Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1260 - 1279)



1260.  The other point which has been put to us is that some types of cannabis are extremely carcinogenic and that, if anything, it has got a lot stronger than it was in the alleged golden age of the 1960s. Therefore, some types of cannabis deserve to be in the higher category of harm alone. Any thoughts on that?

  (Mr Ainsworth) You can remember the 1960s, can you?

1261.  I had hair in those days!

  (Mr Ainsworth) You know what they say about that—if you can remember you were not there! There are available cannabis strains which are a lot stronger, and there are health problems taking cannabis both in the short-term as well as potential long-term health problems. There is not enough research done on that as of yet. That is the reason for us continuing to believe that cannabis should remain an illegal substance. With the skunk cannabis, as they call it, the THC-bearing cannabis, there is no evidence as far as we are aware that it has carcinogenic contents greater or significantly greater than long-term regular use of ordinary cannabis.

  Chairman: Let us turn to the subject of ecstasy.

Mr Watson

1262.  Good morning, Minister. It is nice to see you in a different forum. You have touched on the total use of drugs in the UK, can you give us your estimation of the prevalence of ecstasy use, both in terms of users and the number of pills taken?

  (Mr Ainsworth) There have been a lot of reports around and some conclusions that have been jumped to off the back of Home Office reports that need to be used with care. The best measure of use for ecstasy is the British Crime Survey, which suggests that 5 per cent of young people have used ecstasy at least once in the last year.

1263.  Does that demonstrate a fall in its use or an increase?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Over the recent past there was a rise in the level of ecstasy use which appears, in the last couple of years, to have tailed off. We have no evidence that it is going down.

1264.  Is there a validity to reports about a recent Customs and Excise report which says that ecstasy use is something like 2 million pills a week?

  (Mr Ainsworth) There have been a number of reports out and some of them have carried their own riders in terms of people being asked to consider them with caution, because the methodology was something that needed proper evaluation over a period of time. We still believe that the best measure of the level of ecstasy use is that it is not going up but, equally, it is not going down.

1265.  Do you believe that ecstasy is as dangerous as cocaine or heroin?

  (Mr Ainsworth) It is a different drug, with different effects. It does not carry the kind of physical addictions that heroin does—there is no doubt about that. There is no safe dose of ecstasy. There is a popular myth that some of the ecstasy-related deaths have been caused by impurities. That is a myth. There is no evidence that ecstasy has been cut in this country by any substance that is any more dangerous than ecstasy itself. Ecstasy is a dangerous drug to take.

1266.  Is it as harmful as cocaine or heroin?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Its harms are different in that it is used for recreational enjoyment. The level of dose that people take in order to get the enjoyment they get from it are potentially dangerous and life threatening.

1267.  What about the link to acquisitive crime? Is that as great or as risky as heroin?

  (Mr Ainsworth) It is not. The two drugs that have a proven link to acquisitive crime are heroin and cocaine.

1268.  Following on from the logic of your argument and the Home Secretary's argument which said that reclassification of cannabis should be based on concern that the classes of drugs should reflect relative harm, is there not a logic to us reclassifying ecstasy and LSD, given that they are class A drugs now in the same classification as heroin and cocaine?

  (Mr Ainsworth) That does not mean we cannot target resources at areas of need. Knowing what we know about ecstasy in terms of the immediate risk of, at worst, death; and not knowing (because while it has been around for quite some time as a drug) the misuse of ecstasy in any quantity, for the moment; not knowing the long-term health consequences of ecstasy; and in the absence of any specific recommendation from the Advisory Council, it would be wholly wrong in my opinion for us to reclassify ecstasy.

1269.  Presumably, if we liberated all this new police time to target harder drug use with reclassification of cannabis; and if we accept that ecstasy does not have a greater link with acquisitive crime and has a different harm and is less addictive, the same logic would apply that we could reclassify ecstasy to class B?

  (Mr Ainsworth) As I say, we think that ecstasy is a dangerous drug. It is a dangerous drug in its immediacy. We do not know about the long-term consequences of regular use and we see no reason or justification for reclassification of ecstasy. I do not think we should exaggerate the amount of police time that has been thrown up by the reclassification of cannabis, as if we are going to be able to move hordes of man hours into tackling other areas. I think potentially it can be of benefit, but it is not going to be of a massive order.

1270.  You are on record as saying that you do not think there will be an increase in cannabis use as a result of reclassification from class B to C. Presumably your argument would hold true if there was a reclassification of ecstasy from A to B. You believe there will be an increase in use?

  (Mr Ainsworth) We do not think there is an increase in the use of cannabis as inevitable from reclassification at all. If we did our reaction would be different to that which it was. I do not know, is the obvious answer, what the consequences of the reclassification of ecstasy might be. It could be we send a message to people that it is a safe drug to use; and that would be a very damaging message to send.

1271.  Presumably you could employ the same argument with the reclassification of cannabis. There is a sort of incongruity to the logic there.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I think we have to look at how we get the message across to people; whether or not we have any credibility in the message we are getting across to people. I know there are arguments repeatedly made for the reclassification of ecstasy. It is not my belief the fact that ecstasy is in class A is massively detracting from the message to young people. I think there is quite a fear where people are aware of the potential consequences of ecstasy of taking it and that is discouraging ecstasy use. I think that is part of the reason why the increase in the use of ecstasy has actually tailed off in the last few years.

