Examination of Witness (Questions 1204
TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
Chairman: Good morning, Minister, and welcome.
This is probably the final session we are going to have on our
drugs inquiry, although there is a possibility we will take a
witness from Sweden whom we have had some difficulty tracking
down; otherwise it is our final session and we hope to complete
our report by April. Thank you very much for coming. We are going
to start, if we may, with some general questions.
1204. Good morning, Minister. Has the Home Office
done, or do you intend to do, any studies looking at the benefits
and disbenefits of legalising some or all drugs?
(Mr Ainsworth) Can I just say, I have
followed some of the evidence that has been given to the Home
Affairs Select Committee over the period of your inquiry now and
I know this question was asked of officials right at the very
start. There have been some attempts to scope the issues but it
would be very difficult to actually pin down the whole costs of
such a move of policy. That is really a matter for ministers rather
than for officials and I thought that at the timeto pin
officials to the wall on what they should or should not have been
doing in this regard. That is another area we are actively looking
at and, therefore, it is not an area we have asked officials to
spend great amounts of resource exploring. There is a lobby for
legalisation; and there is a lobby for criminalisation. I am not
sure people always understand what they are arguing for within
those two definitions. I think it is often the case that those
who advocate legalisation advocate it as a potential panacea for
many of the costs that are imposed upon the criminal justice system,
without necessarily looking at the downside in terms of the fact
that I think it is proven beyond all doubt that illegality discourages
use; that legalisation would lead, to some degree, to an increase
in use. That is proven by surveys that come back that say directly
people are discouraged from using some of these substances by
the fact that they are illegal. It is also self-evident from the
fact that, to some extent, availability has got to be suppressed
by the very fact that they are not legally available. When you
look at the public health consequences and the individual health
consequences of what could be a very substantial increase in use,
it is not something we are contemplating; and, therefore, it is
not something that we are giving large amounts of money on.
1205. Given that the drugs policy on any basis,
over a long period, has been something of a failure in terms of
the level of deaths; in terms of the level of drug use; in terms
of the fact that we have had witnesses coming in front of us telling
us they can't stop the number of drugs getting into the country;
given the scale of the failure which subsists under both Parties,
should not the Government be doing some blue sky thinking; particularly
when you have got the conservative voices like the Daily Mail
and the Daily Telegraph saying that legalisation should
be looked at? Should not the Government be at least looking at
(Mr Ainsworth) You have had witnesses
coming in front of you who have said everything from one extreme
of the spectrum to the other extreme.
1206. The only thing we have read about is that
the policy is not working?
(Mr Ainsworth) It is against what measures
you want to say that. The overwhelming majority of people in this
country do not use illegal drugs. The cost of legalisation is,
what, in terms of blue sky thinking? These are largely refined
agricultural products. What is the difference at the end of the
day between the cost of heroin or cocaine and a bag of sugar?
To what degree does legalisation get us out of some of the difficulties
we have got? Unless we are prepared to contemplate a situation
where drugs, including hard drugs, are widely and cheaply available
to everybody, including children, you cannot get the legal system
out of this area in its entirety. Surely, cigarettes and cigarette
smuggling and the rest go to prove that that is the case.
1207. You do not argue to make cigarettes illegal.
If you are saying the reason for making drugs illegal is to make
a difference between the price of a bag of sugar and the price
of a bag of drugsthe policy is going to be a monumental
failure with drugs being cheaper and more widely available.
(Mr Ainsworth) I would contend that that
is not necessarily the case. There is evidence that the wholesale
price of drugs is higher than it has been for some time now. The
Drug Strategy has only been in since 1998, and that has given
us the ability to work across government departments in a joined
up way and to focus on the gaps that have been there in the past.
I think that if we tried to suggest to people that there is an
easy answer, that we can solve problems of illegal drug use either
by the present methodology or by legalisation, then we clearly
are deceiving them.
1208. I do not think anyone thinks there is an
easy answer; that is certainly not what we have found on this
Committee. Just to take this point further about price and availability.
If the aim of government policy is to increase the price and reduce
availability, why is cannabis going to be reclassified from class
B to class C? It would seem to be a move in the opposite direction?
