Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

– in the House of Lords at 4:58 pm on 25th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, this order will reclassify cannabis as a class B drug on 26 January 2009. On 7 May, I repeated to this House the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place announcing the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis. This is a measure which we are taking to protect the public, particularly the future health of our young people.

While the use of cannabis remains widespread, it has, none the less, fallen to its lowest level in 10 years. It is crucial that this trend continues. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has consistently advised that cannabis is a harmful drug that poses a real threat to individual health and to society. There is clear evidence that it can produce physical harms as well as immediate and long-term mental health harms. It can worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

However, there remains considerable uncertainty about the role that cannabis plays in the onset of psychotic illness and the increased risk to mental health from the use of stronger cannabis—commonly known as skunk—which is more so if young people start to use at an early age or binge smoke. The council's view is that the evidence has become more, rather than less, confused over the past few years but, in the words of the council, the possibility of increased harm "cannot be denied". Young people must be protected, particularly where there is such uncertainty. Efforts need to be made to encourage abstinence, particularly among those with underlying mental health problems.

Against this background of uncertainty, we have clear evidence that skunk, with an average potency of 16 per cent, now dominates in the UK with a market share of 80 per cent of street-seized cannabis, compared with an estimated 30 per cent in 2002. This increase is the result of a massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis by organised crime groups.

As the House will be aware, in April 2008 the advisory council reported to Government that based on its assessment of harm, the majority of the council's members took the view that cannabis should remain a class C drug. I wish to make it clear that we do not dispute the council's findings on harm, nor have we rejected its advice on classification lightly. However, within the statutory process, there are distinct roles and responsibilities. It is the role of the council to provide advice on harms and for the Government to consider that advice, take an overview and make a decision based on all the relevant factors, including wider issues such as public perceptions and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. It is then for Parliament, as it does today, to scrutinise that decision and ultimately change our law.

Reclassification is only one of our actions. In accepting the 20 other recommendations made by the advisory council, we continue to implement our comprehensive public-health-based programme of work to tackle cannabis ranging from education through to specialist treatment. This sits within our new 10-year drug strategy. We will continue to pursue all routes, whether through campaigns, guidance or research, to make progress to further reduce the use of cannabis, increase awareness among young people of the harm that cannabis can cause, and provide rapid access to effective treatment to those who are dependent on it.

The FRANK drug awareness campaign plays a crucial role in empowering young people with the knowledge of the effects of drugs use. Over the past five years of FRANK, the availability and quality of advice to young people has greatly improved. Recent research confirms that FRANK is now recognised by 89 per cent of 11 to 21 year-olds. It is also vital that parents are central to our efforts to educate children and young people about cannabis. Parents are now a core audience for FRANK. We will launch the new phase of our FRANK cannabis campaign in the new year through a variety of media channels including television, radio and online advertising.

In agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers, we are stepping up our enforcement response to cannabis. Those who produce and supply cannabis should be left in no doubt of our intentions. We are already bearing down on organised crime groups involved in cultivation, with the latest statistics showing a significant increase in the number of seizures; most notably, the number of cannabis plants seized has increased by 65 per cent, up to 80,000 seizures, between 2005 to 2006-07. This action will be stepped up through the joint efforts of ACPO and the Serious Organised Crime Agency with better understanding of the problem, co-ordination, intelligence-sharing and targeting of organised criminal groups.

The activities of these criminals and their use of trafficked children will not be tolerated. By shutting down so-called cannabis farms, we will reduce the availability of stronger cannabis in our communities, disrupt organised crime, ensure that these criminals face long sentences and, where appropriate in the case of foreign nationals, are deported. We will further create a more hostile environment for those selling cannabis seeds, cultivation equipment and paraphernalia for illicit purposes. Practice advice on how existing legislation and powers can be used more effectively by the police, local authorities and other partners through local, targeted action will be provided by the National Policing Improvement Agency in March 2009.

To reinforce how serious we are about the harm of cannabis to individuals, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has accepted ACPO's proposals for a strengthened and escalating enforcement approach for possession in England and Wales, targeted at adult repeat offenders. Positive action must be taken when someone is found in possession. We want to ensure that police officers exercise discretion where appropriate and that police bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. However, it is not acceptable for someone to receive more than one warning or for individuals repeatedly to flout the law without any sanction.

Subject to the introduction of penalty notices for disorder, PNDs, for cannabis possession by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice, and notwithstanding that arrest must always be considered, a person caught in possession will face an escalated response, with the likelihood of a cannabis warning for a first offence, a PND, which imposes an immediate and financial criminal penalty, for a second offence, and a third offence normally resulting in arrest with the prospect of further action. Subsequent offences are likely to result in arrest. This provides incremental sanctions and a better deterrent, with a potential positive impact on an offender's behaviour but without unnecessarily criminalising people. It provides an enforcement policy which will bring those whose offending continues unabated before the courts.

Effective recording is important. PNDs for cannabis possession will be recorded on the police national computer. The new pentip fixed penalty database due to be available from 2010 will have a facility also to record cannabis warnings. Until then, it is the responsibility of individual forces to determine how they record cannabis warnings. ACPO will ensure that all forces are fully aware of the importance of more accurately recording cannabis warnings locally.

Young people under 18 will continue to be dealt with under the statutory process set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This already offers formal escalation, with a referral at any stage to a youth offending team for a substance misuse assessment and an appropriate intervention.

Class B status reflects the significant increase in both the market share of higher-than-average-potency cannabis and its actual potency. It takes full account of known risks and uncertain impacts on health, where the evidence may not be clear for some years. Accompanied by our information campaign and strengthened enforcement, it reinforces our national message that cannabis is harmful and illegal and helps to drive enforcement priorities to tackle commercial cultivation. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear that there is a compelling case for us to act now to reclassify rather than risk the future health of the next generation. Where there is a clear and serious problem, we must err on the side of caution. We make no apology for that. I commend the change proposed in the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13 October be approved. 28th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord West of Spithead.)

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to follow the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that cannabis should remain a class C drug and to delay implementing the order pending a further review by the advisory council".

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, our amendment calls on the Government to do two things: first, to follow the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that cannabis should remain a class C drug; and, secondly, to delay implementing the order pending a further review by the advisory council.

I draw your Lordships' attention to a letter published in the Guardian today which urges Peers to maintain the trend to evidence-based policy-making by supporting my amendment. The letter is signed by a formidable selection of Britain's scientific establishment, including two former government chief scientific advisers. There is a long list of people, including, for example, the chair of the Academy of Medical Science's working group on brain science, addiction and drugs, and also the president of the Royal College of Physicians. That is to name just a few of the people on the list. One would think that they might have a good grip on the scientific evidence on this issue.

So how did we get here? In July 2007, the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the classification of cannabis.

The council undertook what it describes as,

"a most careful scrutiny of the totality of the available evidence".

None of us denies that there are certain harms connected with cannabis, but the council concluded that,

"the harmfulness more closely equates with other Class C substances than with those currently classified as Class B".

The advisory council therefore recommended, as the Minister said, that cannabis should remain a class C drug. It also recommended convening a further review of cannabis in two years' time.

The order flies in the face of all this international evidence and, of course, the recommendations of the advisory council. I have always regarded our Prime Minister as a person who respects science and wants policy to be evidence-based. I appeal to him directly to heed our words today and, more particularly, those of his scientific advisers, and even at this late stage to defer implementing this order, pending a further review.

What, then, is the evidence? The Beckley Foundation found that despite the temporary patterns of cannabis use—that is, the widespread use of skunk—the harms caused are modest by comparison with those of other illegal drugs or, indeed, alcohol. We all know perfectly well that alcohol is far more dangerous than cannabis. Alcohol abuse leads to violence, suicide, liver cirrhosis, mental illness, dependence, addiction and lasting effects on the foetus. In marked contrast, the only health effect of cannabis referred to in the Government's Statement on the reclassification is the possible causal link with schizophrenia.

Studies of trends in cannabis use and psychosis over time form the most reliable research on this issue. The rest of the research, to be honest, is very confused and difficult to understand, with many key issues not taken into account. However, if there were a significant causal relationship from cannabis use to psychosis, you would expect—and would, in fact, find—a steep increase in cannabis use over time to coincide with a clear increase in the incidence of psychoses. The research has shown no such finding. We can therefore be confident that there is no significant risk of that kind.

The conclusion of the advisory council is that if there is a link, it is so weak that to reduce the incidence of schizophrenia by one single case, it would be necessary to prevent 5,000 men or 20,000 women ever smoking cannabis. But will reclassification achieve even this minuscule result? No, it will not. There is not a shred of evidence that tougher penalties under class B would achieve even a reduction in the incidence of schizophrenia by one single person. Four studies in Australia produced strong results supporting this assertion.

We discussed this issue with the noble Lord, Lord West, and I am most grateful to him for meeting us. The important point is that these longitudinal studies are just for differences across states. It is striking that in the more lenient states, the level of cannabis use grows significantly more slowly than in those with strong criminal penalties. We can only assume that the states which saw cannabis as a public health problem—which is what it is—rather than something to be demonised, had better public health campaigns. This finding was replicated in the UK: after the downward reclassification of cannabis from class B to C, the use of cannabis fell more quickly—it had already been falling a little—than had been the case under the tougher penalties of class B.

The advisory council rightly points out that whatever the criminal justice measures, they will have only a limited effect on the usage of the drug. The UK Drug Policy Commission goes further, saying:

"Domestic and international evidence suggests there is no direct link between the enforcement of drug law controls and the prevalence of drug use".

It continues:

"It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that reclassification back to Class B would have the desired effect of further deterring young people from using cannabis".

Reclassification of cannabis to class B, according to all those scientists, will achieve no significant positive results.

The order will, however, cause serious, lifelong damage to tens of thousands of young people. About 46 per cent of our 20 to 24 year-olds have taken cannabis, and a very large but declining number of those people will continue to take it, though in decreasing numbers over the years, regardless of the class of drug. The evidence is perfectly clear on that.

The Government's statement emphasises that police officers will be able to arrest for a first offence, albeit that the Minister has suggested that it will not be the norm, and that penalties for adults from the age of 18 must be escalated following any cannabis warning.

