Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

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Mr. Swire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr. Harris: Yes, of course, in a minute.
If on that basis the hon. Gentleman argues that we need to do something about progression, why does his party have an extremely inconsistent record on tobacco—for example, on tobacco advertising and the smoking of tobacco in public places? I hope that he accepts that if politicians believe in a theory—the gateway theory—for which there is little or no evidence, then consistency in the application of that theory would be useful to see.
Mr. Swire: I do not think that there is any great evidence of pure tobacco having any psychotic implications, which is certainly not the case with cannabis. The hon. Gentleman read out that report and says that there is no great evidence to suggest there is a pathway. But there is no great evidence to suggest that there is not. Of course it is by no means certain that anybody starting on cannabis will necessarily progress as a result of that to a stronger drug, but it clearly is the case that a lot of people who have progressed to stronger drugs started off by using cannabis.
The Chairman: Order. Before I call Dr. Harris, I remind hon. Members that the business of this Committee must finish at 10.25. Obviously, some very serious questions are being asked about a very serious subject and I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Olner. Clearly no Members from the Back Benches have spoken. I hope that the Front Benchers, even though the Minister should reply, will allow Back Benchers to make their contributions too.
Dr. Harris: The conclusions of the ACMD on the gateway theory come in paragraph 12.11:
“The Council does not consider the risks of progression to Class A drugs as a consequence of using cannabis to be substantial; and considers that such risks are likely to be less than those associated with the use of alcohol and tobacco.”
The point that the hon. Gentleman was raising was about the gateway, not the link between cannabis and psychosis, which I will come to.
The policy is bad in its own terms, as I have said, but it also brings the classification system into disrepute. What is the point of having a classification system, which is supposed to help people understand the risks of illegal drugs, if it loses its credibility? That is why many people on the ACMD and the ACMD itself have been careful. I am extremely disappointed that neither the Minister nor the Conservative spokesman felt able to read from its report. It would be easy for the ACMD to say what the Government want to hear and say, “All right, re-classify as B, that’s fine”. However, the council made the point time and again in its report that the harms associated with cannabis—which I do not doubt exist, let us be clear about that—are not of the kind, scale or seriousness of those associated with other class B drugs. Perhaps the Government have a master plan to re-classify all class B drugs to class A, and to create a new class A* out of the existing class A drugs, but in the absence of that, this policy is undermining to the credibility of the classification system.
If—and it is a big if—the classification system is relevant to whether people use or start to use illegal drugs and if people with existing psychosis read the law before deciding whether to smoke cannabis, the credibility of that system is important. Only if the system bears no relationship to use is it less harmful to have a random allocation, based on the evidence of harm, between the classes. I do not think that the Government can justify either approach. They are not claiming that the system is random and it does not matter, but they cannot show any evidence for that. Indeed, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, on which I serve, looked at this and it could find no evidence of a link between the classification system when it is not associated with harm, and the use of cannabis.
The third reason why this is a bad policy is that it undermines and, I would say, fundamentally destroys the reputation of the Government on evidence-based policy making.
James Brokenshire: I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Perhaps he might clarify his thoughts. Does he believe that cannabis should remain as a class C drug, or is he saying that it should be decriminalised altogether?
Dr. Harris: If there was evidence that decriminalisation would be beneficial—that it would minimise harm and minimise the criminalisation of people— and no evidence that there are benefits in the criminalisation of those people, then I would. My party and I are on the record as clearly saying that, but in today’s debate I can vote only one way or the other and I shall be voting in line with the evidence. Although I do not empathise, I recognise the pressure that the Government feel under in their chase for approving headlines from the tabloid media and right-wing commentators. However, when there are grounds for political mischief, as there are on this issue, it is even more important to take advice from expert advisory councils.
I think that this Government would be the first to criticise the Bush Government for ignoring the advice of expert bodies on climate change, yet here we have an expert body set up by the Government, from which no Government have ever rejected a recommendation, in a culture of evidence-based policy making with which all politicians like to associate themselves, and we now have the first departure from that advice. It is disappointing to hear the Conservative party say in advance that it would reject any advice that came from other areas too.
This is the death of evidence-based policy making and the “what works” approach that the Government used to boast about. I would say to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden that my view is not a liberal view, it is an evidence-based view, a practical view and one that I would expect the Government to identify with. If the ACMD is right, its recommendation will lead to less cannabis use and less harm. I do not think that that is a liberal approach in the sense that the hon. Lady used the term. I hope that she will allow me to say that yes, I like to feel that I have a liberal approach to the consenting private behaviour of adults, but this goes beyond that: it is what works.
