people believe that she is crypto-legalising the substance and that they cannot obtain it except from a serious criminal, she is taking steps that irresponsibly ensure that a larger rather than a smaller number of young people will be in touch with serious criminals.

 John Mann (Bassetlaw): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

 Mr. Letwin: I will in a moment, but not until I have finished the logic.

 The purpose of those serious criminals will be to drag those vulnerable young people upwards from cannabis to the hard drugs in which the money can be made—[Interruption.] Yes, it will. The hon. Lady for some part of Lambeth—[Hon. Members: "Vauxhall."] Forgive me. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—I am her constituent so I should know—was right to point out that the evidence of the Lambeth experiment was that serious criminals moved into the area in an effort to drug people up from cannabis into hard drugs. There is no escape from that reality.

 John Mann: Is not the right hon. Gentleman living in the past? There has been an increase in hydroponically grown cannabis. Estimates made in Australia by Hemp Embassy, major protagonists of the legalisation of cannabis, are that 80 per cent. of cannabis is hydroponically grown, and that the vast majority of that is grown by people in their homes for their own supply. Health is the issue for the vast majority of people, rather than the buying of cannabis from so-called drug dealers.

 Mr. Letwin: I fear that the person living in an unreal world is the hon. Gentleman. I know that he shares my passion about hard drugs, and if he were to go to our inner cities—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) says that he does not know what I mean. I mean that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) shares my passion to do something to get off hard drugs the many young people whose lives, and the lives of those around them, are being destroyed by them. We share that ambition, but the hon. Gentleman is living in a fool's paradise if he believes that it is not the case that large numbers of very serious criminals—made very serious criminals by the Government's legislation—want to sell cannabis to people in order to lead them into the hard drug world. That is a fact which cannot be denied.

 The House's purpose should be not to deny that fact, but to argue about whether the Government's policy makes sense, and it certainly cannot make sense to let young people be led in that direction. I do not know by how much the legislation will do that, and nor does the Minister. We do not know how far the guidelines and their effects on police behaviour will lead young people to take more rather than less of that substance, but we know that that must be the direction and that much of the cannabis will be sold by serious criminals who are engaged in hard drug dealing. The tendency, therefore, will be for more rather than fewer young people to be led into hard drugs.

 John Mann rose—

 Mr. Letwin: I will take the hon. Gentleman's intervention, although there is still another step in my logic.

 John Mann: The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we should go to the inner cities. I have not done that, but I have visited my own community. I have spoken to 16-year-olds in all the schools in my constituency and I have talked to at least half of the current heroin users. They outline a straightforward position: five years ago, and before, people bought cannabis and heroin from the same dealer, but now they do not. People do not buy cannabis from heroin dealers or pushers but from different people. Indeed, on health issues, a great deal of cannabis is not even being sold—it is being given away. Many young people are producing it at home and giving it to their friends.

 Mr. Letwin: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that he is not describing the only pattern of activity. The fact remains that hard drug dealers are still in the business of selling cannabis. Even if his suggestion were right, he would have to explain how it could be rational that the young people he has just described would be subject to a maximum term of imprisonment of 14 years for that activity. The Government are turning those young people into very serious criminals. The hon. Gentleman cannot escape that fact. The Government's policy is a dreadful muddle.

 Why have the Government introduced this policy? Do they deny the logic that I have described? Before the debate, I thought that might be possible, but the Minister has told us that legalisation would increase use. How, then, can she suppose that crypto-legalisation will not, to some degree, also increase use? Before the debate, I thought that the Minister would take the view that, under the proposals, people would not feel that they were routinely breaking the law. However, she has told us that young people are routinely breaking the law at present and that she intends cannabis to remain an illegal substance. She is saying that she is legislating in such a way that when young people buy, possess or take cannabis they will know that they are acting illegally. She knows that she is turning the people who sell the drug to them into serious criminals. She does not deny a single step of my logic, so what is the point of the policy? Why do not the Government introduce either proper legalisation of, or a proper clampdown on, cannabis? Why this muddled middle?

 I do not specialise in saying such things about my political opponents, but in this case I think that the Home Secretary—who has chosen not to attend the debate for reasons that only he can tell—is seeking spurious, short-term popularity.

 The polling evidence shows that the Home Secretary is on to a winner and that this policy is popular. Considerable numbers of our fellow citizens believe that selling the stuff should be highly illegal and almost equal numbers believe that not too much should be done about people who are buying the stuff. The Home Secretary is in line with current public opinion, and I think it is for that reason—I can find no other explanation—that he has chosen to adopt this tactic. That is not a responsible way to conduct the government of this country. We should not have, in a country like ours, a Government who adopt a policy about a matter like this on the basis of seeking spurious short-term popularity. We should consider the fate of our young people.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 341—continued

 Tom Levitt (High Peak): We have had this debate for countless decades. There have been endless reports. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Runciman committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs all made this recommendation? How many more committees must we have before we make a rational decision based on scientific evidence?

