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The noble Lord asked what percentage of vacancies is in the public sector and what percentage is in the private sector. With respect, that misunderstands the nature of that figure. We have a dynamic labour market. It is not a fixed number of vacancies which gradually go up if people are made redundant or down when those vacancies are taken up. There is a whole interaction of people moving from employment to another job, from employment to unemployment and from unemployment to employment. You cannot simply look at that number and say that this is a fixed stock of vacancies. That is not how it works.

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The noble Lord asked whether I read the article in yesterday’s Financial Times about the extent to which job growth has been in the public sector or the private sector. The answer is, yes, I did. I thought that I had dealt with that question in response to an earlier point raised.

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008

4.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13 October be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order will reclassify cannabis as a class B drug on 26 January 2009. On 7 May, I repeated to this House the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place announcing the Government’s decision to reclassify cannabis. This is a measure which we are taking to protect the public, particularly the future health of our young people.

While the use of cannabis remains widespread, it has, none the less, fallen to its lowest level in 10 years. It is crucial that this trend continues. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has consistently advised that cannabis is a harmful drug that poses a real threat to individual health and to society. There is clear evidence that it can produce physical harms as well as immediate and long-term mental health harms. It can worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

However, there remains considerable uncertainty about the role that cannabis plays in the onset of psychotic illness and the increased risk to mental health from the use of stronger cannabis—commonly known as skunk—which is more so if young people start to use at an early age or binge-smoke. The council’s view is that the evidence has become more, rather than less, confused over the past few years but, in the words of the council, the possibility of increased harm “cannot be denied”. Young people must be protected, particularly where there is such uncertainty. Efforts need to be made to encourage abstinence, particularly among those with underlying mental health problems.

Against this background of uncertainty, we have clear evidence that skunk, with an average potency of 16 per cent, now dominates in the UK with a market share of 80 per cent of street-seized cannabis, compared with an estimated 30 per cent in 2002. This increase is the result of a massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis by organised crime groups.

As the House will be aware, in April 2008 the advisory council reported to Government that based on its assessment of harm, the majority of the council’s members took the view that cannabis should remain a class C drug. I wish to make it clear that we do not dispute the council’s findings on harm, nor have we rejected its advice on classification lightly. However, within the statutory process, there are distinct roles and responsibilities. It is the role of the council to

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provide advice on harms and for the Government to consider that advice, take an overview and make a decision based on all the relevant factors, including wider issues such as public perceptions and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. It is then for Parliament, as it does today, to scrutinise that decision and ultimately change our law.

Reclassification is only one of our actions. In accepting the 20 other recommendations made by the advisory council, we continue to implement our comprehensive public-health-based programme of work to tackle cannabis ranging from education through to specialist treatment. This sits within our new 10-year drug strategy. We will continue to pursue all routes, whether through campaigns, guidance or research, to make progress to further reduce the use of cannabis, increase awareness among young people of the harm that cannabis can cause, and provide rapid access to effective treatment to those who are dependent on it.

The FRANK drug awareness campaign plays a crucial role in empowering young people with the knowledge of the effects of drugs use. Over the past five years of FRANK, the availability and quality of advice to young people has greatly improved. Recent research confirms that FRANK is now recognised by 89 per cent of 11 to 21 year-olds. It is also vital that parents are central to our efforts to educate children and young people about cannabis. Parents are now a core audience for FRANK. We will launch the new phase of our FRANK cannabis campaign in the new year through a variety of media channels including television, radio and online advertising.

In agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers, we are stepping up our enforcement response to cannabis. Those who produce and supply cannabis should be left in no doubt of our intentions. We are already bearing down on organised crime groups involved in cultivation, with the latest statistics showing a significant increase in the number of seizures; most notably, the number of cannabis plants seized has increased by 65 per cent, up to 80,000 seizures, between 2005 to 2006-07. This action will be stepped up through the joint efforts of ACPO and the Serious Organised Crime Agency with better understanding of the problem, co-ordination, intelligence-sharing and targeting of organised criminal groups.

