Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1400 - 1419)



  1400. It was about cannabis, the change which has occurred.
  (Mr Gillespie) About the policy-makers, do you mean?

  1401. Yes, the change which has been announced, that a small use of cannabis will not lead to a prosecution, to a warning, but not a prosecution.
  (Mr Gillespie) When I was talking to these people and just trying to comfort them in the best way that one could because it is always, "Why me? Why my family?", we got round to this business of legalisation, what should be and what should not, and not one of them, not one of them would even countenance the idea. "How could you suggest such a thing?", that is the immediate reaction. I think the small move towards cannabis by the policy-makers is a step in that direction, but it has got to go much further for the reasons we have already mentioned this morning.

  1402. Can I finally put this question to you. Some have argued that yes, it is perfectly true that tobacco and alcohol are not illegal or ever likely to be and yet cause all the difficulties that they do and so many people die as a result of excessive alcohol and smoking, that is obvious, but if at a time when every effort is being made to try to discourage people from smoking and excessive drinking, does it really make any sense, the critics of your viewpoint ask, to legalise or decriminalise to such an extent drugs which, they argue, will only encourage people to use drugs more than at present? Would you like, each of you, to give a view?
  (Mr Gillespie) Chairman, I do not advocate decriminalisation because that leaves it on the statute book. For the reasons I gave earlier, I vote for legalisation because that way we are in charge of the power station, not the criminals and in that way we can actually regulate and do something early on in education, then prevention and, finally, if people are determined to go on to drugs, treatment, but it takes it out of the criminal law and it puts it back into our hands so that we can control things. That is my view.
  (Mr Sims) ADFAM's view, and it is touching on the question you asked earlier, Mr Winnick, about whether things have moved in the right direction as well as this second question that you ask, is that certainly hearings like this and apparent moves in the Home Office to change the legal status of a particular drug and other drugs have to be welcomed, but our view is also that that is only one facet of a rather more complicated picture in that the law is not the answer alone. I was struck when reviewing DrugScope's evidence to this Committee that there is no correlation in that evidence between the legal status of cannabis in other countries, for example, and the degree to which it is used and that, therefore, whether the drug is illegal or not can be, in the case of cannabis, in international evidence irrelevant. What we hold is that the law is just one part of a multi-faceted approach which has to include prevention and education because even though it is not surprising that some law-makers would believe that the law is the answer, we do not think that it is alone and we think that education is at least as important. I heard a story last week from Liverpool 8 where people are currently being stopped on the street where they are openly smoking or using cannabis because they now think that it is fine to do so, and that is just one small example of confusion that seems to be generally what we hear around the country now about the status of the law, so we advocate for an increased investment in prevention and in education. At the same time hearings like this must go on because we have said in our evidence to this Committee that what we welcome is discussion, but we are not ready to take any kind of position on legalisation yet.
  (Mrs Humphreys) I just think that the law is not working and the use of drugs is going up anyway, so it would certainly be worth trying something else. If we had the control, then it could be all out in the open much more and the harm could definitely be reduced.

  1403. Are more people taking drugs if it is no longer considered a criminal activity?
  (Mrs Humphreys) I do not know that that is necessarily true that they will. I think people have the drug of choice. A lot of people do not want to smoke cannabis because they do not like smoking and they prefer alcohol because it makes them feel better. All right, it might be adding a few more things, but I think everybody will do something that they enjoy.
  (Ms Williams) I think I agree with Hywel and ADFAM that it cannot be seen in isolation and that you have to look at the package. Just to look at heroin use, if the education, the prevention and the treatment were right, surely there would not be a market for the use of heroin and surely that would go.

