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Cannabis Reclassification

11 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to have the first debate about cannabis, post-reclassification. Many of the things that I shall say may not be popular, especially among certain groups. I remember debating the issue with the journalist Melanie Phillips and Keith Hellawell, the old drugs tsar, at the Oxford Union a few years ago. Needless to say, our side lost the vote, but the argument about the dangers of cannabis continues post-reclassification.

Reclassification has meant that, instead of being clubbed together with amphetamines, or speed, and barbiturates, cannabis is classed with tranquillisers and steroids. The Government state that they wish to concentrate their war on class A drugs, but cannabis was never a class A drug, and was always distinguished from crack and heroin. It was always seen, mistakenly in my view, as a soft drug.

Those are not my words, but those of Professor Michael Rawlins, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, in the council's report recommending reclassification. A document more based on uncertainties and confusion I have yet to read.

Cannabis use has increased over the past 20 years, and there are now roughly 1.5 million users among those aged 16 to 24. The report talks of the acute effects of cannabis use on the brain and the heart and lungs, as well as on other organs. Cannabis constricts blood vessels, leading to higher blood pressure, an increased rate of fainting and an increased heart rate, and can worsen asthma. Cannabis intoxication can lead to panic attacks, paranoia and confused feelings, and in some cases can produce a psychotic state that may continue for some time. Such incidents may, in a few cases, be the start of a long-lasting psychotic illness, usually schizophrenia. Smoking cannabis presents a real health risk, with an increased incidence of bronchitis, asthma and lung cancer, as well as disorders of the heart and circulation. Smoking cannabis may be more dangerous than smoking tobacco, since it has a higher concentration of certain carcinogens. Some severe cases of lung damage have been reported in young people who are heavy users.

Since cannabis use has become commonplace only in the past 30 years, there may be worse news to come. Further research is required, coupled with a public health education programme. Cannabis dependence is reflected in an increasing reliance on the drug and symptoms of withdrawal when users reduce consumption or try to stop altogether. Cannabis dependence was once contested, but has now been established as a genuine problem for which people may seek help.

Unbelievably, everything that I have just said comes from the report that recommended reclassification. I wonder what the report would have had to say for cannabis to have stayed a class B drug. The report is happy to say that the gateway theory is too difficult to state one way or the other, and that the user of cannabis could move on to class A drugs because of peer pressure

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or social deprivation, which I accept. Unbelievably, the report concludes that if people are so well informed about other substances in the class B category, they could go on to those, thinking that they are as harmless or harmful as cannabis. I am amazed at such skewed logic.

I hope that the British Lung Foundation's findings may be a bit more persuasive. The foundation prepared a report on 11 November 2002, "The impact of cannabis smoking on respiratory health". Studies comparing the clinical effects on habitual cannabis smokers with those on non-smokers demonstrate a significantly higher prevalence of chronic and acute respiratory symptoms such as chronic cough and sputum production, wheeze and acute bronchitis episodes. Three to four cannabis cigarettes a day are associated with the same incidence of acute and chronic bronchitis and the same amount of damage to the bronchial mucus membrane as 20 or more tobacco cigarettes a day.

The cannabis smoked today is more potent than the cannabis smoked in the 1960s, when the average content of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, was 10 mg. Today the figure is 150 mg, which means that the longitudinal studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s may not be indicative of the effects of cannabis smoked today. Cannabis tends to be smoked in a way that increases the puff volume by two thirds and the depth of inhalation by one third. There is an average fourfold longer breath holding time with cannabis than with tobacco. That means that there is a greater respiratory burden of carbon monoxide and smoking particulates such as tar than when smoking a similar amount of tobacco.

Cannabis smoking is likely to weaken the immune system. Infections of the lung are due to a combination of smoking-related damage to the cells lining the bronchial passage and the impairment of the principal immune cells in the small air sacs caused by cannabis.

The British Lung Foundation recommends a public health education campaign aimed at young people to ensure that they are fully aware of the increased risks of pulmonary infections and respiratory cancers associated with cannabis smoking. It also recommends that further research is undertaken to take account of the increased potency of today's cannabis and to establish what link, if any, there is between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cannabis smoking. I applaud both those recommendations.