The activities of these criminals and their use of trafficked children will not be tolerated. By shutting down so-called cannabis farms, we will reduce the availability of stronger cannabis in our communities, disrupt organised crime, ensure that these criminals face long sentences and, where appropriate in the case of foreign nationals, are deported. We will further create a more hostile environment for those selling cannabis seeds, cultivation equipment and paraphernalia for illicit purposes. Practice advice on how existing legislation and powers can be used more effectively by the police, local authorities and other partners through local, targeted action will be provided by the National Policing Improvement Agency in March 2009.

To reinforce how serious we are about the harm of cannabis to individuals, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has accepted ACPO’s proposals

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for a strengthened and escalating enforcement approach for possession in England and Wales, targeted at adult repeat offenders. Positive action must be taken when someone is found in possession. We want to ensure that police officers exercise discretion where appropriate and that police bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. However, it is not acceptable for someone to receive more than one warning or for individuals repeatedly to flout the law without any sanction.

Subject to the introduction of penalty notices for disorder, PNDs, for cannabis possession by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice, and notwithstanding that arrest must always be considered, a person caught in possession will face an escalated response, with the likelihood of a cannabis warning for a first offence, a PND, which imposes an immediate and financial criminal penalty, for a second offence, and a third offence normally resulting in arrest with the prospect of further action. Subsequent offences are likely to result in arrest. This provides incremental sanctions and a better deterrent, with a potential positive impact on an offender’s behaviour but without unnecessarily criminalising people. It provides an enforcement policy which will bring those whose offending continues unabated before the courts.

Effective recording is important. PNDs for cannabis possession will be recorded on the police national computer. The new PentiP fixed penalty database due to be available from 2010 will have a facility also to record cannabis warnings. Until then, it is the responsibility of individual forces to determine how they record cannabis warnings. ACPO will ensure that all forces are fully aware of the importance of more accurately recording cannabis warnings locally.

Young people under 18 will continue to be dealt with under the statutory process set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This already offers formal escalation, with a referral at any stage to a youth offending team for a substance misuse assessment and an appropriate intervention.

Class B status reflects the significant increase in both the market share of higher-than-average-potency cannabis and its actual potency. It takes full account of known risks and uncertain impacts on health, where the evidence may not be clear for some years. Accompanied by our information campaign and strengthened enforcement, it reinforces our national message that cannabis is harmful and illegal and helps to drive enforcement priorities to tackle commercial cultivation. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear that there is a compelling case for us to act now to reclassify rather than risk the future health of the next generation. Where there is a clear and serious problem, we must err on the side of caution. We make no apology for that. I commend the change proposed in the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13 October be approved. 28th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord West of Spithead.)

Baroness Meacher rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “but this House calls on Her Majesty’s Government to follow the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse

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of Drugs that cannabis should remain a class C drug and to delay implementing the order pending a further review by the advisory council”.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, our amendment calls on the Government to do two things: first, to follow the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that cannabis should remain a class C drug; and, secondly, to delay implementing the order pending a further review by the advisory council.

I draw your Lordships’ attention to a letter published in the Guardian today which urges Peers to maintain the trend to evidence-based policy-making by supporting my amendment. The letter is signed by a formidable selection of Britain’s scientific establishment, including two former government chief scientific advisers. There is a long list of people, including, for example, the chair of the Academy of Medical Science’s working group on brain science, addiction and drugs, and also the president of the Royal College of Physicians. That is to name just a few of the people on the list. One would think that they might have a good grip on the scientific evidence on this issue.

So how did we get here? In July 2007, the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the classification of cannabis. The council undertook what it describes as,

None of us denies that there are certain harms connected with cannabis, but the council concluded that,

The advisory council therefore recommended, as the Minister said, that cannabis should remain a class C drug. It also recommended convening a further review of cannabis in two years’ time.

