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Legalisation of Cannabis Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.7 pm

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I pay my compliments to the usual channels for making time available for me to argue in favour of my Legalisation of Cannabis Bill. When I first decided to promote the Bill, I did not think that I would be moving its Second Reading three days after the United Kingdom had seen the greatest change in its drugs policy in more than 22 years.

I can think of at least one of my constituents who will be extremely pleased with the Home Secretary's recent decision. That constituent has suffered since birth from haemophilia, and he has been infected by contaminated blood transfusions, which were provided by the state, with HIV and hepatitis C. He may have been infected also with new variant CJD. To dull the pain of his condition and help him to sleep, he takes cannabis. He does so with the full approval of his doctors as the drugs that they would otherwise prescribe would be too damaging to his liver, which has been weakened by hepatitis C. As hard as I have looked, I have found no justice or rationality in the state's treatment of that man. I am glad that Home Secretary has acknowledged the situation.

Statistics show that 68 per cent. of all drugs arrests are for cannabis use. The situation is absurd. When Commander Brian Paddick introduced his no-arrest policy, which has now been extended effectively nationwide, he said that, in the year prior to its introduction, 82 people in Lambeth had been arrested and charged with cannabis possession. It cost an average of £10,000 and several hours of police officers' time to take each one to court. The average fine for those poor people who were prosecuted was £45 each. If one considers the issue rationally, not with a "drugs is drugs and they must be stamped out at all costs" approach, it becomes clear that that is a massive waste of police time and taxpayers' money.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is therefore to be commended for viewing the matter sensibly and ditching the old "drugs is drugs" attitude. The changes bring us into the mainstream of European policy on cannabis and hopefully signal a change in thinking towards a harm-reduction philosophy and away from a moral crusade using the criminal justice system against recreational drugs. In the Bill, however, I go further than the Home Secretary and argue for the legalisation of cannabis.

I understand that my right hon. Friend says that his move on Tuesday was not a first step towards legalisation, but all over the developed world, with the exception of Sweden and the American Federal Government, Governments are slowly taking incremental steps that can only result in full legalisation. I confidently believe that cannabis will one day be legalised. I even think that here in Westminster, where we are so well provided with late-night bars and cigarette machines, we may one day have our own coffee shop.

The present policy, though an improvement, still has many flaws. Cannabis will remain illegal, and although most police forces will turn a blind eye, that will not solve

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the other problems that the illegality of cannabis causes. The argument for cannabis remaining illegal rests on the proposition that sometimes people must be forced to be free. Even on that principle, I do not see how keeping cannabis illegal can be justified. It is a substance of which society mildly disapproves and of which the medical profession very mildly disapproves.

The damage done by continued illegality is great. The Home Office has estimated that the retail cannabis market in this country is worth about £1.5 billion a year—a huge sum, given that the total gross domestic product of agriculture in this country is worth only £5 billion. In quantity, the cannabis market is much larger than all the other illegal drug use in the country put together. In terms of profitability, it is more modest. The total drugs market in this country is worth £6 billion.

That has several implications. First, £1.5 billion can pay for a lot of crime. That money maintains and supports organised crime and other activities—not only the promotion of hard drugs, but a range of other criminal activities are effectively subsidised by the illegal cannabis market.

Secondly, it cannot be denied that cannabis is and will remain the initial point of contact for young people with the world of illegal drugs. According to the recent British crime survey, 45 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds have tried cannabis. That is a very large point of contact. For the vast majority people, cannabis is the only illegal drug that they have tried, except perhaps for a few experiments with other soft drugs, but for some people that is not the case. Because of the relative profitability of other drugs, the drug pushers and gangs have an incentive to turn people who approach them from cannabis to other, more dangerous drugs. Even if they succeed with only a small percentage of people, the profits for them are still great.

As long as the supply of cannabis remains outside the regulation of the state, we will not be able to break the link between soft and hard drugs, although effective decriminalisation will at least help. We have relaxed our attitudes, but we still allow organised crime to dominate a large market and thereby come into contact with a huge number of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Legalisation would solve that problem decisively; it would bring the supply of cannabis under the effective regulation of the state, alongside tobacco and alcohol, and would bring an end to the criminality that prohibition has caused.

