Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1204 - 1219)



  Chairman: Good morning, Minister, and welcome. This is probably the final session we are going to have on our drugs inquiry, although there is a possibility we will take a witness from Sweden whom we have had some difficulty tracking down; otherwise it is our final session and we hope to complete our report by April. Thank you very much for coming. We are going to start, if we may, with some general questions.

Mr Cameron

1204.  Good morning, Minister. Has the Home Office done, or do you intend to do, any studies looking at the benefits and disbenefits of legalising some or all drugs?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Can I just say, I have followed some of the evidence that has been given to the Home Affairs Select Committee over the period of your inquiry now and I know this question was asked of officials right at the very start. There have been some attempts to scope the issues but it would be very difficult to actually pin down the whole costs of such a move of policy. That is really a matter for ministers rather than for officials and I thought that at the time—to pin officials to the wall on what they should or should not have been doing in this regard. That is another area we are actively looking at and, therefore, it is not an area we have asked officials to spend great amounts of resource exploring. There is a lobby for legalisation; and there is a lobby for criminalisation. I am not sure people always understand what they are arguing for within those two definitions. I think it is often the case that those who advocate legalisation advocate it as a potential panacea for many of the costs that are imposed upon the criminal justice system, without necessarily looking at the downside in terms of the fact that I think it is proven beyond all doubt that illegality discourages use; that legalisation would lead, to some degree, to an increase in use. That is proven by surveys that come back that say directly people are discouraged from using some of these substances by the fact that they are illegal. It is also self-evident from the fact that, to some extent, availability has got to be suppressed by the very fact that they are not legally available. When you look at the public health consequences and the individual health consequences of what could be a very substantial increase in use, it is not something we are contemplating; and, therefore, it is not something that we are giving large amounts of money on.

1205.  Given that the drugs policy on any basis, over a long period, has been something of a failure in terms of the level of deaths; in terms of the level of drug use; in terms of the fact that we have had witnesses coming in front of us telling us they can't stop the number of drugs getting into the country; given the scale of the failure which subsists under both Parties, should not the Government be doing some blue sky thinking; particularly when you have got the conservative voices like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph saying that legalisation should be looked at? Should not the Government be at least looking at it?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You have had witnesses coming in front of you who have said everything from one extreme of the spectrum to the other extreme.

1206.  The only thing we have read about is that the policy is not working?

  (Mr Ainsworth) It is against what measures you want to say that. The overwhelming majority of people in this country do not use illegal drugs. The cost of legalisation is, what, in terms of blue sky thinking? These are largely refined agricultural products. What is the difference at the end of the day between the cost of heroin or cocaine and a bag of sugar? To what degree does legalisation get us out of some of the difficulties we have got? Unless we are prepared to contemplate a situation where drugs, including hard drugs, are widely and cheaply available to everybody, including children, you cannot get the legal system out of this area in its entirety. Surely, cigarettes and cigarette smuggling and the rest go to prove that that is the case.

1207.  You do not argue to make cigarettes illegal. If you are saying the reason for making drugs illegal is to make a difference between the price of a bag of sugar and the price of a bag of drugs—the policy is going to be a monumental failure with drugs being cheaper and more widely available.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I would contend that that is not necessarily the case. There is evidence that the wholesale price of drugs is higher than it has been for some time now. The Drug Strategy has only been in since 1998, and that has given us the ability to work across government departments in a joined up way and to focus on the gaps that have been there in the past. I think that if we tried to suggest to people that there is an easy answer, that we can solve problems of illegal drug use either by the present methodology or by legalisation, then we clearly are deceiving them.

