Reclassification of Cannabis

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 20th May 2008.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:30 am, 20th May 2008

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up, and all other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the findings within the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; and believes that cannabis should be re-classified as a Class B drug.

I tabled this motion some time ago, although it made it on to the Order Paper only after the Business Committee’s meeting of last Tuesday afternoon. Within 24 hours of it being placed on the Order Paper, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, moved to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug. Although I would love to claim that there was some correlation between the two events, the more likely explanation is that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have recognised that the decision to soften the law on cannabis four years ago was the wrong one.

It is not only politicians who have argued that the Government had made a mistake; the Association of Chief Police Officers has also called for cannabis to be reclassified, despite having originally supported the downgrade. The downgrading of cannabis led to confusion over its legal status, and provided an excuse for people to smoke the drug in public, or at least more openly. The decision of four years ago also undermined attempts by parents, teachers and community workers to get the message through to young people that taking drugs is dangerous and harmful. After all, if the Government do not take cannabis seriously, why would anybody else? I therefore welcome the announcement. Although we know that many Ministers have wanted this change for some time, it is pleasing that the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary have now had the bottle to take the decision to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug.

As a result of the Government’s move, the original motion that I tabled is rendered redundant, which is why the DUP has tabled an amendment — to allow the Assembly a chance to discuss the very serious issue of cannabis and drug abuse in Northern Ireland, particularly among young people.

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug among young people today, and the strains of it that are now available are more potent than ever before. Even though the Govern­ment have already moved on the issue, it is still worthwhile to have the debate to highlight the dangers of cannabis to the health of individuals and to wider society. There is a misconception that cannabis is a harmless drug that is no worse for us than alcohol. We often see cannabis smoking trivialised in various TV programmes and films. The Labour Government’s decision of four years ago to reclassify cannabis as class-C drug did little to dispel those misconceptions. In fact, it sent out the message that cannabis was perfectly safe, and led many people to think that it was legal.

At the same time, the Government have, quite rightly, put much focus on reducing the numbers of young people harmed by alcohol and smoking. However, that single decision to soften the law on cannabis was interpreted as the Government saying that they did not see cannabis as a harmful or dangerous drug.

However, that relaxed attitude towards cannabis comes at a time when the drug is more widely available and stronger strains than ever are being used. Rates of psychosis and depression are increasing among young and vulnerable people — making yesterday’s debate on suicide and self-harm particularly relevant.

An estimated 40% of 15-year-olds in Britain have tried cannabis — the highest percentage in Europe. Separate research undertaken by Queen’s University, Belfast, reports that teenagers as young as 14 years old use cannabis every day. Most of them are boys, and two thirds come from the lowest socio-economic groups. Some 10% of teenage cannabis smokers who were surveyed said that they use the drug every day. That is beyond experimental use, and raises the issue of dependency. Such people are also more likely to be in trouble with the police and to be failing at school.

With large numbers of young people smoking cannabis, there are health, medical and public-order reasons why the Government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug is the right one, and one that will send out a strong message.

There is an abundance of scientific research into the long-term mental-health problems associated with cannabis smoking. Research has determined that smoking cannabis almost doubles the risk of developing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, largely due to chemical changes in the brain that the drug causes. That evidence came from research in New Zealand, although it is only the latest in a long line of inter­national research into the potential link between cannabis and mental-health problems.

Over the past 20 years, stronger and more potent varieties of cannabis have emerged, which are 10 times more powerful and dangerous. Official data earlier this year disclosed that use of skunk, the most potent variety of cannabis, has sharply increased in the past five years, with the drug now dominating the cannabis market in the UK. Home Office figures show that, although super-potent varieties accounted for only 15% of cannabis seized in 2002, that figure is now almost 80%.

Evidence shows that there are more teenagers in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illegal drugs combined, making nonsense of the claim that cannabis is not addictive. Research shows that strong strains of cannabis can have the same effect on the brain as cocaine, heroin and alcohol abuse.

A survey of more than 35 studies, published in ‘The Lancet’ medical journal, concluded that cannabis users are 40% more likely to develop a psychotic illness. Indeed, the number of psychotic drugs prescribed to young people has doubled over the past 10 years. In England alone, an estimated 24,000 people, including almost 9,000 who are under 18 years old, have had to seek treatment for cannabis misuse.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

In recent months, several community organisations in urban areas have said that children as young as nine years old have been smoking cannabis and other drugs. Does the Member agree that research is needed to establish the extent of such behaviour and the damage that it is doing to children so young?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

The Member is absolutely correct: we hear stories, and even media reports, of very young children smoking cannabis. As I said, the younger a person starts to smoke cannabis, the more damage that it can do to his or her brain. That is an issue that needs to be examined. Efforts have been made in recent years through drug education in schools and community groups, and that is the proper way in which to proceed.

There is an assumption that young people will start to smoke cannabis because they consider it to be a rite of passage, especially when they go to university. Smoking cannabis is not a rite of passage — it has an impact on every aspect of a young person’s life. It has a negative impact on motivation and judgement, and will, therefore, have a detrimental affect on school and university grades, and cause broken friendships, family problems and trouble with the law.

Most seriously, however, cannabis severely affects brain development in young people, changing the direction of a young person’s life — physically, emotionally or behaviourally. We too often hear of talented young people who go to university becoming involved with drugs and suddenly losing interest in their studies.

