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Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I, too, thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. Does she agree that her move will not accelerate the falls in cannabis use or the falls in psychosis, nor will it
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cut crime? Will she describe now the circumstances in which a five-year custodial sentence would be appropriate for cannabis possession? Will she now confess that evidence plays no part in her policy? Will she save public money by disbanding the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and establishing a new committee—a committee of tabloid newspaper editors, given that the biggest influence on her policy is the Daily Mail, not the facts?

Jacqui Smith: I take it that the hon. Gentleman is against the decision that I have taken today. No, I will not disband the advisory council. It has made some important recommendations, which we will follow through. Nor do I accept his suggestion that the decision will have no impact on crime or mental health. I have spelled out how the reclassification will help to drive police priorities, especially in tackling the serious organised crime now involved in the cultivation of cannabis here and internationally. I have also asked the police to look carefully at enforcement for possession, including escalation.

The hon. Gentleman’s response is no surprise when we consider the history of the Liberal Democrats’ drug policy. Theirs is the party that wants to legalise the sale of cannabis, that does not want to penalise those who grow cannabis, and that wants to end all jail sentences for drug possession and downgrade ecstasy from class A to class B. When they have sorted their own policy out, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s questions a little more seriously.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): As someone who opposed the declassification in 2004, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her decision today. Does she agree that one thing that young people need is clear and accurate information about various kinds of drugs? I thank her for making it unambiguous that cannabis does cause harm.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend; he is right. We have sometimes been charged with using the classification system to send a message—but in fact part of its function, as the advisory council accepts, is indeed to send the clear and unambiguous message that the use of cannabis is dangerous and harmful to health, and should not happen. If there is more that we can do to support parents and others in giving that message to children, we should take that opportunity, and that is what I have done today.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I agree with the Home Secretary’s statement today. In fact, last year the “Breakthrough Britain” report called for this change after taking evidence from more than 3,000 people who work in the drugs industry. However, it is not enough just to threaten people with a prison sentence. We took evidence from Sweden and it was clear that it put alongside the prison sentence a full abstinence-based rehabilitation programme for every single person arrested by the police. That is the missing bit of the equation, and I urge the Home Secretary to consider it, and work to get people off drugs. Abstinence-based programmes will be the key in the future.

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Jacqui Smith: The right hon. Gentleman has taken a clear evidence-based approach to this issue. He is right to say that we need to ensure that when people are sent to prison we emphasise the need to help them to get off drugs. That is why we have brought about a tenfold increase in investment in and provision of drug treatment in prison. It is also why it is already the case that when young people are stopped and found to be in possession of drugs, they are referred to the youth offending team and assessed for the support that they need to get off drugs. It is also why, in the drugs strategy published at the end of February, we were clear that abstinence should be the aim of drug treatment—but that with many serious drugs the addiction is a chronic illness, from which it may take between five and eight years to recover. Abstinence should of course be the aim, and the additional investment that we have put into drug treatment has ensured that it is now far more successful.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): This will be hailed as another tough policy—but, sadly, tough policies have never worked. We have the worst drug problem in Europe, alongside the harshest penalties. I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the new convention on drugs accepted by the Council of Europe, which seeks to move the emphasis away from the criminal justice system and locking people up for using drugs, towards systems that work—the health outcomes. We have a good record in recent years in concentrating on the health outcomes, but we have had 37 years of tough policies. When can we have an intelligent policy?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend, too, has taken a consistent position on this issue. My only disagreement with him is that I do not think that we need to make a choice between enforcement and the emphasis on treatment that he advocates. Both the previous drugs strategy—over the past 10 years—and the newly published strategy enable us to send out a tough message on enforcement and to invest in prevention and treatment. That approach has resulted not in failure, as he claims, but in considerable success in reducing the usage of all drugs at all ages.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I very much welcome the Government’s U-turn on this matter, but will the Home Secretary accept that the years between the downgrading of cannabis and today have been a wasted opportunity? Will she also accept that if she is concerned about enforcement, she should consider the possibility of fixed penalty fines, as they do not involve the police in all the hassle of cautions and court cases, but do act as a deterrent and are relatively quick to administer?

Jacqui Smith: On the right hon. Lady’s first point, I must point out that notwithstanding the decision to reclassify in 2004, cannabis use has continued to fall, because of other actions that we took. However, she makes an important and useful point about the use of fixed penalty notices. ACPO has suggested those as a possible way to escalate the enforcement response to possession, and I hope that it will hear her words, and what I have said about the issue.

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Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust approach to prevention and protection. Will she join me in congratulating Luton police on closing down large numbers of cannabis factories run by illegal immigrants, who are often exploited? Will she also look at the possible exploitation of another vulnerable group, namely drug addicts seeking to rehabilitate themselves, who are being lured into private rehabilitation clinics that have no discernable regulation and can easily exploit very vulnerable people? In one case in my constituency, such a clinic employs ex-convicted drug addicts. Will the Secretary of State urgently look into this to ensure that people are properly rehabilitated within a proper drugs strategy?

