Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003

– in the House of Lords at 8:11 pm on 12th November 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House approve the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003, which will reclassify cannabis to a class C drug on 29th January 2004.

I note the concern that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has expressed in his amendment about the levels of use of cannabis and the risks to the health of young people. I will come to those very important issues shortly, but I first wish to set the proposed reclassification of cannabis in its proper context.

The misery that can be caused by the use of illegal drugs, particularly class A drugs, cannot be underestimated. Their use affects the well-being of individuals and families, as well as striking at the very fabric of communities, feeding a cycle of crime, violence and decay. The Government's drug strategy must deliver real change on the ground in relation to the most dangerous drugs and the most damaged communities. Key elements of the strategy are educating young people about the dangers of drugs, preventing drug misuse, combating the dealers and treating addicts.

Our programme of interventions brings those arrested into treatment, so breaking the cycle of committing crime to fuel a drug habit. The Government are increasing their direct annual expenditure on tackling drugs from just over £1 billion this financial year to nearly £1.5 billion from April 2005—an increase of some 44 per cent.

Young people are our highest priority. We have launched the Frank campaign, using carefully researched advertising designed to make a real difference to young people's attitudes to illegal drugs—drugs can ruin lives very quickly. Education policies are now in force in 96 per cent of all secondary schools. We must recognise that there are no quick or easy fixes to the scourge of drugs. However, we are taking action based on evidence of what works, and, to be effective, we need to be honest in our approach and listen carefully to the scientific advice that we get, and not be led by prejudice or emotion.

It was those underlying themes that led 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. Cannabis use has increased steadily over the past 30 years, in spite of cannabis being a class B drug. The treatment of all drugs as equally harmful has lacked credibility with young people, and individual police forces have put in place their own disparate policies on the policing of cannabis possession, leading to inconsistency and a lack of proper political accountability.

The Government's proposal to reclassify cannabis to class C, in line with the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, will enable us to correct these anomalies. But let me make it absolutely clear that we are not legalising cannabis. Our message is that cannabis is harmful and it will remain an illegal drug. However, in terms of its harmfulness, the advisory council is clear in its view that cannabis is not comparable either with class A drugs, such as crack cocaine or heroin, or with other substances, such as amphetamines, which are currently in class B. Our drugs laws and our education messages to young people must reflect that scientific assessment if they are to be effective and credible. So the reclassification of cannabis will help the Government to convey a more effective and credible message, especially to young people, about the dangers of misusing drugs.

We will start an education campaign in early January to get the simple message across to young people that cannabis remains illegal and is harmful, by making a leaflet widely available to young people and through extensive radio advertising. To answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, directly: the Government do not accept that a high level of use of cannabis is inevitable. We will try to make an impact on that level through effective advertising, and begin to turn young people away from becoming regular cannabis users.

Secondly, reclassification will provide an opportunity for putting in place a consistent and properly thought out regime for policing cannabis, in line with its status as a class C drug. We have included proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to retain the power of arrest for the possession of cannabis. Under the published police guidance, which applies to all persons 18 years of age and over, there will be a presumption against arresting a person who is found in possession of cannabis. But a police officer may arrest in the following four circumstances: when a person is smoking in public view; when a person is known locally to have been dealt with repeatedly 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.

Young people under the age of 18 will be dealt with under the statutory warning scheme set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. In most cases, they will receive a formal reprimand for a first instance of cannabis possession. This will be administered in the police station, so that the police can properly investigate whether there are any underlying issues around the person's drug use which need be to investigated and possibly referred for appropriate help. This overall regime for policing cannabis possession will ensure that action is properly taken by the police against someone who is causing a problem or needs help, while avoiding needlessly criminalising large numbers of young people.

Reclassification will also enable the police to redeploy their resources into tackling more serious offences, including dealing in class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, which do the most harm to users, their families and communities, as well as enhancing our work to get people into treatment.

Perhaps I may say something about dealers. The Government take dealing in any illegal drug very seriously. We have therefore brought forward proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to increase the maximum penalty for dealing in a class C drug from five to 14 years imprisonment. That will mean that, following reclassification, the penalty for dealing in cannabis will remain at its current level. The courts will continue to be able to impose tough sentences on serious dealers.

In this House, there are many different views about the correct response to cannabis. I know that some noble Lords advocate complete legalisation, arguing that that would cut the link between young users and criminal dealers. The Government respect that view, but believe that it would inevitably lead to a massive increase in the use of cannabis and the health problems that would result. Cannabis is harmful. In our view, it would be highly irresponsible for any Government to gamble in that way with young people's health.

Other noble Lords believe that cannabis should remain a class B drug, arguing a number of health concerns with which I shall deal in some detail. The issue of whether cannabis is a gateway drug to class A drugs has been debated for many years. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at this issue when it considered the classification of cannabis and concluded that no causal link had been established since there were many other factors which might act as gateways. Obvious examples are alcohol, tobacco, solvents and stimulants. The fact is that the great majority of cannabis users never move on, thankfully, mercifully, to class A drugs.

Suggestions have been made that cannabis smoked today is up to 20 times as strong as that smoked 30 years ago. The data that the Forensic Science Service analysed on cannabis seizures do not support that contention. It is correct that some of the new indoor-grown strains of cannabis now on the market are stronger than that which was smoked 30 years ago, but by a factor of two or three times stronger, and not 20 times, as many have suggested. On the other hand, much imported herbal cannabis and cannabis resin is little different from that used 30 years ago.

I turn now to the possible link between cannabis use and the development of mental illness and, in particular, schizophrenia. It is true that some research material was published in the British Medical Journal as recently as last November. I know that some noble Lords have taken a keen interest in that issue. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs considered it in depth during its deliberations, but it concluded that no clear causal link had been demonstrated. On the other hand, the council was clear that cannabis use, unquestionably, could worsen an existing condition of schizophrenia. The council will continue to monitor any developments in research.

As regards the possible link between cannabis use and the development of lung diseases, clearly the smoking of any substance is potentially dangerous. 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, cannabis users generally smoke fewer cigarettes per day than do tobacco smokers, and most give up in their thirties, so limiting the long-term exposure that we know is the critical factor in cigarette-induced lung cancer.

No approach to the drugs problem is without risk, but we believe that the strategy I have outlined provides the best possible opportunity to bring credibility to our drugs education, in particular to sharpen up our education messages to young people on cannabis and to get the priorities of law enforcement and treatment directed at class A drugs. This strategy has widespread support, not only from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but also from the police and all the major organisations working with drug misusers.

It is proposed that the draft order will be brought into force on 29th January 2004 to coincide with the date when the related provisions contained in the Criminal Justice Bill, which I have mentioned, would also be brought into effect if they are approved by this House. That is why the Government are proposing the draft order now rather than waiting until the Criminal Justice Bill has been approved by this House. I commend the changes proposed in this order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th September be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 8:26 pm, 12th November 2003

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, to insert "but this House notes that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with risks to the health of young people and regrets that the order is being made before the Government's proposals concerning class C drugs have been finalised".

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

My Lords, as ever, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for her characteristically thorough explanation of the Government's proposals. However, even her professionalism cannot disguise the fact that the Government are in the most enormous muddle over their drugs policy. This is no theoretical muddle, it is one with practical and serious consequences for the health and behaviour of a significant proportion of our population, in particular our young people. That is why I have tabled this amendment.

I shall come to the flaws in the Government's case in a moment, but first I begin with a word of thanks. Through the usual channels, the Government have arranged this debate so that noble Lords who wish to attend and participate can do so at a reasonable length and at a reasonable hour. Contrast this with the position in the other place. Whatever one's views on cannabis, we can all agree that it is a topic which arouses strong opinions. When this regulation came before the other place, the Government allocated it a total of one-and-a-half hours for debate. It is clear, on reading the debate in Hansard, that many potential contributions went unheard. The debate on the regulation was followed by a debate on the Mersey Tunnels Bill, which was not time limited. Which measure was the more important? Which commands greater public interest? The answer is obvious. The Government often express the concern that people consider that Parliament has little relevance. If the Government really think that one-and-a-half hours was sufficient time to debate cannabis, one can see why the general public might believe that Parliament is indeed out of touch.

I wish to make one final point about the debate held in the other place. Given the importance that the Government have accorded to their drugs strategy—and referred to again by the noble Baroness in her remarks—it would have been good if the Home Secretary could have attended that debate to hear the views expressed, instead of leaving it to his Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Caroline Flint, to try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

I turn to the remarks of the noble Baroness. In my view, to make sense of the Government's policy, you have to believe one or both of the following: first, that cannabis use is not specifically harmful; and, secondly, that reclassifying cannabis from class B to class C does not send any signal on its acceptability. I should like to examine both of those propositions.

First, I address the proposition that cannabis use is not specifically harmful. The link between cannabis use and later depression, anti-social behaviour, psychoses or schizophrenia has been significantly strengthened by various new studies. In her opening remarks, the noble Baroness referred to the British Medical Journal of 23rd November 2002. She passed over it quite lightly, but it contains reports of four heavy studies covering 50,000 army conscripts in Sweden, 1,600 students in the state of Victoria in Australia and 1,000 people in Dunedin, New Zealand. It is hardly a lightweight study. It covers many parts of the world.

One of the key conclusions of that research is that people who start smoking cannabis in adolescence are at the greatest risk of developing mental health problems. Researchers have concluded that eliminating cannabis use in the UK population could reduce cases of schizophrenia by as much as 13 per cent. Research on cannabis and its link to mental disorders is coming through at an ever-growing rate. In the view of Professor Edwards of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—a body referred to by the noble Baroness—we are in a rapidly changing field of knowledge, and new knowledge is making cannabis look more dangerous, not less.

The effect of cannabis on the brain has been analysed by a distinguished expert on brain processes. Professor Susan Greenfield—properly known to your Lordships as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield—wrote in the Observer on 18th August 2002:

"I challenge any advocate of cannabis to state what a 'safe dose' is. Until they do, surely it is irresponsible to send out positive signals, however muted?".