The main addictive chemical in marijuana is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which can affect memory and learning, motions and motivation, and thinking and problem solving. It can also cause an increased heart rate, anxiety and panic attacks. Cannabis also has an impact on the lungs, given that most people smoke the drug.

Drugs have negative impact not only a on health but on society. Cannabis is harmful to the body and to society. Over the past 10 years, drug crime has doubled, and ever more petty crime and antisocial behaviour have been associated with drugs. In fact, the majority of crime now has a direct link to drugs, and estimates indicate that drug-related crime has cost the UK around £25 billion in recent years.

The Government have now recognised their poor judgement in originally downgrading cannabis. Therefore, it is important that they work to get the message across to young people that cannabis is dangerous and unacceptable. I look forward to hearing Members’ views during the debate.

I support the amendment, which ensures that the resolution of the House will be relevant.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP 10:45 am, 20th May 2008

I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Drugs” and insert

“; recognises the growing drug culture in Northern Ireland; and welcomes the Government’s decision to re-classify cannabis as a Class B drug.”

Everyone in public life is aware of the problems that face young people in today’s society. Role models in the worlds of music and fashion check in and out of rehabilitation clinics as though being addicted to drugs was a badge of distinction. They are seldom, if ever, convicted, and those who supply them with so-called recreational drugs are seldom brought to book.

The trade in drugs is a major criminal industry. Everyone is aware of the dangers of addiction — battling with drugs is dicing with death. The Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, admitted smoking cannabis when she was a student at Oxford University. Members may be surprised to learn that she has taken steps to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug, but they may not be surprised by any steps that the Labour Party might take to cling on to power at Westminster. Theirs is Government by gimmicks.

In July 2002, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, eased the cannabis classification to class C. He reclassified the drug not because it had become less dangerous, but because he wanted to apply police resources to fight hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

Changing the law due to a lack of determination to enforce it is a dangerous game. Mr Blunkett’s announce­ment in 2002 was accompanied by the resignation of Government-appointed drugs tsar, Keith Halliwell, in protest over the changes.

Gordon Brown has now gone against the liberal Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and has accepted that cannabis-related problems are sufficiently serious for it to be reclassified as a class-B drug. Members who are concerned about the welfare of young people will welcome that change of heart. They will also welcome the decision of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which has changed its tune since 2002, to recommend the reclassification of cannabis. The decision to reclassify cannabis will be welcomed by every right-thinking parent, teacher, community group and youth worker in the country.

Since 2002, the use of the dangerous types of cannabis — skunk and super-skunk — has increased from 30% to 80% of cannabis use. Those are serious drugs, and they are more potent, addictive and dangerous than ever. Their impact on the mental health of addicts is devastating, and it can often be fatal.

Drug dealers are remorseless and vicious in targeting the young and vulnerable in society. Their grand lifestyles are paid for by the destruction and denigration of people’s lives. Drug dealers get young people hooked more insidiously than tobacco companies ever did.

I call on the Assembly to support young people by ensuring that there is a robust, zero-tolerance attitude to those who supply drugs. There must be severe penalties for those who are repeatedly caught in possession of small quantities of drugs.

Police officers must be vigilant, and they must clamp down on premises and houses where drugs are peddled. They must also clamp down on cannabis farms and on the organised criminal gangs that are undermining our society. The police must work with community groups and leaders. We should perhaps look to the Keep Safe initiative, which was launched a few months ago in the Kilcooley estate in Bangor, as a possible method of reducing drugs in our community. The police must enforce the law vigorously and with determination to win the war against drug dealers.

If we are serious about building a better Northern Ireland, we must aim to make the entire Province a drug-free zone. The reclassification of cannabis as a class-B drug is a small but vital first step in the process. I support the amendment.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who tabled the motion and proposed the amendment. It is worth noting, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ report recommends that cannabis should not be reclassified from a class-C to a class-B drug. Members are concerned about the increasing problem of the misuse of drugs in communities, and my colleague Mr Easton mentioned the existence of factories that are used to produce cannabis. The days of associating cannabis use with the local hippy are in the past.

The production of cannabis is a high-powered criminal enterprise, and factories that produce serious amounts of cannabis are littered across the country. Those drugs are increasingly potent and potentially dangerous.

My colleagues will outline the effects and consequences of the misuse of such drugs, in later speeches. I welcome the fact that, in recent times, the PSNI has focused more heavily on eradicating the use and growth of cannabis.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Several years ago, drugs misuse in Belfast was under scrutiny, and Belfast City Council established a working group to discover the truth about the misuse of drugs. Does the Minister agree — sorry, perhaps my colleague will be a Minister in a few years —

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

The Member is revealing our secrets.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Is Sinn Féin having a reshuffle?

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

That is it. Does the Member agree that the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the misuse of drugs could be a useful method of receiving evidence and information?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank Mr McCann for reminding the House about that matter. I had briefed him that, if I forgot to make that point, he should interject before I finished my speech; however, I had hardly started my speech.

It is worth reminding the House that Belfast City Council established a working group to tackle the misuse of drugs. The Assembly should, perhaps, consider setting up a similar committee, because drugs misuse warrants a considerable amount of discussion and understanding.

