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25 Apr 2007 : Column 942

Drugs (Reclassification and Roadside Testing)

12.31 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move,

The Bill is supported by parents, teachers, chief police officers, the Magistrates Association, road safety campaigners, academics, health professionals, newspapers, journalists and the Conservative party. All it needs is for the Government and the Liberal Democrats to come into line.

The first aim of the Bill is to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug, as it always was before the Government’s decision to downgrade the classification in 2001. Who can be in any doubt that cannabis wrecks lives? After 10 years of Labour Government, more lives than ever, particularly those of children and young people, are being wrecked by cannabis. As The Independent on Sunday said on 18 March:

We already know that 10 per cent. of all those with schizophrenia in the United Kingdom would not have developed the illness if they had not smoked cannabis—that is 25,000 individuals whose lives have been ruined by cannabis, not to mention their families, friends and loved ones, as well as the victims of the crime that so often follows cannabis abuse.

The Government have been pandering to the misconception that cannabis is a harmless, soft, recreational substance. Even the Secretary of State for Health, when admitting this week that she had used cannabis, showed no remorse and seemed to deny that cannabis caused health problems among the general population. In that case, why does the Information Centre for Health and Social Care report that 38,364 admissions to NHS hospitals last year were related to drug taking? Under the Government, there has been a threefold increase in that number over the past 10 years.

The Government should also learn from a research study published last month by the Society for the Study of Addiction, which shows that it will not be long before 25 per cent. of new cases of schizophrenia are cannabis induced. Most of all, they should listen to Professor Neil McKeganey of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow university, who this week said:

and in 10 years, this Government have made a lot of unwise decisions. For a person with the qualifications of Professor Neil McKeganey to make that allegation shows how serious this matter is. It should cause people to stand up and think.

The UK Drug Policy Commission reported this month that

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime world drug report 2006 shows that abuse of cannabis in the UK is five times greater than in Sweden. In Sweden, there is zero tolerance of possession of all drugs and six months’ imprisonment is usually the penalty that will follow drugs possession, so is there not a message there? As a result, what do they have in Sweden? They have one fifth of the drug abuse that this country has. That is why a senior police officer in Scotland is encouraging the Scottish Parliament to go down the Swedish route.

The reason why reclassification has been such a disastrous policy is that it has sent out the wrong message to young people, undermining the ability of parents, teachers and the police to intervene to prevent cannabis use. About 79 per cent. of school children believe that cannabis is both harmless and legal—even after the Government’s claim that they have invested a lot of money in education programmes. What a pitiful state of affairs!

Last month, a cannabis addict was convicted of murdering, in a drug-induced state, two friends in Twickenham. He was 18 when he committed that murder. He first tried cannabis at the age of 14 and by 15 he was smoking it every day with impunity. Young people in possession of cannabis are now not being arrested or even cautioned. No wonder that this week the NHS information centre reports that more than half of all 15-year-olds have been offered cannabis and that more than one in three 15 and 16-year-olds have used it. We have got a really serious problem here, which has got much worse because of the Government’s lax relaxed attitude towards it. My Bill would change the classification back to what it was before, and send out a clear message to young people and others that cannabis is illegal and dangerous.

I shall now deal briefly with the second part of my Bill, which is about roadside drug testing. The Pompidou group in its report on “Road Traffic and Psychoactive Substances” has shown that

The latest statistics are that 18 per cent. of driver and rider fatalities on our roads have some form of illegal drug in their system. That is higher than the figure for excess alcohol. The link between cannabis use and dangerous driving is well established, and anyone who has any doubt about that need go no further than to look at the population-based control study of cannabis intoxication carried out in France. That shows that in fatal road crashes in France, 8.8 per cent. of drivers responsible for them proved positive for cannabis. Let nobody think that when we discuss cannabis we are talking about some harmless substance. We are talking about a substance that wrecks lives—not just those of the people who use it, but those of other innocent people as well.

One good way of deterring drug use and ensuring increased safety on our roads would be to introduce “drugalyser” roadside testing. It would work because, fortunately, surveys have been done showing that one in three people who currently drive after taking drugs say that they would be deterred from driving if the police did more checks. So we would immediately have
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fewer drivers on our roads with drugs in their systems if we had roadside “drugalyser” tests. The system is already in place in many countries in Europe and in Australia. The equipment necessary to carry out the tests is also available and has been used in other European countries and in Australia. That equipment is manufactured and produced in this country, but the Government are stalling on its introduction, thereby demonstrating once again that they are soft on cannabis. The link between cannabis use and bad driving is clear, as is the link between cannabis and mental illness. Why will the Government not do something about it?