She went on to say:

"We do know cannabis smoke contains the same constituents as that of tobacco: however, it is now thought that three or four cannabis cigarettes a day are equivalent to 20 or more tobacco cigarettes, regarding damage to the lining of the bronchus, while the concentration of carcinogens in cannabis smoke is actually higher than that in cigarettes".

It also, she said, modifies the configuration of the networks of brain cell connections. This will make you see the world in a different way, characteristically one depleted of any motivation.

Evidence such as this suggests that cannabis can cause, at the very least, impairment in attention span and cognitive performance, and we do not truly know the full potential that regular use of cannabis might have.

Similarly, we do not yet know the full extent to which cannabis potency has increased since scientific experiments on the drug first took place 30 years ago. The noble Baroness quoted from remarks made by Caroline Flint in another place on 29th October about the evidence of forensic scientists that cannabis is no stronger than it was 30 years ago. But some forms of cannabis, such as sensimilla and skunk, have only recently become cultivated in this country and it is too soon for the effects of such strong herbal forms to be fully understood.

Recently a journalist, Tony Thompson, wrote in the Observer, on 2nd November 2003, about a new form of high quality cannabis now being imported from South Africa called dagga. We cannot yet establish the potency of many of these types of cannabis which are new to our shores, or for that matter the consequences of excessive smoking. The Government have to admit that they cannot know the full physical and mental effects of repeated cannabis use, and especially of stronger, more potent strains. In the absence of certainty on those important points, one has to ask: why change the law?

As to the second proposition, that reclassifying cannabis will not send a signal to people, particularly young people, that the dangers of using it are not as great as once thought, changing the law so that cannabis is reclassified as a class C drug appears to be seen as necessary by the Government, according to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, to reflect a shift in public opinion and to separate the drug from the issues associated with harder drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.

But cannabis, which is now a class B drug, is already quite clearly separated from heroin and crack cocaine, both of which are in class A. I cannot see how making cannabis a class C drug will emphasise the perils of heroin. But making it a class C drug will serve to undermine the message as to its risks.

I usually labour in your Lordships' House in decent obscurity, but since my name appeared in connection with this amendment I have been besieged. I had no idea about the strength of public feeling; about the dangers of the signal being sent by the downgrading of cannabis to class C. Public opinion is concerned on two points: first, that downgrading will increase drug use and, secondly, that the increased use of cannabis will lead to the increased use of other, harder drugs—the gateway effect referred to by the noble Baroness.

An e-mail from Mrs Gillian Broadfoot is typical of the many that I have received. She wrote:

"I am the mother of a teenager who is now 16, who used cannabis for two years without my knowledge, but who changed quite dramatically in his behaviour and attitudes as a result. He left school when he turned 16, having lost all motivation, and his school work having deteriorated steadily. His health suffered too, and when we discovered that he was using cannabis it was a shock, but even more so that a large number of his peers were too. I work amongst drug-addicted young people and I have yet to meet one who did not begin by using cannabis, believing it was not harmful. It has certainly proved, in my experience, to be a gateway drug".

Is Mrs Broadfoot right that liberalising cannabis laws will result in more people using it and possibly more people having problems with cannabis and other drugs? The former government drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, certainly thinks so. Asked whether the change in the law would lead to more drug-taking, Hellawell answered:

"The evidence from elsewhere is that it does. The people who have been deterred from taking cannabis because it is illegal will certainly now have the impression that it is all right to do it".

Asked if he thought there would be a connected increase in crime, he replied, "Yes".

Downgrading can only encourage cannabis use—it certainly cannot discourage its use. Users will be drawn to the dealers and tempted to try other, harder drugs. Drug use is a consequence of a lifestyle, in which cannabis, because it is more available, tends to be the first drug that people encounter. One has to accept that the choice then to take cocaine or ecstasy is a consequence of an individual's predisposition to seek and use drugs. But why make it any easier for someone with a predisposition to use drugs to start climbing that tragic ladder? How will this, in the words of the noble Baroness, break the cycle?

In the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, on 7th July this year, I referred to a pre-teen drugs misuse survey carried out in Glasgow. The noble Baroness very kindly agreed to look into the matter further. In a letter I received on 3rd November, she expanded upon the disturbing statistics. She wrote:

"The research found that the anti-heroin messages of recent years seem to have been well absorbed by this age group. Nevertheless, it concluded that by the age of 12, a small proportion of pupils will already have started misusing drugs and whilst principally confined to cannabis, for some pupils this early age of onset involves other drugs. This is worrying, particularly where heroin and other class A drugs are involved".

Phrases such as the "age of onset" used to describe pre-teen cannabis smoking suggest that the noble Baroness sees the habits of 10 to 12-year-olds as the initial stages of more serious drug-taking. What message does downgrading cannabis send to the 10 to 12 year-olds of Glasgow?

I suggest to the House that the two main arguments behind the Government's reclassification—cannabis is not truly harmful and reclassification sends no signal—do not stand up to critical examination. I am afraid the Government's case is not only illogical; it borders on the deceptive. While the Government are proposing, with a good deal of publicity, to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C through this regulation, they are at the same time proposing in the Criminal Justice Bill—currently before your Lordships' House, as the noble Baroness has said—to upgrade the penalties for all class C drugs, making possession an arrestable offence. No matter that in 2000 there were 70,000 cannabis-related arrests and only 331 for all the other 117 drugs currently in the class C category.

This was a classic attempt by the Government to spin. They are telling those who believe that cannabis law should be liberalised that they are reducing the category from class B to class C, while telling those who want to take a tough line on drugs that they are increasing the penalties for all class C drugs.

Peter Lilley, speaking in the debate in the other place, concluded:

"The Government have got the worst of all possible worlds. 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".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/10/03; col. 355.]

Following extensive debate in your Lordships' House, the Government have seen the illogicality of that position and have very kindly agreed to introduce amendments to affect the decoupling of cannabis and other class C drugs in the Criminal Justice Bill. How will they do that? We do not yet know because we have yet to see their proposals. That is the reason for the second half of my amendment.

Finally, a thought for the police, who are going to have to interpret and enforce this muddle. How can the Government expect the policy to be enforced fairly or evenly across different parts of the country and, no less importantly, across different racial communities? That patchwork quilt must surely be a recipe for increasing distrust and dislike of the police—the very reverse of what we should seek to achieve if we are to be truly successful in our fight against drugs.

I received an e-mail from Mrs Jan Berry, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales. She says:

"Confusion surrounding the future legal status of cannabis has been caused by the decision to reclassify. Whilst I can understand the reasoning for the reclassification, the message being sent out appears wholly inappropriate, particularly as the jury is still out on the longer-term health implications. I believe concerns about the priority given to policing cannabis have been addressed already, without the need for legislative change. This time and energy currently being given to reclassifying cannabis could, we believe, be used far more effectively to rebalance the UK drugs strategy, particularly in respect of education and treatment. The fact remains that cannabis does not need to be reclassified to be reprioritised".

To conclude, the Government's gyrations would be almost comic if they did not have such potentially serious and tragic consequences for our society. The Government should not seek to push the order through in face of the evidence against it and the adverse public reaction. They should first clarify their position as regards their proposals for cannabis and other class C drugs in the Criminal Justice Bill, allow time for proper consideration and, after taking into account all the factors and research that have emerged since the reclassification was first put forward, introduce revised proposals—if any are required. I hope that the Minister will seek to withdraw the regulation before us tonight. In the mean time, I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House notes that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with risks to the health of young people and regrets that the order is being made before the Government's proposals concerning class C drugs have been finalised".—(Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.)

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat 8:45 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, in rising to support this order—but to speak against the amendment—I do not do so without reservations about matters closely related to it. The order is a step in the right direction and, I am glad to say, it is based on sound evidence and expert opinion. It would have been outrageous if the Government, having set up the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, had not taken its advice, as well as that of the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place and the Runciman Committee, that cannabis should be reclassified to class C. All those organisations considered the evidence carefully from an expert point of view and reached their conclusions.

The purpose of the classification system is to make clear the differences in levels of harm and danger associated with various drugs. It is clear to the experts, who have looked at all the most up-to-date evidence, that cannabis, although not without dangers for some users, rightly belongs in class C. That is why I am concerned about the Government's attempt to create two kinds of class C drugs. I often wonder into which category that legal drug tobacco would be put if it had been discovered last year, since 120,000 people die every year from smoking tobacco, at great cost to the public purse and great distress to patients and their families. It is undoubtedly the tobacco that is often smoked with cannabis that causes some of the lung problems.

The Government have also responded to the clear benefits demonstrated in the Lambeth experiment, where the police have told us that hundreds of hours of police time were saved by the presumption against arrest for personal possession, equivalent to 1.8 full-time police officers. If that were replicated across the country, I understand from research by Rowntree that we could save £50 million, which represents 500 full-time officers. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us something about how that large chunk of police time will be redirected once this order is in place.

The Lambeth experiment has not been without its critics and rumours have abounded. However, Lambeth police tell us that there is no evidence of the rumoured influx of dealers or customers since the proportion of people cautioned for possession who came from outside the borough remained constant during the experiment. Besides, when the system is rolled out nationally there would be no question of drugs tourism. Nor was there any evidence of increased usage. A police survey of local schools did not reveal any reported increase in pupils being intoxicated. However, at the same time, the number of arrests for class A dealing offences increased by around 10 per cent and there was a 44 per cent increase in arrests for possession of cocaine. Clearly Lambeth police were making good use of their freed up time.

It is important to send out the message that if we reclassify cannabis we are not legalising it and there is no green light for smoking cannabis. But the great gain to be had is that we can get much tougher and more effective in tackling the terribly dangerous hard drugs and their dealers. That message must be coupled with even more effort at educating young people about the harm caused particularly by harder drugs and being honest about any dangers associated with cannabis. There is no evidence that the cannabis being sold in this country now is any stronger on average than it was 20 years ago—I accept the Minister's statement about that—but there are people such as schizophrenics for whom the dangers of using cannabis may be greater than for other members of the population. So it is important to be clear and honest and keep this particular matter under review.

