Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1220 - 1239)



1220.  It was put to us in the context of some young person buying, say, half a dozen ecstasy tablets and sharing them out amongst his or her mates perhaps at cost price, and that they then are dealers. That is the argument that takes place—whether they are dealers or whether they are in possession. You end up criminalising a lot of people who actually are not dealers really, in the sense that most of us would understand it, but are recreational users.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I think that kind of market exists for all the drugs we are dealing with—that kind of small scale dealing by friends, acquaintances and the rest. Yes, there is a line of judgment to be drawn as to where you want to use the law. I think there needs to be discretion by the prosecuting authorities as to when they seek to use possession with intent. I do not think there is any easy way around it though. It is not only would you find friends who are buying and selling on at cost, but you would find quite systematically people putting stashes in safe places and going out with just under the amount, and effectively being immune from any action taken against them for trafficking.

1221.  It could be that already happens at the moment. It is just a subjective judgment about what constitutes dealing. No doubt those who do deal keep a stash somewhere, and they only get done for dealing if they are caught with the stash, on the whole?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You are absolutely right. At the moment we have the potential of this third offence, this middle offence, that can be brought. What we would effectively be doing, we would be removing that potential, I think.

Mr Cameron

1222.  If you define decriminalisation as no civil or criminal penalties for the personal use, i.e. the legalisation and possession; if you are saying the Government is against that, how can you tolerate what is happening in Lambeth and Brixton where that, as far as I am concerned, is the case?

  (Mr Ainsworth) At least now we have defined the situation, and what is being said is why do you not consider legalisation of possession and not decriminalisation.

1223.  Which is what I think is happening in parts of London.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not accept that that is so. For a start off, you will be aware that this was a police initiative from within the Metropolitan Police Authority. From their point of view it was about redirecting resources and using police resources effectively. We have not had the final evaluation of that yet. Obviously that will be taken into account with any policy change there may well be. The initial feedback I have had on the experiment is that there is still a lot of effective action being taken against possession of cannabis. As a matter of fact, there are more confiscations of cannabis than there were prosecutions for the offence. We must wait for the final analysis and evaluation of what has gone on in Lambeth. It may well be that the police have achieved what they wanted to achieve, and they are effectively able to deprive people of cannabis where they are smoking it without disproportionately wasting police time. Let us wait and see what the evaluation is.


1224.  Can I just take you back to where we came in, and that is on this point about legalising and regulating not all drugs but certain drugs. What about just the soft ones? The argument has been put to us most strongly in relation to heroin; where it is said that most of the deaths that arise from heroin arise because the supply is adulterated; because there is a lot of chaotic heroin use by people who are on the streets; and you would get all these people into a more controlled environment if you legalised it, regulated it, and explained the risks. One of our witnesses, a medical man, said to us that providing it didn't cause harm to others he could not see why people, once they had had the risks explained to them, should not be permitted to go to hell in their own handcart. What do you say to that?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You know that the Home Secretary has asked for an evaluation of the provision of heroin on prescription to be looked at again. An expert group has looked at that and there is going to be something put forward about that situation. Heroin is a highly addictive substance, as you know. There is no known top threshold for the amount people can take to make themselves compliant with. I think that would be a recipe for increasing the harm done to people quite substantially, and effectively providing the ability for suppliers to go on and for there to be less effective controls on the supply of heroin.

1225.  The other argument is the collapse of a fair part, though not all, of the criminal market.

  (Mr Ainsworth) How would we do that, because the supply would remain a criminal activity.

1226.  Presumably it would not remain a criminal act?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You are suggesting the legalisation of heroin?

1227.  I am putting to you the pure legalisation argument. Making it available to chemists, supermarkets, or whatever, the quality was controlled, the risks were explained clearly on the side of the packet. Obviously there would have to be an age limit as there is with cigarettes and other dangerous substances.

  (Mr Ainsworth) You presuppose that the impurities are the main cause of death with heroin.

1228.  That has been suggested to us.

  (Mr Ainsworth) There have been some quite spectacular individual cases where supplies of heroin have led to a number of deaths. Heroin itself is a highly dangerous substance, massively addictive, and people take it, wind up becoming completely dependent upon it and wind up taking it with other substances as well and deaths are caused, in fairly large numbers, other than through impurities. I do not believe we would have the ability, without massive input from the law enforcement criminal justice system, to be able to control the supply in the way you suggest we might be able to. Warnings on the packets, available only through particular suppliers. How would we keep it out of the hands of children? How would we be able to evaluate the costs of potentially a very large increase in the use of heroin that might flow?

