– in the House of Commons at 1:02 pm on 19th January 2006.
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the regulation of cannabis. The House will know that last March I asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to examine new evidence on the harmfulness of cannabis and to evaluate whether it altered their assessment of the drug's classification. In so doing, I was particularly concerned by studies, published since the council's 2002 report, which seemed to indicate strong links between cannabis and serious mental illness. I am very grateful to the council for the work that it has done in responding to my request and I am today placing a copy of its report and conclusions in the Library of the House.
I shall highlight two conclusions from the council's report. The first is that cannabis is harmful and its use can lead to a wide range of physical and psychological harms and hazards; that the mental health effects of cannabis are real and significant; that cannabis is potentially harmful, with short-term risks to physical health; that a substantial research programme into the relationship between cannabis and mental health should be instituted; that the Government ought to seek to reduce the use of cannabis; and that the cultivation, supply and possession of cannabis should remain illegal.
The second conclusion is that the level of classification is only one among the issues to be addressed and that, in the council's view, priority needs to be given to proper enforcement of the law, to education and to campaigning against the use of cannabis. The council recommends a substantial Government education campaign, strengthened medical services for those dependent on cannabis and greater protection for those with pre-existing mental conditions that place them at particular risk from cannabis use. The council also proposes further research to improve our understanding of the mental health implications of cannabis use.
I have discussed those recommendations with my colleagues, the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Health, and we have agreed to accept and implement them energetically. In so doing, we accept that the use of cannabis significantly increases the chances of developing chronic bronchitis and poses a potential lung cancer risk. We accept the growing body of research that suggests that cannabis may exacerbate or even trigger a range of serious mental health problems, including schizophrenia. In the words of the ACMD report,
"the mental health effects of cannabis are real and significant".
In summary, cannabis is anything but harmless. That is why possession of cannabis remains punishable by up to two years in prison. It is why the Government strongly oppose proposals to legalise the drug, and will continue to do so. This month, we have introduced new powers under the Drugs Act 2005 to strengthen the hand of the police in dealing with those caught supplying the drug.
However, as the advisory council's report indicates, the illegal status of the drug is not enough. We need a massive programme of public education to convey the danger of cannabis use. Our aim is to provide effective education in schools about the risks posed by cannabis, to send the right messages about the harms the drug does and, very importantly, to equip young people with the knowledge and courage to make the right decisions. We will use the "Frank" media campaign and other channels to raise understanding about the dangerous and illegal impact of cannabis consumption. The campaign, delivered in partnership with the police, will publicise the penalties for cannabis dealing, production and use.
Growing and selling cannabis is neither harmless nor, as some argue, idealistic. It is a multi-million pound business, often organised by sophisticated and violent criminals. I remind the House that those who deal in large quantities of cannabis face maximum penalties of up to 14 years for this offence. That is why I have discussed with the Association of Chief Police Officers the need to focus police effort and to take strong action to reduce the supply of cannabis. The police and I agree that, in recent years, the production and dealing of cannabis have not always been targeted sufficiently vigorously, and we have agreed that this needs to change. ACPO will now draw up a consolidated campaign of action to attack the production and trafficking of cannabis, which provide obscene profits out of the misery of users. ACPO will aim to put cannabis farms out of business and dealers behind bars. At the same time, it will revise and strengthen its guidelines for dealing with cannabis-related crime.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Home Office recently published a consultation exercise to look at the threshold levels of cannabis in a person's possession at which that person would be deemed to be a supplier. I would like to inform the House that my final decision will involve a considerably lower level than the 500g suggested in the current consultation.
I believe that those education, health and police measures give clear and comprehensive messages about the dangers of cannabis and a warning that those who produce or are dealers in cannabis will be brought to justice. They are focused on reducing the use of cannabis, and I believe that reduction of use should be the goal of all our drugs policies, whether the drug is legal or illegal. Also, it is the case that clarity is the best weapon we have in the fight to reduce the use of cannabis. That is the basis on which I approach the issue of classification.
The more that I have considered these matters, the more concerned I have become about the limitations of our current system. Decisions on classification often address different or conflicting purposes, and too often send strong but confusing signals to users and others about the harms and consequences of using a particular drug. Furthermore, there is often disagreement over the meaning of different classifications. For example, many people wrongly interpreted the reclassification of cannabis to mean that cannabis was not harmful and that its use was acceptable and even legal. For these reasons, I will in the next few weeks publish a consultation paper with suggestions for a review of the drug classification system, on the basis of which I will make proposals in due course.
