Cannabis

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 22nd June 2004.

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Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South 12:00 am, 22nd June 2004

In welcoming the opportunity to raise the issue of cannabis reclassification, I make no apology for continuing the ongoing debate. I hope that the Minister and the Government will not regard my contribution in a negative light, but as an attempt to raise the genuine concerns about reclassification that many groups and individuals in my constituency have expressed.

I believe that the reclassification of cannabis was a dangerous mistake and that history will confirm that view. The 90 minutes that were allowed for debate in the House left many MPs unhappy and concerned. Many felt that there was no opportunity to scrutinise the evidence that led to the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis. Heroin, cocaine, cannabis and other illegal substances are dangerous and addictive, so unless there is substantive evidence to the contrary, Governments should not tinker with either the classification or the legality.

Many groups and individuals are involved in drug counselling or drugs support services. Their experiences ensure that they can speak with authority, but their views are often conflicting. That is why a comprehensive examination of all factors should be undertaken before any change. For example, in my constituency, an individual whom I regard as an expert on drug councillors strongly believes that cigarettes and alcohol are the real gateway to addiction and to progression on to hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. He has expressed his concern about the quality of the cannabis sold on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. He believes that it is impure and dangerous, and a major source of the growth among young people of throat and mouth cancer. In his opinion, legislation is needed to control the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, as they are the real gateway to drug misuse. He has asked me on many occasions to get involved in a private Member's Bill to deal with the issue, but I have resisted. He would also argue for the legalisation of cannabis, to ensure that a high standard of the product is available. Obviously I do not share that view either.

I shall quote a few experts and drugs professionals. Professor C. H. Ashton of the department of psychiatry at Newcastle upon Tyne university said:

"Cannabis intoxication can precipitate severe psychiatric reactions including paranoia, mania and schizophrenic-like states", adding:

"Few, if any doctors, will deny that the symptoms of schizophrenia are made worse by cannabis".

Professor Griffith Edwards of the National Addiction Centre has said:

"There is enough evidence now to make one seriously worried about the possibility of cannabis producing long-term impairment of brain function".

Judge Keith Matthewman said:

"Perhaps people who say the drug should be legalised should sit where I do and see the devastation it can cause to other people as well as the defendants".

Cannabis damages the unborn child and is much more dangerous than tobacco in the damage that it causes to lungs. Cannabis takers have a higher risk of heart attack. Cannabis leads to the impairment of skills and contributes directly to road, rail and air accidents.

There are differing views, even among those with expert knowledge on drugs. That is why legislation should be approached with caution. We need to separate the necessarily inexact and best guess areas of classification and law from the more certain areas of what science is saying about the harm caused by cannabis, especially to the mental health of our youth. The Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs cannot continue to do both. I understand its role and its advice to reclassify. However, the advice and judgments of any body often depend on the question asked and the response received. Without doubt, reclassification sent mixed messages about the dangers of cannabis. Despite information to the contrary, many young people believe that cannabis is now legal just like cigarettes and alcohol. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if she disagrees.

Cannabis is clearly a danger to physical health. That was demonstrated by research at the university of California, which has shown that THC, the major psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, is likely to impair the body's ability to resist cancer. Research has also shown cannabis smoke to be more dangerous than tobacco smoke. There is also large and growing evidence, as demonstrated by the reported doubling in the past decade of those seeking treatment at drug treatment centres for cannabis use, that cannabis is a major contributory factor in the onset of mental health problems.

A paper published by the Department of Health in 1998 entitled "Cannabis: Clinical and Pharmacological Aspects" warned in its conclusion of long-term dangers, commenting that

"One cannot expect the human pathology of this drug to be written before one or two decades".

The evidence of links between cannabis use and mental health problems ranging from depression to schizophrenia became clear in October 2002 at a British Toxicology Society seminar. More importantly, three studies published in the November 2002 edition—we should note the date—of the British Medical Journal supported the link between frequent cannabis use and mental health problems. They also indicated a strong correlation between cannabis use and the onset of schizophrenia. The headline figures from these studies are alarming. They cite daily cannabis use among young women leading to a fivefold increase in the incidence of depression. In addition, as Professor Robin Murray from the Maudsley hospital said:

"The conclusion was that, if you took cannabis at age 18, you were about 60 per cent. more likely to go psychotic. But if you started by the time you were 15, then the risk was much greater, around 640 per cent."

