Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses: (Questions 1 - 19)



  Chairman: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. May I welcome our witnesses? I believe Rosemary Jenkins is replacing Professor Nutbeam, who was the advertised star. Welcome. This is the start of our inquiry into whether the drugs policy is working. We have received 160 written memoranda, many of which are flatly contradictory. We have to try to find a way through those with your help. May we start with some questions directed first to the Home Office about the recent declassification of cannabis.

David Winnick

  1. Would you say that the Home Secretary's announcement to this Committee last week on cannabis amounted to decriminalisation of that drug in actual practice?

  (Sue Killen) No. What the Home Secretary announced last week was a reclassification. I should correct that. He did not announce a reclassification: what he announced was a decision to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to give him advice on reclassification. For drugs you can have a system which controls them that comes within the criminal justice system and that is basically what will happen if we reclass cannabis from B to C: the sanctions would still come within the criminal justice system. If you decriminalise, then you shift the sanctions, the prohibitions, purely into civil penalties. So it is similar to what happens in South Australia at the moment, where there is a fairly rigid system of fines which are administered via the civil system. The difference is between whether or not the penalties, the prohibitions, come within the criminal system or within the civil system. If we reclassify, it would remain a criminal activity, but the levels of penalties which there would be would be much reduced by moving it from B to C.

  2. I understand all that and that is the official line.
  (Sue Killen) It is not just the official line, it is the way it is.

  3. It is obviously the official line and I am not criticising you for echoing ministerial policy because that is your duty; it would be strange otherwise. Once the drug, cannabis, is reclassified those having possession of small amounts—I am not talking about supply—for use in actual fact are not going to face prosecution, are they once the reclassification occurs?
  (Sue Killen) The sanctions we would have would remain within the criminal justice system. It might be helpful to explain the difference between criminal sanctions and civil sanctions. Within the criminal justice system, there is always a reasonable level of discretion. Reclassification would set the boundaries of that discretion. Within a civil system it tends to be quite rigid. If you are found with this amount, you will get this level of fine, this level of sanction automatically placed upon you. In the criminal justice system, some discretion remains. The reason to point that out is that you might feel advantages come within a system which gives discretion. Another thing I would point out is that if you have a series of sanctions which are rigid, like fines, what they found in the South Australian situation was that there were many fine defaults. It is a very high figure: 50 or 60 per cent. Somebody else can probably give you that number better than I. What happens if you have people who end up winging round then into the criminal justice system? It is not just semantics, it is to do with how the thing will operate well and what you think is the most effective way of dealing with it. The evidence we have is that whether or not something is a criminal offence does actually affect people's perceptions of whether or not they are likely to take drugs. Both the youth lifestyle survey and the MORI poll which took place as part of the work which was done by the Police Foundation report showed that for a number of young people what influences them in whether or not they take a drug is actually its legal status.

  4. May I repeat the question, with due respect? Once it is reclassified, are those in possession of a small amount of cannabis for use in practice likely to face prosecution? Either yes or no.
  (Sue Killen) No.

  5. They will not.
  (Sue Killen) I think the Home Secretary has made that position clear when he was talking about it.

  6. If I may press the issue, the point is that what people will recognise is that however much it is said that it is not decriminalisation, in actual practice—and you have answered the question—those in possession of small amounts for use will not face prosecution.
  (Sue Killen) They could face cautions. If they come in contact with the police, there is a range of sanctions which are there.

  7. You answered the question very briefly a moment ago. In Brixton how long has the position been—a matter of months, is it not?—that the police have not taken any action against those in possession of a small amount of cannabis?
  (Sue Killen) It is due to finish in December and it was a six-month experiment.
  (Vic Hogg) It started in July this year.

  8. That has been the position in Brixton.
  (Vic Hogg) The position in Lambeth to be precise is that the police have simply confiscated the small amounts of cannabis which have been found in individuals' possession and issued a warning, which is a sanction available to all police. It is worth saying that under the current arrangements around 80 per cent of all people caught in possession of cannabis are disposed of by way of a warning, a caution or a fine. Within that 80 per cent figure, warnings and cautions account for around 55 per cent. Assuming that the Advisory Council advise that cannabis should be moved from class B to class C, the police would still, in cases of small amounts of drugs in people's possession, have the possibility of issuing a court summons to that person. We are not talking about decriminalisation in any way shape or form. All the sanctions will remain criminal.

  9. With respect, I suppose lay people and politicians will come to a different view on whether it is decriminalisation in practice or otherwise. Why is it that the Home Office had such a reaction to the Police Foundation report where it was recommended that cannabis should be reclassified; a totally negative response. Now a year, 18 months later, we have had the statement from the Home Secretary. What has happened in between what was originally the response of the Home Office and now?
  (Sue Killen) It was not a totally negative response to the Police Foundation report. Keith actually set up a committee to look through all the recommendations and there was far more in that report than just the recommendations on cannabis. At the time it was published, the Home Secretary said that decisions should be made based on the science and that should be kept under review. Another issue which came out of it, which we said we were reviewing and looking at, was this whole business of the wide variety of ways in which cannabis offences are treated. There was great variation across the country. How you go about bringing greater consistency in that was something which was left open.

