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It is interesting to note that, while cannabis use is apparently going down, the amounts being seized by the police and circulating in the system appear to be going up. Do we take it that fewer people are smoking more? I do not think so. We just need a bit of healthy scepticism.

The Government talked about the public attitude. I was completely fascinated by the Statement made in another place, which was repeated in your Lordships’ House on 7 May, when the Minister, in col. 616, referred to a report stating that 58 per cent of the people in this country were in favour of returning cannabis to class B. It stretches my credulity a little that 58 per cent of people in this country really understand the difference between classes C and B. I have spoken to policemen, magistrates and people involved in the drugs field and most of them do not understand the difference. The idea that 58 per cent of British people are hanging on this evening’s debate is difficult to accept.

More important, the advisory council’s report, which is backed up by quite a lot of data, suggests that most people realise that cannabis is illegal. The figure for those who do not is about 4 per cent, which is not bad. Quite a lot of people think that driving through town at 60 miles an hour is legal. You cannot expect people

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to get everything right. We find that the vast majority of people in this country accept that cannabis is harmful. Of course it is. They do not know the details, but most people do not know the details about these things.

The bit that frightens me about all these debates is when the Government start talking about sending messages. If I were a schoolteacher, which thank God I am not—and thanks from the children, too, I should think—the first thing that I would say to every child is: do not believe any government message you are ever told by any Government. The idea that children, young people and adults in Britain are hanging on every message that the Government send out is absurd. The Government are not a PR company; I know that they think that they are and behave as such sometimes, but they are not a PR machine. The purpose of government is to adopt policies that are right for the British people even, occasionally, when they do not sound very nice. Brave Governments do brave things. This evening, the Government are doing a cowardly thing.

The key to our debate is in that horrible, oft used phrase “evidence-based policy”. When a Minister asks for that, he is really saying, “Will some expert give me the answer to the problem that has just arrived on my desk? I don’t want to do what you have elected me to do, which is to exercise my political judgment. I am feeling a bit chicken”. The answer is not usually available, because it is a recent problem and the research has not been done.

To a certain extent, I am on the side of Ministers, because nowadays some of these problems are so tricky that you cannot expect everyone to know the answer to every difficult problem that crosses his desk. Parliament recognised that when it passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We set up the advisory council to produce the information about cannabis and classification that no Minister could be expected to know. That is why what is happening today is so extraordinary.

The chronology is that the Prime Minister, who has never made a speech or written about drugs, or declared a particular interest in this area of policy—I have done some research—suddenly announced that he was reclassifying cannabis from C to B. Presumably somebody told him the rules and, about four days later, the Home Secretary said that she would be consulting the advisory council, so we have the council’s report. The Prime Minister made his decision without any evidence from the advisory council. I suspect that the only evidence that he had came from, say, the Daily Mail or from somebody who lived next door. I have no idea where it came from, but it certainly did not come from the advisory council. He got it wrong, so I suspect that to avoid judicial review of his decision he got the Home Secretary to put out a Statement and the advisory council to do its report, which turned the policy back the right way.

The reality is that this is the Prime Minister’s decision. We read it in the newspapers long before it came to your Lordships’ House from another place. If the Minister wants to satisfy the real concerns that have been raised in this debate, he needs to explain to this House exactly why the Government have overruled the advisory council’s strong evidence and exactly why the Prime Minister thinks that he knows more about

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cannabis, its strengths and medical consequences than all the experts who are paid to advise him and his Home Secretary. I do not think that this is the biggest deal in the world; I do not think that anybody cares much whether cannabis is classified C or B. However, on balance, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is right and the Government are wrong.

6 pm

Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, I rise to support the Government, perhaps exceptionally on some of these matters. I voted and spoke with my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids against the downgrading. In my professional life, I have seen so many changes in the way that possession of cannabis is handled, from very strictly in my earlier years to the current extremely lax way. At this hour, I am not going to enter into the degree of harm—after all, it is only a question of degree—but what happened when cannabis was downgraded in 2004 was that the priorities of the police were altered. Legislation was introduced in the face of opposition from the Member of Parliament for Vauxhall, Miss Kate Hoey, who knew about the problem in Lambeth. I have a house in Lambeth, and I have seen the problem for myself on the streets. The change created an expanding market for cannabis, which was tolerated. With those few words, I support the Government in their change of heart.

