Examination of Witness (Questions 1240
TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
1240. I understand that the Police Foundation
(and I emphasise "Foundation" as opposed to the previous
organisation) is preparing a report on the experiment in Lambeth
which is due to be published at the end of February. Could you
confirm or otherwise?
(Mr Ainsworth) The evaluation of the
Lambeth experiment should be available this month.
1241. I know you do not like leaks or reports
of leaks, but I understand that it has been found, be it in that
report or elsewhere, that arising from what has happened in Lambeth
more than 2,500 police hours have been saved and, moreover, it
has led to a 19 per cent increase in the arrest of class A drugs.
If we can take one at a time. If it is true that it has saved
so much police time, namely turning a blind eye, to use a phrase,
to the very small possession of cannabis, that in itself in dealing
with criminality (and we know what is happening generally in London,
if not elsewhere, with criminality) is a tremendous asset, is
(Mr Ainsworth) As I tried to say earlier
on, the initial reports I am getting are that what is going on
in Lambeth has been quite positive. I have not seen the leak you
are talking about, but it is not out of line with those interim
evaluations I have. It is important we get the proper full evaluation.
1242. What people would say, Minister, is simply
this: given the amount of criminality which, unfortunately is
occurringwhich I am not going to go into, it is not your
remit nor ours at this particular session, we had one last week
with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Policeit does
seem odd that outside of Lambeth police time should be taken up
not with other drugs, which have already been asked about by two
of my colleagues, but by cannabis; that so much time should be
"wasted" on small possession of the use of cannabis,
while we know what is going on as far as criminality is concerned.
Is it not absolutely sensible that the Lambeth scheme should be
(Mr Ainsworth) As I think I have explained,
the effects of reclassification would be very similar in terms
of policing to what is going on in Lambeth at the moment. It is
not right, I do not think, that the Home Secretary effectively
does things by diktat and without appropriate consultation. Therefore,
he made the announcement he did to this Committee at the start
of your inquiry. We are consulting the Drug Advisory Council before
any decision will be taken. I do not disagree with what you are
saying. I get pretty tired of answering parliamentary questions
that show trends of offences and arrests for possession of cannabis
going up and up when, in theory, everybody is supposed to be focussed
a little more on the drugs doing the real damage.
1243. I suppose one would therefore ask why it
took so long for the Home Secretary to come to the view that cannabis
should be classified. Why was it not done previously?
(Mr Ainsworth) I think you will find
the Police Foundation did a report, I cannot remember how long
ago, but at the outcome of that it was said that the classification
of all drugs will be kept under review; and this Home Secretary,
picking up what the Police Foundation said, took the decision
he did and reported to this Committee.
1244. I will not be so unkind as to ask why there
was a hostile response from the Home Office after the Police Foundation
report on what has happened since, because you were not in office
at the time. Can I come on to another aspect and it is simply
this, Minister: if it is possible for Lambeth, as we know now,
to have a small amount of cannabis for one's own use, is it not
the case that in order for that to happen, if a person wants to
take cannabis, the supply must come from a criminal source?
(Mr Ainsworth) Yes.
1245. Is there any logic in that? I know to some
extent this has been touched on. If it is going to be reclassified
(and, as you have indicated, everyone will be somewhat surprised
if it would be other than recommended, such reclassification),
why therefore should one be in a position where one could use
a small amount of cannabis and yet at the same time have to go
a criminal source who will provide it? Obviously the criminal
sources will be very happy to do so, will they not?
(Mr Ainsworth) One is not in a position
where one can possess and use small amounts of cannabis. Cannabis
is being reclassified to class C; it will still be illegal. There
is no intention of legalising it or decriminalising it under the
different models people have for decriminalisation; so the possession
of cannabis will remain illegal, albeit there will be a redirection
and potentially a saving of police time.
1246. Are you not concerned, and is not the Home
Secretary concerned, that the law will be put into disrepute even
more? If cannabis is reclassified and one knows in practice a
small amount for one's own use is not going to lead to prosecution
and yet, at the same time, it is not legalised as such, everyone
knows that in practice it is but the law does not say so. So the
danger is that, unfortunately (because I would wish it was otherwise)
with quite a substantial minority using cannabis people would
take no notice of the law even more so, because they know they
are not going to be prosecuted because of reclassification; yet
at the same time the law says, "You shouldn't be doing what
you are because it's illegal"?
(Mr Ainsworth) It still will lead to
confiscation and caution; and if we are effectively saving police
time (and that is why I say the final evaluation does need to
be looked at, and we should not jump to any conclusion) then it
will improve effective policing; not only effective policing to
be used against other drugs but potentially more effective policing
against cannabis possession. If we can confiscate an amount of
cannabis that is worth a substantial amount often to the person
who has possession of it, and do that efficiently and effectively
without tying up a police officer for three, four or five hours
in order to drag them in front of a magistrate in order for a
magistrate to present them with a £30 or £40 fine, there
is not a massive difference in terms of penalty at the end of
the day. It is just that we have enabled the police to move on,
and we have encouraged the police to refocus their activity in
the areas where we see the most damage being done. There is no
intention to legalise the possession of cannabis.