The editorial accompanying the research was subtitled "More evidence establishes clear link between use of cannabis and psychiatric illness". More recent work indicates that 80 per cent. of new cases of psychosis in some hospitals in the US have been triggered by cannabis use, and continues to highlight the correlation between mental health problems and cannabis use. I invite hon. Members to compare that with the concluding sentence of paragraph 5.1 of the advisory council's report, which recommended reclassification. It states:

"The high use of cannabis is not associated with major health problems for the individual or society."

That is completely at odds with additional medical evidence that has come to light since the report.

The Government have of course relied on the advisory council's March 2002 report as justification for the decision to reclassify cannabis. When responding to concerns about cannabis use and health problems, the Minister has indicated several times that those concerns are misplaced because the advisory council has fully explored them. Can she confirm that again today?

The breadth of the advisory council's role has become unsustainable. Trust in its scientific assessments has been damaged by its attempt to comment on the science and health consequences of cannabis misuse and then to urge contentious decisions to be taken on reclassification. The chronology is important. In October 2001, the Home Secretary asked it

"to review the classification of cannabis preparations in the light of current scientific evidence."

The advisory council's statistics information research committee then conducted private research before the publication of the March 2002 report. That was based on scientific research published until November 2001. In November 2002, eight months after the report, the damning research studies from New Zealand, Sweden and Australia were published. Can the Minister confirm whether the advisory council took those studies into account before recommending reclassification? It is important for us to know that.

Over the past few weeks, I have submitted a series of parliamentary questions seeking to clarify whether the advisory council had indeed discussed the British Medical Journal articles, but I have not yet received answers. I am not complaining to the Minister; it is due to the timing of the questions. The advisory council has made no pubic comment on the BMJ studies and has issued no addendum to the March 2002 report. That must give rise to concern.

On the basis of that chronology and the March 2002 report, I seriously question the Minister's assertions, such as those in a 9 March written answer, that the advisory council has adequately responded to recent research on the links between cannabis use and mental health problems. The Minister might not be able to respond fully now, but I trust that she will be able to write to me detailing exactly when the advisory council discussed what, and when its views were conveyed to her. I live in hope—I am a super-optimist—but I know that it is a difficult issue and am not convinced that the Government will reverse their mistaken decision to reclassify cannabis. They should look at the evidence that has accumulated since the 2002 report.

I accept that some of those who are concerned about the growing health problems are ambivalent about reclassification. After the confusion and problems over the reclassification of cannabis and the discussions that have surrounded it, we need to reconsider the role of the advisory council. Perhaps it needs to be restructured so as to separate the science, enforcement and treatment aspects of its work from the wider direction of drugs policy. As a first step the statistics, information and research committee of the advisory council should consider meeting more regularly and publishing public reports. We should then consider whether to replace it with an independent scientific review body.

Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of cannabis and mental health problems in oral questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and suggested that more Government-funded research into the link between mental health and cannabis was needed. The long-term consequences of increased cannabis use on the health of today's teenagers cannot at present be adequately assessed; some predict substantial increases in mental health problems over the next 10 years. We need to set up an independent body to assess the health implications of drugs misuse—both by commissioning research and by bringing together other research—separately from considering the policy aspects of combating that misuse.

I therefore urge the Minister to consider setting up a commission, separate from the advisory council, to take on that body's responsibilities for the research and science side of drugs misuse, and to accept the wider remit of informing the debate independently. By recommending cannabis reclassification as part of its current role, the advisory council has become a party to the debate. It was established in 1971, more than 30 years ago. We need to re-examine its role in a modern setting. I still believe that the reclassification of cannabis was a mistake that we will come to regret, and we need to consider how to avoid such mistakes in future.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the Police Federation of England and Wales, asking me to make it clear in my contribution today that

"Policing is all about prioritisation and it is clear that cannabis did not need to be reclassified to be reprioritised. Put simply, reclassification gave a wholly wrong message. In reality, only a properly balanced three-pronged attack encompassing education, treatment and enforcement can combat the insidious forward-march of drugs in society.

Despite costly government attempts to increase public awareness as to the change in the law, many people now believe cannabis has been legalised. In addition, many users feel more comfortable to purchase and smoke the drug in public. This not only contributes to community degeneration and a sense of lawlessness, but also brings with it known—and possibly as yet unknown—consequences upon their personal health. An increasing body of eminent medical professionals believe what has long been suspected: Cannabis usage can contribute to psychosis and other associated mental health problems.

