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Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, we have heard a most moving speech from my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids, and I believe that the Government should listen to her testimony. I wish to make only three points.

First, over the years, both as a recorder and as an advocate, I have seen the penalties imposed becoming less and less severe. The lower the penalties imposed, it seems, the greater the use. Secondly, what is the Government's response to Kate Hoey, the Member for Vauxhall? As the elected representative, she has a deep personal knowledge of what is happening in the area. I know, from living in the area for some of the time, that over recent years drug dealers have spread from

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the centre to some of the most desirable streets in Vauxhall. It takes an enormous effort, as I know personally, to get rid of them. Local mothers with young children in the area are deeply concerned.

The third and final point I want to make is this. What signal does the Minister believe the Government's proposals for declassification will send to my grandchildren, and those of other noble Lords, shortly to become teenagers? Are they more or less likely to dabble in taking cannabis?

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, my antennae tell me that perhaps a vote is in the offing and that we have spoken for long enough, but I want to make one or two brief points. I would suggest that the Minister has destroyed her own case with two statements. One of her statements was that already the quantum of cannabis use has gone up, so that we are on a rising tide. The second point I noted from her remarks was that to legalise the use of cannabis would lead to a massive increase in its use. If that is so, what does that tell us? It tells us that there is a market and an appetite waiting to take more cannabis. Who is going to take it? The noble Baroness gave the answer by telling the House that one of the circumstances under which a pusher with drugs can be arrested is if that person is in the vicinity of a school.

When one adds those together, one has a market of young people wanting to get to this drug and, as a sub-class of the vulnerable, are those referred to as having an incipient condition. Some linkage with mental instability is undoubtedly caused by or is related to cannabis.

We come to the usual question, one that often arises in this type of debate. Looking into the crystal ball, what will be the likely effect of the policy now being proposed? Will it be, as the Minister and the learned committee have suggested, that there will be no serious increase, or will it be as described by a social worker who wrote to me from Dagenham? She said:

    "I write to you in distress that the drug cannabis is to be reclassified. If anything as a youth worker I think it should be raised to 'A' rather than dropped. I have watched young people changed very much for the worse because of this drug. Reclassifying cannabis will send out a clear message that the use of cannabis is OK. They are already confused enough . . . Please protect our young people in society".

Whose view do you accept? What view do you take? I go for the youth worker. What he says is very sensible.

The only surprise in the debate is the timidity of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I greatly respect him and his aggression, which can be displayed to great force on some occasions, but the amendment merely states that,

    "this House notes that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with risks to the health of young people".

It does not deplore the order aggressively; it merely notes it in a rather calm way.

Those who are vulnerable are the young of our country. If Lady Macbeth had seen that draft she might have said to the noble Lord, "Infirm of purpose? Give me the daggers". The dagger we want is one with

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which to strike down the order. I urge your Lordships to reject it—if we can do so—or, if not, to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson.

10 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, it has been a heated debate in which strong views have been expressed. I shall speak briefly in support of the amendment.

Like many of your Lordships, I have been inundated with personal letters from individuals and faxes from organisations. There may or may not be some exaggeration in the claims made, but at the very least they should make one think hard about whether reclassification would not send out the wrong signals.

I am sure that all noble Lords would, like me, wish to support any move that would genuinely reduce the all too profitable role of drugs barons in this country. However, the results where some form of declassification or reclassification of drugs has taken place elsewhere do not look encouraging. I shall not go over the Dutch experience or, indeed, the Lambeth experience, other than to say that quite clearly there was open dealing there during the period of the experiment. However, I hear that there are differing views on that.

The potential medical ill effects of cannabis have come through very clearly indeed, particularly in regard to mental illness, which seems to occur far too often. Cannabis may not be 20 per cent stronger than it was in the 1960s, but it is certainly stronger today. Apparently it stays longer in the brain, with young boys five times more likely to be users. Education potential is at risk, with concentration and attention spans affected and the possibility of permanent damage caused to brain cells.

There is apparently, too, a great concern that cannabis use is a factor in road accidents—a point well put by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate. The figures that I have read show that some 10 per cent of those responsible for fatal accidents tested positive for cannabis, and 80 per cent of those did not have an alcohol content above the limit.

It would appear that an increasing number of young children believe that cannabis has been legalised, but by no means do adults wish to vote in favour of decriminalising cannabis.

My two greatest concerns relate to addiction and those who are likely to be affected by it. It is very clear that cannabis can, and clearly does—if only sometimes—lead people into harder drugs. Adolescent users are apparently much more likely to use cocaine than those who never smoked cannabis and apparently almost 100 per cent of heroin addicts started on cannabis.

One then has to ask oneself who is the group most likely to become addicted. I suggest that the most vulnerable group would be those youngsters from disadvantaged and dysfunctional families—that is, the very group least likely to get the appropriate help and support from within their own families, and in which undesirable peer pressure has to be obeyed more often than not.

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As I know all too well from my years in the London juvenile courts, this pattern is all too familiar. Truancy is the first step, with the need for funds to feed the drug habit leading inevitably to crime—thus spiralling down the cycle of deprivation continues.