I want to deal with a couple of the points raised in the ACMD report, which have not been mentioned and which concern the issue of harm and potency. These are the last two points that I shall make.
The Chairman: Briefly.
Dr. Harris: Of course. What the report says about potency goes against what the Minister and the Conservative spokesman have intimated. Recommendation 12.1.6 says:
“The Council considers that, since its last review...there is evidence to suggest users of cannabis are now exposed to products with a higher THC content than previously...This has occurred largely because of the substantial increase in the market share of sinsemilla.”
However, it goes on:
“The consequences, however, are less easy to predict because, if users titrate their intake to achieve a desired intensity of effect, the ‘effective’ THC dose for individuals may be unchanged...It is worthy of note that despite the increase in cannabis potency, there has been no concomitant recorded increase in enquiries to the National Poisons Information Service, nor an increase in hospital admissions due to cannabis intoxication.”
That is the view of the advisory council. Even though the potency issue is recognised, there does not seem to be a link between that and hospital admissions. The council sets out clearly in a table the evidence that the concentration of THC in sinsemilla has dropped since 2005 from 13.7 per cent. to 10.4 per cent. in 2007. We are not facing an escalating increase.
The council also had clear views about the evidence of increased harm. Although I do not dispute for a moment the devastating effect on a family of a diagnosis of psychotic illness, the council estimates that the number of people who would have to be prevented from starting cannabis use in order to prevent one person from developing psychotic illness is around 20,000. At the lower end of the error bar, it is still several thousand. There needs to be more understanding of the numbers that it would be necessary to treat before a change comes about. I would want to see that reduction in the number of people starting cannabis use, but if there is no evidence that this policy will achieve that, we as politicians and lawmakers must consider the consequences of increasing criminalisation for no significant benefit.
In his remarks, the Minister referred to a lot of the Government’s policies on tackling cultivation and dealing. I do not disagree at all that they must be tackled—that is the real criminality compared with possession—but today we are considering penalties for possession. I know that he accepts, as I do, all the recommendations of the ACMD that deal with other issues around cannabis, but on possession, recommendation 3 on classification is what is important.
I am disappointed that the Government have not yet published the evidence on which they based their decision. In his reply to my question, the Minister urged me to look at the Government’s response, but all that it says is what he said:
“In reaching its decisions, the Government has also taken into account wider issues such as public perceptions”,
which, as he accepts, the ACMD examined before making its recommendations,
“and the needs and consequences for policing priorities.”
If anything, increasing the criminality of cannabis possession will increase the drain on police resources, so it goes the other way. I could understand if he added police priorities on terrorism, crime and disorder and acquisitive crime—which is not associated with cannabis use, by the way—as a reason not to increase the classification, but it is illogical and it goes against logic for him to argue that police priorities are a basis for increasing criminalisation.
The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman bring his remarks to a close? There are Back Benchers wishing to speak in this important debate.
Dr. Harris: I understand, Mr. Olner. I myself have been a Back Bencher and not had the opportunity to speak. I did not have the protection that you are giving them, and I welcome it.
I hope that the Government accept that it will now be much more difficult for them to claim that their policy is based on evidence and that the Home Office in particular is prepared to accept scientific advice. This is not only a bad day for people in this country who will be the victims of bad law; it is a bad day for policy making in and of itself.
9.59 am
Mr. Allen: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Olner. It is generous and firm by turns, as it needs to be. It is also a pleasure to serve with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth. It is the first time that I have served with him on a Committee and he has taken to his duties very well—as if he had been doing it for many years. Although, he should always listen to contributions from Back Benchers rather than talk to the Whip on the Front Bench, otherwise people may get the wrong impression. There was also a fine contribution from the hon. Member for Hornchurch. He was not always in agreement with his opposite number, but it was a telling contribution none the less. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon came over with his usual trenchant views on behalf of his party. I am tempted to think that if three such eminent brains could get together, we could have, in all senses of the word, a joint policy on this important issue—please excuse the pun Mr. Olner.
I am concerned about the role of Parliament. This is a really important statutory instrument. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green normally has to drag people to Committees considering statutory instruments to make up the numbers. This is an issue that deserves to be debated on the Floor of the House, not in a Committee with no press present and, I am sure, no outside coverage. I hope that, through the usual channels, colleagues will take away those points. It is important to all constituents; this is not a minor technical amendment but a serious change to the way we perceive drug use. We would be stronger if it were taken on the Floor of the House in the not-too-distant future.