 Mr. Letwin: I do not think that a thousand committees will ever diminish the fact that when this order—I realise that the Government will use their majority to get it through—and the accompanying legislation have gone through the two Houses of Parliament, young people will be enticed to buy more, or more often, a substance from dangerous criminals, and they will then be led into hard drug use. That is not a rational policy and no number of committees will persuade me that it is.

 Mr. Gordon Prentice : The right hon. Gentleman has not read the report.

 Mr. Letwin: Of course I have read the report.

 Mr. Oaten : The right hon. Gentleman has given us a critique of the system and outlined all the problems, but he has not once said what the Conservative party would do to tackle the issue.

 Mr. Letwin: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and the House if that is not clear. I have made my position clear. I believe that there are two rational possibilities, one of which—

 Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Which is the right hon. Gentleman's?

 Mr. Letwin: I will say which in 15 seconds, if the hon. Gentleman can contain himself.

 There are two rational positions—one is total legalisation and the other is a Swedish-style effort to prevent use. I prefer the latter. If I need to spell it out, that means that I believe that Sweden is right—that it has a better policy than the Netherlands—but I accept that either of those positions can be argued for rationally, and the Government's proposals are the sole middle ground which cannot be argued for rationally. Indeed, the Minister put up no rational defence of it; she was all over the place. I continue to believe that the Home Secretary does not want to make the argument because he does not have an argument. What he is seeking is short-term popularity, and that is a very bad thing.

 David Winnick: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

 Mr. Letwin: I was about to end my speech, but I will of course give way to the Chairman of the Committee.

 David Winnick: I am grateful. If it is only the Home Secretary and his team who are in favour of these proposals, why is it that when the matter came before the Home Affairs Committee and the Committee divided on the motion:

 "We do not, therefore, support the Home Secretary's proposal to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug"

 only one Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who has just put her hand up, voted for it? The other Conservative Members did not. If there is no logic in what the Home Secretary is doing, why is it that not all the Conservative Members on the Committee voted with the hon. Lady for that motion?

 Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman will obviously have to ask them, not me. I am very clear in my mind—and I think that over time the British public will be very clear—that this is not a sustainable system. There are hon. Members in the House who see this as a stepping stone on the way to full legalisation. I can understand their logic, although I think that the number of young people who will suffer on the way is intolerable. However, the Minister does not even make that argument. She has not even made the argument that this is the greatest political courage the Government can currently summon up on their way to full legalisation. I think that she has not made that argument because the Home Secretary does not believe in it—I think that he believes that this is a resting point, and a popular resting point. That is irresponsible.

 Several hon. Members rose—

 Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Time for the debate is limited and many hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches.

 2.34 pm

 John Mann (Bassetlaw): If I were to be persuaded by one of the arguments—I am sad to see that, entirely inappropriately on an issue such as this, there are three-line Whips all round the place—the Government's argument is not the one that would persuade me.

 I remind myself that in any vote in this place it is important to look at the text and the substance of the vote rather than the arguments posed, and at the heart of this debate is the question, why cannabis? Why is there this obsession with cannabis? I surmise that probably it is because it is the only illegal drug that a majority of Members have sampled in the past and therefore feel most competent to speak about. However, cannabis is not the only drug used by Members—tobacco is used far more widely, and I confidently predict that the main drug that will have been misused by Members is alcohol.

The Swedish policy on drugs for young people is straightforward. It does not differentiate in any way between behaviour in respect of alcohol or of cannabis, because the health risks are increasingly evident, and are great, from both. Where the Government have failed, with a good opportunity—

 Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) rose—

 John Mann: I wish to develop my argument, but then I will give way.

 The Government have failed to take the opportunity to reclassify all class B drugs, not just cannabis. There is no logic that says that amphetamines and methamphetamines should be class B rather than class A. They are the main drugs in respect of criminal behaviour and hard drugs in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and they are spreading across America. Therefore, they should be in class A.

 That codeine is a class B drug is also nonsensical. The main problem with opiates in New Zealand comes from over-the-counter codeine-based prescription drugs that people then bake and turn into morphine. The Government and their advisory council have got themselves into a bit of mess, and a presentational mess, by picking out cannabis as opposed to all the class B drugs, and instead of reclassifying and removing class B drugs.

