HL Deb 04 February 1971 vol 314 cc1361-75

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Windlesham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?


On Clause 1, the Committee may remember that I expressed concern on Second Reading about the heavy general responsibilities and the specific day-to-day duties of the new Advisory Council which it establishes, especially in the light of the fact that there is no longer to be an expert Committee. I also drew attention to the need to provide sufficient practical support to the members of this new body and to consider the payment of at least an attendance fee to those who will be undertaking these important public duties if there are to be no full-time or part-time paid members appointed.

In reply, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, informed me that it was not the intention of his right honourable friend to appoint any full-time or part-time paid members, and he also informed the House then that no decisions had been reached about the secretariat. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would expand a little to the Committee to-day on the reasons for these decisions of his right honourable friend, and especially let us know what arrangements are being made to serve this important Advisory Council. I have not put down an Amendment at this stage to delete the words "if any" from the Schedule and thus bring it in line with Schedule 2 of the Criminal Justice Act, which makes provision for the appointment and payment of members of the Parole Board, as I hope for a further explanation from the noble Lord in charge of the Bill. It is a matter which many of us in our own experience know to be important. I do not believe that we can continue to rely indefinitely on a public-spirited and leisured class to perform important public duties of this kind, especially when we know from our own experience that one is inevitably out of pocket as a result of such work. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could tell us where his Department stands on this matter.


I am grateful to the noble Baroness for drawing my attention again to this matter. I cannot go very much further than I went on Second Reading in assuring her that we will watch very carefully to see whether there are any difficulties with regard to the Advisory Council, but at the present moment we do not anticipate that there will be difficulties. We are confident that, with the help of the Department concerned, who will provide the secretariat for the Council, it will be able to function perfectly satisfactorily. I have noted the remarks of the noble Baroness. I will go into the matter in more detail if she would like me to do so and will get in touch with her about it.


I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I cannot pretend that I am fully satisfied with it. Of course, we know that it will be possible to find distinguished men and women of great public experience who will be prepared to serve on this body because they are prepared to give public service in this way. My concern is that they should be properly assisted in their duties and that they themselves should not be out of pocket as a result, if the Home Secretary has decided that it is not to have a full-time or even a part-time paid chairman.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Controlled drugs and their classification for purposes of this Act]:

3.20 p.m.

LORD FOOT moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 42, leave out ("or III") and insert (", III or IV").

The noble Lord said: In rising to move the first three Amendments which stand in my name, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 (and I hope that it will be convenient to take them together), I should like to say that when I spoke on the Second Reading of this Bill I confined myself almost entirely to one subject, which was the question of whether cannabis and cannabis resin ought to be treated in a classification of their own. The Amendments which I am now moving are designed to create that new classification of drugs—a fourth classification which will include cannabis and cannabis resin. Before I embark upon the arguments in support of that proposition, may I explain to the Committee the mechanics of the matter, because many of the subsequent Amendments standing in my name proceed and follow from the Amendments on Clause 2?

Clause 2 is of course the clause that classifies controlled drugs according to their comparative supposed harmfulness. Under the Bill as it stands there are three classifications: A, B and C. What I am proposing is that cannabis and cannabis resin, now in Class B, should be taken out of that class and put into a new class of their own called Class D. That is what the Amendments to Clause 2 substantially do. But if your Lordships will look on to the Amendments that I am proposing under Clause 25, you will see that that clause deals with the matter of prosecutions and penalties and is linked up with Schedules 2 and 4. Clause 25 prescribes the different penalties for the different kinds of offences in relation to different classes of drugs. The purpose of my Amendments there is to provide that there shall be in Schedule 4 a new column of Class D drugs with separate penalties for the offences in relation to cannabis and cannabis resin. If your Lordships will look on to Amendment No. 21 you will see that that again is merely in pursuance of my original objective. It takes cannabis and cannabis resin out of Class B. Amendment No. 24 creates my new Class D; and the Amendments to Schedule 4, of which I am afraid there are quite a number, contain my proposals for the new penalties to be attached to the various offences in connection with cannabis.

