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In 1971, Parliament and society in general set their faces against cannabis. Some noble Lords will remember that gallant and splendid lady, Lady Wootton, whose humane and sensitive attitude towards society coloured the report she published at that time. It advocated the decriminalisation of cannabis, but that was refused by Parliament and by society at large. I was a Minister at the Home Office in 1969 when the Misuse of Drugs Bill was introduced. Indeed, I had the honour of taking that through the House of Commonsor, at least, partly through because, in 1970, before the Bill had completed all of its stages in the House of Commons, the electorate, very unhelpfully, decided that there should be a change of Government. The succeeding Government very gallantly reintroduced the same Bill in exactly the same words, the only difference being the name of Sir Richard Sharplesthat most splendid of men who was later soon to lose his life in the assassination in Bermudaas the Minister responsible. It was as bipartisan a piece of legislation as one could possibly get. The consequence was that stern penalties were introduced for the possession of cannabis.
For three or four years there was great disquiet at the fact that thousands upon thousands of young people were being made criminals and very often had to serve short periods of imprisonment for mere possession. Then, without any interference by Parliament, a British-type compromise was achieved. The police did not prosecute save where persons were defiant in their overt use of cannabis, and the courts did not incarcerate. Indeed, it became regarded as something more of a dead letterbut a dead letter that was useful in so far as it laid down a marker as to how seriously society regarded the offence but, at the same time, not bringing within the ambit of direct criminality hundreds of thousands of young people who otherwise might have suffered harsh penalties.
It was therefore very surprising that in 2004 Parliament changed a situation that had worked quite well for at least 30 years. The sanction was there but the actual punishment was not necessary in practice from day to day. I think that Parliament was wrong then; there may very well have been a desire to give a radical face to the Government, and I am quite certain that a mistake was made. Now that that mistake has been corrected, even though the Government are not admitting that they are coming to the stool of punishment, as it were, I believe it only right that this piece of delegated legislation should be supported.
I very much hope that sense will be exercised by the police, despite the policies that are announced, and by magistrates. It is magistrates, in the main, who will be dealing with these matters from day to day. It would be utterly disgraceful if, over the next few years, millions upon millions of young people were placed in jeopardy of incarceration on the basis of having perhaps on two or three occasions transgressed this particular law.
We are living in a society, are we not, where it is more and more popular for the tabloids especially to give the impression that the community at large is at war with its young people and to regard them with contempt and as worthy of castigation? That sort of chemistry has existed in every society; it was there in Greece and in Rome, and it is with us today. It is part of that chemical reaction between one generation and another. It may be part, too, of the ageing process that we all suffer from. Bernard Shaw said that youth was wasted on young people. There is a sourness in most of us, as we get older, in our attitude towards young people, but we must avoid the dangerous trap of incarcerating thousands upon thousands of young people and criminalising perhaps hundreds of thousands more when it is utterly unnecessary.
Nevertheless, marginally, I find myself in support of the Government. The point about skunk is substantial; I believe that the drug now being trafficked is a very different product from that which existed even five or 10 years ago. I believe that that will be a rising curve and that it is right and proper, therefore, that the Government should take this stance.
Lord Layard: My Lords, it seems to me that there is a very simple question. Five years ago the Government made a decision; is there any evidence that that decision has made things worse? I have not heard any. As far as we know, cannabis use has diminished. That is in line with what we would have forecast from the experience of other countries, so why reverse the decision? No compelling reasons have been given this evening for doing so.
The issue is not whether cannabis can cause harm. Of course it can, and there have been tragedies connected with its use, although there have been many more connected with alcohol. The issue in both cases is how to diminish the harm. The most important way is to get help to the people who need it. A major problem is that stricter criminal sanctions make it more difficult for people to get medical and psychological help. They will not come forward for help if what they have done is a criminal and an increasingly criminalised act. That is one of the real problems that will follow from changing the wise decision that was taken.
Another problem is illustrated by the previous speech. It is almost inevitable that the way in which stricter sanctions are applied will be patchy, variable and unpredictable. That does not do credit to the law and will not bring credit and repute to the police either. That is another major misfortune that will result.
One of the finest things about this Government has been their commitment to evidence-based policies, but that does not seem to be the case with this proposal. I therefore urge the Minister to think seriously about the possibility of postponing the order so that we can get the right decision.
Lord Adebowale: My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being present at the beginning of the discussionmy day job got in the way. I should declare an interest, first, as the chief executive of Turning Point, which is probably the second-largest provider of substance misuse services in the country after the NHS. It also provides mental health, learning disability and employment services. I feel like someone at an AA meeting in admitting, secondly, to being a member of the ACMD.
