HC Deb 23 January 1969 vol 776 cc661-5

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in view of the conclusions reached in paragraph 70 of the report of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence that cannabis is a dangerous drug the implications of the mental effect of which are not yet clear, whether he will give an assurance that he does not accept the recommendation of the same Committee that the present maximum penalties for possession and supply of the drug are altogether too high.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the Report on Cannabis of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, now answer Questions Nos. 56 and 57.

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have carefully studied the Report on cannabis, submitted by the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence, and wish to thank Sir Edward Wayne, Baroness Wootton and their colleagues for their painstaking examination of this social problem.

The Sub-Committee of which Lady Wootton was Chairman recommended that the penalties for possession, sale or supply of cannabis should be substantially reduced. It also recommended studies of the use of police powers, of the exclusion of strict liability, and of redefinition of the offence of unauthorised possession. It recommended that the general law on drugs should be recast.

My right hon. Friends and I fully accept that more comprehensive and flexible powers of control are needed to check drug abuse, and I hope to be in a position to announce proposals in due course. We also accept that there is a need for wider research and we are bringing this to the notice of the Research Council and others.

As regards a review of police powers of search and arrest, the Advisory Committee has set up a Sub-Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) to review these powers in relation to drug offences, and this inquiry is proceeding. I am in sympathy with the view that the scope of strict liability in relation to drug offences should be restricted, and I shall continue consultations with the Law Commission to that end.

On the other hand, I cannot reconcile the view expressed by the main Committee that the wider use of cannabis should not be encouraged with the proposal that legislation should be brought in to reduce the existing penalties for use. Nor has the Advisory Committee made any forecast of the consequences of such legislation. But, in our opinion, to reduce the penalties for possession, sale or supply of cannabis would be bound to lead people to think that the Government take a less than serious view of the effects of drug-taking.

That is not so. It would be entirely contrary to Government policy to allow this impression to spread, nor would such a view accord with the resolution of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which the Government accepted last year, recommending that all countries concerned increase their efforts to eradicate the abuse and illicit traffic in cannabis". Accordingly, it is not the Government's intention to legislate to reduce existing penalties.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Will the Secretary of State be assured that he has the support of the vast majority of the House in the statement that he has just made? Will he make it clear that what we are discussing are the maximum penalties and not in any sense a minimum penalty, which is a matter for the courts, and that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves—namely, that there is no certainty or even knowledge of the physical as well as the social effects of this drug—this would be a particularly appropriate time to take any action in the direction which is recommended by the Report?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir. We are discussing maximum penalties, and it is for the courts to judge the seriousness of each offence. As we have a number of social evils in Britain at present, I am certain that it would be sheer masochism to add to our evils by legislating to make it more easy for people to introduce yet another one.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I understand my right hon. Friend's reply and his unwillingness to legislate in the way proposed, but does he not agree that it is very important that Members and others should read the Report and the very logical and careful argument in it before rushing to conclusions on specific items in it? Further, will he note the recommendations—and, indeed, the views—of Dr. Cameron, of the World Health Organisation, on specific points of penalties? In his view, there is no reason in logic for having the same penalty for cannabis as for narcotic drugs.

Mr. Callaghan

I certainly recommend that the Report be read. It contains, as I said, much useful material, some of which my right hon. Friends and I would hope to adopt. I find it very difficult to reconcile the Committee's conclusions on the question of penalties, but that does not in any way mitigate the appreciation I feel for the rest of the work which was done by the Committee, including my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Ashford.

As to medical and other views about the effects of the drug, much more research is needed before the State moves in to reduce penalties. It would be quite wrong for me at this stage to take such action. I believe that on reviewing this subject, because of the growth of new drugs and the fact that new problems are likely to come upon us, there is probably a case for more legislation on this subject; but the legislation that I would propose to the House when I finish my review would be to strengthen the Government's power and not to weaken it, to make it more flexible so that we can react to new situations as they arise.

Mr. Hogg

Will the right hon. Gentleman, as I hope, be pleased and not unduly embarrassed when he learns that the judgment of those on this Bench is almost exactly the same on this matter as that of the Government? Will he take note that we wish to debate this matter in our time next Monday and, therefore, do not wish to ask him further questions at present?

Mr. Callaghan

I am very relieved to hear that there will be no more questions this afternoon. I guessed what the right hon. and learned Gentleman would say, because I listened with appreciation to him on "The World at One", where he is a constant and regular attender. May I suggest to him that when he is on tomorrow, if he is asked again why both parties have the habit of setting up commissions and then ignoring their reports, instead of giving the answer he did he should say that the Government did not specifically set up this Committee with a view to inquiring into this subject.

Dr. Winstanley

As a member of a party which has not yet had its opportunity of ventilating its views on "The World at One"—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—on this question—may I say that, broadly speaking, I welcome the statement the Home Secretary has made, in particular his remarks on the need for further research. Will he accept that the best way to stop people becoming addicted to drugs is to stop the drugs concerned being available to them? Will he concentrate more effort on the question of availability of the drugs, from which he will perhaps get a better return than the mere matter of penal sanctions?

Mr. Callaghan

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last remark. The question of availability is important. That is why in some ways those who push cannabis are also likely to push other drugs, too. We should be very careful before we isolate the treatment of one from the other.

As regards appearing on "The World at One", I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has a complaint. Now that he has made it, perhaps he will do better if he can settle it with his right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), who always seems to be on as much as the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg).

Dr. Gray

If my right hon. Friend is not prepared to accept all the recommendations of the Committee—I am in complete agreement with them—will he consider separating supply and possession, and reduce the maximum penalties for possession even though he does not do so for supply?

Mr. Callaghan

These are maximum penalties, and I have no intention to legislate to reduce them in isolation at present. When I have reviewed the drugs law as a whole—I ask the House to look at it as a whole and consider the various drugs which are affected—there may be changes in penalties which I should wish to propose to the House; but we must look at this as a connected whole, not considering cannabis in isolation.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Committee said that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol? Is he expecting from the Opposition a demand that we should have a day to discuss the effects of alcohol?

Mr. Callaghan

No, Sir; I doubt that we shall have that. In reply to the point behind what my hon. Friend says, I should say that, although society has enjoyed and, possibly, abused itself with alcohol for many hundreds of years and, perhaps, developed the social response which is necessary, it is a fallacy in logic to assume that one should then introduce a further evil to which society would once again need to adjust itself over a long and painful period.

Mr. C. Pannell

I hope that no impression will go out from the House, based on my right hon. Friend's last remark, that the country has yet developed a sense of social responsibility towards alcohol, since human reactions in traffic and in other ways all tend to disprove that. I do not think that my right hon. Friend quite meant that, and I should not like him to be quoted out of context.

Mr. Callaghan I hope that nothing will be quoted out of context.