 We should have three classifications of drugs. The first should be hard drugs—drugs that in themselves will seriously damage health and may kill, and the taking of which leads to criminal behaviour. For example, the taking of amphetamines and crack cocaine leads to a range of criminal behaviours, including violent crime. With heroin, because of the nature of the addiction, the result is acquisitive crime. That should be the first classification—hard drugs that lead to both ill health and crime.

 The second classification should be illegal drugs such as anabolic steroids. In the headlines tomorrow and in the playgrounds of Britain, the talk will be not about cannabis, but about another class C drug: anabolic steroids, and the decision made or not made by the Football Association today on the use of, or the avoidance by top sportsmen of testing for, anabolic steroids. We call those drugs class C at the moment. They should be, and can be, called soft drugs—the taking of which does not lead to criminal behaviour, but will cause a serious health problem. Cannabis is one—the new and hydroponic forms of cannabis, skunk in particular, even more so. Anabolic steroids, and things like codeine, should similarly be class C drugs.

 The final classification of drugs should be tobacco and, in particular, alcohol. Tobacco kills millions, and alcohol—which, in terms of drug misuse, causes greater policing problems and probably greater criminal activity than any other single drug—is, of course, misused more by Members and by the general public than any other drug.

 Those should be the three classifications, and the Government should get out of the muddle of having classes A, B and C by removing class B.

 Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his case. He has accidentally misled the House about the position in Sweden, where they take a tough line on alcohol abuse, as he said, and on binge drinking. They also regard all cannabis taking as illegal, while the moderate and sensible consumption of alcohol is legal. The Swedish model seems very successful to Conservative Members.

 John Mann: For young people, the Swedish model is the same as that in this country—the taking of alcohol by young people is illegal. As regards health, in Sweden they have in-patient detox. Conservative policy on rehabilitation is based on the Swedish model. Regardless of whether it is cannabis, alcohol or any other drug, if people are taking drugs irresponsibly and have health problems they are automatically sectioned. They are put into detox centres compulsorily and treatment follows.

 That is a good model and we could develop it here. It will be difficult to sell to the British people the idea that young people who are falling over in the streets because of excess alcohol consumption should be treated on an in-patient basis for five days in a secure detox centre. We are a stage away from taking the general public with us.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 345

An improved classification of drugs that identifies alcohol as a major problem along with other drugs is fundamental.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 345—continued

 Pete Wishart : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we should be expanding the classification of bands of drugs? Does he share my concern that when ecstasy is a class A drug along with heroin and cocaine, that exaggerates the danger of taking ecstasy while diminishing the danger of heroin and cocaine? We must have a classification system that is credible to young people. The hon. Gentleman has forgotten that in his equation.

 John Mann: We need to have a system that is credible to young people, but an expanded litany of classifications will confuse them. I have talked to young people in my constituency—it is not just 40 or 50 per cent of them using cannabis; in most of the schools in my constituency recreational use of cannabis is 100 per cent. among 16-year-olds. It is the main drug of recreational use, even more than alcohol. The reason is the price. At the moment, it is much cheaper than alcohol and much more easily available. That has some serious health consequences, and it is the health issues that we need to address.

 Will we treat young people as fools? There are 600 heroin addicts in my constituency. I have mothers whose sons have died from overdoses and constituents whose brothers have hung themselves because of heroin. I am not soft on drugs. We try to suggest to young people that these drugs are all the same and that they should say no to drugs. Say no to which drugs? We do not mean alcohol, because that is legal at 18. The problem is that drugs will create health problems, and some drugs will create far more than that. That is why in my constituency there are 600 heroin addicts whose lives have been ruined—although increasing numbers are in treatment, I am pleased to say. There were 12 deaths from overdoses last year, there are mothers who fear the deaths of their sons, and there are individuals who fear for their own health and lives and who do not see such a separation or difference in the drugs market.

 We need to separate the drugs market in people's eyes. That is not a weakening of drugs policy. I appeal to my colleagues who are thinking of voting against that model to look at the detail and think of the precision—rather than a weakening of drugs policy, it is a clarification and a strengthening. If we can move on from our obsession with cannabis, we can deal with the fact that treatment for those addicted to class A drugs remains wholly inadequate compared with the rest of the world, and we are only slowly getting people into effective treatment.

 I will not take up the time of the House. I will write to hon. Members to expand on my views and my experience of how what we are doing in Bassetlaw with a GP-led treatment procedure is beginning to work. That is the model that should be used in the rest of the country. That should be the mainstay of drugs debate in this House.