The research evidence shows that criminalising regimes generate employment problems for about a third of those penalised. That compares with an employment effect on only two per cent with civil penalties. More and more employers regard an enhanced CRB check as a necessity. This will of course reveal cannabis infringements. Young people will be excluded from jobs. Relationship difficulties and homelessness will also increase, according to the research. A more criminalising regime will simply add to the social consequences of our deepening recession.

I shall respond briefly to a few points made by the Minister. He mentioned that, despite upgrading cannabis to class B, the Government will not for the time being increase the penalties for children. The tougher penalties and criminalisation will take effect from the 18th birthday. Does that mean that the Government accept the argument that cannabis is not dangerous, and that it is not right to criminalise children for a relatively harmless activity? If so, might not those arguments apply also to people aged 18?

The Government's statement focuses mainly on the need for tougher action against cannabis suppliers. This order is not necessary for such action. The maximum penalties for the supply of class B or class C drugs are the same: 14 years' imprisonment or a fine. The Government have argued that the public want to see cannabis use taken more seriously. When I talked to the Minister in the other place, that was the only argument that he was left with by the time we had finished our discussion. However, a public attitude survey published in the Observer nine days ago showed that, although the public's attitude to drugs in general has hardened, they do not support raising the class of cannabis from C to B.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs rightly said that it hopes that,

"the government, parliament and the public appreciate that the use of cannabis is, ultimately, a public health problem; and that it requires a public health response".

That is the scientific view of this matter. With cannabis at class C since 2004, the Government have achieved a steady fall in the number of people taking the drug. I urge them to continue that approach, to listen to their own scientists, to act on the evidence and to avoid any further costly criminalisation of young people. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to follow the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that cannabis should remain a Class C drug and to delay implementing the order pending a further review by the Advisory Council."—(Baroness Meacher.)

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, let us start with the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in the attitude she is adopting towards this order. I have only three points to make, and I shall make them, I hope, relatively briefly.

I was fascinated by the Minister's speech. With what he said about the enforcement of the law against cannabis suppliers I have no problem at all; indeed, it is absolutely admirable. Where the weak point came in his case was the linkage between the action that he suggests the authorities should take against cannabis supply and the classification of cannabis in the Act. Whether it is classified B or C does not seem to make a great deal of difference; it does not make any difference at all with regard to the actions that the Minister is contemplating.

On the proposal to re-grade cannabis from class C to B, it is worth looking at the maximum penalties. For a class B drug there is a penalty of five years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine for possession. For supplying, there is a 14-year imprisonment and/or a fine. For class C drugs the number of years' imprisonment for possession is reduced from five to two, while the proposal for an unlimited fine remains unchanged and the penalties for supplying are precisely the same. Not only is that what the law says, but the way in which many people brought before the courts are dealt with also indicates that the penalties for class B and C do not differ greatly. In many courts, one has had the experience—and I see people in this Chamber with greater experience of this than me—that a sentence of three months for possession of a class B or C drug is probably about the tariff. For supplying, the penalties will be considerably greater.

That similarity between the punishments for class B and C drugs raises one immediate question: why is this being proposed now? I did not hear anything in the Minister's speech that answered that question. Why is this the moment to reclassify the drug? I assume that the argument must be deterrence. We heard a certain amount from the Minister about the declaratory function of law, that it was important that the law should declare this. I have never been a great one for regarding the law as having a massive declaratory function; it should have a functional function. Merely to declare that the drug should be class B rather than class C does not seem to take the argument much further. If the argument is, in essence, deterrence, is it seriously argued that if the penalty is two years for possession rather than five it will encourage people to use the drug? Is it seriously argued from the other side that, if the penalty is five rather than two years, it is actually going to deter people from using the drug? I just do not believe it. All the evidence is in the opposite direction.

The practical evidence, such as it is, seems to discount that basic assumption. There have been a number of recent studies of cannabis use in places where the laws on cannabis were liberalised, which seemed to indicate that states that introduced reforms did not experience a greater increase in cannabis use among adults or adolescents. Secondly, these studies established that increased cannabis use was actually greater in those states in which it was criminalised to a larger extent, and the greatest proportion of increased use was in the states with the severest penalties of all. The third thing that these studies showed was that liberalisation states did not show more favourable attitudes towards cannabis use than those maintaining a strict prohibition with criminal penalties. Finally, decriminalisation of cannabis in 12 states was actually accompanied by a significant decrease in A&E episodes involving drugs other than cannabis and an increase in cannabis episodes. Since cannabis was decriminalised, drug users tended to stay with the use of cannabis and move away from the use of more harmful illegal drugs.

One must look at the evidence on this; there is no point in looking at this very difficult problem on the basis of not liking the effects of cannabis supply. A study of the social impact of civil versus criminal penalties found that those penalised under the criminalised regime of Western Australia were more likely than those in the more liberal state of South Australia to report adverse employment consequences, further contact with the criminal justice system, relationship problems and accommodation difficulties that could be attributed to their apprehension for the cannabis offence. There is a consensus that the de facto legalisation of cannabis use in the Netherlands has not, in itself, led to increased cannabis use among adults or young people.

If there is no evidence that greater penalties act as a deterrent, and the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction, are there any other reasons for the reclassification? We have heard a little about the medical evidence. I will not go into it in any great detail because I am neither qualified nor is there time in this short debate, but the medical evidence is, at its highest, equivocal. It is said that there is a causal relationship between cannabis use and the subsequent development of psychotic symptoms, particularly schizophrenia. There have been various studies on that. A recent Australian study, for example, concluded that, despite a rise in the prevalence of cannabis use, there was no evidence of a significant increase in schizophrenia. Again, one has to ask the same question I asked earlier on: why do this now? What is the urgency for this reclassification in the face of the evidence that we have?

Finally, there is the recommendation of the Government's own advisory council that cannabis remain a class B drug. It is not binding on the Government. An advisory council report does not commit the Government to do anything and it is not binding on any Administration. I totally accept that. But it is strong persuasive evidence, which the Government should ignore, in my view, only if there is clear evidence to the contrary. There is not. I therefore come to the conclusion that the Government really should have another look at this.

I do not intend to vote. Perhaps I should make my position clear: if there is a vote, I do not intend voting, not because of anything to do with this particular order, but on the basis of my experience as Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the House at one time that this House does not divide on orders. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot follow my noble friend Lady Meacher into the Lobbies if there is a Division; however, I shall be there in spirit with her, let me put it that way.

The merits of the argument are clear. There is no good reason why this reclassification of cannabis should take place now. Indeed, the evidence, such as it is, is in favour of leaving it exactly as it is at the moment. The noble Baroness's amendment points the way forward. We should not take this decision now. The advisory council should have another look at the matter and come back in two years' time and then we can take a firm view on the issue. I am fortified in that view by the letter in today's Guardian, which has already been referred to. It is a powerful letter written by a powerful group of eminent people. I really think that the Government ignore those opinions at their peril.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I think it is this side's turn.

Shortly before 23 November 2003, when the House passed the order making cannabis a class C drug, an event occurred that perhaps throws some light on the attitude of too many people claiming to be champions of the young. Almost unbelievably, Connexions, an advice centre set up by the Department for Education and Skills, published a pamphlet treating cannabis use almost as if it were a joke. The pamphlet said that cannabis makes you feel relaxed, chilled out, giggly, sociable, chatty and likely to get an attack of the munchies. That was the advice put out by that advisory body. But cannabis was not then, and is not now, a suitable subject for a good giggle. In 2003 it was already all too obvious that it was not the recreational, relatively harmless and non-addictive drug talked about by some. It was already well known as a substance that was dangerous and mind-altering in effect. It is no use the noble Lord shaking his head. Research by the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands had already shown that people who used cannabis were nearly three times more likely than non-users to develop psychotic disorders.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour 5:30 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord; perhaps I can answer him. There is a mass of scientific evidence showing that if there is a causal link, it is a very tenuous one and the number of people involved is very small. I think that the noble Lord should go and read the report of the advisory council.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

That was a surprising intervention, my Lords. I think that the noble Lord will appreciate when he has heard my address that I spent rather more time studying this than he appears to have done.

I referred to the position in 2003. Despite the evidence at that time, Ministers were determined—and, judging by the Home Office press release of 23 October 2001, determined, before they even got the views of the advisory council—to put cannabis in the same category as tranquilisers. They were happy to risk young people thinking that they could smoke it without risk. It really is of some significance. You can see from that press release that at that time, back in 2001, the Government were minded to go ahead. They said that they thought that classifying cannabis as a class C drug would be the right approach and were hoping that the advisory council would agree with them.

On 12 November 2003 I told the House that, two months earlier, the newspapers had reported the suicide of Charles King, a student of 23 who developed a mental illness induced by cannabis use. He left a note before he died saying,

"cannabis has ruined my life".

I went on in these terms:

"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".—[Hansard, 12/11/03; col. 1484.]

That is what I said then and that is how I feel now. That is why I am speaking this afternoon.

I confess that I have gone on about this for many years. On 28 January 2003 I drew attention to evidence published in the British Medical Journal which established a clear link between cannabis use and psychiatric illness. I returned to the charge on 14 January 2004. I said that it was madness to put cannabis in the same category as tranquilisers and tell young people it was relatively harmless when Professor Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry and the Maudsley Hospital was saying at that time that cannabis use was the leading problem faced by the country's mental health services—when Professor Murray was telling us all that inner-city psychiatric services were nearly at crisis point, with up to 80 per cent of all psychotic cases having a history of cannabis use.

Professor Murray was supported by Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of Sane, a charity of which my wife was once a trustee. Marjorie told those prepared to listen that many psychiatric units had become little more than "cannabis wards" because of the huge number who had been turned psychotic by the drug, with patients with non-drug-related mental illness being turned away from such wards because of threats of violence from psychotic cannabis users.

In the following months, study after study in Holland, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden hammered home the message that use could cause schizophrenia, and few weeks passed without reports in the press of violent assaults and killings by cannabis users, and of users committing suicide. By now we had got to 2005 and an election was looming. Charles Clarke, who had succeeded David Blunkett as Home Secretary, ordered a new inquiry, but once the election was safely out of the way, all we got was an announcement that there was to be another campaign to warn people about cannabis use. The absurdity of that was pointed out by the former drugs tsar Keith Halliwell, who said that we now had a Government spending taxpayers' money to highlight the dangers of their own policies. You cannot get dafter than that.