1247. As it is now. In four or five years' time
(and obviously you could not say otherwise) would you be surprised,
Minister, if people would come to the view that, having reclassified
(as I am sure it will be) cannabis, in perhaps four or five years'
time or less than that, cannabis will be quite legal. You will
be surprised if that was so?
(Mr Ainsworth) I can only assure you,
when we were considering this policy over the recess between the
General Election and the start of the Parliamentary session, when
the Home Secretary came in front of this Committee we did not
consider it as part of an ongoing process towards something else.
We considered it as a practical measure to be taken in itself.
David Winnick: We shall see, Minister.
1248. Minister, is there such a thing as classification
or legal definition for "recreational drug"?
(Mr Ainsworth) There is no classification
for recreational drug. There is a definition that is used about
the way in which people use drugs and whether or not they are
in control to any extent of their use of drugs in terms of problematic
drug users, on the one hand, and recreational drug users on the
other; but those can apply to almost any kind of drug irrespective
1249. Would you agree that use of the phrase
"recreational drug" gives the impression somehow that
is okay in the same way as punishment beating in Northern Ireland
is mentioned as different from any other form of beating? Surely
a drug is a drug?
(Mr Ainsworth) As nobody, as far as I
am aware, uses the phrase a "recreational drug", I do
not know that that is an issue, is it? Who uses the words "recreational
drug"? To what substance?
1250. Minister, I think when you check the record
you will find today you have used the phrase "recreational
drug". If you are saying it is not part of your vocabulary
I welcome that.
(Mr Ainsworth) What I have said is that
there are people who manage, over fairly long periods of time
(when they can slip into problematic drug use) to use drugs in
a recreational fashion without becoming problematic drug users.
That can apply to any substance, as far as I am aware. I see no
particular substance as being a recreational drug. If I have given
that impression I did not intend to.
1251. I welcome that and hope, Minister, that
the phrase "recreational drugs" will cease to be part
of the vocabulary. I hope you agree with me that that phraseology
gives the impression that perhaps the use of some drugs is acceptable?
(Mr Ainsworth) Let us check the record
first. I do not think I did.
Chairman: If it is of any help to you, Mr Russell,
I think I introduced the word into the proceedings.
1252. Whoever is using it, let us agree not to
use it. Minister, can you confirm that the strength of cannabis
being used today is stronger than it was ten or 20 years ago?
(Mr Ainsworth) Not in every case; but
there are some forms of cannabis which are a lot stronger than
the norm. There are some cannabis products that are highly hallucinogenic
and far faster.
1253. Just to put everything into context, Minister,
what is the official view of the Home Office of the number of
people who are taking drugs?
(Mr Ainsworth) The number of people who
are taking all drugs?
1254. In the context of the population of the
country and those who are taking drugs?
(Mr Ainsworth) 4 million people admit
to using illicit drugs in each year. 1.8 million of those are
class A drugs. We then, as best we can, size the number of people
whom we class as problematic drug users as anything between 160,000
to 280,000. It is very hard to become specific about this.
1255. So in the region of a quarter of a million
out of a population in excess of 50 million?
(Mr Ainsworth) 200,00 to a quarter of
a million problematic drug users in this country, yes.
1256. Just sticking with cannabis for a momentwhen
it has been declassified, if it is, will it still feature in the
crime statistics as an offence that has been dealt with?
(Mr Ainsworth) I do not think it will
make any difference to the reporting mechanisms.
1257. What I wanted to put to you was this: one
of the reasons that there are so many prosecutions at the moment
for cannabis possession is that it is quite easy to jack the figures
up there. If you are dependent on targets for a living that is
an easy way of doing itgoing after the minor criminals,
as it were, who are easily got at rather than chasing the difficult
(Mr Ainsworth) You are absolutely right.
In providing incentives we need to make sure they are properly
directed. That is exactly what we are trying to do through encouragement
to tackle the issue of class A drugs.
1258. Might there be a danger, despite reclassification,
that police interest in this area will continue to be relatively
intense, because they will be thinking not about cannabis but
(Mr Ainsworth) It is about how we structure
the targets we apply to the police. It will also be about how
we structure the targets following the stocktake of the Drug Strategy.
I think you are absolutely right, we need to try to make sure
there are many changes to the Drug Strategy, that we are maximising
the focus and the efficiency of the resources we are applying
to the areas we want to apply to.
1259. Any divisional commander who was anxious
to be able to claim lots of successes, and is under pressure to
do so, is obviously going to go for the easiest areas because
that is what improves his figures most easily. Is not some adjustment
going to have to be made to the reporting process if we want to
get the police off cannabis, as it were, and on to the more serious
drug related offences?
(Mr Ainsworth) That is precisely our
motivation to do exactly that. Yes, we will look at those issues.