Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
THURSDAY 20 MARCH 2003
AINSWORTH MP, MR
60. I have experience of this, because I have
an epileptic son, so at home I have all sorts of Class C drugs,
Valium-type drugs, which under the new rules it will be an arrestable
offence if you do not have a prescription when you go out with
them. Are you convinced that you have explained that to pharmacists
and the Misuse of Drugs bodies, so that they understand what has
actually happened here?
(Mr Ainsworth) You are not planning to sell them on
the illegal market.
61. No, but you understand my point. A lot of
the drugs have suddenly had the penalties increased.
(Mr Ainsworth) I honestly do not believe this is a
problem. The trafficking that takes place and the dealing that
takes place is in cannabis and is not in these other things.
62. There are obviously concerns that announcing
the reclassification of cannabis from "B" to "C"
might encourage use, experimentation, and that the message going
out is that it is safer than it was. Have you done any research
into what young people or children think, whether their thinking
about cannabis has changed since the announcement?
(Mr Ainsworth) I think it is too soon to do properly
evaluated research in that regard. We had real worries about the
way that our decision was reported in sections of the media, that
we could do exactly that. We tried to take measures to insure
against it. We were very, very clear in every, single pronouncement
that we made about what we were doing and what we were not doing,
and the script was very clear: cannabis is harmful, it is illegal,
it will remain illegal, and people should not go there. But, as
we said at the time, our reasons for reclassification were that
we needed to get to a credible message for young people, and the
message prior to reclassification was coming through that we were
effectively saying that cannabis was close to or in the same league
as heroin and cocaine. Young people know that that is not true,
and they switch off if they believe that people are saying that.
So we needed a differentiated message if we are going to have
credibility, and if we are going to be able to impact on what
this Committee desires, and that is the prevention and discouragement
of people from getting involved in drugs in the first place.
63. How will you measure success? Your answer
is that it is really too soon to say, but will you call this step
a failure if the use of cannabis goes up in the next two years?
(Mr Ainsworth) I think we have got to look at the
drugs strategy overall, and we have to keep it under proper evaluation.
Our top priority, above any other by a mile, has to be those 250,000
problematic drug users that we have. It is the Class A drug use
in this country. That has to be our top priority. If we can begin
to bring that down, that has to be the prize.
64. I think you have to look at drug abuse as
well as drug use. I think that is what you are saying. The Chairman
asked you a question about the INCB and what they said about the
reclassification of cannabis. I just wanted to bring out one particular
point about that. They said they thought the reclassification
had "worldwide repercussions." Can you think what they
could possibly have meant by that?
(Mr Ainsworth) No, not at all.
65. I do not know whether it would be an unfair
summary, but listening to the answers in the earlier part of our
session, the Government position on the two UN bodies seems to
be that they are pretty hopeless talking shops that set very odd
targets, that use extraordinary statistics, but we have to take
part, we have to be there and try and have an input. Is that an
(Mr Ainsworth) I thought the Chairman was being unfair.
I think you are being even more unfair.
66. To say "worldwide repercussions"
but not be able to back it up is quite bizarre.
(Mr Ainsworth) We made our point very clearly with
regard to the Narcotics Board, and we will be following that through,
because I do not believe that international bodies should behave
in that way and make pronouncements without any basis of fact
or legality. We will be following that up and trying to find out
whether or not they have taken legal advice on what they said
about the reclassification of cannabis, and if they have not,
they ought to seek to justify what they did and not go there again.
We have heard from Mark Etherton that they seem to do that once
a year. I was unaware of that; it was their pronouncements on
our policy that alerted me.
67. I dread to think what they said to the Dutch,
because in Holland you can walk into a cafe« and buy cannabis
quite openly. Following up what the Chairman said, I wonder why
we should have such a concern if a country like Holland or elsewhere
in the world wanted to go a bit further. It is virtually legal
in Holland, but if they wanted to go a bit further, why should
we be so concerned? We might learn something from a country taking
a different and radical approach, and we could see whether it
worked or whether it was a disaster.
(Mr Ainsworth) Unless the policies that are being
pursued are really impacting on prevalence, and then that is a
concern for everybody, is it not? If there are problems that spill
out of that jurisdiction in terms of trafficking because prevalence
rates are being affected, then we are entitled to say that that
is not somewhere anybody ought to go.
68. Presumably, that is the case in Holland
now. The free availability of cannabis in Holland must increase
the prevalence of cannabis in Europe anyway.
(Mr Ainsworth) I think there is a good argument that
that may well be the case.
69. Two questions about cannabis-based medicine.
What progress has been made on producing one? I remember from
our report that we recommended that cannabis should be available
medicinally, and I think the Government said that it should. Can
you give us a progress report?
(Mr Ainsworth) There is really good progress being
made on cannabis medicine. The evaluation done by the company
who are involved in this, G W Pharmaceuticals, was extremely positive.
They are about to take their report to the MCA.
(Mr Hogg) They are going to apply for a licence to
the MCA this month.
(Mr Ainsworth) We could be in a situation where we
are able to move on this and be able to make cannabis-derived
medicines available even by the end of the year.
70. Is this a point you will have to warn these
UN bodies about well in advance, and will it need any changes
to the treaties?
(Mr Ainsworth) Strangely not, because the derivatives
do not fall under the same Convention.
71. Because they are not illicitly manufactured?
(Mr Ainsworth) The specific derivatives that are there
in the cannabis-based medicines are not covered by the same controls,
so we do not believe we will have that problem.