Eventually, common sense has prevailed. I support what the Government are doing but do not rejoice at some of the reasons given for the change of heart. It is said that cannabis has become stronger, but it had become very much stronger by 2003. Only the Government were refusing to accept the abundant evidence to that effect of people such as Dr Ian Oliver, independent consultant to the UN Drug Control Programme.

It is said—the Home Secretary said this in her letter to the advisory council—that new evidence now links cannabis use to mental health problems. Surprise, surprise; that link was absolutely obvious back in 2003. We all know about there being more joy in heaven over the one sinner who repenteth, and the Government should get praise, not brickbats, for bringing forward this order. In so doing, they have rejected the advice of the advisory council. In a letter in today's Guardian, kindly drawn to my attention by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, it is suggested that it is wrong for the Government not to follow the expert scientific advice they have been given. But let us be clear: all sorts of worthy people, whom I respect, are on the advisory council and speak with authority on, for instance, social attitudes and policing matters. However, they are certainly not all scientists and the advisory council is not a scientific advisory body. That was highlighted a little while ago by Professor Murray, to whom I referred in a different context. He pointed out that there was nobody on the advisory council with expertise in psychosis. It is a Home Office body made up of well-meaning people, many of whom are associated with bodies committed to the liberalisation of drugs policy. The Government should pay attention to what they say, but are perfectly entitled to say that there is other evidence which far outweighs the conclusions reached by the advisory council. The Government can claim today that they have listened to the real experts, and for that I give them at least two cheers.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour

My Lords, I oppose the amendment. I do so as the former head of a drug squad with which I witnessed at first-hand the debilitating effects of cannabis misuse by young people and old people alike. I agree wholeheartedly with the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington.

The cannabis that I dealt with as a young detective many years ago was far less dangerous than the modern version. The level of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, in modern skunk cannabis is multiples higher than in the old form and therefore the modern form is stronger. Therein lies the danger to those who use it. Before 2004, cannabis was a class B drug. I opposed its reclassification then, because it was not a less dangerous substance; it was more dangerous. We now have an opportunity to correct that mistake. We should confirm the change and reject the amendment.

I know that in January 2006 the classification was reconsidered by this body of the great and the good, the advisory council; again, I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about the council. I could produce a list of people who would put the opposite view; it would be as long as the Guardian list of eminent people, so I do not think that the Guardian list carries a great deal of value. Opinion is divided on this vexed subject. The vast majority of right-thinking people believe that the council's decision then was wrong.

Research shows that one in 10 cannabis users has unpleasant experiences, including confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia. Cannabis use also interferes with a person's capacity to concentrate, to organise information and to use it. Any drug that distorts perception is self-evidently dangerous, particularly when people use machinery or drive.

I cite the case of an acquaintance of mine, Lisa Voice, who lives in St John's Wood. Three years ago, she was attacked by a house guest and dragged from her bed; her head was stamped on and she almost died. The house guest was described as having cannabis psychosis. He is serving a sentence in prison where, alas, he is still using cannabis, I understand.

In New Zealand, researchers found that those who smoked cannabis regularly and had smoked it before driving were more likely to be injured in a car crash. That might seem obvious. A recent study in France of more than 10,000 drivers involved in fatal car crashes found that, even with the influence of alcohol taken into account, users were more than twice as likely to be the cause of a fatal accident than be one of its victims.

Cannabis, as has been said, is linked to schizophrenia and psychosis. It was a dangerous drug when I was a young man and it is a far greater danger to society now, because of its increased strength. The lowering of its classification sent a signal to the young—worse still to the police—that it was not an important issue. It is an important issue and we owe it to the youngsters, who may be tempted to embark on the road to despair by taking cannabis, to illustrate clearly the danger of its use. We can do this by decisively rejecting the amendment.

Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Meacher. I, too, believe that the Government are wrong to seek to reclassify cannabis from class C to B against the advice of their own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Since cannabis was reclassified down from B to C there has been no increase in cannabis usage—indeed, there has been a reduction in usage—and there is no evidence that usage will be reduced by reclassification back from C to B. Cannabis is still used by more than 1 million people in this country and reclassification makes them all potential criminals. The higher the classification, the more the criminal fraternity can charge for supply and the greater the incentive for them to produce more potent forms of cannabis, as higher potency reduces the bulk, and hence the risk, associated with distribution.

The advisory council's report concludes:

"The Council hopes that the government, parliament and the public appreciate that the use of cannabis is, ultimately, a public health problem; and that it requires a public health response if current use and the associated harms are to be substantially reduced".

The campaign against smoking has been very successful without having to make tobacco illegal.

The evidence for the supposed damaging effects of cannabis on mental health is inconclusive and further research is necessary. This is happening all over the world and it therefore makes sense for the Government to at least postpone reclassification pending the proposed further report by their advisory council in two years' time. I hope that the Government can be persuaded to agree.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative 5:45 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, before coming here this evening, I took the trouble to read the debate that we had a few years ago, when we declassified cannabis. It was in many ways like our debate this evening—it was rather too emotional and not based on facts. I happened to believe at that time that the Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, was doing the right thing for the wrong reason; I happen to think this evening that the Government are doing the wrong thing for the right reason. It is important to look at that reason.

I listened with great care, as I always do, to my noble friend Lord Waddington. In difficult debates such as this—this is clearly a difficult and confusing debate for a lot of people—it is important to try to find the middle ground: the area on which we all agree. I suspect that the most important point on which all noble Lords agree is that on the whole we would like cannabis use to decrease, we would like all the harms associated with cannabis use to go and we would like to restrict crime. We can all agree on the bad bits of cannabis, and most noble Lords have done so. However, we have to debate how to do this and whether the methods that we are using are right.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, and my noble friend Lord Waddington, I, too, could tell noble Lords harrowing stories about people—particularly, young people—who have had tremendous problems as a consequence of cannabis use and who have been ill. I, too, know of people who have committed suicide as a consequence of their drug use, including cannabis use. I know that families and communities have been destroyed by cannabis use. However, in the groups of drugs that people take in this country, there is no getting away from the fact that alcohol and tobacco, neither of which is classified, have caused a great deal more harm—I refer to mental health, physical health and the effect on families, communities and crime—than cannabis ever has. That is not to say that cannabis is good; cannabis is bad—it is probably very bad. But in my opinion—I have worked for more than 25 years in providing treatment to drug addicts—alcohol is significantly worse. We have to bear these things in mind. This is not about right and wrong; it is all about shades of grey and shades of rightness and wrongness.

The Minister talked about the tough measures that the Government will take when they move classification from C to B—I have no doubt that they will succeed in doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made some powerful points about criminal law and cannabis. Despite what the Minister said, I do not think that this is really very tough. If you get stopped by a policeman, you can be warned in relation to cannabis, but that is not really very tough. If you get stopped a second time, you get fined. However, that policeman does not know that that is being done a second time because, as the noble Lord pointed out, most police forces do not register the first time. Unless you are stupid enough to be stopped by the same policeman, the police will not know that you are being stopped a second time, so you will not get a fine.

Let us think about how incredibly tough the Government's new penalty, which the noble Lord mentioned, will be. It is a fine of £80. Let us look for an equivalent. Most noble Lords spend time in Westminster. If you park your car on a yellow line, you get fined £40 and, if you forget to pay or you are on a double yellow line, you get fined £80. So this really tough Government believe that it is really tough to equate cannabis use to parking on a double yellow line. I do not think that that is tough at all. It is important to try to use the right language. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, research shows that throughout the world being tough—using criminal sanctions against drug users, particularly cannabis users—simply does not work. We might like it to work and we might think that it was a good idea if it did work, but the evidence plainly shows that it does not.

Let us look at the Government's reasons for doing what they are doing today. Most of them have been discussed, so we can nip through them quickly. The first concerns the strength of cannabis. The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, talked about the cannabis that he knew as a young policeman not being half as strong as the cannabis that we get now. That is true to a certain extent. Skunk has been around for 30 years, so it is not new, although it was not around very much.

Incidentally, we have skunk in Britain because of the Government's failure to control the drug market. Because people no longer wish to import it, 50 per cent of the cannabis smoked in Britain is home-grown. It is grown mainly by Vietnamese criminal gangs hydroponically under roofs, which leads to it becoming stronger. How much stronger is it? The United States drugs tsar said that it is 30 times stronger—well, Americans are allowed to exaggerate—but the science tells us that it is between two and a half and three times stronger. In your language and mine, that is the difference between beer and wine. It is a big deal but not that big a deal.

Furthermore, there is a concept that, because it is stronger, it is worse, but that is not true. If I am given a pint mug and it has brown liquid in it, I presume that it is beer. If I take a large mouthful and discover that it is whisky, which is rather stronger, I think to myself, "I don't think I'll have so much". If you use alcohol, you get used to the strength and you know what is too much. Do your Lordships really think that all cannabis users are so stupid that they cannot work out how much to take? The advisory council's report makes it clear—and the Government have accepted—that cannabis is mixed with tobacco. People know how to mix it; they are not that stupid.

The other thing to bear in mind—the Government have produced this and the Home Office is very keen on it—is called binge smoking. I have been in the drug treatment field for 25 years but I have never heard of binge smoking. There is a huge difference between binge drinking and binge smoking. If you binge drink, before you pass out you get to the nasty stage where you go around clouting policemen, smashing your car up and generally being a nuisance. If you smoke too much cannabis, you go to sleep. That is a bore but it is not a really big health hazard. Therefore, we should be careful about using the term binge smoking; it is a bit sensationalist.

