Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


Possible reclassification

117.  In evidence to us on 23 October 2001, shortly after we began this Inquiry, the Home Secretary made his announcement that he would seek the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the possible reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C. The Minister, Mr Ainsworth, explained to us the motives for this policy move:

    "The motives...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".[116]

118.  On 14 March, the Advisory Council reported their view that cannabis should be reclassified as a Class C drug, as "the current classification of cannabis is disproportionate in relation both to its inherent harmfulness, and to the harmfulness of other substances, such as amphetamines, that are currently in Class B".[117]

119.  Mr Ainsworth clarified to us what reclassification would mean, in effect, for the person caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis: "possession of small amounts would not be an arrestable offence...the effects of reclassification would be very similar in terms of policing to what is going on in Lambeth at the moment".[118]

Conclusions on cannabis

120.  We accept that cannabis can be harmful and that its use should be discouraged. We accept that in some cases the taking of cannabis can be a gateway to the taking of more damaging drugs. However, whether or not cannabis is a gateway drug, we do not believe there is anything to be gained by exaggerating its harmfulness. On the contrary, exaggeration undermines the credibility of messages that we wish to send regarding more harmful drugs.

121.  We support, therefore, the Home Secretary's proposal to reclassify cannabis from Class B to Class C.

122.  We stress that reclassification does not amount to legalisation. It simply means that in future the maximum penalties for the supply and possession of cannabis, among other offences, would be reduced from 14 years' imprisonment to five years (for supply) and from five years to two years (for possession) as the table below shows.[119] In addition, possession of cannabis would cease to be an "arrestable offence", which means that the offence would no longer attract the investigative powers which attach to arrestable offences, eg the power to enter and search premises without a warrant, and will leave the police free to concentrate on more harmful drugs.[120]

General Name of Offence
Maximum penalty if tried on indictment
Class B drug involved
Class C drug involved
Production of a controlled drug
14 years
5 years
Supplying a controlled drug
14 years
5 years
Having possession of a controlled drug
5 years
2 years
Having possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply it to another
14 years
5 years


123.  While only 5% of men and women aged 16-59 had ever taken ecstasy, according to the British Crime Survey 2000, the proportion of 16-29 year olds who had was 12%. In the last year, 2% of 16-59 year olds and 5% of 16-29 year olds had used it; in the last month, 1% and 3% respectively. Mr McNicholas, editor of Musik magazine, estimated that about two million ecstasy tablets are taken every weekend, although it is obviously not possible to equate this directly to numbers of users, as some people take more than one tablet at one time.[121]

124.  Ecstasy is a drug on a different scale from cannabis, as it causes a number of deaths every year. Having said this, the number of fatalities is relatively small in comparison to the number of people who apparently use it.[122] There is much we do not know about the effects of heavy, long-term use.

125.  We were offered the following assessments of the harmfulness of ecstasy by Professor Nutt and Professor John Henry, Professor of Accident and Emergency Medicine, Imperial College School of Medicine at St Mary's Hospital, respectively:

    "I personally think that ecstasy is relatively safe in the short term. The long-term risk is to my mind unknown at present, although as each year goes by I get relatively more sanguine about the risk rather than less. I accept that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the long-term effects on the brain. In terms of addictiveness, it is very low".[123]

    "Quite clearly it causes about 20 something deaths per year and that is very small in terms of the large number of users. You could even use the word minimal for the short-term risks of ecstasy when you compare them with those of cocaine and heroin. Addictiveness is low. The other thing is that there is emerging evidence that it causes damage to memory processes. There are epidemiological comparisons of users versus non-users and even more recently we have seen studies which have followed up ecstasy users for a year and they have shown that aspects of memory function deteriorate during that year. Long-term use might lead to considerable impairment of memory".[124]

126.  The Police Foundation Independent Inquiry consulted members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Faculty of Substance Misuse about the relative harmfulness of controlled drugs, and found that, in the resulting revised ranking, ecstasy fell into Class B. The report observed that "population safety comparisons suggest that ecstasy may be several thousand times less dangerous than heroin...there is little evidence of craving or withdrawal compared with the opiates and cocaine". They went on:

    "Although deaths from ecstasy are highly publicised, it probably kills fewer than 10 people each year which, though deeply distressing for the surviving relatives and friends, is a small percentage of the many thousands of people who use it each week. Nor is it always clear whether the deaths are caused by ecstasy itself...or the circumstances surrounding its many cases they are due to environmental aspects of the dance club scene, particularly overcrowding, overheating, poor availability of cool-out rooms, and restrictions on or the high cost of drinks".[125]

