Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

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Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is even worse for those who are under 18, because there would still be a provision for a reprimand? There is no way of recording reprimands and no limit to the number of reprimands before moving to the stage of a final warning.
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes an important point. On the use of penalty notices, I have been critical about the whole process of summary justice, because it still does not tackle the underlying issues—for example, addiction. The regime is not tough and does not address the underlying causes of such problems. I therefore fear that, yet again, the Government have missed an opportunity to make a difference on the issues of crime, punishment and sanction.
I hope that the Minister will confirm what sanctions were applied before cannabis was reclassified to a class B. In other words, what was the enforcement regime before cannabis was downgraded from class B—although it is now being re-upgraded? In addition, why was that original approach not simply readopted now that cannabis is being recategorised to class B?
I hope that the Minister can explain, better than the explanatory notes do, how the proposed new stepped enforcement regime will work better than the current arrangements. The explanatory notes state:
“Notwithstanding the fact that under current ACPO guidelines, no more than two cannabis warnings should be issued, and whilst police data does not readily provide national information on the number of repeat warnings given, there is compelling anecdotal evidence that individual offenders have received high numbers of warnings before any further action - if any - has been taken. The issue of multiple warnings can in part be attributed to varying local recording practices, which impact on an officer’s ability to check systematically, whether a prior cannabis warning has been given to an individual, and hence whether stricter enforcement action is appropriate.”
The notes go on to state:
“The current use of cannabis warnings does not provide an adequately robust or standardised escalation process. This results in the risk and actuality that multiple warnings are issued to persistent offenders, with no other sanction or action. As a consequence there is no significant deterrent or other impact on these offenders’ behaviour.”
The Minister referred to the Pentip computer system and said that it will be fine in 2010, but that is not today. In bringing forward the proposals, the Minister is effectively accepting and acknowledging that, because of local recording standards and because the measure will not be set down appropriately, multiple warnings will continue to be given and that the escalation process that he set out will not necessarily take place.
I should remind the Minister that the Pentip computer system is already running around two years late—I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong—and that its budget has doubled since it was proposed. Although he cites 2010, who knows whether it will be ready then? It may be ready in 2011 or 2012, but during the interim period, we will still face the risk of multiple warnings being given.
The Minister was unable to explain the current consultation or proposed consultation on the use of penalty notices for disorder relating to cannabis. We must understand that clearly. If he is saying that penalty notices for disorder—they are normally reserved for minor crime and antisocial behaviour in communities—will be extended to class B drugs, is he saying that it would be appropriate to issue a penalty notice for disorder, for example, for other class B drugs, which include amphetamines? Are we saying that PNDs are appropriate for possession of amphetamines? Equally, are we saying that PNDs are appropriate for possession of ketamine—a class C drug? If we are saying that possession of a class B drug may be dealt with by a penalty notice for disorder, that seems to be setting a precedent for all other class B drugs. Given that class B drugs are higher than class C drugs, as night follows day, it seems that it will apply also to class C drugs. Is that really what the Minister is saying? Is he saying that, in respect of all drugs, a spot fine for an offence with a maximum sanction of up to five years in prison is appropriate? He is making a serious statement, and we need clarification.
In 2006-07, more than 77,000 cannabis warnings were issued—more than double the number in 2005. Given that the Minister was shaking his head when I made my point about the number of multiple warnings given and despite what is stated in the explanatory notes, will he give an assessment of how many of those 77,000 warnings were multiple warnings? By how many does he expect the number of warnings to rise, given the increase in classification proposed in the order?
The explanatory notes state that
“The extension of”
penalty notices for disorder
“is subject to public consultation by the Ministry of Justice, and separate legislative process and Parliamentary agreement”
are required. The Minister was unable to provide clarification in his opening comments, so perhaps he will explain the timetable for that consultation, who is being consulted, its nature and when it is due to be completed? We are considering the order this morning on the basis of the enforcement regime that has been set out, but we need to understand when that proposed enforcement regime is due to operate and what will happen if, for example, the consultation suggests that dealing with a class B drug by a penalty notice for disorder is not appropriate. What consideration has the Minister given to what alternative sanction regime might be appropriate if PNDs are subsequently rejected by his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice?
