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Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, it is with a heavy heart that I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I spent some years in charge of a drugs squad and I have seen the damage that drugs cause. I know that your Lordships would not argue with that; we all agree that they are very damaging. It is unarguable that, if you liberalise and legalise the use of drugs, more people will take them. A good example is the Netherlands, where, according to my information, cannabis use trebled once the law was liberalised. There is no argument on those terms.

I do not understand the change. If we simply wish to change police activity, the Government could issue instructions to the police—we do not have to change the law. The danger with changing the law and reclassifying drugs is that it sends a powerful signal to youngsters throughout the country. Many people to whom I have talked believe that cannabis is being legalised; they do not understand that it is simply being reclassified. I am at great pains to explain to them that the law is still the same. The government information

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states that nothing is changing. If nothing is changing, and the police still have the power to arrest, as they do, what is the point of the reclassification? It sends the wrong signal and increases usage, which is the important point.

I shall not keep noble Lords long. I could speak all night on the subject, and I have done. If we increase the usage of a mind-bending drug—such as alcohol, which is unarguably the same—we must give the police the power and the mechanism to deal with it, but there is no breathalyser for cannabis. People will use more cannabis and drive under the influence of it—they do now. There has been a massive increase in road fatalities of people found to have drugs—of all kinds, admittedly—in their bodies. For that reason alone, it would be a dangerous and retrograde step to send the powerful signal to youngsters that it is okay to smoke dope. Do not do it.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, there are genuinely held differences of view on the best way to handle drugs such as cannabis, which is obviously less dangerous than class A drugs such as crack cocaine. But we have already differentiated—one of the first things that I learned at school was the difference between A and B. We do not have to take steps to differentiate crack cocaine from cannabis; we have already done so.

I recognise the difficulties for the police with the present classification of cannabis as a class B drug. But the proposal in the order to reclassify it as a class C drug is a mistake, despite the favourable advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. There has been only one reference to the provision in the order—I wish to repeat it on the record—that it will reclassify as class C drugs all cannabis preparations, some of which are now classified as class A drugs and the rest as class B drugs. We must be clear on what we are doing in the order, with which I disagree.

The extent to which cannabis makes its users more likely to develop a psychotic illness is disputed, although I believe that it has some such effect. I note the Minister's observation that there was clear evidence that it worsens an incipient condition. It would be pretty bad, for example, to have more schizophrenics than at present. That would be a sad affair for the people themselves and their carers. Like many other noble Lords, I am very concerned about the problems of mental health. I have spoken about it in the House on several occasions; for me, it is an extremely important point.

There is evidence that in some cases cannabis use acts as a gateway to the use of significantly more dangerous drugs. The Minister said that the great majority do not move on to the more dangerous drugs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that the majority do not move on. What sort of an argument is

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that? What about the minority? That is a point about which this House should be concerned. I was shocked to hear those statements.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Yes, I did say that, but I tried to explain that some cannabis users move on because they obtain their cannabis from dealers who are doing their very best to get them onto hard addictive drugs. That was my explanation.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. That is another reason for not changing the classification of cannabis. It is quite a clear argument against what the noble Baroness was stating. I heard it from some other noble Lords here and was not impressed with the argument from any of them.

For those reasons, I do not consider that we should agree this order. However, if contrary to my view it does go through, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in which the House is invited to express the view that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with the risks to the health of young people. The amendment does not go as far as I would wish, but I support it because it is an expression of an opinion with which I agree.

Lord Rea: My Lords, I suspect that this is one of those debates in which most noble Lords will not change their minds, however eloquent and impassioned the speeches are on one side or the other, or however well informed they are—such as the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale. I will therefore speak for a very short time because I know that whatever I say will not change anyone's mind.

My credentials for speaking are that for many years I was a general practitioner in an area where there was a high level of drug abuse. I dealt with many people who had problems with drugs, especially heroin, but not once during a lifetime of practice did I ever have to deal with someone who was ill because of the use of cannabis. My other credential is that I was a member of your Lordship's Select Committee on Science and Technology during its inquiry into the scientific and medical evidence for cannabis with a view to examining its use as a medication.

