Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Fiona Mactaggart: The purpose is to protect young people and children. I am not of the view that dealing down the road from Herschel grammar school in my constituency at five past 8 in the evening creates a bigger threat to young people than dealing a mile and a half away where there is no school. It does when the young people are leaving school and when they are near the school, and the ambition of the provision is to address that. The hon. Lady is wrong if she thinks that geography is the issue. The issue is the presence of children and young people. The issue is dealers using the school as bait to catch vulnerable young people. It is not buildings that are not actually being used or have not been used by young people for the past hour.

Mrs. Gillan: The Minister has just said that it is irrelevant that the buildings exist as a school. In that case, there is no point to clause 1 of the Drugs Bill. The very premise of the clause is that the school buildings are
25 Feb 2005 : Column 582
the attraction for dealers and that is where children need to be protected. Her argument is flawed and I do not think that she fully understands it.

Fiona Mactaggart: I absolutely understand it, and I thank the hon. Lady for patronising me. The point of clause 1 of the Drugs Bill is to protect children, not to protect school buildings. In order to achieve that, we have ensured that the provision connects the aggravation of the offence for sentencing purposes to the times that children are likely to be at or near the school. We have not limited the times to when teaching is actually taking place: we have provided a window either side of such times when children may be around. I have not been made aware of any evidence that children hang around near schools when teaching has finished for the day. If such compelling evidence existed, it would have been discussed in the debate on clause 1, but it was not.

The Drugs Bill will make using a child or a young person as a courier in a drugs transaction an aggravating factor that courts must take into account. The Bill will also close loopholes exploited by dealers by imposing an evidential presumption on them. That change will have a powerful effect, because dealers will be charged with a supply offence if found in possession of a quantity of drugs over a certain threshold. It will allow courts to draw such inferences as are appropriate from an unreasonable refusal to consent to an intimate search, X-ray or ultrasound scan designed to detect concealed drugs. In that way, we will substantially increase the power of courts to deal effectively with the actions of dealers that so damage young people.

The second part of the hon. Gentleman's Bill proposes a commission of inquiry, but I suggest that the proposal is unnecessary. At present, the Government take their advice on such matters from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is an independent non-departmental public body. The establishment of the proposed commission would in many ways replicate the existing procedures and undermine the authority of the ACMD. We believe that such matters should be dealt with objectively and considered by the best experts in the field.

In March 2002, the ACMD produced its report, "The classification of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971", which detailed the physical and mental health risks of taking cannabis. On the basis of the recommendations contained in that report, the Government reclassified cannabis from class B to class C.

Mr. Evans: Frankly, the report was damning about cannabis and I am still mystified about why it made the recommendations that it did on the evidence that was adduced. A number of subsequent reports have pointed to links between schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders and the use of cannabis. Would it not be useful to establish a commission to examine that new evidence and assess what has happened in the 12 months since reclassification?

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman is right—I was just coming on to the point—that we need to keep this problem under regular review. There is no doubt that new scientific evidence on the impact of cannabis,
25 Feb 2005 : Column 583
particularly the link between mental health and the drug, has changed our understanding of these matters over the year. It is important that such information is properly reviewed.

The hon. Gentleman initially asked why, given that the report confirmed that cannabis was a profoundly harmful drug, it was recommended for declassification from B to C. Some people might think from reading our debate that the C classification means that the drug is not illegal, but that is not the case. Cannabis is an illegal drug and a harmful substance, but it seemed more appropriate in respect of the nature of the harm that cannabis does for it to be classified together with other class C drugs. The comparison with A class drugs such as heroin was clear. That explains the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Other drugs in class C, including GHB, liquid ecstasy and rohypnol, the date rape drug, are harmful, which is why they are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The ACMD meets regularly every six months and cannabis is a standing item on its agenda. It does review new evidence and it is charged with providing advice to the Government on these matters. It has produced some influential reports, such as "Hidden Harm" That was an important report that changed our policies. The ACMD has produced thorough examinations of the harmful effects of drugs such as cannabis, ketamine, methylamphetamine and so forth. It produces professional and thorough reports and draws its members from a range of disciplines.

When considering the classification of any drug, the job of the ACMD is to consider the relative harms of the drug. That is not to deny that any of the drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act is harmful. That is a given. The ACMD is not trying to find ways to reduce controls on drugs. Rather, it is considering as objectively as possible the relative harms of individual drugs and making recommendations about classification. When it believes that a drug should be subject to increasing controls, it will make a recommendation to the Government to that effect. For example, at a meeting in November 2004, the ACMD recommended that the drug ketamine should become a controlled drug. I highly recommend that ACMD's ketamine report, which is now available on the Home Office website. The Government have accepted the recommendations in principle and we shall consult on that matter later this month. With respect to ketamine, the ACMD is recommending increasing controls.