1229.  You focus your enforcement, presumably, on doing that, just as you do with cigarettes.

  (Mr Ainsworth) Do we do it successfully with cigarettes?

1230.  Up to a point. Do we do it at the moment in terms of keeping it out of the hands of people under age successfully?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not believe that heroin is as freely available to young people as it would be in the kind of regime you describe. I think it would be a lot more available. That people would not be discouraged from using it; but there would be a line which would be peddled that if it is legal it must be okay. We would see a substantial increase in the use of heroin and heroin addiction, and not only among addicts but young people as well.

1231.  The argument which has been put to us is that we actually have seen a substantial increase in the use of heroin over the 30 years in which the existing policy has been pursued?

  (Mr Ainsworth) That certainly is not true of the recent past. There is no evidence of a substantial increase of heroin addiction in this country at the moment.

1232.  Over what period of time?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I am talking about over the last ten years or so. The use of drugs is broadly stable. Ecstasy use went up, and there is some evidence it has now tailed off. LSD and amphetamine use has gone down. There is a rather worrying increase in the use of cocaine. There is absolutely no evidence of an increase in the use of heroin.

1233.  The other argument which has been put to us is that you would collapse a large part of the criminal market, because you would be selling it at such a low price and, therefore, people would not have to burgle in order to feed a habit?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You are absolutely right. If you were prepared to sell it at a low price to almost anybody there would be no opportunity for a secondary market to grow around the primary market. If you attempted to tax it, regulate the price, or prevented it getting into the hands of people whose hands you did not want it to get into then a secondary market would grow up around the legal market, and we would have some of the same problems of enforcement that we have now.

David Winnick

1234.  Minister, to return to the topic which has already been mentioned, namely, cannabis, is it intended, so far as you know, for the Lambeth experiment or scheme to be extended elsewhere?

  (Mr Ainsworth) There are a couple of things going on with regard to cannabis. The Lambeth experiment was not a government project, it was a Metropolitan Police Service project. You know that the Home Secretary has told you at the start of your inquiry, rather than halfway through, he was minded to ask the Drug Advisory Council to consider the reclassification of cannabis. We obviously, in taking a view on that, will want to look at the outcome of your report, the outcome of the Lambeth report and what the Drug Advisory Council themselves say. The motives, as I have tried to say, were not simple and singular; they were about trying to bring the law into line with that which was being practised in some police authorities in any case, and provide some consistency within police authorities; direct police resources a little more towards class A drugs where the most damage was being done; and get a more credible message to send out to young people in order to get through to them about the damage that drugs do.

1235.  That seems a very sensible explanation and, therefore, the inevitable question, if that is the situation in the London Borough of Lambeth, why not in other places? After all, it is strange, is it not, to have in effect one law (though it is not law in the sense of any Act being passed) being applicable in one particular area but not in another? People will inevitably ask, "Why should we be apprehended if we wouldn't be in Lambeth?"

  (Mr Ainsworth) If the Advisory Council recommended reclassification—

1236.  Which you expect, do you not?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I will be surprised if they do not.

1237.  So would all of us.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I have admitted that before. If they do that then the consequences of reclassification to C will be that possession of small amounts would not be an arrestable offence. Some of what is going on in terms of the police experiment in Lambeth will become the law of the land.

1238.  Did you welcome the initiative taken by senior police officers in Lambeth, or did the Home Office take the view that it was none of their business and leave it purely and simply as a police operation?

  (Mr Ainsworth) We did not provoke it, but we did not condemn it either. We were happy to watch it, and very interested in seeing the evaluation because, you are absolutely right, there are, effectively, these post code lotteries with regard to how the police deal with the possession of small amounts of cannabis.

1239.  The Police Federation have expressed to us some (let us put it as mildly as possible) reservations. Do you know of any objections by officers on the beat in the London Borough of Lambeth who say, in effect, this is the wrong policy and have indicated?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I have not met the officers on the beat in Lambeth since the early days of the experiment. It would be fair to say there were mixed views among those officers when I did met them, but there was not hostility to it. There was not general hostility to it. Their main worry is about the drugs that we are worried about—about heroin and cocaine. Their own concerns were that they were able to take effective action and this would assist them in doing so, and not present them with difficulties in doing so. That was right at the very early days. I have not spoken to them since back in October.

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