The order flies in the face of all this international evidence and, of course, the recommendations of the advisory council. I have always regarded our Prime Minister as a person who respects science and wants policy to be evidence-based. I appeal to him directly to heed our words today and, more particularly, those of his scientific advisers, and even at this late stage to defer implementing this order, pending a further review.

What, then, is the evidence? The Beckley Foundation found that despite the contemporary patterns of cannabis use—that is, the widespread use of skunk—the harms caused are modest by comparison with those of other illegal drugs or, indeed, alcohol. We all know perfectly well that alcohol is far more dangerous than cannabis. Alcohol abuse leads to violence, suicide, liver cirrhosis, mental illness, dependence, addiction and lasting effects on the foetus. In marked contrast, the only health effect of cannabis referred to in the Government’s Statement on the reclassification is the possible causal link with schizophrenia.

Studies of trends in cannabis use and psychosis over time form the most reliable research on this issue. The rest of the research, to be honest, is very confused and difficult to understand, with many key issues not taken into account. However, if there were a significant causal relationship from cannabis use to psychosis, you would expect—and would, in fact, find—a steep increase in cannabis use over time to coincide with a

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clear increase in the incidence of psychoses. The research has shown no such finding. We can therefore be confident that there is no significant risk of that kind.

The conclusion of the advisory council is that if there is a link, it is so weak that to reduce the incidence of schizophrenia by one single case it would be necessary to prevent 5,000 men or 20,000 women ever smoking cannabis. But will reclassification achieve even this minuscule result? No, it will not. There is not a shred of evidence that tougher penalties under class B would achieve even a reduction in the incidence of schizophrenia by one single person. Four studies in Australia produced strong results supporting this assertion.

We discussed this issue with the noble Lord, Lord West, and I am most grateful to him for meeting us. The important point is that these longitudinal studies adjust for differences across states. It is striking that in the more lenient states the level of cannabis use grows significantly more slowly than in those with strong criminal penalties. We can only assume that the states which saw cannabis as a public health problem—which is what it is—rather than something to be demonised, had better public health campaigns. This finding was replicated in the UK: after the downward reclassification of cannabis from class B to C, the use of cannabis fell more quickly—it had already been falling a little—than had been the case under the tougher penalties of class B.

The advisory council rightly points out that, whatever the criminal justice measures, they will have only a limited effect on the usage of the drug. The UK Drug Policy Commission goes further, saying:

“Domestic and international evidence suggests there is no direct link between the enforcement of drug law controls and the prevalence of drug use”.

It continues:

“It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that reclassification back to Class B would have the desired effect of further deterring young people from using cannabis”.

Reclassification of cannabis to class B, according to all those scientists, will achieve no significant positive results.

5.15 pm

The order will, however, cause serious, lifelong damage to tens of thousands of young people. About 46 per cent of our 20 to 24 year-olds have taken cannabis, and a very large but declining number of those people will continue to take it, though in decreasing numbers over the years, regardless of the class of drug. The evidence is perfectly clear on that.

The Government’s statement emphasises that police officers will be able to arrest for a first offence, albeit that the Minister has suggested that it will not be the norm, and that penalties for adults from the age of 18 must be escalated following any cannabis warning.

The research evidence shows that criminalising regimes generate employment problems for about a third of those penalised. That compares with an employment effect on only 2 per cent with civil penalties. More and more employers regard an enhanced CRB check as a necessity. This will of course reveal cannabis infringements. Young people will be excluded from jobs. Relationship difficulties and homelessness will also increase, according

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to the research. A more criminalising regime will simply add to the social consequences of our deepening recession.

I shall respond briefly to a few points made by the Minister. He mentioned that, despite upgrading cannabis to class B, the Government will not for the time being increase the penalties for children. The tougher penalties and criminalisation will take effect from the 18th birthday. Does that mean that the Government accept the argument that cannabis is not dangerous, and that it is not right to criminalise children for a relatively harmless activity? If so, might not those arguments apply also to people aged 18?

