Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report




89.  According to the British Crime Survey 2000, cannabis was the most commonly used of all illegal drugs. Of all respondents aged 16 to 59, 27% said they had tried the drug in their lifetime, 9% had used it in the last year and 6% in the last month. Amongst 16 to 29 year olds, however, 44% had used it in their life, 22% in the last year and 14% in the last month.

90.  Views on the risks of short and long-term cannabis use are variable. Professor Nutt of Bristol University assessed the risks of cannabis as:

91.  Baroness Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology, University of Oxford, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, told us that cannabis users:

    "are tampering with the most special part of their bodies and that is their brains and their minds over conceivably the long term. There is even evidence of long-term damage after one has given up smoking cannabis, and I think this is a very serious and big worry, not so much that you might die that night, but more that you could be under-performing and unfulfilled 30, 40 years on".[91]

92.  In terms of mental health, it appears also that the strength of different "brands" of cannabis vary widely and that stronger varieties containing a greater proportion of the psychoactive ingredient, THC, have become increasingly available.[92] Mrs Mary Brett, Head of Health Education at Dr Challoner's Grammar School, Buckinghamshire, told us that "a joint today contains on average ten times as much THC as it did in the Sixties".[93]

93.  The smoking of cannabis carries its own risks, which are analogous to those associated with tobacco smoking. While the available data is patchy, the Royal College of Physicians told the Committee that "marijuana smoking exposes the lung to toxic products of combustion more commonly associated with tobacco smoke, and is therefore likely to be associated with similar long-term health risks as tobacco smoking", including chronic bronchitis symptoms, airflow obstruction, cancers and cardiovascular disease. While the total amount of smoke inhaled by cannabis smokers appears to be less than that inhaled by tobacco smokers, this is off-set by the absence of filters in joints, which allows a higher proportion of tar to be inhaled. Cannabis smokers tend to inhale more deeply than tobacco smokers, and cannabis smoke is hotter than tobacco smoke, which is more damaging. Most cannabis in the UK is smoked in a mixture with tobacco, which means that smokers are also exposed to the dangers of tobacco smoking and nicotine addiction.[94]

94.  The risks of cannabis need to be put into the context of the "acceptable" risks posed by alcohol and tobacco. DrugScope told us that "in relation to the millions of individuals who have been exposed to the drug in this country since the late 1960s, cannabis compares favourably (in terms of health implications) with legal drugs widely used such as alcohol and tobacco".[95] There is also, of course, the fact that most people tend to grow out of smoking cannabis.

Drugs and driving

95.  Our attention has been drawn to the increasing problem of persons driving under the influence of drugs. According to a recent study by the Transport Research Laboratory, the incidence of illicit drugs in casualties of fatal road traffic accidents has risen substantially, from 3% in the late 1980s to 18% in 2000. This has occurred over a period in which drug-taking generally has risen. Over the same period, the incidence of alcohol has declined from 35% to 31.5%. The most commonly detected drug is cannabis; incidence has increased from 2.6% to 11.9% over the period.

96.  The contribution of cannabis to road traffic accidents is not entirely straightforward—the Transport Research Laboratory's report notes that:

97.  Some witnesses have even told us that cannabis may improve some drivers' performance: the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit said that cannabis led to "increased risk for new users or new drivers, for established users/drivers [it] appears to reduce accident risk by improving driver behaviour (slower speeds, larger gap, fewer risky manoeuvres)".[97]

98.  While the law prohibits driving while unfit through alcohol or drugs, it appears that police are not adequately equipped to detect drug use in drivers. The Police Federation told us that "relatively few police officers have so far been trained to use new equipment that enables motorists to be tested for drugs use".[98] The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit told us that a method of testing called "field impairment testing" which is currently being adopted by many police forces "represents an improvement on previous enforcement techniques, but fails to address abilities which are directly related to the ability to drive, in particular reaction time and tracking ability". They went on to recommend changes which would improve this, including in car simulators and video-taping of tests to reduce subjective judgements by police officers.[99]

99.  We recommend that techniques to test drivers for drug-related impairment are improved, and that all police officers responsible for testing receive the necessary training.

A gateway to harder drugs?