127.  The Committee has heard that many problems with ecstasy result from the circumstances in which it is taken. Ecstasy is commonly associated with the clubbing scene, and is often taken by people who then go on to dance for hours in hot, crowded conditions. If the person forgets to drink water while dancing for long periods, they will experience extreme dehydration, "their blood vessels constrict to maintain blood pressure and they stop losing heat, their body temperature goes up and systems fail one by one".[126] Conversely, a mechanism in ecstasy means that a person who has taken the drug and who drinks a lot of water while not exerting themselves may in fact die from not being able to pass the excess water. Professor Henry told us:

    "if I took a couple of ecstasy tablets...the kidneys would just not respond to that water and if I drank enough water, it would stay in my bloodstream and my brain would just swell up and it could be fatal. I would initially become confused and I might develop convulsions and I could die".[127]

128.  It is important that every effort is made to detect and prevent ecstasy use in clubs. This is not always possible, however, especially when the drug is taken prior to entering the club. It is, therefore, essential to try to minimise the harmful consequences of use. We were told that providing information about safer ways in which to take ecstasy and drink the correct amount of water has already saved lives:

    "The policy on ecstasy which the Home Office developed a few years ago...was helpful in that it was an educational policy and trying to reduce harm through improving the knowledge base of the users. There has probably been some evidence that that has helped and there are fewer deaths through water intoxication at least".[128]

129.  We believe that nothing should be done to imply that the taking of ecstasy is harmless, legal or socially desirable. Ecstasy is a dangerous drug. We recognise, however, that some young people will take ecstasy, and we want to reduce the numbers of deaths which result. We recommend that advice on the dangers of ecstasy and the ways to reduce the risks of death should be made available in nightclubs, and we welcome the recent publication by the Home Office of the guidance under the title Safer Clubbing. Police, club owners and licensing authorities should continue to aim for drug-free clubs and should work together to achieve this.

130.  Ecstasy does not present a major source of harm to communities. Commander Paddick, as a senior policeman, told us that ecstasy use was not high on his list of priorities:

    "If I felt that my officers were going into nightclubs looking for people who were in possession of ecstasy then I would say to them, and I would say publicly, that they are wasting valuable police resources...I would say there are far more important things which cause real harm to the community in the way that ecstasy does not cause real harm to the community in Lambeth at this time".[129]

131.  Islington Drug and Alcohol Action Team commented of cannabis and "dance drugs such as ecstasy":

    "We cannot fail to note that users of these drugs are a very small minority of people attending treatment services and coming to the attention of police as drug-related offenders. Consideration should be given to dealing with users of these drugs in ways which do not bring them into contact with the criminal justice system, or which minimise the chances of them risking employment or educational opportunities".[130]

132.  We have also been told that the current classification of ecstasy hinders educational messages about the dangers of Class A drugs (see paragraph 86). However, Mr Ainsworth told us that "It is not my belief [that] the fact that ecstasy is in Class A is massively detracting from the message to young people".[131]

133.  The suggestion of reclassifying cannabis has led some commentators to advocate a similar move on ecstasy: from Class A to Class B. Mr Ainsworth told us:

    "Knowing what we know about ecstasy in terms of the immediate risk of, at worst, death; and 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 ecstasy¼I 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".[132]

134.  Others disagreed. Mr Conor McNicholas told us: "If you apply the same logic to ecstasy as was applied to cannabis in this case, then immediately ecstasy must be classified as Class B, and possibly even as Class C".[133] The Association of Chief Police Officers demonstrated a flexible approach to policy on ecstasy: Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, Chair of the Sub-Committee on Drugs, told us that, should medical and scientific opinion be in agreement, then the Association would not object to the downgrading of ecstasy's classification.[134] The Police Foundation report concluded "ecstasy and related compounds are significantly less harmful than the other Class A drugs", and therefore recommended that ecstasy be transferred to Class B.[135]

135.  We agree with the Police Foundation and therefore recommend that ecstasy is reclassified as a Class B drug.

136.  To those who suggest that to reclassify ecstasy is somehow to condone its use, we emphatically reject this. Even as a Class B drug, the penalties remain severe, although obviously less than for a Class A drug. Whereas the maximum penalty for importation, production, supply and possession with intent to supply of a Class A drug is life imprisonment, the corresponding penalty in respect of a Class B drug is 14 years. As the table below indicates, the maximum penalty for possession of a Class A drug is seven years, whereas for a Class B drug it is five years.