Mr. Allen: I take that as a pledge from the Front Bench that the Conservatives will change this ridiculous process should there ever be a change of Government. However, I have been here long enough to recall the Conservative Government many years ago, who had the opportunity to change this process and did not. I suspect that the collaboration between the Front Benchers is our problem, rather than what Parliament itself does. Parliament is weak in this regard. [Interruption.] When individuals make points it is probably polite to listen to the response.
The Chairman: Order. Let the Member speak.
Mr. Allen: In particular, Members who have raised points should have the courtesy to listen to the response, because they may learn that this is not an invention of the current Government, but the way Government treats Parliament. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to do something serious about it, he can talk to his party about the changes that he would like to make to the statutory instrument procedure. I wish him well. Government is stronger for listening to Parliament and this is a classic example.
I have nothing but admiration for my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), but I will make one minor criticism. When we rush to make policy in instances such as this, sometimes because of outside pressures, we do not have proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and we come back and amend later. Doing it in haste wastes more parliamentary time than it saves. We legislate in haste and repent at leisure. Involving Parliament—the relevant Select Committees and the Chamber—to get legislation such as this right is useful. We made mistakes on the criminal justice Bills and on the Child Support Agency. Parliament has a serious role to play and I hope that all Front Benchers take that on board.
The real reason for my contribution—I will not go beyond 10 minutes—is to underline that perceptions are more important than reality. What the kids think and the way these things are viewed are more important than the dry statistics about who does what, when and where. I feel that very keenly, because one of my great drivers in social policy is drug education, not chasing after people when it is too late; not paying £200,000 a year to get someone on a serious drug rehab course when two out of three people reoffend or reuse after the course, but to get to the kids really early. Part of the philosophy of early intervention is to put in filters and safety nets so that young people understand that it is bad news to abuse drugs and drink.
One of the things that I did when I knew that I had the privilege of serving on the Committee was to ask a lot of local people what they thought about the issue and how we as a class of politicians have conducted ourselves over the past few years. My local drug education organisation is called DARE, and its director, David Gilbert, gave me a couple of bullet points. He used the word “clarify”. It keeps coming up over and over again. He said to stay with it, be sustainable and to hold the policy line for a long time so that we can undertake a generation’s worth of drug education. He said:
“clarify the law in respect of cannabis...remove the apparent dilution”—
he was not making a judgment—
“of it being taken seriously as a harmful drug...Present an element of common sense into dealing with what is a popular, yet harmful, drug”.
Those are words from an eminent local practitioner.
My local chief of police in the city of Nottingham said:
“Professionally I support the re-classification back to Class B. Practically all we have seen since the downgrading is an explosion in the organised production of cannabis, predominantly by south-east Asian offenders. I am not aware of any transferred benefits in enhancing targeting of Class A trafficking—indeed the organised production of Cannabis has been an extra burden for operational policing.‘
As a little postscript, he added:
“at a time when we are actively working to reduce smoking it seems perverse to give out mixed signals around cannabis.”
A local secondary head said:
“The changes in classification over the past years have both confused and weakened the message on the streets. Cannabis is seen as ‘ok’ to take—many media personalities glorifying it in the eyes of young people, it is seen by many young people as a natural part of recreation. When I talk to young people about it many draw a clear line between cannabis and ‘harder’ drugs—referring to people who use hard drugs as ‘druggies’, whilst accepting their own cannabis consumption in a similar way to a night at the cinema.”
He finished by saying:
“I would ask that whatever is decided in Parliament is then not changed for a number of years and the message is made consistent—it is said a message should be repeated 14 times before it truly becomes ‘learnt’—this has not happened so far, it is inevitable that confusion will reign!”
A senior local councillor wrote that first
“the stuff is getting stronger 2) we don’t yet know the long term effects 3) it creates a turpitude in its users which makes them less employable 4) people think it has been decriminalised”.
He said that, as a consequence,
“it’s becoming pervasive and acceptable and used in the presence of children”
He asked about the effect on a child’s upbringing, and said that there should be particularly punitive measures for those who subjected children to its influence. He said that it is openly smoked in the street, which people find offensive and that those smoking it in public need to be subject to a fine.
I could go on providing evidence. This evidence may be anecdotal, but—do you know what, Mr. Olner?—it is the way people feel and the way things are perceived. All hon. Members have a responsibility to try to put that right so that we can build bridges for all our young people, so that they can say no.
I will not go any further; I said that I would sit down after 10 minutes. I hope that the message from the Back Benches to all Front-Bench spokesmen, even though Back Benchers have been allowed only one third of the time in this debate, will be taken. Put aside the petty partisan point scoring here and, please, collectively, if possible, come up with a policy that gives clarity to those people out in the tough areas—the inner cities and outer estates—who are trying to give our young people a chance to say no to drug use.
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