In regard to the particular issues in front of us now, as previously announced I have accepted the advice to keep methyl amphetamine as a class B drug, although this is subject to a review reporting later this year. Similarly, I have accepted the council's advice not to classify khat as a controlled drug. I can today announce that I have also asked the advisory council to report on the classification of so called date rape drugs, including GHB and Rohypnol.
On cannabis, I have considered very carefully the advice that I have received from many sources. I am influenced by data on levels of use of the drug and evidence that cannabis use had fallen among 16 to 24-year-olds from 28 per cent. in 1998 to 24 per cent. last year. The preliminary assessment is that, contrary to my personal expectation, reclassification has not led to an increase in use. Moreover, I accept the view of the advisory council that further research on the mental health implications is needed before any decision to reclassify is made.
While I shall keep this matter under close review in the light of the factors that I have mentioned, I have decided to accept the advisory council's recommendation, which is supported by the police and by most drug and mental health charities, to keep the current classification of cannabis. Everyone needs to understand that cannabis is harmful and illegal. Our education and health campaigns will clearly transmit that message. Police operations will target the producers and dealers so that the consumption of cannabis will be significantly reduced. I hope that the Government will have the support of the whole House in seeking that outcome.
I thank the Home Secretary for the courtesy of allowing me advance notice of his statement. It would have been helpful, however, if he had given the House some hours to read the report before this brief discussion. Despite that, in the past year or so there have been plenty of authoritative judgments and many new facts on which to base our judgment today.
Before I deal with the substantive case, may I welcome the Home Secretary's proposed education and other campaigns designed to cut down the consumption of cannabis? I would be interested in talking to him at some length about his proposals for the new classification scheme, which is extremely important, as will become apparent later.
The action that the Home Secretary has taken today, or talked about taking, will not by itself be enough. I am disappointed that, in the light of all the new evidence available, he has not decided to grasp the nettle and reclassify cannabis back to class B. The ongoing confused message will lead some, as it has done already, to continue thinking that cannabis is a soft, safe drug and that it is legal. It will mean that many more young lives will be damaged by the pernicious trade, as he described it, in this dangerous drug.
It was a brave decision by the Home Secretary to initiate a review of this policy. It is always tough to admit that a mistake might have been made. In the past, his views on the matter have been clear. He said that the relaxation of the laws on cannabis—I think that he alluded to this in his statement—would be
"bad for the people concerned and bad for society".
He is correct. In March 2000, he said that
"the most likely impact of a relaxation in the law in any of these areas would be to increase consumption of those drugs".
He denies that today, but I think that he was right first time round. I will explain why shortly. He also said:
"If we send any signal whatsoever which suggests that taking drugs is an acceptable way of proceeding I think we'll see consumption go up"—[Interruption.]
We will return to that matter. He also said that weakening controls on cannabis would send a signal that taking drugs is okay.
The Home Secretary might say, "So what? If the evidence changes, you change your mind", and I agree with that principle in general. The thrust of the evidence and leading opinion, however, is in the other direction. It shows that reclassification to class C was a mistake. From the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to the British Medical Association, to specialists in drug rehabilitation, to working police officers, we hear that the policy was a failure.
The British Medical Association has said that reclassification sent out "all the wrong messages" to people thinking of experimenting with cannabis, and that reclassification would lead people to believe that it was "safe". Keith Hellawell, the Government's ex-drugs tsar, said that reclassification led to "euphoria amongst drug dealers". That is because
"the perception now . . . is that the Government doesn't care about personal possession of cannabis".
The Police Federation chairman, Jan Berry, said:
"Many users who progress to hard drugs admit they started on cannabis. I am deeply worried that many people will see the reclassification of cannabis"— downwards—
"as decriminalisation and we will see a rise in the number of users finding themselves drawn into a life of drugs and crime".
We know that the use of cannabis is a gateway to hard drugs. Research shows that regular cannabis users have a 59 per cent. higher chance of using other illegal drugs Most tellingly, new medical evidence has shown the serious harm that cannabis can do. To be fair to the Home Secretary, he referred to that. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says that there is now a "wealth of research evidence" linking cannabis to long-term mental disorders and violence. Professor Hamid Ghodse, a director of the college, said that as a result of the new evidence:
"Some countries with a more liberal policy towards cannabis, such as Holland, are reviewing their position. Governments need to take a strong stance towards cannabis abuse."