General Name of Offence
Maximum penalty if tried on indictment
Class A drug involved
Class B drug involved
Production of a controlled drug
14 years
Supplying a controlled drug
14 years
Having possession of a controlled drug
7 years
5 years
Having possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply it to another
14 years


137.  According to the British Crime Survey 2000, 5% of 16-59 year olds had ever tried cocaine, although this included 10% of 16-29 year olds, and 2% (16-59 year olds) and 5% (16-29 year olds) had used it in the last year. 1% of 16-59 year olds and 2% of 16-29 year olds had taken cocaine in the last month. This marks part of an upward trend in use of cocaine since 1994, when only 0.5% of those aged 16 to 59 year olds and 1.2% of 16-29 year olds had used it in the last year.[136] The most dramatic trend, however, has been the rise in cocaine use amongst 16-19 year olds, which has risen from a static level of 1% during 1994-8 (use in the last year) to 4% in 2000. There has also been a significant increase in use by young men. A contributory factor to these rises may be the decline in cost of cocaine by almost 50% since 1994.[137]

138.  Powder cocaine, or cocaine hydrochloride, is extracted from the coca leaf through a process of mashing and soaking the leaves and heating the resultant paste with hydrochloric acid. Use of cocaine carries both acute and long-term health risks. It is possible, however, to have different opinions about the level of risk: Dr Brewer of the Stapleford Centre judged that cocaine posed "a problem but still in comparison with alcohol quite small".[138] Professor Nutt however, offered this assessment:

    "Short-term risk [is] quite high in relation to cardiovascular side effects and also to acute psychotic episodes. Long-term risk high, particularly in terms of dependence, cardiovascular damage and possibly psychiatric problems. Addictiveness high".[139]

139.  Cocaine can also make users aggressive which means that they can present a risk to others: "Stimulants [such as] cocaine are associated with increased aggression and psychotic behaviour, particularly when used to excess".[140] The proportion of those presenting for treatment who admit to using cocaine has increased by 70% since 1993, and the numbers of recorded cocaine-related deaths has risen from 12 in 1993 to 50 in 1998 and 87 in 1999.[141] However, we have heard that the number of treatment places for stimulant users is small:

    "The vast majority of treatment available in the UK targets opiate misusers, about 50,000 opiate misusers access treatment each year compared to 4,000 cocaine misusers. This almost certainly reflects the availability of treatment rather than prevalence of problematic use. The identification of effective treatments for cocaine dependency and their widespread implementation is an urgent priority".[142]

140.  Given the rapidly rising prevalence of cocaine use, and the lack of an effective treatment model, we recommend that the number of treatment places for cocaine users is substantially increased. We recommend that resources are channelled into researching and piloting innovative treatment interventions for cocaine users.

141.  We consider that the risks posed by cocaine to the user and to other people merit it remaining a Class A drug.


142.  Crack cocaine is usually made by mixing cocaine hydrochloride (cocaine powder) with baking soda, in water. The solution is then heated gently until white precipitates form. The precipitate is filtered, washed, dried, and cut or broken into small 'rocks'. Whereas cocaine powder is usually snorted through the nose, crack is heated in a pipe and the vapour inhaled. Crack cocaine use is lower than cocaine use, according to the British Crime Survey: amongst 16-59 year olds, less than 0.5% had taken it in the last month, the same proportion in the last year and 1% had ever taken it. Of 16-29 year olds, less than 05% had taken it in the last month, 1% had taken it in the last year, and 2% had ever taken it.[143]

143.  Like cocaine, crack is associated with significant risks to the health of the user, including risks of psychotic episodes, dangerously high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack, as well as risks of damage to the respiratory system because of the way in which crack crystals are smoked. To a much greater degree than powder cocaine, however, crack also seems to be associated with unpredictable and violent behaviour resulting in harm to other people. Many of those who deal in it have shown a willingness to resort to extreme violence. Like heroin, crack use is also associated with property crime. Mr Ainsworth referred to "the massive damage that [crack] is doing to certain communities and inner-city areas".[144]

