Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1240 - 1259)



1240.  I understand that the Police Foundation (and I emphasise "Foundation" as opposed to the previous organisation) is preparing a report on the experiment in Lambeth which is due to be published at the end of February. Could you confirm or otherwise?

  (Mr Ainsworth) The evaluation of the Lambeth experiment should be available this month.

1241.  I know you do not like leaks or reports of leaks, but I understand that it has been found, be it in that report or elsewhere, that arising from what has happened in Lambeth more than 2,500 police hours have been saved and, moreover, it has led to a 19 per cent increase in the arrest of class A drugs. If we can take one at a time. If it is true that it has saved so much police time, namely turning a blind eye, to use a phrase, to the very small possession of cannabis, that in itself in dealing with criminality (and we know what is happening generally in London, if not elsewhere, with criminality) is a tremendous asset, is it not?

  (Mr Ainsworth) As I tried to say earlier on, the initial reports I am getting are that what is going on in Lambeth has been quite positive. I have not seen the leak you are talking about, but it is not out of line with those interim evaluations I have. It is important we get the proper full evaluation.

1242.  What people would say, Minister, is simply this: given the amount of criminality which, unfortunately is occurring—which I am not going to go into, it is not your remit nor ours at this particular session, we had one last week with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police—it does seem odd that outside of Lambeth police time should be taken up not with other drugs, which have already been asked about by two of my colleagues, but by cannabis; that so much time should be "wasted" on small possession of the use of cannabis, while we know what is going on as far as criminality is concerned. Is it not absolutely sensible that the Lambeth scheme should be extended?

  (Mr Ainsworth) As I think I have explained, the effects of reclassification would be very similar in terms of policing to what is going on in Lambeth at the moment. It is not right, I do not think, that the Home Secretary effectively does things by diktat and without appropriate consultation. Therefore, he made the announcement he did to this Committee at the start of your inquiry. We are consulting the Drug Advisory Council before any decision will be taken. I do not disagree with what you are saying. I get pretty tired of answering parliamentary questions that show trends of offences and arrests for possession of cannabis going up and up when, in theory, everybody is supposed to be focussed a little more on the drugs doing the real damage.

1243.  I suppose one would therefore ask why it took so long for the Home Secretary to come to the view that cannabis should be classified. Why was it not done previously?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I think you will find the Police Foundation did a report, I cannot remember how long ago, but at the outcome of that it was said that the classification of all drugs will be kept under review; and this Home Secretary, picking up what the Police Foundation said, took the decision he did and reported to this Committee.

1244.  I will not be so unkind as to ask why there was a hostile response from the Home Office after the Police Foundation report on what has happened since, because you were not in office at the time. Can I come on to another aspect and it is simply this, Minister: if it is possible for Lambeth, as we know now, to have a small amount of cannabis for one's own use, is it not the case that in order for that to happen, if a person wants to take cannabis, the supply must come from a criminal source?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Yes.

1245.  Is there any logic in that? I know to some extent this has been touched on. If it is going to be reclassified (and, as you have indicated, everyone will be somewhat surprised if it would be other than recommended, such reclassification), why therefore should one be in a position where one could use a small amount of cannabis and yet at the same time have to go a criminal source who will provide it? Obviously the criminal sources will be very happy to do so, will they not?

  (Mr Ainsworth) One is not in a position where one can possess and use small amounts of cannabis. Cannabis is being reclassified to class C; it will still be illegal. There is no intention of legalising it or decriminalising it under the different models people have for decriminalisation; so the possession of cannabis will remain illegal, albeit there will be a redirection and potentially a saving of police time.

1246.  Are you not concerned, and is not the Home Secretary concerned, that the law will be put into disrepute even more? If cannabis is reclassified and one knows in practice a small amount for one's own use is not going to lead to prosecution and yet, at the same time, it is not legalised as such, everyone knows that in practice it is but the law does not say so. So the danger is that, unfortunately (because I would wish it was otherwise) with quite a substantial minority using cannabis people would take no notice of the law even more so, because they know they are not going to be prosecuted because of reclassification; yet at the same time the law says, "You shouldn't be doing what you are because it's illegal"?

  (Mr Ainsworth) It still will lead to confiscation and caution; and if we are effectively saving police time (and that is why I say the final evaluation does need to be looked at, and we should not jump to any conclusion) then it will improve effective policing; not only effective policing to be used against other drugs but potentially more effective policing against cannabis possession. If we can confiscate an amount of cannabis that is worth a substantial amount often to the person who has possession of it, and do that efficiently and effectively without tying up a police officer for three, four or five hours in order to drag them in front of a magistrate in order for a magistrate to present them with a £30 or £40 fine, there is not a massive difference in terms of penalty at the end of the day. It is just that we have enabled the police to move on, and we have encouraged the police to refocus their activity in the areas where we see the most damage being done. There is no intention to legalise the possession of cannabis.