The main thing is that the messages we give to young people are credible. That is why we on the Liberal Democrat Benches have long called for cannabis to be reclassified. All young people know that it is much less dangerous than class A or B drugs. The law is an ass if it does not reflect that. We know that its use is very widespread. When this matter was debated in another place, it was claimed that about half of 16 year-olds have tried it. It could be argued that there is already a green light with that generation. The young know that cannabis is not as harmful as class A or B drugs and they know that the majority of cannabis users never go on to use other drugs and most use it for only a short period of their lives. What we need to do for them, if they choose to use it, is to protect them from contact with dealers in hard drugs and organised criminals.

It is pretty clear to me that the gateway theory is not credible; on that I again agree with the Minister. The excellent research document by DrugScope entitled Cannabis and the Gateway Hypothesis said:

"Gateway theory is often misunderstood. It is not about cannabis leading to harder drugs, it is about common profiles, environment, experience and access".

The main danger is that the Government have not addressed the thorny issue of providing the many existing cannabis users—who are in every other way law abiding citizens—with a way of obtaining their supply without having to get it from dealers and criminals whose main aim is to get them onto harder, more addictive and more profitable drugs. Although people have taken the matter into their own hands, and already 50 per cent of cannabis used in this country is home grown, it is still done at risk of arrest. If the objective is to cut the so-called link between cannabis and hard drugs, which I believe is mainly where and by whom they are supplied, why will the Government not make it clear that growing your own for your own use does not risk arrest?

Evidence from the Netherlands suggests that decriminalising cannabis use does not lead either to increased usage nor to increased use of hard drugs. Whereas the average age of heroin users in this country is 21 and falling, the average age of heroin users in the Netherlands is 45 and rising. I am not advocating that the fudged arrangements in existence in the Netherlands should be adopted here—far from it—but we have not tackled the problem if we do not tackle the supply. It is said that, although most cannabis users do not go onto hard drugs, most hard drug users started with cannabis. I believe the major reason for this is that they have to get cannabis from criminal dealers, and those dealers make it their business to try to gain a customer for life—however short and miserable that life might be—by getting the user onto hard, addictive drugs. That is the only link with crime. There is no evidence that people steal to support a cannabis habit as it is fairly cheap.

I now turn to the guidelines on arrest published by the Association of Chief Police Officers two months ago. First, I should like to ask the Government on whose advice have they added a presumption in favour of arrest for possession of cannabis now that it is to be a class C drug? There was no such recommendation in the report of the Select Committee in another place, the Runciman report or in the report of the advisory council, nor were changes to the arrangements for arrest and sentencing mentioned in the Government's drugs strategy. Yet, while reclassifying cannabis to class C, the Government have now introduced a presumption for arrest for class C drugs for the first time. To solve the problem that raises for other class C drugs, they now propose to introduce another separate category. Is cannabis now a class B2 drug, or do we now have in effect a new class D, and if so, on what evidence basis? That is the muddle that I identify.

Having said that, I am most concerned about the discriminatory nature of the guidelines. It seems that you can now smoke cannabis without getting arrested unless you happen to be under 18 or have a mental disability. According to the guidelines, in addition to smoking cannabis in public view, causing disorder, smoking it near youth clubs and schools or being a regular offender—that is perfectly reasonable—we now have a presumption that anyone under 18 or a "vulnerable person" will be arrested and taken to the police station for a warning or other such measure. A "vulnerable person" is described as,

"a person who may be mentally disordered or mentally handicapped or incapable of understanding the significance of questions or replies".

Despite the fact that the next sentence of the guidelines says that,

"such people should be dealt with within the terms of this strategy by being arrested, their own personal welfare and interests being paramount",

I am most concerned about this. How can it possibly be in the interests of the welfare of such a person as those described to be hauled off to a police station and questioned? How terrifying is that for someone with a mental handicap? Surely this is a role for joined-up services and multi-agency working? Why not have a police officer contact the person's GP or social services instead of this draconian response, dragging the person into the criminal justice system for doing something for which a similar non-handicapped person would no longer be penalised? In the case of a young person, surely there is a more appropriate response.

My other concern is about consistency. Here I echo many of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. These guidelines give high levels of discretion to the police and there are indications that already the police in Scotland are saying that they will arrest in the vast majority of cases. How are the Government intending to monitor the consistency of the operation of the guidelines? I hope that the Minister can enlighten us. Already we have enormous discrepancies in police practice. The proportion of cannabis offences resulting only in a caution varies across police forces in England and Wales from 87 per cent at the highest to 29 per cent at the lowest. This is a matter that has long caused great concern to people with MS who used cannabis products for therapeutic reasons. While I was delighted to see recently that NICE has now confirmed these benefits and we are close to getting a licensed pharmaceutical product, the Government really need to do something about the inconsistency across police forces.

Finally, I am most concerned about the list of misuse of drugs offences for which the penalty is being increased in the Criminal Justice Bill. For example, it seems that you can now be liable for a 14-year custodial sentence for allowing someone to smoke a joint in your house, despite the fact that that person would not be arrested for it. Does that really make sense from a Government who claim to be responding to the reality of the drugs situation in this country?

The rise in cannabis usage over the past 30 years referred to by the Minister is a clear indication that the way in which the law and the justice system have been dealing with it up to now has not worked. That is why I welcome this move forward. Yet instead of courageously taking good advice and properly decriminalising personal use of cannabis, the Government are hedging the order around with other things that return us in effect to the status quo. Actually, the situation is worse than the status quo if we count the discriminatory and potentially damaging nature of the ACPO guidelines.

I have mentioned my reservations. I can hardly oppose the order and I do not, but I am deeply concerned about the way in which its potential benefits may be neutralised by this timid Government.

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench

My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in his amendment to the order. Until we have proof that changing the classification of cannabis will not lead to its increased abuse, its classification should not be changed. I do not think that we have that proof, or that experience in other countries suggests that if we were to liberalise the use of cannabis we should not regret it.

Having said that, I find it unacceptable that the use of drugs of whatever class should not be permitted for medical reasons. It is well known that many sufferers from multiple sclerosis derive great benefit from smoking cannabis, which alleviates the pain that they suffer. Taken in tablet form, many sufferers do not find it nearly so effective. Sufferers from some forms of cancer find that it helps the unpleasant side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Long ago, tincture of heroin used to be prescribed by GPs for bad coughs, and was very effective. Heroin was the principle ingredient of Dr Collis Brown's Chlorodyne, a remedy for diarrhoea much used by travellers in third-world countries. After heroin ceased to be an ingredient, it never worked so well. Cocaine was sometimes used as a dental anaesthetic. I frequently had it as my dentist was allergic to Novocaine. It was actually much more effective than Novocaine and, what is more, a delicious sense of euphoria was a pleasant side effect. However, where such drugs are used for medical reasons, for a very limited time until the necessity ceases, or occasionally, they do not usually lead to addiction. Where they are used indefinitely to alleviate an incurable condition, I do not think it matters much whether they lead to addiction.

I have never been able to see why people who are suffering and whose only palliative is a class A or B drug should be deprived of their only effective medication because it might fall into the wrong hands and some silly fool might become an addict. That is getting our priorities wrong. I hope that the Government will think very seriously about this.

Photo of Baroness Howells of St Davids Baroness Howells of St Davids Labour 9:00 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, I find myself in a very unusual position, in that I am supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, because I want to speak against the order. I shall do so by asking the Government four questions.

Is cannabis harmless? Cannabis is a mind-altering drug that has a ravaging effect on the brain, as Hamish Turner, the president of the Coroners' Society stated. He said that it was a significant contributory factor to 10 in every 100 deaths that were put down to suicide or accident. Fourteen year-olds taking cannabis are 50 times more likely to damage their brain. Police experts say that the drug is so powerful that it can stay in the blood and impair judgment at the wheel of a car for up to two weeks. It is linked to schizophrenia, hallucinations and delirium. One has only to walk the streets in certain areas to see the poor, delirious, hallucinated creatures out there.

A Swedish study found that cannabis users were 18 times more likely than non-users to take their lives by jumping from a height. Noble Lords may not have heard of James Taylor. He was 31 years old. He hanged himself in his Torquay flat. He had smoked cannabis since he was 15. His mother, Mary Taylor, said that it destroyed her son and her family life.

We know that cannabis is addictive. It damages short-term memory. Those who smoke cannabis find themselves in no man's land. They may enter a state of euphoria, but it does not last long.

Would downgrading cannabis stop people taking harder drugs? Research shows that there is a progression from cannabis to drugs such as cocaine and heroin. The New Zealand study to which reference was made showed that cannabis users were 60 times more likely to take other illegal drugs.

Angela Watkinson, a Conservative MP for Upminster, slammed the idea that reducing cannabis to a class C drug would free police to deal with class A drugs. She noted that cannabis is a gateway to class A drugs and would cause more problems. Having worked in the community, I can confirm that what she said was true.

The zero-tolerance approach has been proved to work better in Sweden. That country is tough on drugs and the law is consistently enforced. Only 9 per cent of Swedes aged between 16 and 59 have tried illegal drugs, in contrast to 34 per cent in Britain.

I come to my third question. Would relaxing cannabis laws free the police to tackle more serious crime? I could tell your Lordships of cases where women have sat on park benches all night, not daring to go into their homes because their children are cannabis takers. Their handbags are rifled. The little tins in which they keep the money for the gas—some noble Lords may have forgotten those days—are empty when the bill comes. Telephones and gas metres are rifled to feed the cannabis habit.

I shall not go into the details of those cases, but I shall highlight the Lambeth study to which reference has been made. Lambeth police's experimental approach, which involves verbally warning, rather than arresting, possessors of cannabis for personal use, led to open drug dealing in the streets. I say it because I saw it. There was a huge escalation of hard drug dealing and drug use even among children. Children were led to cashpoints to draw out money to pay drug users, even if they did not use drugs themselves. They did it because otherwise they were told that they were being square.

