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One must look at the evidence on this; there is no point in looking at this very difficult problem on the basis of not liking the effects of cannabis supply. A study of the social impact of civil versus criminal penalties found that those penalised under the criminalised regime of Western Australia were more likely than those in the more liberal state of South Australia to report adverse employment consequences, further contact with the criminal justice system, relationship problems and accommodation difficulties that could be attributed to their apprehension for the cannabis offence. There is a consensus that the de facto legalisation of cannabis use in the Netherlands has not, in itself, led to increased cannabis use among adults or young people.
If there is no evidence that greater penalties act as a deterrent, and the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction, are there any other reasons for the reclassification? We have heard a little about the medical evidence. I will not go into it in any great detail because neither am I qualified nor is there time in this short debate, but the medical evidence is, at its highest, equivocal. It is said that there is a causal relationship between cannabis use and the subsequent development of psychotic symptoms, particularly schizophrenia. There have been various studies on that. A recent Australian study, for example, concluded that, despite a rise in the prevalence of cannabis use, there was no evidence of a significant increase in schizophrenia. Again, one has to ask the same question I asked earlier on: why do this now? What is the urgency for this reclassification in the face of the evidence that we have?
Finally, there is the recommendation of the Governments own advisory council that cannabis remain a class B drug. It is not binding on the Government. An advisory council report does not commit the Government to do anything and it is not binding on any Administration. I totally accept that. But it is strong persuasive evidence, which the Government should ignore, in my view, only if there is clear evidence to the contrary. There is not. I therefore come to the conclusion that the Government really should have another look at this.
I do not intend to vote. Perhaps I should make my position clear: if there is a vote, I do not intend voting, not because of anything to do with this particular order but on the basis of my experience as Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the House at one time that this House does not divide on orders. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot follow my noble friend Lady Meacher into the Lobbies if there is a Division; however, I shall be there in spirit with her, let me put it that way.
The merits of the argument are clear. There is no good reason why this reclassification of cannabis should take place now. Indeed, the evidence, such as it is, is in favour of leaving it exactly as it is at the moment. The noble Baronesss amendment points the way forward. We should not take this decision now. The advisory council should have another look at the matter and
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Shortly before 23 November 2003, when the House passed the order making cannabis a class C drug, an event occurred that perhaps throws some light on the attitude of too many people claiming to be champions of the young. Almost unbelievably, Connexions, an advice centre set up by the Department for Education and Skills, published a pamphlet treating cannabis use almost as if it were a joke. The pamphlet said that cannabis makes you feel relaxed, chilled out, giggly, sociable, chatty and likely to get an attack of the munchies. That was the advice put out by that advisory body. But cannabis was not then, and is not now, a suitable subject for a good giggle. In 2003 it was already all too obvious that it was not the recreational, relatively harmless and non-addictive drug talked about by some. It was already well known as a substance that was dangerous and mind-altering in effect. It is no use the noble Lord shaking his head. Research by the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands had already shown that people who used cannabis were nearly three times more likely than non-users to develop psychotic disorders.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord; perhaps I can answer him. There is a mass of scientific evidence showing that if there is a causal link, it is a very tenuous one and the number of people involved is very small. I think that the noble Lord should go and read the report of the advisory council.
Lord Waddington: That was a surprising intervention, my Lords. I think that the noble Lord will appreciate when he has heard my address that I spent rather more time studying this than he appears to have done.
I referred to the position in 2003. Despite the evidence at that time, Ministers were determinedand, judging by the Home Office press release of 23 October 2001, determined, before they even got the views of the advisory councilto put cannabis in the same category as tranquilisers. They were happy to risk young people thinking that they could smoke it without risk. It really is of some significance. You can see from that press release that at that time, back in 2001, the Government were minded to go ahead. They said that they thought that classifying cannabis as a class C drug would be the right approach and were hoping that the advisory council would agree with them.