72. Still on cannabis, Minister, did you see
the leading article in The Guardian the other day, headed
"Protect Private Cannabis Cultivators"? I do not suppose
you would want to go that far, would you?
(Mr Ainsworth) Yes, I did, and no, we do not.
73. It did make quite an interesting point.
It said that new research suggests that an increasing proportion
of cannabis in the UK is cultivated by users for personal consumption
or use by friends. It goes on, "There are sound pragmatic
reasons for ensuring users who cultivate their own cannabis are
not treated as dealers. Their activities reduce the role of criminal
gangs and destabilise the criminalised cannabis market."
What do you say to that?
(Mr Ainsworth) In your report you suggested a differentiated
penalty system for supply, and that is one of the recommendations
that we did not pick up, because our response was that the courts
have the discretion to deal with cases within the sentencing framework
that is provided, and I think it is really down to the courts
to apply their discretion when they catch people. We have no intentions
of being any more lenient on what is the production of an illegal
substance. It is illegal, it is going to remain illegal, and we
do not want to encourage people, even in small amounts, to be
producing illegal substances.
74. Although you accept that there is a distinction
between producing for your own consumption as opposed to dealing?
(Mr Ainsworth) As I say, it is a matter for the courts.
The courts have the discretion to deal with individual cases that
appear in front of them, and I do not think there is any evidence
that the courts deal with serious international traffickers and
pass down the same sentences as they would to the kind of people
we are talking about here.
75. Perhaps I could just ask one question on
cannabis. Can you confirm that there is evidence which indicates
that the improved cultivation quality of cannabis means that it
is a lot stronger than it was, say, ten years ago?
(Mr Ainsworth) Some of the new cultivars of cannabis
have managed to considerably increase the THC content. That is
76. Do we know what the evidence is going to
be, or can you hazard a guess that perhaps in ten years the consequences
of that improved cannabis intake will result in health problems
which hitherto have not materialised?
(Mr Ainsworth) Cannabis is harmful. The Government
has never tried to say that it is not harmful. People are putting
their health at risk, sometimes putting their safety at risk if
they indulge in cannabis. Obviously, the stronger strains cause
potentially greater harm. There are all kinds of reports coming
out about the potential difficulties for long-term cannabis use.
It is not anything that we ought to be encouraging.
77. I am grateful for that comment, Minister.
Moving now to changes to the drugs control mechanisms, in the
Select Committee's report we suggested that the time has come
for the international treaties to be reconsidered, and we suggested
the Government should initiate a discussion with the Commission
on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways, including the possibility
of legalisation and regulation to tackle the global drugs dilemma.
The Government did not accept that recommendation. I wonder if
you would care to say why.
(Mr Ainsworth) Our view has not changed since we made
the response. We do not believe legalisation is appropriate. We
think some of the arguments made for it are ill-considered, and
sometimes the argument that rages in the press is, frankly, a
distraction from what we ought to be involved in, and that is
trying to be as effective as we can, trying to get to better evidence-based
policy in this area. Legalisation will carry its own problems.
Those problems will self-evidently be some increase in prevalence
and in usage, with public health problems, and we can all argue
about the degree of increase but there is clear, well- documented
evidence that illegality itself discourages many people from getting
involved in illegal substances. Many of the harm minimisation
measures that we want to take can not only be taken within a prohibitive
framework, but in some cases we can use the criminal justice system
in order to intervene with problematic drug users. We have managed
to introduce decent clubbing guidance aimed at harm minimisation,
aimed at keeping people alive, aimed at Ecstasy users. Ecstasy
is a Class A drug, it remains a Class A drug, and it is a very
dangerous drug. We know that we are never going to stop people
from using it completely. We are not in the foreseeable future
going to have a club scene in this country which is Ecstasy-free,
but we were able to put in some guidance that will inform club
owners and staff, and keep people alive who would otherwise suffer
harm and even death by the provision of water, ventilation, and
decent training for staff to recognise that people are in distress.
So the fact that Ecstasy is illegal is not a problem in putting
in effective harm minimisation policies in that area. In other
areas we can actually use the criminal justice system. We are
proposing to extend the testing regime at charge, and extend it
considerably, first into all of the high-crime areas. We have
identified the 30 highest crime basic police command unit areas.
We are going to test people with a view to getting them into treatment,
using the criminal justice system at every level to try to help
problematic drug users with the problem that they have. That is
the criminal justice system potentially working for drug users
and making a positive contribution to reduction.
78. Still with the Commission on Narcotic Drugs,
last month in a letter to the Chairman in relation to a forthcoming
meeting of the Commission you said you did not anticipate any
meaningful move among the Commission members to press for radical
change to the UN Conventions and control systems and that any
such move would not win support. The question therefore is, if
discussion in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs must be compliant
with treaty obligations, as the Government said in its reply to
our report, what is the mechanism for suggesting a renegotiation
of those treaties?
(Mr Ainsworth) There would have to be a fairly broad
consensus that there was a need for change. That consensus does
not exist. What we really do need to do though is to work with
these international bodies to clarify our own position, to best
understand other people's positions, and to improve co-operation.
There is a lot of co-operation that needs improvement on the supply
side, quite obviously. There is also improvement that can be made
on the demand side in terms of exchanging information, best practice,
knowledge, exchange of knowledge. These organisations are of great
value in that way.
79. If those discussions with other nations
went well, could that possibly move towards a position where the
treaties could be renegotiated?
(Mr Ainsworth) There is nothing to stop the treaties
from being renegotiated.