Chief Superintendent Brian Moore said:

"The centre of Brixton is a 24-hour crack supermarket".

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Michael Fuller, who has now been promoted, stated that children were going to school while "stoned". That means having taken drugs. Parents were worried that relaxing the laws could make the problem even worse.

Children themselves felt that the police, by their liberal approach, were sending them mixed messages about drug use. Labour MP, Kate Hoey, fiercely criticised the scheme, saying:

"There are more drug dealers on the streets than ever. Many young children are going to school in the morning zonked out on a very hard kind of cannabis".

Fred Brougham, chairman of the Police Federation, stated:

"Young people were telling everybody that cannabis is now OK, that it is OK to possess it in the streets, in the schools".

He also said that,

"crack abusers and crack dealers are becoming more visible and more active", as the barriers break down.

My last question to the Government is: are the Government hoping to eradicate the black market and bring the proceeds from cannabis into the formal economy? You do not get cannabis for nothing. Someone is selling it. What is the Government's aim? Are they saying that you can sell cannabis and improve the economy of the country? Is it becoming formal? What is this about?

In Holland, where cannabis can be legally sold in licensed cafes, most of that sold is from the illegal crop—the very strong cannabis. Anyone who has recently been to Holland can tell you that the sight of beggars on the streets is nothing compared to the zonked-out creatures you see when you walk the streets there. Even in the licensed Dutch cafes, 70 per cent of cannabis is estimated to be illegal stock, therefore no tax is paid on it and the economy cannot benefit.

The black community, especially the mothers, ask, "Is this another 'sus' on us: to zonk our children out?" For whatever reason, it is prevalent in the black community. I ask the Government to be mindful of the next generation and what they are really saying. They have said that cannabis is not becoming legal, but the message going out to young people is, "You can smoke as much as you like as long as you are not caught". If the police are so busy, how many times will they knock on my door and ask me whether I have any cannabis plants inside? I do not know.

What does all that mean? It means that even if cannabis were legal, most drug dealers would continue to deal in illegal drugs and would probably not switch over to that which is supposedly newly legalised. This is not the best move the Government have made.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, who has spoken so movingly. I suspect that during the past few days she has received many letters about this subject. I certainly have. Many of the letters I have received have been from parents of teenagers who point out the obvious; namely, that reclassification and the new policy of the police only to caution sends out entirely the wrong signal to young people and makes their task as parents almost impossible.

I know that the Minister denies that, but the new policy does tell young people that smoking cannabis is okay, whatever is the Government's intention. It tells young people that smoking cannabis is okay when it is nothing of the kind. Not only does it all too often lead to the use of heroin and crack cocaine, traded by the very same dealers from whom the cannabis is obtained, but it is a very dangerous drug itself, as I shall seek to show in a moment.

We cannot say with certainty that more people will be introduced to heroin and cocaine as a result of declassification, coupled with the new police policy of merely warning cannabis users, but it is infinitely depressing, as the noble Baroness mentioned a moment ago, to read comments such as those of Chief Superintendent Moore of the Metropolitan Police, who has worked in Lambeth and Brixton. He said that the introduction of the cannabis pilot scheme in Lambeth has resulted in the centre of Brixton becoming,

"a 24-hour crack supermarket".

What we do know with absolute certainty is that saying that cannabis is okay will lead to more young people trying the drug. Yet we all know that using cannabis is not okay. It is a mind-bending substance—very mind-bending. The Minister said that the advisory council does not accept that the cannabis being traded today is stronger than that used 30 years ago. But that is not the view of many experts. It is certainly not the view of Dr Ian Oliver, independent consultant to the UN Drug Control Programme, who said that it is 10 times stronger than that smoked by the "flower-power" generation of the 1960s. That is an expert opinion that cannot simply be discarded because people sitting on the advisory council do not agree with it.

Cannabis is a drug which reduces concentration and slows down reactions. Its use accounts for two-thirds of drug-related road deaths. It is a drug which affects the memory and a person's ability to learn. In societies where its use is habitual, one can see its effect on people's ability to work regularly and to hold down jobs. To put it bluntly, it nurtures layabouts. I have seen it. It is a substance that many experts say is far more likely to cause cancer and lung damage than smoking tobacco.

But, worst of all, it is a drug which increases the risk of mental illness. I find it impossible to accept the conclusions of the advisory council on this matter. In April this year, Professor John Henry, a toxicologist at Imperial College, said at the Royal Society of Medicine conference in London:

"Regular cannabis smokers develop mental illness. There is a four-fold increase in schizophrenia and there is a four-fold increase in major depression".

That is not only his opinion. In 2002, a study at King's College London, led by Dr Louise Arsenault, showed that cannabis can trigger schizophrenia and is not chosen only by people predisposed to develop the illness. In the past year or so, as mentioned by my noble friend, three other studies have linked the drug with depression and schizophrenia—one of them a Dutch study, which found that those taking large amounts of cannabis were seven times more likely to develop a psychotic illness.

Two months ago, the papers reported the suicide of Charles King, a student aged 23 who developed a mental illness induced by cannabis use. He left a note saying:

"Cannabis has ruined my life".

I have to tell your Lordships that I personally know only too well that cannabis does ruin people's lives. It has come close to ruining the life of someone very close to me who has suffered from schizophrenia as a result of cannabis use. That is the diagnosis. So, do not tell me that cannabis is pretty harmless.

My attention has been drawn to some of the irresponsible rubbish put out by government-funded bodies. Connexions, an advice service set up by the Department for Education and Skills, has published a leaflet telling people how to smoke cannabis and then purports to lists its effects:

"It can make you feel relaxed, chilled out and giggly—more sociable and chatty—you may get an attack of the munchies", meaning you feel the need to eat everything in sight.

"You may feel paranoid, which means you think everyone is looking at you".

That is the effect of cannabis in the minds of the irresponsible people who drafted that pamphlet. I am told that it has recently been withdrawn or banned following public protests, but not before it had been sent to 3,500 secondary schools. The fact that it went out in the first place makes absolute nonsense of the claim made in another place by Caroline Flint, the Under-Secretary of State, that the Government's message remains that cannabis is illegal and harmful. It is no use parroting those words when all their actions result in the message being entirely different; the message being that cannabis is not all that serious a drug and, "won't do you much harm".

Whether the Government wanted this to happen or not, the message which has come across since the change in policy is that cannabis is okay. That message is irresponsible and wrong. I support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Adebowale Lord Adebowale Crossbench 9:15 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, this debate is hotting up nicely. It is obvious that I shall now be labelled somewhat irresponsible as I am about to admit that I am the Chief Executive of Turning Point, a social care organisation which deals with around 30,000 people with substance misuse challenges, 10,000 of whom are young people. I also happen to be a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. When one looks at the members of that advisory council, I find it hard to believe that they arrived overnight at the advice they gave to Government. Certainly, looking at their honourable qualifications, it beggars belief that those people are irresponsible or arrived at their conclusions lightly.

Perhaps I may comment on some of the points raised. I support the decision by the Government to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. Like many noble Lords, I do not think that the Government go far enough. The reclassification reflects public attitudes to cannabis and accepts the fact that a large number of people use it. I say that with full regard to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids. I, too, have been to Holland. I have worked in Brixton and walked the streets of Lewisham. I understand, because I talk to young people and, indeed, live on an estate where many young people smoke cannabis. The problem with the debate is not about the classification of cannabis. No one has said that leaving cannabis as a class B drug—I am sure that some noble Lords would be happy to see it classified as class A—would be a credible solution to the problems mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, and, indeed, the noble Lord.

Surely, sending young people to prison as a result of their cannabis use cannot be reasonable treatment. Indeed, the Government's own figures on the use of prison and punishment as a response to drug misuse give cause for concern. The latest report on drug treatment and testing orders shows that 53 per cent of prisoners discharged from such orders in 1998 were reconvicted within two years of discharge compared to 59 per cent of those who did not complete a drug treatment and testing order.

So there are serious questions to be asked. If we are to keep the current classification of cannabis or, indeed, increase it and thus increase penalties and arrest more people and put them in prison, how will that help people? How will that help the young people mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids? I fear that that is heading in the wrong direction.

Furthermore, we need to understand what young people and many members of the public who smoke cannabis—I have to say on a daily basis—understand from their own experiences about it and its relation to other drugs. We have to deal with the facts. The fact of the matter is that cannabis is not the same as crack cocaine or heroin. As much as noble Lords may want to believe that that is the case, it is not.

We need to be aware of all the facts and to encourage intelligent discussion. When cannabis is compared with other drugs against criteria such as mortality, toxicity, addictiveness and its relationship with crime, it is less harmful to the individual and society than other illicit drugs and even alcohol. That is understood by the public, and it is certainly understood by young people.

The evidence of the drug's long-term effect on mental health is not so clear-cut. No doubt we can all name a professor or an expert who will say that smoking cannabis causes schizophrenia. Indeed, in 1933 at the World Health Organisation the Egyptian delegate stood up and said that cannabis causes people to go crazy. We have all see the film produced by the Americans in 1933 called "Reefer Madness", which claimed that smoking cannabis turns you into a raving lunatic. These statements are simply not helpful; they do not accord with the facts.

People with mental health problems may be more likely to be drawn to the drug. We have seen that at Turning Point; I have seen it from my own experience of more than 20 years working with socially excluded people, many of whom take drugs including alcohol. It may exacerbate mental health problems in people with a pre-existing mental illness; so will poverty; so will depression; and so will not having a job. But the evidence suggests that while cannabis consumption is increasing, the incidence of schizophrenia is not. That is a fact which would suggest that cannabis is not to blame.

I do not believe that reclassifying cannabis will lead to more people using it. Currently, in the UK at least 8 million people use the drug, while 2 million people use it regularly. My discussions with young people informed me that many already socially accept the drug and that any change will be of little relevance to them, other than they will face fewer risks of being criminalised for its use, which, to be honest, they welcome.