Jacqui Smith: I will take the opportunity that my hon. Friend has offered to congratulate the police in Luton on their action in closing down cannabis farms. A lot of good work has been done across the country by police forces and others. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the danger to drug users when they are lured into private rehab clinics that lack good regulation. That is precisely why, as part of the drugs strategy, we also emphasise the need to continue to develop high-quality drug treatment that is appropriately regulated. I will certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend’s points.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): The Science and Technology Committee considered drug classification in its report of 2005-6 and concluded that it was not based on clear evidence. The Secretary of State has indicated yet again that the decisions being made are not based on evidence, but are an example of Government policy dictated by others—I shall not mention the Daily Mail, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) did.

A key issue that the Secretary of State brought up in the statement is the need to toughen up law enforcement. This is a law enforcement issue, but she has made no reference to why we cannot close down illegal cannabis factories using the current law. That has nothing to do with classification. If she is so concerned about young people, why are the under-18s the only group for whom she intends not to change the current law enforcement?

Jacqui Smith: As chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Gentleman produced a report to which the Government responded in detail at the time and, I think, we rejected the main recommendation that there should be a fundamental change in the classification process. I dispute the suggestion that the decision is not based on evidence. As I have outlined, the decision is based not inconsiderably on the evidence that I have produced today from the survey that we commissioned of police forces about the strength of skunk, linked to what the advisory council has identified as a potential and serious threat arising from the relationship between young people binge smoking and much more potent and stronger cannabis. Of course, in making my decision I needed to bear in mind the impact on police priorities. A reclassification from class C to B will be likely to drive police priorities and sentencing when it comes to drug dealing and cultivation. I also needed to bear in mind the impact on public perception. Neither police priorities nor public perception are part of the remit of the advisory council.

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The current law on possession and young people already enables an escalation from reprimand to final warning to charge. The problem for those over the age of 18 is that enforcement does not allow that process of escalation. I am asking the police to find a way to provide that.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): As someone on the Labour Benches who voted against the downgrading of cannabis, I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Does she agree that although this move is not a panacea to the drugs problem in this country, it sends a clear message and supports the many parents in my constituency who want to send the right signal to their children? It is important that we have now sent a message that smoking cannabis is wrong and harmful. We should get that message across and unite behind it.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right. The advisory council is clear that the use of cannabis is not only illegal but seriously harmful to health. I believe that it is our responsibility to make clear to people the fact that cannabis is harmful. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the need to reinforce support for parents who sometimes have a difficult job in making clear to their children the dangers that they face. One such danger is the potential use of cannabis, and I want to do everything I can to support parents in protecting their children from the certain health dangers that come from the use of cannabis.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): May I assure the Home Secretary that my right hon. and hon. Friends wholeheartedly support her action in reclassifying cannabis to a class B drug? We believe that she will have the support of people throughout the UK. It is true that the scourge—indeed, the blight—of drugs in society is a public health issue that will be solved by no single piece of legislation. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is essential that her decision is enforced robustly by the police alongside an extensive rehabilitation strategy?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is right. The fact that under the current system it is possible for an adult to be given more than one warning on cannabis and there is the possibility that those warnings have not been properly recorded, demonstrates that the system is not as robust as the measures that a class B classification would require. That is why the police have recognised the need for a more robust and escalated response and why I have asked them urgently to provide me with advice about a workable way to deliver that.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will rest assured that the Cheshire police, who do an excellent job in closing down cannabis farms, will welcome her announcement. May I press her on one particular issue where the police are finding difficulties? When the police close down cannabis farms and arrest workers in the farms—who are usually illegal immigrants—they take them in front of the magistrates court. The magistrates grant those immigrants bail, and they then disappear and set up work elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State use her influence to ensure that when the police take people before the courts they are refused bail, so that the police can get on with prosecuting them?

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Jacqui Smith: I am not sure that I can use my influence on bail decisions, which are of course rightly for the court system. However, my hon. Friend makes an important point about the relationship between immigration crime and policing. That is why we are developing strong immigration crime partnerships across the country, where the local police work with those in the UK Border Agency to ensure that illegal immigrants are not even taken to court, but that the action that is warranted by the fact that they are illegal is taken. In many cases, that may well mean deportation.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Every wretched, pathetic heroin addict whom I have to sentence began their drugs career in their teens on cannabis and skunk. That is why I am a little disappointed that the Home Secretary is retaining the system of reprimand, warning and so on for those aged 18 and under. May I urge her to think again and to realise that to catch the problem early by making access to rehab compulsory at the very beginning for cannabis takers in their teens, as they do in Sweden, would have a better effect than just issuing a warning and so on?

Jacqui Smith: No. If it were only a warning, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, but let me make it clear that the escalation process for young people already involves taking people to the police station and a reference to the youth offending team with assessment for drug treatment and rehabilitation. I believe that that is an important element of preventing young people from going on to more serious drugs. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the gateway, the advisory council does not believe that cannabis has a particularly strong gateway effect.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): We know very little about the abuse of substances and the damage it does to the mind. That includes alcohol, incidentally, as well as cannabis. Will my right hon. Friend persuade the Government to make far more money available for research to establish whether there are causal links between drug misuse and mental illness?