We have talked a lot this evening, and rightly so, about the other reason why the Government are keen on reclassification—that is, mental health problems. There is absolutely no doubt—we have known this for 30 years—that there is a strong causal link between cannabis and mental health problems. However, we now also know that cannabis does not cause mental health problems. If those who have a propensity for mental health problems, with the possibility of becoming psychotic, smoke cannabis, that will accelerate those problems. There is no doubt at all that cannabis linked to mental health problems is difficult to deal with and causes all the problems that my noble friend Lord Waddington and the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, talked about. Luckily, such problems are few in number, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, the overriding fact, which it is worth pointing out, is that there is no evidence of an increase in psychosis anywhere in the world. The Australian studies, in particular, are hugely important because they are so longitudinal. There has been no increase in mental illness but, at the same time, cannabis use has increased. Those two facts cannot be divorced. New evidence is always coming forward from scientists, but there is nothing yet that one can put one's finger on and say, "That absolutely settles the matter". The link is there and we know more about it, but to say that cannabis causes mental illness is simply not true. It does not.

The Government are right to talk about the precautionary principle. We should always be careful when making changes. I do not think that this is a huge move, so there is not much to be precautionary about, but it is important to bear in mind the fact that, following the declassification of cannabis from B to C in, I believe, 2003, we have seen a decrease in cannabis use. Therefore, if the Government really intended to adopt the precautionary principle, they certainly would not be doing what they are doing today.

It is also true to say that you have to be careful about the numbers. Over the years in your Lordships' House, I have noticed that, whichever Government are in power—my own party is just as guilty in this—when the numbers go up, the Minister says, "You have to be careful. You mustn't trust the British Crime Survey; it's not entirely accurate". However, when they go down, the Minister is frightfully keen to trumpet that and says, "It's marvellous. Our policies are working". Therefore, I take the numbers with a pinch of salt, if not a large bowl of Saxa.

It is interesting to note that, while cannabis use is apparently going down, the amounts being seized by the police and circulating in the system appear to be going up. Do we take it that fewer people are smoking more? I do not think so. We just need a bit of healthy scepticism.

The Government talked about the public attitude. I was completely fascinated by the Statement made in another place, which was repeated in your Lordships' House on 7 May, when the Minister, in col. 616, referred to a report stating that 58 per cent of the people in this country were in favour of returning cannabis to class B. It stretches my credulity a little that 58 per cent of people in this country really understand the difference between classes C and B. I have spoken to policemen, magistrates and people involved in the drugs field and most of them do not understand the difference. The idea that 58 per cent of British people are hanging on this evening's debate is difficult to accept.

More important, the advisory council's report, which is backed up by quite a lot of data, suggests that most people realise that cannabis is illegal. The figure for those who do not is about 4 per cent, which is not bad. Quite a lot of people think that driving through town at 60 miles an hour is legal. You cannot expect people to get everything right. We find that the vast majority of people in this country accept that cannabis is harmful. Of course it is. They do not know the details, but most people do not know the details about these things.

The bit that frightens me about all these debates is when the Government start talking about sending messages. If I were a schoolteacher, which thank God I am not—and thanks from the children, too, I should think—the first thing that I would say to every child is: do not believe any government message you are ever told by any Government. The idea that children, young people and adults in Britain are hanging on every message that the Government send out is absurd. The Government are not a PR company; I know that they think that they are and behave as such sometimes, but they are not a PR machine. The purpose of government is to adopt policies that are right for the British people even, occasionally, when they do not sound very nice. Brave Governments do brave things. This evening, the Government are doing a cowardly thing.

The key to our debate is in that horrible, oft used phrase "evidence-based policy". When a Minister asks for that, he is really saying, "Will some expert give me the answer to the problem that has just arrived on my desk? I don't want to do what you have elected me to do, which is to exercise my political judgment. I am feeling a bit chicken". The answer is not usually available, because it is a recent problem and the research has not been done.

To a certain extent, I am on the side of Ministers, because nowadays some of these problems are so tricky that you cannot expect everyone to know the answer to every difficult problem that crosses his desk. Parliament recognised that when it passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We set up the advisory council to produce the information about cannabis and classification that no Minister could be expected to know. That is why what is happening today is so extraordinary.

The chronology is that the Prime Minister, who has never made a speech or written about drugs, or declared a particular interest in this area of policy—I have done some research—suddenly announced that he was reclassifying cannabis from C to B. Presumably somebody told him the rules and, about four days later, the Home Secretary said that she would be consulting the advisory council, so we have the council's report. The Prime Minister made his decision without any evidence from the advisory council. I suspect that the only evidence that he had came from, say, the Daily Mail or from somebody who lived next door. I have no idea where it came from, but it certainly did not come from the advisory council. He got it wrong, so I suspect that to avoid judicial review of his decision he got the Home Secretary to put out a Statement and the advisory council to do its report, which turned the policy back the right way.

The reality is that this is the Prime Minister's decision. We read it in the newspapers long before it came to your Lordships' House from another place. If the Minister wants to satisfy the real concerns that have been raised in this debate, he needs to explain to this House exactly why the Government have overruled the advisory council's strong evidence and exactly why the Prime Minister thinks that he knows more about cannabis, its strengths and medical consequences than all the experts who are paid to advise him and his Home Secretary. I do not think that this is the biggest deal in the world; I do not think that anybody cares much whether cannabis is classified C or B. However, on balance, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is right and the Government are wrong.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 6:00 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, I rise to support the Government, perhaps exceptionally on some of these matters. I voted and spoke with my noble friend Lady David against the downgrading. In my professional life, I have seen so many changes in the way that possession of cannabis is handled, from very strictly in my earlier years to the current extremely lax way. At this hour, I am not going to enter into the degree of harm—after all, it is only a question of degree—but what happened when cannabis was downgraded in 2004 was that the priorities of the police were altered. Legislation was introduced in the face of opposition from the Member of Parliament for Vauxhall, Miss Kate Hoey, who knew about the problem in Lambeth. I have a house in Lambeth, and I have seen the problem for myself on the streets. The change created an expanding market for cannabis, which was tolerated. With those few words, I support the Government in their change of heart.

Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour

My Lords, it should be pointed out that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is a bit different from the advisory councils that other departments use. It was expressly created by Section 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which requires that any Order in Council, such as the one we are debating, making amendments to the list of drugs controlled by the Act may be made only after consultation with or on the recommendation of the ACMD. As many noble Lords have pointed out, the order we are debating directly contradicts a recommendation by the ACMD, even though the Government expressly asked it for its opinion on reclassification from class C to class B last July. The Government are overruling a statutory body set up to advise them. The ACMD is uniquely qualified by its membership and remit to make such a recommendation about classification.

In this case, it has carefully gathered, sifted and analysed a large amount of evidence. Some of the evidence covers the link between cannabis and psychotic illness, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who made a moving speech. On this issue, the ACMD report states:

"On balance, the Council considers that the evidence points to a probable, but weak, causal link between psychotic illness and cannabis use. Whether such a causal link will become stronger with the wider use of higher potency cannabis products remains uncertain".

It recommends a further review of cannabis in two years' time when it anticipates that further information will become available specifically relating to the causal relationship between cannabis use and psychosis and whether the stronger cannabis preparations now available are more likely to precipitate psychosis. That is not yet confirmed, although it is a hypothesis. That is one of the main reasons why a further review is suggested.

As other noble Lords have said, it will not follow from reclassification to class B that cannabis use will go down. The signal claim is that skunk or sinsemilla—the female flower before fertilisation—is much stronger than the resin or the leaf. Skunk or sinsemilla—"without seeds"—has almost no cannabidiol, which is an important component of cannabis. It is thought that it has a calming effect. It is a little bit like some antipsychotic drugs in its effect. The form of cannabis with a higher proportion of cannabidiol is less likely to cause psychosis. That needs to be much further investigated, which is why a further review was recommended by the ACMD.

One reason why use will not drop if cannabis is reclassified to class B is that heavy or dependent users will continue to use it. They will take risks to obtain their illegal drug supplies and are less likely to seek medical help when they need it because of fear of prosecution for possession. Costs to the police will inevitably rise. Although applying an £80 fine does not seem very much, across the board, police costs are bound to rise.

During 25 years in an inner London practice, I dealt with many patients with drug and alcohol problems, but I rarely had to treat anyone because of their cannabis use. Some heavy users of cannabis were temporarily mentally slowed sometimes, and that affected their performance at work, school or university, but they usually came to the doctor for reasons unrelated to their cannabis use—perhaps partly because cannabis was not available on prescription. Death as a result of cannabis is extremely rare and occurs only in combination with alcohol or other drugs. On the other hand, in my practice, several heroin or multidrug users died from overdoses, or developed abscesses, thromboses or HIV infection from the use of contaminated or dirty needles.

To reflect the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the addictive substances that cause far and away the most harm are tobacco and alcohol, both of which are perfectly legal and are not classified as drugs at all. They are loosely, perhaps too loosely, regulated, as the trail of death and destruction left by tobacco and the social mayhem caused by alcohol when it is abused far outweighs that of all narcotic drugs taken together; but that is a topic for another debate.

I very much hope that my noble friend will be able to take the order away, as suggested by my noble friend Lady Meacher. If he cannot, I will support her in the Lobby if she decides to divide the House.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I shall briefly take the issue slightly away from the scientific discussion and the question of who is worse and who is better than whom. I remind the House that the former Prime Minister reminded us that we were at war on drugs before we were at war on terrorism.

In war, you must identify your principal enemies and take action against them. I have been privileged, if that is the word, to see some of those enemies in Her Majesty's prisons, people who have made vast amounts of money—millions of pounds—from preying on our young people by selling drugs such as cannabis, with which they have successfully ruined their lives. Unless we take the war to the people who are really causing the problem, we divert ourselves from the main purpose of Acts such as the Misuse of Drugs Act.

For 30 years now, we have tried to fight drugs by not going down the route that the Americans had to go down in the 1920s when they realised that prohibition was wrong. Prohibition is not working; we all know that. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, wondered what the motives were behind this measure. The Prime Minister's one utterance on drugs that I have heard was that prohibition remains the policy of this Government. We will not crack this problem of drugs—if that is not a pun too far—without thinking the unthinkable and going down routes that include legislation, decriminalisation and all that goes with that. Unless we do something like that, we will only make the situation worse by doing more of the same.