There may be an increase among those already using the drug. Evidence from Australia has shown that although cannabis decriminalisation, which was introduced in some states, did not lead to new cannabis users, those who used it daily slightly increased the amounts they smoked.

I am also doubtful—and I think we should be very doubtful—about the idea of cannabis as the gateway drug. The Government's own research has shown through The road to ruin? that there is no evidence that cannabis acts as a gateway drug to other drugs. There is some evidence, however, that cigarettes and alcohol do. Indeed, again, when I talked to many of the 30,000 or so people that Turning Point sees each year, they talked not about cannabis, when one examined their drug history, but about going to the pub, having a drink, having their inhibitions relaxed and then being introduced to cannabis. If we are going to talk about gateway drugs, let us talk about all the gateway drugs and include alcohol and cigarettes.

That is why I believe that we need to have a sophisticated and credible approach to this drug. With so many people using it and, frankly, so many comfortable with its use, we need to get the message right and get across the facts in a way that is accurate, non-confrontational and relevant to young people's lives. I also strongly believe that, with so many people buying the drug from the black market, we need to get the legal position right too.

The fact is that day in and day out, tens of thousands of young people make contact with dealers to buy cannabis. Although most buy what they need and leave, many, because they are forced to deal with people selling other drugs, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, such as heroin, cocaine or Ecstasy, are more likely to buy and use those other drugs. In effect, it is not the use of the drug that encourages people to move to harder drugs but the existence of a single drugs black market. With the reclassification, cannabis possession will carry a minimal risk of prosecution, while selling it will carry a stiff penalty. To be clear, the Government's decision to increase the penalty within the class C band to 14 years makes selling it a high-risk criminal activity.

I must be honest: I am a little confused by the legal acrobatics that the Home Secretary has performed to reclassify cannabis. To recount, following the announcement in June 2002 of the bold step to reclassify the drug to class C, there have been two rather confusing steps backwards. First, there is the move to apply a maximum of 14 years for supply of the drug, despite other class C drugs carrying a five-year maximum. Secondly, as your Lordships will be aware, under the Criminal Justice Bill currently passing through the House, cannabis possession is to be made an arrestable offence.

If I am not mistaken, we will have created a separate classification for cannabis, which is none too distant from the position from which we are supposed to be moving away. In addition, what is to become of cannabis oil? As your Lordships will be aware, certain forms of cannabis oil extracted from the raw plant are regarded as a class A drug. What will the changes mean for that form?

Is it therefore any wonder that the public, rather than receiving a credible message about the drug cannabis, are confused by those moves and unsure how they will be affected—no doubt leading to further public disregard and disaffection for the legal system? That also brings into question the suitability of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and whether the current classification system is working at all.

Perhaps it is time that we took a good look at our drugs laws to reassess them to see how they work in today's society, because much has changed since 1971. The rationale behind the reclassification should be to get our message credibly and clearly across and to separate the market for cannabis from those for hard drugs. Unfortunately, I fear that neither of those objectives will be achieved by the new measures. Indeed, the unique classification of cannabis may well undermine the whole approach. By removing much of the risk of prosecution while sustaining the penalty for supply, the law may provide a perverse incentive to traffic more harmful drugs. If dealers are risking stiffer penalties for cannabis, they are more likely to deal in harder drugs as well.

Turning to the advice issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers, I am very concerned by its statement that a,

"person who may be mentally disordered or mentally handicapped or incapable of understanding the significance of questions or replies", may be arrested. That very language moves away from our providing appropriate support and help to the most vulnerable.

Like other noble Lords, I fear that the Government's muddled plans for reclassification may be nothing other than a fudge and something of a face-saving manoeuvre. I fear that the changes will only continue to drive the ever-increasing number of young cannabis users underground by encouraging them to use behind closed doors and to disrespect government and the law by coming into contact with poly-drug dealers. The law will continue to make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding young people and perpetuate an environment of mass public disobedience.

The Government must listen to the people whom this law will affect the most and move the debate forward. Cannabis is not heroin; it is not crack; it is not as dangerous as either of those drugs. Decriminalise cannabis; separate it from more harmful drugs; provide unbiased and accurate information; provide support and treatment where it is needed; and tackle the real problems facing young people today, such as crime, unemployment, poverty, inequality and injustice.

We can best prevent harm by empowering young people to make up their own minds about cannabis using credible information and encouraging them to discuss their experiences, rather than hiding or denying them because government and the laws misunderstand them.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour

My Lords, it is with a heavy heart that I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I spent some years in charge of a drugs squad and I have seen the damage that drugs cause. I know that your Lordships would not argue with that; we all agree that they are very damaging. It is unarguable that, if you liberalise and legalise the use of drugs, more people will take them. A good example is the Netherlands, where, according to my information, cannabis use trebled once the law was liberalised. There is no argument on those terms.

I do not understand the change. If we simply wish to change police activity, the Government could issue instructions to the police—we do not have to change the law. The danger with changing the law and reclassifying drugs is that it sends a powerful signal to youngsters throughout the country. Many people to whom I have talked believe that cannabis is being legalised; they do not understand that it is simply being reclassified. I am at great pains to explain to them that the law is still the same. The government information states that nothing is changing. If nothing is changing, and the police still have the power to arrest, as they do, what is the point of the reclassification? It sends the wrong signal and increases usage, which is the important point.

I shall not keep noble Lords long. I could speak all night on the subject, and I have done. If we increase the usage of a mind-bending drug—such as alcohol, which is unarguably the same—we must give the police the power and the mechanism to deal with it, but there is no breathalyser for cannabis. People will use more cannabis and drive under the influence of it—they do now. There has been a massive increase in road fatalities of people found to have drugs—of all kinds, admittedly—in their bodies. For that reason alone, it would be a dangerous and retrograde step to send the powerful signal to youngsters that it is okay to smoke dope. Do not do it.

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench 9:30 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, there are genuinely held differences of view on the best way to handle drugs such as cannabis, which is obviously less dangerous than class A drugs such as crack cocaine. But we have already differentiated—one of the first things that I learned at school was the difference between A and B. We do not have to take steps to differentiate crack cocaine from cannabis; we have already done so.

I recognise the difficulties for the police with the present classification of cannabis as a class B drug. But the proposal in the order to reclassify it as a class C drug is a mistake, despite the favourable advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. There has been only one reference to the provision in the order—I wish to repeat it on the record—that it will reclassify as class C drugs all cannabis preparations, some of which are now classified as class A drugs and the rest as class B drugs. We must be clear on what we are doing in the order, with which I disagree.

The extent to which cannabis makes its users more likely to develop a psychotic illness is disputed, although I believe that it has some such effect. I note the Minister's observation that there was clear evidence that it worsens an incipient condition. It would be pretty bad, for example, to have more schizophrenics than at present. That would be a sad affair for the people themselves and their carers. Like many other noble Lords, I am very concerned about the problems of mental health. I have spoken about it in the House on several occasions; for me, it is an extremely important point.

There is evidence that in some cases cannabis use acts as a gateway to the use of significantly more dangerous drugs. The Minister said that the great majority do not move on to the more dangerous drugs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that the majority do not move on. What sort of an argument is that? What about the minority? That is a point about which this House should be concerned. I was shocked to hear those statements.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Yes, I did say that, but I tried to explain that some cannabis users move on because they obtain their cannabis from dealers who are doing their very best to get them onto hard addictive drugs. That was my explanation.

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. That is another reason for not changing the classification of cannabis. It is quite a clear argument against what the noble Baroness was stating. I heard it from some other noble Lords here and was not impressed with the argument from any of them.

For those reasons, I do not consider that we should agree this order. However, if contrary to my view it does go through, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in which the House is invited to express the view that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with the risks to the health of young people. The amendment does not go as far as I would wish, but I support it because it is an expression of an opinion with which I agree.

Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour

My Lords, I suspect that this is one of those debates in which most noble Lords will not change their minds, however eloquent and impassioned the speeches are on one side or the other, or however well informed they are—such as the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale. I will therefore speak for a very short time because I know that whatever I say will not change anyone's mind.

My credentials for speaking are that for many years I was a general practitioner in an area where there was a high level of drug abuse. I dealt with many people who had problems with drugs, especially heroin, but not once during a lifetime of practice did I ever have to deal with someone who was ill because of the use of cannabis. My other credential is that I was a member of your Lordship's Select Committee on Science and Technology during its inquiry into the scientific and medical evidence for cannabis with a view to examining its use as a medication.

We obviously looked at the possible harmful effects of cannabis. Nobody denies that there are harmful effects. However, one of the main reasons for reclassifying it is stated in paragraph 4.3 of the report:

"The acute toxicity of cannabis and the cannabinoids is very low; no-one has ever died as a direct and immediate consequence of recreational or medical use".

That is extremely important, because all the drugs in classes A and B can cause death very quickly, not only by chronic use.

If one looks at the long-term effects, certainly, cannabis can affect people's mental health. Paragraph 4.11 states:

"It is . . . well established that cannabis can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from schizophrenic illness and may worsen the course of the illness; but there is little evidence that cannabis use can precipitate schizophrenia or other mental illness in those not already predisposed to it".

We have heard about research reported a year ago in the British Medical Journal, but there are other views. That research has to be looked at in the light of further research. It is not the final word. Although cannabis can precipitate some mental illness, it causes nothing like as much harm as alcohol or tobacco. Alcohol can kill people acutely—if they drink a whole bottle of spirits—quite apart from causing lingering death, and we all know what tobacco can do in the long term. Those two substances are not class A, class B or class C—they are not classified at all.

As regards the Dutch experience, it is true that when cannabis was decriminalised, usage increased for a while. It then went down again and has stayed stable. Far from cannabis being a gateway drug, in those circumstances it seems to satisfy the needs of young people who do not then go on to heroin. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, heroin use is lower in Holland—among Dutch people—than in other European countries. She also said that there is a dwindling band of heroin users who are getting older, but that there are no new users coming into the picture.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that Amsterdam is the drug capital of the world?

Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour

My Lords, I absolutely accept that because people go there from all over the world.

Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour

My Lords, I do not need to answer that; it is perfectly clear. The problem with freeing access to drugs in one country is that people go to it like bees to honey. It needs to be approached internationally.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, mentioned the huge public reaction that he has noticed as a result of the order. I suggest that it can seem as if there is a strong public reaction when a highly motivated, small minority gets into gear and has well-organised lobbying material. That is very different from reflecting the majority of public opinion, who, I think, support the order. I support my noble friend on the Front Bench.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, I have a few questions for the Minister; I hope that the answers will be of interest to the whole House. As other noble Lords have said, I, too, have had many letters from concerned people about the message that the order will give to our young people and the world beyond.

My main concern is the moving of class A drugs to class C. Liquid cannabis, cannabinol and cannabinol derivatives (THC) are in the class A category at present. Cannabinol is a crystalline phenol obtained from cannabis; it is very toxic. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, said that it is not. I looked it up in the Library tonight; it is described as very toxic. I consider that moving the drugs from class A to class C is very dangerous.

At present, any class B drug prepared for injection counts as a class A drug. Is that also to be moved to class C? That has not been mentioned tonight. What about the dangers of hepatitis and other infections, such as HIV, if it is to be declassed to class C? The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has two delightful boys. I met them the other day. Those are the young people that we must try to protect. I hope that the Minister will look at the order again.

Last night at dinner, I sat next to a psychologist, Paul Kennedy, who teaches at Oxford University. I discussed the order with him. He said that cannabis is dangerous to the brain and could encourage schizophrenia. I hope that the Government think again about class A drugs and, especially, injecting. I do not worry about long-term disabled people using cannabis if it relieves their symptoms. That is another matter and a different message.

Photo of Baroness Carnegy of Lour Baroness Carnegy of Lour Conservative 9:45 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, I have received letters from all over Scotland on this subject. I know very little about it; I am not an expert and I have not worked with those who have been in trouble with drugs. The letters reflect the fact that people do not want to see Edinburgh or London become like Amsterdam: the second drugs capital of the world.

These people know what they are talking about from experience in their own families, through their children. Some are doctors dealing with their patients. Others are academics who have studied the subject. I have also received letters from two relatives of people who have been sent to prison for drug dealing. All are absolutely astonished at what the Government are doing.

I say this: I back the amendment because it is the only amendment we have, but I agree with a very distinguished and senior Back-Bencher on the Government Benches who earlier this afternoon asked me: "What on earth is your party doing not throwing this order out?". However, since this is the only amendment, I shall back it.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, we have heard a most moving speech from my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids, and I believe that the Government should listen to her testimony. I wish to make only three points.

First, over the years, both as a recorder and as an advocate, I have seen the penalties imposed becoming less and less severe. The lower the penalties imposed, it seems, the greater the use. Secondly, what is the Government's response to Kate Hoey, the Member for Vauxhall? As the elected representative, she has a deep personal knowledge of what is happening in the area. I know, from living in the area for some of the time, that over recent years drug dealers have spread from the centre to some of the most desirable streets in Vauxhall. It takes an enormous effort, as I know personally, to get rid of them. Local mothers with young children in the area are deeply concerned.

The third and final point I want to make is this. What signal does the Minister believe the Government's proposals for declassification will send to my grandchildren, and those of other noble Lords, shortly to become teenagers? Are they more or less likely to dabble in taking cannabis?

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

My Lords, my antennae tell me that perhaps a vote is in the offing and that we have spoken for long enough, but I want to make one or two brief points. I would suggest that the Minister has destroyed her own case with two statements. One of her statements was that already the quantum of cannabis use has gone up, so that we are on a rising tide. The second point I noted from her remarks was that to legalise the use of cannabis would lead to a massive increase in its use. If that is so, what does that tell us? It tells us that there is a market and an appetite waiting to take more cannabis. Who is going to take it? The noble Baroness gave the answer by telling the House that one of the circumstances under which a pusher with drugs can be arrested is if that person is in the vicinity of a school.

When one adds those together, one has a market of young people wanting to get to this drug and, as a sub-class of the vulnerable, are those referred to as having an incipient condition. Some linkage with mental instability is undoubtedly caused by or is related to cannabis.

We come to the usual question, one that often arises in this type of debate. Looking into the crystal ball, what will be the likely effect of the policy now being proposed? Will it be, as the Minister and the learned committee have suggested, that there will be no serious increase, or will it be as described by a social worker who wrote to me from Dagenham? She said:

"I write to you in distress that the drug cannabis is to be reclassified. If anything as a youth worker I think it should be raised to 'A' rather than dropped. I have watched young people changed very much for the worse because of this drug. Reclassifying cannabis will send out a clear message that the use of cannabis is OK. They are already confused enough . . . Please protect our young people in society".

Whose view do you accept? What view do you take? I go for the youth worker. What he says is very sensible.

The only surprise in the debate is the timidity of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I greatly respect him and his aggression, which can be displayed to great force on some occasions, but the amendment merely states that,

"this House notes that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with risks to the health of young people".

It does not deplore the order aggressively; it merely notes it in a rather calm way.

Those who are vulnerable are the young of our country. If Lady Macbeth had seen that draft she might have said to the noble Lord, "Infirm of purpose? Give me the daggers". The dagger we want is one with which to strike down the order. I urge your Lordships to reject it—if we can do so—or, if not, to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 10:00 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, it has been a heated debate in which strong views have been expressed. I shall speak briefly in support of the amendment.

Like many of your Lordships, I have been inundated with personal letters from individuals and faxes from organisations. There may or may not be some exaggeration in the claims made, but at the very least they should make one think hard about whether reclassification would not send out the wrong signals.

I am sure that all noble Lords would, like me, wish to support any move that would genuinely reduce the all too profitable role of drugs barons in this country. However, the results where some form of declassification or reclassification of drugs has taken place elsewhere do not look encouraging. I shall not go over the Dutch experience or, indeed, the Lambeth experience, other than to say that quite clearly there was open dealing there during the period of the experiment. However, I hear that there are differing views on that.

The potential medical ill effects of cannabis have come through very clearly indeed, particularly in regard to mental illness, which seems to occur far too often. Cannabis may not be 20 per cent stronger than it was in the 1960s, but it is certainly stronger today. Apparently it stays longer in the brain, with young boys five times more likely to be users. Education potential is at risk, with concentration and attention spans affected and the possibility of permanent damage caused to brain cells.

There is apparently, too, a great concern that cannabis use is a factor in road accidents—a point well put by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate. The figures that I have read show that some 10 per cent of those responsible for fatal accidents tested positive for cannabis, and 80 per cent of those did not have an alcohol content above the limit.

It would appear that an increasing number of young children believe that cannabis has been legalised, but by no means do adults wish to vote in favour of decriminalising cannabis.

My two greatest concerns relate to addiction and those who are likely to be affected by it. It is very clear that cannabis can, and clearly does—if only sometimes—lead people into harder drugs. Adolescent users are apparently much more likely to use cocaine than those who never smoked cannabis and apparently almost 100 per cent of heroin addicts started on cannabis.

One then has to ask oneself who is the group most likely to become addicted. I suggest that the most vulnerable group would be those youngsters from disadvantaged and dysfunctional families—that is, the very group least likely to get the appropriate help and support from within their own families, and in which undesirable peer pressure has to be obeyed more often than not.

As I know all too well from my years in the London juvenile courts, this pattern is all too familiar. Truancy is the first step, with the need for funds to feed the drug habit leading inevitably to crime—thus spiralling down the cycle of deprivation continues.

I hope the Minister will think again and, at the very least, agree to the delay suggested. I agree that it is a pretty timid step; nevertheless, it would be a way of showing the acceptance of the concern that is expressed by Members of this House.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. Having sat through the entire debate and listened to all the contributions, I think that the controversial nature of the contributions that have been made and the divided opinions that we have heard in your Lordships' House this evening should at least give us all pause for thought. Timid though the amendment may be, I think it is the right one, because at least it gives us the chance to reconsider before taking what I regard as a pretty momentous step.

In introducing the debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said—this remark has been quoted by several of my noble friends on the Cross Benches—that, mercifully, most cannabis users do not move on. On Friday last, I was in Liverpool, in part of the area I represented at one level or another for some 25 years. Earlier this year, in that same neighbourhood, I attended the funeral of a young man in his early twenties who had died of a heroin overdose. His mother was at the meeting on Friday last, and I put the proposition to her that not everyone who takes cannabis ends up as a heroin user. She responded to me by saying that she had never met anyone who was using heroin who did not start on cannabis. That is the key to this issue.

There is clearly a link between the use of drugs, and although it is true that alcohol and other factors must also be taken into account, it would be absurd to dispute that link and to move forward without any degree of consensus on these questions. The order before us will reclassify cannabis as a class C drug, putting it into the same category as sleeping tablets and anabolic steroids.

The Home Office website states that reclassification of cannabis should help the Government to convey an effective and credible message—to young people in particular—about the dangers of misusing drugs. But contrary to that statement and to everything the Minister has said this evening, reclassification sends the message that cannabis is harmless and not addictive, and that it is okay to take it. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said, it also cultivates the common belief that it already has been legalised.

Following the Home Secretary's announcement last July that he intended to reclassify cannabis, Life Education Centres performed a survey among pupils. Some 86 per cent of primary school children thought that cannabis was now legal, and 79 per cent thought it was safe.

The Government claim that reclassification is based on the medical evidence. However, the most recent evidence was not, and could not have been, taken into account when they came to this conclusion. The advice to reclassify cannabis was based on a report in 2001 by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That report was commissioned by the Home Office.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs does not have a balanced membership, and only a few scientists are among its members. There are around 32 members of the ACMD. Thirteen are leading members of pro-liberalisation organisations. It does not have a single member from any organisation opposed to the liberalisation of drugs, so no one can argue that this was a balanced committee taking all the evidence into account.

