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Cannabis (Medicinal Use)

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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If they will make a statement on progress towards licensing cannabis for medicinal purposes. [114219]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

GW Pharmaceuticals has completed its advanced clinical trials on the development of a medical preparation of a cannabis-based drug. A dossier of those findings has been submitted to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—an agency of the Department of Health—for evaluation. The assessment is one that all prospective new medicines must go through, and it is designed to protect public health. In consultation with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Government are considering how the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 would apply to the cannabis-based medicine, in the event that the agency approves the safety, quality and effectiveness of the product. The Government will seek Parliament's agreement to any necessary changes to the regulations.

When I raised the matter with the Prime Minister on 3 July 2002, he said:

"As he probably knows, we are currently reviewing the issue of cannabis and people with diseases such as multiple sclerosis. We are not yet in a position to state the findings of that review, but we are giving it urgent consideration."—[Official Report, 3 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 225.]
Foolishly, I thought that he had used the words "urgent consideration" in the normally understood sense of the term, not in some Government or civil service manner. Will the Minister approach the matter with rather more vigour and urgency than appears to be the case at the moment? The law puts people such as my constituent, Biz Ivol, in an unspeakable dilemma whereby they are forced either to suffer unbearable pain from a disease such a multiple sclerosis or to put themselves on the wrong side of the law, thereby exposing themselves to all sorts of dangers, not least facing drug dealers and the possible ill-effects of self-medication.

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what we will and will not do, which is in no way out of line with what the Prime Minister said. We have encouraged GW Pharmaceuticals to do this work, and we shall encourage all the relevant health authorities to conduct the appropriate evaluations in good time. We do not want any unnecessary delays in that regard, because the initial findings of the evaluation were extremely positive.

However, we do not say that the normal, necessary procedures for properly evaluating the safety and appropriate use of a drug ought to be thrown in the bin in the case of cannabis, and that instead we ought to have a completely separate fast-track procedure. I hope the hon. Gentleman realises what a dangerous precedent that would set. In this country, we have procedures to protect our public health. All new drugs must be properly evaluated, and cannabis must be evaluated along with those.

On the bright side, given the speed at which things are going, we hope that if they go well and the evaluations prove to be positive, there could be a product on the shelves before the end of the year.

As a result, in part, of the lack of urgency with which the Government have considered the medicinal aspect of cannabis and the mixed messages that they have sent, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) referred, there is a side issue to this debate—the proliferation of cannabis cafés.

We now have three cannabis cafés in Worthing, although it does not exactly have a reputation for being smack alley. Bongchuffa is one, while in my constituency Buddies Hydroponics—[Laughter.] The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department may think that this is a laughing matter, but it is not if one resides in the vicinity of one of those cafés. Such things are being marketed as a community service to elderly people with multiple sclerosis and other related ailments. In truth, such activities have become big business and they act as magnets. The cafés attract all sorts of lowlife and impressionable young people, and they indulge in drugs illegally.

If those drugs are illegal, why is action not taken? The mixed messages that the Government send out allow people to think that they can get away with it. When the police try to raid those premises, they cannot muster the resources to bring a prosecution. Such things have been happening for months in my constituency, so what is the Minister going to do about it?

Order. The hon. Gentleman must draw his question to a close.

I should clarify what I was laughing at—the hon. Gentleman's public school accent getting round the name of the cannabis café in his constituency. I found it somewhat amusing, but I apologise, as I should not mock the way people talk, especially not with my midlands accent.

Let us try to make things absolutely clear and stop trying to spread confusion among people. Even if the GW trials go well and the appropriate approvals and evaluations to bring in a medicine are obtained, that will not mean that smoking cannabis will be legal. It is not legal now, and it is not going to be; rather, the product that GW Pharmaceuticals will produce and test, which will be available to relieve certain people, will be. The hon. Gentleman asks why action is not being taken, but has he directed that question to his local police? Did he take the matter up with other people if the answer was not satisfactory? There are cannabis cafés in this country. Prosecutions have been brought against those who have used, owned or supplied them, and closures have been effected.

I wonder whether I might make a plea. This is a question and answer session. If questions and answers are concise, we will, I hope, make good progress through the list.

I am sorry to disappoint the Minister, as I have not been to a public school in my life. I shall try to use terms that he can understand. He has not answered the question. Such cafes continue to trade and make a large amount of money—£30,000 a week in profits, so we gather—because people have the impression that they can get away with it. Secondly, Sussex police say that they do not have the resources to mount raids on such places that will result in prosecutions. How is he going to help the police to ensure that they can close down such places, if they are illegal, and give local residents the service that they expect for the taxes that they pay?

If the premises are illegal, action should be taken against them, and I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I regularly tell Conservative Members: we now have record numbers of police officers.