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Drugs (Misuse)

Volume 960: debated on Friday 15 December 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) if he has received the proposals of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs regarding the classification and penalties for controlled drugs; and if he will make a statement;(2) whether the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the classification and penalties of controlled drugs will be published.

I have received a report, under cover of a letter from the chairman, Sir Robert Bradlaw, the terms of which are reproduced below. The Council's recommendations, which are summarised in the annex to the chairman's letter, are being considered by the Government. Arrangements are being made for the report to be published, but in the meantime a copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

Following is the letter:

Dear Home Secretary,

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—Review of the Classification of Controlled Drugs and of Penalties under Schedules 2 and 4

In my letter to you of 17th June 1977 I set out the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the amendments tabled to the then Criminal Law Bill when it was before the House of Lords, the effect of which would have been to remove entirely the penalty of imprisonment at present available under schedule 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the 1971 Act) on summary conviction of unlawful possession of cannabis or cannabis resin, or to make that penalty imposable only on a third or subsequent conviction. I said that while a substantial majority of the Council was, in principle, of the opinion that the penalty of imprisonment should no longer be available in relation to a person convicted of that offence who had no previous conviction of an offence under the 1971 Act (or its predecessors), and that the appropriate changes in the law to give effect to this principle should be enacted at the earliest opportunity, the Council was unable to recommend that the Criminal Law Bill be used for that purpose. You accepted the Council's advice and agreed that it should be afforded more time to consider the implications of the proposed change in relation to all controlled drugs.

2. Accordingly, I asked the Council's Technical Sub-Committee and its Working Groups on Cannabis and on Legal and Administrative Matters to examine and report on the principles governing the present classification of controlled drugs in schedule 2 to the 1971 Act and how those principles should now be applied in determining the penalties for offences involving those drugs laid down in schedule 4, having regard also to the majority opinion of the Council in relation to summary penalties for offences of unlawful possession of cannabis and cannabis resin. The combined Report by the Sub-Committee and the Working Groups in response to this request, a copy of which I am sending you herewith, was considered by the full Council at its meeting on 19th October. I should say at this point that the report is necessarily a summary and does not attempt to record fully the carefully argued and comprehensive contributions made to the discussions by members of these groups. Having considered this report and discussed the matter further, the Council decided to submit the recommendations which I have listed in the annex to this letter, and which I now submit accordingly.

3. It may be helpful for you to know of areas where there was a marked division of opinion within the Council. This remains the case as regards the manner in which cannabis and cannabis resin should continue to be controlled. The Council is unanimously of the opinion that the use of these drugs should not be legalised in the United Kingdom and that a deterrent to their use is still needed. It does not recommend any measure of "decriminalisation" on the pattern adopted by some of the United States of America. The Council is also at one in the view that any question of the liberalisation of the law in regard to the use of these drugs should be approached with caution. There is, however, a conflict of view. Some members' appraisal of all the available scientific evidence so far leads them to conclude that some alleviation of the penalties for unlawful possession could be contemplated at the present time without undue concern about its encouraging increased use and possible risk to public health. Others, having regard to reports of current, although inconclusive, scientific investigations are not satisfied that enough is known to recommend action which would be widely regarded as implying that the risks of using cannabis and cannabis resin are less serious than was believed; and which would encourage increased use. This division of opinion was reflected in the vote on recommendation iii in paragraph 8.1 of the Report that cannabis and cannabis resin should be transferred from Class B to Class C in schedule 2 to the 1971 Act in order to attract the lowest range of penalty. Twenty-one members of the Council voted for the recommendation and six against.

4. This division was also reflected in the vote on recommendation v that in respect of Class C drugs the maximum penalty on summary conviction of unlawful possession should be a fine of £200 only. The recommendation was carried by 16 for to 11 against. In regard to this recommendation, however, other factors than those concerned with the relative harmfulness of cannabis use led some members of the Council to oppose the removal of a penalty of imprisonment on summary conviction. It was argued that the proposal as a whole created an imbalance between the punishment available in the Crown courts and in the magistrates' courts which would lead to delay and expense, and that this would be too high a price to pay for the implementation of a principle which, in practice, was already being observed by magistrates' courts. Moreover, it was pointed out that removal of the magistrates' courts' discretion to sentence to imprisonment would deprive those courts of their power to make alternative, non-custodial disposals, in particular community service orders (paragraph 6.6 and Appendix 5) which had proved of value in some cases of unlawful possession. Other members of the Council, while not opposing the recommendation to remove the penalty of imprisonment, were sympathetic to this latter view, and I was asked to convey to you the opinion of the majority of the members that, in the event of the Government's taking steps to implement the recommendation, most careful consideration should be given to special provision being made at the same time for the magistrates courts' power to make community service orders in dealing with cases of unlawful possession of Class C drugs to be retained.

5. Recommendation vi in paragraph 8.1 of the Report, that the offence of unlawful possession of a Class C drug should be "arrest-able", was the one recommendation in the report to be rejected by the Council, by 14 votes to 13, on the argument that the working groups may have overstated the practical difficulties which the police would face and that there was not a sufficiently strong case to be made for an exception to the general prin- ciple described in paragraph 6.7 of the report. in respect of this drugs offence.

6. I am sending copies of this letter and of the Report for information to the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Health and Social Security, and Education and Science.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Bradlaw

Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.