The Government's policy on all illicit drugs, including cannabis, is based on scientific evidence of the harm they cause. On the basis of that evidence, which the Government keep under review, we have no plans to decriminalise cannabis for recreational use. For example, a 1997 World Health Organisation report found that cannabis had acute and chronic health effects, including impairment of concentration and damage to mental health, learning capacity and manual dexterity. It also has an impact on respiratory diseases, including bronchitis and lung cancer.
I am sure that the Minister will remember the lobby of Parliament by sufferers of multiple sclerosis, which took place just before the summer recess. In meetings that were held around the Palace at that time, I spoke to many of those who were lobbying us and asked whether any of them there had not used cannabis for the symptomatic relief of their suffering, but I could not find one who had not. Does my right hon. Friend accept that no useful purpose would have been served by arresting and charging those MS sufferers, and that there is precious little social gain in criminalising the 97,000 people—mainly young people—who are arrested each year on cannabis-related charges? Does he also accept that sooner rather than later the House needs to recognise that we should reclassify cannabis within the same regulatory constraints that apply to alcohol and tobacco?
I can tell my hon. Friend two things. First, he should not confuse the medicinal use of cannabis with the dangers associated with uncontrolled use of the drug for illicit purposes. Secondly, the Government are currently licensing a major cannabis- based medicines development initiative conducted by GW Pharmaceuticals, as well as supporting scientific research projects into possible benefits of cannabis-based medicines. The results are expected in 2002. If they prove to be successful, the Government will support the licensing of new products, and that should lead to their being made available on prescription from mid-2003 onwards.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to distinguish between the potentially proven medicinal uses of cannabis and its other uses? Legalising cannabis is not an answer—that would not deal with its misuse. In the Netherlands in the decade up to 1997, the incidence of cannabis use rose by over half and the use of hard drugs nearly doubled. Does he agree that a necessary objective is to achieve a higher awareness of the damaging effects of cannabis? It is addictive and carcinogenic, and it carries a considerable risk of mental health problems.
I will pass on the hon. Gentleman's good wishes to my right hon. Friend. I am sorry that it is the monkey rather than the organ grinder who is here today.
I cannot disagree with a word that the hon. Gentleman said—and I do not say that with disappointment. As I have previously said from this Dispatch Box, I want a proactive, all-party approach to the issues of illicit and illegal drugs. Cannabis should not be confused with medicinal products. One cannot use the problems of MS sufferers as a blanket excuse for allowing drug traffickers to peddle hard drugs to our kids. A high proportion of young people who use cannabis go on to use even more problematic drugs in later life. We should recognise that there is a slippery slope, and we should not decriminalise cannabis.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Research from New Zealand, which was recently referred to by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), shows that the likelihood of going on to use other drugs is 60 times greater among regular cannabis users than among those who do not use cannabis. Will he therefore correct from the Dispatch Box the statement made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who said:
the scientific evidence is not yet available to suggest that smoking cannabis leads to
the use of hard drugs? Does he accept that we must deter people from cannabis use, and that that drug has a gateway effect, leading on to hard drug use?
I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman had changed his ways and was trying cleverly to tease out a disagreement between myself and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office. There is no disagreement within the Government about the matter; I could not have made it plainer where we stand. It was rather churlish of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that there was a difference of opinion. There is no such difference.
Why is it that after 30 years of Britain having the harshest anti-cannabis penalties in Europe, cannabis use in this country is the highest in Europe, whereas after 25 years of regulated decriminalisation, cannabis use in the Netherlands is lower than here? The Netherlands has separated the two markets, so it has only a tenth of the number of heroin deaths per million people that we have. Is it sensible that in the same country and in the same week, a chief constable said that he would arrest anyone for recreational use of cannabis, while a desperately ill young woman was dragged through the courts for using cannabis medicinally? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend has conducted a long campaign on this matter, but he is mixing up two important issues. I shall not repeat my remarks about medicinal use, which we will support if research proves that available products can be secured for 2003 onwards. I cannot, however, accept the naive proposition that drug traffickers and sellers somehow separate the sale of cannabis from that of other drugs. In Holland and other places, the availability to 12 to 15-year-olds of cannabis and other drugs has hugely increased. We should not take that road, as it is the road of despair. We must stick to our 10-year strategy and protect our young people from the effects of drugs. I know of no family in Britain that would sit back and say that their child should be dosed up on drugs. I do not believe that that would happen, or that any right-thinking family member would want to see any child of any age take cannabis.
Is the Minister aware that his quotations from the World Health Organisation were a selective collection of evidence about cannabis? There is much evidence to suggest that the opposite of what he said is correct. Will he establish a working party, a royal commission or another public body to examine all the research on cannabis and to consider the matter sensibly and logically before we proceed any further?
I can never for the life of me understand the Liberals on this issue. First, a royal commission is not needed to tell people that drugs are harmful, that they damage and kill children or that they destroy families and communities. Secondly, the World Health Organisation's evidence is medically based. It is nonsense for the Liberals to suggest that cannabis does not have the effects that I describe. That argument is irresponsible in the extreme.