I hope that it will be convenient and acceptable to the Committee if at this stage we discuss simply the question of whether it is right to put cannabis and cannabis resin in a class of their own, and leave for further consideration (because, of course, if I do not get home on that, the question of the new Class D drugs and of the penalties that I prescribe in respect of them will not arise) the question of penalties. Whatever your Lordships may feel about the penalties I have suggested for cannabis offences, may we at this stage discuss simply the general principle of whether it is right to make this new class?—because it may be that some of your Lordships who are in general sympathy with my object in creating a new class have reservations and differences with me about the penalties I have suggested. If these Amendments of mine are accepted in principle, then we can at a later stage in this debate consider whether I have the penalties right. I am not being in any way dogmatic about that, and I shall not be. I am just as much liable to error on matters of that kind as anybody else is. So I would invite your Lordships to consider now the general principle of whether we should create this separate class of its own.

May I add just one word before I come to the merits of the matter? If my first three Amendments are accepted, it will involve, as I see it, quite a number of consequential Amendments later in the Bill. I have not overloaded the List of Amendments with all those consequential Amendments because I understand that, according to the practice of this House, it is perfectly in order for me to move the substantial Amendments and then, if they are accepted, at the Report stage to move the necessary consequential Amendments to put the whole matter in proper order.

As I say, on the Second Reading of the Bill I confined myself almost entirely to the matter of cannabis and creating a separate class, and therefore I hope that I can introduce some brevity into this part of the debate by simply summarising the arguments which I saw fit to address to your Lordships on that occasion, because there may well be many of your Lordships here to-day who were not present at the Second Reading. The points which I tried to make were these. Clause 2 of the Bill, as I pointed out just now, deals with the classification of drugs according to their supposed harmfulness. I fully accept and recognise that, with the great majority of controlled or dangerous drugs, the question of which class a drug should belong to is necessarily and primarily a matter for expert opinion. Many of these drugs whose names appear in these various classes—A, B and C—mean nothing whatever to me. I am quite content that for the most part the classification of drugs according to harmfulness should necessarily be a matter in which we are guided by the experts and by medical authority.

However, as I pointed out on Second Reading, one of these drugs stands all by itself, because when one is considering the classification of this drug one is called upon to make social, political and indeed ethical judgments as well as a medical and expert judgment; and that drug is of course cannabis and cannabis resin. I do not want to-day, in this Committee in discussing the question of cannabis, to say anything about the great cannabis debate which has been going on in this country now for some three or four years. I do not want to become controversial. I do not want to rest my case upon anything which may be in dispute. Of course, whenever one speaks about cannabis, whenever one discusses it at all, one finds that the whole question is in dispute. The problem of cannabis was sought to be considered by the Sub-Committee presided over by the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger. It would be fair to say (I do not think anybody would dispute this) that the conclusions they came to were tentative to the utmost degree, tentative in the highest degree.

What I want to rest my case on in the Committee to-day in discussing this separate classification of cannabis is what I regard as indisputable propositions. The first of these propositions is that, after all the debate which has been going on, not only in this country but in America and elsewhere throughout the world, there is still no general consensus of responsible opinion as to whether this drug is harmful, to what degree it is harmful, in what circumstances it is harmful, whether it has any short-term effects, or whether any long-term effects. Throughout the world there is no general agreement about this matter. That is the first proposition.

The second proposition I would make is this: that, whether we like it or not, both here and in America there is a substantial body of opinion, and particularly among the younger generation—although it is not confined to them— which is utterly unpersuaded that this drug is harmful, or that the taking and using of it carries with it any moral taint or any moral guilt. That is one of the facts of life, whether we like it or not. The third fact which I suggest is indisputable is that, so far as the actual users of cannabis are concerned, the problem of cannabis is the most important and most significant aspect of the whole drug problem in this country.

Bearing those three considerations in mind, and if your Lordships accept that they are really beyond dispute, is it not an astonishing thing to think of the penalties which under this Bill are being attached to the various offences in connection with cannabis? As I reminded the House on Second Reading, for possession only in any quantity of cannabis or cannabis resin, under this Bill the penalty on summary conviction is six months' imprisonment or a fine of £400, or both; and on indictment it is five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both.

When we come to the other offences in connection with cannabis—the supplying, production, being in management of premises where it is being consumed, and the like—we find that the penalties are these: for summary conviction 12 months' imprisonment or £400 fine, or both; and on indictment, 14 years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. These are the penalties which are prescribed in this Bill for an offence which a large number of people regard as being without any moral taint whatever.

It has been said so often that I hesitate to say it again, but is it not an appalling anomaly that we should prescribe a maximum penalty of 14 years for supplying a small quantity of cannabis and that the people who openly advertise the sale of cigarettes and liquor, which are known killers, should be allowed to do so without any penalty whatever? It is this contradiction and conflict in the law as it stands which, I suggest, brings the law into such great disrepute. It is this that causes the cynicism among such a large proportion of our population. They say that the law is hypocritical and that the Establishment in this country are making one law for their habits and another law for the habits of the younger generation.