100.  It is sometimes said that cannabis is a "gateway" drug to other substances, and higher prevalence of cannabis use would inevitably entail higher prevalence of other, "harder" drugs, with all the consequent health and social problems following. DrugScope told us "The hypothesis that cannabis use leads to the use of other more harmful drugs has been, and remains, a key justification of past and present drug policy".[100] The Police Federation pointed out in evidence to us that most users of hard drugs start off using cannabis.[101]

101.  Most witnesses, however, saw the issue as less clear cut. Sue Killen of the Home Office told us:

    "the evidence is there overwhelmingly that the vast majority of people who take cannabis do not go on to take hard drugs; our feeling is that there are far more complex issues which lie behind who then goes on to become addicted. So it is not a straightforward link at all".[102]

102.  Professor Rehm pointed out that alcohol and tobacco can also act as "gateways" to other drugs:

    "There is, of course, a correlation of people going into cannabis which later on take other drugs. That is there. The same correlation is there for tobacco and other drugs, it is there for alcohol and other drugs".[103]

103.  DrugScope supplied us with the following assessment:

    "The weight of empirical evidence would suggest that a link between cannabis and more harmful drugs like heroin and crack does exist. The reason for this is not...a cause or a chemical process that cannabis started, it is rather that:
  • Some cannabis users have common personality profiles or environmental conditions with the users of more harmful drugs.

  • Once drugs, be they cannabis, alcohol or tobacco are used, if the harm ascribed to them is overrated or false, individuals using cannabis will dismiss harm information and are less likely to be concerned about moving to more "harmful" drugs.

  • Cannabis use puts individuals in social situations and supply transactions where they are more likely to experience people using, accepting and supplying more harmful drugs than others in the population.

    The gateway theory is often misunderstood. It is not about cannabis leading to harder drugs, it is about common profiles, environment, experience and access".[104]

104.  If the gateway is to be closed, according to DrugScope, policy makers have two options:

    "(a) Prohibition of all gateway drugs (logically including alcohol and tobacco) should be enforced and therefore the gateways shut through strict application of the law.

    (b) If it is not possible (as current levels of cannabis use would suggest) or desirable to adopt a zero tolerance policy to cannabis... through prohibition and strict legal sanctions, policy makers should narrow the Gateways as much as possible. This can only be done by producing more accurate harm information and by changing the legal status of cannabis (decriminalisation or similar) so that it is further differentiated from more harmful drugs in perception, culture and supply".[105]

105.  We have heard that this argument of differentiation has been the driver behind The Netherlands' policy on cannabis, which is, in effect, toleration of personal use:

    "If you look at the aggregate level, those countries which have changed their cannabis regime and have actually allowed cannabis to be tolerated in certain parameters did not have an increased incidence of hard drugs afterwards. The incidence and the harm which has been increasing in some of the countries were not in countries which have tolerated cannabis. The harm levels of The Netherlands or of Switzerland, in terms of overdosing and in terms of the hard indicators which we see, are less than for those countries which do not tolerate cannabis... it is just part of a larger picture".[106]

    "What we see is that the incidence of new heroin addicts [in The Netherlands] has been stabilised. We think it is difficult to prove but we think it has to do with the separation of the soft and hard drugs".[107]

106.  In Britain the last year has seen a lively debate around the status of cannabis as a controlled substance. While the Government has not entertained any idea of removing cannabis from the current system of control laid down by the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is considering a number of changes which suggest a new flexibility towards control of cannabis.

Medicinal use

107.  These include clinical trials into the medicinal use of cannabis, currently scheduled to be completed in 2003. GW Pharmaceuticals, the company licensed by the Home Office to conduct the research into potential cannabis-based medicines, told us:

"Cannabis is expected to help patients suffering from a wide range of medical conditions, including those related to neurogenic pain or dysfunction such as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, phantom limb pain and arachnoiditis and other conditions without a neurological cause including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS, migraine, cancer pain, nausea and epilepsy".[108]

108.  Should the trials prove successful, the Government has committed itself to licensing a cannabis-based medicine, which we believe would command widespread public support. The Home Secretary told us, in October 2001:

    "We are now in the third phase of the testing, assessment and evaluation programme. Should—as I believe it will—this programme be proved to be successful, I will recommend to the Medical Control Agency that they should go ahead with authorising the medical use of this for medical purposes".[109]

109.  In the event of the successful completion of clinical trials and a positive evaluation by the Medicines Control Agency, we recommend that the law is changed to permit the use of cannabis-based medicines.

Innovative policing

110.  The second major policy shift over the last year has been the toleration, by Government, of a pilot, conducted by Metropolitan Police in Lambeth, South London, of a new scheme of dealing with cannabis possession offences. Officers in the area now no longer arrest individuals for possession but instead issue a verbal warning and confiscate the substance. The rationale behind the pilot is that arresting people for cannabis possession—the only formal procedure available to police officers—takes up an inordinate amount of police time when there are more serious crimes to be pursued.

