Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  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 unfair summary?
  (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.

Bob Russell

  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 true.

  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 23 October 2003