I suggest that it is always a dangerous thing to legislate against something when a substantial number of people regard the legislation as having no moral foundation, and I suggest that it is particularly dangerous in the case of drugs. What can happen? It may produce a result which is the very opposite to what is desired. If you make a law which a great number of people regard as being manifestly unfair and unjust, you may very well be met with a response of defiance and disregard of the law; and you may in fact create the very thing that you want to try to suppress. I am not going to refer to the experience in America, but there is a large body of evidence, as the noble Lord who is in charge of this Bill will know, which shows that Draconian penalties in America directed at the cannabis users not only have been ineffective to deal with cannabis, but have in fact had the opposite result of driving a great number of people on to the hard drugs.

Throughout the debate on the Second Reading of this Bill in your Lordships' House, as indeed it was when this matter was debated in the other place, it was generally agreed—it was agreed by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, when he opened the Second Reading debate and by the noble Baroness who replied on behalf of the Opposition that what can be achieved in the problem of the misuse of drugs by legislation and by the criminal law is necessarily limited; and that if you are going to enforce this law and deal effectively with this problem you have to enlist the assistance of all kinds of other agencies.

What I suggest is that if you get the law wrong, if you pass a law which does not command general respect among the public, it will have two results. First, you will make the work of the other agencies—the educational agencies, the advisory agencies, the investigational agencies and the rest—much more difficult, because such a large proportion of the population rejects the whole legal framework of the Bill. The second result is that you will make the enforcement of the law more difficult than it otherwise would be. The enforcement of the law in regard to drugs is one of the most difficult practical propositions with which we are confronted, if only because of the ease of importation, the ease of distribution, the ease of concealing these things.

I suggest that if the law enforcement agencies are to be enabled to do their job, it will be possible only if you can carry public opinion with you and if the overwhelming majority of people are satisfied that this is a fair and just law. If the great majority of people are not satisfied that that is the case, then the work of all the other agencies engaged in this problem will be made that much more difficult, because they will be regarded as being on the side of the unjust law and the unjust law enforcement officers.

Later we shall be discussing, on an Amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, the difficult matter of "stop and search" which was introduced in 1967 and is repeated in this Bill. I am not saying anything about the substance of that Amendment—indeed, I have my reservations as to the position of the noble Baroness about this, but maybe she will be able to persuade me that she is right and I am wrong. I mention the point now because if we are going to have these powers of search, if we are going to enable police officers to stop people in the street, and search them there and then—things which are extremely offensive, of course, to anybody who is at all concerned with civil liberties—I believe that they will be acceptable as being necessary for the enforcement of the law only if public opinion generally considers that the law which is being enforced is a just and fair one.

I realise that my solution, if I may call it that—the solution of creating a separate class for cannabis and cannabis resin—is a compromise. In this matter the people of this country are split down the middle; or perhaps I should say they are split horizontally, very largely according to their age. I want to close that gap. I want to have a law passed which will have general acceptance. Logically the way to close the gap between the generations would be to legalise cannabis. That would be the better way of closing the gap.

I realise, therefore, that my solution is something of a compromise. Nevertheless, if we can in this Bill quite clearly and demonstrably draw a distinction between the other drugs, where the harmfulness has been demonstrated, and the drugs cannabis and cannabis resin, so that it will be seen by all the world that we take quite a different attitude and view of the use of cannabis and the offences connected with cannabis, I believe that we shall have gone a long way to make this law acceptable to the majority of people.

I would conclude with this. There is nothing new or novel in what I am proposing to the House on this occasion. Indeed, I am accepting all the authoritative opinion upon the matter, and the authoritiative opinion upon the matter is being rejected by the Government. When Lady Wootton's sub-committee considered this matter and made their recommendations, at paragraph 81 they said: We believe that the association of cannabis in legislation with heroin and other opiates is entirely inappropriate and that new and quite separate legislation to deal specially and separately with cannabis and with its synethic derivatives should be introduced as soon as possible. We are also convinced that the present penalties for possession and supply are altogether too high. Not only was that the unanimous recommendation of the sub-committee but it was completely endorsed by the whole of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence. So the only full-scale inquiry that has been conducted into this matter by experts in this country came unanimously to the conclusion that cannabis and cannabis resin ought to be treated on their own.