On 12 November 2003 I told the House that, two months earlier, the newspapers had reported the suicide of Charles King, a student of 23 who developed a mental illness induced by cannabis use. He left a note before he died saying,
I have to tell your Lordships that I personally know only too well that cannabis does ruin people's lives. It has come close to ruining the life of someone very close to me who has suffered from schizophrenia as a result of cannabis use. That is the diagnosis. So, do not tell me that cannabis is pretty harmless.[Official Report, 12/11/03; col. 1484.]
I confess that I have gone on about this for many years. On 28 January 2003 I drew attention to evidence published in the British Medical Journal which established a clear link between cannabis use and psychiatric illness. I returned to the charge on 14 January 2004. I said that it was madness to put cannabis in the same category as tranquilisers and tell young people it was relatively harmless when Professor Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry and the Maudsley Hospital was saying at that time that cannabis use was the leading problem faced by the countrys mental health serviceswhen Professor Murray was telling us all that inner-city psychiatric services were nearly at crisis point, with up to 80 per cent of all psychotic cases having a history of cannabis use.
Professor Murray was supported by Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of Sane, a charity of which my wife was once a trustee. Marjorie told those prepared to listen that many psychiatric units had become little more than cannabis wards because of the huge number who had been turned psychotic by the drug, with patients with non-drug-related mental illness being turned away from such wards because of threats of violence from psychotic cannabis users.
In the following months, study after study in Holland, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden hammered home the message that use could cause schizophrenia, and few weeks passed without reports in the press of violent assaults and killings by cannabis users, and of users committing suicide. By now we had got to 2005 and an election was looming. Charles Clarke, who had succeeded David Blunkett as Home Secretary, ordered a new inquiry, but once the election was safely out of the way, all we got was an announcement that there was to be another campaign to warn people about cannabis use. The absurdity of that was pointed out by the former drugs tsar Keith Halliwell, who said that we now had a Government spending taxpayers money to highlight the dangers of their own policies. You cannot get dafter than that.
Eventually, common sense has prevailed. I support what the Government are doing but do not rejoice at some of the reasons given for the change of heart. It is said that cannabis has become stronger, but it had become very much stronger by 2003. Only the Government were refusing to accept the abundant evidence to that effect of people such as Dr Ian Oliver, independent consultant to the UN Drug Control Programme.
It is saidthe Home Secretary said this in her letter to the advisory councilthat new evidence now links cannabis use to mental health problems. Surprise, surprise; that link was absolutely obvious back in 2003. We all know about there being more joy in heaven over the one sinner who repenteth, and the Government should get praise, not brickbats, for bringing
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Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, I oppose the amendment. I do so as the former head of a drug squad with which I witnessed at first-hand the debilitating effects of cannabis misuse by young people and old people alike. I agree wholeheartedly with the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington.
The cannabis that I dealt with as a young detective many years ago was far less dangerous than the modern version. The level of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, in modern skunk cannabis is multiples higher than in the old form and therefore the modern form is stronger. Therein lies the danger to those who use it. Before 2004, cannabis was a class B drug. I opposed its reclassification then because it was not a less dangerous substance; it was more dangerous. We now have an opportunity to correct that mistake. We should confirm the change and reject the amendment.
I know that in January 2006 the classification was reconsidered by this body of the great and the good, the advisory council; again, I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about the council. I could produce a list of people who would put the opposite view; it would be as long as the Guardian list of eminent people, so I do not think that the Guardian list carries a great deal of value. Opinion is divided on this vexed subject. The vast majority of right-thinking people believe that the councils decision then was wrong.
Research shows that one in 10 cannabis users has unpleasant experiences, including confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia. Cannabis use also interferes with a persons capacity to concentrate, to organise information and to use it. Any drug that distorts perception is self-evidently dangerous, particularly when people use machinery or drive.
I cite the case of an acquaintance of mine, Lisa Voice, who lives in St Johns Wood. Three years ago, she was attacked by a house guest and dragged from her bed; her head was stamped on and she almost died. The house guest was described as having cannabis psychosis. He is serving a sentence in prison where, alas, he is still using cannabis, I understand.
