Cannabis Seeds (Prohibition)
Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
Tom Brake (Shadow Minister (London and the Olympics), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Home Affairs, Spokesperson for London, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the sale of cannabis seeds;
and for connected purposes.
In recent months, cannabis and its use have been in the news regularly because of concerns about the impact on mental health of skunk, a more potent type of cannabis, and because the Government would like cannabis to be reclassified from a class C to a class B drug. I should point out that I do not support the Government's bid to reclassify cannabis. They should have accepted the findings of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which recognised that cannabis was dangerous but stated that it was not as dangerous as other drugs in category B.
However, I support totally any Government attempt to plug a huge hole in the legislation on cannabis—the lack of any restrictions on the sale of drugs paraphernalia and cannabis seeds. That is the purpose of the Bill. I can give a simple illustration of the consequences of that absence of legislation. If Members come to Wallington, I will show them Your High, a shop trading legally in drugs paraphernalia and cannabis seeds. It is around the corner from a primary school and down the road from a secondary school. It was brought to my attention by parents and the head teacher of the primary school, and shortly afterwards by the head of the secondary school and by local churches.
With the help of the head teacher, Mrs. Ramsay, and one of the local councillors, Jayne McCoy, I organised a meeting for parents, governors, the local police and the head teacher, and about 50 people attended. I am sure that Members can anticipate parents' concerns: the shop's location, its trade and, perhaps most importantly, its message that there is no difference between a shop that sells flowers or repairs TVs and one that sells drugs paraphernalia. Someone can pop to the corner shop for a pint or to their local drugs paraphernalia shop to pick up a bong. Is that really a message that we want young children to absorb? Certainly not according to the 500 or so local people who have so far signed a petition against the shop.
The shop's message is not subtle. If its business is not clear from its name and from the very large cannabis leaves displayed in the window, one need only look through the front door, which is open at most times of the day, to get a clearer understanding of its trade.
I have been asked whether the council's planning department can do something about the shop. I established very quickly in correspondence with the local council that the answer, astonishingly, is no. The shop is trading legally, and as the unit was previously used for retail purposes as a fireworks shop, which was only marginally less unpopular, planning had no say in the matter. Ironically, there was a possibility of taking action against the shop for failing to apply for planning permission for its neon lights, but not for selling pipes and other drugs paraphernalia.
What about the police? What can they do? In an exchange with a helpful police constable from the safer neighbourhood team, I established, again very quickly, that the police can only monitor the shop and hope that its owner or one of his customers breaks the law. They cannot even enforce an age restriction on those entering the shop. The owner voluntarily displays an "18s only" sign, but no licensing requirements are in force. Theoretically, anyone of any age can enter the shop and make a purchase.
"I would like to make clear that the Government deplores the sale of any drug paraphernalia which may encourage or promote drug misuse."
That is exactly what the shop is doing. The Government have acknowledged that there is a gaping hole in the legal framework, which is why the Home Office has asked the Association of Chief Police Officers, as stated in the letter to me, to
"identify new approaches that the Police, local authorities and other partner agencies can use to control these types of premises and where necessary shut them down".
The Government have tasked ACPO with conducting a review of legislation to identify whether there is any scope for using it to restrict the activities of Your High and other shops like it. Wallington is not the only place in the country that is blessed with such an establishment. Other such shops are trading in Brighton, in our neighbouring Sutton and elsewhere up and down the country. I discussed that legislative review with Ken Jones, the president of ACPO, and it would be fair to say that ACPO is sceptical about the approach. It believes that if the necessary legislation were already on the statute book, someone—a local authority or the police—would have identified a way of using it. In all likelihood, therefore, new legislation will be required.
My ten-minute Bill would partly plug the gap by bringing cannabis seeds within the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which refers only to cannabis and cannabis resin. That would be a minor legal adjustment, and a definition of cannabis seeds could easily be added to that Act. There is no confusion about what constitutes cannabis seeds, certainly not among retailers who are selling seeds on the net. Any Member can simply type "sale of cannabis seeds" into Google and come up with a wide range of seeds, which they may or may not care to purchase, from sellers such as Almighty Seeds, Big Buddha Seeds and Dutch Passion.