The ACMD reported in 2001, recommending reclassification. However, since then, significant new evidence has emerged linking cannabis with serious mental illness. That point was made very powerfully tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who has so much experience as a former Home Secretary. The majority of psychiatrists now accept a link between cannabis and serious mental illness. Two years ago, that was not the case.

I give a brief summary of the new evidence. Schizophrenia, psychotic symptoms, depression and anxiety are strongly associated with cannabis abuse. Recent research confirms that cannabis can trigger psychosis even in those with no previous disposition to mental illness. The earlier cannabis use begins, the greater the risks. Eighteen year-olds who have used cannabis 50 times have a nearly seven-fold increased risk of developing psychosis over the next 15 years. Teenagers who use cannabis by age 15 have more than a four-fold increased risk of developing schizophrenia symptoms by the age of 26. Early cannabis use by the age of 15 increases the risk of schizophrenia compared to later cannabis use by the age of 18. Furthermore, a recently published study examined patients with recent onset of psychosis. It was found that patients with recent onset are twice as likely to have used cannabis compared with a population without psychosis. While alcohol consumption and consumption of illicit drugs other than cannabis was roughly equal in both groups, cannabis was used by 39 per cent of psychotic patients, but only 22 per cent of non-psychotic controls. That new evidence was produced by Professor Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry.

It is clear that cannabis, far more than other illicit drugs, including class A drugs, is associated with mental illness. To claim that cannabis should be only a class C drug is simply not compatible with the medical evidence. As the evidence was published only last year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs could not take that into account when reconsidering reclassification in 2001.

I know that it is late, but I should like to express my grave concern that the Home Secretary has so far refused to meet eminent scientists and leading researchers on cannabis, including four professors who want to present new research evidence to the Home Secretary. The scientists who have asked to meet the Home Secretary are Professor Robin Murray, Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London; Professor John Henry, who was cited earlier, from Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine; Professor Heather Ashton, from the School of Neurosciences at the University of Newcastle; and Professor Colin Drummond, Professor of Addiction Psychiatry at St George's Hospital Medical School.

Will the Minister tell us why the requests for such meetings have not been acceded to? Surely, before reclassifying, the Home Office should examine the likely effects of reclassification on society, public health, driving, and the health service. Reclassification is very likely to lead to increased cannabis use. If a drug is perceived to be harmless—and reclassification will send the message that it is harmless—its use will undoubtedly increase. It is downright irresponsible to proceed with these orders tonight. I would rarely speak so strongly on a subject in your Lordships' House, but I support the amendment laid before us and I hope that, when we divide, the House will support it.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I shall speak for just one minute—which may come as a relief to the Minister, who I know is anxious to wind up the debate.

First, I too have received many letters from families throughout the country who speak with first-hand experience of the damage done to their children and other members of their families. Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, is a highly respected and esteemed Member of this place. She is a foremost authority on brain research in this country, working in many of our main universities. When a lady of that calibre tells us that cannabis is harmful and dangerous and that the order should not be supported, I believe that we should listen to her.

Thirdly, I refer to the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, who lives among a community where this is a very real issue and speaks with first-hand experience. Her speech was extremely moving.

I should also like to support Kate Hoey. The Minister said that one reason for reclassification was to put an end to confusion. However, the confusion was caused by the Home Secretary himself who initiated pilot schemes in some areas, including London. Kate Hoey, who lives in one of those pilot areas, has talked of the deep distress being experienced by that community.

Those are powerful advocates for saying that the Government should think seriously about withdrawing the amendment. I support my noble friend Lord Hodgson this evening, but I and so many other Members of this House have not agreed to vote against the order.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour

My Lords, I will not make the long speech that I prepared earlier. However, I have a new point that I should like to raise with my noble friend the Minister. She said that the Government do not accept that a high level of cannabis use is inevitable. The Government argue that they want to have an impact on usage through advertising and education. May I suggest that they, and perhaps noble Lords too, should have a look at the Internet? They could go to the Google search engine and type in "cannabis". I think they will be amazed to see there that 730,000 websites deal with cannabis. The first of the websites, "cannabis.com", tells you everything you need to know about cannabis: how you can get hold of it; what is in their shop; what is in their chatroom; instructions on how to grow cannabis; information about all the different types of cannabis available; on and on it goes. It ends up by giving the price per gram or price per ounce, available through the post, changed on a monthly basis according to the market. That is the first of 730,000 such websites.

Going through the websites at random, you will see that the vast majority of them are in the same business. They are the dealers working on an international basis. It is available there through the post. I ask the Minister what the Government are doing about that. Are any attempts being made on an international basis, as with paedophiles, to tackle not only the sale and promotion of cannabis but access to information through the Internet on how to purchase crack cocaine and heroin? Those drugs figure similarly on other websites.

Young people widely use both mobile telephones and the Internet. Those are the ways in which life is changing so quickly for them. They can be approached in a quite different way from anything that we have seen previously. I should like to know, as this has not been mentioned either in the debate in the other place or here, what the Government and the police intend to do about that.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative

My Lords, we have heard an awful lot about an awful lot of experts in the course of this debate. I am not an expert on drugs. However, I have been chairman of a leading provider of day care for drug addicts in the City of Westminster for 10 years, chairman of the Addiction Recovery Foundation for 16 years, vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse for 12 years, and I have probably taken rather more drugs than most of the other Members of your Lordships' House. So I am beginning to learn a little bit.

I have heard from all sides of the House confusion and from all sides of the House concern. Maybe we should try to step back for a minute and look to see if those two things come together. I have not heard one noble Lord on either side of this argument or any side of the House say that taking drugs is a good thing. From all sides of the House, noble Lord after noble Lord has risen and given us personal anecdote and expert view or general view about the dangers of drugs and in particular the danger of cannabis. All those noble Lords are entirely correct. Cannabis is a deeply undesirable drug. It is addictive. It is harmful. It causes problems to physical health. It causes all the problems described by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many other noble Lords. However, in the general scheme of things, it is not half as dangerous as a lot of other things in our society. So we need to find a bit of balance there. However, everyone thinks that it is dangerous. Everyone would like to find a solution to the problem.

The other sentiment that we have heard on all sides of the House is that if we liberalise, legalise or somehow reduce the classification it will lead to a massive increase. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, said that we should not go down this route unless there was proof that liberalisation does not lead to an increase in use. There is a certain amount of logic in what the noble Lady was saying, and of course that proof does not exist. However, I will tell your Lordships what proof does exist. Under the current regime, whether we reclassify or whether we do not, we will undoubtedly see an increase in use, next week and the week after, and the year after, as we have year on year for the past 30 years as we have tightened the rules and regulations and laws and increased the sentences and deployed more police and spent more money on the courts. That is costing us between £12 billion and £18 billion a year. That is the price of having our drugs policy centred around the Misuse of Drugs Act. We should bear that in mind.

Noble Lord after noble Lord has talked about the message that we shall send out today if we lower the classification, or if we maintain it, or if we do anything else with it. My noble friend Lord Bell knows an awful lot about sending out messages—much more than I do—but I do know one thing: not one single person under the age of 20, certainly not your 10 or 12 year-old in Glasgow, will give a brass farthing whether a drug is classed as B, C, D or Z. Indeed, they will not know or care.

My noble friend Lady Blatch rightly talked about Brixton and what had happened there with the experiments that the Home Secretary conducted. I lived in Brixton before that. Brixton has been full to the gunnels with drug dealers for 15 years. The police have walked up one pavement and the dealers have walked down the other. This reclassification will not make a blind bit of difference to that, and anyone who thinks that it will is living in Cloud-cuckoo-land. That is not the way the world works. As virtually every single speaker has said, the reality is that drugs, whether cannabis or heroin, constitute a very serious health problem, although heroin is clearly a great deal more serious than cannabis. However, cannabis constitutes a health problem. The way you deal with health problems is with healthcare, not through the criminal justice system, because that does not work. You can keep the classification at class B or at class C, or you can make it class Z, it will not make a blind bit of difference.

The order before us this evening is a complete and utter irrelevance. I suspect what happened was that the Home Secretary wanted to move in the right direction he was advised to move in, which was to try to get out of this criminal justice nightmare in which we currently live, but that the weight that descended on the back of his neck from his own Back-Benchers and, indeed, from Members of my own party, made him chicken out, so while lowering the classification with one hand he raises the penalties with another, which is a completely pointless act if ever I heard of one, but that is where we have got to.

As someone who has been involved in this subject and, I believe, spoken in every debate in this House concerning drugs in the 15 or 16 years I have been privileged to be a Member of your Lordships' House, I normally come in with a vague idea of what I shall do, what I shall say and how I shall vote. However, I came into this debate this evening with a blank piece of paper—luckily I have not written too much on it—without the slightest idea of what the order would achieve. Having listened very, very carefully and made masses and masses of notes, I am now completely convinced that I still do not have a clue what it will achieve, except that I am pretty certain that it will achieve absolutely nothing.

But what I have heard from all quarters of the House—which is very unusual in your Lordships' House on a difficult issue such as this—is that the House too is completely confused and was not swayed by the noble Baroness's very careful and, as always, clearly put argument. I understood her argument but it did not sway me. It did not convince me that the order was anything except completely pointless.

I listened very carefully to the amendment of my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench. He tried to mitigate a shambles with a minor shambles. We shall end up with an even bigger shambles. The best solution this evening would be for the Minister to do what wonderful, clever and talented noble Lords and Ministers do on occasion and say, "I think that we have got this wrong. I should like to take it away and think again".

Your Lordships have the right, the power and the privilege to ask the Government to think again. We all want to achieve the same thing—reduction in drug use and the protection of young people. Everyone on all sides of the House is agreed on that but not one single speaker knows exactly how we should achieve it. I do not think that the Minister convinced us that she knows either. I for one would be much happier if I did not have to vote one way or the other, and if the Government very sensibly took the measure away.