1208.  I do not think anyone thinks there is an easy answer; that is certainly not what we have found on this Committee. Just to take this point further about price and availability. If the aim of government policy is to increase the price and reduce availability, why is cannabis going to be reclassified from class B to class C? It would seem to be a move in the opposite direction?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Very simply, as the Home Secretary I think tried to say to the Committee at the start of its deliberations, there is a desire, which we have been pressing for some considerable time now, for the main effort to be directed at drugs that present us with the main problems. Those are the class A drugs; those are the drugs that are responsible for acquisitive crime; those are the drugs which do massive damage to people's personal health. Yet the evidence of police intervention is, first of all, there are different methods of dealing with cannabis possession in different police forces the length and breadth of the country; and that actions against the possession of cannabis were actually rising, and rising year on year. A disproportionate amount of police time is being spent on cannabis by comparison with where we are trying to push the enforcement effort, and that is in the direction of class A drugs. There is also an issue, as I think the Home Secretary tried to say as well, of how we get the message across to young people. They are not stupid; they do know the basic facts in this area, or many of them do; and unless we have a credible message they switch off altogether to everything that we say. If we are trying to say to young people that cannabis is just as bad and just as dangerous as heroin or crack cocaine they hear nothing that we say at all.

  Mr Cameron: Do you think that reclassification is a satisfactory situation? Some of our witnesses have put it to us that it is a halfway house—that you need to supply cannabis into the hands of dangerous, armed criminals and gangs—

  Chairman: Mr Cameron, you wandering into someone else's neck of the woods!

Mr Cameron

1209.  Let me put the question like this: what would you say is the reason not to legalise cannabis, given that it is subject to this change?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I think for the reasons I have given for other drugs, that we risk an increase with regard to use and availability if we do that. There are consequences of that as there are consequences to everything. There is no easy solution to this. People advocate decriminalisation, but decriminalisation of what? Decriminalisation in Holland, for instance, leaves the supply in the hands of criminals. So there is no easy place to draw the line, other than total legality. If you make the supply of cannabis as well as its use and possession legal, then you do risk a very substantial increase in use.

1210.  Does the Drug Strategy differentiate between problematic drug abuse and recreational drug abuse; or do you see it as all one thing?

  (Mr Ainsworth) We do attempt to differentiate on that. The very fact that we have a Drug Strategy in the first place with targets attached has encouraged us to do a lot of work on exactly where the costs arise. Overwhelmingly, both economic costs and social costs to society arise from dramatic drug use. The Committee is aware, I think, that we are in the middle of a stock-taking review at the moment with regard to targets, and one of the issues we want to pick up in the review is whether or not we have sufficient emphasis on problematic drug use, and whether or not the targets on strategies are leading us to attack the worst of the problem.

1211.  If you see a gap between recreational drug use and very problematic hard drug use, particularly at the hard end, do you see any merit in the argument being put to us that if we took cannabis specifically and legalised it and regulated it you would be taking it out of the black market? At the moment if you go and buy cannabis you are offered every other drug under the sun and you are swimming in a black market pool. Do you think that argument has merit and, if it does, is the Government looking at it?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I think it is overstated. I think that the overwhelming majority of drugs are delivered in small quantities by people who are known to the end users at the end of the day. I think, yes, the same people are involved in the supply of different drugs. The Committee needs to reflect on this if it thinks there is some way to take cannabis out and treat it differently, How exactly are we suggesting we supply it—through tobacconists?

1212.  We are asking the Government. We as a Committee are asking the Government. You have decided there is a difference between recreational drug use, because you have just told me, and hard drug use, and yet you have ruled out looking at any form of legalisation or decriminalisation as a government, and that is what I find baffling.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I think you are twisting very slightly what I have said. We are concerned about recreational drug use and all drug use, but we do see the need for additional resources, additional emphasis and additional focus on dealing with problematic drug use.

1213.  What do you think of the arguments against decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of any drugs, particularly cannabis for personal use?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not know exactly what people mean by "decriminalisation". There are different experiments in different countries.

1214.  Presumably you would not be arrested and a policeman would walk on by, as they do in large parts of London at the moment?

