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Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords—

Lord Adebowale: My Lords—

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in his amendment to the order. Until we have proof that changing the classification of cannabis will not lead to its increased abuse, its classification should not be changed. I do not think that we have that proof, or that experience in other countries suggests that if we were to liberalise the use of cannabis we should not regret it.

Having said that, I find it unacceptable that the use of drugs of whatever class should not be permitted for medical reasons. It is well known that many sufferers from multiple sclerosis derive great benefit from smoking cannabis, which alleviates the pain that they suffer. Taken in tablet form, many sufferers do not find it nearly so effective. Sufferers from some forms of cancer find that it helps the unpleasant side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Long ago, tincture of heroin used to be prescribed by GPs for bad coughs, and was very effective. Heroin was the principle ingredient of Dr Collis Brown's Chlorodyne, a remedy for diarrhoea much used by travellers in third-world countries. After heroin ceased to be an ingredient, it never worked so well. Cocaine was sometimes used as a dental anaesthetic. I frequently had it as my dentist was allergic to Novocaine. It was actually much more effective than Novocaine and, what is more, a delicious sense of euphoria was a pleasant side effect. However, where such drugs are used for medical reasons, for a very limited time until the necessity ceases, or occasionally, they do not usually lead to addiction. Where they are used indefinitely to alleviate an incurable condition, I do not think it matters much whether they lead to addiction.

I have never been able to see why people who are suffering and whose only palliative is a class A or B drug should be deprived of their only effective medication because it might fall into the wrong hands and some silly fool might become an addict. That is getting our priorities wrong. I hope that the Government will think very seriously about this.

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9 p.m.

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, I find myself in a very unusual position, in that I am supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, because I want to speak against the order. I shall do so by asking the Government four questions.

Is cannabis harmless? Cannabis is a mind-altering drug that has a ravaging effect on the brain, as Hamish Turner, the president of the Coroners' Society stated. He said that it was a significant contributory factor to 10 in every 100 deaths that were put down to suicide or accident. Fourteen year-olds taking cannabis are 50 times more likely to damage their brain. Police experts say that the drug is so powerful that it can stay in the blood and impair judgment at the wheel of a car for up to two weeks. It is linked to schizophrenia, hallucinations and delirium. One has only to walk the streets in certain areas to see the poor, delirious, hallucinated creatures out there.

A Swedish study found that cannabis users were 18 times more likely than non-users to take their lives by jumping from a height. Noble Lords may not have heard of James Taylor. He was 31 years old. He hanged himself in his Torquay flat. He had smoked cannabis since he was 15. His mother, Mary Taylor, said that it destroyed her son and her family life.

We know that cannabis is addictive. It damages short-term memory. Those who smoke cannabis find themselves in no man's land. They may enter a state of euphoria, but it does not last long.

Would downgrading cannabis stop people taking harder drugs? Research shows that there is a progression from cannabis to drugs such as cocaine and heroin. The New Zealand study to which reference was made showed that cannabis users were 60 times more likely to take other illegal drugs.

Angela Watkinson, a Conservative MP for Upminster, slammed the idea that reducing cannabis to a class C drug would free police to deal with class A drugs. She noted that cannabis is a gateway to class A drugs and would cause more problems. Having worked in the community, I can confirm that what she said was true.

The zero-tolerance approach has been proved to work better in Sweden. That country is tough on drugs and the law is consistently enforced. Only 9 per cent of Swedes aged between 16 and 59 have tried illegal drugs, in contrast to 34 per cent in Britain.

I come to my third question. Would relaxing cannabis laws free the police to tackle more serious crime? I could tell your Lordships of cases where women have sat on park benches all night, not daring to go into their homes because their children are cannabis takers. Their handbags are rifled. The little tins in which they keep the money for the gas—some noble Lords may have forgotten those days—are empty when the bill comes. Telephones and gas metres are rifled to feed the cannabis habit.

I shall not go into the details of those cases, but I shall highlight the Lambeth study to which reference has been made. Lambeth police's experimental

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approach, which involves verbally warning, rather than arresting, possessors of cannabis for personal use, led to open drug dealing in the streets. I say it because I saw it. There was a huge escalation of hard drug dealing and drug use even among children. Children were led to cashpoints to draw out money to pay drug users, even if they did not use drugs themselves. They did it because otherwise they were told that they were being square.

Chief Superintendent Brian Moore said:

    "The centre of Brixton is a 24-hour crack supermarket".

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Michael Fuller, who has now been promoted, stated that children were going to school while "stoned". That means having taken drugs. Parents were worried that relaxing the laws could make the problem even worse.