1272.  But it has been said to us that government policy is slightly confused in this area. What we are precisely saying by keeping them in the same class is that heroin is on an equal scale of harm to ecstasy, and that message is not believed by drug users in the community.

  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not know to what extent it is believed, but just because all of these drugs are classed as A does not mean that we are equally concerned about every aspect of every single one of them. For instance, I think we have got a particular problem with crack cocaine and if you start looking at overall harm done by any given substance, given the kind of culture that surrounds the supply of crack cocaine and the massive damage that it is doing to certain communities and inner-city areas, you could argue that that warrants some higher classification, but there is not necessarily a need to make crack cocaine Super A in order to try to zoom in on and apply the necessary resources to start to try to tackle those problems.

1273.  So at some point in the future we could be looking at a complete overhaul of the classification system to tease out these relative differences or do you think we will keep pretty well to the old system?

  (Mr Ainsworth) No, we are not looking at that. One of the things we are looking at which the Home Secretary tried to indicate to the Committee, I think, is that we are looking at introducing to a greater extent in the Drug Strategy the concept of harm minimisation. I cannot say, because the review has not finished yet, exactly where we have got to with regard to that evaluation, but if we are looking at harm minimisation, then it is only right that we should look at the harm that is done by particular substances and the way that they are used and the impact that they have on particular communities. I do not think that we need a reclassification in order to be able to do that. I think we need to look carefully at the structure of the strategy, the targets, the SDAs that underpin, the service delivery that underpins the targets as well, and I think that we can do that within a harm minimisation direction, but we do not need to have a separate classification for every single substance that exists and put them in ranking order.


1274.  Just pursuing the point about ecstasy, Minister, one of the organisations that gave evidence to us, Turning Point, said that changes to the drugs law, and I think they were referring to classification, would also greatly enhance the credibility of drugs education work, and they went on to say that, for example, ecstasy is classed alongside heroin and cocaine, but it is not perceived by some young people as being as dangerous, so when the police and other workers are talking about other class A drugs, these more serious messages are also being discredited. What do you say to that?

  (Mr Ainsworth) We have not accepted it, otherwise we would do what they effectively suggest. We know that there are arguments for both reclassification with regard to cannabis and reclassification with regard to ecstasy. On the cannabis ones we thought there were good grounds underpinning the arguments, that we were effectively detracting from the message that we were sending across to people about drugs overall by being seen, and it was not necessarily true, but by being seen as counting cannabis as as important or as dangerous or as threatening as class A drugs and we needed to try to differentiate a little bit the message that we sent across in order to make it credible. The same argument is presented by the people you suggest with regard to ecstasy, but we do not think that it is true to anything like the extent that it is with cannabis. As I have said, it is a life-threatening drug and there is no safe dose. The Advisory Council looked at ecstasy as recently as 1997 and decided to keep it as class A. Now, in the absence of knowledge about the long-term health effects or any feeling that this was a safe drug to take in any way, it would be irresponsible, in our opinion, to reclassify ecstasy.

1275.  There is just one other point. You were quoting some statistics for drugs usage a few minutes ago. Can you just tell us what the source was?

  (Mr Ainsworth) The source is overwhelmingly the British Crime Survey.

1276.  Could you let us have a copy of whatever it is you are reading from?

  (Mr Ainsworth) Yes.[2]

Mr Prosser

1277.  Minister, in your answers to Mr Watson, you mentioned that cocaine and crack cocaine in particular are especially harmful drugs.

  (Mr Ainsworth) Yes.

1278.  All the evidence we have received backs that up and suggests they are really nasty drugs to deal with, but at the moment there is no model of treatment in place for helping users of crack cocaine. We have heard of a team of experts which is looking into the matter, so can you tell us what progress it has made?

  (Mr Ainsworth) The team of experts met for the first time last month in order to look at treatment. You are absolutely right, that treatment in terms of stimulants, particularly cocaine and crack cocaine, is a long way back from that which has developed surrounding opiates where there is a lot of knowledge which has been built up over a period of time, but there is some good practice and some effective practice which is taking place in parts of the country. There was a high degree of consensus for these at that meeting about a way forward and the way forward is, first of all, that in trying to make sure that treatment is available wherever it is needed, and it is not yet, it is very patchy, so we need that capacity, and we need also to be able to spread best practice which is actually working in terms of stimulants. Cocaine addiction, I am told, is very different from heroin addiction in that it is not physical addiction where people need to be maintained and withdrawn over a long period of time, but it is more of a psychological addiction. In treating it, people need at the beginning just to be able steady people down in order to be able to talk to them and communicate with them at all, heavy, problematic users, and then they need to address the underlying problems which will enable them break the addiction themselves. As I say, there is some expertise that is growing and we need, following the consensus meeting, to take forward what was agreed there, to use the NTA which we have just set up, to make sure that that capacity is spread throughout the country where it is needed.

1279.  Do you have a view of when they will report back with their recommendations? Have you set them targets for that?

  (Mr Ainsworth) By the end of the year.

2   See Appendix, Ev226 & Ev229-230. Back

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