 2.44 pm

 Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I will try to be brief as a number of hon. Members wish to speak. It is a pity that we have only an hour and a half to debate such a

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 346

fundamental issue, because we could have expanded many of the arguments during a longer debate. That said, I welcome today's opportunity because the Liberal Democrats have argued for many years that we should at least have a grown-up debate on drugs in this Chamber. I welcome the fact that the Government have decided to move away from focus groups to an evidence-based approach, having heeded the work of the Home Affairs Committee, the advisory groups, and the Runciman committee. Our view is that although there are issues about the way the Government plan to operate the process, we will support them this afternoon because what is on offer is a step in the right direction.

 The Liberal Democrat party has been a lone voice for far too long arguing that drugs policy should be reconsidered and, over the years, we have received horrendous press headlines when we have talked about the subject. At last the Government now seem prepared to face up to some of these hard issues, as do many Conservative Members, in particular the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who has very progressive views. It is members of the public, not politicians, who also need to face up to those issues. Five or 10 years ago, they may not have been prepared to consider decriminalisation or legalisation but now they are very engaged with the problem indeed. I am talking about parents in particular. They do not want to be hard on drugs; they want the right policy in place to tackle what they see as a growing problem.

 The extent of that problem has been acknowledged by the report of the European drugs monitoring centre, to which reference has already been made, which shows that this country has the biggest problem in Europe, but that we also have some of the toughest laws. Clearly, our policy is not working. That is why I say to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that it is important that we engage in this debate. The status quo is clearly not satisfying the public demand that we should tackle the issue and that approach is causing major difficulties on the streets.

 The Minister's remarks are important because she stressed that the proposed change does not represent a softening-up on drugs. That is important for two reasons. First, we have to send a strong message that if we reclassify, the gain to be had is that we will get much tougher on the harder drugs and the dealers. That strong message must come through. It must be coupled with strong education aimed at our youngsters about the harm caused by harder drugs. Secondly, we should not allow this to be seen as a green light for taking cannabis. It is important that we get that message across, too. The Liberal Democrats support that approach.

 Mr. Letwin: In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said about an evidence-based approach and the growing problem—that is common ground—will he agree that there is something wrong with his policy if cannabis and hard drugs use is increasing rather than diminishing two or three years after the proposals have been enacted?

 Mr. Oaten: Absolutely. I have no problem with that. We have learned from the approach that has been taken in Lambeth and that has informed this debate. Similarly, we will want to learn from this experiment. I think that there could be a number of outcomes. As has been said, moving towards some form of legalisation may be the way forward. The evidence may well suggest that we have all got it wrong and we need to think again. One option that is not acceptable is a do-nothing approach. However, I certainly support the idea that we should reconsider the matter in two years' time.

On a cautionary note, which contradicts the approach that the Liberal Democrat party has taken, there is a slight danger of our taking a middle-class approach—that of The Guardian or The Independent reader. On some estates and in some areas the arguments that are being propounded do not make any sense.

 Three years ago, I spent 24 hours in a drug rehabilitation centre—not for personal reasons, but because I was interested. I went in my jeans and T-shirt and I slept the night. No one knew who I was—one of the advantages of being a Liberal Democrat is that one can go under cover. None of the 17 folk I chatted to, who had serious drugs problems, favoured the legalisation of cannabis or relaxing the law on cannabis. I had gone in there with my cosy and comfortable upbringing, thinking that that was the solution. I left with some serious doubts and I have struggled with them. However, I have looked at the evidence and I have listened to some of the arguments that have been put forward. I have come to the conclusion that this re-classification is a step in the right direction.

 I want to consider some of the arguments. Let us deal first with the critical argument about whether the proposal will result in a redirection of resources to dealing with hard drugs. The Minister could have told us more about that, and I would have welcomed hearing more about how the Government want to redirect police time. We did not hear enough about that. At the moment, 40,000 individuals are apprehended, which involves a lot of police time. If there is a fall in the number of those apprehended, where will the resources then be spent?

 In Lambeth, for example, there was a 44 per cent. increase in arrests for cocaine—good news—and a 10 per cent increase in tracking trafficking, good news. If that can be replicated across the country, the policy change will have been a good move. About 85 per cent. of residents in Lambeth supported such a change—[Interruption]—the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) should let me develop this point—but there were some difficulties. Certain individuals came into the area, and there was some increased drug use. It seems to me, as a layman, that that happened probably because it was a pilot site and that there would not be a flood of such individuals going to a certain area if the proposal were rolled out nationally.

 Research done by Rowntree shows that it believes that the police time spent on dealing with cannabis costs about 50 million, which represents about 500 full-time police officers. I should like to hear from the Minister how the Government intend to shift those resources to get tough on harder drugs.

