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Drugs: Cannabis

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the classification of cannabis.

“In July 2007, my right honourable friend the Prime Minster announced that we would seek the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, as we are obliged to do by statute, on the classification of cannabis. I am grateful to the council for its work and have placed a copy of its report in the Library of the House. In reaching my decision, I have also taken into account the views of others, particularly those responsible for enforcing the law, as well as of the public, 58 per cent of whom, according to a survey carried out for the council, favour upgrading cannabis from class C.

“Cannabis use is falling significantly across all age ranges, which is testament to the success of the Government’s drug strategy. However, I am concerned to ensure that the classification of cannabis reflects the alarming fact that a much stronger drug, known as ‘skunk’, now dominates the cannabis market. I want it to be clearly understood that this powerful form of cannabis is an illegal and harmful drug.

“Today I am publishing the results of a study undertaken with 23 police forces across England and Wales. This provides clear evidence that skunk now makes up 80 per cent of street-seized cannabis, compared to 30 per cent in 2002. Furthermore, its potency has increased nearly threefold since 1995.

“The advisory council’s report confirms that cannabis use poses a real threat to health. The council is concerned about its use among young people. It points to growing evidence that suggests a causal link, albeit weak, between cannabis use and psychotic illness. The council acknowledges that use of stronger cannabis may increase the harm to mental health. Young people may be more at risk if they first use it at an early age; the council refers to the average age of first use being 13. It suggests that some young people might ‘binge smoke’ to achieve maximum possible intoxication—in the same way as some treat alcohol—and concludes that, if they do, the consequences,

‘may be very serious to their mental health’.

The council also believes that the evidence of the impact of stronger cannabis may not be clear for some years to come and has recommended that cannabis remains a class C drug.

“I have given the council’s report careful consideration. Of the council’s 21 recommendations, I accept all bar those relating to classification. I have decided to reclassify cannabis to a class B drug, subject to parliamentary approval.

“My decision takes into account issues such as public perception and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. There is a compelling case for us to act now, rather than risk the future health of young people. Where there is a clear and serious problem but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public. I make no apology for that. I am not prepared to wait and see.

“To reflect the more serious status of cannabis as class B, I am clear that a strengthened enforcement approach for possession is required. The Association of Chief Police Officers said last week:

‘Should the decision be taken to reclassify cannabis we would expect to see increased robust enforcement activity particularly in cases involving repeat offenders or where there are aggravating circumstances’.

“I firmly believe that, while our response must remain proportionate and offer discretion to police officers, a system of escalation is necessary. I have therefore written to ACPO today, seeking its views on a clear and workable system of escalation that is consistent with reducing police bureaucracy and maintaining discretion. This will include looking at cannabis warnings, introduced by ACPO in 2004 to ensure that action is taken when someone is found in possession of cannabis. Prior to this, the police had to choose whether to make an arrest or to take no action. I am not against cannabis warnings, but I believe that it is unacceptable for someone to receive more than one warning and for that warning not to be properly recorded.

“I am fully aware that the system that we adopt will be delivered by those at the front line and I have asked ACPO to involve other police organisations and criminal justice partners in developing its proposals. This new approach to enforcement will not, of course, preclude officers from immediately effecting arrest.

“For those under 18 caught in possession, I am content that the current procedure, which uses a reprimand, final warning and charge, provides an appropriate escalation mechanism.

“In the past few years, we have seen a massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis in the United Kingdom. This cannot be tolerated. We know that these cannabis farms are controlled by organised criminals who stand to make large profits and who, as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has found, will stoop to using trafficked children on these premises. Reclassifying cannabis will help to drive enforcement priorities in shutting these farms down.

“ACPO and the Serious Organised Crime Agency are responding to this threat. There is a dedicated ACPO lead on cannabis cultivation and it is working with SOCA on a co-ordinated, targeted and robust approach to cannabis farms. This involves building a national profile of these criminal activities, using forensic and other intelligence to make the links between individual farms and organised criminal gangs.

“We must also focus on other ways to combat the problem. Energy suppliers are currently losing significant revenue through abstraction by organised gangs running cannabis farms. I have today written to the chief executives of the six largest energy suppliers, asking them to work with us to identify abuse and to target these groups.

“We have already introduced statutory aggravating factors where supply is made on or in the vicinity of school premises and where a courier under the age of 18 is used. I accept the advisory council’s recommendation for additional aggravating factors to be introduced concerning the supply of drugs in the vicinity of colleges and universities, mental health institutions and prisons.

