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I wish to make three pointson the effect on young people, the effect on society and the effect on policing and criminals. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, asked what has changed since cannabis was reclassified last time. In one way he was correct in his supposition that not much has changed, but the fact is that use is falling among young people and in general. That is one beneficial change. Secondly, the Government have run an advertising campaign, which is a good thing, because the more information that is out there for our young people, the better. There is a risk of putting those benefits into jeopardy unless all of the campaigning and messages are very consistent and honest.
One of the difficulties with this debate is the very use of the term cannabis, which actually encompasses a wide number of things, including marijuana or grass, cannabis resin and skunk. They are all different substances with different strengths. I am sure that young people who use it know that better than we do. The fact is that unless we are clear in what we are talking about and clear about where the dangers lie, young people will simply switch off.
I was particularly struck by some contributions, especially that of the noble Earl, Lord Errol, who talked about what the effect would be on a young person who gets an enhanced criminal record. It would be harder for them to get a job in the first place and harder to move jobs. That young person would not be able to work with many groups, just because they had been caught a couple of times doing something that, I suspect, a large number of MPs in the other place and Members of your Lordships House have actually done over time. In fact, President-Elect Obama was honest enough to say that he, too, had done this. Are we really going to condemn our young people to higher penalties and deny them all sorts of positions in life once they have an enhanced criminal record? Above all, we need to be honest about this.
I underline what the council said about the risks involved. It found that the evidence does not suggest that cannabis use is a substantial cause of acquisitive crime, that anti-social behaviour is much more likely as a consequence of alcohol consumption than of cannabis use and that the risk of progressing from cannabis to a class A drug is less than that associated with the use of alcohol or tobacco. Those very important facts should be borne in mind.
In the Home Secretarys Statement on reclassification she gave, as other noble Lords said, only the evidence of public perception as a reason to change. If she had referred to the adverse effect on society, that might have been a very strong reason to reclassify. However, the effect of cannabis in that regard is much less than that of alcohol.
What will be the effectI am sure that there will be someof reclassifying it the other way round? Will the Minister come to this House in six months time and give the reverse opinion to that of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland; namely, that the effect on the police has been very deleterious? That is the logic of this.
ACPO said that the 2004 reclassification did not alter its approach to enforcement. That suggests that it will carry on in the same way whatever the classification. There is a slightly confusing message there, and we need some clarification from the Minister tonight. When surveyed on this matter, 67 per cent of the public were in favour of unchanged or abolished penalties, which is very surprising.
We see the way forward as a health matter and an education matter. We have read no evidence from the advisory council or heard any evidence this evening that shows that reclassification will help either health or education. We will support the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and we hope that the Government will think again.
My noble friend Lord Waddington gave the House an impressive account of my partys attitude to this problem, which has been absolutely consistent since the declassification of cannabis to class C in 2004; that is, total opposition to its removal from class B. It will come as no surprise that we shall support the Governments Motion this evening.
The ACMD has done much admirable work but little has been said this evening about the minority report in the document. However, I draw noble Lords attention to paragraph 13.5.1. It contains a comment on recommendation 3, which is that cannabis should remain a class C drug. It states:
I suggest that we can assume that the minority on that committee was as impressive in composition as was the committee overall. That is just one point that reinforces the Governments attitude to this matter.
Before concluding, I take this opportunity to mention my partys attitude to the problem of drugs. Although we support the order, we differ from the Government in our general approach to the problem, which the current Government see as one of maintenance and management rather than of trying to break the cycle of addiction. Drug treatment and testing orders have failed to tackle addiction, with 80 per cent of those given the orders reoffending within two years. If elected, we propose to introduce abstinence-based drug rehabilitation orders with residential abstinence-based programmes and, where appropriate, day-care programmes. Returning to the Motion under consideration, however, we on these Benches will support the Government.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we have had an absolutely fascinating and very useful debate, which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said, has been in the best traditions of this House. The way in which these matters are debated and the knowledge that people have are most impressive. Indeed, that knowledge is amazingly detailed. I was slightly surprised by how many members of the Government seem, at one stage, to have smokedperhaps inhaling or perhaps notthese substances. I come from a background where that is not allowed at all. In the Navy, we had positive drug testing and, if it was found that you had touched drugs, you were out. That seemed to work quite well.