Children themselves felt that the police, by their liberal approach, were sending them mixed messages about drug use. Labour MP, Kate Hoey, fiercely criticised the scheme, saying:

    "There are more drug dealers on the streets than ever. Many young children are going to school in the morning zonked out on a very hard kind of cannabis".

Fred Brougham, chairman of the Police Federation, stated:

    "Young people were telling everybody that cannabis is now OK, that it is OK to possess it in the streets, in the schools".

He also said that,

    "crack abusers and crack dealers are becoming more visible and more active",

as the barriers break down.

My last question to the Government is: are the Government hoping to eradicate the black market and bring the proceeds from cannabis into the formal economy? You do not get cannabis for nothing. Someone is selling it. What is the Government's aim? Are they saying that you can sell cannabis and improve the economy of the country? Is it becoming formal? What is this about?

In Holland, where cannabis can be legally sold in licensed cafes, most of that sold is from the illegal crop—the very strong cannabis. Anyone who has recently been to Holland can tell you that the sight of beggars on the streets is nothing compared to the zonked-out creatures you see when you walk the streets there. Even in the licensed Dutch cafes, 70 per cent of cannabis is estimated to be illegal stock, therefore no tax is paid on it and the economy cannot benefit.

The black community, especially the mothers, ask, "Is this another 'sus' on us: to zonk our children out?" For whatever reason, it is prevalent in the black community. I ask the Government to be mindful of the next generation and what they are really saying. They have said that cannabis is not becoming legal, but the message going out to young people is, "You can smoke as much as you like as long as you are not caught". If the police are so busy, how many times will they knock on my door and ask me whether I have any cannabis plants inside? I do not know.

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What does all that mean? It means that even if cannabis were legal, most drug dealers would continue to deal in illegal drugs and would probably not switch over to that which is supposedly newly legalised. This is not the best move the Government have made.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, who has spoken so movingly. I suspect that during the past few days she has received many letters about this subject. I certainly have. Many of the letters I have received have been from parents of teenagers who point out the obvious; namely, that reclassification and the new policy of the police only to caution sends out entirely the wrong signal to young people and makes their task as parents almost impossible.

I know that the Minister denies that, but the new policy does tell young people that smoking cannabis is okay, whatever is the Government's intention. It tells young people that smoking cannabis is okay when it is nothing of the kind. Not only does it all too often lead to the use of heroin and crack cocaine, traded by the very same dealers from whom the cannabis is obtained, but it is a very dangerous drug itself, as I shall seek to show in a moment.

We cannot say with certainty that more people will be introduced to heroin and cocaine as a result of declassification, coupled with the new police policy of merely warning cannabis users, but it is infinitely depressing, as the noble Baroness mentioned a moment ago, to read comments such as those of Chief Superintendent Moore of the Metropolitan Police, who has worked in Lambeth and Brixton. He said that the introduction of the cannabis pilot scheme in Lambeth has resulted in the centre of Brixton becoming,

    "a 24-hour crack supermarket".

What we do know with absolute certainty is that saying that cannabis is okay will lead to more young people trying the drug. Yet we all know that using cannabis is not okay. It is a mind-bending substance—very mind-bending. The Minister said that the advisory council does not accept that the cannabis being traded today is stronger than that used 30 years ago. But that is not the view of many experts. It is certainly not the view of Dr Ian Oliver, independent consultant to the UN Drug Control Programme, who said that it is 10 times stronger than that smoked by the "flower-power" generation of the 1960s. That is an expert opinion that cannot simply be discarded because people sitting on the advisory council do not agree with it.

Cannabis is a drug which reduces concentration and slows down reactions. Its use accounts for two-thirds of drug-related road deaths. It is a drug which affects the memory and a person's ability to learn. In societies where its use is habitual, one can see its effect on people's ability to work regularly and to hold down jobs. To put it bluntly, it nurtures layabouts. I have seen it. It is a substance that many experts say is far more likely to cause cancer and lung damage than smoking tobacco.

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But, worst of all, it is a drug which increases the risk of mental illness. I find it impossible to accept the conclusions of the advisory council on this matter. In April this year, Professor John Henry, a toxicologist at Imperial College, said at the Royal Society of Medicine conference in London:

    "Regular cannabis smokers develop mental illness. There is a four-fold increase in schizophrenia and there is a four-fold increase in major depression".

That is not only his opinion. In 2002, a study at King's College London, led by Dr Louise Arsenault, showed that cannabis can trigger schizophrenia and is not chosen only by people predisposed to develop the illness. In the past year or so, as mentioned by my noble friend, three other studies have linked the drug with depression and schizophrenia—one of them a Dutch study, which found that those taking large amounts of cannabis were seven times more likely to develop a psychotic illness.

Two months ago, the papers reported the suicide of Charles King, a student aged 23 who developed a mental illness induced by cannabis use. He left a note saying:

    "Cannabis has ruined my life".