Other issues and offences are relevant. Given the proposed reclassification of cannabis as a class B drug, will the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to prosecute those involved in the importation of those drugs? Although I acknowledge the increase in domestic production of cannabis—I have already referred to the growth of cannabis farms—there is also trade in cannabis that comes into this country. In particular, can he explain why 463 people were sentenced for offences involving the trafficking of class B drugs as recently as 2002, yet the number had dropped to just 29 in 2006? Have the Government taken their eye off the ball? Similarly, the number of people in receipt of a custodial sentence for dealing in cannabis has more than halved since cannabis was reclassified four years ago. There has been a 20 per cent. decline in prosecutions, despite the fact that the punishment for dealing in either a class B or class C drug remains at 14 years.
On a separate point, the Minister will be aware of the trade in the seeds required to grow skunk cannabis plants. Companies involved in that trade are, in effect, trading on the back of other people’s misery. The reclassification process provides the Minister with an opportunity to review the legal position of cannabis seeds. Will he indicate whether, as part of the order, such a reconsideration will take place?
The Minister spoke about education and the Frank advice service. What information on reclassification will be made available through Frank and other means? Will it emphasise that cannabis use is illegal? The Frank service is intended to provide advice on cannabis, but some people have argued that it is perhaps not as frank as it might be about the illegality the drug.
Will the Minister confirm what materials will be used in schools? What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the DCSF, and will any revised materials emphasise the potential harmful effect of the drug and the fact that it is unlawful?
Will the Minister consider providing further support to the families of those who are addicted to cannabis? I have been struck by stories that I have read of the real harm and hurt caused by cannabis addiction. It has a significant impact not just on the people who are addicted but on their families as well. The message that continues to come through is one of a lack of support and advice for families and for parents who may be concerned that their child is becoming addicted to cannabis or is involved with drugs. Family support is crucial, and we need to strengthen it. We need to do all that we can to help those who are affected by cannabis.
One needs only to look at some of the stories of aggression, disturbance and truanting to understand the significant impact that the drug has on the family unit and why, if we are to make a meaningful difference in this area, we need to consider the whole unit—the whole family. The fact is that if we are to try to change people’s behaviour, we need the strength and backing of families to challenge that behaviour and to make sure that it changes. We have an opportunity this morning, with the reclassification, to make a difference in that respect, and I hope that the Minister will take advantage of it, as he should, and push forward on ensuring that we intervene more broadly in this area.
The Minister referred to the ACMD. He said that the Government still take its recommendations and advice seriously, but clearly a precedent has been set. We will watch carefully to see how the Government respond to the ACMD’s current investigations into the reclassification of ecstasy.
Dr. Harris: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s well constructed contribution. Will he say what his attitude is to the ACMD? For example, if there were a future recommendation to reclassify ecstasy, would he reject it ab initio?
James Brokenshire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. We have made it clear that we believe strongly that ecstasy should not be reclassified. We will, of course, examine the evidence that the ACMD provides, but we would need pretty significant persuasion to believe that there was any need for reclassification, given the significant problems that it has been shown can result from reclassification and downgrading. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is advisory, not mandatory. Therefore, it is appropriate for the council to consider and set out evidence and make recommendations; it is for the Government to decide what to do with that. I take the view that a strong message needs to be given that ecstasy is a very dangerous drug that has caused the deaths of many people. Therefore, to downgrade it would send all the wrong messages. The Government made that mistake with cannabis. It would send the message that ecstasy was some sort of legal drug—that its status had been changed in that manner.
This has been a useful discussion, but yet again, rather than taking firm, clear action when it was abundantly evident that there was a growth in skunk and in cannabis factories and that there was confusion about the treatment of cannabis and that it was considered to be in some way legal, the Government have delayed, dithered and not taken action as quickly as they should have done. That will be the message from this Committee and the message that very many families who have suffered as a consequence of that delay will take to their hearts—the harm that has been caused to them and the delay by the Government in taking action. I think that that has added to the harm and to the problems of society and drug crime as a whole.
