Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

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Mr. Campbell: If I may just make a little progress, I shall certainly let the hon. Gentleman intervene later.
In agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers, we are stepping up our enforcement response to cannabis. Those who produce and supply it should be left in no doubt of our intentions. We are already bearing down on organised crime groups involved in cultivation. The latest statistics show that, while the overall number of seizures of cannabis increased by 20 per cent. from 2005 to 2006-07, there was a 44 per cent. increase in the number of herbal cannabis seizures. In addition, the number of cannabis plants seized increased by 65 per cent. in the same period.
The action that we are taking will be stepped up through the joint efforts of ACPO and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, with better understanding of the problem, co-ordination, intelligence-sharing and targeting of organised criminal groups. The activities of those criminals are the more abhorrent for their use of trafficked children. That cannot be tolerated. By shutting down those so-called cannabis farms, we will reduce the availability of stronger cannabis in our communities, disrupt organised crime, and ensure that the criminals face longer sentences. Where appropriate, in the case of foreign nationals, they will be deported.
To accompany reclassification we are also creating a more hostile environment for those who sell cannabis seeds, cultivation equipment and paraphernalia for illicit purposes. Practical advice on how existing legislation and powers can be used more effectively by the police, local authorities and other partners, through local targeted action, will be provided by the National Policing Improvement Agency in March 2009.
To reinforce how serious we are about the harm of cannabis to individuals, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has accepted ACPO’s proposals for a strengthened and escalating enforcement approach for possession in England and Wales, targeted at adult repeat offenders. We must ensure that positive action is taken when someone is found in possession and that an arrest is always considered. However, we want to ensure that police officers exercise their discretion where appropriate and that we do not unnecessarily increase police bureaucracy.
Mr. Chope: Can the Minister explain why no change is proposed to the penalty and enforcement regime for users under the age of 18, where the big problem lies and where the biggest dangers to mental health arise? More than 10,000 young people under the age of 18 were treated in hospital for cannabis addiction last year. What is in the proposal to tighten enforcement in relation to young people?
Mr. Campbell: If the hon. Gentleman can wait, I will refer to that point later. I will say now that I take seriously his point about young people and cannabis and about making the longer-term effect of cannabis perhaps more relevant, but the issue does not relate only to those under 18. We have not only proposals but practices in place that we believe will deal effectively with that issue.
Subject to the introduction of PNDs for cannabis possession by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, a person caught in possession will face an escalated response, with the likelihood of a cannabis warning for a first offence and a PND that imposes an immediate and financial criminal penalty for a second offence. A third offence would normally result in arrest, with the prospect of further action. All subsequent offences are likely to result in arrest, and police officers would always have the option of arresting immediately on the first offence. That approach maintains police officers’ discretion and flexibility while keeping police bureaucracy to a minimum. It provides escalation with incremental sanctions, but one that nevertheless remains proportionate. It provides a better deterrent and an otherwise positive impact on an offender’s behaviour without unnecessarily criminalising them. Ultimately, it is an enforcement policy that will bring those whose offending continues unabated before the courts, which have a range of sanctions at their disposal.
James Brokenshire: As the Minster will know, the adoption of the process of having PNDs requires some legislative process, and the explanatory notes make it clear that a consultation is being conducted by the Ministry of Justice. Will he confirm the nature of that consultation? Is it simply in relation to cannabis or to class B drugs more generally?
Mr. Campbell: I cannot confirm that, but I will try to do so as soon as I can.
I will return to the issue of recording. It is important that recording is effective. PNDs for cannabis possession will be recorded on the police national computer. The new Pentip 24-hour national fixed penalty database, which is due to be available from 2010, will be developed to include a facility to record cannabis warnings as well. In the interim, it is the responsibility of individual forces to determine how they record cannabis warnings, and ACPO will ensure that all forces are fully aware of the importance of more accurately recording cannabis warnings locally.
The right hon. Gentleman—
Mr. Chope: Just hon.