Angela Watkinson

  1404. Ms Williams, if I could start with you, you have described very graphically the devastating effects of drug addiction and you say that there are examples which are rife in your town centre, so people can see for themselves the effect that it has on health and moral fibre and that people who maybe would not otherwise have considered committing crimes are living by stealing from others to feed their habits and the devastating effects on the families and the suffering that that causes. Since your town is full of examples of what happens when drugs are taken, can you suggest why more and more young people are still being tempted to take them despite all the evidence that is under their noses?
  (Ms Williams) Because in our town it just seems to be like a follow-the-leader type of thing and they are doing it for the buzz still, even though the evidence is there and they can see it in front of their faces. We have got girls as young as 13 and 14 prostituting themselves for a £5 bag of heroin, yet it still continues and we are getting younger and younger children who seem to want to go down that road. I do not know why. In my son's case, he said he did not really know what it was. He thought it was just like cannabis and he did not realise that it was so addictive.

  1405. He did not realise? Had he had education at school?
  (Ms Williams) We are going back about eight years and there was no heroin in our town then. It hit us late. It hit us very late. I did not know a heroin user and I think we maybe had one and that would have been from the 1960s. We did not have it. It is not like London. It was quite a quiet town.

  1406. You have said now that the few people who have had rehab treatment, when they go back on to the streets, immediately other dealers are tempting them back into their old habits, so how do you think in practical terms we could overcome this problem, having a large concentration of addicts in a town centre like yours? If we are to prevent that from happening, how could treatment be provided for such a large number of people all at the same time?
  (Ms Williams) Well, we lock large numbers of people up for £700 a week, so again if you look at the cost and the commonsense argument, it is cheaper. You get a better rate of return because it is about 50 per cent of people coming out of residential rehab that it actually works for and you do not have the same rate when they come out of prison, so that is one argument. As well as that, a lot of people, if they are detoxed and have gone into residential rehabs outside the area, they do not choose to come back, but they relocate somewhere else because they do not have to. It is too hard for them sometimes to come back into their home towns and that again is their choice if they do that. They make that choice and I think it is a good choice for a lot of people. Some people, if they are away long enough, then feel strong enough to come back in.

  1407. One of the biggest problems I see, apart from dealing with the addicts that exist, is preventing the next lot of addicts coming along. Can you suggest any way that you can see which will prevent the next lot of young people being tempted into taking illegal drugs?
  (Ms Williams) I like the idea of using people, ex-users going around schools and I would like to see that. They say in the papers that they did not think shock tactics, like seeing the pictures of the young girl who died, worked, but I thought they did work and I thought, when I was speaking to the children in schools, it seemed to have an impact. Again you have got a lot of the professionals who actually deliver the education saying that it was of very little value, but I thought it did work and I think you need a bit more of that, a bit more of reality from the people who have actually been there and seen it. It comes across more to the kids and it is much more than a sterile lecture from the teacher with no feeling there. I am not blaming them, but they just have not got a grasp of that and I think we need a bit more of that in schools. It needs to be encouraged more.

  1408. I was alarmed and surprised to hear you say that your son did not realise what he was doing when he started.
  (Ms Williams) A lot of them did not.

  1409. There is really a serious lesson to be learned there. Thank you very much. Mrs Humphreys, could I just take you up on your comment about cannabis as a gateway drug. We have had evidence from the entire spectrum of opinion over the sessions that we have had and we have had several witnesses say that although it is accepted that everybody who takes cannabis does not necessarily go on to harder drugs, however, particularly in evidence from the police, people who come to the notice of police because of crime and who are on harder drugs have invariably started on cannabis.
  (Mrs Humphreys) Well, that has been the illegal drug that they started on, but most of them will have started by smoking or drinking. I do not think there is any real proof that that has been the reason they have gone on to other drugs. It may have been something they have done in the past, but there is no real link that they wanted something more and more and more. There is no real link that cannabis is directly linked to that. I thought that that has been disproved a lot. They could say maybe that lots of people who become heroin users did take cannabis first, but so did they drink milk and Coca-Cola or anything else and there is not an absolute established link at all, except that you get the same drugs from the dealers now. If you could get cannabis from a café and all hard drugs were kept out, it would not be so likely that a child would be given something which they thought was cannabis and in fact it was smokable heroin. You would break that chain.