 Let us briefly deal with whether such a change will act as green light and increase the number of individuals using cannabis. At the moment, about half of 16-year-olds have tried cannabis at some time, so we already have a bad situation. If that figure was perhaps 10 or 15 per cent., there would be some interest in arguing that the change would send a green light and there would be a flood of yet more individuals taking cannabis. However, we seem to have a problem already, and it is unlikely that the change will increase usage. In fact, lots of the evidence from other countries shows that reclassification does not significantly increase the number people who suddenly decide that they will take cannabis.

 Let us touch on the health issue—and we all know the arguments that have been made. It is not my place to consider in depth the scientifically based evidence, but I am happy to buy it, and I am pleased that the Minister acknowledged some of mental health concerns. However, we need more research on that issue.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 348—continued

 Caroline Flint: I understand that there will be no winding-up speeches, so I will take a note and get in touch with the hon. Gentleman, but it is our absolute desire that such work will concentrate on class A drugs. That is why we are tackling the criminal justice interventions programme and identifying those people who commit crime who have a class A drugs problem, so that we can break that cycle. We will monitor what happens after reclassification and work with police forces and the crime reduction and disorder partnerships to ensure that we get some results on which we can report.

 Mr. Oaten: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention because that evidence is crucial if we are to persuade the public that this is the right shift.

 I have most difficulty with the gateway argument. I entirely understand the concerns that hon. Members have raised about access to dealers. I too struggle with that issue. Again, the evidence suggests, however, that about 50 per cent. of cannabis used is home grown, so the exposure to dealers is becoming limited. We need to consider two key arguments to tackle the gateway to drugs.

 First, we can reduce the move to the next, harder drug by using this opportunity to have a serious, mature and grown-up debate with youngsters about the harm done by those drugs, so that youngsters then fear them. We can have that debate because if we are prepared to be honest and upfront about the dangers associated with cannabis, youngsters are more likely to believe us when we talk about some of the harder drugs. Again, evidence from the Netherlands suggests that that gateway to harder drugs has just not materialised.

 Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I refer the hon. Gentleman to an excellent research document, produced by DrugScope, entitled, "Cannabis and the Gateway Hypothesis", and I shall read this paragraph from that document:

 "Gateway theory is often misunderstood. It is not about cannabis leading to harder drugs, it is about common profiles, environment, experience and access."

 Mr. Oaten: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I met representatives of DrugScope on Monday, and they made that very point to me.

 Having supported the thrust of the Government's proposals, I want to probe them a little more—I accept that the Minister may not be able to respond formally, but I would appreciate a response in writing—about why they have decided to link reclassification with changes to the power of arrest and sentences. At no point did the Select Committee on Home Affairs suggest that the proposals should be linked with new powers of arrest or increased sentences. In fact, that was not mentioned in the Government's drug strategy and, as far as I am aware, the Government have consulted no one about that, other than the police. That is an error because there are knock-on consequences.

 Liberal Democrat Members are concerned that those changes will send a very confused, mixed message and that that will lead to the police taking all sorts of different approaches. Frankly, if there is a gain as police time is shifted to dealing with harder drugs, I am concerned that we will lose some of that gain by maintaining such powers of arrest and, indeed, increasing them. I do not understand why the existing powers, under which people who are found unlawfully in possession of a class C drug can be warned, cautioned or issued with a summons to appear in court to face charges of unlawful possession, are inadequate. The police can confiscate the substance. On conviction, those individuals face a maximum penalty of two years in prison for possession, or five years in prison for supply. Surely the existing power to handle class C drugs use is sufficient. Why have the Government chosen to increase those powers?

 Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he not recognise that what happened in the Lambeth experiment was that the Metropolitan police discovered young people who were openly smoking joints in the faces of the police officers and saying, "We are breaking the law, and you can't do anything about it. Ho, ho"? That is why the police asked for the power of arrest. Does that not demonstrate the kind of problem with which we are dealing in making something quasi-illegal or quasi-legal?

 Mr. Oaten: I do not think that we differ on this issue. It seems absolutely clear that, under existing class C powers, if people are smoking cannabis and walk into a post office and blow smoke into a policeman's face, the police could do as I just said: warn, caution, issue and, ultimately, take the case to court. So those powers are in place already, and I do not understand why the Government want to increase them in this way.

 The Minister said in her opening remarks that there will be an amendment to change the power of arrest, so that there will be no power of arrest for some drugs currently in class C, but there will be a power of arrest for cannabis, which is now going into class C. I do not understand the logic of having different forms of arrest for the same class. Surely the point of having such a class is to say that certain drugs are similar, but the Government suddenly want to attach a different form of arrest to one of those drugs. The Government need to make up their mind: is cannabis now B2, or are they moving those other drugs into a class D? There is no logic at all in having a different form of arrest in the same classification.

 Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention just as he is about to conclude his speech. Since the Liberal Democrats often represents its sister party—the Alliance party in Northern Ireland—will he clarify, for my own purposes, whether the views that he has expressed today in support of the legislation to reclassify cannabis are also shared by that sister party in relation to Northern Ireland?

 Mr. Oaten: The honest answer is that I have not got a clue and I have not spoken to the Alliance party.

 In conclusion, we will support the Government on this issue, but we would welcome their thinking again about some of the confusing messages on arrest that they are sending out because this positive step forward has been slightly spoilt by those messages which will make progress difficult in the future. If it turns out that some of the new powers cause confusion, I hope that the Government will think again about those issues, perhaps as part of a wider review of how the changes are operating in two years.

 2.58 pm

 Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I shall be very brief because I should like some of my colleagues from Scotland to be called to speak.

 It is quite disgraceful to put through something as important as this measure in one and a half hours. I do not blame the three Front-Bench spokesmen—the Minister gave way—but it is wrong to allow only half an hour for Back-Bench speeches. I am disappointed that the Home Secretary is not here. A very important issue is being debated, and it would have been nice if he had been here today.

 I have heard so much rubbish talked today about the Lambeth experiment that it would take me a very long time to deal with it all. I will not refer to that experiment other than to say that it was not a success. It was one of those schemes that was doomed to success from the beginning because the Home Office had decided that it would be successful whatever the outcome. As for the statistics, you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, what we can all say about statistics.

 We keep hearing about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and the implication is that it is made up of most eminent and respectable people—I do not disagree—and the font of all wisdom. It is important to point out, however, that it is part of the Home Office, it is not a scientific advisory panel, and many of its members have no scientific qualifications. It has about 32 members, of whom a substantial number—about 13—are committed to liberalisation of the drugs policy. It has no members from any organisations that have publicly said that they are not in favour of liberalisation. I therefore treat with a little bit of caution the assumption that everything that it says is right. [Interruption.] It has been suggested to me that I treat that assumption with a big bit of caution.

 Reclassification is sending out a mixed message. It sends out a signal to our young people—whatever the Minister says, and whatever she wishes—that taking cannabis is not harmful and that it is legal. We have seen already, since the Home Secretary's statement in the House, that increasing numbers of young people are taking cannabis, and when confronted by teachers, parents or police, they simply say, "But it's legal." The message that that gives to young people—especially to those whose parents are keen to urge their children not to be involved with drugs that can be harmful—is to challenge their parents on the grounds that the House of Commons and the Government say that it is okay. We are sending out a very wrong message, which is also being sent out to the hard criminals and the real drug dealers. Whatever we say about people growing cannabis in their homes not having any dealings with such people, many people in my constituency would not even have the capacity to grow it in their own homes, so the only way that they will get it is through the criminal drug dealer.

 Mr. David Marshall: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that this order will result in a much greater use of cannabis, which will consequently impose much greater strains on the national health service, and will also lead to people combining cannabis with alcohol and a significant increase in the number of road traffic accidents? Statistics and information are available that indicate that that is already happening.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 351—continued

 Kate Hoey: I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not have time to discuss the health risks, but anyone who has listened to those who treat youngsters at the sharp end in the health service cannot fail to see that this order sends out a message that will lead, perhaps not immediately but in the long term, to more people taking cannabis and to a huge strain on our national health service. The fact that it is being reclassified, which effectively means that people think that it is legal, means that the peer pressure among young people will be much stronger. At the moment, at least young people can say, "This is not legal," if drugs are pushed at them—at least they have that kind of excuse if they do not want to take the drug but are not feeling particularly confident. Again, this order sends out the wrong message on that.

 I have mentioned the link with the criminal element, which I saw in my constituency. What I want to ask the Minister is: why are we doing this now? What is the point of it? We need to look properly at the issue of classification. I agree strongly with some of the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann)—we need to examine this issue carefully and on the basis of proper argument. We should not go ahead with introducing this measure glibly. I genuinely cannot understand why we are going down this line. Reclassification will move us further down the route of considering drug abuse as normal, and I am not prepared to support that today.

 3.4 pm

 Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair, has been conducting a report into the illegal drugs trade and drug culture in Northern Ireland. We published an interim report, because we knew that this order was coming before the House, to try to help the House in its deliberations. I want to make one or two brief points.

 First, drug use in Northern Ireland is different from in the rest of the United Kingdom. Cannabis is by far the most widely used illegal drug, and while street prices for most drugs are higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, cannabis prices are comparable, which suggests that there is a reasonably regular supply to meet the level of demand. As other Members have mentioned, considerable confusion exists about the current status of cannabis, and since the Government's announcement to reclassify, individuals have begun to smoke cannabis openly on the streets and in the clubs and pubs.