I turn to the British Medical Journal. One toxicologist, Professor John A. Henry, talks about the increased THC, but then states:

He adds:

I back that statement. He has extrapolated a figure from tobacco deaths of 30,000 for cannabis smokers, but chillingly adds:

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He says:

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I hope that the hon. Gentleman is so convinced by his own argument against smoking that from today he stops selling cigarettes from the convenience store in Swansea in which he has an interest—that he will stop his own drug pushing. If he believes that the change in the law was not beneficial, why is it that after 20 years of regulated, policed, licensed decriminalisation of cannabis in the Netherlands, there is less use of cannabis in all age groups and it is often used there in safer ways by ingesting it in ways other than smoking?

Mr. Evans : I am extremely grateful that the crusader on behalf of decriminalisation of, I suspect, any drug has been able to make it to this debate. He always adds the little gibe about the fact that I own a tobacconist's in Swansea. If he is arguing with his own Government that they should ban tobacco as well, at least let him be brave enough to say so. I would recommend to people that, although tobacco is a legal product, they do not smoke, because of the dangers that I have mentioned.

From what the British Lung Foundation and the BMJ have said, I hope the hon. Gentleman understands that this product is different from tobacco. I know that it is thrown in with tobacco and alcohol, but it is not the same. I hope that what I am going to say later will reinforce that argument but also contest some of his arguments about what is happening in the Netherlands. I will let him intervene later if he so wishes.

In November 2002, the BMJ said:

The journalist Melanie Phillips has recently written about the fact that much of what I have just said, and all the studies that point to the mental as well as other ill effects of smoking cannabis, are just being ignored. Sir Michael Rawlins and his committee either did not read all those studies or came at the issue with preconceived judgments that no studies would have altered.

I understand that the Home Secretary agonised over his decision to reclassify cannabis. I hope that he did more than just agonise. In its 1997 manifesto, his party said:

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Sadly, the drugs tsar did not last long. He was sacked, and we have not had a proper annual report for more than three years. I cannot remember when we had a full debate on drugs in general, and not just on reclassification—a debate that we had not so long ago. Keith Hellawell, the former drugs tsar, said that reclassification has produced "a muddle" and undermined police powers in the field.

He added:

The Police Federation chairman, Jan Berry, said:

The Metropolitan police chief, Sir John Stevens, said:

He said that he regretted the Brixton experiment. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) stated that the experiment in Lambeth led to drug dealers pushing harder drugs into the area, using their cannabis client base.

The Liberal Democrat MEP, Chris Davies, recently said that he wanted people to be able to grow cannabis in their own homes. The front page headline of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph read, "Let's have a cannabis plant in every front room—MEP". Chris Davies really is the most stupidest politician I have ever come across. He is the wackiest by a mile. It is totally irresponsible of him to say that. Youngsters will listen to people like him and think, "Oh, if a senior politician says it's okay, it must be okay."

Stories in recent articles by Melanie Phillips should send a shudder down anyone's spine. They are about the effects of cannabis use, and how it leads to suicides, depression, ruined lives and deaths. She goes through all the science, and like her, I am mystified about why the science is being ignored. I know that many people operating in the drugs field have always been pushing for reclassification. Some, such as Mike Trace, the former drugs tsar's deputy, and Roger Howard, believe that the harm reduction method and a softening of the approach are the right way forward. Melanie Phillips points to the fact that the use of cannabis has doubled

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among Dutch schoolchildren—so that experiment is failing. I know that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) has different figures, but Melanie Phillips contests what he believes and says that the use of cannabis among Dutch schoolchildren is on the rise.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the issue. I think that we, as a Government, will live to regret what we have done. Will he comment on the difference between the Swedish approach and the Dutch style? In Sweden, people start off with the clear view that they want a drug-free society. The combination of prevention and education, plus the criminal aspects, has meant that fewer people in Sweden are involved in any drug taking than in Holland and this country.

Mr. Evans : There is the attitude that Sweden is permissive on this, but it is not. Surely we want a completely drugs-free zone and policy in this country, too. It is important to get the right balance. Using the law without education is completely pointless. We are relaxing the law, but we have not quite got the education in place either. That will lead to further problems. We should get both right together. If cannabis is as dangerous as all the experts are saying, surely to reclassify it and place it in the same class as slimming tablets and antidepressants is wholly mistaken, and raises the question why the Government embarked, panic-stricken, on a £1 million campaign saying, "Hold on, cannabis is still illegal," when the message had already gone out. It is ironic, even perverse, that the Government can spend £6.5 million, which they did last year, on anti-smoking advertisements, yet they can find £1 million for a campaign on cannabis.