I do not go so far as that. I am not suggesting that we should leave cannabis out altogether and have another Act of Parliament to deal with it. I am merely suggesting there should be a separate classification of cannabis which would go some way to implement that position. When the previous Government decided to reject that advice, and when this Government adopted the former Government's attitude in the matter, they were rejecting the unanimous advice of their own Committee, the Committee which had investigated this matter more thoroughly than anybody in this country ever before. Therefore I am not coming with a novel proposition but merely retailing what was proposed by that subcommittee and Committee.

May I say one final word about the Amendment which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, because it is possibly relevant to what I am trying to do? Lord Gifford is proposing an Amendment by which cannabis and cannabis resin would be taken out of Class B and put into Class C. I am not without sympathy with that, but I do not think it goes far enough. I think we need to draw a clear distinction between cannabis and cannabis resin and all other drugs. But if my Amendments are rejected by the Committee—I dearly hope they will not be—I shall, of course, join forces with the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, when we come to his Amendment, because that is better than nothing. But I still hope that I may be able to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Gifford—maybe he is with me already—that my solution is preferable. When we come to divide the Committee, and it is my present intention to do so, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, will be able to support me, and I will give him an undertaking, not necessarily as a bargain, that if I go down I will come to his support when we reach his Amendment.

Therefore, I would conclude by saying this. I do not apologise for taking up so much time, because I think we are engaged here upon a very speculative and dangerous enterprise. I do not think anybody who has studied this question would be so foolish as to pretend that he is necessarily right and that he knows what the solution is. This question of cannabis I believe is the ground on which we are most likely to make a mistake, and I beg of the Government, even at this late stage, to consider the possibility of accepting Amendments of this kind. It does not go to the root of their Bill; it does not in any way upset the principle of their Bill. In a sense, it is carrying out the very principles of their Bill, because the whole of their Bill is based upon the idea of categorising drugs according to harmfulness. That is precisely what I am asking the Committee to do in connection with cannabis. I beg to move.

3.46 p.m.


I hope the Committee will not lend an ear to the eloquent appeal which we have just listened to from the noble Lord, Lord Foot, who is asking us to regard cannabis, the taking of cannabis, in a lenient way. He condemned his own argument in the last few sentences, when he said, "I have to admit that nobody really knows anything about this subject". That is a fact. If nobody knows the last word about taking cannabis, then at this stage of our civilisation we must beware. He said that so far as he knows there is no authoritative voice which warns the country of the serious nature of cannabis. Has he not heard of all the medical authorities who deal with the addicts, those poor creatures who, as they say to-day, are "hooked" on heroin and hard drugs? Time after time, in articles in our medical papers and in speeches, the doctors who have treated these people month after month and who have questioned them very frequently have said that they started generally on the soft drugs, on cannabis. The noble Lord is asking us to open the door a bit wider to these weak young men and women who are thirsting for a new experience and who, if this Amendment goes through, will regard this House as taking a lenient view and as telling them that, whereas other drugs may be harmful, the use of cannabis will not be subject to such severe punishment.

At this stage in our knowledge I ask your Lordships to protect our young people by making it quite clear to the country that by taking cannabis they are embarking on a most serious path which may end in degradation. The noble Lord may say that I am making these statements without any sound support to-day. I ask him to go to the Library and look at to-day's Times and he will see: One third at American universities found to have tried marijuana. The largest Federal survey of marijuana smoking in American universities shows that almost one third of students have tried marijuana and that one seventh use it regularly. The survey was conducted for the National Institute of Mental Health, whose director, Dr. Bertram Brown, made the findings public.… Speaking at a news conference. Dr. Brown emphasised that many, if not most, of the facts dealing with marijuana and its use were still unclear, especially the effects of long-term use. That is a most important fact. The noble Lord was so dogmatic that he seemed to know, yet here are the experts saying that they do not know what the future has in store and that it is quite unclear what the detrimental effects of this drug may be.