This modest Bill should appeal to everyone who is ashamed of the way in which a generation of young people have been betrayed by a soft, ambiguous public policy on drugs. The Independent on Sunday has had the guts to admit that it was totally wrong in its assessment of this subject. It is now time for the Government to admit that they were totally wrong. I hope that we will be able to have a Division, because that will demonstrate which Members of the House believe that this is a serious subject that needs to be addressed, and which people in the House feel that this is a matter for complacency, and that we can continue with the present, failed policies.

12.41 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I want to speak against this attempt to bring in serious measures via a ten-minute Bill. There are issues to be debated—about the connection of cannabis to mental disease and also the effect of cannabis on people’s driving ability—but if we are going to change the law, we need a much wider discussion than we can have in the context of a ten-minute Bill. That is the main reason why I am opposing the measure today.

I would like to point out to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that the matters that he has put before the House are not quite as straightforward as he has led the House to believe. The reclassification of cannabis was done by the Government on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, chaired by Sir Michael Rawlins. It is a distinguished committee that is quite broad in its outlook. It contains many professional people, who have given the Government advice via the ACMD. There has been an outcry recently from people who want to reclassify cannabis, back from C to B. That reclassification would add to the confusion that already concerns the hon. Gentleman.

The facts are quite clear. Since the reclassification was established, there has been no increase in the misuse of cannabis. If anything, the misuse of cannabis is dipping; it is going down. The reason for that is that the Moroccans have put a lot of effort into stopping their people growing cannabis and we have managed to put a stop to the routes used to smuggle cannabis into Britain. By the way, the cannabis from Morocco contained about 5 per cent. tetrahydrocannabinol. That would not have the effects that the hon. Gentleman has described to the House today. I simply ask him: which cannabis is he talking about? Is he talking about Moroccan cannabis, or the fact that stopping the importation of Moroccan cannabis has led to Vietnamese criminals growing cannabis in this country? Those criminals are growing
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skunk and super-skunk, which contains 15 per cent. tetrahydrocannabinol. I repeat: which cannabis is he talking about? It amazes me that in the cannabis debate, we do not distinguish between the different species of cannabis. We talk about cannabis as though it were a single substance, but it clearly is not.

The Science and Technology Committee, of which I am a member, has just carried out a detailed inquiry into the ABC classification of drugs, which is what the hon. Gentleman has been referring to. After taking a lot of evidence—I stress the word “evidence”, because our recommendations were evidence-based—we concluded that whether a drug is classed A, B or C has little impact on what people out on the street are doing or thinking, so I do not think that it matters whether cannabis is in class C or class B, when it comes to whether the general public use—or rather, misuse—it. The majority of the general public do not know anything about the classification of drugs.

What is important is the harm that different species of cannabis cause. I think that the usage of cannabis will go down, because young people are learning that if it has high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol in it—the level could be as high as 15 per cent.—it causes mental health problems, but it does that to a small number of people, not to the public in general. There is a lot more research to be done on the subject, and it is far too early to bring such a Bill before the House.

There is another problem with roadside testing. I visited a scientific laboratory run by the Home Office near St. Albans about 18 months ago, and it is doing a considerable amount of work on the impact of drugs on the ability to drive. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the problem is not just cannabis, but a wide selection of drugs, and it is not just illegal drugs that affect the ability to drive; over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs do, too, so the matter is complex. It is not easy to test for drugs with what he calls “drugalysers” at the roadside. If he had carried out some research, had talked to the chief scientific adviser at the Home Office, or had visited the laboratory at St. Albans, he would have found that the issue is not as simple as he presents it.

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It is too early to introduce drug testing at the roadside. The people to whom we talked at the laboratory run by the Home Office near St. Albans told us that cognitive tests can measure the ability to drive better than any of the instruments currently available, such as the breathalyser, which is used for alcohol testing. Simply testing a person’s ability to walk in a straight line or to stand on one leg is far better than some of the instruments currently available. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that cannabis stays in the blood for up to 30 days, because it is a lipophilic substance absorbed by the fatty tissues of our body. Smoking a spliff will affect the mind for just a few hours, not for 30 days. I put it to him that it would be unfair to criminalise someone, having detected cannabis in them, because they were driving a car 20 days after they had smoked one spliff. Would he criminalise such a person for driving?