It was interesting to hear such a variety of views. Marvellous historical backgrounds were given by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington, Lord Mancroft and Lord Elystan-Morgan. All three were totally different, which was interesting, but I am sure that they all contained a strand of truth. They illustrated differences in perception depending on how one looks at these things. However, we knowand perhaps I am more positive about this than othersthat we can succeed in tackling drugs and reducing the harm that they do to families and communities. Notwithstanding what the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, the past 10 years have seen progress and some notable successes. However, we must also be prepared to respond when the nature and force of the problem change. As part of that response, we have to look at our drug laws. The reclassification of cannabis, accompanied by the strength and enforcement approach, will reflect the alarming fact that skunk now dominates the cannabis market.
There was mention of the Guardian letter, which I have read. I do not dispute the qualifications of the ACMD but what really comes overthe noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, touched on the minority who gave a view on this as wellis that the evidence is confused. That was mentioned also by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Low. The fact is that there is great uncertainty about the real impacts and, as a Government, we must always err on the side of safety. We also need to get the right message acrosssomething that I shall come back to in a moment.
I shall deal with a few of the points that were raised. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, mentioned the problem of a PND being on someones record. A PND is recorded as non-conviction information and therefore, during a CRB check, is not included on the police certificate, although it is up to the responsible officer to assess whether an extended PND should be included. It does not appear on a certificate relating to a visa or overseas work. When the noble Earl and I discussed this matter prior to the debate, I promised him that I would clarify that, but I have only just received the information.
I also wish to refer to a point of fact that I got wrong concerning an increase in the number of seizures. We seized 344,360 cannabis plants in the past year, which was an increase from 208,000 in the previous year. That is quite a dramatic number.
The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, who has a lot of knowledge in this area, asked what the advisory council says about mental health harms. There is confusion about this. It says that there is clear evidence that cannabis can produce immediate and long-term harms to mental health. The evidence supports a causal association between the use of cannabis in adolescence and the later development of schizophrenia. However, the relationship is clearly more complicated than when the ACMD considered the matter previously and most likely cannabis plays a modest role in the development of psychotic illness in the general population. Whether such a causal link will become stronger with the wider use of high-potency cannabis products remains uncertain. The possibility that the greater use of cannabis preparations with a higher THCtetrahydrocannabinolcontent might increase the harmfulness of cannabis to mental health cannot be denied, but the behaviour of cannabis
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A number of noble Lords mentioned a delay, but again the increased potency of the drug, for which we have evidence in the form of a Home Office potency study, means that we have to err on the side of caution. Delaying a decision for two or three years would be reckless. It is the Governments duty to take action to protect the public, particularly when there are uncertainties. I repeat that I think that there are uncertainties. That point was made clearly by my noble friend Lord Mackenzie. Will we make a commitment to review this in two years? Well, the ACMD has recommended that it convenes a further review on cannabis policy in two years, which is probably a good idea. It is a matter for the council. The Government will keep their position open. We continuously review it, as we do for all drugs. We monitor the situation through the British Crime Survey, criminal justice surveys, other relevant statistics and new evidence from the ACMD and others. It is open to the Home Secretary to ask the ACMD at any stage to review classification.
Laws are not driven by scientific advice alone. Much wider issues, such as public perception, are involved. That is important. Public perception was touched on by my noble friend Lord Mackenzie. I know well from my children that they had a perception that this was not really serious. That is not a good perception. We need to make it clear that it is a serious issue. Equally, like my noble friend, I do not believe that the police pursued it as much as they should have, because they felt that the message that we were giving was that it was not so important. However, it is important in terms of policing priorities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked why we were not changing the enforcement regime for the under-18s. We are sending out a clear message to young people that cannabis is illegal nowmore so with this order. A statutory process is set out in the Crime and Disorder Act for young people under 18. It already offers formal escalation with referral at any stage to the youth offending team for substance misuse. I believe that that continues to offer an appropriate and proportionate response. We are not avoiding that issue.