This has been one of the most fascinating but also one of the most frustrating of debates. The problem has been the contributions that have wavered between belief and fact or science. I note the point of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about public opinion, but if we were to make decisions, political or otherwise, based solely on the pillar of public opinion, I would not be here, we would never have got rid of slavery, and this House would not be here. The whole point of the establishment of ACMD was that the Government would not just go out and seek public opinion; they sought the opinion of a group of experts. I bow to the many experts on the ACMDI refer to the psychopharmacologists and otherswho produced more than 2,000 pages of evidence, which I read. I then read a carefully considered recommendation, which had taken into account public opinion, to the Government. It is astonishing that it has not been followed, regardless of whether we should legalise cannabis, which is not relevant to this debate.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, whose speech I did not hear although I have picked up the tenor of it, pushes her amendment to a vote, because I should like to express my opinion on the side of logic, common sense and science, and of the appropriate mix of public opinion with logic. Many points made during the debate assumed a direct causal link between cannabis and mental healthI cannot believe that any Member of the House believes that. If there is a linkwhich science shows there is notand the Government are forced to make cannabis class B or class A, will it make any difference to the unfortunate person who becomes psychotic as a result? It will do so only in fantasy land. However, the reality is that there is not a causal link, nor is there any evidence of a massive increase in high-strength cannabis. If the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, believes everything that he sees advertised on the internet, he must be a marketing mans dream.
I fully understand the beliefs of, and have some sympathy with, those who have spoken in the debate who have experienced the terrible impact of cannabis on young people. I strongly sympathise with the perception that cannabis, along with many other drugs, is ruining society. I have spent nearly 30 years of my life working with people who have complex needs, including substance misuse. However, this is not about belief; it is about the facts. The Government have to come up with a credible response to the research and the evidence presented by the ACMD such that they can justify ignoring its advice; otherwise they have to question the point of the ACMD.
I wasted many hours of my own time reading the reports, analysing the evidence and taking much abuse from the press, which was in search of the answer well
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I am no expert on constitutional policy, but we in this House have to send a signalit is one thing that we can dothat logic and evidence should prevail. The institutions developed by the Government to provide appropriate advice should prevail. I note the remark about the constitutional position of the ACMD, which is very clear. That is one reason why I agreed to spend my free time on the ACMD. We must vote for and practise logic and advice, even in the face of the political pressures that we all understand the Government and Prime Minister to be under.
Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I have to declare an interest in that cannabis, spliffs, pot, hash, ganja or the weed of wisdom have played a very important part in my life. I find it difficult to understand what is going on here. I am not sure that I wanted to support the Government on anything to do with this after the reclassification last time. I remember writing to the Minister, accusing the Government of schizophrenia. Now we have a form of double schizophrenia, which must be totally psychoticbut we do have a slightly psychotic Government from time to time.
My interest is from a totally different point of view. During my commercial life I was involved on many occasions in the agricultural world and trying to get people to produce good, productive crops, not least in the Caribbean, in a country in which I was conceived on the beach and where we were economic advisers to the Government of Jamaica. Part of the problem was to find an alternative crop to the weed of wisdom. The Government of Jamaica were not prepared to admit that they had drugs, and when you had to go out and find an alternative crop and try to ensure that the economy was not badly affected as that crop was replaced, you came across all sorts of strange difficulties.
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The point was that out there we set out to find an alternative crop but that it was extraordinarily difficult to do. The Dutch suggested that we grow early carnations, roses or those plastic looking German houseplants, but there was no alternative. When the signal went out from here that cannabis was more illegal than people thought, that immediately sent a signal that they should look for alternative crops and, to some extent, that has happened. In the mean time, one of the saddest things has happened in a country I used to deal with years agoAfghanistanwhich is now producing 90 per cent of the worlds illicit drugs. That has had a negative impactor a positive impacton ganja production in some parts of the world.
In this debate, I will support the noble Lord, Lord West, even if that means that I am not supporting the Government because I find it extremely difficult to analyse the evidence. I have come across many cases of schizophrenia and I have also been well briefed by members of my own family who have been involved in trying to address problems such as the impact of mixing alcohol and spliffs, which there is now a test for. I have talked to those who employ people to do dangerous jobs. They have said that their personnel department asks people whether they would mind having a follicle of hair tested to see whether they are on pot or not. The reason given to me for that was that if they were on pot and doing dangerous jobs on oil rigs, for example, it could affect their judgment.
Against that, in the construction industry, I became friends with one of the best tilers I have ever come across. I did not know until after he had retired that he was permanently high on ganja because he had a fear of heights and that in the lunch hour, smoking a weed, he would be running across eaves balancing absolutely perfectly.
In my earlier days, when I chaired the Greater London and SE Council for Sport and Recreation at the time of the Scarman inquiry, we tried to find a way to get the young off the streets and away from crime to play games and sport. I was lucky enough to have a teamwe covered Greater London, Surrey, Sussex and Kentof ethnic-minority group leaders. Everyone
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Over time, I have felt that I have seen some disasters and in other parts of the world the economic problems of drug production. I have seen things happen even at home in my own family. A young lady who had a flat upstairs and many of her age group got very interested in agriculture. Window boxes throughout London were producing a new form of houseplant. When that was discovered, the various contents of these window boxes were chucked into a really large wheelie bin not far away. Only the next day, I was told with some amusement that I had done exactly the right thing, because the wheelie bin was inhabited by a drug addict and he must have thought that Christmas had come as the pot came through the door.