Mr. Campbell: Not right hon. yet. The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to young people under the age of 18. They will continue to be dealt with under the statutory process set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which already offered formal escalation with referral at any stage to a youth offending team for a substance misuse assessment and appropriate intervention.
Reclassification and the accompanying tougher enforcement approach cannot be isolated from the comprehensive package of measures in our new 10-year drug strategy or the commitments that we have made across Government in accepting 20 of the council’s 21 recommendations on cannabis. We will continue to pursue all routes, whether through campaigns, guidance or research, to make further progress on reducing the use of cannabis, increase awareness among young people of the harms of cannabis and provide rapid access to effective treatment for those who are dependent on it. The Government must do all we can to make it clear that cannabis is harmful and has the potential to damage health. We believe that reclassification will reinforce that message.
Dr. Harris: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Campbell: In a moment.
Through our Frank campaign, the Government will continue to inform young people of the risks posed by cannabis use. It is also vital that parents are central to our efforts to educate children and young people on cannabis. They are now a core audience for Frank. We will launch the new phase of our Frank cannabis campaign in the new year through a variety of media channels, including TV, radio and online advertising.
Dr. Harris: I do not want to disregard what the Minister is saying about public education, but I have two questions. First, he said that he feels that the reclassification will reinforce the message. What published evidence do the Government have that shows that reclassification and upgrading has any impact whatever on his policy outcome? Secondly, because this is about evidence, can he give any other example of the Government rejecting a recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs since it was set up decades ago?
Mr. Campbell: On the second question, we have never done that before—this is the first time. We have done it for the reasons that I hope I set out in my remarks. On the first point, I want to give the hon. Gentleman the best answer I can, so I will return to it in my closing remarks if he does not mind.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, there is a compelling case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of the next generation. When there is a clear and serious problem, we must err on the side of caution. We make no apology for that, and I commend the change proposed in the order.
9.16 am
James Brokenshire: Mr. Olner, I welcome you to the Chair and the Committee. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again.
Opposition members of the Committee welcome the order, which will give effect to the reclassification of cannabis, and the debate that we are having to consider it—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is gesticulating even at this early stage for me to give way.
Dr. Harris: I recognise that I am outnumbered, but I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman was careful to create the policy separation that he is desperate for and confirm that the Conservative party, and not all Opposition members of the Committee, share that view.
James Brokenshire: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clarification of his party’s perspective. I certainly would never have wished to cause any offence by suggesting in some way that he and I were aligned on the issue. I entirely respect his judgment, even if I fundamentally disagree with him, as he would expect.
It is a pity, as we have heard, that it has taken so long for the Government to recognise the issues before them and the increasing evidence of harm associated with cannabis and to change its classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The official Opposition have been calling for that for some time.
The UK has the highest level of problem drug use in Europe. This country has the third highest teenage cannabis use in the OECD. Treatment for cannabis abuse has increased dramatically. About 2.4 million people say that they have used cannabis in the past year. In 2005, 1,082 people were prosecuted for the unlawful importation or exportation of drugs, of whom 1,061 were convicted. Yet, in 2006, that number fell to 904 prosecutions and 870 convictions. In many ways, that highlights the change in approach and the change in the seriousness with which the police and law enforcement agencies viewed the issue, as a consequence of the classification change. Clearly, that does not take account of the harm and the dangers and all that is associated with them, including the lives that will have been blighted, as a consequence of the change.
Last September, the Prime Minister said:
“Why I want to upgrade cannabis and make it more a drug that people worry about is because we don’t want to send out a message—just like with alcohol—to teenagers that we accept these things”.
Therefore, implicit in the Prime Minister’s statement was that the reclassification down to class C had indicated an acceptance of the drug, with all the associated confusion and problems. On consideration, it is hardly surprising that that contrary message comes through, when police officers such as Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne have said:
“I think there’s confusion on the streets about whether the drug is legal or not and that’s causing problems for officers who are trying to enforce the law.”