 The Committee did not look at the health risks, but we expressed concern, as has been expressed by others, about the message that the Government are sending, both to drug traffickers and to international enforcement agencies, about the importance now being accorded to cannabis as an illegal substance. It is widely recognised that Northern Ireland has a serious problem with the growth of serious and organised crime, which has arisen as a legacy of the conflict. The criminal gangs, many of whom are linked to the paramilitary organisations, will exploit any opportunity for illegal profit. Demand for illegal drugs, particularly among the young, and particularly in relation to cannabis and ecstasy, has been growing over the last decade, and if criminals identify an increase in demand they will seek to meet it. The additional profits that they make will go to fund other criminal enterprises, such as fostering a market for heroin and cocaine, which at the moment barely exists in Northern Ireland, or possibly to fund further terrorist activity.

 While we welcome the fact that cannabis remains a priority for the enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland, the traders and the traffickers must still be caught before they can be punished. In making those points, the Committee in no way seeks to undermine what the Government are trying to do in focusing on class A drugs. What we are saying is that Northern Ireland is slightly different, and does not yet have a major class A drug problem, and we want to keep it that way. Northern Ireland does have a problem with serious criminality, however, and those criminals will exploit any opportunity that is given to them, such as the confusion that arises over the status of cannabis, for their profit and to the detriment of society there.

 I ask the Minister to reflect on those concerns. We would be grateful for a further assurance that action is being taken to ensure that the message that cannabis is still illegal, and for good reasons, remains clear, and that the greater significance of the cannabis trade within Northern Ireland is recognised by the enforcement authorities throughout the UK and abroad. There is much more that I could say, but time is short and I know that others want to contribute.

Pete Wishart: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there anything that you could do at this late stage to extend this debate? It is unsatisfactory that we have had only one and a half hours to debate this important UK-wide issue. The debate on the Mersey Tunnels Bill is coming up next, which could continue until any hour. Surely it is within our scope and within the responsibility of the House to debate this issue properly.

 Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am afraid that that is not a matter that is in the power of the Chair. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern.

 3.8 pm

 Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): I concur wholly with what has just been said by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). To have only one and a half hours, and only half an hour for Back-Bench speeches, on an issue that affects every constituency in the land, and which is being debated by every young person in the land, seems to me to be folly.

 If we were devising a drug and alcohol strategy for the United Kingdom from scratch, knowing what we know today about the health effects of alcohol and tobacco compared with those of cannabis, I am almost certain that we would not be starting from where we are. As we know, alcohol and tobacco are far more addictive and injurious to people's health. Every year, 120,000 people are killed because they smoke tobacco, and half of all people who continue to smoke for most of their lives die of the habit and lose 16 years of their life. The medical legacy of alcohol is every bit as pernicious: hepatitis, cirrhosis, gastritis, gastrointestinal haemorrhage, pancreatitis, hypertension, cardiomyopathy, mouth, oesophagal and liver cancer, foetal alcohol syndrome, blackouts, fits and neuropathy are all part of the problem—as I am sure that many Members know—to say little of the social damage in terms of domestic violence, marital breakdown, absenteeism and aggression.

 In contrast, cannabis is a saint, not a sinner. However, that does not mean that cannabis is harm free because real health concerns exist. The tar yield from marihuana is precisely the same as that from tobacco, so smoking cannabis can pose a long-term health hazard. Indeed, a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Physicians published only a few years ago said:

 "the smoke from a cannabis joint contains most of the same constituents as tobacco smoke, including the carcinogens. It is not surprising, therefore, that regular cannabis smokers develop chronic bronchitis and squamous metaplasia of the respiratory tract and it is likely that in time, it will become apparent that they are at increased risk of cancer"—

 compared with the risks from tobacco.

 As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) said, there is a further problem due to the effect of intoxication, especially for people who drive. It is difficult to assess the precise problem, although a recent assessment showed that 10 per cent. of a sample of 284 drivers who had been killed by fatal accidents had cannabis in their blood stream. Of that proportion, 80 per cent. had not used alcohol, so it is quite probable, although not certain, that their intoxication was solely the result of cannabis use. Unfortunately, there is no roadside test to measure cannabis intoxication, which is why Professor Gold's "Comprehensive Handbook of Alcohol and Drug Addiction" says:

 "The role of marihuana in road traffic accidents and other types of accident is vastly underestimated."

 I think that that is pretty much the accepted view. A report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee accepted that cannabis could worsen the course of schizophrenia, although there is little real evidence that it may precipitate the disease.

 The honest truth is that the medical evidence thus far is entirely uncertain. We cannot know the full human pathology of cannabis, which is why the Government's reports for the Department of Health are vital and we look forward to reading what they say.