We now know that cannabis can cause psychosis. Professor Murray at King's college hospital in London has said that smoking cannabis raises the risk of psychosis by two to four times. People who used cannabis in their teens were up to seven times more likely to develop psychosis, delusional episodes or manic depression. The incidence of schizophrenia in that doctor's area of London has doubled, which means 50,000 people developing schizophrenia who would not otherwise have done so.
That new evidence demonstrates all too clearly the huge psychiatric damage, let alone the other physical damage, that cannabis does. That can only be expected to get worse, as modern cannabis varieties contain many times more psychoactive ingredients than cannabis of 10 or 20 years ago. As a result, modern cannabis does more harm than the older varieties. Professor Peter Jones of Cambridge university has said that first-contact schizophrenic services in the NHS were becoming cannabis dependency services.It is therefore clear that on the ground of medical risk alone, reclassification to B is justified.
That leaves us—the Home Secretary has a fair point—with a practical judgment as to what classification will do most to cut consumption of cannabis. That is undoubtedly hard to assess, but the best measure is perhaps the "Lambeth experiment" in cannabis liberalisation. The Prime Minister described that as,
"undoubtedly, in statistical terms, a success."
Let us consider the statistics. Incidents of drug trafficking rose by 100 per cent. and total drugs offences rose by nearly 200 per cent. It did save the time of two full-time police officers, but Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Michael Fuller said that the increase in hard drug offences
"would negate any time saved through reclassification of cannabis, as the service would have to devote significant resources to enforce the law."
He said that his school officers reported that
"the police are sending mixed messages to young people, by on the one hand trying to deter young people from abusing and experimenting with drugs and yet appearing hypocritical by not strictly enforcing the drug laws".
Chief Superintendent Simon Humphreys of the Met said:
"There is a feeling that it contributed to confusion and cannabis is being used more."
That assessment was supported by a Police Federation official who said that the
"number of drug users within the area since the start of the initiative has increased dramatically and the real beneficiaries are the influx of drug dealers to the area."
The Home Secretary has said that
"people do not understand the impact of the consumption of cannabis well enough and what the legal consequences of consuming cannabis are."
He was making a virtue of the fact that 24 per cent. of 16 to 24-year-olds took cannabis last year—those are the ones that we know about. That makes us the cannabis capital of Europe. In recent weeks, he has said:
"the precautionary principle is an appropriate one."
He told The Times that he was
"very struck by the advocacy of a number of people who have been proposers of the reclassification of cannabis that they were wrong."
There are good reasons for that—good medical reasons, good public health reasons and good public order reasons.
The Home Secretary took a brave decision when he initiated the policy review. I admit that. He created an opportunity to protect or rescue thousands of young lives from harm by reclassifying cannabis as the very harmful and dangerous drug that it is. The fact that he has not followed through and taken the new evidence into account is a missed opportunity for him but, more importantly, a tragedy for many thousands of lives.
There are four matters to which I need to respond. First, I hope that David Davis will continue to make it clear in every public statement that he makes that the consumption of cannabis is illegal—not a soft, easy option or whatever. I agree with him that there are confusions and I have tried to set out a process to deal with those. It is therefore important that public leaders, such as me and him, work together constantly to convey the message that cannabis consumption is illegal, with a potential two-year sentence in all respects. I am sure that he will do that—indeed, I am delighted that he will do so. I welcome his welcome of the review of the classification system and I will talk to him about it as he requested.
Secondly, evidence must be the core of what we do in this area—evidence of consumption and evidence of mental health and other health implications, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. That is why I said in my statement that we will continue to review the matter on the basis of evidence as it evolves over time. I am certain that that is the right course to follow. Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman made a large number of statements, with which I agreed entirely, about the dangers of the use of cannabis. I think that he was signing up to the proposition that the central aim of our policy ought to be to reduce the use of cannabis by whatever means, with which I agree 100 per cent.Finally, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the wide range of opinion that exists in the advisory council, among police and among drug and health charities. We must, however, make a balanced judgment.
As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, there is also a wide range of opinion in his party. As is shown in the Home Affairs Committee's report of 2001–02, the Leader of the Opposition—the current Leader of the Opposition, unfortunately; I wish that it had been the right hon. Gentleman—voted in favour of the then Home Secretary's proposal to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug. He has said that that was the case. Nine Members voted in the Division, and the Leader of the Opposition voted as he did. Extraordinarily, there was then a Division in Committee on an amendment containing the words
"we wish to go further, and recommend it should be legalised."