Sinn Féin supports the sentiments behind the motion and the amendment. However, the advisory council’s report raises many issues, and, as locally elected representatives, we recognise that there has been a considerable upsurge in the number of drugs factories being established here by gangs. I welcome the fact that there has been an increased focus on destroying those factories and arresting the individuals involved, because the misuse of drugs is a scourge on our society. The effects on society and, in particular — although not exclusively — on young people’s health, have been highlighted recently by a range of community organisations.

The motion and the amendment provide the House with an opportunity to focus on the problem. I want to make a number of points. Reclassification centres on enforcement and penalties, and, under a class-C classification, penalties range from three months to two years in prison for possession, whereas under class-B status, the penalty for possession is three months to five years in prison. As Fra McCann mentioned, the Assembly should consider the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the misuse of drugs.

It might also be worth comparing the range of penalties that are actually imposed with what the statute book dictates.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I took an intervention, go raibh maith agat.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member may conclude his remarks.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle, I restate our broad support for the sentiment of the motion and the amendment. It is worth noting the penalties. I have welcomed already the fact that several drugs factories have been broken up and that people have been arrested and brought before the courts. It is important that, in future, we not only deal with enforcement but have a wraparound policy on the issue. We must educate our people, and, in particular, we must make our young people aware of the dangers of drugs. The problem with the previous classification of cannabis was that it created an ambivalence that led people to think that the drugs problem was less severe than it is.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I welcome and support the motion and the amendment. Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. There is increasing evidence that domestic production of the drug has grown significantly through the emergence of cannabis farms and the activities of criminal groups. There is a long-documented history of the negative health impacts that cannabis smoking can have, especially on the young. I, therefore, welcome the Westminster Government’s decision to reclassify the drug from a class-C to a class-B substance. The decision to declassify the drug in the first place was incorrect and has not had the effect that the Government hoped for.

It was appropriate that yesterday we debated the scourge of suicide and the mental-health problems that exist in society. There are many reasons for the mental-health problems that people suffer, but alcohol and substance abuse can damage those who are already at risk. Cannabis use can cause both immediate and long-term damage to mental health. In the short term, acute intoxication can lead to panic attacks and paranoia. Many studies have shown that there is a connection between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia. To classify the drug as a class-C substance sends the message that those risks are not as serious as they actually are. At a time when we are seeking to improve mental health, it would be wrong to continue to classify the drug as a class-C substance.

Cannabis use can also have a negative effect on the human motor neurone system. It impairs the ability to perform tasks that require sustained attention. Cannabis is the most common illicit drug that is found in the bodily fluids of people who are involved in car accidents. To classify the drug as a class-C substance sends another message: it is an acceptable drug to use and its associated dangers are limited. Cannabis abuse also has a long-term effect on the respiratory system, increasing the chances of lung disease, chronic bronchitis and, of course, cancer.

The long-term use of cannabis has a damaging effect on both the physical and mental health of users. That comes at a personal cost to the user, but also at great cost to the Health Service and to society at large. Services that could be used to treat other conditions are being provided for people who abuse drugs such as cannabis. That is wrong, and the reclassification of cannabis to a class-B substance will, hopefully, have the necessary impact to reduce its use and reduce the stresses that it creates for the Health Service.

Encounters with cannabis are different for different people. Those from the lowest socio-economic groups are the most likely to become addicted and be affected by the use of cannabis. In 2007, research that was carried out at Queen’s University found that one in 10 cannabis-smoking teenagers who were surveyed used the drug every day. The researchers discovered that 70% of frequent users were boys, and that two thirds of cannabis smokers belonged to the lowest socio-economic groups. A quarter of daily cannabis smokers reported being in trouble with the police on more than 10 occasions, while almost one fifth had been summonsed to court in the year prior to the survey.

We would be failing those young people and wider society had we allowed cannabis to remain a class-C drug. For many people in socially deprived areas, cannabis is a gateway drug. It can lead to further and more damaging substance abuse, and that has a greater effect on our health and criminal-justice systems.

Northern Ireland has suffered from high levels of organised crime, which often develops from paramilitarism into drug production, smuggling and dealing. Use, smuggling and seizures of drugs have increased in recent years. The declassification of cannabis hindered police efforts to tackle those growing problems. Therefore, police services throughout the UK have welcomed the change. The Government have taken a positive step, which I welcome, and, therefore, I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00 am, 20th May 2008

I welcome the reclassification of cannabis as a class-B drug. This is one case in which the signal that the law sends out is of primary importance. We must send out a message to users and potential users of controlled drugs that all drugs are dangerous and that their use can cause serious damage to physical and mental health.

Figures show that cannabis is the recreational drug of choice in Northern Ireland. Cannabis accounted for more than 66% of all controlled drugs seized in 2006-07. It is a matter of concern that the number of persons charged with supplying cannabis last year rose by more than 30% on the previous year.

A continuing worry must be the prevalence of skunk, which is a purer and stronger variety of cannabis. Skunk allegedly now accounts for around 80% of all cannabis sold. I am also concerned that, according to a survey, 62% of young people in Northern Ireland thought that they could obtain the drug easily or fairly easily.

The previous downgrading of the drug wrongly gave the impression that cannabis was mostly harmless and socially acceptable. That is not the message that we should be sending out — especially to young people.