 There is some evidence that cannabinoids can be therapeutic, as has been mentioned, and Dr. Philip Robson's Department of Health report in 1998 made that pretty clear. The Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that between 1 and 4 per cent. of the UK's 85,000 multiple sclerosis patients are illegally using cannabis. Trials to date have been small and the results uncertain.

 Dr. Iddon: This point has not been mentioned in the debate, but has my hon. Friend noticed that the order will reclassify tetrahydrocannabinol from class A—believe it or not—to class C? THC will be the principal constituent of the new medicines that will come out of the cannabis era.

 Mr. Bryant: I was about to talk about precisely that, and hope that I can pronounce the word as well as my hon. Friend.

 There is more evidence suggesting that cannabis and cannabinoids, most notably THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, can relieve pain and be used as an anti-emetic, which is why they can be especially useful for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Most controlled studies offer secure proof that marihuana and THC are effective appetite stimulants, which is important for people with cancer as well as those with AIDS. Indeed, cannabis appears to have no immunosuppressant effect on people with HIV, although the largest study, which involved 5,000 people, took place in 1989 and the pathology of HIV/AIDS is now known rather better.

 Anecdotal evidence from several of my constituents supports the use of cannabis in the treatment of epilepsy, although it is ironic that cannabis was shown to have convulsant and anticonvulsant effects on animals, which were the subjects of the only substantial trials. It is suggested that cannabinoids can lower pressure in the eye, which would be useful when treating glaucoma. I represent the constituency with the highest level of glaucoma and blindness in Wales, so that is obviously a matter of interest. However, it seems that one would have to smoke 10 cannabis cigarettes a day to achieve the constant level of intraocular pressure that would be beneficial.

 As other hon. Members have suggested, there are those who believe that cannabis is a gateway to other drugs. They believe that taking cannabis of itself leads ineluctably, medically and physically, to the taking of harder drugs such as cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. Simply put, that is not logical. The link is not direct or causal, but there is a link. As Drugscope told the Home Affairs Committee:

 "Cannabis use puts individuals in social situations and supply transactions where they are more likely to experience people using, accepting and supplying more harmful drugs than others in the population."

 In other words, people buy cannabis from dealers and dealers also sell heroin—that is certainly true in the Rhondda.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 354—continued

 John Robertson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

 Mr. Bryant: I will not because I am conscious that I have little time.

 Some people suggest that the answer is to license cannabis and sell it at Boots. However, when similar policies have been tried or police have tacitly allowed coffee shops to exist in other countries, major dealers have hung around outside the shops because they know that the most likely new clients are existing cannabis users.

 Moreover, there is a more direct link between cannabis and other drugs. Professor C.H. Aston's report for the Department of Health on the clinical and pharmacological aspects of cannabis in 1998 said:

  "with chronic use, especially of high doses, tolerance develops to some of the effects of cannabis (including the euphoric effect) and can lead to physical and physiological dependence, withdrawal effects on cessation of use and possible escalation to other more potent drugs of abuse."

 All that leads me to three central points. First, the Minister is right that we should proceed on the basis of sound medical advice as much as possible, rather than on simple prejudice or anecdote, but that means that we still need further hard empirical medical evidence and the Department of Health should work further on that. Secondly, it is only logical that a drug that produces significant medical problems, but ones that are minor compared with the effects of cocaine and heroin, should be treated differently in the law, which is why the order might be right. Thirdly, however, we should not encourage the use of cannabis. Cannabis is not okay and although it does not kill, it does matter.

 3.17 pm

 Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I reiterate that it is a scandal that we have so little time to debate the order. I have barely 90 seconds in which to speak, so I shall reassert a point that I have made before. Unless and until we are prepared to move from reclassification to providing legal outlets, we will not break the link between the suppliers of hard drugs and the suppliers of soft drugs. We will continue to drive soft-drug users into the hands of hard-drug pushers, and we will not achieve the advantage of breaking the link, restoring respect for the law and enabling a health warning to be put on a legally available product and displayed in outlets in which the product is available.

 The Government have got the worst of all possible words. They will simultaneously encourage more people to use the drug because people will know that there is no effective punishment for its use, but it will remain illegal and thus be available only through illegal gangs—

 Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I can confirm to the House that the ruling that I gave a moment ago was in accordance with the Standing Orders.

 It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to the Standing Order.

 The House divided: Ayes 316, Noes 160.

Question accordingly agreed to.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 359

 Resolved,

 That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 11th September, be approved.

 29 Oct 2003 : Column 360

 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/cm031029/debtext/31029-10.htm#31029-10_head0

 see also

http://www.drugs.gov.uk/NationalStrategy/CannabisReclassification/FAQs

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