Indeed, my hon. Friend features on the Division list, having voted as he did. Strangely, the nine Members became eight at that stage. My hon. Friend and another colleague voted for legalisation; everyone else voted against it. However, the Leader of the Opposition was absent for the vote on legalisation— [Interruption.] I am illustrating the wide range of opinion that exists. I hope that we can all agree that reduction in cannabis use is the key element that must be tackled.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and in particular his review of the classification system. Although the advisory committee has a broad membership, it seems to be more reliable when it comes to the clinical impact of drugs. Classification must take into account much wider questions of how particular drugs are used, links—or otherwise—with crime, whether there are ways in which young people are especially vulnerable, and so on. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to produce a system that will ensure that Ministers are advised not just on the clinical issues, but on all the broader factors that my right hon. Friend, like his predecessors and successors, must take into account.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why I made my decision. Clinical, medical harm is the advisory council's predominant consideration, contrary to what was said by David Davis, but there are also harmful implications for society more widely in the case of particular drugs, whether they relate—as my right hon. Friend suggests—to organised crime or to general social factors. The signals that emerge from the classifications A, B and C can be very confused, so it is important to re-examine the position. I do not think that I am betraying a confidence in saying that Sir Michael Rawlings, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has welcomed my decision. I believe that that is because the council's members know that getting the classification system right is key to reducing the use of dangerous drugs, which I am determined to do.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving notice of his statement. The Liberal Democrats strongly welcome his decision not to reclassify cannabis. It was a difficult decision, and I know that the Home Secretary did not take it lightly. I am encouraged by the fact that it was taken on the basis of evidence rather than political pressure. The Home Secretary is also right to point out that the drug remains harmful, and the Liberal Democrats will strongly support a new education campaign to make that clear. Does the Home Secretary agree that that campaign must emphasise not just the mental damage but the physical damage involved in the taking of cannabis? Does he also agree, however, that it must not fuel hysteria over issues related to cannabis? That would do little to instil trust in people who are receiving information from the Government on critical issues to do with drugs.
May I warn the Home Secretary against allowing police resources to be spent too heavily on cannabis that is grown for personal use? Will he ensure that they are directed more against organised criminals who are involved in drug dealing? In particular, he must now deliver on his promise to refocus police resources more on class A drugs. That, surely, is where the priority must lie.
I welcome elements of what the hon. Gentleman said. He is right to say that the education campaign—I welcome his support for it—must be founded on a hard-hearted and evidential approach based on, for example, the mental health implications, rather than an hysterical approach. [Interruption.] I accept the correction: I should have said "hard-headed" rather than "hard-hearted".
I do not accept, however, that police resources should not be focused on this area, although the hon. Gentleman is right to point out the dangers of class A drugs. As I said in my statement, I think that the police would accept that what has happened in the past can be interpreted as suggesting that they should not give priority to dealing with cannabis, but I do not accept that, and neither does ACPO. That is why we have an ACPO campaign aimed at the dealing, growing and production of cannabis. I think it very important for that campaign to proceed alongside the education campaign.
Let me finally say something with all directness to the Liberal Democrats who, I am sad to learn, will not now be led by Mr. Oaten. They have a confused position on drugs, which was exposed in a variety of ways during the election campaign. I honestly and sincerely ask the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to come out and say clearly that consumption of cannabis is wrong and that we must drive it down by all possible means. They must not equivocate on policies surrounding that; they must get up front and campaign with all the rest of us to reduce cannabis use.
May I point out that the only Conservative member of the Home Affairs Committee who voted against the reclassification when we met on
Our report stated that some 44 per cent. of people had taken the drug at some point in their lives. I deplore that. I wish that people would not start taking drugs of any kind. We do not want our children to do so, and I hope that we can send a message throughout the country about how dangerous it is to start taking drugs. However, our report also pointed out that 120,000 deaths had been caused in one year alone by smoking, and that thousands of avoidable deaths were caused each year by alcohol abuse. Those drugs are all of a kind. We should deplore excessive use of alcohol and excessive smoking, as well as use of the ordinary drugs to which my right hon. Friend has referred.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, but I hope he agrees that, as I said in my statement, the goal of Government policy should be to reduce consumption of all drugs, legal or illegal. That should be the test. Our measures on smoking in public places, on taxation of alcohol consumption and on advertising the effects of consumption are right and in accordance with that. Our criteria must be based on how we drive down consumption of cannabis in the same context. I believe that my statement set out, in a direct and effective fashion, ways of accelerating the reduction of cannabis consumption. We need to do the same in respect of other drugs.
I must say that I was disappointed by the statement, although I welcomed much of it. It is, of course, appalling that the use of cannabis continues. The figures that the Home Secretary gave in relation to use were very flawed, however. If he talks to those on the ground who are taking children off drugs, as we do in the Centre for Social Justice, they will tell him that the police no longer stop people who are using cannabis. They have lost all track of how many people actually use it on the ground. In their view, cannabis use has become worse on the ground and is now more dangerous. It is a question not just of psychosis and mental illness, but of massive behavioural problems, more bullying in schools, the theft of telephones and the beating up of children after they leave school. All that has increased.
May I urge the Home Secretary to rethink and to reclassify? If he is now to examine the classification process, may I urge him to look at Sweden, which has dispensed with different classifications? It applies a single classification, which means that all drugs are bad and that people are in trouble if they use them.
That was a helpful question. Yes, I will look at Sweden, which is always a model for social democrats.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point when he mentioned bullying. He was right to say that bullying, in and outside school, drives many people into consumption of the drug. That is why, in my statement, I spoke of the need to urge young people to have the courage to stand up for themselves in such circumstances.
I will, of course, look at the research that the Centre for Social Justice has carried out on consumption and various other issues, but when the right hon. Gentleman referred to police strategies he put his finger on an important point that is not always understood in these discussions. He is right to say that there has to be a question mark over police strategies in terms of focusing on this area, and the reclassification decision some years ago did not help that process. That is why, as I said in my statement, I have discussed precisely that question with ACPO. We must have a police strategy that says that we will pursue those who consume illegal drugs, and that means cannabis. That is why I did not agree with the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman a moment ago. I think we all agree that the key issue to target, other than education, is ensuring that an effective police strategy is in place, so that the police address the issue in communities throughout the country.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, it is the police work on the ground that is key to combating drug-related crime. So will he join me in welcoming Inspector Trevor Durham and his team from Clay Cross, who are visiting Brixton police colleagues today to hear about the no deal programme on cannabis? Will my right hon. Friend also join me in encouraging more imaginative best practice sharing?
I certainly will welcome my hon. Friend's police colleagues. She has briefed me on that exchange visit. It fits in entirely with the point that I made to David Davis earlier: that we have to improve our police work in these areas. The community policing in places such as Clay Cross, Holmewood, North Wingfield and Grassmoor is important from that point of view.
Had the previous Home Secretary not declassified cannabis, there is no way that the evidence that the Home Secretary has courageously given the House today would have justified his announcing such a declassification today. He has said that he has an open mind. Will he ensure that a priority for his research programme will be to research the use of cannabis by the young people to whom my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith referred? His experience is the same as that of every constituency represented in the House: this is destroying young people's lives, but they are unlikely to respond to the police. We are losing street-worker programmes through a lack of funding and we need to reinstate them. I hope that the Home Secretary will have a conversation with me about how to tackle that matter, because unless we can get those young people to co-operate, their lives will be ruined.
I am happy to have a conversation with the hon. Gentleman about those matters and I respect his own police experience, which informs the way he looks at some of these questions. I agree that the question of police strategy is critical. Our neighbourhood policing strategy and police teams in every locality are important means of tackling that. It is critical to focus on the very large numbers of people who are consuming the drug, and I hope that the ACPO strategy, which will be published in due course, is able to do that.
Should we not take advantage of the Leader of the Opposition's intelligent and progressive views on drugs in order to achieve a consensus and look at what we are doing today, which is based on evidence? What has happened? There were dire warnings that reclassification would lead to an increase in cannabis. It has not. Why do we not look to Portugal, Holland, Australia and other countries and see what the practical outcomes are? This country had 30 years of harsh penalties, followed by even harsher penalties, and has ended up with greater drug use and drug problems than any other country. Why cannot we have a royal commission, or look again at the balanced views of the Health Committee? Of course, I welcome the report and the health campaign, so long as it is balanced with a campaign against the dreadful harm caused by alcohol, tobacco and medicinal drugs.
I agree with my hon. Friend that one needs to proceed on the basis of evidence. We have sometimes argued about what the evidence tells us, but that is part of the general discussion. Sometimes the battle between alcohol and tobacco, and cannabis is not constructive for the discussion. As I have said, our approach should always be to reduce consumption of all drugs and to work in that way. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the conversation between my hon. Friend and the Leader of the Opposition about how their approaches to legalisation could inform the whole House. That might be an unholy alliance, but nevertheless an interesting and constructive one.
How can we take the Home Secretary seriously when we know that his Department turns a blind eye to the increasingly widespread use of cannabis inside prisons by convicted prisoners and prison staff?
The hon. Gentleman's statement is entirely untrue. It is not the case that a blind eye is turned. It is the case that throughout our prison system there are major programmes to reduce drug abuse. What I do say, and I conceded it in my statement earlier, is that we need a renewed focus against cannabis use of all kinds from the police and elsewhere. That is what I have announced today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his response to the advisory council today. With more than 9 million people admitting to taking the drug at some time and about 10 per cent. saying that they have taken it in the past year, it appears to me that the classification status is not the issue. Will he confirm that the greatest risk on mental health grounds is to young people, and will he ensure that a comprehensive programme on healthy living, reduction and avoidance of all harms be made available in our primary schools, where it is most necessary, so that young children do not indulge in temptation?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I am announcing today joint work with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in relation to schools and with the Secretary of State for Health in relation to the public health White Paper to focus on precisely the young people whom my hon. Friend identifies.
I, too, welcome the review of classification. Some of us have been advocating that for years. Will the Secretary of State assure me that any new system will highlight the relative dangers of different drugs and, most importantly, be credible and realistic, especially for young people?
I am surprised to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Clarity is the most important thing. One of the biggest criticisms of the current classification system is that it does not illuminate debate and understanding among the young people who are affected by it. That is one of the reasons that I have decided to undertake an examination of this matter. It is unfortunate, although I understand why it happens, that all debate around the question is on the classification issue. A more important debate is the education programme, the health programme, policing and those other points.
The fact is that tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the drug and, furthermore, there are more than 20 varieties of the cannabis plant, from hemp, which contains 0 per cent. THC, to skunk, which contains very high quantities of THC. I welcome my right hon. Friend's attempts to re-engage young people in the education debate, but would he give them the correct facts, so that they can avoid skunk, if and when—hopefully not—they choose to buy cannabis on the street?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I pay tribute to his scientific work to try to get those issues across. Drugs education in schools is far more sophisticated than it used to be. For example, some of the software packages, which I know he is aware of, draw out the point that he has made. However, he is right to say that we must focus on real understanding. That is what our education programme will do.
The initial report of the advisory council said that cannabis was harmful, and I was amazed that it came up with the recommendation that it did. It has now published another report that says that it is hugely damaging and come up with the wrong conclusion yet again. What is the compelling evidence against reclassification back to B? If the Home Secretary is looking for clarity and wants to send the right signals to young people, surely the best way of doing that is by reclassifying the drug as a class B drug.
I support the Home Secretary's advertising campaign to get across the message about how damaging cannabis can be. It is not a soft drug; it is very harmful and damaging—the new psychiatric evidence shows what cannabis can do. How much will he spend on advertising how harmful cannabis is? As he will remember, when he reclassified initially, he had to spend £1 million to get the message across that cannabis was still illegal. How much will he spend this time?
I cannot give the House the figure at this moment, but we have a very substantial advertising spend already in this area, and the point about working with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Health is that it brings in increased resources. The reason why the advisory council recommended class C rather than classes A or B is that it went through precisely the process that my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon identified, of trying to examine the medical harm of particular forms of drugs, all of which are illegal, and all of which do harm. It gave a scientific assessment, and I have to take serious account of that—which is what I have done. However, as I said in answer to an earlier question, I do not think that medical harm is the only consideration; there is also harm to society and a range of other questions. That is why I believe that we need to reconsider the classification system. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is sometimes confusion in the messages that emerge. We need a system that does not confuse, but gives clarity.
Grown-up Governments genuinely try to reduce the harm from dangerous drugs, and I welcome my right hon. Friend's reference to drugs such as Rohypnol, which are of increasing concern to women. Will he elaborate on what he said earlier and tell us exactly how and when women will be able to feel much more protected from those dangerous drugs, which they fear so much?
My hon. Friend is correct. I have been very concerned, and I have seen many cases myself, as I am sure many other Members have, of truly appalling crimes committed as a result of date-rape drugs, including the one that she mentioned. That is why I took the view that it is necessary to understand more effectively the harm that drugs do, and to get them better located. To be candid, I think that there has sometimes been a culture of denial of the effect of those drugs, and those crimes, in certain areas. We need to change that by being completely up-front, to examine the classifications and to say that we will deal with all the harms—and I hope that we can succeed in doing that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that his disappointing and confusing refusal to reclassify cannabis today will lead to an increase in the need for rehabilitation places for users of class A drugs, because cannabis is a stepping-stone drug?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is expressing the confusion that I have referred to throughout this discussion. What has the impact that he described on the use of class A drugs is the number of people who use cannabis. The key question is how best to reduce the use of cannabis. The subsidiary question is: what role does classification, as opposed to education, health and policing campaigns and so on, play in that? In this statement I have tried to convey what I think is the true point: that the range of attacks on cannabis consumption needs to be enhanced. I have set out a number of means of doing that, and that should be our priority.
Is it not obvious that the Home Secretary is deeply uncomfortable with the statement that he has made, and that if he had been Home Secretary when the decision to reclassify was taken, he would not have made the decision that his predecessor did? Is it not also obvious that he has secured some sort of deal with his colleagues in the Cabinet that, in return for taking the decision not to upgrade the classification again, he can try to get round the problem by addressing the whole issue of classification? He is a loyal team player, but he is letting down the people who ought to be able to depend on him to say what he really believes.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's education policies about the dangers of cannabis, but there is a much better way to get a clearer message across—and that is reclassification. We promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. The best way to do that would be to reclassify. Let us have a free vote in the House, and let Members decide the policy.
I am, of course, grateful for my hon. Friend's comments on this question. I hope that he will agree—although he may not—that education, health, policing, the attack on dealing and on growing and production, and the classification system all go side by side in this debate. We may disagree about classification, but I hope that he will accept that we have an overall strategy across the whole range.
The Secretary of State will know that most schools have a policy whereby if cannabis is found on students on school premises, that normally results in an immediate and permanent exclusion. Yet the police are usually involved, and they often only caution the person. Most parents believe that the draconian penalty exacted by the school has a far greater effect on the child than the caution by the police. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to examine the guidance both for schools and for the police, so that when pupils are found with cannabis on school premises, there is a logical penalty somewhere between those two extremes?
There are two points to make. The first is that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, since
The Hemp Embassy in Nimbin, Australia is the spiritual home of the legalise cannabis campaign, and it has said that there is a particular problem with home-grown cannabis. Can the Home Secretary assure the House that he will take exactly the opposite approach to that suggested by the Liberal Democrats towards the policing issues with home-grown cannabis?
My hon. Friend is correct. That is why I have focused on policing strategies, because those relationships are so important. My hon. Friend has a strong and distinguished record in examining the issue of drug abuse, particularly in working-class communities, and I take his advice seriously. I think that it is important to refocus the policing issue, so as to hit the problem precisely as he describes.
I welcome the Home Secretary's acknowledgment of the links between mental illness and cannabis use, but I am disappointed that he does not find that evidence alone sufficient to reclassify it to class B. When he is undertaking his review of the general classification of drugs, may I urge him to give real weight to the gateway properties of cannabis, and the fact that it leads so many users on to hard drugs?
I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. She has a distinguished record of contribution to this debate, and she is right to point out that relationship. I only hope that she can persuade the leader of her party of the merits of her approach.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle on reclassification, but there are many good things in my right hon. Friend's statement that are pleasing to my constituents and me. Health and education are devolved matters in the devolved Administrations, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that any good health and education initiatives that come out of this for England and Wales are taken care of in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as well?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his strong campaigning on these issues over a considerable period. Yes, I can give him the assurance that he seeks. I had a meeting earlier this week with the First Minister, discussing ways of improving our co-operation, and this is one of those matters on which co-operation can bring mutual benefits.
I welcome the Secretary of State's proposals, particularly on education and on targeting supply. I especially welcome his forceful comments on the dangerous links with mental health, because such comments were certainly not forthcoming at the time of reclassification by his predecessor, despite the emerging evidence. Why, however, did the advisory council call for evidence from only one mental health charity? On
"The thing that worries me most is confusion among the punters about what the legal status of cannabis is".
Would not the best way of combating that confusion be to admit that his predecessor was wrong to reclassify, and to reverse that decision now while his review is going on, thereby sending out a strong message to everybody, "There is no confusion: cannabis is bad"?