  10. Really it was unfair of me to ask you. Ministers should really be under questioning on that, not senior civil servants carrying out ministerial policy. Where would someone in possession of a small amount of cannabis get the cannabis from in order to use it in the first place?
  (Sue Killen) I would assume they would buy that from a dealer or from a friend or possibly grow their own.

  11. They cannot get it legally, can they?
  (Sue Killen) No.

  12. In order to use a small amount of cannabis and not face prosecution, be it now in Lambeth or later as a result of new classification, those who want to do this, which is unfortunate in my view but nevertheless a large number do and will continue to do so, have to resort to finding a source in a criminal world. Is that right?
  (Sue Killen) Yes, I assume so.

  13. It must be yes.
  (Sue Killen) Yes, it is. They have the option of growing their own but that is also criminal.

  14. May I put the point to you that those who supply cannabis—leave aside other drugs because my colleagues will be asking you on that—who are engaging in criminal activity will want to maximise their returns from this new feeling of what in actual practice will be seen as allowing the small use of cannabis to occur. So really the criminal suppliers will be doing even better, will they not, as far as cannabis is concerned?
  (Sue Killen) This comes back to the point that using cannabis will remain a criminal offence. The Home Secretary made clear last week that all these drugs are harmful and nobody should take drugs. This is not a means of encouraging people to take drugs. What he was looking for was better proportionality, for the law better to reflect the difference between the degree of harm caused by heroin and cocaine and caused by cannabis. The other point I would make is that the vast majority of cannabis users do not go on to use hard drugs.

  15. We shall come to that in a moment. When you say the Home Secretary deplores the use of all forms of drugs, I do as well and I am sure all my colleagues round the table do, but figures show that some 26 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds used cannabis in the last year which is very similar to previous years. However deplorable it may be, over one quarter of the age group I have mentioned use cannabis. In order to use it once it is reclassified those people will have to resort to criminal supplies. Yes, or no?
  (Sue Killen) You have already asked me that question and I would go back to the point I made before which is that reclassification does not change the fact that we are not encouraging people to take cannabis, it is still a criminal offence, cannabis is harmful. In my experience, if you are looking at the factors which cause young people to go on to take hard drugs, you are looking at a far more complex situation. One of the main aims of the strategy, one of the areas where we really need to focus our effort, is earlier targeting of vulnerable young people who may go on to take class A drugs. If it were as simple as following a cannabis route through, then we would know who to target, but it is far more complex than that, trying to work out who will go on to have a problem with drug misuse.

  16. I am not talking about hard drugs or the debate that using soft drugs leads to hard drugs. That may well be so, but I am not dealing with that at the moment. Smoking and alcohol abuse is obviously also very dangerous. Would it not be more sensible—this is a question without giving my own viewpoint—that if there is going to be this reclassification of cannabis, then the market should be regulated properly and legally rather than allowing even more profits to go to those who trade in a criminal way with cannabis and even more so with hard drugs of course?
  (Sue Killen) Is the assumption which lies behind that an assumption that reclassification will lead to increased use of cannabis? You said they would have increased profits.

  17. Yes.
  (Sue Killen) That is not our assumption. In looking at what has happened in other countries, there is no evidence there to expect that reclassification will lead to a growth in cannabis use. If you look at where there has been a growth in cannabis use, it came with the commercialisation of cannabis via the coffee shops in the Netherlands.

Mr Cameron

  18. Do you think that there is evidence that one of the ways people move onto hard drugs is because they have to go into the black market to buy soft drugs?
  (Sue Killen) The position on looking at cannabis as a gateway is difficult and there is a variety of evidence on it. The first thing I would say, which you would expect me to say, is that this is one of the issues we want the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at. Because the evidence is there overwhelmingly that the vast majority of people who take cannabis do not go on to take hard drugs, our feeling is that there are far more complex issues which lie behind who then goes on to become addicted. So it is not a straightforward link at all.

  19. I am trying to understand why the Government would want to keep policy where it is now. In answer to my colleague's questions you basically said that if I go out, buy some cannabis and am stopped by the police, I will not get arrested, it is not an arrestable offence. I might get cautioned and that will not give me a criminal record. You said—an amazing argument—that the reason we have not gone for civil penalties is that they would actually be greater and stricter in a way than criminal penalties. It is like a straw man because there is an alternative which is decriminalising it and taking the supply out of the criminals' hands but you chose your alternative as the civil way.
  (Sue Killen) May I stress, because we keep assuming that we are going to reclassify, that we have asked for advice on that. I was not saying we sat down there and discussed whether civil penalties were better or keeping it within the criminal justice system. The Home Secretary made his views very clear to you last week that all drugs are harmful. It is therefore right to keep them within the criminal system. What I was doing was merely employing arguments over which system might work better than another if you are looking at it in a purely objective way. If I have given a different impression, may I correct that.

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