I should like to draw parallels between cannabis prohibition and the American experience of alcohol prohibition, as I believe that they are similar and have become even more so. In fact, American prohibition laws were close to laws that now appear to apply in this country. It was not illegal in America during prohibition to possess or consume alcohol, merely an offence to supply or allow premises to be used to brew up. In both cases, a widely used recreational drug was illegal and put beyond the regulation of the state. In America, as with the prohibition of cannabis here, the effects on civic society were deeply corrosive. The murder rate in America during prohibition went up from five in 100,000 people to 10 in 100,000. When prohibition ended, it dropped to 4.5 in 100,000. It remained constant at the lower rate throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s; it was only in the 1960s, when America and, indeed, the rest of the developed world had a second experience of prohibition as cannabis use began to become popular, that the murder rate rose again.

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In America, the percentage of spirits consumed during prohibition went up from 40 per cent. to 90 per cent. overnight. After prohibition, hard liquor sales dropped to 40 per cent again. The reason is clear—bootleggers found that spirits were far easier to smuggle and move around, and more profitable to sell. A clear comparison can be made with the drug pushers of today, who find harder drugs more profitable and easier to move around. Even more corrosive in America were the effects on civil life, the disdain of ordinary Americans for the law and the hypocrisy of those charged with implementing a law in which they did not believe and which, in many circumstances, they did not observe themselves.

In addition, there was an enormous growth in organised crime. The greatest fillip that it ever received was being allowed to supply the whole country with alcohol; the damage caused to America has yet to subside fully. In 1960, John F. Kennedy entered the White House. His family's fortune came from his father, "bootlegger Joe", who made his money smuggling alcohol during prohibition. If the accounts that I have read are true, the success of John F. Kennedy in being elected owed much to that money.

The use of cannabis in this country is not as widespread as the use of alcohol was in America during the 1920s and '30s. Similarly, the effects of prohibition on society are not as extreme or harmful, but they are comparable problems. The illegality of cannabis helps organised crime; it encourages criminality and disrespect for the law.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that to legalise is to legitimise, and that to legitimise is to encourage? Is he seeking to do that?

Mr. Jones: I am not seeking to encourage the use of cannabis, but to legalise and legitimise it because the harm caused to society by prohibition is greater than the harm caused to society by the drug itself. That is a balanced argument. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen and, perhaps, learn.

I do not want to stress this point too much, but I should say that legalising cannabis would bring great economic benefits to the country. The agriculture sector, which is now in what appears to be a semi-permanent crisis, would be given a cash crop that is eminently growable in this country and would provide a much-needed boost. The Treasury would also benefit. Discounting the benefits from completely eliminating the waste of time and resources spent on prosecuting cannabis suppliers and users, the Library estimates that £1 billion a year could be made from the taxation of cannabis. That money could be spent on our schools and hospitals, and on reducing poverty. Given the Treasury's experience of tobacco taxation, I am confident that it could increase even that £1 billion of revenue.

The major obstacle to legalisation is the problem of one country going it alone on an issue that affects every developed country. The problem is twofold: first, we would have to leave several, admittedly obsolete, international conventions; and secondly, we might have difficulties with drug tourism. It is because of that problem that I am so pleased by the announcement made

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by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on Tuesday. As I said, it has brought us into the mainstream of European policy. I believe that it is in conjunction with our European partners, and perhaps liberalising countries such as Canada and New Zealand, that legalisation will happen.

The Netherlands has already driven a coach and horses through the conventions, as would Switzerland if she were a signatory. It is high time that the conventions were re-examined, because the solutions to the drugs problem that were suggested in the early 1970s have not worked and can never do so. Together with other countries, we will need to renegotiate the 1972 UN convention so that we can focus on the drugs that damage our society, and not those such as cannabis, whose illegality causes so much harm.

I hope that I have made it clear that the argument in favour of legalising cannabis does not rest on a principled liberal view about the freedom of the individual, although such a view exists, or on the enthusiasts' belief that cannabis is the solution to the world's problems. Rather, it is a pragmatic argument about how best to reduce the damage to our communities and to society. I do not believe that it is an argument that will carry my Bill into law, but I think that its momentum is now unstoppable. Sooner or later, cannabis will be legalised. The sooner we face up to that fact, the sooner we can stop the deeply corrosive effect that illegality causes to our society.

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