In New Zealand, researchers found that those who smoked cannabis regularly and had smoked it before driving were more likely to be injured in a car crash. That might seem obvious. A recent study in France of more than 10,000 drivers involved in fatal car crashes found that, even with the influence of alcohol taken into account, users were more than twice as likely to be the cause of a fatal accident than be one of its victims.
Cannabis, as has been said, is linked to schizophrenia and psychosis. It was a dangerous drug when I was a young man and it is a far greater danger to society now, because of its increased strength. The lowering of its classification sent a signal to the youngworse still to the policethat it was not an important issue. It is an important issue and we owe it to the youngsters, who may be tempted to embark on the road to despair by taking cannabis, to illustrate clearly the danger of its use. We can do this by decisively rejecting the amendment.
Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Meacher. I, too, believe that the Government are wrong to seek to reclassify cannabis from class C to B against the advice of their own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Since cannabis was reclassified down from B to C there has been no increase in cannabis usageindeed, there has been a reduction in usageand there is no evidence that usage will be reduced by reclassification back from C to B. Cannabis is still used by more than 1 million people in this country and reclassification makes them all potential criminals. The higher the classification, the more the criminal fraternity can charge for supply and the greater the incentive for them to produce more potent forms of cannabis, as higher potency reduces the bulk, and hence the risk, associated with distribution.
The Council hopes that the government, parliament and the public appreciate that the use of cannabis is, ultimately, a public health problem; and that it requires a public health response if current use and the associated harms are to be substantially reduced.
The evidence for the supposed damaging effects of cannabis on mental health is inconclusive and further research is necessary. This is happening all over the world and it therefore makes sense for the Government to at least postpone reclassification pending the proposed further report by their advisory council in two years time. I hope that the Government can be persuaded to agree.
Lord Mancroft: My Lords, before coming here this evening, I took the trouble to read the debate that we had a few years ago, when we declassified cannabis. It was in many ways like our debate this eveningit was rather too emotional and not based on facts. I happened to believe at that time that the Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, was doing the right thing for the wrong reason; I happen to think this evening that the Government are doing the wrong thing for the right reason. It is important to look at that reason.
I listened with great care, as I always do, to my noble friend Lord Waddington. In difficult debates such as thisthis is clearly a difficult and confusing debate for a lot of peopleit is important to try to find the middle ground: the area on which we all agree. I suspect that the most important point on which all noble Lords agree is that on the whole we would like cannabis use to decrease, we would like all the harms associated with cannabis use to go and we would like to restrict crime. We can all agree on the bad bits of cannabis, and most noble Lords have done so. However, we have to debate how to do this and whether the methods that we are using are right.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, and my noble friend Lord Waddington, I, too, could tell noble Lords harrowing stories about peopleparticularly, young peoplewho have had tremendous problems as a consequence of cannabis use and who have been ill. I, too, know of people who have committed suicide as a consequence of their drug use, including cannabis use. I know that families and communities have been destroyed by cannabis use. However, in the groups of drugs that people take in this country, there is no getting away from the fact that alcohol and tobacco, neither of which is classified, have caused a great deal more harmI refer to mental health, physical health and the effect on families, communities and crimethan cannabis ever has. That is not to say that cannabis is good; cannabis is badit is probably very bad. But in my opinionI have worked for more than 25 years in providing treatment to drug addictsalcohol is significantly worse. We have to bear these things in mind. This is not about right and wrong; it is all about shades of grey and shades of rightness and wrongness.
The Minister talked about the tough measures that the Government will take when they move classification from C to BI have no doubt that they will succeed in doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made some powerful points about criminal law and cannabis. Despite what the Minister said, I do not think that this is really very tough. If you get stopped by a policeman, you can be warned in relation to cannabis, but that is not really very tough. If you get stopped a second time, you get fined. However, that policeman does not know that that is being done a second time because, as the noble Lord pointed out, most police forces do not register the first time. Unless you are stupid enough to be stopped by the same policeman, the police will not know that you are being stopped a second time, so you will not get a fine.