I have to tell your Lordships that I personally know only too well that cannabis does ruin people's lives. It has come close to ruining the life of someone very close to me who has suffered from schizophrenia as a result of cannabis use. That is the diagnosis. So, do not tell me that cannabis is pretty harmless.

My attention has been drawn to some of the irresponsible rubbish put out by government-funded bodies. Connexions, an advice service set up by the Department for Education and Skills, has published a leaflet telling people how to smoke cannabis and then purports to lists its effects:

    "It can make you feel relaxed, chilled out and giggly—more sociable and chatty—you may get an attack of the munchies",

meaning you feel the need to eat everything in sight.

    "You may feel paranoid, which means you think everyone is looking at you".

That is the effect of cannabis in the minds of the irresponsible people who drafted that pamphlet. I am told that it has recently been withdrawn or banned following public protests, but not before it had been sent to 3,500 secondary schools. The fact that it went out in the first place makes absolute nonsense of the claim made in another place by Caroline Flint, the Under-Secretary of State, that the Government's message remains that cannabis is illegal and harmful. It is no use parroting those words when all their actions result in the message being entirely different; the message being that cannabis is not all that serious a drug and, "won't do you much harm".

Whether the Government wanted this to happen or not, the message which has come across since the change in policy is that cannabis is okay. That message is irresponsible and wrong. I support the amendment.

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9.15 p.m.

Lord Adebowale: My Lords, this debate is hotting up nicely. It is obvious that I shall now be labelled somewhat irresponsible as I am about to admit that I am the Chief Executive of Turning Point, a social care organisation which deals with around 30,000 people with substance misuse challenges, 10,000 of whom are young people. I also happen to be a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. When one looks at the members of that advisory council, I find it hard to believe that they arrived overnight at the advice they gave to Government. Certainly, looking at their honourable qualifications, it beggars belief that those people are irresponsible or arrived at their conclusions lightly.

Perhaps I may comment on some of the points raised. I support the decision by the Government to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. Like many noble Lords, I do not think that the Government go far enough. The reclassification reflects public attitudes to cannabis and accepts the fact that a large number of people use it. I say that with full regard to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids. I, too, have been to Holland. I have worked in Brixton and walked the streets of Lewisham. I understand, because I talk to young people and, indeed, live on an estate where many young people smoke cannabis. The problem with the debate is not about the classification of cannabis. No one has said that leaving cannabis as a class B drug—I am sure that some noble Lords would be happy to see it classified as class A—would be a credible solution to the problems mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, and, indeed, the noble Lord.

Surely, sending young people to prison as a result of their cannabis use cannot be reasonable treatment. Indeed, the Government's own figures on the use of prison and punishment as a response to drug misuse give cause for concern. The latest report on drug treatment and testing orders shows that 53 per cent of prisoners discharged from such orders in 1998 were reconvicted within two years of discharge compared to 59 per cent of those who did not complete a drug treatment and testing order.

So there are serious questions to be asked. If we are to keep the current classification of cannabis or, indeed, increase it and thus increase penalties and arrest more people and put them in prison, how will that help people? How will that help the young people mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids? I fear that that is heading in the wrong direction.

Furthermore, we need to understand what young people and many members of the public who smoke cannabis—I have to say on a daily basis—understand from their own experiences about it and its relation to other drugs. We have to deal with the facts. The fact of the matter is that cannabis is not the same as crack cocaine or heroin. As much as noble Lords may want to believe that that is the case, it is not.

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We need to be aware of all the facts and to encourage intelligent discussion. When cannabis is compared with other drugs against criteria such as mortality, toxicity, addictiveness and its relationship with crime, it is less harmful to the individual and society than other illicit drugs and even alcohol. That is understood by the public, and it is certainly understood by young people.

The evidence of the drug's long-term effect on mental health is not so clear-cut. No doubt we can all name a professor or an expert who will say that smoking cannabis causes schizophrenia. Indeed, in 1933 at the World Health Organisation the Egyptian delegate stood up and said that cannabis causes people to go crazy. We have all see the film produced by the Americans in 1933 called "Reefer Madness", which claimed that smoking cannabis turns you into a raving lunatic. These statements are simply not helpful; they do not accord with the facts.

People with mental health problems may be more likely to be drawn to the drug. We have seen that at Turning Point; I have seen it from my own experience of more than 20 years working with socially excluded people, many of whom take drugs including alcohol. It may exacerbate mental health problems in people with a pre-existing mental illness; so will poverty; so will depression; and so will not having a job. But the evidence suggests that while cannabis consumption is increasing, the incidence of schizophrenia is not. That is a fact which would suggest that cannabis is not to blame.

