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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 6, Amendment No. 7:


The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 7 would amend the proposed new clause, which the Minister has clearly and helpfully explained. As she pointed out, as a result of Amendment No. 6, the Bill will be restructured—again—by the addition of a new clause extending the list of arrestable offences in PACE. As the Minister hinted in her opening remarks, we have some concerns about this, particularly in regard to subsection (3) and the relatively casual way in which the possession of any and all class C drugs is now to become an arrestable offence. We are not convinced that the Government have fully thought through the effects of this policy change.

Our amendment would limit the arrestable offences to possession of cannabis or cannabis resin and leave the legal position of all other class C drugs unchanged. For the sake of good order, in moving it I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 40, 41 and 42, which would be relevant only if the Bill were to proceed in its unamended form. They are amendments to Clause 11—


    "Power of arrest for possession of Class C drugs"—

and have exactly the same objectives as Amendment No. 7; that is, to restrict the power of arrest for possession of class C drugs to cannabis or cannabis resin.

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As the Minister pointed out, in July 2002 the Government announced their intention to implement a long-stated policy objective of downgrading cannabis to a class C drug. This will bring cannabis into a category containing 117 other drugs. For the most part they are fairly obscure pharmaceuticals but, nevertheless, have vital medical properties for sufferers of certain diseases such as epilepsy, as the Minister explained.

The Government's thinking on the issue of cannabis appears, outwardly at least, to be rather muddled. No doubt the Minister will enlighten the Committee when she responds. The proposal to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug has, rightly or wrongly, been widely interpreted as an acceptance by the Government of the use of cannabis for social and recreational purposes. It is fair to say that that interpretation has been underlined by various government statements suggesting that the police should not waste their time targeting cannabis and their endorsement of cannabis acceptance policies by the police.

However, under the Bill, the Government appear to be turning 180 degrees. Having at first proposed an apparent relaxation by moving cannabis to class C, they are now using the Bill not only to retain possession of cannabis as an arrestable offence but, for good measure, to add 117 other drugs to the arrestable list at the same time.

Further, when read in conjunction with Schedule 24(2), which increases the maximum sentence for dealing in cannabis from five years to 14 years, the policy appears still further confused. The drug's seriousness is apparently to be downgraded, but punishments for dealers are becoming harsher—a mixed and confused message if ever there was one. Demand is more than likely to increase as users become aware of cannabis having been reclassified as a less pernicious drug. Accordingly, supply will increase, and if the Government think that their provisions in Schedule 24(2) will hold back this tide, I can only refer them to the well known example of King Canute.

If the Bill proceeds unamended, it will not be only on the general issue that people are confused. Many of us have had a very helpful letter from the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, in his capacity as chief executive of Turning Point. He says:


    "The most disheartening aspect of these contradictory proposals in the law is that changes in patterns of supply and use of cannabis cannot now be easily analysed. No one will be able to say whether changes have come about because of the reclassification or because of the increase in penalties for possession".

One aspect of the drugs issue on which we can all surely agree is that it is bedevilled on every side by often unfounded assertions. We need hard information on this difficult topic, and these proposed changes by the Government will not help us achieve that. A further problem relates to the fact that in retaining the power of arrest for possession of cannabis, the Government have swept up possession of all class C drugs into an arrestable offence. In consequence, 117 other drugs are to be treated on an equal par with cannabis.

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As observed in Committee in the other place by Simon Hughes on 7th January:


    "there were no complaints in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s about law enforcement as a result of the fact that possession of class C drugs was not an arrestable offence".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee B, 7/1/03; col. 128.]

So if there has been no cause for concern over it not being an arrestable offence for the past 30 years, why should there be such a concern now? Why, potentially, take up police time by extending their powers in an area where there appears to have been no problem over the past 30 years?

These 100 or so other drugs include many medicinal drugs. The Minister referred to benzodiazepines, taken by epileptics. While it is understood that possession of drugs with a prescription is not an arrestable offence, is this legally true, as opposed to being practically true? If it is true, does that mean that epileptics will in future have to carry their prescriptions around with them and, if they do not, might they be arrested? That seems strange. A distinction should be made and if cannabis is soon to be included in the class C category, the importance of our amendments is underlined.

In the Committee stage in the other place, the Minister, Hilary Benn, stated that if a class C drug was in someone's possession because it had been obtained on a doctor's prescription, that would not be contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The police would not be able to arrest for possession unless the drug had not been prescribed. The Minister said in Committee on 7th January that the drugs which are legal with prescription are,


    "put in a separate category from cannabis in what will now be the class C category of drugs".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee B, 7/1/03; col. 139.]

The problem is that at the moment, I can see no provision in the Bill that separates existing class C drugs from cannabis—hence, the further need for our amendments.

I fear that the Government are in a muddle over their attitudes and policy towards cannabis. Unamended, the Bill will make the muddle worse because it will sweep 117 other class C drugs into the muddle. It is no good the Minister saying that the police will not arrest for possession non-cannabis class C drugs. If they do not need to arrest, why change the law to give them these new powers?

If the Government are determined to pursue their mixed cannabis message, while it is regrettable, then so be it, but let their message be mixed over cannabis alone and not over all class C drugs. I beg to move.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley: Since we have this amendment before us, part of which is the replacement for Clause 11, I hope I will be permitted to put the point of view of these Benches on the way in which the Bill addresses possession of class C drugs, particularly cannabis. In the light of this, I have, along with the Minister, given notice of my intention to oppose the Question that Clause 11 stand part of the Bill.