We obviously looked at the possible harmful effects of cannabis. Nobody denies that there are harmful effects. However, one of the main reasons for reclassifying it is stated in paragraph 4.3 of the report:

    "The acute toxicity of cannabis and the cannabinoids is very low; no-one has ever died as a direct and immediate consequence of recreational or medical use".

That is extremely important, because all the drugs in classes A and B can cause death very quickly, not only by chronic use.

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If one looks at the long-term effects, certainly, cannabis can affect people's mental health. Paragraph 4.11 states:

    "It is . . . well established that cannabis can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from schizophrenic illness and may worsen the course of the illness; but there is little evidence that cannabis use can precipitate schizophrenia or other mental illness in those not already predisposed to it".

We have heard about research reported a year ago in the British Medical Journal, but there are other views. That research has to be looked at in the light of further research. It is not the final word. Although cannabis can precipitate some mental illness, it causes nothing like as much harm as alcohol or tobacco. Alcohol can kill people acutely—if they drink a whole bottle of spirits—quite apart from causing lingering death, and we all know what tobacco can do in the long term. Those two substances are not class A, class B or class C—they are not classified at all.

As regards the Dutch experience, it is true that when cannabis was decriminalised, usage increased for a while. It then went down again and has stayed stable. Far from cannabis being a gateway drug, in those circumstances it seems to satisfy the needs of young people who do not then go on to heroin. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, heroin use is lower in Holland—among Dutch people—than in other European countries. She also said that there is a dwindling band of heroin users who are getting older, but that there are no new users coming into the picture.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that Amsterdam is the drug capital of the world?

Lord Rea: My Lords, I absolutely accept that because people go there from all over the world.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: Why?

Lord Rea: My Lords, I do not need to answer that; it is perfectly clear. The problem with freeing access to drugs in one country is that people go to it like bees to honey. It needs to be approached internationally.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, mentioned the huge public reaction that he has noticed as a result of the order. I suggest that it can seem as if there is a strong public reaction when a highly motivated, small minority gets into gear and has well-organised lobbying material. That is very different from reflecting the majority of public opinion, who, I think, support the order. I support my noble friend on the Front Bench.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I have a few questions for the Minister; I hope that the answers will be of interest to the whole House. As other noble Lords have said, I, too, have had many letters from concerned people about the message that the order will give to our young people and the world beyond.

My main concern is the moving of class A drugs to class C. Liquid cannabis, cannabinol and cannabinol derivatives (THC) are in the class A category at

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present. Cannabinol is a crystalline phenol obtained from cannabis; it is very toxic. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, said that it is not. I looked it up in the Library tonight; it is described as very toxic. I consider that moving the drugs from class A to class C is very dangerous.

At present, any class B drug prepared for injection counts as a class A drug. Is that also to be moved to class C? That has not been mentioned tonight. What about the dangers of hepatitis and other infections, such as HIV, if it is to be declassed to class C? The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has two delightful boys. I met them the other day. Those are the young people that we must try to protect. I hope that the Minister will look at the order again.

Last night at dinner, I sat next to a psychologist, Paul Kennedy, who teaches at Oxford University. I discussed the order with him. He said that cannabis is dangerous to the brain and could encourage schizophrenia. I hope that the Government think again about class A drugs and, especially, injecting. I do not worry about long-term disabled people using cannabis if it relieves their symptoms. That is another matter and a different message.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I have received letters from all over Scotland on this subject. I know very little about it; I am not an expert and I have not worked with those who have been in trouble with drugs. The letters reflect the fact that people do not want to see Edinburgh or London become like Amsterdam: the second drugs capital of the world.

These people know what they are talking about from experience in their own families, through their children. Some are doctors dealing with their patients. Others are academics who have studied the subject. I have also received letters from two relatives of people who have been sent to prison for drug dealing. All are absolutely astonished at what the Government are doing.

I say this: I back the amendment because it is the only amendment we have, but I agree with a very distinguished and senior Back-Bencher on the Government Benches who earlier this afternoon asked me: "What on earth is your party doing not throwing this order out?". However, since this is the only amendment, I shall back it.

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