Examination of Witness (Questions 1260
TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
1260. The other point which has been put to us
is that some types of cannabis are extremely carcinogenic and
that, if anything, it has got a lot stronger than it was in the
alleged golden age of the 1960s. Therefore, some types of cannabis
deserve to be in the higher category of harm alone. Any thoughts
(Mr Ainsworth) You can remember the 1960s,
1261. I had hair in those days!
(Mr Ainsworth) You know what they say
about thatif you can remember you were not there! There
are available cannabis strains which are a lot stronger, and there
are health problems taking cannabis both in the short-term as
well as potential long-term health problems. There is not enough
research done on that as of yet. That is the reason for us continuing
to believe that cannabis should remain an illegal substance. With
the skunk cannabis, as they call it, the THC-bearing cannabis,
there is no evidence as far as we are aware that it has carcinogenic
contents greater or significantly greater than long-term regular
use of ordinary cannabis.
Chairman: Let us turn to the subject of ecstasy.
1262. Good morning, Minister. It is nice to see
you in a different forum. You have touched on the total use of
drugs in the UK, can you give us your estimation of the prevalence
(Mr Ainsworth) There have been a lot
of reports around and some conclusions that have been jumped to
off the back of Home Office reports that need to be used with
care. The best measure of use for ecstasy is the British Crime
Survey, which suggests that 5 per cent of young people have used
ecstasy at least once in the last year.
1263. Does that demonstrate a fall in its use
or an increase?
(Mr Ainsworth) Over the recent past there
was a rise in the level of ecstasy use which appears, in the last
couple of years, to have tailed off. We have no evidence that
it is going down.
1264. Is there a validity to reports about a
recent Customs and Excise report which says that ecstasy use is
something like 2 million pills a week?
(Mr Ainsworth) There have been a number
of reports out and some of them have carried their own riders
in terms of people being asked to consider them with caution,
because the methodology was something that needed proper evaluation
over a period of time. We still believe that the best measure
of the level of ecstasy use is that it is not going up but, equally,
it is not going down.
1265. Do you believe that ecstasy is as dangerous
as cocaine or heroin?
(Mr Ainsworth) It is a different drug,
with different effects. It does not carry the kind of physical
addictions that heroin doesthere is no doubt about that.
There is no safe dose of ecstasy. There is a popular myth that
some of the ecstasy-related deaths have been caused by impurities.
That is a myth. There is no evidence that ecstasy has been cut
in this country by any substance that is any more dangerous than
ecstasy itself. Ecstasy is a dangerous drug to take.
1266. Is it as harmful as cocaine or heroin?
(Mr Ainsworth) Its harms are different
in that it is used for recreational enjoyment. The level of dose
that people take in order to get the enjoyment they get from it
are potentially dangerous and life threatening.
1267. What about the link to acquisitive crime?
Is that as great or as risky as heroin?
(Mr Ainsworth) It is not. The two drugs
that have a proven link to acquisitive crime are heroin and cocaine.
1268. Following on from the logic of your argument
and the Home Secretary's argument which said that reclassification
of cannabis should be based on concern that the classes of drugs
should reflect relative harm, is there not a logic to us reclassifying
ecstasy and LSD, given that they are class A drugs now in the
same classification as heroin and cocaine?
(Mr Ainsworth) That does not mean we
cannot target resources at areas of need. Knowing what we know
about ecstasy in terms of the immediate risk of, at worst, death;
and not knowing (because while it has been around for quite some
time as a drug) the misuse of ecstasy in any quantity, for the
moment; not knowing the long-term health consequences of ecstasy;
and in the absence of any specific recommendation from the Advisory
Council, it would be wholly wrong in my opinion for us to reclassify
1269. Presumably, if we liberated all this new
police time to target harder drug use with reclassification of
cannabis; and if we accept that ecstasy does not have a greater
link with acquisitive crime and has a different harm and is less
addictive, the same logic would apply that we could reclassify
ecstasy to class B?
(Mr Ainsworth) As I say, we think that
ecstasy is a dangerous drug. It is a dangerous drug in its immediacy.
We do not know about the long-term consequences of regular use
and we see no reason or justification for reclassification of
ecstasy. I do not think we should exaggerate the amount of police
time that has been thrown up by the reclassification of cannabis,
as if we are going to be able to move hordes of man hours into
tackling other areas. I think potentially it can be of benefit,
but it is not going to be of a massive order.
1270. You are on record as saying that you do
not think there will be an increase in cannabis use as a result
of reclassification from class B to C. Presumably your argument
would hold true if there was a reclassification of ecstasy from
A to B. You believe there will be an increase in use?
(Mr Ainsworth) We do not think there
is an increase in the use of cannabis as inevitable from reclassification
at all. If we did our reaction would be different to that which
it was. I do not know, is the obvious answer, what the consequences
of the reclassification of ecstasy might be. It could be we send
a message to people that it is a safe drug to use; and that would
be a very damaging message to send.
1271. Presumably you could employ the same argument
with the reclassification of cannabis. There is a sort of incongruity
to the logic there.
(Mr Ainsworth) I think we have to look
at how we get the message across to people; whether or not we
have any credibility in the message we are getting across to people.