Paul Flynn : It is a shame that the hon. drug pusher cannot provide anything better than a journalist from the Daily Mail to argue against the recommendations of the Wootton report and the reports of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. A range of reports have been published in which the science goes against what he is saying. We now have evidence from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and from the Council of Europe, saying that the result of the action taken in the Netherlands in separating soft drugs from hard has been the reduction of cannabis use in all sections of society and a reduction in the number of deaths from the use of hard drugs.

Mr. Evans : I thought that the vast majority of my speech was based on science. I referred to the science produced by experts from the British Lung Foundation and toxicologists writing in the British Medical Journal, who are drawing on the Dutch experiment, the New Zealand experiment and the United States experiment. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has a different point of view, but whatever the science on which he and I are relying, surely the right thing to do is to carry out yet more research, which is what the British Lung Foundation and the BMJ want, before we draw conclusions. He is citing contestable science, as I am, but instead of trying to work through the issue and get more research done, the Government have decided to reclassify.

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Surely we need more research and more education. It has been proved that smoking cannabis is much more damaging to the lungs and the heart and carries a greater risk of cancer than cigarettes, yet the Government have just spent £6.5 million asking people not to smoke cigarettes. I find it bizarre that they should reclassify cannabis and send out all the wrong signals. Their drugs policy is a shambles. In my time, it has lurched from strong to weak, from bold to bland, from coherent to confused, and from determined to downright dangerous. We need more research, not woolly thinking. We need to carry out research into the current level of experimentation, not increase that level.

The Government have got it wrong, and the consequences are frightening. Even now, they should have the guts to send out a fresh signal that we will revert to the old policy until all the research has been properly analysed and a fresh committee of experts has reconsidered the issue. Agonising over the wrong decision is simply not good enough. Turning our backs on the science, and therefore on a generation of youngsters, is totally unforgivable.

11.19 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint) : I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for securing the debate. Adjournment debates are a good opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues that hon. Members do not necessarily get the time to discuss on the Floor of the House.

In many respects, the hon. Gentleman may be surprised that the Government agree with some of his concerns about cannabis and its effect on health. There are health issues surrounding cannabis, as there around all the class A, B or C drugs that we control. As was mentioned today, there are also issues relating to tobacco, and alcohol could be mentioned in the same breath. In some respects, the reclassification of cannabis has given us the opportunity to discuss the relative harm caused by different drugs, which has been a useful exercise.

One of the reasons why we wanted to address the issue was that before reclassification, cannabis, as a class B drug, was in the same category as amphetamines. Amphetamines are stimulants, and it is scientifically proven that they are more addictive than cannabis and more likely to be linked to psychotic episodes, they cause aggressive behaviour, they are more harmful to the heart, in that they raise blood pressure, and an overdose can be fatal. In addition, they can be injected, and there are many harm issues associated with that. How could we categorise cannabis with amphetamines—suggesting that they do equal harm—and then have a meaningful and credible discussion with those who might be using or thinking of using cannabis, given that it is clear that the harmful effects of amphetamines far exceed those of cannabis?

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs considered in depth a range of issues. Professor Robin Murray has been very involved in recent weeks in heightening awareness of the link between people who have had mental illness and drug abuse and drug taking—there is concern not just about cannabis, but

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about the use by people with mental illnesses of other drugs, illegal and legal. When I was involved in an interview in which Professor Murray took part he was asked whether, regardless of everything he had said about the dangers of cannabis, he supported reclassification. I think that I am right in saying that his answer was yes. We are discussing the relative harm that drugs can do, and we have never said that cannabis is not a harmful drug. However, our classification has to have substance and signify the relative dangers of different drugs. It must communicate to everybody—to young people in particular—the impact of those drugs.

The advisory council considered the issue in some depth in relation to mental illness. Although it concluded that there is little significant evidence of a causal link between cannabis use and the development of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, undoubtedly cannabis use can worsen a mental illness that already exists. It is clear that heavy cannabis use can produce a psychotic state, although that is, in most cases, short-lived. Amphetamines can create that state as well, with far more serious long-term consequences.