144.  Professor John Henry told us that using habits appear to indicate that crack is more addictive than powder cocaine: "there is a much larger number of regular crack users than occasional crack users, whereas there is a much smaller number of regular cocaine users than occasional users".[145]

145.  As with powder cocaine, experience on how to treat addiction to crack is lacking. The Government, therefore, has asked a panel of experts to look at the problem of cocaine and crack, and expects them to report back by the end of 2002:

    "we have decided in the absence of published evidence to bring together a group of people¼who do treat people who have crack cocaine problems, to explore with them what they do, what their best practice is, where they have success and then we shall work with the National Treatment Agency¼in order to spread around the rest of the treatment sector approaches which we feel are likely to work better than perhaps we know at the moment".[146]

146.  The lack of research evidence does not mean, however, that nothing can be done: interventions exist which seem to help. In addition, Dr Brewer told us that:

    "there are several companies working on a kind of [antibody] for cocaine. In principle you can now make a blocking agent, an anti-body, an antidote to almost any drug of abuse...We hope that within a few years we shall actually have some drugs of this kind".[147]

147.  As with cocaine, we recommend that more treatment places are created for crack users and that resources are channelled into researching and piloting more effective treatments. We further recommend that in the meantime efforts are redoubled to extinguish supply of crack cocaine.

148.  Where crack is concerned we see no prospect for compromise. We note that few of our witnesses argued outright for legalisation. We leave it to those who do argue for general legalisation to explain how this could be justified given that, unlike other illegal drugs, crack can trigger violent and unpredictable behaviour.


149.  The proportion of the population using heroin is relatively small, but the damage caused to individuals, families and communities is enormous. The British Crime Survey 2000 found that 2% of its sample had ever taken heroin, 1% in the last year, and less than 0.5% in the last month. These proportions were the same within the 16 to 24 age group.[148] The number of problematic heroin users in the UK is generally agreed to be around 200,000.[149] These figures represent a huge increase on thirty years ago when the estimated number of known addicts was around 1,000.[150]

150.  Between 1973 and 1996 (when the scheme was discontinued) doctors were required to notify addicts of Class A drugs to the Home Office, to be recorded in the "Addicts' Index". While the numbers notified are likely to be serious understatements, a graph of the data (see overleaf) illustrates the explosion in numbers of addicts from the 1970s to the 1990s:

116   Q. 1234. Back

117   Home Office Press Notice 070/2002, 14 March 2002. Back

118   QQ. 1237; 1242. Back

119   Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, s. 25 and Sched. 4. Back

120   Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, s. 17 and 18. Back

121   Q. 178. Back

122   Estimates of ecstasy-related deaths are based on the number of death certificates on which ecstasy appears. In 1997 the number was 12, in 1998 it was 16, in 1999 it was 26, and in 2000 it was 36. (Health Statistics Quarterly, Spring 2002, Office of National Statistics). Back

123   Q. 496. Back

124   Q. 497. Back

125   Drugs and the Law, p. 48. Back

126   Professor John Henry, Q. 499. Back

127   Professor Henry, Q. 500. Back

128   Professor David Nutt, Q. 470. Back

129   QQ. 401; 405. Back

130   Ev 122. Back

131   Q. 1271. Back

132   QQ. 1268; 1270. Back

133   Q. 208. Back

134   QQ. 301-2. Back

135   Drugs and the Law, p. 48. Back

136   Drug Misuse declared in 2000, pp. 34-5; 74-8. Back

137   Ibid, pp. 36; 45. Back

138   Q. 563. Back

139   Professor Nutt, Q. 484. Back

140   Independent Drug Monitoring Unit, Ev 111. Back

141   Drug Misuse declared in 2000, p. 45. Back

142   National Treatment Agency, Ev 142 Back

143   Drug Misuse declared in 2000, pp. 74-79. Back

144   Q. 1272. Back

145   Q. 488. Back

146   Rosemary Jenkins, Department of Health, Q. 46. Back

147   Q. 613. Back

148   Drug Misuse declared in 2000, pp. 74-81. Back

149   Numbers were calculated as between 162,544 and 243,820 in a recent study, A comparison of different methods for estimating the prevalence of systematic drug misuse in Great Britain, M Frischer, M Hickman, F Mariani, L Kraus and L Wiessing (2001), Addiction 96 1465-1476, quoted in Official Report, 21 November 2001, 353W. Back

150   Drugs and the Law, p. 21. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002