Lord Rea: My Lords, it should be pointed out that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is a bit different from the advisory councils that other departments use. It was expressly created by Section 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which requires that any Order in Council, such as the one we are debating, making amendments to the list of drugs controlled by the Act may be made only after consultation with or on the recommendation of the ACMD. As many noble Lords have pointed out, the order we are debating directly contradicts a recommendation by the ACMD, even though the Government expressly asked it for its opinion on reclassification from class C to class B last July. The Government are overruling a statutory body set up to advise them. The ACMD is uniquely qualified by its membership and remit to make such a recommendation about classification.

In this case, it has carefully gathered, sifted and analysed a large amount of evidence. Some of the evidence covers the link between cannabis and psychotic illness, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who made a moving speech. On this issue, the ACMD report states:

“On balance, the Council considers that the evidence points to a probable, but weak, causal link between psychotic illness and cannabis use. Whether such a causal link will become stronger with the wider use of higher potency cannabis products remains uncertain”.

It recommends a further review of cannabis in two years’ time when it anticipates that further information will become available specifically relating to the causal relationship between cannabis use and psychosis and whether the stronger cannabis preparations now available are more likely to precipitate psychosis. That is not yet confirmed, although it is a hypothesis. That is one of the main reasons why a further review is suggested.

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As other noble Lords have said, it will not follow from reclassification to class B that cannabis use will go down. The signal claim is that skunk or sinsemilla—the female flower before fertilisation—is much stronger than the resin or the leaf. Skunk or sinsemilla—“without seeds”—has almost no cannabidiol, which is an important component of cannabis. It is thought that it has a calming effect. It is a little bit like some antipsychotic drugs in its effect. The form of cannabis with a higher proportion of cannabidiol is less likely to cause psychosis. That needs to be much further investigated, which is why a further review was recommended by the ACMD.

One reason why use will not drop if cannabis is reclassified to class B is that heavy or dependent users will continue to use it. They will take risks to obtain their illegal drug supplies and are less likely to seek medical help when they need it because of fear of prosecution for possession. Costs to the police will inevitably rise. Although applying an £80 fine does not seem very much, across the board, police costs are bound to rise.

During 25 years in an inner London practice, I dealt with many patients with drug and alcohol problems, but I rarely had to treat anyone because of their cannabis use. Some heavy users of cannabis were temporarily mentally slowed sometimes, and that affected their performance at work, school or university, but they usually came to the doctor for reasons unrelated to their cannabis use—perhaps partly because cannabis was not available on prescription. Death as a result of cannabis is extremely rare and occurs only in combination with alcohol or other drugs. On the other hand, in my practice, several heroin or multidrug users died from overdoses, or developed abscesses, thromboses or HIV infection from the use of contaminated or dirty needles.

To reflect the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the addictive substances that cause far and away the most harm are tobacco and alcohol, both of which are perfectly legal and are not classified as drugs at all. They are loosely, perhaps too loosely, regulated, as the trail of death and destruction left by tobacco and the social mayhem caused by alcohol when it is abused far outweighs that of all narcotic drugs taken together; but that is a topic for another debate.

I very much hope that my noble friend will be able to take the order away, as suggested by my noble friend Lady Meacher. If he cannot, I will support her in the Lobby if she decides to divide the House.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I shall briefly take the issue slightly away from the scientific discussion and the question of who is worse and who is better than whom. I remind the House that the former Prime Minister reminded us that we were at war on drugs before we were at war on terrorism.

In war, you must identify your principal enemies and take action against them. I have been privileged, if that is the word, to see some of those enemies in Her Majesty's prisons, people who have made vast amounts of money—millions of pounds—from preying on our young people by selling drugs such as cannabis, with which they have successfully ruined their lives. Unless

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we take the war to the people who are really causing the problem, we divert ourselves from the main purpose of Acts such as the Misuse of Drugs Act.

For 30 years now, we have tried to fight drugs by not going down the route that the Americans had to go down in the 1920s when they realised that prohibition was wrong. Prohibition is not working; we all know that. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, wondered what the motives were behind this measure. The Prime Minister’s one utterance on drugs that I have heard was that prohibition remains the policy of this Government. We will not crack this problem of drugs—if that is not a pun too far—without thinking the unthinkable and going down routes that include legislation, decriminalisation and all that goes with that. Unless we do something like that, we will only make the situation worse by doing more of the same.