  1410. Are you suggesting that because you see alcohol and nicotine or tobacco as harmful then that is an argument to make cannabis legal?
  (Mrs Humphreys) No, it is an argument to try to be sensible about a whole lot of things and if they should be restricted because they are dangerous in some sort of way and to have something that perhaps scientifically is less dangerous than alcohol being illegal, I just think it is literally not common sense. It should all be done scientifically and we should work it out. Unless we are going to make alcohol and tobacco illegal, they should all be legal because it is sort of mad.

  1411. You mentioned courage needed by politicians to make changes in drugs policy.
  (Mrs Humphreys) Yes.

  1412. I think you were advocating governments taking control of the supply of drugs and making it legal.
  (Mrs Humphreys) Well, it would help, like the supply of medicines is controlled and alcohol and tobacco is controlled. I am not saying they manage it perfectly, but at least it would be a start.

  1413. What about the courage that governments need to stand up and say, "It is wrong, it is harmful and, therefore, we should be preventing it"?
  (Mrs Humphreys) Well, I do not think it is up to governments to say that it is wrong, it is harmful. Playing football, you can get damaged, going mountain-climbing, alcohol. Where do you stop? Eating too much chocolate? Is the Government really meant to say, "This is wrong, so don't do it"?

  1414. There is a connection, is there not, between the public good and demands for healthcare and crime limits?
  (Mrs Humphreys) Yes, but the public good could be met much more if it was taken out of the criminal justice system because there would be tons of money that we waste locking up people who are either addicted or have committed crimes because of their addiction or they are simply recreational drug users. We have piles of money. Apparently we spend £18.6 billion on running the criminal justice system or the sidelines.

  1415. So you think the cost of managing drugs is the most significant point?
  (Mrs Humphreys) No, I think the best spending of money. Yes, money spent in the best way and I do not know whether we are doing that now.

  1416. Where do you think the education is going wrong in that so many young people are disregarding all the information that is so widely available?
  (Mrs Humphreys) Well, I think we put into place all sorts of problems by not really telling the truth in the beginning. There used to be things about cannabis, that it made you go mad and jump out of windows and all this sort of stuff. People just did not believe it and some of the adverts they used. I think gradually the kids have learnt for themselves and unless you are going to be really honest about the relative dangers of everything, you are not going to get their trust back.

  1417. But you do accept that drug-taking is harmful and that educationalists have a duty—
  (Mrs Humphreys) Yes, I accept that drug-taking can be harmful. I do not think that it always is that harmful. I think that to blame it as a sort of demon for everything is ridiculous. Alcohol is harmful.

  1418. Do you think that drug-taking is a matter of degree and that some drug-taking is all right?
  (Mrs Humphreys) A little bit, possibly, yes. I think the health of people is the most important thing and if it were controlled and educative, perhaps we would cut down on the damaging effects of drugs. Lots of things in life are dangerous and harmful and we do not ban them.

  1419. An interesting view. Mr Sims, the whole batch of services that you are providing both in the community and prison advice, family support and so on, the demand must hugely outstrip the supply that you are able to give. Would you agree that for you to be eventually effective, there has to be effective education to stem the flow, the ever-increasing tide of drug addicts if you are ever going to be able to help those that exist and to stop the next generation of drug addicts coming along? Do you have any links between education in schools and the services that you are providing?
  (Mr Sims) We are asked sometimes to advise in some parts of the UK on how schools and other educational institutions can best talk about drug-use, for example. I would agree with Tina and some of the other comments made about the need to kind of mix what might be called professional skills with peer-based education because telling the story like it really is, as we might be experiencing here today even, can be a far more powerful educational tool than being purely theoretical about it and talking about something that does not always, but can be very damaging to somebody's health, and to accept, I suppose as in all health education, that it is always a frustration for the health educationalists and others that the most you can do is educate people about risk and then, as responsible individuals, they have the right to make their choices.

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