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1.52 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on so eloquently and movingly introducing the Bill. During my remarks, which, I emphasise, are made in a personal, lay capacity, I hope to respond to the challenge that he so dramatically puts to the House.

We are considering the use, production and supply of cannabis not for recreational, but for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. I recognise that there can be therapeutic benefits, but the House must ask whether the benefits of amending the original legislation to allow such therapeutic use outweigh the possible disbenefits or even dangers of doing so.

If we accepted the Bill, I am concerned that we should give the wrong message to those people who want to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. That matter should be explored. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. He did not seem to put much emphasis on the comments of the police on that point.

I have a particular anxiety about the safety and storage of dangerous drugs. The hon. Gentleman himself referred to the history of the use of heroin--perhaps more

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commonly known as morphine--for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. We are considering cannabis and cannabinoids.

I declare a family interest: I am related to several doctors and a long line of--I believe--distinguished chemists. Indeed, my grandfather had the distinction of being awarded a royal warrant to serve as chemist when the then king was in residence in Holyrood, in Edinburgh. I have taken a great interest in those family matters for some time. In my student days in Edinburgh a number of years ago, my flat mate and I had the good fortune to occupy the flat next to one of the chemist's premises run by my uncle down Dublin street in Edinburgh. Fortifications and security measures were increasingly required because so many burglaries were undertaken by persistent users of heroin who wished to enter the premises run by my uncle and owned by my family purely to get into the dangerous drugs cabinet.

It might be a small point to the hon. Gentleman, but it should be considered that family doctors such as my brother, who is a GP in North Yorkshire, and chemists such as my grandfather and two uncles who worked as chemists in Edinburgh, will be put at substantial risk of burglaries by carrying small amounts of cannabis and, more appropriately, cannabinoids on their persons, in their vehicles and in their dispensaries. I urge the House to consider what special measures may be taken to protect them.

Mr. Flynn: Both the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the Police Foundation, which supports the Bill, have said that the number of doctors prescribing cannabis should be strictly limited. There will be no general rule that means that all will have to prescribe.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. It is helpful, but he will understand why it is a source of concern to me and my family.

The timing of the Bill is curious. It reaches the House this afternoon, as we are informed that clinical trials are just about to start. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the 1998 report of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords. The Committee took evidence on the medicinal effects of cannabis and recommended that it be made legally available for therapeutic purposes. The Government rejected any immediate changes in legislation at that time. I am delighted to see the Minister in her place this afternoon. I hope that she will confirm that clinical trials have not only been ordered but are about to start. I hope that she will tell the House when the results of those trials will be available for the House to consider so that at least we can judge the safety and efficacy of the medicinal form of cannabis.

I urge the hon. Member for Newport, West to be a little patient. I admire the fact that he speaks with certain knowledge as a chemist, but he must be aware that we

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and our constituents need to be reassured that the dangers as well as the potential health benefits will be taken into account.

Mr. Flynn: The hon. Lady is not telling me to be patient. She is telling tens of thousands of desperately ill people to wait for five years until they can take their medicine legally.

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman eloquently made that point, and I accept it, but alternatives are being pursued.

I should like to go through some of the medical effects that we know about from research into the potentially damaging effects on individuals. The possible short-term effects on the cardiovascular system include an increase in the heart rate and a decrease in blood pressure, possibly even invoking angina or other cardiovascular disease. There can be short-term memory impairment, poor body co-ordination, severe psychological distress and confusion and--perhaps something not uncommon to Members of this House on certain occasions--less extreme feelings of anxiety, panic and suspicion.

Mr. Forth: Could that not be an accurate description of people who have had a couple of drinks too many?

Miss McIntosh: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must appreciate that, as the hon. Member for Newport, West would probably accept, the short-term effects are more likely be experienced by those who take cannabis or cannabinoids for recreational purposes. We have to consider that, if the patients whom the hon. Gentleman hopes to help become hooked on the drug, it could lead to tolerance. They may wish to take more to produce the same effect, and medical practitioners accept that that symptom can develop. There can be a physical dependence, meaning that the withdrawal of the drug produces physical symptoms. There are also damaging psychological dependence effects, although they are probably less common.

I am greatly concerned about the fact that drug abuse can increase the incidence of driving accidents. The Library's excellent research paper on cannabis lays heavy emphasis on possible driving impairment. I accept that that is probably more common when cannabis is used for recreational rather than therapeutic purposes. However, the hon. Gentleman must consider the risk, especially to MS sufferers such as the lady in her mid-50s to whom he referred.

Mr. Flynn: A few weeks ago, the Transport Research Laboratory published a report--it costs £50--in which it stated that it cannot come to any decision on whether cannabis use has any effect on road accidents. In fact, perversely, reports from other parts of the world suggest that the evidence shows that there is less danger. That is a strange conclusion, but the effect of cannabis is to make people more cautious, so they drive either more carefully, or not at all. The effect of alcohol is to convince people that they are better drivers, and they drive more recklessly. I urge the hon. Lady to read the TRL report, from which no one can reach any conclusion at all.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that most illuminating intervention. Perhaps after the debate, he will give me the full reference to the report so I can read it for myself.

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The long-term effects on respiratory disorders, including coughs, bronchitis and asthma, are again probably more relevant to recreational use, but we should consider them none the less.

I turn to the therapeutic purposes, especially as examined in the British Medical Association's report, "Therapeutic uses of cannabis", published in November 1997. The BMA concluded that certain additional cannabinoids, not cannabis itself, should be legalised for wider medicinal use, but alarm bells were rung. The report states:

That raises the concern, which I hope the Minister will address in winding up the debate, that the Government are aware of the flimsy, inconclusive evidence that exists in the medical profession, the chemists' profession and others.

I accept that there are compelling reasons, but the weight of evidence is inconclusive. I would prefer to make a reasoned judgment against the background of the results of clinical trials. I hope that we shall hear this afternoon that the trials are about begin and when they might be concluded.

2.4 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): I want to speak briefly. I apologise for missing the first part of the speech made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), because of the previous Division, which I mistimed.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill. I know of the passion with which he has pursued this cause. As a member of the all-party disablement group, I am very much aware of the unnecessary suffering of countless thousands of people who could be helped, some of whom take advantage of cannabis, although illegally at present.

I have great respect for the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), but I was surprised that she should accept that people will be acting outside the law in taking cannabis, as they undoubtedly will be unless legislation along the lines of the Bill is passed.

Miss McIntosh: I did not say that I accepted that. I strongly urge people not to act outside the law.

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