One reason why I am strongly behind my noble friend Lady Meacher on this issue is that I hate the thought of large numbers of our young people being wrongly criminalised for being in possession of cannabis, with all that a police record means for their future. Therefore, in a way, the amendment is irrelevant to the war in which we are engaged. I simply hope that if the Prime Minister is basking in the reflected glory of leading the world out of the credit crunch, he swallows his words about prohibition and sets about leading us out of the drugs crunch.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, when we get to the nub of the issue at hand, we find ourselves in a rather odd situation, with the Government’s appointed advisory body in disagreement with the Government’s policy. This year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—I declare that I sit on the council as a sub-committee co-opted member—carefully considered the evidence against a framework of harms. The conclusion was that, overall, the harms caused by cannabis to individuals matched more closely those of drugs in class B. I also declare that I am on the UK Drug Policy Commission.

Yes, cannabis has adverse long-term effects, with social as well as health implications. The moving speech of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, demonstrated these clearly. They were considered as part of the ACMD’s framework, and the decision to go against its advice strikes a blow at the credibility of the whole process of classification. As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, we are dealing with shades of wrong when we deal with drugs.

Downgrading cannabis from class B to class C did not send an adverse message—cannabis in the UK has continued to decline—so what will the reclassification achieve? The Minister outlined the police actions proposed, but will this alter the maximum sentences for production, trafficking or dealing? Will these sentences remain the same as they are under the class C classification?

Discussion of cannabis is heated and political and acts like a lightening rod for media headlines, so sober and objective scrutiny of scientific evidence is essential. In fact, it is really all that we have. Public opinion is not helpful. It is notoriously difficult to assess, it depends on the question put, and it is led more by media headlines than by the science.

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We need a review of the entire drug classification system to ensure that it is fit for purpose and that future decisions are truly independent and evidence-based. The system was established in 1971 in the Misuse of Drugs Act and was meant to provide a simple framework for sentencing. It may now be appropriate to classify drugs in different ways for different purposes. It may, for instance, be appropriate to consider the levels of societal harm when determining social or criminal policy and the levels of harm to health when determining health policy. Let us not forget that some use cannabis to relieve the symptoms of their physical illness, such as multiple sclerosis or during chemotherapy, but, sadly, some with early mental health problems dangerously self-medicate with it.

In the past decade, several reports have pointed to the need for a review of classification. It was promised and then shelved by the Government in 2006. It is long overdue, so now is not the time to play ping-pong with the classification of a dangerous substance. That is why I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Meacher.

6.15 pm

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I wish to reassure the Minister that there is some support on these Benches for the Government’s proposal and that there is some opposition to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. If my noble friend Lord Tomlinson was here, he would share my view. In November 2003, we spoke against the then proposed statutory instrument to declassify cannabis from class B to class C. Unusually, there was a Division against the statutory instrument. But, at the 11th hour and 59th minute, we pulled back and did not vote against it, although we were very much exercised as to whether or not we should.

We were against it because we believed that the change would create confusion in the minds and the perception of the public, including among young people and the police. It could be argued that that confusion has not been created, but there is confusion in spades around cannabis, as we have heard from a variety of quarters, particularly in relation to the effects on health.

Let me labour this point a little: in 2003, perhaps most importantly, we were strongly opposed to the change in classification because we believed that the cannabis on sale, being advertised and increasingly being used in the UK was different from that which many noble Lords talked about so gently when they referred back to that which they knew as students in the 1970s and 1980s. The big difference that has taken place, which my noble friend did not address, is the changing strength of cannabis and how that is having an effect.

I asked my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland a number of questions about the strength of cannabis. After she had consulted the appropriate bodies, she replied that, from the samples pulled in by the police, there was no evidence that the cannabis was any stronger than it used to be. I could not understand why I had been complaining, but I had looked on the internet and had constantly seen on a widening scale the advertising of stronger and stronger cannabis readily available for purchase.

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It is now generally agreed that the cannabis being used and being smoked in this country is stronger. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will address one big change that has taken place: since 2003, according to all the evidence, much more cannabis is being grown in this country. We should be asking why it is now being grown on this scale. There are a variety of reasons, but I should like to put the point that it may be the declassification of cannabis from class B to class C.