I oppose the Bill, largely on the grounds that the subject should not be dealt with in a ten-minute Bill, because the whole House should be part of this discussion. I also oppose it on the grounds that the measures that the hon. Gentleman has put to the House are impractical, at least at this stage of the development of the subject.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. James Clappison, David T.C. Davies, Philip Davies, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Mark Hoban, Mr. Greg Knight, Mr. Humfrey Malins, Mike Penning, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. David Wilshire and Ann Winterton.

Drugs (Reclassification and Roadside Testing)

Mr. Christopher Chope accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the reclassification of cannabis; to make provision for the roadside testing of illegal drugs; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 May, and to be printed [Bill 93].

25 Apr 2007 : Column 947

Crossrail Bill [Instruction] (No. 5)

12.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I beg to move,

The House will recall a debate on Crossrail on 31 October last year about a set of additional provisions. During that debate, several Members raised concerns about the lack of a station at Woolwich. Despite the strongly expressed view of the Select Committee that such a provision should be added to the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained then that the cost of a station to the public purse at £186 million was too high to justify. Given that strength of feeling, however, my right hon. Friend agreed to let Cross London Rail Links Ltd undertake further work to see whether there was a way significantly to reduce the cost.

Much has happened since then, and today’s motion will facilitate a Crossrail station at Woolwich. It will enable the Crossrail Bill Select Committee to consider an additional provision for such a station. I have placed copies of the instruction on the additional provision and an explanatory memorandum in the Vote Office. I will briefly remind the House of the position that we have now reached, which was set out in a statement by my right hon. Friend on 22 March.

There have been calls for the Government to include a station at Woolwich since the Bill was introduced in February 2005. Ministers resisted them for one simple reason—affordability. Although Crossrail will deliver huge benefits, the scale of the investment is substantial and presents a huge funding challenge. The addition of a station was simply not justifiable. Following the
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debate in October, however, a period of intense activity has resulted in important changes, which have been key in unlocking the issue of Woolwich. The Department for Transport and Cross London Rail Links Ltd have been working closely with the London borough of Greenwich and with Berkeley Homes Ltd, which has extensive development proposals for land that it owns in and around the area where the station would be built. The involvement of Berkeley Homes in particular has made a huge difference.

As a result of that engagement between the parties, proposals have emerged for constructing a station that could address the key issue of affordability. As my right hon. Friend made clear in his statement in March, an important development has been Greenwich council’s recent proposal to revise its policies and plans so as to allow for higher density development in the light of the opportunity to have a station at Woolwich. That in turn prompted Berkeley Homes to offer a means of enabling a station to be built without adding to the cost of Crossrail.

Those new circumstances allowed us to take a fresh look at the issue. As my right hon. Friend announced in March, the Department has reached an agreement in principle with Berkeley Homes, under which Berkeley Homes will build the basic box structure of a station underneath its own development at its own risk. The Government will make a contribution of £28 million, which is equivalent to the cost of the works that the project was already expecting to incur in that area—principally the cost of a ventilation shaft and a short section of tunnel. My officials are working with Berkeley Homes to turn that outline agreement into a binding contract.

Clearly, we would all wish to see the completion of a station, and we will be discussing the best way to achieve that with Berkeley Homes and the London borough of Greenwich, given the important role that they will play in making a deal on the terms of an agreement for fitting out the station work. I want to make it clear, however, that a key requirement of any deal is that sufficient funding contributions are received from developers and businesses that stand to benefit from a Crossrail station at Woolwich, such that the station can be fitted out at no extra cost to the public purse. All parties fully understand that. It means that we are now in a fundamentally different position in terms of a Crossrail station at Woolwich compared with where we were in October last year.

The initial agreement is excellent news, and on that basis the Government are content to bring forward an additional provision to obtain the powers for building a station. The hybrid Bill process has worked well to ensure that the issue of a station at Woolwich was properly considered. The Select Committee felt deeply about the merits of a station at Woolwich, and this achievement meets the Committee’s—and the Government’s—objective of not adding to the cost of the project. I believe that the deal we have struck would not have been possible if the Government and the supporters of Woolwich had not engaged in vigorous debate. It is important to recognise the part played by those who have argued for a station in changing the landscape.

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