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 10:15 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, I regret to tell the noble Lord that I do not think that I shall be able to fulfil his request.

This has been a really extraordinary debate. In many ways, it shows the utility of your Lordships' House. It has been wide-ranging, impassioned and, almost without exception, extraordinarily well informed. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, is right when he says that we are all of one mind. We all agree that drugs are pernicious. We would all like to see them expunged and the young people in particular of our country released from their grip. Many people around the House have expressed different views on how we do that.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, says that the effort that the Government are making is completely and utterly irrelevant, and that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has chickened out. I want to say how wholeheartedly I disagree on that. The order is not irrelevant. One had only to listen to the pain that was obvious in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and the passion of my noble friend Lady Howells to know that it was not irrelevant, but extraordinarily important.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, says that the Government are muddled, and that we are pointing in two directions. We are not. This is not a simple issue on which one can grasp from the air a simple solution and say, "That is it". If it were, we would have grasped that solution long before now. The Government are trying to do quite a difficult, brave and important thing. We acknowledge that cannabis is a harmful drug. Nothing that I said in opening the debate detracted from that. A number of noble Lords seemed to suggest that I had in some way equivocated. I did not. It is a drug that can have detrimental effects, particularly on those who have a vulnerability in relation to mental illness. It is not a drug that we believe should be legalised.

However, we have to face the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves as a community. Cannabis is widely used. There is a challenge for us in terms of what we do to release young people from that vice, as it is they in the main who are entrapped by it. There is an old adage that one can hate the sin but love the sinner. We seek to differentiate between the way in which we will treat the user of cannabis and its purveyor, provider or supplier. That is why we remain rigid in our opposition to those who sell the drugs, abuse our young people and derive profit from it. We are not ashamed to say that we will not move one jot in terms of the 14 years that should follow such people.

That does not make us inconsistent. In the steps that we are taking in the Criminal Justice Bill and other Bills that we have been privileged to discuss in this House, we seek to make a very clear distinction by the way in which we treat those who abuse drugs, so that treatment is available. That is a very important point.

I shall try, as briefly and quickly as I can, to deal with some points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has been accused of being timid. I saw no timidity in his discourse. He referred to Professor Edwards as a member of the advisory council—of course, he is a former member—and to the ever-increasing body of research. That research has been taken into account. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, mentioned the increase in potency and the higher strength cannabis, which has in fact been on the market since the 1990s. Those issues did prey on our minds and we considered them well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, gave us qualified support, because she accuses the Government of timidity. She said that we should go further and, in effect, legalise cannabis. My response is: "No. We think that we have gone far enough".

The noble Baroness asked why there is a presumption for arrest. There is not. The presumption is against arrest. It is expected that in most cases a warning will be sufficient, together with confiscation of the drug. However, there are certain circumstances where arrest will be appropriate, as I outlined in my opening remarks. The increase in penalties for trafficking maintains our position in relation to the 14-year sentence.

I should respond next to the speech of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy. She asked about those who need cannabis for medicinal purposes. My right honourable friend has made clear that he is willing to amend the misuse of drugs legislation as necessary to allow the prescribing of a cannabis-based medicine as a form of pain relief. The Home Office granted a licence to GW Pharmaceuticals, who have conducted trials and have developed a cannabis-based medicine designed to relieve chronic nerve pain. The company is seeking marketing approval for the product from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. That is a process through which all new medicines have to go in order to protect public health. The Multiple Sclerosis Society supports that approach. Therefore, it is a matter that we are trying to address.

One of the most powerful speeches was made by my noble friend Baroness Howells. I understand each and every issue that she raised. However, if I may respectfully say so, many of her points were answered in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale. My noble friend raised some difficult issues and I shall answer her questions directly. She asked if cannabis is harmless. We do not say that it is. She then asked whether downgrading cannabis stops people from taking harder drugs. We have heard an answer to that. In response to the question whether relaxing the law on cannabis would free police to deal with more drugs, I draw my noble friend's attention to the crumbs of comfort that have been drawn from the Lambeth experiment. There has been a 10 per cent increase in arrests for class A drugs-dealing. In the 11 months to May 2002, 224 arrests were made, compared to 204 in the 12 months to June 2001. That was a result of greater police activity against dealers. In a survey of the people of Lambeth, 83 per cent of residents supported the scheme. Some supported it on condition that the police spend more time on serious crimes. We can therefore conclude from the surveys that they believed that the scheme was right.

However, I of course acknowledge my noble friend's remarks about the mothers of boys. I also acknowledge, as was indicated by the noble Baroness, Lady Massam, that I have a personal reason for empathising with those who have those concerns.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, mentioned the Connexions leaflet. I should make it clear that its contents were not approved by the Government and, as the noble Lord said, the leaflets have been withdrawn. However, there is a job for us to do in educating our young people and giving them the skills and the knowledge they need to make informed choices. That is a campaign in which we intend to engage with vigour. Children need to hear that drugs are dangerous. They may vary in their danger, but none of them is conducive to good health. As many people have said, we need to look at the health effects. Cannabis has addictive properties. They are not as high as class A. Cannabis does not kill through overdose; it does not cause social and personal safety problems to the same extent; but we do not for a moment suggest that the effects are not aberrant, because they are.

As a number of noble Lords have said, the evidence about schizophrenia is inconclusive. The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, says that the Government have been too timorous and that we should go further. I hope that the answers I have given to other noble Lords he will take as answers to his queries.

We are including all cannabis in the reclassification, including class C. It was a joy but also a pain to hear the pithy comments of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, whom I always enjoy, even when the barbs are directed towards me. I say to the noble Lord that the reclassification to class C is not a mistake. It enables us to do something which could be creative in responding to the needs many have called for. I welcome and thank my noble friend Lord Rea for his support drawn from his experience as a GP. That is valuable evidence indeed.

In answer to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, the oil will be included in the reclassification as C. The medical evidence indicates that that is an appropriate move. I of course hear what my noble friend Lord Mackenzie said about cannabis and driving. Everything that we do to limit the use of cannabis will, we hope, impinge on those issues and scientists are seeking to develop scientific means of establishing whether a person is impaired. Cannabis stays in the bloodstream for as long as 28 days—long after it ceases to impair performance.

Other organisations have supported what the Government have tried to do. They include the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; the Association of Chief Police Officers; the Metropolitan Police Service; Turning Point; AdAction; DrugScope; the Home Affairs Select Committee in its report of 2002; the Police Federation; and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. None of them is irresponsible. All of them are committed to looking at the problem and trying to see whether they can help.

We have come on a long and tortuous journey. It has been difficult, but we believe that we have reached an honourable and good compromise. There is much for us to do. We will of course rely on those of good will to help us. We can, at the same time, move the broader drugs agenda squarely on to the menace of class A drugs. These are the drugs which can kill; which can insidiously destroy entire communities. We are now starting to make an impact in our strategy to reduce class A drug misuse and the effects of that.

The Government are investing unprecedented levels of funds into drug treatment, education and enforcing the law. On education, we are targeting action under the Positive Futures programme to prevent the most vulnerable young people from getting involved in drugs. We are using sport and art to develop their skills to help themselves resist drugs and re-enter education and training. Positive Futures initiatives have been set up in 104 areas and 16,000 vulnerable young people are already receiving support under the scheme.

Connexions partnerships aim to provide teenagers with access to the support they need to take part effectively in learning and make a successful transition to adulthood. In some cases, Connexions will identify and refer young people with drug problems to specialist support. There are no easy solutions, but many of us have seen what young people can achieve and the wonders that they can perform when we help them out of the mire into which drugs have taken them. This Government believe that they have the right strategy, based on a realistic approach, to make a real and sustained impact on the drugs problem and to deliver substantial improvements. I invite your Lordships to endorse what the Government are trying to do—and trying to do bravely and correctly.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will it now mean that injecting cannabis is a class C situation? I believe that there should be no compromise with dirty needles and the risk of HIV and hepatitis.

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 10:30 pm, 12th November 2003

My Lords, as I said, cannabinol—it is late at night; having sat on this Bench for a long time, I cannot even say the word—cannabis oil, if I may use a different form of the word, is included in the reclassification of class C drugs. All forms of cannabis will now fall within the class C classification.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

My Lords, the hour is late and so I shall be very brief. I am extremely grateful to Members from all sides of the House who have spoken in support of my amendment. I am sorry that my noble friend Lady Carnegy and the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, thought that I was being lily-livered. Whether she supported me or not, it was a privilege to listen to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids. Due to the sincerity with which she spoke, whether she was for or against me, I would have been proud to hear that speech. She spoke sincerely about petty crime, family break-up and mental illness and made a terrific speech.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment. Those who were less supportive included, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale. However, when they began to speak, I found that much of what they said was in tune with my thinking—that is, the noble Baroness referred to the muddle over the class C classification and whether we would have a class D, and she mentioned consistency by the police. The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, used a great phrase, referring to the "legal acrobatics" of the Home Secretary, which is exactly what my amendment addresses.

However, the Minister rounded off her remarks by saying that the Government have been on a tortuous journey. You can say that again! They are trying to be all things to all men. The order sends a mixed message leading to a muddle. It may not seem to be a muddle from a desk in Whitehall, but the noble Baroness has only to listen to the messages from around the House tonight to know that the issue is a muddle out there in the country where it really matters.

Mine is not a fatal amendment, as it is termed, but it will send a clear signal to the Government that your Lordships are concerned about the dangers of the policy that the Government are following. Following on from the remarks of my noble friend Lord Mancroft, I do not believe that the noble Baroness will withdraw the order and think again—she shakes her head as I look at her. Therefore, I intend to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 78; Not-Contents, 61.

Division number 2 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003

Aye: 76 Members of the House of Lords

No: 59 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

On Question, Whether the original Motion, as amended, shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 63; Not-Contents, 37.

Division number 3 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003

Aye: 61 Members of the House of Lords

No: 35 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion, as amended, agreed to accordingly.