I do not believe that reclassifying cannabis will lead to more people using it. Currently, in the UK at least 8 million people use the drug, while 2 million people use it regularly. My discussions with young people informed me that many already socially accept the drug and that any change will be of little relevance to them, other than they will face fewer risks of being criminalised for its use, which, to be honest, they welcome.

There may be an increase among those already using the drug. Evidence from Australia has shown that although cannabis decriminalisation, which was introduced in some states, did not lead to new cannabis users, those who used it daily slightly increased the amounts they smoked.

I am also doubtful—and I think we should be very doubtful—about the idea of cannabis as the gateway drug. The Government's own research has shown through The road to ruin? that there is no evidence that cannabis acts as a gateway drug to other drugs. There is some evidence, however, that cigarettes and alcohol do. Indeed, again, when I talked to many of the 30,000 or so people that Turning Point sees each year, they talked not about cannabis, when one examined their drug history, but about going to the pub, having a drink, having their inhibitions relaxed and then being introduced to cannabis. If we are going to talk about gateway drugs, let us talk about all the gateway drugs and include alcohol and cigarettes.

That is why I believe that we need to have a sophisticated and credible approach to this drug. With so many people using it and, frankly, so many

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comfortable with its use, we need to get the message right and get across the facts in a way that is accurate, non-confrontational and relevant to young people's lives. I also strongly believe that, with so many people buying the drug from the black market, we need to get the legal position right too.

The fact is that day in and day out, tens of thousands of young people make contact with dealers to buy cannabis. Although most buy what they need and leave, many, because they are forced to deal with people selling other drugs, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, such as heroin, cocaine or Ecstasy, are more likely to buy and use those other drugs. In effect, it is not the use of the drug that encourages people to move to harder drugs but the existence of a single drugs black market. With the reclassification, cannabis possession will carry a minimal risk of prosecution, while selling it will carry a stiff penalty. To be clear, the Government's decision to increase the penalty within the class C band to 14 years makes selling it a high-risk criminal activity.

I must be honest: I am a little confused by the legal acrobatics that the Home Secretary has performed to reclassify cannabis. To recount, following the announcement in June 2002 of the bold step to reclassify the drug to class C, there have been two rather confusing steps backwards. First, there is the move to apply a maximum of 14 years for supply of the drug, despite other class C drugs carrying a five-year maximum. Secondly, as your Lordships will be aware, under the Criminal Justice Bill currently passing through the House, cannabis possession is to be made an arrestable offence.

If I am not mistaken, we will have created a separate classification for cannabis, which is none too distant from the position from which we are supposed to be moving away. In addition, what is to become of cannabis oil? As your Lordships will be aware, certain forms of cannabis oil extracted from the raw plant are regarded as a class A drug. What will the changes mean for that form?

Is it therefore any wonder that the public, rather than receiving a credible message about the drug cannabis, are confused by those moves and unsure how they will be affected—no doubt leading to further public disregard and disaffection for the legal system? That also brings into question the suitability of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and whether the current classification system is working at all.

Perhaps it is time that we took a good look at our drugs laws to reassess them to see how they work in today's society, because much has changed since 1971. The rationale behind the reclassification should be to get our message credibly and clearly across and to separate the market for cannabis from those for hard drugs. Unfortunately, I fear that neither of those objectives will be achieved by the new measures. Indeed, the unique classification of cannabis may well undermine the whole approach. By removing much of the risk of prosecution while sustaining the penalty for supply, the law may provide a perverse incentive to

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traffic more harmful drugs. If dealers are risking stiffer penalties for cannabis, they are more likely to deal in harder drugs as well.

Turning to the advice issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers, I am very concerned by its statement that a,

    "person who may be mentally disordered or mentally handicapped or incapable of understanding the significance of questions or replies",

may be arrested. That very language moves away from our providing appropriate support and help to the most vulnerable.

Like other noble Lords, I fear that the Government's muddled plans for reclassification may be nothing other than a fudge and something of a face-saving manoeuvre. I fear that the changes will only continue to drive the ever-increasing number of young cannabis users underground by encouraging them to use behind closed doors and to disrespect government and the law by coming into contact with poly-drug dealers. The law will continue to make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding young people and perpetuate an environment of mass public disobedience.

The Government must listen to the people whom this law will affect the most and move the debate forward. Cannabis is not heroin; it is not crack; it is not as dangerous as either of those drugs. Decriminalise cannabis; separate it from more harmful drugs; provide unbiased and accurate information; provide support and treatment where it is needed; and tackle the real problems facing young people today, such as crime, unemployment, poverty, inequality and injustice.

We can best prevent harm by empowering young people to make up their own minds about cannabis using credible information and encouraging them to discuss their experiences, rather than hiding or denying them because government and the laws misunderstand them.

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