We believe the government should U-turn on its decision. Society must ensure that reclassification does not spell the beginning of a gradual 'softening' of policy on other illicit drugs.

I would encourage you to take account of the views of our members".

The federation encourages me to take account of those views, and so, too, should the Minister.

If the advisory council did not consider all the relevant medical evidence before recommending reclassification, there is an urgent need to address that serious admission. I sincerely believe that this debate gives the Government the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Tynan on securing this Adjournment debate.

In dealing with illegal drugs and the criminality that surrounds them, we cannot simply pass a law and move on; we must always be watching for developing trends. Despite its reclassification, that goes for cannabis, too, and for any of the drugs in schedules A or B. The Government have tried to consider the problems of drugs in an open and honest way. My hon. Friend did not pay much attention to class B and class A drugs, but it is important to do so because the reclassification of cannabis, as well as the drug's harmful effects, must be seen in relation to other drugs.

It is clear from debates in the House and from other discussions that I have had that there is an issue about how young and, indeed, older people perceive such drugs. I have never said that cannabis is a harmless drug, and nor has the advisory council. In fact, cannabis has several harmful effects. However, it must be seen in relation to other drugs, such as amphetamines, or class A drugs such as crack, heroin and cocaine. The Government have said that cannabis is harmful, that regular use can be addictive and—I shall go into more detail about this later—that it can have an impact on those with a propensity to mental illness.

The Government wanted to ensure that there was no risk of young people who had experimented with cannabis being tempted to move on to amphetamines in the belief that the potential harm was of the same order as for cannabis, which it clearly is not. Following advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, therefore, we decided to take action.

My hon. Friend said a lot about the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and we should remind ourselves that it is a fully independent, non-departmental public body, whose membership is drawn from a wide range of disciplines and is highly respected worldwide for the quality of its reports. The ACMD's March 2002 cannabis report clearly set out the scientific evidence for the risk of harm from cannabis. Setting cannabis in the context of other controlled drugs, the council concluded that class C was the most appropriate level of classification.

As I said, the advisory council is an independent and impartial body, and it provides evidence-based advice to the Government. To ensure that it has a balanced membership, it is required to include representatives from the practices of medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy and chemistry. It should also include representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and people with wide and recent experience of the social problems connected with the misuse of drugs. Furthermore, the appointments are made in accordance with the guidance issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

Following reclassification, we did not end discussion on the issue. I have met the chair of the ACMD, Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, as well as the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers' drugs sub-committee and chief constable of Norfolk, Andy Hayman, to discuss what we should be doing in the wake of the reclassification of cannabis.

My hon. Friend made several points about the research. Much of the research was known to members of the advisory council when they considered the reclassification of cannabis. They felt that the new research added no significant new knowledge and was consistent with earlier research. All research shows that early use of cannabis is associated with a higher likelihood of mental health problems developing in later adulthood. However, that has not been shown to be a causative association and might be explained by other factors.

Some evidence suggests that young people with a vulnerability to later mental health problems may start taking cannabis younger than their peers, or may be more likely to use illegal drugs, including cannabis. The ACMD report was based on all the available data included in the Nutt and Nash report, called "Cannabis—An Update 1999–2002". The report was drawn up by Professor Nutt and Dr. Nash of the psychopharmacology unit at the university of Bristol, and is a fully comprehensive study of the evidence available. It is accessible from the Home Office website.

The committee looked clearly at all areas. During the discussions on changes to the reclassification, I had discussions with Professor Robin Murray, who was sometimes interviewed on television and radio at the same time as me. It was clear that Professor Murray was and is concerned about people who have mental health problems using drugs—I should say that that does not just mean cannabis, but any drugs—but he did not say that he thought that the reclassification of cannabis was wrong. He was concerned that more work needed to be done in that area.

Following our meeting with Sir Michael and Chief Constable Andy Hayman, as well as discussions with officials in the Home Office, we have agreed that it is vital to monitor arrest patterns and the work that is now ongoing between forces and the Home Office research unit to assess the impact of reclassification at street level.

We made sure that the message reached young people at the time. My hon. Friend made a number of comments about people thinking that cannabis is now legal. We have evaluated the campaign and found that 93 per cent. of those under 18 understood the message that cannabis is illegal. However, we clearly cannot give up on that and need to do more.