9.42 am
Dr. Harris: This has been a depressing debate so far. The only ray of light is your chairmanship, Mr. Olner, which I welcome. In his last few remarks, the hon. Member for Hornchurch was essentially playing politics with psychotic disease, which is a very risky strategy. It can be incredibly upsetting and insulting to families who are suffering the consequences of psychotic disease in a family member. If one is going to draw political lessons from mental illness, it is wise to have evidence on one’s side. There can be foolish politicians, but wise politicians, when they invoke for political purposes serious chronic diseases, particularly of mental health, ought to be able to point to an evidence base and support from experts in the field. I do not think that the Conservative party, regardless of the debate that we are having about reclassification, will be able to do that to sustain the view that Government policy has caused psychotic illness. Employing the strategy that I have described is an offensive thing to be doing, but mainly it is foolish.
Mr. Chope: I have before me a report from an organisation called Rethink. It says that people who use cannabis are 40 per cent. more likely to experience psychosis than people who do not use cannabis. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that?
Dr. Harris: Even if I accept a random figure produced from a random assertion and even if that figure could be found in peer-reviewed public literature, the question is causality. If people with established psychosis who have never used cannabis, for example, choose to smoke cannabis, people who use cannabis will have a higher association with, a higher chance of, having psychotic disease, but the one has caused the other, not the other way round. All I am saying is that we employ experts in mental illness, in the biochemistry of the drugs and in epidemiology to work out these difficult associations and give us guidance.
It is, of course, the Government’s right to reject advice. I will not say that the Government have no right to do that, but I think that what we are seeing here is a totemic policy decision. It is a press release by legislation, essentially. It is posturing and it has three very bad effects. The policy of reclassifying cannabis to class B is bad in its own terms, because it will increase the criminalisation of young people—which is not a good thing if it can possibly be avoided—to no benefit. There is no evidence of any benefit in the increased criminalisation of young people. We should be able to demonstrate or point to evidence, and publish any such evidence, before criminalising people, particularly young people.
I am astonished by the disconnection in the minds of people who believe in a small state, who consider themselves to be protecting the rights of the individual, yet do not demand to see evidence of harm and evidence of benefit before criminalisation of—let us just stick to them—consenting adults is increased. That is why I do not understand how a so-called modernised Conservative party can say, “Yes, let’s restrict the rights and freedoms and increase the criminalisation of adults”, without any evidence of the harm or any evidence of the benefit of so doing and still claim to be the party of the small state. I am trying to identify a philosophical element to the debate too.
Mr. Swire: Has the hon. Gentleman ever been to a rehab centre, rehab clinic or half-way house and talked to people there, including the staff? Has he witnessed the very obvious connection and pathway between cannabis and stronger drugs and the strength of cannabis now, which is disproportionate to what it was a decade ago?
Dr. Harris: Yes. I have, in my medical career, obviously, and as an MP, met with such people. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Olner, because we are debating an issue which has been discussed by the ACMD, for reading out what it says about the gateway theory. I hope that the hon. Member for East Devon will accept that that was his point. Paragraph 8.14 of the ACMD report states:
“The “gateway theory” is the term that describes the possibility that use of cannabis leads to use of more dangerous drugs such as opiates and cocaine. It arises from the observation that users of the most harmful (Class A) drugs have generally used cannabis first. The interpretation of these studies is extraordinarily difficult because of the confounding effects of alcohol, tobacco, solvents, stimulants and psychedelic drugs, whose use frequently precedes that of Class A drugs.”
Paragraph 8.15 states:
“In 2002, the Council concluded that it was not possible to state, with certainty, whether or not cannabis use predisposes users to dependency on Class A drugs . Nevertheless, it considered the risks to be small and certainly less than those associated with the use of alcohol and tobacco. No further convincing evidence has been identified by the Council to alter this conclusion.”
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