I know there are arguments repeatedly made for the reclassification
of ecstasy. It is not my belief the fact that ecstasy is in class
A is massively detracting from the message to young people. I
think there is quite a fear where people are aware of the potential
consequences of ecstasy of taking it and that is discouraging
ecstasy use. I think that is part of the reason why the increase
in the use of ecstasy has actually tailed off in the last few
1272. But it has been said to us that government
policy is slightly confused in this area. What we are precisely
saying by keeping them in the same class is that heroin is on
an equal scale of harm to ecstasy, and that message is not believed
by drug users in the community.
(Mr Ainsworth) I do not know to what
extent it is believed, but just because all of these drugs are
classed as A does not mean that we are equally concerned about
every aspect of every single one of them. For instance, I think
we have got a particular problem with crack cocaine and if you
start looking at overall harm done by any given substance, given
the kind of culture that surrounds the supply of crack cocaine
and the massive damage that it is doing to certain communities
and inner-city areas, you could argue that that warrants some
higher classification, but there is not necessarily a need to
make crack cocaine Super A in order to try to zoom in on and apply
the necessary resources to start to try to tackle those problems.
1273. So at some point in the future we could
be looking at a complete overhaul of the classification system
to tease out these relative differences or do you think we will
keep pretty well to the old system?
(Mr Ainsworth) No, we are not looking
at that. One of the things we are looking at which the Home Secretary
tried to indicate to the Committee, I think, is that we are looking
at introducing to a greater extent in the Drug Strategy the concept
of harm minimisation. I cannot say, because the review has not
finished yet, exactly where we have got to with regard to that
evaluation, but if we are looking at harm minimisation, then it
is only right that we should look at the harm that is done by
particular substances and the way that they are used and the impact
that they have on particular communities. I do not think that
we need a reclassification in order to be able to do that. I think
we need to look carefully at the structure of the strategy, the
targets, the SDAs that underpin, the service delivery that underpins
the targets as well, and I think that we can do that within a
harm minimisation direction, but we do not need to have a separate
classification for every single substance that exists and put
them in ranking order.
1274. Just pursuing the point about ecstasy,
Minister, one of the organisations that gave evidence to us, Turning
Point, said that changes to the drugs law, and I think they were
referring to classification, would also greatly enhance the credibility
of drugs education work, and they went on to say that, for example,
ecstasy is classed alongside heroin and cocaine, but it is not
perceived by some young people as being as dangerous, so when
the police and other workers are talking about other class A drugs,
these more serious messages are also being discredited. What do
you say to that?
(Mr Ainsworth) We have not accepted it,
otherwise we would do what they effectively suggest. We know that
there are arguments for both reclassification with regard to cannabis
and reclassification with regard to ecstasy. On the cannabis ones
we thought there were good grounds underpinning the arguments,
that we were effectively detracting from the message that we were
sending across to people about drugs overall by being seen, and
it was not necessarily true, but by being seen as counting cannabis
as as important or as dangerous or as threatening as class A drugs
and we needed to try to differentiate a little bit the message
that we sent across in order to make it credible. The same argument
is presented by the people you suggest with regard to ecstasy,
but we do not think that it is true to anything like the extent
that it is with cannabis. As I have said, it is a life-threatening
drug and there is no safe dose. The Advisory Council looked at
ecstasy as recently as 1997 and decided to keep it as class A.
Now, in the absence of knowledge about the long-term health effects
or any feeling that this was a safe drug to take in any way, it
would be irresponsible, in our opinion, to reclassify ecstasy.
1275. There is just one other point. You were
quoting some statistics for drugs usage a few minutes ago. Can
you just tell us what the source was?
(Mr Ainsworth) The source is overwhelmingly
the British Crime Survey.
1276. Could you let us have a copy of whatever
it is you are reading from?
(Mr Ainsworth) Yes.
1277. Minister, in your answers to Mr Watson,
you mentioned that cocaine and crack cocaine in particular are
especially harmful drugs.
(Mr Ainsworth) Yes.
1278. All the evidence we have received backs
that up and suggests they are really nasty drugs to deal with,
but at the moment there is no model of treatment in place for
helping users of crack cocaine. We have heard of a team of experts
which is looking into the matter, so can you tell us what progress
it has made?
(Mr Ainsworth) The team of experts met
for the first time last month in order to look at treatment. You
are absolutely right, that treatment in terms of stimulants, particularly
cocaine and crack cocaine, is a long way back from that which
has developed surrounding opiates where there is a lot of knowledge
which has been built up over a period of time, but there is some
good practice and some effective practice which is taking place
in parts of the country. There was a high degree of consensus
for these at that meeting about a way forward and the way forward
is, first of all, that in trying to make sure that treatment is
available wherever it is needed, and it is not yet, it is very
patchy, so we need that capacity, and we need also to be able
to spread best practice which is actually working in terms of
stimulants. Cocaine addiction, I am told, is very different from
heroin addiction in that it is not physical addiction where people
need to be maintained and withdrawn over a long period of time,
but it is more of a psychological addiction. In treating it, people
need at the beginning just to be able steady people down in order
to be able to talk to them and communicate with them at all, heavy,
problematic users, and then they need to address the underlying
problems which will enable them break the addiction themselves.
As I say, there is some expertise that is growing and we need,
following the consensus meeting, to take forward what was agreed
there, to use the NTA which we have just set up, to make sure
that that capacity is spread throughout the country where it is
1279. Do you have a view of when they will report
back with their recommendations? Have you set them targets for
(Mr Ainsworth) By the end of the year.
2 See Appendix, Ev226 & Ev229-230. Back