Acute cannabis intoxication can lead to panic attacks, paranoia and confusion that often require users to seek medical help. Although those effects are short-lived in most cases, in some cases, acute cannabis intoxication can induce a psychotic state that may continue for some time and that requires treatment, usually with antipsychotic drugs. There is evidence that the use of cannabis may exacerbate a pre-existing tendency or predisposition to mental illness. Although there is no evidence that cannabis use causes illnesses such as schizophrenia, there is unquestionable evidence that it can worsen such conditions and lead to some patients relapsing.

There is increasing evidence of a link between road-traffic accidents and drug taking. Cannabis impairs the performance of tasks that require sustained attention and motor control, and that impairment increases when alcohol is introduced. Precise figures are difficult to obtain, but evidence from the police and others shows that driving under the influence of drugs contributes substantially to road-traffic accidents.

We are all aware of the risks from smoking. Smoking tobacco is the single largest cause of ill health and premature death in Northern Ireland. Therefore, smoking cannabis — usually with tobacco — must also present a genuine health risk. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has reported:

“Severe cases of lung damage… have been found in young heavy cannabis users.”

Members have expressed concerns about the link between drugs and organised crime. Where organised crime is involved in the wholesale distribution of all classes of illegal drugs, the likelihood of a user’s moving from cannabis to a class-A drug must be greater if his or her supplier trades not only in cannabis but in all types of illegal drugs.

It seems that one need only pick up a newspaper to read about the discovery of yet another cannabis factory. It appears that the amount of cannabis that is being home-grown — cultivated here in Northern Ireland — is rising. I want an emphasis to be put on tackling the problem of those so-called cannabis farms and the organised criminals who run them.

Education is still the primary means of informing young people of the dangers of drugs. It is important that that continues, and I am pleased that some educational advertisements now highlight the message that the use of drugs can lead to a criminal record.

There is anecdotal evidence that cannabis is used by people suffering from a wide-range of debilitating illnesses including AIDS, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain caused by arthritis, and that its use gives relief from some symptoms. It is necessary for the Government to continue to fund research in that area without prejudice to an overall stance that drug use is illegal.

We have to face the fact that where there is demand for drugs there will be supply. The drugs menace must be tackled on a variety of fronts including enforcement and education. What is really needed, however, is a fundamental change in societal attitudes. Rather like the debate yesterday on suicide, that change needs to focus on a set of positive values and on what life is for. Until we get that change, drug use will continue and families will have to live with the shocking consequences.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I support the motion, as amended. There has been a perception that cannabis is a so-called soft drug, that it is harmless and a recreational bit of fun on a par with alcohol and tobacco. However, the facts tell a different story. I note the comments of senior police officers across the water, particularly that of the Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers’ spokesman on cannabis. His organisation supports this reclassification unequivocally.

Unlike people in society who favour a more relaxed attitude, those police officers see at first hand the damage being done, and not just to the young: the problem of drug use is evident among people of all ages. The report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which has been referred to many times already, gives a mixed message. The council recommends the continuation of the policy of tacit acceptance of the use of cannabis, even though it acknowledges that cannabis sometimes leads to panic attacks, paranoia, confusion, and in extreme cases, psychotic problems, which can certainly lead to schizophrenia even if there is no direct link.

In many cases, there is a well established pattern of progression from cannabis to harder drugs. The recent advent of skunk, which now appears to dominate the UK cannabis market, is a growing problem. Estimates vary, but it has been said that skunk is anything from four times to 10 times more dangerous than cannabis. Either way, it is certainly a lot more dangerous.

Why should society accept a situation in which mind-bending substances can be pushed, almost with impunity, on our streets and to our children and be treated as something to be tolerated? This stuff is being sold in, and close to, our schools and is readily available in Northern Ireland to anybody who wants it.

Reclassification will be a useful move if it is to mean a new targeted approach to tackling the cannabis farms and the criminals who run them; the introduction of additional aggravating sentencing factors for drug pushers who are caught supplying near schools and colleges; and more robust enforcement against possession, offenders and re-offenders.

I applaud the Home Secretary; Mr Easton was a wee bit hard on her. At least she was able to own up to the fact that she used cannabis once or twice when she was young, and has presumably seen the error of her ways — she has come a long way since those days. I applaud the Home Secretary for ignoring the dangerously liberal approach of her advisors, and going for a more appropriate classification. It would have been easy for her to duck out of that, in her statement she says — [Interruption.]

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

It is like having music while you speak.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Or music while you work —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. Someone has their mobile phone switched on. Please continue, Mr Lunn.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker[Interruption.]

That is not to mention the case conference that is going on as I speak.

The Home Secretary said:

“My decision takes into account issues such as public perception and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. There is a compelling case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of young people. Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public.”

I could not agree more with that statement.

Some of our schools adopt a zero-tolerance approach to drugs; the penalty for their use or supply is automatic expulsion, which has a dramatic effect on children’s lives and education. However, the people who introduce those children to drugs, especially cannabis, merely walk away with a profit. I hope that the reclassification of cannabis will at least make it harder for such people to profit from its sale.

I thank the proposers of the motion for giving Members a chance to make our views on this matter clear. My party supports the motion as amended.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

According to the report ‘PSNI Statistics: Annual Statistical Report: Statistical Report No.4: Drug Seizures & Arrests: 1st April 2007 – 31st March 2008’, Limavady, in my constituency, has experienced an 18·6% increase in the incidents of drug seizure and a 37·7% increase in arrests. In 2007-08 there were 2,968 cannabis seizure incidents in Northern Ireland, an increase on the previous two years. The total number of drug-related offences has increased by 9·8%.