“I also accept the council’s recommendation for more effective regulation of the trade in cannabis paraphernalia. It is unacceptable that cannabis use is glamorised in any way. We will work with ACPO to look at how existing legislation and powers can be used by the police, local authorities and other partners to curtail the sale and promotion of these items.

“As the council makes clear, this is an important public health issue and one that solely a change in classification will not resolve. Through campaigns such as FRANK, we will continue to make the public aware of the health harms associated with cannabis use. The Department of Health will also update our messages on the harms caused by cannabis; look at providing more advice on the health risks and where to get help through NHS Direct, NHS Choices, the smoking helpline, Drinkline and other public information points; publish a report on the health risks associated with smoking cannabis and tobacco and, where appropriate, include advice on cannabis misuse in NHS smoking cessation services; and seek the advice of the four UK chief medical officers on what more needs to be done to reduce the risks to public health.

“My decision to reclassify cannabis is part of the relentless drive to tackle drugs and the harm that they bring to families and communities and I will seek to do so by the end of the year. This is the right action to protect the public, particularly the future health of young people and the most vulnerable”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Home Secretary in the other place earlier today. The correction of the wrong that this Statement represents is long overdue. I make it clear from the outset that we support the reclassification of cannabis as a class B drug, with the appropriate legal penalties that this now brings with it. Many people would now agree that the Government made a serious error of judgment in downgrading cannabis in 2004.

With the Statement, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary—I think that it is both of them—have overridden the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The council’s recommendation was very clear that the matter should be left for at least a year for further consideration, but I think that the decision that has been made is correct. We fully support that action.

Whatever is said on this subject, parents of children who start taking cannabis, magistrates’ courts—I declare an interest as a magistrate—which see the result of theft and muggings by drug abusers, most of whom started their drug careers on cannabis and who carry out those activities to support their habit, and the general public all see the baleful effects that this drug has on those who take it habitually.

As the Minister said, the potency of the drug has increased substantially and pure cannabis has been replaced by the stronger, adulterated skunk. Anecdotally, at least, young people are driven to crime by their desire to have it and much of the increase in violent crime has as its genesis drug-taking of some sort. We have seen too much of that in the recent months and days, particularly with the recent death of the young boy in London.

Reducing cannabis from class B to class C gave out all the wrong messages. It suggested that cannabis was a soft drug and that it was relatively harmless. However, cannabis is recognised as a real threat to health, as the advisory council acknowledges. In susceptible people it has an effect on either or both their physical or mental health. It also reduces inhibition. Most important of all, its downgrading gave the message that it could be taken without fear of retribution. That meant that the police by and large gave up stopping people taking it in public and so achieved some of their other targets. They did that by issuing warnings rather than arresting those in possession of small amounts. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers, which initially supported the downgrading, announced in 2007 that it supported reclassification, as the current position was leading to confusion about the drug’s legal status.

The immediate impact of upgrading cannabis is to put it on a par with drugs such as amphetamines. For those arrested, the possible judicial penalties are substantially increased from a maximum of two to five years in prison. Fines and other penalties also rise proportionately. The offence has moved—rightly in our view—to become much more serious.

I am glad to hear that the Government will ensure that enforcement by the police will take place and that there will be a review of the value of cannabis warnings. There was an alarming report in the press a short while ago that suggested that some police forces might simply ignore the reclassification and carry on as they have done since 2004, treating cannabis possession as a very minor offence. It is not, and will not be, appropriate for it to be treated as such. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the police will be required to take the upgrading seriously and to deal with it appropriately. I know that that is what the Home Secretary has said, but we need a stark indication that that will happen.

Will the Minister tell us when the proposals developed by the police and criminal justice partners, to which he referred, will be ready? There is a nasty tendency for these things to be initiated and then never to be seen again. They vanish into the ether. This cannot be allowed to happen. I hope that a timescale will be set by which the proposals will have to be on the Home Secretary’s desk and be implemented.

Will the Minister also tell us what educational programmes will now be developed? Young children need to be taught about the dangers of starting on drugs and how to prevent drugs becoming part of their social life and they need to be taught that drugs will lead them into trouble. This must be done either in school or in educational establishments, but there is a responsibility on teachers and parents not to duck the issue. Having advice available through organisations associated with health, as outlined in the Statement, may be a useful adjunct, but it is not a replacement for preventive education.

