Cannabis Reclassification Debate
Hansard 29 Oct 2003
: Column 329 - Dangerous Drugs
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
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 peoplewhether they are 14, 15, 16, 17 or
18that 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
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 contentthe particular content
that affects the strength of cannabisvaries 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 societywhether 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.
29 Oct 2003 : Column 332
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 332continued
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
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 legalisationthe
order is not, as the hon. Gentleman's question makes
clear, about legalisationwould 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 2005an 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
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 clearcannabis 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
organisationsand especially by loyalist paramilitariesfunds
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
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 peoplein
Northern Ireland, just as much as in England, Scotland
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 continuallyI have
read it myself, and heard hon. Members repeat itthat
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
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
29 Oct 2003 : Column 336
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
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
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.
29 Oct 2003 : Column 337
The regime will also enable the police to redeploy their resources
for the tackling of more serious offences, including
dealing in the class A drugsheroin and crack cocainethat
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
agenciesMPs, local authorities, the drug action
teams, police and othersabout 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
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 338continued
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 doctorsin the medicine chestbefore
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
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 warnedand 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 Swedentrying to take
more effective measures to deter young people from taking
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
criminalthe 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 committedthe
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 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 knowwas 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
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 criminalsmade
very serious criminals by the Government's legislationwant
to sell cannabis to people in order to lead them into
the hard drug world. That is a fact which cannot be
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
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 soldit 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
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 Secretarywho
has chosen not to attend the debate for reasons that
only he can tellis seeking spurious, short-term
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 reasonI can find no other explanationthat
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 341continued
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 orderI realise
that the Government will use their majority to get it
throughand 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
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 positionsone 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 rightthat
it has a better policy than the Netherlandsbut
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 mindand I think
that over time the British public will be very clearthat
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 itI 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.
John Mann (Bassetlaw): If I were to be persuaded by one of
the argumentsI am sad to see that, entirely inappropriately
on an issue such as this, there are three-line Whips
all round the placethe 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 Memberstobacco 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
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) rose
John Mann: I wish to develop my argument, but then I will give
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 drugsdrugs 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 classificationhard
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 drugsthe taking of which does not lead to
criminal behaviour, but will cause a serious health
problem. Cannabis is onethe 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 alcoholwhich,
in terms of drug misuse, causes greater policing problems
and probably greater criminal activity than any other
single drugis, 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
John Mann: For young people, the Swedish model is the same
as that in this countrythe 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 345continued
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 constituencyit
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 ruinedalthough
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 precisionrather
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.
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
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
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 problemthat
is common groundwill 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 approachthat 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
centrenot 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 wasone 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 cocainegood newsand 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 pointbut 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 issueand 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 348continued
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 moreI accept that
the Minister may not be able to respond formally,
but I would appreciate a response in writingabout 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 partythe Alliance party in Northern Irelandwill
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
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I shall be very brief because I should
like some of my colleagues from Scotland to be called
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 spokesmenthe Minister gave
waybut 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 peopleI do not disagreeand
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 numberabout 13are
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 peoplewhatever the Minister
says, and whatever she wishesthat 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 peopleespecially to those
whose parents are keen to urge their children not to
be involved with drugs that can be harmfulis 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
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 351continued
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 themat
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.
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.
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 problemas I
am sure that many Members knowto 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
"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
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 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 Abelieve it or
notto class C? THC will be the principal constituent
of the new medicines that will come out of the cannabis
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
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
"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 herointhat is certainly true in the
29 Oct 2003 : Column 354continued
John Robertson: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Bryant: I will not because I am conscious that I have little
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.
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
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