(Mr Ainsworth) Very simply, as the Home
Secretary I think tried to say to the Committee at the start of
its deliberations, there is a desire, which we have been pressing
for some considerable time now, for the main effort to be directed
at drugs that present us with the main problems. Those are the
class A drugs; those are the drugs that are responsible for acquisitive
crime; those are the drugs which do massive damage to people's
personal health. Yet the evidence of police intervention is, first
of all, there are different methods of dealing with cannabis possession
in different police forces the length and breadth of the country;
and that actions against the possession of cannabis were actually
rising, and rising year on year. A disproportionate amount of
police time is being spent on cannabis by comparison with where
we are trying to push the enforcement effort, and that is in the
direction of class A drugs. There is also an issue, as I think
the Home Secretary tried to say as well, of how we get the message
across to young people. They are not stupid; they do know the
basic facts in this area, or many of them do; and unless we have
a credible message they switch off altogether to everything that
we say. If we are trying to say to young people that cannabis
is just as bad and just as dangerous as heroin or crack cocaine
they hear nothing that we say at all.
Mr Cameron: Do you think that reclassification
is a satisfactory situation? Some of our witnesses have put it
to us that it is a halfway housethat you need to supply
cannabis into the hands of dangerous, armed criminals and gangs
Chairman: Mr Cameron, you wandering into someone
else's neck of the woods!
1209. Let me put the question like this: what
would you say is the reason not to legalise cannabis, given that
it is subject to this change?
(Mr Ainsworth) I think for the reasons
I have given for other drugs, that we risk an increase with regard
to use and availability if we do that. There are consequences
of that as there are consequences to everything. There is no easy
solution to this. People advocate decriminalisation, but decriminalisation
of what? Decriminalisation in Holland, for instance, leaves the
supply in the hands of criminals. So there is no easy place to
draw the line, other than total legality. If you make the supply
of cannabis as well as its use and possession legal, then you
do risk a very substantial increase in use.
1210. Does the Drug Strategy differentiate between
problematic drug abuse and recreational drug abuse; or do you
see it as all one thing?
(Mr Ainsworth) We do attempt to differentiate
on that. The very fact that we have a Drug Strategy in the first
place with targets attached has encouraged us to do a lot of work
on exactly where the costs arise. Overwhelmingly, both economic
costs and social costs to society arise from dramatic drug use.
The Committee is aware, I think, that we are in the middle of
a stock-taking review at the moment with regard to targets, and
one of the issues we want to pick up in the review is whether
or not we have sufficient emphasis on problematic drug use, and
whether or not the targets on strategies are leading us to attack
the worst of the problem.
1211. If you see a gap between recreational drug
use and very problematic hard drug use, particularly at the hard
end, do you see any merit in the argument being put to us that
if we took cannabis specifically and legalised it and regulated
it you would be taking it out of the black market? At the moment
if you go and buy cannabis you are offered every other drug under
the sun and you are swimming in a black market pool. Do you think
that argument has merit and, if it does, is the Government looking
(Mr Ainsworth) I think it is overstated.
I think that the overwhelming majority of drugs are delivered
in small quantities by people who are known to the end users at
the end of the day. I think, yes, the same people are involved
in the supply of different drugs. The Committee needs to reflect
on this if it thinks there is some way to take cannabis out and
treat it differently, How exactly are we suggesting we supply
1212. We are asking the Government. We as a Committee
are asking the Government. You have decided there is a difference
between recreational drug use, because you have just told me,
and hard drug use, and yet you have ruled out looking at any form
of legalisation or decriminalisation as a government, and that
is what I find baffling.
(Mr Ainsworth) I think you are twisting
very slightly what I have said. We are concerned about recreational
drug use and all drug use, but we do see the need for additional
resources, additional emphasis and additional focus on dealing
with problematic drug use.
1213. What do you think of the arguments against
decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of any drugs,
particularly cannabis for personal use?
(Mr Ainsworth) I do not know exactly
what people mean by "decriminalisation". There are different
experiments in different countries.
1214. Presumably you would not be arrested and
a policeman would walk on by, as they do in large parts of London
at the moment?
(Mr Ainsworth) What I think people mean
is that we replace for possession only or small quantities some
kind of civil penalty, a fining regime with the potential for
arrest and court action. Where people have experimented in that,
I would ask the Committee to look at what happened in South Australia
recentlythey actually found against a fairly rigid system.