Those statistics indicate that, unfortunately, cannabis is as popular, if not more popular, than ever. The figures also demonstrate that the PSNI does an excellent job in tracking and seizing cannabis plants and products. I commend the PSNI’s ongoing efforts in trying to remove this curse from our streets. Paragraph 3(3) of the PSNI policy directive, PD 03/07, states that:

“Northern Ireland unfortunately has experienced a growing drugs culture since the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

Although that is not unusual in the United Kingdom context, it causes me great concern. Indeed, the strength of cannabis in its various forms has also increased.

Having assessed the medical evidence, I am concerned that people who use cannabis put themselves in great danger of suffering from psychological problems in later life. During yesterday’s debate on suicide and self-harm, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety acknowledged that the effects of alcohol and drugs in influencing people’s actions and perceptions cannot be underestimated.

I stress that I am not saying that any of the tragic cases in Northern Ireland fit that category. However, the potential for tragedy is greater when an individual uses cannabis. That observation is based on paragraph 12·4 of the report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, ‘Cannabis: Classification and Public Health’, which states:

“The short-term effects of cannabis include acute intoxication reactions and adverse effects on psychological and psychomotor performance.”

If an individual’s mental state has been altered by a drug, it is reasonable to assume that they will take actions that they would not normally take. A drug such as cannabis which is capable of altering an individual’s state of mind to the extent referred to by the Home Office, should never have been classified as a class-C drug. It is good that cannabis has been reclassified as a class-B drug. That indicates a greater appreciation of the danger of the drug and provides a greater disincentive for the use and supply of cannabis, in all its forms.

Young people are our greatest asset for the future. Therefore, we must protect them from the scourge of drugs, as far as possible. Younger people are statistically more likely to use cannabis, so we must do everything possible to remove it from their easy access. Reclassification is an essential part of that approach. I welcome the more stringent sanctions that reclassification entails for the possession or growing of cannabis.

Any measure that reduces the availability of cannabis should be welcomed. I am confident that the PSNI will continue to tackle the general drug problem. I support the amendment.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As other Members have stated, I am glad that the motion is being amended. Alastair Ross and Alex Easton should take credit for that. Indeed, in amending the motion, they have shown that the DUP backbenchers have as much control over the British Government as their party leaders have. That would be a good publicity angle for them to present to their respective constituencies.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Does the Member agree that Alastair Ross has been instrumental in changing the British Government’s mind? Within 24 hours of his putting the notice motion down, a change was made.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

That is exactly what I was saying. Both Alastair and Alex can take credit for that.

On a more serious note, however, the British Government are disregarding the advice of the advisory council, having put all their eggs into that basket. The record should reflect that the council is required:

“to keep under review the situation … with respect to drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”.

It amazes me that the council did not see the social problem in our communities. Although many advisory groups do very good work, they sometimes spend so much time in ivory towers that they do not seem to live in the real world or take account of those social issues.

Cannabis is illegal. According to the research, it now dominates the illegal drugs trade in Europe. Young people are now of the opinion that, because the classification of cannabis was changed from a class-B drug to a class-C drug, it has become legal. The Assembly needs to send out a clear message to our young people — and those not so young — that it is illegal. That process of education must be continued.

Cannabis use was of particular concern to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because of the risk of relapse, and several Members have referred to the risk of schizophrenia and psychotic illness. I sit on the Health Committee and I spoke in yesterday’s debate on suicide, self-harm and mental health; and there is concern about the link between those issues and drug misuse. The council also stated that users who are heavily dependent on cannabis often experience depression. That potential link must be highlighted.

Declan O’Loan referred to the link between the misuse of drugs and driving offences. That is another issue that the Assembly has debated on numerous occasions in connection with road-accident statistics.

According to the PSNI’s statistics, the year April 2006 to March 2007 saw a decrease of 6·4% in the number of total seizure incidents on the previous year. However, as in the previous year, cannabis was the illegal drug most commonly seized. Seizures involving class-A drugs have increased by 58·8%, and ecstasy accounts for the greatest number of those. We must accept that drugs — whatever their classification — pose a problem for our communities, and provide the resources to combat them.

I must devote a few minutes of my time to those addicted to drugs. Society has a duty to provide adequate resources for groups which help addicts — whether the groups are of the community and voluntary sector, or of the statutory sector — both to help people end their addiction to illegal drugs and to combat drug-use among young people. Programmes in the community and voluntary sector should be given adequate resources. I am disappointed that those programmes, which we all identify as models of good practice, continue to work proactively against the misuse of drugs but find it hard to access funding. Earlier, I was winding up Alex and Alastair; however, now is the time for them to put a word in the ear of the Finance Minister, to highlight the lack of resources for groups in the community and voluntary sector.

It is important to develop structures that allow young people, their families and communities to deal with addiction to illegal drugs if they so wish, and to continue to push for access services as well. Many community activists warn that, where young people are exposed to drug abuse on a daily basis, to the extent that it is part of everyday life around them, the risk that those young people will become involved in drug abuse is increased.

We need to deal with the reclassification of cannabis from a class-B drug to a class-C drug, and it is important that the Assembly puts adequate resources into the community and voluntary sector, to ensure that we target drug pushers —

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I took an intervention. I am sorry, please let me continue.