The structure and procedures of the ACMD are contained in primary legislation, particularly in schedule 1 of the 1971 Act, which provides that its membership should include persons with professional experience such as practitioners of medicine, pharmacy and the pharmaceutical industry. It seems to me that this body, which receives nominations from a wide range of sources, including relevant professional bodies, is the right body to keep continuously under review the impact of cannabis. We need to ensure that it does its job.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to recent studies, such as the one produced by Professor Jim van Os of Maastricht university, which was based on surveys of 2,500 people from Munich between 1995 and 1999.
25 Feb 2005 : Column 584
The professor concluded that cannabis use moderately increases the risk of psychotic symptoms in young people, but has a much stronger effect on those for whom there is evidence of a predisposition to psychosis. We should use the evidence of such reports to ensure that we have effective ways of dealing with cannabis.

The ACMD takes the view that the evidence produced since its report on cannabis does not affect the overall weight of evidence in its conclusions about health risks. Regular and heavy use of cannabis could be a contributory factor to individuals developing mental health problems such as schizophrenia, especially when people already have a predisposition to such problems. The ACMD also certainly accepts that cannabis can worsen mental illness that already exists. The question remains how we should best deal with the problem.

Only yesterday, I spoke to Marjorie Wallace, a doughty campaigner on mental illness. She supports the Bill before us, but also recognises that, in dealing with the harm that cannabis produces, particularly among young men, the most important requirement is to educate them about the risks.

I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley for his support for the "Frank" campaign. Speaking to young people in ways that they can understand is important. I have with me here some of the leaflets that are available and I have to say that they are not generally directed to middle-aged women such as myself. I am not sure whether citing some of the language used could be unparliamentary, but the major theme is clear: smoking cannabis could "screw you up". It manages to use messages that connect both to the beauty theme mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), the mental health risks and the danger of getting a criminal record. The leaflets inform young people in a range of ways that cannabis is not just okay because it is a class C drug. It is absolutely not okay.

It is interesting to note that, while some people of my generation think that the reclassification of cannabis to a class C drug amounts to something like legalisation, young people do not. The reclassification provided a context in which we could mount a powerful education campaign—the sort of campaign that might prevent more young people from starting to smoke cannabis and getting into the habit of taking it. It is different from emphasising punishment and conviction.

When I was young, I simply thought that bad things would never happen to me. I thought that if I did naughty things, I would never get caught. I thought that I would live for ever. [Interruption.] I did not really think that I would live for ever. There is a sense that young people believe that they will not get caught and that it does not matter. Sometimes the ways in which we communicate the consequences of their actions need to be tailored specifically to young people themselves.

We know that our debate is not going to reach young people, but we took the opportunity offered at the time of cannabis reclassification to target credible messages on young people, based on the kind of harm that cannabis does. By that means, we managed to make our message have a more powerful effect. The distinction between cannabis and class A drugs is clearly giving the Government's strategy the right balance and focus. Reclassification has also allowed the police to focus
25 Feb 2005 : Column 585
greater resources on priority areas, such as class A drugs. Resources have been channelled into operations such as closing down crack houses.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to Operation Nimrod in his area. That is an excellent model. It is by no means unique, but it is a powerful example of how what we have done has helped to free police resources to tackle drugs operations in an effective and targeted way. Estimates from the police show that, since January 2004, there have been one third fewer arrests for possession of cannabis, resulting in a projected saving of 199,000 police hours. Classifying cannabis as class B again would, in effect, divert resources from the policing of class A drugs in order to criminalise thousands of young people for the possession of small amounts of cannabis. Operations such as Nimrod or the joint ACPO-Home Office initiative, Operation Crackdown, which is currently under way and ensuring that the Nimrod approach is widely adopted, would be damaged. There is a scheme to recognise the best drugs operations, awarding commendations and bringing police forces together at a conference to consider good operations and spread best practice. In that way, we can effectively target drug crime.

All that has had a result on acquisitive crime connected to drug misuse, to which hon. Members have referred. According to the British crime survey, there was a 42 per cent. reduction in burglary between 1997 and March 2004. In thefts, there was a 34 per cent. reduction, from 5.6 million to 3.7 million. We have made a difference on the acquisitive crime associated with drug misuse.

Opposition Members may say that if the British crime survey says that, what does recorded crime tell us. I know that they have concerns about that, but the pattern is exactly the same. Burglaries in 1997 were more than 1 million, and in 2003–04 the figure was 818,000. Thefts, excluding vehicles, were at 1,054,000 in 1997; the figure has gone up slightly, but not a lot. We have reached the stage where acquisitive crime is coming under control.

Next Section IndexHome Page