Examination of Witnesses: (Questions 1
TUESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2001
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.
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
(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 amountsI
am not talking about supplyfor use in actual fact are not
going to face prosecution, are they once the reclassification
(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 practiceand you
have answered the questionthose 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
7. You answered the question very briefly a
moment ago. In Brixton how long has the position beena
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 cannabisleave aside other drugs because my colleagues
will be asking you on thatwho 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
(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 sensiblethis is a question without giving my own viewpointthat
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.
(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.
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 saidan amazing argumentthat
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.