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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on accepting the advisory council's recommendations and on basing his decisions on the evidence, rather than on knee-jerk reactions. If it leads to more objective policies to achieve our aim of reducing drug use, I also welcome the review. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Rethink, formerly known as the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, which has long campaigned for us to recognise the psychosis-inducing dangers of cannabis, that an adequately resourced health education campaignparticularly one targeted at school-age children and people in contact with mental health servicesand better health care will do more to reduce cannabis use than will dragging thousands more people through the courts?
Mr. Clarke: Without judging whether such a campaign would do more or less in that regard, I certainly agree that it would do a great deal, which is why we need to focus effort there. I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who has put resources into health education for precisely the reasons that my hon. Friend suggests.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con):
I sense that the Home Secretary is somewhat torn on this issue, so may I emphasise the point made by my right hon. Friend the
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Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and several others? One key difference and a very important point to be made in this debate is that the cannabis available on the street today, such as skunk, is much more powerful and dangerous than that which was available 10 or 15 years ago. Does he accept that there is an inherent contradiction between announcing a set of measures that are supposed to combat antisocial behaviour, and announcing just over a week later the decision to refuse to reclassify a drug that is behind so much of that behaviour? It makes no sense.
Mr. Clarke: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a very sensitive flower, so I appreciate his concern for my sensitivities. I commend to him the advisory council's report, which looks carefully at the very point that he makes about the trend in cannabis strength over time. This is a critically important issue in terms of scientific research, and if he reads the report he will see that one reason why the advisory council recommends that more work be done on it is that it is difficult to do good scientific work on understanding the strength of cannabis on the street in different areas. The advisory council focuses on that point, and it is precisely the reason why we need to do the research that I announced.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I, too, welcome the tone of my right hon. Friend's statement, which rejects the moral outrage that we hear from Opposition Members and insists on an evidence-based approach? Frankly, our education programme will be credible and will work only if people accept the basis on which it is formed. Like others, I have a lot more faith in giving young people credible messages through an education programme than I do in criminalising a generation of people who do not believe that criminalisation will deter them, or their peer group, from using cannabis.
I understand that point, but I do think it very important to make it clear that cannabis is an illegal drug that carries, potentially, a two-year penalty. I know that there are those who argueI should be interested to hear my hon. Friend's viewthat that penalty should be removed and that cannabis should be legalised. The Leader of the Opposition has wavered and flip-flopped on the question of which view to adopt, but I am of the view that we should not legalise. Rather,
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we should ensure, in precisely the way that my hon. Friend says, that people understand the consequences of their decision to consume cannabis.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is it not true that if we reclassified cannabis, we could spend more time debating and focusing on education and health and proper treatment? The decision not to reclassify shows a profound misunderstanding of what I, as a criminal solicitor, have seen happening on the ground over many years. There is inconsistency and chaos in the approach taken by the police in deciding whether to arrest cannabis users, and in the approach taken by divisions such as Enfield and Haringey. If and when such cases ever do get court, there are profound differences in the ways in which magistrates deal with them. Is there not a profound misunderstanding of the effect of cannabis on young people, which I have witnessed over many years? Cannabis abuse has led to many broken lives, and today's decision will not deal properly with the problem. Many such people now litter Pentonville and Chase Farm mental health unit. Will not today's decision be a profound disappointment to all those families who want the message to be sent out that cannabis is illegal and has a serious effect?
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to review the whole drug classification system, which is confusing. I also welcome the fact that he takes the issue of cannabis seriously and appreciates that it is a dangerous drug; there are Members of this House who do not appear to appreciate its dangers. I further welcome his education programme, which will prove important for young people, but does he not realise that the failure to reclassify could send out confusing signals and undermine his education programme?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. She has put her finger on precisely the issue that I found most difficult in reaching a view on these matters. I am conscious of her point about sending out signals, and dealing with that is a real issue; but I came to the view, which I of course defend, that we need to look at the situation in the round and to re-examine the classification system. I repeat that I was worried about precisely the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I believe that today's proposals and the message that we are sending are clear and unequivocal.
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