Kate Hoey : The Minister mentioned Robin Murray. Is she aware that Robin Murray said that the drugs advisory group had nobody on it with expertise in psychosis? It is not addiction but the link with psychosis that is the problem. She has quoted Professor Murray in one context. Will she accept that he criticised the make- up of the committee?

Caroline Flint : A number of people were involved in the discussion, including psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists, and evidence was given by a number of people. There was significant expert input, both from those on the committee and from those who gave evidence to it. As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), the Home Affairs Committee also took evidence on the issue in some depth. Professor Murray, while drawing attention to the relative harm of cannabis for those with mental illness, stood by the view that we need to make the public, in particular those who might habitually use cannabis, aware of the situation. For many, it might be a one-off, or something that does not lead to a regular habit, but there are significant health issues for those for whom the use of cannabis, often mixed with other drugs, is habitual. He stood by what he said, which was that reclassification is the right way forward.

Sir Michael Rawlins, in a letter published in The Times on 23 January, said:

Most of Professor Robin Murray's research was known to the advisory council when it was producing its cannabis report, and it is of the view that any new evidence produced since does not affect the overall weight of evidence, or its conclusions about health risks. That is not to say that we do not continually watch this area. The council examines the evidence for all drugs in all categories.

Mr. Evans : Can the Minister confirm or deny what Melanie Phillips wrote—that Customs and Excise is now not bothered about proactively searching for

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cannabis, that it is interested only in the class A stuff and that it seizes cannabis only when it is looking for other drugs?

Caroline Flint : I cannot comment specifically on that, but I can write to the hon. Gentleman on that point. There have been operations that have resulted in large amounts of cannabis being seized, but he is quite right—often in those situations there may be cannabis as well as other drugs. He may be aware of the announcement yesterday of our intention to set up the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Combating drug trafficking will be an important part of its work. He will be well aware that the maximum penalty for dealing in or supplying cannabis remains 14 years, despite reclassification—another message that we have been keen to get across.

Paul Flynn : My hon. Friend has brought a new voice and new thinking to this issue. Was she as moved as I was by the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee by Mr. Fergus Gillespie and other parents of young people who have died as the result of the use of heroin? Mr. Gillespie said that the false and exaggerated messages about the danger of cannabis meant that his son and others did not believe the message about hard drugs, and so progressed to them from soft drugs. He was in favour of reform of the kind that the Government have just implemented.

Caroline Flint : Addiction has a terrible effect on a family. Not only do class A drugs damage individuals and families, but many young people are involved in crime to fuel their drug habit. Our criminal justice interventions programme tries to stop the revolving door of people committing crimes to feed their habit, getting into prison and coming out the other side. Whatever different views on cannabis might be expressed in this Chamber today, this Government are spending more money than ever before, to tackle not only treatment issues but the criminal justice issues in this area, which were forgotten by Governments before 1997. That is a welcome change, which has added to

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more public discussion than ever before on the connection between treatment, prison, charging and tackling crime in our communities with those affected by it in an open and positive way. That is the right way forward.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the strength of cannabis. We do monitor that. These issues are dealt with by the Forensic Science Service. There have been reports of levels up to 20 times stronger than 20 years ago, but that is not borne out by the evidence. The data collected by the Forensic Science Service indicates that some new products on the market have THC levels two or three times greater than those of other cannabis products, particularly the home-grown variety, but that is not a matter of course.

Sir John Stevens said that there was muddle. Of course, before any law change there is going to be uncertainty about how it will operate. That is why the Government and police need to communicate the changes effectively, both to the public and to front-line officers, which is what we have done. In the final part of his interview on LBC, he was asked whether he supported reclassification, and he said that he did.

Any change in the law means that we must consider what information we give out. The £1 million that we spent on this campaign was partly to pay for radio and newspaper advertising. That is the cost of some of these public information campaigns, although I have said to the media that if they would like to give us those spots for free we would be very grateful. We must have a credible discussion with people about these different drugs, and in particular we must give young people opportunities to access services. It is important with this reclassification that we talk to those under 18, to find out whether there are other issues that we need to attend to to stop them moving on to other drugs.

This debate over the past few weeks has been very important, because probably more has been said about cannabis than ever before, and that is welcome for public debate and democracy.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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