Dr. Brown said: For the bulk (of smokers) marijuana does not seem harmful, but it may be to some. While there is some proven negative effect, should we encourage the use of this escape from reality? That is what youth uses it for, to escape from the real facts of life. He continued: Chemical analyses conducted by the institute had shown an enormous fluctuation in the composition of the material claimed to be marijuana. The amount of tetrahydrocannabinols, the chemicals in marijuana that give the weed its effects, was found to be 100 times as great in varieties coming from South-East Asia as in types found growing naturally in the Americal Middle West. May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Foot, when he is asking for these penalties, whether they are to be applied to the potent marijuana which comes from South-East Asia and probably from the Middle East which reaches our country, or to the American type? Is he also putting an Amendment down on that matter, in order to tell people just what is the strength of the drug they are taking? The article continues: Studies carried out in several American and Canadian cities had found that one-third of marijuana sold was not marijuana at all; in some cases dried hay and even grass cuttings were discovered. As a result of this wide variation in content, there also was a wide variation in the effects. The noble Lord may well be, and no doubt is, talking about effects. According to this report, some of these effects may have come from grass cuttings and dried hay. I appeal to the Committee. We are still as ignorant on this subject as we were in the past of the effect of a lot of drugs. It took us centuries to understand the effect of treatment that certain drugs involved. I ask the Committee at this stage not for one moment to be diverted, but to be strong minded and to recognise that this is a drug which may lead young people to take even stronger drugs from which there can be no return.


I should like to associate myself with the views that have just been expressed by the noble Baroness. I spent many years in the East, in a country where hashish was well known and its dangers were well known. It might be well to recall—I do not think I have seen it mentioned on the Record that our word "assassin" stems from the word "hashish". Therefore, it is not of this day and age that the dangers of the drug are known. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, was in error when he said that the country was split down the middle. It may be split—but not down the middle. I believe that although a considerable proportion of the population think of cannabis as something which we have got to learn to live with, a much larger proportion feel that it is something that we must learn to live without, and for that reason I hope that the Committee will reject the Amendment.


I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Summer-skill, whether in fact the things that she has been saying on the use of cannabis do not apply also a great deal more forcefully to the use of alcohol and nicotine. She has said that we know nothing about the long-term effects of this drug. I am not quite sure what drugs or indeed what foodstuffs we do know much about in regard to their long-term effects. Aspirin has only come into use since the early 1930s. Nobody is too sure about the long term effects of that drug. What we do know the long-term effects of is alcohol and tobacco. Are we therefore going to ban them? If not, why not? That is the first question I should like to put.


May I answer the noble Viscount? How curiously illogical he is! Often I have great admiration for the noble Viscount when he supports me. But he is quite illogical when he says, "Now there are two bad things, alcohol and smoking. You let young people have those two. Why not let them have another bad thing." What an extraordinary argument!


If I may reply to the noble Baroness, I certainly did not say that alcohol was a bad thing; I do not believe it is. What I do believe is that it is probably a more dangerous thing, which is not the same as being a bad thing.


Why add another one?


It is a more dangerous thing than cannabis resin. That is no reason why it should be banned. I should be the last person in the world to suggest that it should be. By the same token, I am suggesting that to ban cannabis resin is illogical. Not only is it illogical, but it is extremely dangerous, because if we are going to not escape from reality, as I am sure the noble Baroness is most anxious that we should not do, we should not fool ourselves that we should never be able to stop the use of a very popular drug which can be grown in everybody's back garden, and is increasing in popularity from day to day. Any law which cannot conceivably be observed is by definition a bad law. It brings the whole law into disrepute. By bringing a law into disrepute, for reasons which are unknown and uncertain, are we doing a service to this country? I very much doubt whether we are.

May I take one more point? By keeping cannabis resin in the same class as the hard drugs, does the noble Baroness fully realise that she is thereby forcing young people, or indeed old people or any others who want cannabis, and see no reason why they should not have it in moderation, any more than they should have a drink or a smoke and are going to get it anyway, into the hands of the pushers? The reason why so many people on the hard stuff say, or have it said for them, that they began with cannabis, is because by beginning with cannabis they have been forced into the hands of the pushers who, when they are selling them their next lot of cannabis, give them a free bonus, and say, "Why do you not try some of this? It is twice as good".

If cannabis could be bought at a legalised, licensed store in the same way as tobacco or alcohol, there would be no danger of this happening. The other, harder drugs would be more safely removed from the reach of innocent people. This, incidentally, would be a way of standardising the stuff and making sure that it was not mixed with dried grass or tea leaves, or, much worse, with little bits of the hard stuff which once again will prove the thin edge of the wedge to the consumers: in other words, by legalising it we can control its quality and its sale. We can keep the very dangerous stuff, the long-term effects of which we do know, out of the hands of young and old alike far more comfortably than probably we can already.


I must apologise to the Committee because I know that there are several noble Lords who wish to take part in this interesting and important discussion. But I think it might be for the convenience of your Lordships if we were to have the Statement at this point. I therefore beg to move that the House be resumed.

On Question, Motion agreed to and House resumed accordingly.