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Lord Rea: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he said that at the moment only 1 per cent. of multiple sclerosis sufferers used cannabis. However, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Society--I look at page 84 of the report--there are 85,000, sufferers which means that 850 of them now use cannabis. That is probably a minimum figure because there are many who can benefit from it. A lot of people might well use it if it were legal.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, I entirely agree. I read the report and the figure is 1 per cent.

Lord Rea: My Lords, that still amounts to 850 people, which is quite a large number.

10.16 p.m.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, and the Select Committee on Science and Technology on producing a very interesting report on cannabis. No one who has listened to the debate this evening can fail to be impressed by the findings of the committee.

I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Carrick, on his excellent maiden speech which was listened to with interest and attention. I hope that it will not be too long before we hear from him again.

The Government must examine the scientific and medical evidence to see whether there is a case for relaxing some of the current restrictions on the medical uses of cannabis and to consider whether the prohibition on the recreational use of this drug is justified on the scientific evidence of adverse effects.

There is a huge volume of literature on cannabis. I believe that the committee has done exceptionally well in refining all of this material and producing a readable report. However, the purpose of this debate is not to provide the Government's full response to the committee's report because these proceedings take place before the Government have replied to the report. But all of the contributions that have been made today by noble Lords will be taken into account by the Government in their reply. In that respect. I believe that the purpose is a very useful one.

We are all aware that, according to convention, the Government reply to the reports of Select Committees within two months. However, as has been mentioned in the debate the committee made a recommendation that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which advises the Government under the Misuse of Drugs

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Act 1971 should be consulted before they responded to the report. It was recognised by the committee that this might take a little time. As the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, said in opening the debate, the committee is prepared to wait longer for a reply.

The council meets twice a year but it had a meeting on 19th November. Therefore, it was possible for the council at that meeting to consider the report briefly. One of the general comments that has been made is that the Government should not have responded so quickly. While it may not be the general custom to respond immediately to the Select Committee's report--I do not believe that anyone questions that--it is acceptable for the Government to do so. They do so in this case because the Government have a clearly established and logical position on the medical uses of cannabis. That is a position from which they would be willing to move only--I stress this--if scientific evidence to support the change were available. That evidence is not available, and indeed the report admits as much in paragraph 8.1. In those circumstances the Government thought that it was better to remind everyone of their position and the reason for it rather than to leave a gap, because that gap might have created the impression that we thought a case for change had been made.

It was against this background that the advisory council, in view of the Government's position, took the view that cannabis should not be rescheduled. If the time comes when a cannabis-based medicine has been developed the advisory council will, under the terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, have to be consulted before any change is made to the legislation.

As I have said, this debate is not the occasion when the Government are giving their full reply to the report, but at this stage I would like to reiterate what the Government said about some of the recommendations after the report was published. The last words in the main report are that the committee recommends that:

    "cannabis and its derivatives should continue to be controlled drugs".
In making the recommendation, the committee referred to a statement by the United Kingdom Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator in the Government's White Paper, Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain. Mr. Hellawell said that:

    "the more evidence that becomes available about the risks of, for example, cannabis and ecstasy the more discredited the notion that any of the substances currently controlled under the 1971 Act are harmless".
This is something that the Government have always believed, and we believe that the committee's recommendation supports our position. We believe that the general legalisation of cannabis would be a serious mistake, and indeed we heard tonight a very powerful speech from my noble friend Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate pointing out the dangers that could arise from legalisation. We are not prepared to be a party to making any mistake in that regard.

The Government also welcomed the committee's recommendation that more work is needed on the possible medical benefits of cannabis. However, the

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Government found themselves unable to agree--I say this to the members of the committee--with the recommendation that:

    "steps should be taken to transfer cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations to Schedule 2 so as to allow doctors to prescribe an appropriate preparation of cannabis, albeit as an unlicensed medicine and on a named patient basis and to allow doctors and pharmacists to supply the drug prescribed".
Put another way, we believe the recommendation is that doctors should be allowed to prescribe cannabis: that is what we believe is being said by the committee. Where it is not explicit about what is meant by "an appropriate preparation of cannabis" the Government have assumed that this could, in the committee's view--and we have discussed this tonight--include smoked cannabis, despite the acknowledged dangers of that form of administration. I can see the noble Lord, Lord Perry, is agreeing with me in that.

In principle, the Government have no difficulty with the proposal of a cannabis-based medicine or medicines containing individual cannabinoids. However, we do not agree that any prospective medicines which contain these substances should set aside the standards required of prospective medicines. The case for that was made very clear by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench. These standards are that the quality, safety and efficacy of the medicine have to be scientifically proven. There are good reasons for having those standards. I do not need to say this because all noble Lords who spoke tonight--many of them expert in their fields--are aware that it is necessary to ensure that inferior quality, unsafe or ineffective medicines are not prescribed to patients. I think that we can all agree on that.

The committee also acknowledged that there was not enough scientific evidence to prove conclusively that cannabis has or has no medical value of any kind. Nonetheless, we get back to the anecdotal evidence that cannabis almost certainly has a genuine medical application, in particular for the treatment of muscular spasms and symptoms of multiple sclerosis and the control of other forms of pain. Much has been said on compassionate grounds. The Government are not unsympathetic. No one could ignore the plight of these people. If they cannot be helped by existing medication, should we look to cannabis to help them? Sufferers of certain ailments might be able to obtain relief lawfully by using cannabis. However the development and licensing of medicinal forms might take five years. Although the Government have enormous sympathy for those patients whose conditions do not respond to existing treatment, and we understand why the committee has reached its view, we do not believe--and I think that many people would agree with us--that an exception should be made for cannabis.

We believe that one of the consequences of accepting the recommendation would be to undermine research into medicinal forms. We believe that a good deal of the incentive would be swept away if crude cannabis was prescribable. That view was also shared from the Opposition Bench.

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However, we are making progress on research into cannabinoids. The Medical Research Council (MRC) the main agency through which the Government support medical and clinical research, has awarded a grant to Dr. Kendall of the University of Nottingham to undertake two studies. While those studies do not directly address the value of the therapeutic use of cannabis, they could prove important in informing any further, more applied research.

Lord Winston: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I apologise for the lateness of the hour. Those studies do not address the therapeutic issues. Does the Minister agree that the current regulatory framework is a Catch-22 situation? It prevents any controlled study of the type that we feel would be appropriate. One cannot gain the evidence without undertaking the studies; and the current regulations prevent scientists and funding authorities from supporting such studies, so there is a real problem intellectually.

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