One reason why I am strongly behind my noble friend Lady Meacher on this issue is that I hate the thought of large numbers of our young people being wrongly criminalised for being in possession of cannabis, with all that a police record means for their future. Therefore, in a way, the amendment is irrelevant to the war in which we are engaged. I simply hope that if the Prime Minister is basking in the reflected glory of leading the world out of the credit crunch, he swallows his words about prohibition and sets about leading us out of the drugs crunch.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

My Lords, when we get to the nub of the issue at hand, we find ourselves in a rather odd situation, with the Government's appointed advisory body in disagreement with the Government's policy. This year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—I declare that I sit on the council as a sub-committee co-opted member—carefully considered the evidence against a framework of harms. The conclusion was that, overall, the harms caused by cannabis to individuals matched more closely those of drugs in class B. I also declare that I am on the UK Drug Policy Commission.

Yes, cannabis has adverse long-term effects, with social as well as health implications. The moving speech of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, demonstrated these clearly. They were considered as part of the ACMD's framework, and the decision to go against its advice strikes a blow at the credibility of the whole process of classification. As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, we are dealing with shades of wrong when we deal with drugs.

Downgrading cannabis from class B to class C did not send an adverse message—cannabis in the UK has continued to decline—so what will the reclassification achieve? The Minister outlined the police actions proposed, but will this alter the maximum sentences for production, trafficking or dealing? Will these sentences remain the same as they are under the class C classification?

Discussion of cannabis is heated and political and acts like a lightening rod for media headlines, so sober and objective scrutiny of scientific evidence is essential. In fact, it is really all that we have. Public opinion is not helpful. It is notoriously difficult to assess, it depends on the question put, and it is led more by media headlines than by the science.

We need a review of the entire drug classification system to ensure that it is fit for purpose and that future decisions are truly independent and evidence-based. The system was established in 1971 in the Misuse of Drugs Act and was meant to provide a simple framework for sentencing. It may now be appropriate to classify drugs in different ways for different purposes. It may, for instance, be appropriate to consider the levels of societal harm when determining social or criminal policy and the levels of harm to health when determining health policy. Let us not forget that some use cannabis to relieve the symptoms of their physical illness, such as multiple sclerosis or during chemotherapy, but, sadly, some with early mental health problems dangerously self-medicate with it.

In the past decade, several reports have pointed to the need for a review of classification. It was promised and then shelved by the Government in 2006. It is long overdue, so now is not the time to play ping-pong with the classification of a dangerous substance. That is why I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Meacher.

A

When the subject of "drugs" is discussed by politicians and media, it is often forgotten that alcohol and caffeine (amongst many other legal drugs) are still mind-altering.
I am 55 years old and have smoked cannabis on a very ad hoc basis (simply because my need is not so great) since I was 16. Unlike drugs such as alcohol, caffeine and nictine cannabis is non-addictive and the only people who become dependant upon it is because they use tobacco (which is addictive) as a vehicle to receive a quick "hit". If, like the Dutch, the government and the media would educate people about drugs by telling them that they can take it into their bodies by imbibing instead of inhaling (space cookies etc), a lot of good could be done. Also they could stop referring to: "Drugs and Alcohol" in their headlines and discussions, it suggests that alcohol is not a drug.
When I moved house I chose to live amongst the Muslim community because although some Muslims enjoy alcohol and other drugs, they do so in moderation due to peer pressure. The illegal drugs do not lead to emotive and illegal activities unlike alcohol. Indeed the comsumption of cannabis and heroin makes the individual too lethargic to cause trouble, unlike when people are under the influence of alcohol.
Needless to say, my words will fall on deaf ears because the brewing industry is such a big part of the establishment and is engrained in the British way of life. My words will have no effect because, like anti-war protesters, the armaments industry is a big earner for the government. Remember Labour's promise not to provide arms to repressive governments in 1997 and see what reality did to this manifesto promise?

Submitted by Adrian Dawson

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 6:15 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, I wish to reassure the Minister that there is some support on these Benches for the Government's proposal and that there is some opposition to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. If my noble friend Lord Tomlinson was here, he would share my view. In November 2003, we spoke against the then proposed statutory instrument to declassify cannabis from class B to class C. Unusually, there was a Division against the statutory instrument. But, at the 11th hour and 59th minute, we pulled back and did not vote against it, although we were very much exercised as to whether or not we should.

We were against it because we believed that the change would create confusion in the minds and the perception of the public, including among young people and the police. It could be argued that that confusion has not been created, but there is confusion in spades around cannabis, as we have heard from a variety of quarters, particularly in relation to the effects on health.

Let me labour this point a little: in 2003, perhaps most importantly, we were strongly opposed to the change in classification because we believed that the cannabis on sale, being advertised and increasingly being used in the UK was different from that which many noble Lords talked about so gently when they referred back to that which they knew as students in the 1970s and 1980s. The big difference that has taken place, which my noble friend did not address, is the changing strength of cannabis and how that is having an effect.

I asked my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland a number of questions about the strength of cannabis. After she had consulted the appropriate bodies, she replied that, from the samples pulled in by the police, there was no evidence that the cannabis was any stronger than it used to be. I could not understand why I had been complaining, but I had looked on the internet and had constantly seen on a widening scale the advertising of stronger and stronger cannabis readily available for purchase.

It is now generally agreed that the cannabis being used and being smoked in this country is stronger. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will address one big change that has taken place: since 2003, according to all the evidence, much more cannabis is being grown in this country. We should be asking why it is now being grown on this scale. There are a variety of reasons, but I should like to put the point that it may be the declassification of cannabis from class B to class C.

As technology develops and as people continue to deal and experiment with these plants and grow them in stronger forms, I should like to ask those who oppose the Minister's line when there will be greater acceptance of the fact that we are dealing with a different drug entirely from that of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a much graver issue than people have recognised and we should not liken this cannabis to a recreational drug with few dangers.

According to the police, more and more people involved in accidents have drugs, including cannabis, in their bloodstream. We are now at a point where some action probably has to be taken. We could say that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous in their wider effects, but let us look at what we are doing. The Government have introduced legislation on tobacco that prohibits its smoking in enclosed areas, and we are starting to see the results, showing that legislation does work. On alcohol, we have to ask if we are content with the present laws. If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, would alcohol be available in the way it is at the moment? I suspect that that would not be the case. Indeed, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that when the strength of alcoholic drinks is doubled, people respond to them differently. When the alcohol content of wine increases from 11 per cent, the level at which it was generally drunk, to 14 per cent, people get very drunk, but they are not always aware of what is happening to them. The strength of the drink and the size of the measure have an impact. I suspect that these issues on alcohol will have to be addressed in legislative terms in due course.

I come back to where we stand with the recommendation of the advisory committee and the amendment. I think that the Government are right to reject the advice and I know they have not done it lightly. But the Government and we as politicians—admittedly not accountable in this House, as in the other place—have to take into account public perceptions in this area. The Government also have to take into account the increasing availability of stronger and more potent cannabis through the massive growth in commercial cultivation by organised crime groups in this country, as well as the needs and consequences of policing priorities. I hope that at the end of this helpful debate, the House will be prepared to stand by the Government's recantation of their earlier position and their acceptance that perhaps they did not quite get it right in 2003. We should reject the amendment and so support the Government's instrument.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I thought that a brief anecdote might be of interest to noble Lords. Some 10 years ago I was invited on to the programme, "Have I Got News For You". Not long before I had said in public that I was pro the legalisation of drugs. The man chairing the programme, Mr Deayton, who I think later had to resign when he was caught using cocaine, said in a perky way, "Of course, Lord Onslow, you are pro drugs, aren't you?". I answered by saying, "I am going to respond to the question seriously because the issue is too important for flippancy. Drugs are by far the greatest social problem in this country and they result in the greatest amount of crime".

The policy we have in place at the moment obviously does not work. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. He ought to be listened to very carefully by the senior service in their places on the Front Bench. If we go on with our present drugs policies, the prisons will be full and we will produce markets for the ungodly to get rich, and thus continue to cause serious social damage. Incidentally, the whole audience clapped loudly and clearly at my answer. To think that the public take the view of the Prime Minister is not very well informed.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, the issue raised by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as to the case in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs is a wholly fascinating one, but with the greatest respect, it is not the issue that confronts the House in the context of this order. The issue is in fact a narrow one. There is no question of whether the penalties in relation to the importation of cannabis, the growing of cannabis, the sale and trafficking of cannabis or possession with the intention to supply cannabis should be changed at all—the maxima remain exactly as before. All that is suggested is that there should be changes to the maxima relating to possession. That is the practical effect on the maxima of a change from class C to class B for the simple possession of cannabis. The maxima under class C were two years' imprisonment on indictment and three months' imprisonment in the magistrates' courts. That has not changed. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, did not make that point although it strengthens that part of his case. Indeed, there is no change whatever in regard to children and young persons under 18 years of age. So the only practical statutory change is a change in maxima which were seldom or ever used.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, it is not only that; it also affects police procedure and at what point you appear on the police national computer. The point at which you appear on an enhanced CRB check will come earlier under the new rules if it is reclassified as class B. This means that we will criminalise more people of the up-and-coming generation, which will prohibit them from working with children and mentoring and coaching children and youth teams in hockey and so on; they will never be able to work with the police, join the TA, join the Army or work in the legal profession; they will be prevented from obtaining American passports and visas without a lot of trouble; and, in certain cases, they will be unable to work in financial institutions.

The consequence of bringing forward the point at which you appear on the police national computer without a proper criminal record is much more serious than people realise. The enhanced CRB checks are now being used more widely for more purposes. It used to be that you had to be prosecuted and you either accepted a reprimand or a caution; that is no longer the case.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, I take the noble Earl's point. There may well be wider consequences of an administrative nature than under the old system, but I stick to the point that the statutory effect of the maxima penalties will be very small indeed. The harsher penalties in relation to the other offences remain exactly the same.

In 1971, Parliament and society in general set their faces against cannabis. Some noble Lords will remember that gallant and splendid lady, Lady Wootton, whose humane and sensitive attitude towards society coloured the report she published at that time. It advocated the decriminalisation of cannabis, but that was refused by Parliament and by society at large. I was a Minister at the Home Office in 1969 when the Misuse of Drugs Bill was introduced. Indeed, I had the honour of taking that through the House of Commons—or, at least, partly through because, in 1970, before the Bill had completed all of its stages in the House of Commons, the electorate, very unhelpfully, decided that there should be a change of Government. The succeeding Government very gallantly reintroduced the same Bill in exactly the same words, the only difference being the name of Sir Richard Sharples—that most splendid of men who was later soon to lose his life in the assassination in Bermuda—as the Minister responsible. It was as bipartisan a piece of legislation as one could possibly get. The consequence was that stern penalties were introduced for the possession of cannabis.

For three or four years there was great disquiet at the fact that thousands upon thousands of young people were being made criminals and very often had to serve short periods of imprisonment for mere possession. Then, without any interference by Parliament, a British-type compromise was achieved. The police did not prosecute save where persons were defiant in their overt use of cannabis, and the courts did not incarcerate. Indeed, it became regarded as something more of a dead letter—but a dead letter that was useful in so far as it laid down a marker as to how seriously society regarded the offence but, at the same time, not bringing within the ambit of direct criminality hundreds of thousands of young people who otherwise might have suffered harsh penalties.

It was therefore very surprising that in 2004 Parliament changed a situation that had worked quite well for at least 30 years. The sanction was there but the actual punishment was not necessary in practice from day to day. I think that Parliament was wrong then; there may very well have been a desire to give a radical face to the Government, and I am quite certain that a mistake was made. Now that that mistake has been corrected, even though the Government are not admitting that they are coming to the stool of punishment, as it were, I believe it only right that this piece of delegated legislation should be supported.

I very much hope that sense will be exercised by the police, despite the policies that are announced, and by magistrates. It is magistrates, in the main, who will be dealing with these matters from day to day. It would be utterly disgraceful if, over the next few years, millions upon millions of young people were placed in jeopardy of incarceration on the basis of having perhaps on two or three occasions transgressed this particular law.

We are living in a society, are we not, where it is more and more popular for the tabloids especially to give the impression that the community at large is at war with its young people and to regard them with contempt and as worthy of castigation? That sort of chemistry has existed in every society; it was there in Greece and in Rome, and it is with us today. It is part of that chemical reaction between one generation and another. It may be part, too, of the ageing process that we all suffer from. Bernard Shaw said that youth was wasted on young people. There is a sourness in most of us, as we get older, in our attitude towards young people, but we must avoid the dangerous trap of incarcerating thousands upon thousands of young people and criminalising perhaps hundreds of thousands more when it is utterly unnecessary.

Nevertheless, marginally, I find myself in support of the Government. The point about skunk is substantial; I believe that the drug now being trafficked is a very different product from that which existed even five or 10 years ago. I believe that that will be a rising curve and that it is right and proper, therefore, that the Government should take this stance.

Photo of Lord Layard Lord Layard Labour 6:30 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, it seems to me that there is a very simple question. Five years ago the Government made a decision; is there any evidence that that decision has made things worse? I have not heard any. As far as we know, cannabis use has diminished. That is in line with what we would have forecast from the experience of other countries, so why reverse the decision? No compelling reasons have been given this evening for doing so.

The issue is not whether cannabis can cause harm. Of course it can, and there have been tragedies connected with its use, although there have been many more connected with alcohol. The issue in both cases is how to diminish the harm. The most important way is to get help to the people who need it. A major problem is that stricter criminal sanctions make it more difficult for people to get medical and psychological help. They will not come forward for help if what they have done is a criminal and an increasingly criminalised act. That is one of the real problems that will follow from changing the wise decision that was taken.

Another problem is illustrated by the previous speech. It is almost inevitable that the way in which stricter sanctions are applied will be patchy, variable and unpredictable. That does not do credit to the law and will not bring credit and repute to the police either. That is another major misfortune that will result.

One of the finest things about this Government has been their commitment to evidence-based policies, but that does not seem to be the case with this proposal. I therefore urge the Minister to think seriously about the possibility of postponing the order so that we can get the right decision.

Photo of Lord Adebowale Lord Adebowale Crossbench

My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being present at the beginning of the discussion—my day job got in the way. I should declare an interest, first, as the chief executive of Turning Point, which is probably the second-largest provider of substance misuse services in the country after the NHS. It also provides mental health, learning disability and employment services. I feel like someone at an AA meeting in admitting, secondly, to being a member of the ACMD.

This has been one of the most fascinating but also one of the most frustrating of debates. The problem has been the contributions that have wavered between belief and fact or science. I note the point of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about public opinion, but if we were to make decisions, political or otherwise, based solely on the pillar of public opinion, I would not be here, we would never have got rid of slavery, and this House would not be here. The whole point of the establishment of ACMD was that the Government would not just go out and seek public opinion; they sought the opinion of a group of experts. I bow to the many experts on the ACMD—I refer to the psychopharmacologists and others—who produced more than 2,000 pages of evidence, which I read. I then read a carefully considered recommendation, which had taken into account public opinion, to the Government. It is astonishing that it has not been followed, regardless of whether we should legalise cannabis, which is not relevant to this debate.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, whose speech I did not hear although I have picked up the tenor of it, pushes her amendment to a vote, because I should like to express my opinion on the side of logic, common sense and science, and of the appropriate mix of public opinion with logic. Many points made during the debate assumed a direct causal link between cannabis and mental health—I cannot believe that any Member of the House believes that. If there is a link—which science shows there is not—and the Government are forced to make cannabis class B or class A, will it make any difference to the unfortunate person who becomes psychotic as a result? It will do so only in fantasy land. However, the reality is that there is not a causal link, nor is there any evidence of a massive increase in high-strength cannabis. If the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, believes everything that he sees advertised on the internet, he must be a marketing man's dream.

I fully understand the beliefs of, and have some sympathy with, those who have spoken in the debate who have experienced the terrible impact of cannabis on young people. I strongly sympathise with the perception that cannabis, along with many other drugs, is ruining society. I have spent nearly 30 years of my life working with people who have complex needs, including substance misuse. However, this is not about belief; it is about the facts. The Government have to come up with a credible response to the research and the evidence presented by the ACMD such that they can justify ignoring its advice; otherwise they have to question the point of the ACMD.

I wasted many hours of my own time reading the reports, analysing the evidence and taking much abuse from the press, which was in search of the answer well before we had come to deliberations. The press then abused us when we came to a conclusion. It is unreasonable that having presented the evidence—even if it was measured by the sheer weight of the report you would side with the ACMD—we find that it is rejected on the flimsiest of excuses or reasons. It would be more honest to say that the political gradient that was apparent when the Government asked the ACMD to produce that report has now shifted, that the Prime Minister does not want to lose the favour of a particular section of the electorate and that therefore they are rejecting our advice. I would accept that, but to reject the ACMD's advice without giving a clear rationale as to what happens next seems highly unreasonable. It does not just fly in the face of the logic presented by the ACMD. Many other areas of social policy and practice will be debated in this House in which public opinion will be against the science and in which it will be difficult to lead public opinion and come down on the side of common sense, logic and evidence. For the Government simply to say that the advice is inconvenient so they will ignore it sets a precedent which we must reject, not only on the issue of cannabis but on any other issues of social policy and practice.

I am no expert on constitutional policy, but we in this House have to send a signal—it is one thing that we can do—that logic and evidence should prevail. The institutions developed by the Government to provide appropriate advice should prevail. I note the remark about the constitutional position of the ACMD, which is very clear. That is one reason why I agreed to spend my free time on the ACMD. We must vote for and practise logic and advice, even in the face of the political pressures that we all understand the Government and Prime Minister to be under.

I apologise to the House for taking time. I must now go and do my day job, but I felt that I had to speak.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, I have to declare an interest in that cannabis, spliffs, pot, hash, ganja or the weed of wisdom have played a very important part in my life. I find it difficult to understand what is going on here. I am not sure that I wanted to support the Government on anything to do with this after the reclassification last time. I remember writing to the Minister, accusing the Government of schizophrenia. Now we have a form of double schizophrenia, which must be totally psychotic—but we do have a slightly psychotic Government from time to time.

My interest is from a totally different point of view. During my commercial life I was involved on many occasions in the agricultural world and trying to get people to produce good, productive crops, not least in the Caribbean, in a country in which I was conceived on the beach and where we were economic advisers to the Government of Jamaica. Part of the problem was to find an alternative crop to the weed of wisdom. The Government of Jamaica were not prepared to admit that they had drugs, and when you had to go out and find an alternative crop and try to ensure that the economy was not badly affected as that crop was replaced, you came across all sorts of strange difficulties. I wanted to go and look at the production basis, but the night before I was invited to some smart public party. I found that what normally happens there when you want to get a party under way is that your rum punch is spiked with ganja, just to make the thing come to life. Not ever having smoked any of these things, I found that it had a bad effect on me and the next day I was unwilling to fly in a single small plane up from Blue Mountain down to Negril to inspect the agricultural installation where we were hoping that the ODA might provide an alternative crop. But the price of gas had gone up and those who came to collect the crop of ganja found that on the way back to Miami they ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Cuba. The Cubans, of course, then approached the British; the high commission said that it did not have relations with Jamaica and that it was their responsibility. So it was agreed that those in the plane should claim to be archaeological students studying Cuban.

The point was that out there we set out to find an alternative crop but that it was extraordinarily difficult to do. The Dutch suggested that we grow early carnations, roses or those plastic looking German houseplants, but there was no alternative. When the signal went out from here that cannabis was more illegal than people thought, that immediately sent a signal that they should look for alternative crops and, to some extent, that has happened. In the mean time, one of the saddest things has happened in a country I used to deal with years ago—Afghanistan—which is now producing 90 per cent of the world's illicit drugs. That has had a negative impact—or a positive impact—on ganja production in some parts of the world.

In this debate, I will support the noble Lord, Lord West, even if that means that I am not supporting the Government because I find it extremely difficult to analyse the evidence. I have come across many cases of schizophrenia and I have also been well briefed by members of my own family who have been involved in trying to address problems such as the impact of mixing alcohol and spliffs, which there is now a test for. I have talked to those who employ people to do dangerous jobs. They have said that their personnel department asks people whether they would mind having a follicle of hair tested to see whether they are on pot or not. The reason given to me for that was that if they were on pot and doing dangerous jobs on oil rigs, for example, it could affect their judgment.

