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Mr. Evans: My right hon. Friend poses an interesting question, which I have considered. Given the information that I have read about long-term drug takers, I cannot believe that any independent commission that knew the facts would not recommend reclassifying cannabis to class B. I would be staggered if an independent commission decided that cannabis is not that harmful and it would not need to be loaded to recommend reclassification to class B.
The Government sent out all the wrong signals when they reclassified cannabis, because they basically said that it is not as harmful as many other drugs. Cannabis is comprised of more than 400 chemicals and contains more tar and a higher concentration of carcinogens than tobacco. Not only can it cause cancer, but it can disrupt the control of blood pressure, which increases the risk of
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fainting. Even occasional use is bad for people with heart and circulation disorders and for those predisposed to schizophrenia.
"While an inquiry would have been welcomed before the lowering of the classification last yearmaking it more easily available and giving out messages that it is relatively harmlesswe would urge the Government to reverse its decision on classification urgently, backing that with a multi-million pound education and awareness campaign on the dangers of cannabis for young people whose brains are developing."
Mrs. Gillan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government message that cannabis is a harmless recreational drug that can be taken freely has backfired? They have had to spend £1 million of taxpayers' money advertising that the drug is still illegal, because of the increase in usage after it was reclassified to class C.
Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend is right and the £1 million did not get the message across that cannabis is still an illegal drug. The newspaper headlines about reclassification indicated that the police would turn a blind eye to cannabis, which has clearly happened in many cases.
"Cannabis is not risk free. We have known for years that using cannabis makes the symptoms of schizophrenia far worse in people who already have the illness. There is a rapidly growing body of evidence showing that cannabis can trigger schizophrenia in people already at riskand probably even in people who should only be low risk."
"Rethink would welcome an independent commission to look into the effects of cannabis and to make recommendations to the Government . . . Cannabis is an illegal, but widely used drug, particularly amongst young people, reclassification has confused the issues still further, while most young people may still understand that the drug is illegal, its reclassification has reinforced the existing 'street view' that cannabis is safe and harmless. It is not."
"SANE has been campaigning for over 18 years for the government to take seriously the damaging effects of cannabis for those suffering from or vulnerable to mental illness, especially schizophrenia. We fully support Mr. Evans's call for an independent commission to look into the effects of cannabis and its classification."
According to the Metropolitan police, the number of people in London caught with cannabis has increased by one third since the Government relaxed the law on
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possession, which is a clear indication that the Government's policy has led to a huge increase in the number of people using this harmful drug.
We should not be reassured by huge seizures, which are the tip of the iceberg, because they are indicative of the huge amounts of cannabis in this country. This month, police and customs officers raided a pub in Dagenham, Essex, and recovered a record 1.37 tonnes of cannabis resin worth more than £4 million. In a separate operation a few days later, police stopped a lorry on the A20 near Folkestone, and recovered more than 600 kg of cannabis resin.
The price of cannabis has fallen so much that it has become easier and easier to obtain. It has fallen by 33 per cent. since 1994, and it now costs just £10 for an eighth of an ounce, which is what many young people spend on topping up their mobile phones. That demonstrates the problem that we are up against. About 3 million 16 to 59-year-olds have used cannabis in the past year, and a quarter of all 16 to 24-year-olds admit to having used it in the past year.
The Government's website refers to the huge dangers of cannabis, which I described earlier. It says that the drug can cause heart problems, bronchitis and cancer. Frequent use can cut a man's sperm count and suppress ovulation in women. It states:
"Cannabis can cause a range of mental health problems from short lived and more common problems such as anxiety and paranoid feelings, to less common difficulties with actual psychotic states that may require medical treatment."
Rethink has asked the Select Committee on Health to reconsider the problem of cannabis and I understand that the Government have decided to do more research into its effects, with special reference to psychosis.
It therefore shocks me, given that the Government had publicised the effects, that they even considered reclassifying cannabis. It is testament to the need to establish an inquiry at the earliest opportunity to look into the effects of cannabis and report back to the Government. Reclassification should never have happened without such an inquiry, but it did, and my Bill will establish one.
I hope that the Government will give the Bill a fair wind and at least allow it through today's stage so that it can go into Committee and be examined in more detail. I
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know that we do not have much time if the election is held on 5 May but if the Government are serious about tackling drugs, they will know that they must do much more about sentencing and be more effective in sentencing those who deal to minors, and also set up an independent commission to consider the effects of reclassifying cannabis from class B to class C. I have no doubt that, when that commission reports, the Government will consider its conclusions carefully and reclassify cannabis to class B. There is no shame in admitting to making a mistake and taking action. Action is needed now and my Bill will provide for that.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in this important debate. I firmly believe that it is valuable for everyone if we discuss the problems of substance misuse in the House. I am also extremely jealous of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who came second in the ballot. I do not do the lottery because I never succeed in such matters and I am therefore envious of the hon. Gentleman.
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