There is a light-hearted element to all of this. It is extremely difficult for the Government to go back on what they did before, but I believe that they should because it is a signal that we should send to the outside world and not necessarily to ourselves here at home.
Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, when I opposed the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis in 2003, I felt then that I may have lost the argument because I did not take the trouble to read the books and reports that were produced. This time, I studied the reports, spoke with people and asked questions, and I am still of the opinion that the Government are right in reclassifying this drug. I will tell noble Lords why.
First, I remind the House that, to my knowledge, psychiatry is not a science. But it is difficult for someone like me to ignore the evidence on the street and in the home. Ask anyonego to Deptford or Brixton; go to Haringey, Hackney or wherever. I do not mention the more salubrious places though I have also found that some of the rich and well-nourished smoke cannabis for recreational purposes. But what if you were in my position and had to respond to people who find when talking to their childrenchildren for whom they have had to make great sacrifices in order to send them to universitythat they are speaking to zombies: people who have no idea what they say; people so hooked on cannabis that they no longer exist in this world? You will see the pain on their faces.
Some noble Lords have said today that declassification has had no effect. Let me tell you that it has had a great effect on younger people. Very many young children have found themselves in great difficulty because they were made to sell this drug at the school gatemade to sell it for the people who came to collect. Some 15 and 16 year-olds sold the drug because it was no longer an offence. But some who sold it forgot to pay those who supplied them. We have something in this country called gun crime. At the root of gun crime are cases involving those who failed to pay. Noble Lords may remember two young girls being shot after leaving
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Lord Layard: My Lords, perhaps I may point out that the main evidence comes from household surveys where people are asked what they do; it is not to do with reporting through police or any other mechanism.
The confusion which arose then persists. The Government are taking the right action. I would invite noble Lords, for recreational purposes, to go to one of the nightclubs where these young people congregate. You will see that cannabis is the most prevalent drug.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, when cannabis was changed from class B to C I said that it was an unwise thing to do; and cannabis was strong even then. Many people start drug-taking by taking cannabis. It was also a confusing message, especially to the police, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said. There is much evidence that cannabis can cause serious and dangerous problems for people with mental health conditions. The results of the research all depend on who does the research.
Cannabis has now become even stronger, and even more of a problem. I ask the Minister: what is the current situation for those who use cannabis to relieve their long-term medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis? I see no problem in that if it helps as a medical drug, but I cannot accept my noble friends amendment today, as cannabis can be the start of a long, slippery downhill road to serious drug taking.
Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate, but, as I have listened to it, I had a growing sense that we have slightly taken our eye off the ball. I hope that I can redirect the debate a little and focus it on what we should be concentrating on.
It seems to me that the debate has become too polarised. Noble Lords on both sides of the debate have spoken with great passion. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that when passions run high it is important to try to take a step back and adopt a more dispassionate and measured approach. On the one side, there has been a tendency to take up the position, cannabis: good, reclassification: bad, and on the other, cannabis: bad, reclassification: good. However, the debate is not really of that order. There are strong points on both sides of it. Those who are worried about the effects of cannabis can point to the increased strength of the drug that we are dealing with these days and the possibility of a link with psychosis. On the other hand, those who oppose reclassification have a strong point about the danger of criminalisation driving people into the arms of traffickers, increasing traffickers grip on the drug business and forcing people into further criminality to feed the habit. So the issue is not clear-cut.
The advisory council is not taking a clear-cut position and asking us to form a final view on the matter one way or the other. It is still in some doubt about the matter. It apprehends the possibility that there is an increased link with psychosis. It says that the evidence on that is not strong but that the possibility exists and that it ought to be investigated further. As I said, it is not asking us to take up a position on the issue one way or the other; it is advancing the essentially moderate proposition that the jury is still out and that we do not have all the evidence we need to make a rational decision. It advocates that evidence should continue to be collected, that research should continue to be undertaken for another couple of years and that we should then review the matter again when we have a bit more evidence and, we hope, will be able to come to a more definite conclusion on the matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pitched it absolutely right when she said, like the advisory council, that we should leave things as they are for another couple of years and then come back to the matter when we have more evidence. So we are not being asked to take a clear-cut, definitive position on the matter one way or the other. We are not being asked to say that cannabis is good and, therefore, reclassification is bad, or that cannabis is bad and reclassification is good. There are obviously arguments in both directions and one pole or the other may be stronger in a couple of years, which will incline us to come down more decisively one way or the other.
However, we do not know enough at the moment. Therefore, it seems only sensible, and the only rational course, not to come down decisively one way or the other this evening, and to leave things as they are for another couple of years in the hope that we will at that point be able to take a better-informed and more definitive position.
With that in mind, I urge the Government to stay their hand, refrain from insisting on a clear-cut decision this evening and allow things to run for another couple of years until we can take a more definitive decision in the light of further and better evidence.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, from these Benches, we shall be supporting the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because we believe in evidence-based policymaking. The evidence from the advisory council is very definite. It does not, as many speakers have said, come down one way or the other; it is simply asking for more time.
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