I think people found there was a substantial increase in the numbers
of offenders on possession of cannabis. You may well find if you
move to some kind of system like that you do apply a rigidity
to the law enforcement system that does not necessarily apply
at the moment. There would also be massive problems, I would suggest,
in the quantity of the fines that may well be appropriate to some
kind of decriminalised regime.
1215. With respect, you are twisting my words
a bit and saying decriminalisation should be a form of civil penalties
with more aggressive policing than you have at the moment. I take
the view that decriminalisation is almost what is happening in
Brixton at the moment. People can take small amounts of cannabis
and they are not being arrested by the police.
(Mr Ainsworth) I gave you my definition
of decriminalisation. I would say to you, that I have difficulty
understanding exactly what people were advocating when they said
"decriminalisation". If you would like to tell me what
you mean by decriminalisation I will comment on it.
1216. I think probably what is happening in Brixton
is a form of decriminalisation. People are smoking or possessing
small amounts of cannabis and are not being arrested.
(Mr Ainsworth) It is not decriminalisation;
it is reclassification. There are other drugs that have been in
the B and C class for some time. If the Advisory Council go along
with the idea of reclassifying cannabis, cannabis will remain
illegal, with potential for caution by the police on the suppliers,
and possession with intent to supply will still be there. We are
in one part bringing the law into line with what is being practised
by many police forces in any case. As I have said, we are trying
to direct police resources where we feel they ought to be, targeted
at class A drugs.
1217. Just one last question, which is the definition
of supply. A number of witnesses have come before us and said
there is a problem at the moment because, as I understand it,
you have two things that are illegal: possession, and possession
with intent to supply. Possession with intent to supply can cover
anything from the possession of a few, let us say, ecstasy tablets
or a small bag of grass, to possession of a lot of drugs with
a big dealer. Do you think the law must reflect the difference
between possession of a small amount of drugs, which may or may
not be for personal use, and possession of a lot of drugs in terms
of being a dealer? Do you need a new offence of dealing?
(Mr Ainsworth) At the moment there are
three offences which are available. If we were to suggest that
dealing should be replaced with possession and replace possession
with intent to supply, we would have to define "dealing".
If we were to define dealing by possession of a particular amount,
then we would find systematically people were on the streets with
just under that amount. People are not stupid, and that is exactly
what they would do. We would, in effect, be depriving the police
of that middle option, where they feel that they have enough evidence
to show that the person is in possession with intent. At the moment
we enable them, where they think it is appropriate to take that
case to court, not to accept it as simple possession, and to attempt
to prosecute somebody who is effectively dealing. The alternative
is you put some physical measure above or below a particular number
of grammes. That would certainly simplify the process. There would
be, in effect, only two charges to be brought, dealing, trafficking
or supply and, the other one, possession for personal use. We
would see systematically people riding that threshold.
1218. You do not think there is a problem at
the moment with some people being taken to court and being imprisoned
for possession on possession of a relatively small amount of drugs
because that is still called possession with intent to supply?
(Mr Ainsworth) I am aware of the evidence
you have received and I have tried to check on whether or not
that is actually going on. I do not believe, from what has been
fed back to me since then, that possession with intent to supply
is being used inappropriately or in a massive amount of cases
Mr Cameron: It might be useful for you get back
to us because that is something we have been asked to look at.
1219. One of the points made, Minister, was that
a great deal of court time is taken up with arguments over whether
it is possession or whether someone is a dealer; and expert witnesses
have to be called in at great expense. Would it just be better
if everybody knew where the line was, despite the disadvantage
to which you draw attention?
(Mr Ainsworth) Yes, there are advantages
and disadvantages, as I have said. I think that to some degree
depends not only on the court time with the individual cases,
but the numbers of cases that are being brought. I have been told
at the moment those cases are only being brought where police
officers have a high degree of suspicion that trafficking is effectively
going on. There is not the evidence to bring a case of trafficking
itself, but they do believe they can prove a case of possession
with intent to supply, and they do so. If that offence was being
used widely and inappropriately at the expense of massive amounts
of court time I think you would be absolutely right, there might
be a case to review and to look carefully at the benefits of putting
set amounts. I am told that it is not.
1 See Appendix, Ev225-6. Back