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The main reason for our objection to Clause 11 and Amendment No. 6 is not the measures about passports and road traffic offences, which we of course support. No, it is subsection (3) relating to cannabis and other class C drugs. The Government's approach in the Bill to cannabis departs substantially from that recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place and the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs.

In his helpful letter, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, referred, the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, who regrets he cannot be in his place this afternoon, gives Turning Point's point of view. He reminds us that the rationale behind the Home Affairs Select Committee's recommendation for reclassification of cannabis was that cannabis needed to be separated from the markets of drugs that cause the most harm. He goes on to say:


    "But I fear that the separation of markets will be undermined by the mixed approach the Government has decided on. The separation needs to be at the point of supply, not at the point of consumption".

The Government pride themselves on taking the advice of scientists and experts. Indeed, their whole approach to controversial issues such as how to tackle foot and mouth disease, CJD and SARS, and how to deal with the stem cell and GM crop issues, is based on their claim that they devise policy in the light of the facts as interpreted by experts. In this case, they are ignoring the experts.

Following the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C, the Government are now in danger of diluting the benefits of that through this legislation. Neither of the two eminent committees that recommended reclassification seriously considered that the Government might retain the power of arrest and greatly increase the penalties for possession of cannabis. While I am aware that the Government have claimed that these powers will be used only when there is a so-called aggravating factor, the powers themselves are wide open to abuse.

The Minister said that arrest is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. This seems a very strange way in which to legislate. If the reason why the Government are proposing changes to arrestability and sentencing for cannabis possession is because they believe cannabis to be more harmful than other class C drugs, I wonder why they are reclassifying at all. If not, why the sudden need to toughen the law? There was never any suggestion before the reclassification that existing penalties for possession of class C drugs were too lenient.

On these Benches, we believe that although the use of cannabis is not without harm, the Government were right to reclassify it, to emphasise the difference between cannabis and other more harmful class B drugs. In addition, there is no evidence that such a move will lead to significant increased use. Given those facts, it is logical for us to oppose the introduction of new powers of arrest and increased maximum sentences.

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A major incidental advantage of reclassification is that it frees up police time to deal with the hard-drug dealers, who should be the target of our efforts. A major study on the policing of cannabis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2002 estimated the cost of enforcing the law on cannabis at 500 per case, or 38 million per year—half a per cent of the total police budget. Introducing the measures in this Bill with regard to arrest and sentencing could remove the advantage of all those savings which could be deployed to consolidate or regain public confidence in the police.

I should like to say a word about aggravating factors. Neither the Bill nor the accompanying notes spell out what the aggravating factors are. As the noble Baroness said, that will come in guidance for the police later in the year. In the light of that, I believe the Bill to be very short-sighted in the way in which it deals with cannabis. Arrest is probably never an appropriate response to the personal use of cannabis, regardless of the circumstances. DrugScope, which has looked at what is probably meant by aggravating factors, is concerned that the discretionary use of the power of arrest will create problems which will serve further to undermine the confidence of some sectors of the community in the police force and the criminal justice system.

Again, the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, says in his letter:


    "There is no compelling evidence that the arrest of people in possession of cannabis leads at all frequently to arrests for more serious offences. Indeed, an analysis of 30,000 custody records found that only 1 per cent of those charged with cannabis possession was later charged with more serious offences".

Therefore, possession of cannabis is not going to lead to other more serious offences.

I hope that the three-strike approach to cannabis possession will not be included in the guidelines. As for the possibility of a public-order aggravating factor, it is highly unlikely that it will be a major problem. Cannabis users rarely offend public order as alcohol abusers do—quite the opposite. In my small experience of cannabis users, they are normally so laid back that they are almost horizontal. Anyway, the police already have extensive powers to deal with breaches of public order, so I am puzzled as to why the provision is needed. There are very real dangers of alienating young people by arresting them for something that they know to be less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.

I am also concerned about the effects of the powers on those who obtain great relief from cannabis, many of whom are MS sufferers, who grow their own and may supply other sufferers. They have waited a long time for a licensed cannabis medicine, and may have to wait several months more. Their relief at the reclassification will have faded when they read the Bill. The possession of a large number of cannabis plants may be regarded as an aggravating factor by some police officers. Police discretion in the matter is dangerous. Many recreational cannabis users are young people who do not engage in any other criminal behaviour and who do not go on to use any other

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drugs. In the light of that fact, I am sure that we do not want to see them given a criminal record with which to start out in life.

A survey of police officers conducted by Tiggey, May et al found that three quarters of police officers felt that the present cannabis laws criminalised individuals who would not otherwise come to the attention of the police. Nearly half believe that the current arrangements damaged their relations with local communities. It seems absurd to destroy completely the potential benefits of reclassification by including the power of arrest and increased penalties in the Bill. The Runcimann report of 2000 concluded that,


    "the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents. It is very expensive of the time and resources of the criminal justice system and especially of the police. It inevitably bears more heavily on young people on the streets of inner cities, who are also more likely to be from minority ethnic communities, and as such is inimical to good police-community relations. It criminalises large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, mainly young people to the detriment of their futures".

Three years on from the Runcimann report, I see no reason to revise that verdict. If powers of arrest are introduced for possession of class C drugs, many of those harms will persist.


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