We must also provide education and resources for people who are addicted to wean themselves off illegal drugs. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board — that is mainly why I want to say a few words. I was a wee bit worried when I was approached to say a few words on cannabis; I was not sure how one should interpret such a request. However, it is a serious issue, and no less so for introducing some common talk.

I am concerned that cannabis and its use are linked to all sorts of risky behaviour, particularly among adolescents and young people. There is a connection between alcohol misuse, smoking and other activities that lead to serious problems in society. Sometimes, the Assembly is slightly schizophrenic in its tackling of these issues, because cannabis is not the most widely used drug — alcohol is. However, there is a link between alcohol, smoking and cannabis.

How should we deal with these things? There is, sometimes, a propensity to lecture people or to run advertisements — we have all seen some pretty good ones on television — but they do not really work. The only thing that works is deterrence. There must be some way of prosecuting people and imposing on them some negative impact for partaking in such an unhealthy activity. In retrospect, the reclassification of cannabis to class C was a mistake. It confused the public and sent out a message that cannabis was an acceptable drug, which is not the case.

There has been an increase in the domestic production of cannabis in the United Kingdom. When any activity becomes so significant, it becomes controlled by organised criminals, and illegal immigrants get involved in tending the crops. It also leads to a lot of other issues that are, perhaps, unintended. Such activity does not happen only in other parts of the United Kingdom: it happens in Northern Ireland.

On 8 May 2008, PSNI officers discovered a cannabis factory in Portstewart from which they recovered cannabis with a value of £50,000 — a significant amount of money. Reference has already been made to the recovery in Newry on 11 May of £4,000 worth of cannabis. It is important to stress that there is a real and present danger to young people.

The increase in cannabis production and use can be contrasted to the stark reduction in the number of arrests and prosecutions since the declassification. Prosecutions fell to a 10-year low: there were 2,790 in 2003 and 1,994 in 2006. More importantly, the number of people who were sent to jail for those offences fell significantly, from 697 to 279. A message is being sent out, but in the wrong direction.

The supply of cannabis cannot be separated from organised crime, and the idea that personal use does not hurt anyone is wrong. The use of cannabis has severe knock-on effects for the health system. Furthermore, the increase in the smuggling and selling of cannabis fuels other illicit activities.

Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne from the Association of Chief Police Officers said unequivocally that the association wanted cannabis to be reclassified from class C to class B. He also said that the bottom line, from a policing point of view, was that since the reclassification four years ago there had been a significant rise in cannabis farms and organised crime in that market. He also said that it had caused confusion on the streets as to whether cannabis was legal and fuelled public concern about how the situation was being policed. On that basis, we have to look for change.

The other problem is that cannabis use affects people from the lowest socio-economic areas. We must find ways of helping those people, and that is why I am pleased to support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although cannabis has been reclassified, it is important that Members have this debate and send out a message to our young people. Mr Easton mentioned the dangers that face young people, and Mr O’Loan spoke of the type of society that we want. We are one year into this new dispensation, and it is important that we make it clear that we want a society in which young people and their families are not ruined by drugs. I also take Basil McCrea’s point that that message should relate to any type of drug. That is important.

The amendment includes the phrase:

“recognises the growing drug culture in Northern Ireland”.

I checked some statistics, which I believe were provided in answer to two questions that Mr Dodds asked of Mr Paul Goggins at Westminster. I was surprised by those figures, which indicated a growing drug culture in Strabane and Omagh.

In 2006-07, six people were arrested in Omagh, and two were arrested in Strabane, for dealing class-A drugs. There were nine arrests in Omagh for dealing class-C drugs, and five such arrests in Strabane. During the same period, the number of people younger than 16 who were arrested in Strabane for possession of drugs categorised as class A, B, or C was zero. The figures for Omagh are identical. Those statistics are particularly relevant when one considers the amendment, given that it indicates that there is a growing drug culture in Northern Ireland — that discrepancy must be analysed.

Several Members have suggested that a growing drugs culture exists, and we also hear that from our constituents. Interestingly, at the end of last night’s Omagh District Council meeting, a number of my party colleagues and other councillors discussed that very issue. No one claimed that the drugs culture in our areas is practically non-existent, which is how those figures could perhaps be interpreted, as they show so many instances of zero arrests.

I wish to return to Mr O’Loan’s point about society and Mr Easton’s point about young people as well as to the points that were made by Mr Ross and others. I emphasise that it is important that the Assembly sends out a clear message. Cannabis has been reclassified, but we must consider how we deal with this issue as a society and as MLAs. My party colleague Alex Maskey mentioned the issue of enforcement, which, as well as detection, is an issue that the Assembly should examine. Mr Maskey has indicated that that is happening in other forums, and I would welcome it happening here. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 11:30 am, 20th May 2008

I congratulate my colleagues on tabling the motion.

Some four years ago, the Government reclassified cannabis from a class-B drug to a class-C drug. In a way, my opinion, and the opinion of many people, has been vindicated in that Downing Street has revealed that there is now an estimated three and a half million regular drug users, which is an increase of 20% since the Labour Party came to power. That statistic is one that the Labour Party has realised calls into severe doubt its initial reclassification. For that reason, cannabis will again be classified as a class-B drug.