111.  Commander Brian Paddick, the senior police officer in charge of the scheme, told us that the pilot "has the practical effect of decriminalising the offence in those cases where the officer does not proceed by means of arrest".[110] While this may not represent much of a shift in de facto policing terms, the official status of the scheme has led to claims that this constitutes decriminalisation of possession of the drug "by the back door".

112.  In fact, the legal status of cannabis has not changed in Brixton; rather, the policing approach has. Commander Paddick told the Committee that the scheme has actually seen more people dealt with for possession of cannabis than before, as the time released by the new procedures has allowed officers to process more offences.[111]

113.  The pilot in Lambeth has been evaluated in two ways. PRS Consultancy Group examined the scheme in terms of police activity, while the Police Foundation commissioned MORI to survey public opinion on the pilot. The measures of police activity showed that the pilot released at least 1,350 hours of officer time, equivalent to 1.8 full-time officers. In comparison with the same 6 months in 2000, officers in Lambeth recorded 35% more cannabis possession offences and 11% more cannabis trafficking offences. This compared with drops in the number of the same offences recorded in neighbouring boroughs over the pilot period. Lambeth also increased its activity against Class A drugs over the period, relative to adjoining boroughs. However, the opinions of Lambeth police officers about the pilot were not positive. While only 51 officers responded to the questionnaire asking their opinions, a majority of those who did respond felt that the policy would lead to increased drug use in Lambeth and should be discontinued. They also felt that the pilot had not changed the way in which they spent their time on duty.[112]

114.  The surveys of public opinion, conducted at the end of 2001, found that there was a considerable degree of confusion over what exactly the pilot entailed. However, 74% of people consulted felt that the scheme would result in police time being released to deal with more serious crime—but 17% felt serious crime would increase, and 21% felt use of hard drugs would increase as a result of the pilot. Despite this, 36% approved of the scheme unconditionally, a further 32% supported it provided the police spend more time on serious crime, and 15% approved provided it actually reduces serious crime. 71% of people thought the scheme offered a better way to deal with young cannabis users. Having said this, parents of primary school children are amongst the most likely to disapprove of the scheme.[113]

115.  Mr Vic Hogg, from the Home Office, told us:

    "under the current arrangements around 80 per cent of all people caught in possession of cannabis are disposed of by way of a warning, a caution or a fine. Within that 80 per cent figure, warnings and cautions account for around 55 per cent".[114]

116.  The Home Office, in its second memorandum to the Committee, said:

    "the existing range of criminal sanctions, applied with due discretion, are preferable to decriminalisation. Minor offences are normally dealt with by way of a warning or caution. The Government has accepted that cautions should become immediately spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which will mean that the large majority of offenders will not get a criminal record. The courts and, ultimately prison, provide the severest sanctions for persistent or serious offenders. About 3 per cent of those dealt with for possession of cannabis are sent to prison. A sample analysis of this cohort showed, on average, 14 previous criminal convictions per offender. Sentencing data is not routinely collated to show secondary or tertiary offences, but this sample tends to confirm the views of the enforcement agencies, namely that where imprisonment is imposed for cannabis offences it is usually because of the seriousness of the offence itself or as a result of concurrent imprisonment for other criminal offences".[115]

90   QQ. 479; 481. Back

91   Q. 1072. Back

92   THC: tetrahydro-cannabinols. Back

93   Ev 30. Back

94   Ev 170-173. Back

95   Ev 71. Back

96   The incidence of drugs and alcohol in road accident fatalities, TRL Report 495, R J Tunbridge, M Keigan and F J James, Transport Research Laboratory, 2001, p. 1. Back

97   Ev 114. Back

98   Vol III, Ev 241. Back

99   Ev 113. Back

100   Ev 57. Back

101   Ev 241. Back

102   Q. 18. Back

103   Professor Juergen Rehm, Q. 813. Back

104   Ev 58-9. Back

105   Ev 59. Back

106   Professor Juergen Rehm, Q. 813. Back

107   Dr Van Santen, Q. 808. Back

108   Ev 103. Back

109   Minutes of Evidence taken before the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2001-02, on The Work of the Home Office, HC 302, Q. 5. Back

110   Vol III, Ev 240. Back

111   Q. 378. Back

112   Evaluation of Lambeth's Pilot of Warnings for Possession of Cannabis - Summary of final report, PRS Consultancy Group, 2002. Back

113   Policing the Possession of Cannabis: Residents' Views on the Lambeth experiment, The Police Foundation and MORI Social Research Institute, 2002, pp. 3-7. Back

114   Q. 8. Back

115   Ev 197. Back

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