Super-strength skunk cannabis now accounts for some 80 per cent. of all seizures. Its linkages with psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia become more apparent every day. The ACMD acknowledges the link, as the Minister has indicated. The risk is heightened if there is earlier usage and binge smoking. It is telling that the cost to the NHS of prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to children and teenagers under the age of 16 has increased by nearly two thirds since the reclassification of cannabis. Those disturbing figures indicate an increasing prevalence of psychosis in the young, and although I accept that we cannot make direct parallels or suggest that everything associated with that is directly attributable to cannabis, there is compelling evidence, from what the ACMD and other medical experts have said, that there is a strong linkage between cannabis use and the prevalence of psychosis. Sadly, those figures—the additional prescribing regime set out therein—show an increasing issue with psychosis among young people.
Dr. Harris: I do not disagree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of tackling and the seriousness of psychotic illness—in all people, including children. Does he accept that the use of cannabis among the young has fallen, year on year, since before the reclassification? His position involves a risk of disturbing that fall, thus leading to an increase in use, particularly of strong forms of cannabis, as young people seeking to use the drug are driven towards dealers who sell them stronger forms because of the reclassification. Does he accept that there is a risk?
James Brokenshire: I do not think that there is a risk. If we look at the intended approach, the signals that I think are sent out, as amplified through education, would actually reduce the risk and the harm associated with cannabis.
Let us also take into consideration the whole issue of cannabis factories. Production capabilities in this country have grown exponentially. [Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. I remind members of the public that no photographs or whatever are to be taken.
James Brokenshire: The Association of Chief Police Officers, which initially supported the decision to downgrade cannabis, now says:
“The 2004 change in classification of cannabis has inadvertently provided an opportunity for the greater and now flourishing illegal market in the production, distribution and use of cannabis throughout the UK and potentially beyond.”
What is worse, the Home Office does not appear to know the scale of the problem. In its drugs strategy document, it says:
“Cannabis factories represent a worrying development. It is clear that serious, organised criminals are investing in the production of cannabis on a commercial scale”,
“Intelligence from the community will be used to target drug markets and the sources of domestically-produced drugs such as cannabis factories.”
Despite talking about “intelligence from the community”, when one asks for a breakdown of the number of cannabis factories detected by each police force, the Home Office simply replies that the information is not kept centrally. Therefore, if the drugs strategy relies on that community information, why is the information not kept centrally, if the Home Office is using it as the basis of directing policies and approaches? When we asked each police force for a breakdown, under freedom of information requests, the answers indicated that the manufacture of cannabis factories has more than doubled in the past two years alone.
Greater Manchester police recorded a 161 per cent. increase in cultivation. Kent police figures on identified premises that are cultivating cannabis increased from three in 2005 to 38 in 2007, and Lancashire police recorded a 168 per cent. increase in the number of cannabis factories cultivating 10 plants or more—from 38 in 2005 to 102 in 2007. West Midlands police experienced a 169 per cent. increase in offences—from 179 in 2005 to 482 in 2007. Those are just a few examples of the increase in cannabis factories, which are spawning across the country.
While the Government have reviewed, dithered and delayed over the decision on reclassification, cannabis factories have more than doubled, and the drug dealers have flourished while the Government have floundered. It has even been suggested that illegal cannabis farms have become a cash machine for organised crime. Even worse, links to child trafficking have been associated with cannabis factories. In the light of the reclassification, will the Minister confirm what additional steps he will commit to today to address that failure and combat the ever-increasing domestic cultivation of cannabis?
The Minister has explained the new enforcement regime, which it is proposed will sit alongside the reclassification. That has always been spun as being a tough new regime. According to the Government, in the absence of any aggravating factor, possession will be dealt with by one cannabis warning for a first offence, one PND for a second offence and, as the supporting Home Office impact assessment states,
“arrest for a third offence, then to be considered for further action—including release without charge, caution, conditional caution or prosecution. All subsequent offences are likely to result in arrest.”
Many people would be surprised to know that that is supposed to be a clear and tough picture of how this will be dealt with, given that it indicates that the likelihood of receiving any meaningful sanction is minimal, as a consequence of the Minister’s proposals.
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