Against that, in the construction industry, I became friends with one of the best tilers I have ever come across. I did not know until after he had retired that he was permanently high on ganja because he had a fear of heights and that in the lunch hour, smoking a weed, he would be running across eaves balancing absolutely perfectly.

In my earlier days, when I chaired the Greater London and SE Council for Sport and Recreation at the time of the Scarman inquiry, we tried to find a way to get the young off the streets and away from crime to play games and sport. I was lucky enough to have a team—we covered Greater London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent—of ethnic-minority group leaders. Everyone thought that ethnic-minority people were minorities rather than just people. I had a Rastafarian as my advisor. He took me up to Brixton and explained that in some cases the weed of wisdom did not do a lot of harm and that actually recreational drugs—if it is a recreational drug—in some cases could improve the performance of a sportsman. That was in the early days of basketball and other sports.

Over time, I have felt that I have seen some disasters and in other parts of the world the economic problems of drug production. I have seen things happen even at home in my own family. A young lady who had a flat upstairs and many of her age group got very interested in agriculture. Window boxes throughout London were producing a new form of houseplant. When that was discovered, the various contents of these window boxes were chucked into a really large wheelie bin not far away. Only the next day, I was told with some amusement that I had done exactly the right thing, because the wheelie bin was inhabited by a drug addict and he must have thought that Christmas had come as the pot came through the door.

There is a light-hearted element to all of this. It is extremely difficult for the Government to go back on what they did before, but I believe that they should because it is a signal that we should send to the outside world and not necessarily to ourselves here at home.

Photo of Baroness Howells of St Davids Baroness Howells of St Davids Labour 6:45 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, when I opposed the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis in 2003, I felt then that I may have lost the argument because I did not take the trouble to read the books and reports that were produced. This time, I studied the reports, spoke with people and asked questions, and I am still of the opinion that the Government are right in reclassifying this drug. I will tell noble Lords why.

First, I remind the House that, to my knowledge, psychiatry is not a science. But it is difficult for someone like me to ignore the evidence on the street and in the home. Ask anyone—go to Deptford or Brixton; go to Haringey, Hackney or wherever. I do not mention the more salubrious places though I have also found that some of the rich and well-nourished smoke cannabis for recreational purposes. But what if you were in my position and had to respond to people who find when talking to their children—children for whom they have had to make great sacrifices in order to send them to university—that they are speaking to zombies: people who have no idea what they say; people so hooked on cannabis that they no longer exist in this world? You will see the pain on their faces.

Some noble Lords have said today that declassification has had no effect. Let me tell you that it has had a great effect on younger people. Very many young children have found themselves in great difficulty because they were made to sell this drug at the school gate—made to sell it for the people who came to collect. Some 15 and 16 year-olds sold the drug because it was no longer an offence. But some who sold it forgot to pay those who supplied them. We have something in this country called gun crime. At the root of gun crime are cases involving those who failed to pay. Noble Lords may remember two young girls being shot after leaving a nightclub. Inquiries have clearly shown that they were dressed in what is fashionably known as "bling", the money for which was supplied by their boyfriends, who were of the same age. Cannabis use has not decreased. We do not know, because we no longer arrest people for it.

Photo of Lord Layard Lord Layard Labour

My Lords, perhaps I may point out that the main evidence comes from household surveys where people are asked what they do; it is not to do with reporting through police or any other mechanism.

Photo of Baroness Howells of St Davids Baroness Howells of St Davids Labour

My Lords, I would ask the noble Lord to ask the black community. How many of them were interviewed. They are the people I deal with more than most.

The confusion which arose then persists. The Government are taking the right action. I would invite noble Lords, for recreational purposes, to go to one of the nightclubs where these young people congregate. You will see that cannabis is the most prevalent drug.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, when cannabis was changed from class B to C I said that it was an unwise thing to do; and cannabis was strong even then. Many people start drug-taking by taking cannabis. It was also a confusing message, especially to the police, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said. There is much evidence that cannabis can cause serious and dangerous problems for people with mental health conditions. The results of the research all depend on who does the research.

Cannabis has now become even stronger, and even more of a problem. I ask the Minister: what is the current situation for those who use cannabis to relieve their long-term medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis? I see no problem in that if it helps as a medical drug, but I cannot accept my noble friend's amendment today, as cannabis can be the start of a long, slippery downhill road to serious drug taking.

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench

My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate, but, as I have listened to it, I had a growing sense that we have slightly taken our eye off the ball. I hope that I can redirect the debate a little and focus it on what we should be concentrating on.

It seems to me that the debate has become too polarised. Noble Lords on both sides of the debate have spoken with great passion. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that when passions run high it is important to try to take a step back and adopt a more dispassionate and measured approach. On the one side, there has been a tendency to take up the position, cannabis: good, reclassification: bad, and on the other, cannabis: bad, reclassification: good. However, the debate is not really of that order. There are strong points on both sides of it. Those who are worried about the effects of cannabis can point to the increased strength of the drug that we are dealing with these days and the possibility of a link with psychosis. On the other hand, those who oppose reclassification have a strong point about the danger of criminalisation driving people into the arms of traffickers, increasing traffickers' grip on the drug business and forcing people into further criminality to feed the habit. So the issue is not clear-cut.

The advisory council is not taking a clear-cut position and asking us to form a final view on the matter one way or the other. It is still in some doubt about the matter. It apprehends the possibility that there is an increased link with psychosis. It says that the evidence on that is not strong but that the possibility exists and that it ought to be investigated further. As I said, it is not asking us to take up a position on the issue one way or the other; it is advancing the essentially moderate proposition that the jury is still out and that we do not have all the evidence we need to make a rational decision. It advocates that evidence should continue to be collected, that research should continue to be undertaken for another couple of years and that we should then review the matter again when we have a bit more evidence and, we hope, will be able to come to a more definite conclusion on the matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pitched it absolutely right when she said, like the advisory council, that we should leave things as they are for another couple of years and then come back to the matter when we have more evidence. So we are not being asked to take a clear-cut, definitive position on the matter one way or the other. We are not being asked to say that cannabis is good and, therefore, reclassification is bad, or that cannabis is bad and reclassification is good. There are obviously arguments in both directions and one pole or the other may be stronger in a couple of years, which will incline us to come down more decisively one way or the other.

However, we do not know enough at the moment. Therefore, it seems only sensible, and the only rational course, not to come down decisively one way or the other this evening, and to leave things as they are for another couple of years in the hope that we will at that point be able to take a better-informed and more definitive position.

With that in mind, I urge the Government to stay their hand, refrain from insisting on a clear-cut decision this evening and allow things to run for another couple of years until we can take a more definitive decision in the light of further and better evidence.

d

Fantastic speech with a surprising touch of reality on the whole issue.

Submitted by daniel mckinley

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs 7:00 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, from these Benches, we shall be supporting the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because we believe in evidence-based policymaking. The evidence from the advisory council is very definite. It does not, as many speakers have said, come down one way or the other; it is simply asking for more time.

I wish to make three points—on the effect on young people, the effect on society and the effect on policing and criminals. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, asked what has changed since cannabis was reclassified last time. In one way he was correct in his supposition that not much has changed, but the fact is that use is falling among young people and in general. That is one beneficial change. Secondly, the Government have run an advertising campaign, which is a good thing, because the more information that is out there for our young people, the better. There is a risk of putting those benefits into jeopardy unless all of the campaigning and messages are very consistent and honest.

One of the difficulties with this debate is the very use of the term "cannabis", which actually encompasses a wide number of things, including marijuana or grass, cannabis resin and skunk. They are all different substances with different strengths. I am sure that young people who use it know that better than we do. The fact is that unless we are clear in what we are talking about and clear about where the dangers lie, young people will simply switch off.

I was particularly struck by some contributions, especially that of the noble Earl, Lord Errol, who talked about what the effect would be on a young person who gets an enhanced criminal record. It would be harder for them to get a job in the first place and harder to move jobs. That young person would not be able to work with many groups, just because they had been caught a couple of times doing something that, I suspect, a large number of MPs in the other place and Members of your Lordships' House have actually done over time. In fact, President-Elect Obama was honest enough to say that he, too, had done this. Are we really going to condemn our young people to higher penalties and deny them all sorts of positions in life once they have an enhanced criminal record? Above all, we need to be honest about this.

I underline what the council said about the risks involved. It found that the evidence does not suggest that cannabis use is a substantial cause of acquisitive crime, that anti-social behaviour is much more likely as a consequence of alcohol consumption than of cannabis use and that the risk of progressing from cannabis to a class A drug is less than that associated with the use of alcohol or tobacco. Those very important facts should be borne in mind.

In the Home Secretary's Statement on reclassification she gave, as other noble Lords said, only the evidence of public perception as a reason to change. If she had referred to the adverse effect on society, that might have been a very strong reason to reclassify. However, the effect of cannabis in that regard is much less than that of alcohol.

In July 2004, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was asked about what has happened since reclassifying the drug from B to C. She replied:

"The signs are very encouraging. The release of police time from policing the cannabis issue has enabled us to concentrate on class A drugs and other matters".—[Hansard, 21/7/04; col. 217.]

What will be the effect—I am sure that there will be some—of reclassifying it the other way round? Will the Minister come to this House in six months' time and give the reverse opinion to that of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland; namely, that the effect on the police has been very deleterious? That is the logic of this.

ACPO said that the 2004 reclassification did not alter its approach to enforcement. That suggests that it will carry on in the same way whatever the classification. There is a slightly confusing message there, and we need some clarification from the Minister tonight. When surveyed on this matter, 67 per cent of the public were in favour of unchanged or abolished penalties, which is very surprising.

We see the way forward as a health matter and an education matter. We have read no evidence from the advisory council or heard any evidence this evening that shows that reclassification will help either health or education. We will support the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and we hope that the Government will think again.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative

My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords agree that this debate has been in the highest traditions of this House, with an impressive spread of views, all sincerely held.

My noble friend Lord Waddington gave the House an impressive account of my party's attitude to this problem, which has been absolutely consistent since the declassification of cannabis to class C in 2004; that is, total opposition to its removal from class B. It will come as no surprise that we shall support the Government's Motion this evening.