1247.  As it is now. In four or five years' time (and obviously you could not say otherwise) would you be surprised, Minister, if people would come to the view that, having reclassified (as I am sure it will be) cannabis, in perhaps four or five years' time or less than that, cannabis will be quite legal. You will be surprised if that was so?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I can only assure you, when we were considering this policy over the recess between the General Election and the start of the Parliamentary session, when the Home Secretary came in front of this Committee we did not consider it as part of an ongoing process towards something else. We considered it as a practical measure to be taken in itself.

  David Winnick: We shall see, Minister.

Bob Russell

1248.  Minister, is there such a thing as classification or legal definition for "recreational drug"?

  (Mr Ainsworth) There is no classification for recreational drug. There is a definition that is used about the way in which people use drugs and whether or not they are in control to any extent of their use of drugs in terms of problematic drug users, on the one hand, and recreational drug users on the other; but those can apply to almost any kind of drug irrespective of classification.

1249.  Would you agree that use of the phrase "recreational drug" gives the impression somehow that is okay in the same way as punishment beating in Northern Ireland is mentioned as different from any other form of beating? Surely a drug is a drug?

  (Mr Ainsworth) As nobody, as far as I am aware, uses the phrase a "recreational drug", I do not know that that is an issue, is it? Who uses the words "recreational drug"? To what substance?

1250.  Minister, I think when you check the record you will find today you have used the phrase "recreational drug". If you are saying it is not part of your vocabulary I welcome that.

  (Mr Ainsworth) What I have said is that there are people who manage, over fairly long periods of time (when they can slip into problematic drug use) to use drugs in a recreational fashion without becoming problematic drug users. That can apply to any substance, as far as I am aware. I see no particular substance as being a recreational drug. If I have given that impression I did not intend to.

1251.  I welcome that and hope, Minister, that the phrase "recreational drugs" will cease to be part of the vocabulary. I hope you agree with me that that phraseology gives the impression that perhaps the use of some drugs is acceptable?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Let us check the record first. I do not think I did.

  Chairman: If it is of any help to you, Mr Russell, I think I introduced the word into the proceedings.

Bob Russell

1252.  Whoever is using it, let us agree not to use it. Minister, can you confirm that the strength of cannabis being used today is stronger than it was ten or 20 years ago?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Not in every case; but there are some forms of cannabis which are a lot stronger than the norm. There are some cannabis products that are highly hallucinogenic and far faster.

1253.  Just to put everything into context, Minister, what is the official view of the Home Office of the number of people who are taking drugs?

  (Mr Ainsworth) The number of people who are taking all drugs?

1254.  In the context of the population of the country and those who are taking drugs?

  (Mr Ainsworth) 4 million people admit to using illicit drugs in each year. 1.8 million of those are class A drugs. We then, as best we can, size the number of people whom we class as problematic drug users as anything between 160,000 to 280,000. It is very hard to become specific about this.

1255.  So in the region of a quarter of a million out of a population in excess of 50 million?

  (Mr Ainsworth) 200,00 to a quarter of a million problematic drug users in this country, yes.


1256.  Just sticking with cannabis for a moment—when it has been declassified, if it is, will it still feature in the crime statistics as an offence that has been dealt with?

  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not think it will make any difference to the reporting mechanisms.

1257.  What I wanted to put to you was this: one of the reasons that there are so many prosecutions at the moment for cannabis possession is that it is quite easy to jack the figures up there. If you are dependent on targets for a living that is an easy way of doing it—going after the minor criminals, as it were, who are easily got at rather than chasing the difficult ones?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You are absolutely right. In providing incentives we need to make sure they are properly directed. That is exactly what we are trying to do through encouragement to tackle the issue of class A drugs.

1258.  Might there be a danger, despite reclassification, that police interest in this area will continue to be relatively intense, because they will be thinking not about cannabis but about targets?

  (Mr Ainsworth) It is about how we structure the targets we apply to the police. It will also be about how we structure the targets following the stocktake of the Drug Strategy. I think you are absolutely right, we need to try to make sure there are many changes to the Drug Strategy, that we are maximising the focus and the efficiency of the resources we are applying to the areas we want to apply to.

1259.  Any divisional commander who was anxious to be able to claim lots of successes, and is under pressure to do so, is obviously going to go for the easiest areas because that is what improves his figures most easily. Is not some adjustment going to have to be made to the reporting process if we want to get the police off cannabis, as it were, and on to the more serious drug related offences?

  (Mr Ainsworth) That is precisely our motivation to do exactly that. Yes, we will look at those issues.

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