There may have been some confusion among young people about the consequences, but people know that a number of offences are illegal although they do not necessarily know the consequences. It is enough for them to know that the act itself is illegal. The evaluation of the campaign found that, but we should not just accept that—we have to get the message across constantly.

We are devising a series of health messages on the harmful effects of cannabis, with general information that young people and parents can access through the "Talk to Frank" campaign, as well as targeting specific groups such as frequent and heavy cannabis users as well as those with mental health problems. We will ensure that the campaigns are properly researched and that they will be evidence based. To that end, officials have been liaising closely with a number of organisations, including mental health charities and interested individuals.

The technical committee of the ACMD played a key role in drawing up the evidence base for the main council's consideration, and it now has the issue of cannabis as a standing agenda item. The committee will monitor closely all new research developments. I hope that that will assure my hon. Friend that we do not think that the issue is not important because of reclassification. Cannabis is still an illegal drug, and as I have tried to point out, it is harmful—an approach echoed by the ACMD.

There is now a thought-out regime for policing cannabis. For those aged 18 and over, there is a presumption against arrest. However, a police officer may exercise the power of arrest in specific aggravating circumstances, such as when someone is smoking in public view. Dealing with younger people raises other issues, because we want to engage with them to ascertain the problem.

I was interested by the comment made by my hon. Friend about one of his constituents, who talked about cigarettes and alcohol. I have been engaged in discussions about how, from an early age, young people could put themselves at risk from drugs later in life. We must consider such risk-taking activity, even with substances that may be legal for those above the age of 18. For example, I visited Rotherham yesterday and met two men in their early 30s who had become involved with drugs through solvent abuse. We must consider how young people start. They do not start with class A drugs. We need to consider what other drugs they use and what other risk-taking behaviour they may indulge in—even truancy—that could lead them to meeting in groups and being put at risk of gaining access to harder drugs in later life.

No approach to the drug problem is without risk, but I hope that the measures that we have implemented will provide the best opportunity to make our drugs education programme credible, and to get the priorities right on law enforcement and treatment for dealing with class A drugs. It is the latter drugs that cause the harm, but we should stand back from that to consider what influences children. We should tackle and prevent the early involvement with drugs.

Early indications from police forces show that the change in the law on cannabis has freed up significant resources, which can now be redeployed to preventing the supply of class A drugs. I am pleased to say that since reclassification we have agreed a young people's treatment budget for local drug action teams. That has brought together pots of money from various Departments. That will result in less bureaucracy. We hope that the teams will be able to consider a range of intervention measures for prevention and treatment.

Since 1998, drug use among 16 to 24-year-olds has shown some modest reductions. I say modest because I do not want to sound complacent. The British crime survey showed a reduction in the number of people admitting to taking drugs from 31.8 per cent. to 28.1 per cent. More specifically, the figures for cannabis show a fall from 28.2 per cent. to 25.8 per cent. We must be mindful of the figures, but we should not stray from the fact that we still need to bear down on the health implications of using drugs, for young and older people alike.

The advisory council considered schizophrenia, and the possible links between cannabis use and mental illness. It did not find evidence of a causal link, but it recognised that cannabis use can unquestionably worsen an existing mental illness. Those real issues need to be discussed with colleagues in the mental health sector and the Department of Health.

We also need to consider how individuals are managed in the process. I was in Crawley a few weeks ago, and met an individual in his early 60s who, at various times throughout his adult life, had been defined as a drug addict and as someone with mental health problems. He was also an alcoholic. He said that he sometimes needed an agency that would deal with all those issues rather than being shunted from one agency to another. The label itself is not as important as the help that individuals receive. I hope that our discussions over the past few months will produce some ideas on that subject. Again, it is for the Department of Health to consider its mental health services, with a read-across to tackling drug addiction for users of those services.

We know that heavy cannabis use can produce a psychotic state, as can other class A and class B drugs, although for cannabis it is mostly short lived. The advisory council acknowledges other concerns—for instance, acute effects include damage to the ability to learn and carry out tasks, including the operation of machinery and the driving of vehicles. Wearing another of my Home Office hats, I can say that we are considering the sort of tests that might be used on people who drive cars under the influence of drugs. We hope that they will feature alongside alcohol testing.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend, at least to an extent. We have not ignored the health implications of cannabis, nor has the ACMD. It can provide independent advice to the Government. I have given information on what new things the ACMD has been doing since reclassification. My door is always open should my hon. Friend wish to discuss the issue further.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock