Cannabis Use: State of the Law

– in the House of Lords at 2:44 pm on 18th October 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 2:44 pm, 18th October 2000

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to decriminalise the possession and use of cannabis.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, cannabis is a controlled drug for good scientific reasons and research on its impact on health is still coming forward. Noble Lords may have seen reports this week of a study sponsored by the US Government's National Institute on Drug Abuse which has shown that the addictive effect on laboratory animals of cannabis's psychoactive ingredient, THC, is similar to cocaine. Decriminalising the possession and use of cannabis would be irresponsible. The Government have a firm and consistent view about the harm that drugs do and are opposed to any lessening of the controls on currently illicit drugs.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, I should be even more grateful if he could give some indication of the extent to which this invasive weed has entered our society. For example, how many regular users are there of this substance--sometimes known as the "weed of wisdom"? What is the annual value of sales on the street? It is not so much a question of damage that may be done to the individual, but of the damage that the individual may do to society in terms of road accidents, industrial accidents or theft. I should be grateful if the Minister could remove some of the smoky haze that clouds this issue.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I am able to help the noble Lord in one or two respects. It is reckoned that about 1½ million will have used cannabis in the past month, compared to 42 million alcohol users and 12 million tobacco smokers. A House of Commons research paper on the impact on the health services indicated an estimated annual cost of somewhere in the region of £137 million in terms of addiction treatment and rehabilitation costs. Those indications begin to explain the root cause of our policy thinking--which is to take a firm view against the legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the report issue by the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse. Did he read also the letter in Monday's Times from a consultant psychiatrist, Stephanie Sadler, who said that the difficulty faced by psychiatrists throughout the country is managing the results of psychosis and the irrational behaviour caused by cannabis use? Does he agree that, in the face of such evidence, any relaxation in the law relating to cannabis would be utter folly?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I did not read that piece of correspondence, although I am familiar with the information contained in it. This morning, on opening my local daily newspaper, I read the headline:

"Cannabis addiction has wrecked my son".

The story relates to Mr Matthew Lancaster, from Portslade in Hove. His mother claims, understandably, that cannabis addiction reduced her son to being barely recognisable by the age of 25 and turned him into a schizophrenic who suffered psychotic tendencies and hallucinations. That firmly underlines the problems that could arise if we were to set out on a course of decriminalisation and legalisation, as some are now urging us to do.

Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a distinction to be drawn between decriminalising cannabis across the board and permitting its use on medical grounds, particularly for MS sufferers? Would the Government be prepared to consider the latter, even if they are not yet ready to consider the former?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, there is an important distinction to be made. For that reason, the Government have authorised clinical trials. My understanding is that one of the companies involved in the trials, GW Pharmaceuticals, envisages that if its trials are successful a licence application for the medical use of a cannabis derivative could be made as early as late 2002. So we do draw that distinction. We understand that there may well be some medical benefits. But our approach must be science led. That is the way forward in this matter, so that the greatest benefit can be achieved from any potential medical use of cannabis.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Drug and Alcohol Foundation; chairman of the Addiction Recovery Foundation; and a board member of the Mentor Foundation, which I believe is the largest international drug prevention organisation in the world, an organisation which is non-governmental; and vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drugs Misuse. Is the Minister aware that, although cannabis is an addictive and dangerous drug, it is not all that addictive and not all that dangerous? It ranks rather low in the list of dangerous things in this world.

Does the Minister realise that most people in this country are now aware of one thing--which I hope this Government and, indeed, my noble friends on this Front Bench are aware of--namely, that whether or not we legalise cannabis, the reality is that policies of this Government and of the previous government and those pursued in the past, concentrating, as they have, on dealing with what is, as the noble Lord said, a health and social problem through the criminal justice system, have produced no results at all and have led to a massive increase in drug use? That does not appear in any way at all to be to the advantage of the voters who put this and previous governments in place.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his important contribution. However, it would be a foolish government--would it not?--who ignored the health impact of a drug like cannabis. That is why we have a science-based approach and why we believe it is absolutely right to advise, warn and inform people of the potential health risks. Yes, the noble Lord is right to say that it may well be a drug that is less addictive than other drugs; nonetheless, it is addictive. We need to warn people of that risk.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

We have had three Tory questions--

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, perhaps we may hear the noble Lord, Lord McNally, first, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Cope.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, before the Minister cites Harold Wilson's belief that Royal Commissions take minutes and sit for years, does he not consider that if successive governments had followed the Liberal Democrats in calling for a Royal Commission almost a decade ago we might have had the basis for a considered discussion? It really is sad when we are apparently still making policy on the basis of the Brighton Evening Argus rather than on considered studies of the question. Even at this late stage, I think the Government should consider setting up a Royal Commission instead of listening to confessional politics from the Conservative Front Bench or reading articles in the Brighton Evening Argus.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I have to defend the Brighton Evening Argus. It is my evening newspaper; and a jolly fine one too! The noble Lord is right to say that we should perhaps keep clear of the confessional approach and making policy on the hoof; that is not at all wise. However, the Government do not have any plans to set up a Royal Commission on the matter. As I said, we believe that this debate should be science led. That is how we intend to proceed, and that is certainly how we shall deal with some of the medical issues involved. We also have important institutions like the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which has done a splendid job in this regard. We believe that we should listen to its advice and keep such matters carefully under review, as, indeed, we do with all our policies.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister recall, as the Liberal Democrat Front Bench evidently does not, that this matter was looked into by the Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships' House? The committee concluded that the harmful effects were as stated by the Minister and that the recreational use of cannabis should continue to be controlled. The fact that cannabinoids might prove to have value in the therapeutic field does not mean that that should affect decisions on the so-called "recreational use" of drugs. After all, there are many medicines that are extremely dangerous when taken by the wrong people or in the wrong circumstances.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, all I can do is agree with the noble Lord.