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House of Lords

Tuesday, 28th January 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Cannabis and Mental Health

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether in the light of new evidence published in the British Medical Journal dated 23rd November 2002 they believe that the use of cannabis increases the risk of schizophrenia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government accept that there is a relationship between heavy cannabis use and the risk of experiencing a number of mental health problems, although these are mostly short lived. The British Medical Journal papers strengthen the evidence for its potential role in schizophrenia. The editorial points out that cannabis as a cause of schizophrenia remains unproven. The Government will continue to update policy and guidance informed by carefully considered expert analysis of the evidence.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Answer. The article to which I refer in my Question bears the subheading,

    "More evidence establishes clear link between use of cannabis and psychiatric illness".

Does that not show clearly that cannabis increases the risk of schizophrenia and not only for those who already have mental health problems?

In the light of that evidence, is it not horrifying that cannabis use is soaring; and should not the Government in its publicity make plain that cannabis, far from being relatively harmless, is a cause of mental illness as well as being five times more likely than tobacco to cause lung cancer?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the BMJ article is an interesting article. It reports the association between the level of cannabis use and the risk of development of depression and anxiety. It shows evidence that prior cannabis use is significantly associated with an increased risk of subsequently developing schizophrenia. What has not yet been shown beyond doubt is whether there is a causal relationship. But, in relation to the general point made by the noble Lord, I am concerned at the instance of cannabis use in this country, as I am concerned about the use of other harmful drugs in this country. We shall endeavour in our preventive and educational programmes to make the point the noble Lord raised.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that heavy and continuous consumption

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of cannabis in itself may give rise to delusions and hallucinations, which are symptoms that closely resemble those of schizophrenia? Does he also accept, as is implied by the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and his reply that there is nevertheless growing evidence to suggest that schizophrenia may be precipitated by its use, in particular in genetically disposed individuals? Is it not therefore the Government's duty to publicise the nature of this risk?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Walton, that we need to publicise the risk of using cannabis as part of our educational and preventive programmes. Clearly, the current state of research and evidence points to the physical and mental health risks. What has not been proven is the direct causal relationship between the use of cannabis and schizophrenia. But the general points raised by the noble Lord are apposite.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I think that the Minister is agreeing that there is an increased risk of mental health problems and certainly physical health problems due to the carcinogenic effect of cannabis. Can he therefore explain the Department of Health's deafening silence on the Home Office's reckless policy of abandonment of protection through the criminal law?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not think that that is a very accurate reading of the situation. The Home Office has taken advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The Government have made absolutely clear that use of all controlled drugs, including cannabis, is harmful. But drug laws must accurately reflect the relative harm of drugs if a credible message is to be put out to the public, including young people. That is why the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advised that, although cannabis is harmful, it is not as harmful as other drugs currently classified in class B and therefore recommended that it should be reclassified as a class C drug. But its use will still be illegal. There will still be severe penalties for trafficking. The police will retain the power to arrest for possession linked to aggravated public order. That is proportionate advice from an expert advisory committee.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords—

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we have plenty of time. Perhaps we may start with my noble friend Lord Mackenzie and then the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, bearing in mind the dangers of driving while under the influence of cannabis, can my noble friend say whether there has been any progress on the development of a roadside testing device that detects cannabis in blood?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords, I cannot tell my noble friend that, although I am happy to write to him about the matter.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the Minister is correct to separate the criminal law and its treatment of cannabis from the health and educational aspects relating to cannabis as done by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Runciman report. Should not the health education unit be given more resources, so that it can credibly put across to young people the health problems associated with the use of cannabis?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point to the need to emphasise and develop health prevention programmes, including getting the right messages across to young people. We have a local drug education and prevention budget of around 13 million in 2002–03. A great deal of work is being undertaken and co-operation between the NHS, local education authorities, schools and the police is of a high order. Of course we encourage them to work together in this area.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is considerable potential value in the use of cannabis as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of certain diseases, such as disseminated sclerosis?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the point that my noble friend makes. Research is currently being undertaken into some of the medical benefits of certain derivatives of cannabis. The results from those studies will be considered in due course—we believe that some results will be available later in the year. If any of the trials are successful, application can then be made to the Medicines Control Agency for a licence.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that cannabis can be used in several different strengths? Will liquid cannabis still be a class A drug?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, so far as I am aware, there are issues concerning the strength of the cannabis being used. However, the recommendation of the advisory council to reclassify cannabis applies to all cannabis preparations.

Lord Rea: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one problem is that cannabis is now supplied by illegal providers and, as a result, the strength and quality of the drug is unknown and it comes with no health warning? Does my noble friend even remotely accept that, if it were available through controlled legal outlets, it could be of known potency and could even carry an accompanying health warning, giving advice such as that given by the noble Lord, Lord Walton?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I believe that the implication of my noble friend's question is that

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the use of cannabis and, indeed, other drugs should be decriminalised. The Government believe that it would be wrong to do so and that it would give all the wrong signals. A MORI poll carried out for the Police Foundation in March 2000 found that 30 per cent of adults cited illegality as a reason for not taking drugs.

Child Protection

2.44 p.m.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a patron of the child's charity, Kidscape.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what priority is given to child protection by the police.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, child protection needs to be a priority. The National Policing Plan makes that clear. It stipulates that chief officers should review their local policing plans to ensure that child protection is given the appropriate priority. The Victoria Climbie inquiry report, published earlier today, highlights the urgency with which we must address that issue.

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