My noble friend Lord Richard said that changing the class of a drug had no impact on use. We make no claim that a change in a drug classification on its own will act as a deterrent. However, there is evidence that illegality of a drug may affect an individuals decision to take it in the first placeI know jolly well that one of my sons got a bit of a slap about this; he is well aware of it and it has made quite a changeor to stop taking it. We accept that the reasons for taking or not taking a drug are most likely to be multiple, varied and interrelated, but this is one aspect of it. The increase in severity of disposals associated with our proposed enforcement response for repeat offenders is intended to impact on offenders behaviour and to support the steady decline in use. That is why we are doing this.
My noble friends Lord Richard and Lord Layard asked: why now? The ACMD says that evidence is more uncertain now than in 2006. I go back to that uncertainty point. We are taking a precautionary view in the light of this uncertainty, given the dominance of skunk in the UK. It is now very dominant and dangerous. I have seen its huge impact on my childrens friends. My noble friends Lord Mackenzie and Lady Howells made strong and moving speeches on this.
The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said that we have 1 million or 2 millionI cannot remember how manyusers in the UK, but it is against the law so they should not do it. There are so many users because that has not been made clear enough. I mentioned that there is random drug testing in the Navy. If you are positive, you are out. That works. Part of the reason why people have not taken the issue so seriously is that we have not made it clear enough.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, made a seemingly persuasive but dangerous speech about alcohol. Of course there are historical reasons and reasons within this country and Europe why alcohol is used so much more. It has been used for hundreds of years. If as many people were using skunk at the same level, we would rapidly see what a horrendous impact it has. My experience of children is that they often seem to be smoking this dreadful stuff and drinking rather a lot as well. They are then a complete waste of rations in terms of doing anything, and it is very bad for them.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said that we are not being that strict with people. We will now make sure that we register offences. That is part of the idea behind this. We intend to make sure that the police do it. We had sort of given them the message not to bother to record these offences. Smoke one spliff in Brixton, then go and smoke the next in Hackney, and you will never be caught because they will never be linked up. The point is that they are now recorded and noted. We are going through a fixed route of a warning, then a PND and then a conviction. However, there is always flexibility. I know that some people do not know this, but I have a certain amount of faith in the common sense of our police in applying these things. Now there is a graded way of doing it. That is an important message. I go back to my point: my experience with my youngsters and their friends is that they thought that cannabis was not that important because we had done what we had done. They need to realise that it is extremely important.
Commercial cultivation is not just a UK phenomenon. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported a move by organised crime in developed countries to rely on domestic production. The SOCA threat assessments make it clear that cannabis farms in the UK are predominantly run by Vietnamese criminal gangs. They are a real worry to us and part of the reason why we would like to make this clear.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, mentioned the medicinal use of cannabis. I have a long and complex answer but, bearing in mind the time, I shall write to her. We have sympathy, but there are difficulties in clearing cannabis as a proper drug.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned war. I see that he is dressed for war now. I do not like the phrase war on terrorism. There seem to be wars
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Drug misuse wastes lives, destroys families and damages communities. That was eloquently explained by my noble friend Lady Howells. We have to face this problem head on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, pointed out, skunk is now a huge and unpleasant part of this market. As a Government, we have to err on the side of safety. We must give out the right message about how dangerous these things are and what harm they cause. That is not at all clear and, until we are clear, it is right that we should err on the side of safety. I commend the changes proposed by the order. I believe that we must act now.
Baroness Meacher: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, but I especially thank those many noble Lords who have supported my amendment to the Motion. I mention the noble Lords, Lord Richard, Lord Cobbold, Lord Adebowale, Lord Rea, Lord Mancroft, Lord Layard and Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady MillerI probably have not mentioned allwho have held to the evidence behind the amendment. I tabled it because it seemed to me that, if the Government lose the contact between the scientific evidence and the decisions that they make in policy, this country will indeed be lost. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have upheld that good and fine tradition and I seek to test the opinion of the House.
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