Jacqui Smith: As part of the drugs strategy that we published in February, we said that drug addiction should be a priority for the Medical Research Council. The advisory council has put forward recommendations for more research into the link with mental health, so I think that my hon. Friend makes an important point.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at the questions of harm, potency and the potential for binge smoking and recommended that cannabis should be class C. So the Government’s proposal to make it class B cannot be rational or based on evidence about any of those issues: instead, it has to be based on what the police have asked for and on the Government’s perception of public views. When the police give more priority to policing the possession of cannabis, what will they deprioritise? Does the Home Secretary accept that the policy that she has announced today drives a coach and horses through any claim that the Government might make about making evidence-based policy in this area?

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Jacqui Smith: First, we have long known that the classification of cannabis arouses both controversy and differing views. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues seem to be suggesting that there is a single, simple and objective scientific view on the matter, but there is not and their approach undermines the knowledge that he usually displays about scientific matters. In addition to the evidence in the advisory council report, it is perfectly reasonable to take into consideration evidence and views about police priorities and public perception. That is what I have done, and I believe that it will provide a route for the police to prioritise—as they should—action against serious organised crime based on dealing. With respect to possession, I have asked the police to find ways that will help to provide the escalation that I have talked about in a way that is workable and reduces bureaucracy. I believe that it will be possible to do that.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): When a Minister says that a policy is designed to send out a signal, that is a sure symptom that it contains no substance, as the Home Secretary should be aware. She will know that I take a view that is very unpopular on both sides of the House—that the key substantive goal is to break the link between the supply of cannabis and the supply of hard drugs, and to stop driving soft drug users into the arms of hard drug pushers. Is there anything in her statement that addresses that issue? Has she considered the evidence from Holland, where far fewer people move from cannabis to hard drugs, because they get cannabis from people who do not push hard drugs?

Jacqui Smith: In Holland, of course, the policy is being reviewed, because of a lack of success. I did identify the point made by the advisory council about whether cannabis was a gateway drug. The council’s view, and that of others, tends to be that it is not a significant gateway drug, so the decisions that I have announced today are based largely on the certain danger to health from the use of cannabis, on the very considerable risks extending into the future attached to the relationship between cannabis use and mental health problems, and on the certain link to serious organised crime. Given those considerations, I believe that the reclassification of cannabis is right. I do not feel that I have to apologise for wanting to send a clear message or signal about the danger of cannabis—although, as I have spelled out today, that will of course be backed up by extremely practical actions to maintain our commitment to keeping cannabis use in this country on a downward trend.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the Home Secretary accept that her predecessor’s decision in 2004 to downgrade cannabis has encouraged the large-scale commercial development and sale of skunk? Did it not undermine the principles that she has been trying to outline today? While reclassification is highly desirable, surely it demonstrates the folly of her predecessor’s decision.

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. and learned Gentleman might like to take that up with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who agreed with the decision at the time. I do not believe that it was necessarily
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wrong, nor that it has led to the development of organised crime and cannabis farming, but I do believe that there has been a considerable change in the strength of skunk and the proportion of the market that it now takes up. Alongside its potential relationship with serious mental health problems, that is what has driven my decision today.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I very much welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. She said that there is a compelling case to act now, but in her statement she made it clear that she would not be able to introduce the reclassification until the end of the year. My Bill on the reclassification of cannabis is coming up for its Second Reading on Friday: why do the Government not adopt it, so that they could get the reclassification on the statute book a lot sooner?

Jacqui Smith: The process requires parliamentary approval, and the impact assessment is the appropriate way to introduce the reclassification. The route that I am proposing is the one already laid down in legislation, and I believe that it can achieve our goal quickly.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Now that the Home Secretary has taken this important decision, may I urge her to consult the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and leading campaigners against the illegal use of drugs among children? They should look carefully at how drugs education in schools can be improved, so that young people get real warnings about the consequences of drug use. Will she also take a fresh look at the website “Frank”? Sometimes it can trivialise the subject, and make it look like a bit of a joke.

Jacqui Smith: I have already discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The hon. Lady is right that we need to improve drugs education in our schools, and we said as much in the drugs strategy. However, I disagree with her about “Frank”: the site has had considerable success in getting traction with young people, and in increasing the proportion of young people who recognise that there is a link between cannabis and mental health problems. Sometimes, advertising campaigns that are not convincing for those of us of a certain age nevertheless work on those for whom they are intended.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The Home Secretary has talked about robust enforcement and drugs treatment, so why is the cannabis strategy so divorced from reality? Why does not the Serious Organised Crime Agency have a target to enforce the interdiction against cannabis coming into this country? Why do people presenting themselves to police stations, courts or prisons find that there is no dedicated cannabis rehabilitation? Why do drugs courts have no power—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary question is fine, but there were about four there.

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