  (Mr Ainsworth) What I think people mean is that we replace for possession only or small quantities some kind of civil penalty, a fining regime with the potential for arrest and court action. Where people have experimented in that, I would ask the Committee to look at what happened in South Australia recently—they actually found against a fairly rigid system. I think people found there was a substantial increase in the numbers of offenders on possession of cannabis. You may well find if you move to some kind of system like that you do apply a rigidity to the law enforcement system that does not necessarily apply at the moment. There would also be massive problems, I would suggest, in the quantity of the fines that may well be appropriate to some kind of decriminalised regime.

1215.  With respect, you are twisting my words a bit and saying decriminalisation should be a form of civil penalties with more aggressive policing than you have at the moment. I take the view that decriminalisation is almost what is happening in Brixton at the moment. People can take small amounts of cannabis and they are not being arrested by the police.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I gave you my definition of decriminalisation. I would say to you, that I have difficulty understanding exactly what people were advocating when they said "decriminalisation". If you would like to tell me what you mean by decriminalisation I will comment on it.

1216.  I think probably what is happening in Brixton is a form of decriminalisation. People are smoking or possessing small amounts of cannabis and are not being arrested.

  (Mr Ainsworth) It is not decriminalisation; it is reclassification. There are other drugs that have been in the B and C class for some time. If the Advisory Council go along with the idea of reclassifying cannabis, cannabis will remain illegal, with potential for caution by the police on the suppliers, and possession with intent to supply will still be there. We are in one part bringing the law into line with what is being practised by many police forces in any case. As I have said, we are trying to direct police resources where we feel they ought to be, targeted at class A drugs.

1217.  Just one last question, which is the definition of supply. A number of witnesses have come before us and said there is a problem at the moment because, as I understand it, you have two things that are illegal: possession, and possession with intent to supply. Possession with intent to supply can cover anything from the possession of a few, let us say, ecstasy tablets or a small bag of grass, to possession of a lot of drugs with a big dealer. Do you think the law must reflect the difference between possession of a small amount of drugs, which may or may not be for personal use, and possession of a lot of drugs in terms of being a dealer? Do you need a new offence of dealing?

  (Mr Ainsworth) At the moment there are three offences which are available. If we were to suggest that dealing should be replaced with possession and replace possession with intent to supply, we would have to define "dealing". If we were to define dealing by possession of a particular amount, then we would find systematically people were on the streets with just under that amount. People are not stupid, and that is exactly what they would do. We would, in effect, be depriving the police of that middle option, where they feel that they have enough evidence to show that the person is in possession with intent. At the moment we enable them, where they think it is appropriate to take that case to court, not to accept it as simple possession, and to attempt to prosecute somebody who is effectively dealing. The alternative is you put some physical measure above or below a particular number of grammes. That would certainly simplify the process. There would be, in effect, only two charges to be brought, dealing, trafficking or supply and, the other one, possession for personal use. We would see systematically people riding that threshold.

1218.  You do not think there is a problem at the moment with some people being taken to court and being imprisoned for possession on possession of a relatively small amount of drugs because that is still called possession with intent to supply?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I am aware of the evidence you have received and I have tried to check on whether or not that is actually going on. I do not believe, from what has been fed back to me since then, that possession with intent to supply is being used inappropriately or in a massive amount of cases[1]

  Mr Cameron: It might be useful for you get back to us because that is something we have been asked to look at.


1219.  One of the points made, Minister, was that a great deal of court time is taken up with arguments over whether it is possession or whether someone is a dealer; and expert witnesses have to be called in at great expense. Would it just be better if everybody knew where the line was, despite the disadvantage to which you draw attention?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages, as I have said. I think that to some degree depends not only on the court time with the individual cases, but the numbers of cases that are being brought. I have been told at the moment those cases are only being brought where police officers have a high degree of suspicion that trafficking is effectively going on. There is not the evidence to bring a case of trafficking itself, but they do believe they can prove a case of possession with intent to supply, and they do so. If that offence was being used widely and inappropriately at the expense of massive amounts of court time I think you would be absolutely right, there might be a case to review and to look carefully at the benefits of putting set amounts. I am told that it is not.

1   See Appendix, Ev225-6. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002