The ACMD has done much admirable work but little has been said this evening about the minority report in the document. However, I draw noble Lords' attention to paragraph 13.5.1. It contains a comment on recommendation 3, which is that cannabis should remain a class C drug. It states:

"A minority of members of the Council remain very concerned about effects of cannabis on the mental health of users, especially in the light of the (now) wide availability and use of sinsemilla"— that is, skunk. It continues:

"In their view the balance of harms more closely equates to substances in Class B than Class C".

I suggest that we can assume that the minority on that committee was as impressive in composition as was the committee overall. That is just one point that reinforces the Government's attitude to this matter.

Before concluding, I take this opportunity to mention my party's attitude to the problem of drugs. Although we support the order, we differ from the Government in our general approach to the problem, which the current Government see as one of maintenance and management rather than of trying to break the cycle of addiction. Drug treatment and testing orders have failed to tackle addiction, with 80 per cent of those given the orders reoffending within two years. If elected, we propose to introduce abstinence-based drug rehabilitation orders with residential abstinence-based programmes and, where appropriate, day-care programmes. Returning to the Motion under consideration, however, we on these Benches will support the Government.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

My Lords, we have had an absolutely fascinating and very useful debate, which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said, has been in the best traditions of this House. The way in which these matters are debated and the knowledge that people have are most impressive. Indeed, that knowledge is amazingly detailed. I was slightly surprised by how many members of the Government seem, at one stage, to have smoked—perhaps inhaling or perhaps not—these substances. I come from a background where that is not allowed at all. In the Navy, we had positive drug testing and, if it was found that you had touched drugs, you were out. That seemed to work quite well.

It was interesting to hear such a variety of views. Marvellous historical backgrounds were given by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington, Lord Mancroft and Lord Elystan-Morgan. All three were totally different, which was interesting, but I am sure that they all contained a strand of truth. They illustrated differences in perception depending on how one looks at these things. However, we know—and perhaps I am more positive about this than others—that we can succeed in tackling drugs and reducing the harm that they do to families and communities. Notwithstanding what the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, the past 10 years have seen progress and some notable successes. However, we must also be prepared to respond when the nature and force of the problem change. As part of that response, we have to look at our drug laws. The reclassification of cannabis, accompanied by the strength and enforcement approach, will reflect the alarming fact that skunk now dominates the cannabis market.

There was mention of the Guardian letter, which I have read. I do not dispute the qualifications of the ACMD but what really comes over—the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, touched on the minority who gave a view on this as well—is that the evidence is confused. That was mentioned also by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Low. The fact is that there is great uncertainty about the real impacts and, as a Government, we must always err on the side of safety. We also need to get the right message across—something that I shall come back to in a moment.

I shall deal with a few of the points that were raised. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, mentioned the problem of a PND being on someone's record. A PND is recorded as non-conviction information and therefore, during a CRB check, is not included on the police certificate, although it is up to the responsible officer to assess whether an extended PND should be included. It does not appear on a certificate relating to a visa or overseas work. When the noble Earl and I discussed this matter prior to the debate, I promised him that I would clarify that, but I have only just received the information.

I also wish to refer to a point of fact that I got wrong concerning an increase in the number of seizures. We seized 344,360 cannabis plants in the past year, which was an increase from 208,000 in the previous year. That is quite a dramatic number.

The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, who has a lot of knowledge in this area, asked what the advisory council says about mental health harms. There is confusion about this. It says that there is clear evidence that cannabis can produce immediate and long-term harms to mental health. The evidence supports a causal association between the use of cannabis in adolescence and the later development of schizophrenia. However, the relationship is clearly more complicated than when the ACMD considered the matter previously and most likely cannabis plays a modest role in the development of psychotic illness in the general population. Whether such a causal link will become stronger with the wider use of high-potency cannabis products remains uncertain. The possibility that the greater use of cannabis preparations with a higher THC—tetrahydrocannabinol—content might increase the harmfulness of cannabis to mental health cannot be denied, but the behaviour of cannabis users in the face of stronger products, as well as the magnitude of causal association with psychotic illnesses, is uncertain. That shows that, although we are not absolutely sure, there is probably some risk. It is therefore important that the Government take some action.

A number of noble Lords mentioned a delay, but again the increased potency of the drug, for which we have evidence in the form of a Home Office potency study, means that we have to err on the side of caution. Delaying a decision for two or three years would be reckless. It is the Government's duty to take action to protect the public, particularly when there are uncertainties. I repeat that I think that there are uncertainties. That point was made clearly by my noble friend Lord Mackenzie. Will we make a commitment to review this in two years? Well, the ACMD has recommended that it convenes a further review on cannabis policy in two years, which is probably a good idea. It is a matter for the council. The Government will keep their position open. We continuously review it, as we do for all drugs. We monitor the situation through the British Crime Survey, criminal justice surveys, other relevant statistics and new evidence from the ACMD and others. It is open to the Home Secretary to ask the ACMD at any stage to review classification.

Laws are not driven by scientific advice alone. Much wider issues, such as public perception, are involved. That is important. Public perception was touched on by my noble friend Lord Mackenzie. I know well from my children that they had a perception that this was not really serious. That is not a good perception. We need to make it clear that it is a serious issue. Equally, like my noble friend, I do not believe that the police pursued it as much as they should have, because they felt that the message that we were giving was that it was not so important. However, it is important in terms of policing priorities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked why we were not changing the enforcement regime for the under-18s. We are sending out a clear message to young people that cannabis is illegal now—more so with this order. A statutory process is set out in the Crime and Disorder Act for young people under 18. It already offers formal escalation with referral at any stage to the youth offending team for substance misuse. I believe that that continues to offer an appropriate and proportionate response. We are not avoiding that issue.

My noble friend Lord Richard said that changing the class of a drug had no impact on use. We make no claim that a change in a drug classification on its own will act as a deterrent. However, there is evidence that illegality of a drug may affect an individual's decision to take it in the first place—I know jolly well that one of my sons got a bit of a slap about this; he is well aware of it and it has made quite a change—or to stop taking it. We accept that the reasons for taking or not taking a drug are most likely to be multiple, varied and interrelated, but this is one aspect of it. The increase in severity of disposals associated with our proposed enforcement response for repeat offenders is intended to impact on offenders' behaviour and to support the steady decline in use. That is why we are doing this.

My noble friends Lord Richard and Lord Layard asked: why now? The ACMD says that evidence is more uncertain now than in 2006. I go back to that uncertainty point. We are taking a precautionary view in the light of this uncertainty, given the dominance of skunk in the UK. It is now very dominant and dangerous. I have seen its huge impact on my children's friends. My noble friends Lord Mackenzie and Lady Howells made strong and moving speeches on this.

The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said that we have 1 million or 2 million—I cannot remember how many—users in the UK, but it is against the law so they should not do it. There are so many users because that has not been made clear enough. I mentioned that there is random drug testing in the Navy. If you are positive, you are out. That works. Part of the reason why people have not taken the issue so seriously is that we have not made it clear enough.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, made a seemingly persuasive but dangerous speech about alcohol. Of course there are historical reasons and reasons within this country and Europe why alcohol is used so much more. It has been used for hundreds of years. If as many people were using skunk at the same level, we would rapidly see what a horrendous impact it has. My experience of children is that they often seem to be smoking this dreadful stuff and drinking rather a lot as well. They are then a complete waste of rations in terms of doing anything, and it is very bad for them.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said that we are not being that strict with people. We will now make sure that we register offences. That is part of the idea behind this. We intend to make sure that the police do it. We had sort of given them the message not to bother to record these offences. Smoke one spliff in Brixton, then go and smoke the next in Hackney, and you will never be caught because they will never be linked up. The point is that they are now recorded and noted. We are going through a fixed route of a warning, then a PND and then a conviction. However, there is always flexibility. I know that some people do not know this, but I have a certain amount of faith in the common sense of our police in applying these things. Now there is a graded way of doing it. That is an important message. I go back to my point: my experience with my youngsters and their friends is that they thought that cannabis was not that important because we had done what we had done. They need to realise that it is extremely important.

Commercial cultivation is not just a UK phenomenon. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported a move by organised crime in developed countries to rely on domestic production. The SOCA threat assessments make it clear that cannabis farms in the UK are predominantly run by Vietnamese criminal gangs. They are a real worry to us and part of the reason why we would like to make this clear.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, mentioned the medicinal use of cannabis. I have a long and complex answer but, bearing in mind the time, I shall write to her. We have sympathy, but there are difficulties in clearing cannabis as a proper drug.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned war. I see that he is dressed for war now. I do not like the phrase "war on terrorism". There seem to be wars on too many things. It should be rather more specific. I think of it as excising a cancer. The noble Lord said that prohibition is not a good way of doing things. Prohibition was touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, too. The Government believe that regulation of drugs will never be an appropriate response. Drugs are controlled for good reason. They are harmful to health. Their control is necessary and a legitimate means of protecting individuals and the public from the harms caused by their misuse. While prohibition has not eradicated availability, it has been a crucial element in restricting it and keeping the level of drug use under control. UK drug laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug misuse, but there is no doubt that they help to limit use and deter experimentation.

Drug misuse wastes lives, destroys families and damages communities. That was eloquently explained by my noble friend Lady Howells. We have to face this problem head on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, pointed out, skunk is now a huge and unpleasant part of this market. As a Government, we have to err on the side of safety. We must give out the right message about how dangerous these things are and what harm they cause. That is not at all clear and, until we are clear, it is right that we should err on the side of safety. I commend the changes proposed by the order. I believe that we must act now.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 7:15 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, but I especially thank those many noble Lords who have supported my amendment to the Motion. I mention the noble Lords, Lord Richard, Lord Cobbold, Lord Adebowale, Lord Rea, Lord Mancroft, Lord Layard and Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Miller—I probably have not mentioned all—who have held to the evidence behind the amendment. I tabled it because it seemed to me that, if the Government lose the contact between the scientific evidence and the decisions that they make in policy, this country will indeed be lost. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have upheld that good and fine tradition and I seek to test the opinion of the House.

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

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 64; Not-Contents, 116.

Division number 1

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.