More than 10% of 15-year-olds are regular drug users and believe that it is legal to use cannabis. I blame that on the initial reclassification, which has led to confusion about the legality of the drug. Some people simply do not know that it is illegal to possess cannabis and that an unlimited fine or a jail sentence can be enforced if they are convicted of possession. If someone is caught supplying cannabis, a 14-year sentence may be imposed and an unlimited fine. Therefore, there are legal ramifications.

A couple of physical horrors have recently been brought to my attention. I was saddened to read about a GP whose son was using cannabis and was subsequently admitted to a psychiatric ward at the age of 17. He has been practically institutionalised since then because of the awful side effects of that drug.

A definite link has been established between mental illness and cannabis use. Regular users of the drug have been found to have doubled the risk of developing psychotic episodes or long-term schizophrenia. An Australian study found that adolescents who regularly used cannabis are five times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in later life. It was found that, if people start to smoke cannabis before the age of 15, they were four times more likely to develop a psychotic illness by the age of 24. Such problems arising from the use of the drug are easily compounded and are well illustrated by those findings.

Cannabis users are more than twice as likely to cause a fatal road accident as those who misuse alcohol. Some Members have already spoken about that issue. That statistic outlines the fact that cannabis poses a danger to society as a whole.

I cannot express strongly enough the dangers of the drug. Recent findings have cemented the fact that the use of cannabis cannot simply be deemed as being recreational, such as having a glass of wine after a hard day’s work. It is much more dangerous. The latest reclassification must reflect that danger.

In London, there has been a 29% increase in the number of people found carrying cannabis, which demonstrates that its use is acceptable by some. As a father of young sons, my prayer is that I will never see the outworking of those statistics. I urge the people of Northern Ireland to continue to view the misuse of cannabis not merely as youthful folly but as a serious problem with life-changing ramifications. Let us not accept its use but stand against the misuse of all illegal drugs with a zero-tolerance approach.

Most cannabis that is grown and sold today is much stronger than in the past. A report has found a link between psychotic illness and cannabis use. In Northern Ireland, 27% of 11- to 16-year-olds are regularly offered cannabis. Almost 18% — one fifth — of those 11- to 16-year-olds will take it. Those are horrendous statistics. Were a class of 30 pupils to be in the Chamber, six of them would have tried cannabis in the past year.

What are the effects? Research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast shows that young users are more likely to be away from their families in the evenings and involved in antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, they are more likely to have bad communication skills with their family and be disaffected with school. It is clear that that is not what people want from, or for, their children. I had a good friend during my school days who was very athletic. Drugs ultimately changed his life and destroyed his ability.

Hauls of cannabis have recently been discovered. Indeed, a short time ago, 20 bin bags of heads and leaves and 450 cannabis plants were discovered at a house that had been turned into a cannabis factory, with the lights and the ventilation system adapted accordingly.

Members have commented on the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is clearly concerned about the fact that cannabis is not harmless. The association has made its dangers clear to the community and its advice should be listened to and adhered to.

Given that the side effects of cannabis are worrying and dangerous, doctors do not prescribe it to their multiple sclerosis patients.

Cannabis use is dangerous to individuals and to society as a whole. Its use and possession are illegal and cannot and will not be tolerated.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

Mr Shannon’s last remarks were perhaps the most important that we have heard — cannabis is dangerous not just to individuals, but to society as a whole.

Mr Alex Maskey referred to the fact that the official report on the matter recommended that cannabis should not be reclassified. However, reclassifying cannabis to a class-B drug was the right decision that sent out a clear message about the harm that the drug can cause. As Mr Maskey said, the report recom­mended that the drug should not be reclassified, even though it conceded that regular cannabis use can have real and significant effects on mental health. The report also stated that the higher content of THC, which is the ingredient that causes the so-called buzz, has made modern forms of the drug far more potent than those that were used in the 1960s.

The scourge of drugs in our society has led to real social problems, including the rise of antisocial behaviour and underachievement among our young people, particularly those in socially deprived areas. The Government have sent out a powerful message by reclassifying cannabis. In the words of the Prime Minister:

“cannabis is not only illegal, it’s unacceptable.”

The Labour Government’s policy on drugs has not been good. However, as Mr Lunn said, at least they have now decided that they have had enough of reviews — they have stopped dithering and have made the right decision.

As I said, not only politicians wanted the change in classification; the Association of Chief Police Officers also called for cannabis to be reclassified, despite having supported the downgrade originally. That is a telling point to which Mr McCrea referred. All Members mentioned that the Government made a serious mistake in reclassifying cannabis as a class-C drug. Indeed, their announcement a few weeks ago to reclassify was a public acknowledgement of that mistake.

The UK has the worst level of drug abuse in Europe, with drug-related crime doubling and more young people taking cannabis than ever before. We also hear worrying reports about discoveries of cannabis factories. Several Members referred to the concerning fact that some people use private houses or lofts in houses to grow their own cannabis.

It is important to note that all Members referred to the impact that cannabis has on young people. The drug culture among young people is the most important issue in this debate. My colleague Alex Easton said that celebrity lifestyles influence young people. Drug taking — particularly taking cannabis — is seen as “cool” and something that trendy people do. That is a powerful message. We recognise that the Government’s decision four years ago was also a powerful message. However, I hope that their decision to reclassify cannabis, and the message that the Assembly sends, will prove to be as powerful.