It was for the advisory council to decide how to conduct its evidence taking and consideration of the issues. It is an independent body—rightly so—so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's first question. On his second question, I think that I have dealt with the issues that he raised, but I want to emphasise to the House the importance of evidence and research on this subject. That is why I have announced today that we will conduct significantly more research, especially into the relationship with mental health.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on accepting the advisory council's recommendations and on basing his decisions on the evidence, rather than on knee-jerk reactions. If it leads to more objective policies to achieve our aim of reducing drug use, I also welcome the review. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Rethink, formerly known as the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, which has long campaigned for us to recognise the psychosis-inducing dangers of cannabis, that an adequately resourced health education campaign—particularly one targeted at school-age children and people in contact with mental health services—and better health care will do more to reduce cannabis use than will dragging thousands more people through the courts?
Without judging whether such a campaign would do more or less in that regard, I certainly agree that it would do a great deal, which is why we need to focus effort there. I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend Caroline Flint, who has put resources into health education for precisely the reasons that my hon. Friend suggests.
I sense that the Home Secretary is somewhat torn on this issue, so may I emphasise the point made by my right hon. Friend David Davis and several others? One key difference and a very important point to be made in this debate is that the cannabis available on the street today, such as skunk, is much more powerful and dangerous than that which was available 10 or 15 years ago. Does he accept that there is an inherent contradiction between announcing a set of measures that are supposed to combat antisocial behaviour, and announcing just over a week later the decision to refuse to reclassify a drug that is behind so much of that behaviour? It makes no sense.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a very sensitive flower, so I appreciate his concern for my sensitivities. I commend to him the advisory council's report, which looks carefully at the very point that he makes about the trend in cannabis strength over time. This is a critically important issue in terms of scientific research, and if he reads the report he will see that one reason why the advisory council recommends that more work be done on it is that it is difficult to do good scientific work on understanding the strength of cannabis on the street in different areas. The advisory council focuses on that point, and it is precisely the reason why we need to do the research that I announced.
May I, too, welcome the tone of my right hon. Friend's statement, which rejects the moral outrage that we hear from Opposition Members and insists on an evidence-based approach? Frankly, our education programme will be credible and will work only if people accept the basis on which it is formed. Like others, I have a lot more faith in giving young people credible messages through an education programme than I do in criminalising a generation of people who do not believe that criminalisation will deter them, or their peer group, from using cannabis.
I understand that point, but I do think it very important to make it clear that cannabis is an illegal drug that carries, potentially, a two-year penalty. I know that there are those who argue—I should be interested to hear my hon. Friend's view—that that penalty should be removed and that cannabis should be legalised. The Leader of the Opposition has wavered and flip-flopped on the question of which view to adopt, but I am of the view that we should not legalise. Rather, we should ensure, in precisely the way that my hon. Friend says, that people understand the consequences of their decision to consume cannabis.
Is it not true that if we reclassified cannabis, we could spend more time debating and focusing on education and health and proper treatment? The decision not to reclassify shows a profound misunderstanding of what I, as a criminal solicitor, have seen happening on the ground over many years. There is inconsistency and chaos in the approach taken by the police in deciding whether to arrest cannabis users, and in the approach taken by divisions such as Enfield and Haringey. If and when such cases ever do get court, there are profound differences in the ways in which magistrates deal with them. Is there not a profound misunderstanding of the effect of cannabis on young people, which I have witnessed over many years? Cannabis abuse has led to many broken lives, and today's decision will not deal properly with the problem. Many such people now litter Pentonville and Chase Farm mental health unit. Will not today's decision be a profound disappointment to all those families who want the message to be sent out that cannabis is illegal and has a serious effect?
That, of course, is precisely the message that I am trying to send, and I hope that all Members of the House will support the Government in doing just that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to review the whole drug classification system, which is confusing. I also welcome the fact that he takes the issue of cannabis seriously and appreciates that it is a dangerous drug; there are Members of this House who do not appear to appreciate its dangers. I further welcome his education programme, which will prove important for young people, but does he not realise that the failure to reclassify could send out confusing signals and undermine his education programme?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. She has put her finger on precisely the issue that I found most difficult in reaching a view on these matters. I am conscious of her point about sending out signals, and dealing with that is a real issue; but I came to the view, which I of course defend, that we need to look at the situation in the round and to re-examine the classification system. I repeat that I was worried about precisely the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I believe that today's proposals and the message that we are sending are clear and unequivocal.