I hope the Minister will think again and, at the very least, agree to the delay suggested. I agree that it is a pretty timid step; nevertheless, it would be a way of showing the acceptance of the concern that is expressed by Members of this House.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. Having sat through the entire debate and listened to all the contributions, I think that the controversial nature of the contributions that have been made and the divided opinions that we have heard in your Lordships' House this evening should at least give us all pause for thought. Timid though the amendment may be, I think it is the right one, because at least it gives us the chance to reconsider before taking what I regard as a pretty momentous step.

In introducing the debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said—this remark has been quoted by several of my noble friends on the Cross Benches—that, mercifully, most cannabis users do not move on. On Friday last, I was in Liverpool, in part of the area I represented at one level or another for some 25 years. Earlier this year, in that same neighbourhood, I attended the funeral of a young man in his early twenties who had died of a heroin overdose. His mother was at the meeting on Friday last, and I put the proposition to her that not everyone who takes cannabis ends up as a heroin user. She responded to me by saying that she had never met anyone who was using heroin who did not start on cannabis. That is the key to this issue.

There is clearly a link between the use of drugs, and although it is true that alcohol and other factors must also be taken into account, it would be absurd to dispute that link and to move forward without any degree of consensus on these questions. The order before us will reclassify cannabis as a class C drug, putting it into the same category as sleeping tablets and anabolic steroids.

The Home Office website states that reclassification of cannabis should help the Government to convey an effective and credible message—to young people in particular—about the dangers of misusing drugs. But contrary to that statement and to everything the Minister has said this evening, reclassification sends the message that cannabis is harmless and not addictive, and that it is okay to take it. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said, it also cultivates the common belief that it already has been legalised.

Following the Home Secretary's announcement last July that he intended to reclassify cannabis, Life Education Centres performed a survey among pupils. Some 86 per cent of primary school children thought that cannabis was now legal, and 79 per cent thought it was safe.

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The Government claim that reclassification is based on the medical evidence. However, the most recent evidence was not, and could not have been, taken into account when they came to this conclusion. The advice to reclassify cannabis was based on a report in 2001 by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That report was commissioned by the Home Office.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs does not have a balanced membership, and only a few scientists are among its members. There are around 32 members of the ACMD. Thirteen are leading members of pro-liberalisation organisations. It does not have a single member from any organisation opposed to the liberalisation of drugs, so no one can argue that this was a balanced committee taking all the evidence into account.

The ACMD reported in 2001, recommending reclassification. However, since then, significant new evidence has emerged linking cannabis with serious mental illness. That point was made very powerfully tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who has so much experience as a former Home Secretary. The majority of psychiatrists now accept a link between cannabis and serious mental illness. Two years ago, that was not the case.

I give a brief summary of the new evidence. Schizophrenia, psychotic symptoms, depression and anxiety are strongly associated with cannabis abuse. Recent research confirms that cannabis can trigger psychosis even in those with no previous disposition to mental illness. The earlier cannabis use begins, the greater the risks. Eighteen year-olds who have used cannabis 50 times have a nearly seven-fold increased risk of developing psychosis over the next 15 years. Teenagers who use cannabis by age 15 have more than a four-fold increased risk of developing schizophrenia symptoms by the age of 26. Early cannabis use by the age of 15 increases the risk of schizophrenia compared to later cannabis use by the age of 18. Furthermore, a recently published study examined patients with recent onset of psychosis. It was found that patients with recent onset are twice as likely to have used cannabis compared with a population without psychosis. While alcohol consumption and consumption of illicit drugs other than cannabis was roughly equal in both groups, cannabis was used by 39 per cent of psychotic patients, but only 22 per cent of non-psychotic controls. That new evidence was produced by Professor Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry.

It is clear that cannabis, far more than other illicit drugs, including class A drugs, is associated with mental illness. To claim that cannabis should be only a class C drug is simply not compatible with the medical evidence. As the evidence was published only last year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs could not take that into account when reconsidering reclassification in 2001.

I know that it is late, but I should like to express my grave concern that the Home Secretary has so far refused to meet eminent scientists and leading researchers on cannabis, including four professors who want to present new research evidence to the

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Home Secretary. The scientists who have asked to meet the Home Secretary are Professor Robin Murray, Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London; Professor John Henry, who was cited earlier, from Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine; Professor Heather Ashton, from the School of Neurosciences at the University of Newcastle; and Professor Colin Drummond, Professor of Addiction Psychiatry at St George's Hospital Medical School.

Will the Minister tell us why the requests for such meetings have not been acceded to? Surely, before reclassifying, the Home Office should examine the likely effects of reclassification on society, public health, driving, and the health service. Reclassification is very likely to lead to increased cannabis use. If a drug is perceived to be harmless—and reclassification will send the message that it is harmless—its use will undoubtedly increase. It is downright irresponsible to proceed with these orders tonight. I would rarely speak so strongly on a subject in your Lordships' House, but I support the amendment laid before us and I hope that, when we divide, the House will support it.

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