The Government’s statement focuses mainly on the need for tougher action against cannabis suppliers. This order is not necessary for such action. The maximum penalties for the supply of class B or class C drugs are the same: 14 years’ imprisonment or a fine. The Government have argued that the public want to see cannabis use taken more seriously. When I talked to the Minister in the other place, that was the only argument that he was left with by the time we had finished our discussion. However, a public attitude survey published in the Observer nine days ago showed that, although the public’s attitude to drugs in general has hardened, they do not support raising the class of cannabis from C to B.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs rightly said that it hopes that,

That is the scientific view of this matter. With cannabis at class C since 2004, the Government have achieved a steady fall in the number of people taking the drug. I urge them to continue that approach, to listen to their own scientists, to act on the evidence and to avoid any further costly criminalisation of young people. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert “but this House calls on Her Majesty’s Government to follow the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that cannabis should remain a Class C drug and to delay implementing the order pending a further review by the Advisory Council.”—(Baroness Meacher.)

Lord Richard: My Lords—

Lord Waddington: My Lords—

Lord Cobbold: My Lords—

Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, let us start with the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in the attitude she is adopting towards this order. I have only three points to make, and I shall make them, I hope, relatively briefly.

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I was fascinated by the Minister’s speech. With what he said about the enforcement of the law against cannabis suppliers I have no problem at all; indeed, it is absolutely admirable. Where the weak point came in his case was the linkage between the action that he suggests the authorities should take against cannabis supply and the classification of cannabis in the Act. Whether it is classified B or C does not seem to make a great deal of difference; it does not make any difference at all with regard to the actions that the Minister is contemplating.

On the proposal to re-grade cannabis from class C to B, it is worth looking at the maximum penalties. For a class B drug there is a penalty of five years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine for possession. For supplying, there is a 14-year imprisonment and/or a fine. For class C drugs the number of years’ imprisonment for possession is reduced from five to two, while the proposal for an unlimited fine remains unchanged and the penalties for supplying are precisely the same. Not only is that what the law says, but the way in which many people brought before the courts are dealt with also indicates that the penalties for class B and C do not differ greatly. In many courts, one has had the experience—and I see people in this Chamber with greater experience of this than me—that a sentence of three months for possession of a class B or C drug is probably about the tariff. For supplying, the penalties will be considerably greater.

That similarity between the punishments for class B and C drugs raises one immediate question: why is this being proposed now? I did not hear anything in the Minister’s speech that answered that question. Why is this the moment to reclassify the drug? I assume that the argument must be deterrence. We heard a certain amount from the Minister about the declaratory function of law, that it was important that the law should declare this. I have never been a great one for regarding the law as having a massive declaratory function; it should have a functional function. Merely to declare that the drug should be class B rather than class C does not seem to take the argument much further. If the argument is, in essence, deterrence, is it seriously argued that, if the penalty is two years for possession rather than five, it will encourage people to use the drug? Is it seriously argued from the other side that, if the penalty is five rather than two years, it is actually going to deter people from using the drug? I just do not believe it. All the evidence is in the opposite direction.

The practical evidence, such as it is, seems to discount that basic assumption. There have been a number of recent studies of cannabis use in places where the laws on cannabis were liberalised, which seemed to indicate that states that introduced reforms did not experience a greater increase in cannabis use among adults or adolescents. Secondly, these studies established that increased cannabis use was actually greater in those states in which it was criminalised to a larger extent, and the greatest proportion of increased use was in the states with the severest penalties of all. The third thing that these studies showed was that liberalisation states did not show more favourable attitudes towards cannabis use than those maintaining a strict prohibition with criminal penalties. Finally, decriminalisation of cannabis

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in 12 states was actually accompanied by a significant decrease in A&E episodes involving drugs other than cannabis and an increase in cannabis episodes. Since cannabis was decriminalised, drug users tended to stay with the use of cannabis and move away from the use of more harmful illegal drugs.

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