Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 80 - 104)

THURSDAY 8 JUNE 2000

DAME RUTH RUNCIMAN, DBE, MR JOHN HAMILTON, QPM, MS ANNETTE ZERA, PROFESSOR DAVID NUTT and DR BARRIE IRVING

Mr Singh

  80. I wonder whether you saw the Holland experience through, if you will forgive the expression, a euphoric haze? Let me quote to you a paragraph from an article in The Superintendent this Spring. "Since the adoption of the more liberal approach, cannabis use among school children has more than doubled, cocaine use by the 14 to 16 year olds is the highest in Europe, drug related juvenile crime, particularly violence, has increased, child prostitution has escalated and most of the ecstasy coming into Britain comes from Holland." Now in terms of what you have been saying about Holland how do you react to that statement?
  (Mr Hamilton) I think that in terms of the Dutch experience certainly The Netherlands is a gateway into Europe for drugs; there is absolutely no doubt about that. It has the largest port in Rotterdam. It would be surprising therefore if it were not a major gateway. I think that what we also need to recognise is that the Dutch Customs have seizures of all sorts of drugs entering into The Netherlands that put the United Kingdom to shame.

  81. The point is that they are saying that since the adoption of a more liberal approach to cannabis these things have happened?
  (Mr Hamilton) I would like to see the evidence.

  82. You do not believe that?
  (Mr Hamilton) I am saying I would like to see the evidence.
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) The evidence from the Lisbon monitoring centre is that it certainly has increased in Holland; they would be the first to admit it, but the relative increase is mirrored particularly in this country and by other countries in Europe. That is the point. What we are saying—and nor do the Dutch say it—we took evidence from opponents of that policy. They are not saying they have solved the drug problem. What they are saying is three important things: "We treat drug use as a health problem before a crime problem. We have taken considerable steps to separate the markets for cannabis from hard drugs with some evidence that that has beneficial results and that the social costs of our policy, particularly in terms of marginalisation of disadvantaged young people are less for the same results".

  83. Was it not very remiss of your inquiry though not to look at the experience of Sweden?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) We did look at the experience of Sweden. Sweden was one of the countries in our specifically commissioned work by the ISDD. The Swedes have a zero tolerance policy, they have lower rates. They also actually, interestingly enough, have quite a lot of diversion from prosecution for drug use, quite a high, as it were, expediency policy. But we did look at it and it both in our Report and in our study.

Mr Malins

  84. Have you commissioned any research or are you familiar with research on establishing how much crime is committed under the influence of a class B drug?
  (Mr Hamilton) We have not commissioned anything.

  85. You have not taken evidence from anybody in the judiciary, the stipendiaries or the lay bench—
  (Mr Hamilton) No, that is not quite true. We did say we took evidence from—

  86. Peter Crane, yes?
  (Mr Hamilton)—the police, the judge and from the representatives of the justices' clerks and the judiciary.

  87. Yes, the judiciary. So what can you tell me about the link between class B drugs and crime?
  (Mr Hamilton) What I will say to you is that there is very scant evidence.

  88. Right.
  (Mr Hamilton) There is even less in the United Kingdom.

  89. How do you know that?
  (Mr Hamilton) Because there is not any to be found.

  90. Have you—
  (Mr Hamilton) We have searched, I searched, we have looked for it.
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) Are you talking about the arrestee? There are the Home Office arrestee figures about cannabis?

  91. I am talking about the proportion of crime, other than motoring, that is committed under the influence of a class B drug?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) The only evidence we have—and we looked at it, of course—is the Home Office research on arrestee testing where large numbers of offenders test positive for cannabis. What we do not know a lot about in this country at the moment, and we certainly need to know, are the causal links between that.

  92. I suggest that if you knew anything about the criminal justice system you might infer or understand that a very high proportion of crime is committed by people who are, at that time, under the influence of a class B drug?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) You are talking about cannabis basically or amphetamines.

  93. No, certainly not. Other class B drugs?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) Which ones, amphetamines?

  94. Yes. Do you accept that?
  (Mr Hamilton) No, I do not.
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) We do not know.

  95. Right. But you commend moving ecstasy and LSD from class A to class B. Is that right?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) Yes.

  96. Is it also right that you say that possession of class B drugs which include ecstasy and LSD, amphetamines and barbiturates should not carry a prison sentence. Is that right? Do you believe that possession of those drugs that I have mentioned is or is not as serious as offences of driving disqualified, minor public order offences, common assault, all of which do carry a custodial sentence. Do you think they are less serious than those?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) We do not think they are less serious, we think that less good usefulness is done by the imposition of a prison sentence for the simple possession of those drugs. It is not a question of seriousness, it is a question of what you aim to achieve by your penalty.

  97. That is true, but to the sentencer seriousness is a factor. What kind of message do you think you are sending out if you are saying possession of ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines and barbiturates should not carry a custodial sentence whereas the offences I have mentioned do?
  (Mr Hamilton) Sorry, that presumes that it would have a positive effect—

  98. I am saying that—
  (Mr Hamilton) I am trying to pick up on your question. If you are saying that a custodial sentence has a preventive effect or that it deters, I do not think that is the case. I would suggest to you that a person who takes drugs going into prison will come out a worse addict.

  99. That is quite beside the point. I am focusing on the penalties available?
  (Mr Hamilton) I have made my case in the sense that I do not believe that a custodial sentence for small amounts of those drugs that you have spoken about, for their own use, is appropriate.

  100. First or second time?
  (Mr Hamilton) No, you are putting words into my mouth.

  101. That was a question?
  (Mr Hamilton) Okay. For a first offence I think it is inappropriate to send a person to gaol for possession of small amounts for their own use. As Dame Ruth has mentioned, we would advocate that there would be a record kept of the instances where cautions occur so that that would be put on the record. There is no record at the moment.

  102. Yes, I know. You think the power then to send them to prison should be taken away, for class B drugs including ecstasy and LSD?
  (Mr Hamilton) Yes.
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) For simple possession for their own use, yes, we do. On the whole, at the moment, very few people committing possession only offences of those class B drugs are sent to prison—

  103. How many Courts have you sat in?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman)—as far as we can see.

  104. Which Courts have you sat in to see that happen or not happen?
  (Dame Ruth Runciman) We have looked at the statistics and in fact as far as one can see—and do not forget that our recommendations, when it comes to the link as you talked about between drugs and crime many of the people who are before the Courts for possession offences are also before the Court for other offences, often acquisitive offences. So in that sense the Courts have the full range of powers that they require. We are talking about possession only offences by people who are occasional users. And there is a disagreement between us, but we are clear about that.

  Chairman: Dame Ruth, may I thank you and your colleagues for being so kind as to come this afternoon. I think one of the things that all of us on this Committee like is that this makes us think and we do not often get all the time we would like to think in This Place. Thank you very much indeed. You have been extremely helpful to us. A transcript will arrive in due course for you to comment on, so thank you again.


 
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