Mr Easton also talked about the impact that drug dealers have. It is important that we clamp down on drug pushers and that the police apprehend those who harm our society. We want harsher penalties to be introduced. It is interesting to note that when cannabis was reclassified as a class-C drug, most people who were caught with it were not punished. The cannabis was simply confiscated, and no criminal proceedings were brought against those people.

Mr Maskey said that given that the drug is now more potent and dangerous than ever, the debate on the matter has moved away from the image of cannabis-smoking hippies. When considering some of the reports that have been produced, it is important to recognise the fact that cannabis is far more potent than it has been in the past. I said earlier that cannabis is now 10 times stronger and 10 times more dangerous than it was previously. Mr Maskey also talked about the drug gangs and factories around Northern Ireland, and he welcomed the police crackdown on those who are involved. He suggested that the introduction of tougher penalties should be considered.

John McCallister indicated that the Government made a mistake four years ago. He mentioned the debate that was held yesterday on self-harm and suicide. He also spoke about the link between cannabis and mental-health problems, including motor neurone problems. Interestingly, he also mentioned drink driving and drug driving. Problems that they cause have been increasing, especially when evidence suggests that the effect of cannabis and drug use can last much longer than the effects of alcohol — in some cases, upwards of 24 hours. It is important that that is highlighted.

Declan O’Loan spoke about the powerful message that the Assembly can send out. He also referred to the powerful message that the Government sent out by reclassifying cannabis. Indeed, several Members made that point.

Declan O’Loan also referred to the fact that skunk now makes up around 80% of the cannabis market — a point made by other Members. He said that the drug was readily available, and that that was worrying. That goes back to a point that Mr McCann made earlier about the drug being more available, and that young people can get hold of it in schools — not only in secondary and grammar, but in primary schools — and that is particularly worrying. He referred to the need for a joined-up approach between the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety,the Department of Education and other agencies.

Trevor Lunn noted the mixed message in the report and how the advisory council wanted to keep cannabis classified as a class-C drug but also referred to the mental-health and other problems associated with the drug, which I referred to at the beginning of my winding-up speech. He also spoke of the progression of young people using so-called soft drugs moving on to harder drugs. Although some commentators say that there is no link, it is clear that young people who start taking cannabis — and who get into the habit of taking cannabis — are more likely to experiment with other drugs and move on to ecstasy, LSD or other harder drugs, and that is a real problem.

My colleague George Robinson spoke of the local impact in Limavady, and the number of arrests and drug-related crime in that area. The statistics in Limavady largely reflect what we are seeing in Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. He referred to the different types of stronger drugs, how dangerous they are and the impact that they have on the mind.

Sue Ramsey said that I should take credit for making the Prime Minister bow his knee to this Assembly or to me personally. However, she said that we are dealing with a serious issue, and it is important that we get that message across. Cannabis is a serious issue, and it has a serious impact not only on society — as Ms Ramsey said — but on an individual’s health. She referred to the social impact of the drug, and that is important. She also said that it was wrong to declassify the drug four years ago, and referred to yesterday’s debate and the link with depression.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

The Member has taken on board my point that he should not run away from the fact that he may be putting the British Government under pressure. Will he take on board my point that he should have a word in the Finance Minister’s ear to ensure that adequate resources are put into the community and voluntary sector to tackle this issue?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I was going to refer to that point. Of course it is important that we have adequate resources, and it is important that Departments ensure that the money that they are streaming into various agencies goes to the right places, which can make a real difference to the lives of young people and local communities.

Mr Basil McCrea referred to the fact that cannabis can lead to societal problems and what he called “risky behaviour”. He spoke of the difficulties involved not only with cannabis but with alcohol, and that is a fair point. He also referred to the role of parents, which is important. The decision to reclassify cannabis four years ago undermined the role that parents play in the cannabis debate. Parents try to discourage young people from underage drinking and from taking cannabis. However, the Government sent out the wrong message and undermined parents when they decided to declassify the drug. Mr McCrea also spoke of the link with organised crime — as did other Members — and referred to the recent £50,000 fine on the north coast. He also rubbished the myth that personal use does not have a knock-on effect. That is a fair point.

Mrs Claire McGill spoke about the message being sent out to young people, and the number of families that have been ruined by drugs. As always, she referred to her own area of Strabane and Omagh and the impact that drugs were having there, and she revealed some startling statistics.

In his winding-up speech on the amendment, my colleague Jim Shannon spoke of the Government’s mistake four years ago and how drug-related problems have risen since the Labour Party came into power. We must look at how the Labour Government have failed in their drug policy over the years and, hopefully, we will see a sea change now. He also spoke about the confusion that was created when cannabis was declassified. That was a major issue, which caused concern and confusion, and many young people thought that cannabis was, in some way, legalised.

Mr Shannon told stories about those who were affected by the use of cannabis. Personal stories or insights send out the most powerful message. He also spoke of his role as a parent. Many parents throughout Northern Ireland, irrespective of where they come from, share Mr Shannon’s views.

I thank Members for their contributions. The Assembly, at a local level, can send out a strong message to our communities and young people that cannabis is dangerous for their health and for their future. I hope that Members will unite on the motion and the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the findings within the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; recognises the growing drug culture in Northern Ireland; and welcomes the Government’s decision to re-classify cannabis as a Class B drug.