HL Deb 14 January 2004 vol 657 cc556-9

2.47 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will review their policy on cannabis in the light of new evidence suggesting that the use of cannabis increases the likelihood of the onset of psychosis.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government's decision to seek to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug was taken following advice received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The evidence to which the noble Lord refers was collated by Professor Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry, who does not oppose reclassification. Much of it was considered by the ACMD when it drew up its report. That evidence does not constitute grounds for review of our policy on cannabis.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she not agree that a good Secretary of State should be prepared to review a policy, not persist with it pig-headedly, when it becomes apparent that the advice on which he has relied is fundamentally flawed? Is it not madness to press ahead with downgrading cannabis to a class C drug, putting it in the same category as tranquillisers and sending out a message that it is relatively harmless, when in recent years the evidence has steadily mounted that there is a link between cannabis use and mental illness? As the Minister has said, we now have Professor Murray saying that cannabis use is the leading problem faced by the country's mental health services; that inner-city psychiatric services are nearly at crisis point, with up to 80 per cent of all psychotic cases reporting a history of cannabis use; and that there is now proof that people who use cannabis in their teens are up to seven times more likely to develop psychosis, delusional episodes or manic depression. I beg the Government to think again.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree absolutely that a good Secretary of State would take the action that the noble Lord has highlighted when it becomes clear that advice is absolutely fundamentally flawed. However, that is not the case. The advice that was given by the advisory council took into account research similar to that to which the noble Lord referred.

We have considered the issue. On the previous occasion, I said that the Government would continue to keep the issue under review, as would the advisory council. Professor Murray's report is consistent with the indications that had already been considered by the advisory council when it came to its view on classifications. As I said in my Answer, Professor Murray does not disagree with the reclassification of cannabis.

Lord Winston

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the House's Select Committee on Science and Technology examined in detail the evidence for cannabis causing harm and has continued to keep that matter under surveillance? The evidence that cannabis causes psychosis or mental illness is very far from clear. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that, there is little evidence that cannabis use can precipitate schizophrenia or other mental illness in those not already predisposed to it".

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct.

Lord McNally

My Lords, has the Minister seen three headlines from last week's press? One said: 'Epidemic' of mental illness warning". Another said: Why I'd rather be stoned than drunk". A third said, "Cannabis laws in shambles". Does the Minister agree that some clear messages must be sent with reclassification? There must now be a real emphasis on prosecuting and bringing to justice the peddlers of hard drugs. Will the police be given the resources to do that?

Is the Minister sure that the Government have the kind of rolling advice that is needed, as all of us move on to thin ice in drugs law? Is the advisory council the right body to carry on the work, or should a statutory standing commission be set up to take account of new developments and new advice?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked several questions. In accordance with practice, I shall answer two. We agree about the need to have clear messages. We are spending over £1 million on a campaign to make sure that people understand the new law and that schoolchildren and others who may be directly affected get the information that they need to make a proper, informed decision. I also agree with the noble Lord that the concentration should be on those who purvey such pernicious drugs, to the detriment of us all.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the Minister recall our debate on 12 November, in which several of us raised a concern that Professor Murray and others had sought a meeting with the Home Secretary and that that meeting had been declined? Will she confirm that, of the 34 members of the advisory council, not one comes from an organisation opposed to the changes that she outlined to the House that night? On that same council, there are 13 representatives of groups that are in favour of change.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the advisory council is made up of 20 members, chosen because of their expertise and independence of view. I know that the noble Lord will appreciate the high quality of the membership. That membership is clearly set out.

We do not accept that there has, in any way, been a lack of balance. Proper consideration has been given to Professor Murray's work. It has been taken into account, in order to make sure that what the Government do is properly balanced and right.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the reclassification of cannabis will result in increased use of cannabis, as happened recently in Lambeth, where it has already been effectively declassified? That may lead to growing health problems in the future.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we do not believe that it will lead to an increase in the use of cannabis. The European Monitoring Centre report does not show that cannabis use in the United Kingdom is increasing.

Of course, we will we keep the issues under careful scrutiny. We need to monitor the issue to make sure that the assumptions that we make now are correct.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, does the Minister accept that choosing to reclassify cannabis at this time will inevitably send out a message that its use is harmless? Does she accept, as a former practising barrister, that many of the people addicted to hard drugs who are involved in serious cases started by using cannabis before moving to harder drugs?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we must base our judgments on the data that we have. As a good forensic lawyer, the noble Lord will know that that is the best way to approach things. The evidence does not, at the moment, demonstrate that to be so. The link between using cannabis and moving on to class A drugs has not been established with the clarity that the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, once cannabis is reclassified at the end of the month, will the Government consider again the possibility of permitting the private cultivation of cannabis for personal use? That would cut out the middleman and reduce the volume of illegal trade.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, no.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, whatever the rights and wrongs of the psychiatric evidence, are the Government satisfied that police officers who catch people—particularly young people—using cannabis have the equipment to ensure that they obtain the right health advice about the possible psychiatric and psychotropic effects of cannabis misuse?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am confident that the guidance given to police is robust. Noble Lords will also know that we are developing some very responsive procedures and protocols for dealing with young people who are or may become addicted. So far, I am glad to say, those policies appear to be bearing fruit, and we are doing better than, perhaps, many thought we would be. But there is a long way to go.

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