Let us think about how incredibly tough the Governments new penalty, which the noble Lord mentioned, will be. It is a fine of £80. Let us look for an equivalent. Most noble Lords spend time in Westminster. If you park your car on a yellow line, you get fined £40 and, if you forget to pay or you are on a double yellow line, you get fined £80. So this really tough Government believe that it is really tough to equate cannabis use to parking on a double yellow line. I do not think that that is tough at all. It is important to try to use the right language. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, research shows that throughout the world being toughusing criminal sanctions against drug users, particularly cannabis
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Let us look at the Governments reasons for doing what they are doing today. Most of them have been discussed, so we can nip through them quickly. The first concerns the strength of cannabis. The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, talked about the cannabis that he knew as a young policeman not being half as strong as the cannabis that we get now. That is true to a certain extent. Skunk has been around for 30 years, so it is not new, although it was not around very much.
Incidentally, we have skunk in Britain because of the Governments failure to control the drug market. Because people no longer wish to import it, 50 per cent of the cannabis smoked in Britain is home-grown. It is grown mainly by Vietnamese criminal gangs hydroponically under roofs, which leads to it becoming stronger. How much stronger is it? The United States drugs tsar said that it is 30 times strongerwell, Americans are allowed to exaggeratebut the science tells us that it is between two and a half and three times stronger. In your language and mine, that is the difference between beer and wine. It is a big deal but not that big a deal.
Furthermore, there is a concept that, because it is stronger, it is worse, but that is not true. If I am given a pint mug and it has brown liquid in it, I presume that it is beer. If I take a large mouthful and discover that it is whisky, which is rather stronger, I think to myself, I dont think Ill have so much. If you use alcohol, you get used to the strength and you know what is too much. Do your Lordships really think that all cannabis users are so stupid that they cannot work out how much to take? The advisory councils report makes it clearand the Government have acceptedthat cannabis is mixed with tobacco. People know how to mix it; they are not that stupid.
The other thing to bear in mindthe Government have produced this and the Home Office is very keen on itis called binge smoking. I have been in the drug treatment field for 25 years but I have never heard of binge smoking. There is a huge difference between binge drinking and binge smoking. If you binge drink, before you pass out you get to the nasty stage where you go around clouting policemen, smashing your car up and generally being a nuisance. If you smoke too much cannabis, you go to sleep. That is a bore but it is not a really big health hazard. Therefore, we should be careful about using the term binge smoking; it is a bit sensationalist.
We have talked a lot this evening, and rightly so, about the other reason why the Government are keen on reclassificationthat is, mental health problems. There is absolutely no doubtwe have known this for 30 yearsthat there is a strong causal link between cannabis and mental health problems. However, we now also know that cannabis does not cause mental health problems. If those who have a propensity for mental health problems, with the possibility of becoming psychotic, smoke cannabis, that will accelerate those problems. There is no doubt at all that cannabis linked to mental health problems is difficult to deal with and
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The Government are right to talk about the precautionary principle. We should always be careful when making changes. I do not think that this is a huge move, so there is not much to be precautionary about, but it is important to bear in mind the fact that, following the declassification of cannabis from B to C in, I believe, 2003, we have seen a decrease in cannabis use. Therefore, if the Government really intended to adopt the precautionary principle, they certainly would not be doing what they are doing today.
It is also true to say that you have to be careful about the numbers. Over the years in your Lordships House, I have noticed that, whichever Government are in powermy own party is just as guilty in thiswhen the numbers go up, the Minister says, You have to be careful. You mustnt trust the British Crime Survey; its not entirely accurate. However, when they go down, the Minister is frightfully keen to trumpet that and says, Its marvellous. Our policies are working. Therefore, I take the numbers with a pinch of salt, if not a large bowl of Saxa.
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