As technology develops and as people continue to deal and experiment with these plants and grow them in stronger forms, I should like to ask those who oppose the Minister’s line when there will be greater acceptance of the fact that we are dealing with a different drug entirely from that of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a much graver issue than people have recognised and we should not liken this cannabis to a recreational drug with few dangers.

According to the police, more and more people involved in accidents have drugs, including cannabis, in their bloodstream. We are now at a point where some action probably has to be taken. We could say that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous in their wider effects, but let us look at what we are doing. The Government have introduced legislation on tobacco that prohibits its smoking in enclosed areas, and we are starting to see the results, showing that legislation does work. On alcohol, we have to ask if we are content with the present laws. If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, would alcohol be available in the way it is at the moment? I suspect that that would not be the case. Indeed, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that when the strength of alcoholic drinks is doubled, people respond to them differently. When the alcohol content of wine increases from 11 per cent, the level at which it was generally drunk, to 14 per cent, people get very drunk, but they are not always aware of what is happening to them. The strength of the drink and the size of the measure have an impact. I suspect that these issues on alcohol will have to be addressed in legislative terms in due course.

I come back to where we stand with the recommendation of the advisory committee and the amendment. I think that the Government are right to reject the advice and I know they have not done it lightly. But the Government and we as politicians—admittedly not accountable in this House, as in the other place—have to take into account public perceptions in this area. The Government also have to take into account the increasing availability of stronger and more potent cannabis through the massive growth in commercial cultivation by organised crime groups in this country, as well as the needs and consequences of policing priorities. I hope that at the end of this helpful debate, the House will be prepared to stand by the Government’s recantation of their earlier position and their acceptance that perhaps they did not quite get it right in 2003. We should reject the amendment and so support the Government’s instrument.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I thought that a brief anecdote might be of interest to noble Lords. Some 10 years ago I was invited on to the programme, “Have I Got News

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For You”. Not long before I had said in public that I was pro the legalisation of drugs. The man chairing the programme, Mr Deayton, who I think later had to resign when he was caught using cocaine, said in a perky way, “Of course, Lord Onslow, you are pro drugs, aren’t you?”. I answered by saying, “I am going to respond to the question seriously because the issue is too important for flippancy. Drugs are by far the greatest social problem in this country and they result in the greatest amount of crime”.

The policy we have in place at the moment obviously does not work. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. He ought to be listened to very carefully by the senior service in their places on the Front Bench. If we go on with our present drugs policies, the prisons will be full and we will produce markets for the ungodly to get rich, and thus continue to cause serious social damage. Incidentally, the whole audience clapped loudly and clearly at my answer. To think that the public take the view of the Prime Minister is not very well informed.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, the issue raised by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as to the case in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs is a wholly fascinating one, but with the greatest respect, it is not the issue that confronts the House in the context of this order. The issue is in fact a narrow one. There is no question of whether the penalties in relation to the importation of cannabis, the growing of cannabis, the sale and trafficking of cannabis or possession with the intention to supply cannabis should be changed at all—the maxima remain exactly as before. All that is suggested is that there should be changes to the maxima relating to possession. That is the practical effect on the maxima of a change from class C to class B for the simple possession of cannabis. The maxima under class C were two years’ imprisonment on indictment and three months’ imprisonment in the magistrates’ courts. That has not changed. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, did not make that point although it strengthens that part of his case. Indeed, there is no change whatever in regard to children and young persons under 18 years of age. So the only practical statutory change is a change in maxima which were seldom or ever used.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, it is not only that; it also affects police procedure and at what point you appear on the police national computer. The point at which you appear on an enhanced CRB check will come earlier under the new rules if it is reclassified as class B. This means that we will criminalise more people of the up-and-coming generation, which will prohibit them from working with children and mentoring and coaching children and youth teams in hockey and so on; they will never be able to work with the police, join the TA, join the Army or work in the legal profession; they will be prevented from obtaining American passports and visas without a lot of trouble; and, in certain cases, they will be unable to work in financial institutions.

The consequence of bringing forward the point at which you appear on the police national computer without a proper criminal record is much more serious

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than people realise. The enhanced CRB checks are now being used more widely for more purposes. It used to be that you had to be prosecuted and you either accepted a reprimand or a caution; that is no longer the case.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I take the noble Earl’s point. There may well be wider consequences of an administrative nature than under the old system, but I stick to the point that the statutory effect of the maxima penalties will be very small indeed. The harsher penalties in relation to the other offences remain exactly the same.

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