Banning drugs paraphernalia, which I could have attempted to bring within the scope of the Bill, would be more complicated. When I dropped into Your High, the manager pointed out that the papers that are used to roll cannabis joints are also on sale in newsagents. A definition of drugs paraphernalia would need to cover goods sold not just in shops such as Your High but in other outlets. ACPO's review might provide some clarity on that definition, which could help us to tighten the law in future.
My purpose today is simple: to prohibit the sale of cannabis seeds. That minor change to the law would send a major message and ensure consistency between the law on the sale of drugs such as cannabis and the law on the sale of cannabis seeds, which help people to grow their own. I urge Members to support the Bill.
Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)
The Bill will appeal to most Members, and it is certainly well intentioned, but I suggest to Tom Brake that it would have many unintended consequences for a group of people that he has not mentioned: the thousands in this country who use cannabis for medicinal purposes. There have been Bills before the House that would have allowed cannabis to be prescribed. Frequently when I speak on the subject, some newspapers link the fact that I have arthritis to my enthusiasm for legalising medicinal cannabis. There is no connection. I have never in my life used an illegal drug, and I have no intention of using one.
One drug that was recommended to me, and which many people used, was Vioxx. It was a COX-2 inhibitor and pain reliever that was prescribed more than 1 million times in this country before it was discovered to have caused 150,000 heart attacks and strokes in another country. The merit of cannabis, which has been used as a medicine for more than 5,000 years on every continent, is that all its side effects and problems were discovered through experience many years ago.
Thousands of people in this country choose to grow their own cannabis. I am happy to reflect on the fact that only 12 ten-minute Bills, I think, have become law in the past 25 years, so it is unlikely that this one will, but the Government might be persuaded to go down a similar path. If it were to become law, those people would have to move to the criminal market. At the moment, they are doing something perfectly legal. They can buy their seeds on the internet, in other countries or in shops such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which are fairly rare. If they do so and grow their own, they know the quality and strength of the cannabis that they take when they engage in a perfectly harmless activity that gives pain relief to people, particularly those suffering from multiple sclerosis, who find that the chemical drugs that are available to them cause terrible problems, including nausea and all kinds of serious side effects. People have come to demonstrate at Parliament in the past 12 months, showing that they want the law to be changed. If the law is changed, and a simple Bill is introduced to differentiate between the recreational and medicinal use of cannabis, the hon. Gentleman's Bill might be appropriate. However, this Bill would plunge people into fear, in the knowledge that the only way in which they will be able to continue to use cannabis—their medicine of choice—will be to move into the illegal market.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said that he was against the irrational proposal to move cannabis from class C to class B, but I am sure that that will happen. As a result, the maximum sentence for possessing cannabis—and, presumably, for possessing seeds—will go up from two to five years. We would be doing that in the knowledge that we do not have a single prison that is free of the open use of heroin and cocaine to which to send anyone who is convicted. They could go to prison as an MS sufferer using their medicine of choice—as a cannabis user—and come out in five years' time as a heroin addict.
As a result of the hon. Gentleman's well-intentioned Bill, major injustices will be done, and the anxiety that it and any proposal from the Government will cause is not worth its suggested benefits. He did not give any evidence of harm—certainly, people will be understandably anxious if such a shop is set up in the neighbourhood—but there is harm from other temptations for young people, particularly from tobacco. Virtually everyone's first use of cannabis as a drug of abuse is when it is mixed with tobacco, which is an addictive or killer drug. It kills 120,000 people a year, whereas deaths from cannabis are probably non-existent and certainly extremely rare. There is concern about the side-effects, and no one would advocate its greater use, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to think deeply about the unintended consequences of his Bill.
Question put and agreed to.