The mostly young people whose lives and health are effectively ruined by the activities of those who provide, push and sell cannabis need to be protected from the drug and its suppliers. Sustained and firm action will be required to ensure that those involved are stopped and that their lines to the drug are severed. This Government failed parents, children, young people and the vulnerable by the message that they gave in declassifying this nasty drug. As they reclassify it, they need to give out an equally strong message that they will not weaken again in the fight to ensure that our younger generation grows up untainted by drugs.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place. It will come as no surprise to him that these Benches do not support the reclassification, particularly in the light of the fact that cannabis use has fallen, as he said, by 20 per cent since the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, chose to reclassify it. It is particularly depressing that this reclassification goes against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

We welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the other recommendations in the report. The report contains particularly important recommendations on action on cannabis farms, organised criminals and enforcement around schools. However, the classification was supposed to reflect the harm incurred. The Government’s expert committee has given its opinion on the harm incurred. If there is one thing that young people understand, it is honesty and dishonesty in a message. It is critical to be honest to get the message through about the harm that drugs do. If the Government have been advised that this should remain a class C drug, it ill behoves politicians to fly in the face of that advice.

Now that the Government propose reclassification, what do they expect the result to be? What are their expectations regarding whether usage will continue to fall? What target have they set for the next two years? The Government argue that skunk is stronger, but the advisory council took that into account.

These Benches very much regret that this Statement is again one that has emanated from the Home Office. We would have preferred it to have come from the Department of Health, because this is basically a health and education issue. The Home Secretary says that her decision takes into account issues such as public perception and the needs of and consequences for policing priorities. However, we believe that the Government have placed the emphasis in the wrong place. This is really a health and education issue and should be a Home Office issue only when that approach has failed.

These Benches certainly do not deny the serious links that arise for a minority of people between the use of cannabis or skunk and psychotic mental health. That is a serious issue, which we do not underplay. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, made some interesting points about the whole question of addiction and brain function when we debated the issue previously. I am glad to see that she is present and will no doubt contribute to this debate. This is not a well understood area. Given that cannabis use is falling and that reclassification enabled the issue to be presented honestly to young people, the Government would have done better to continue on that course.

A couple of years ago, Tom Wood, then the drugs tsar for Scotland and a former deputy chief constable, said that the time for enforcement had passed and that we had to make education the number one priority. How right he was. I regret that the Government are taking a backward step, although I recognise that the Minister placed some emphasis on education.

Can the Minister tell me how many drug treatment places are available and how many are planned to satisfy the increased need in the next two years that will result from the action that we are discussing? I am sure that he is well aware that a drug treatment place costs at least £4,000 a year less than a prison place. If the course set out in the Statement is followed, it will inevitably result in far more people going to prison on account of cannabis use. That is not a good use of taxpayers’ money, which should be spent rather on education and health measures. How many people are in prison for drug offences? If just one in 10 went to a residential centre instead, we would save some £40 million a year.

At the end of the day, this is not just about saving money; it is about ensuring that the health and mental health of the nation are not adversely affected and that organised criminals do not profit from a trade that should not take place. We feel that the Government have taken a retrograde step. We shall scrutinise the orders closely.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for her support for the move to change the classification of cannabis. She spoke very passionately about the damage and harm that drugs do to our society, and I agree with her. I think that all of us agree with that. There is no doubt that drugs affect a lot of young people. Equally, there is no doubt that the new variant of skunk has a huge impact. I know from my children and from their friends that there has been a tendency for people to smoke. I think that I am one of the few people who seems never to have had a puff of one of these things; it is amazing how many people have done. A friend of one of my sons has been appallingly affected by this. That is not unusual; all of us probably know friends and families who have been affected by this sort of thing.

I do not like talk of U-turns and changes. There was a lot of debate when we downgraded the drug, and a lot of advice was given. Skunk was not as prevalent at that stage. One was trying to see whether that would make a difference and help us in moving forward. Now we have looked at the evidence, and we have seen how much skunk is on the streets. There is a lot of doubt about what the scientific evidence is, but a lot of people feel that it has an impact. We all have personal examples of where this has damaged families and young people. It is very important that we revise these things and to send out the message of what impact this is having on society.

The noble Baroness asked whether we will make absolutely certain that the police will take this seriously and upgrade how they tackle such crimes. The answer is absolutely yes. The Home Secretary has written to ACPO and we are looking for something by the end of June. We need to take some action in this area, because it is extremely damaging.

Regarding the additional work that needs to be done as well as penalties, the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Hanham, both touched on that. It is not just a question of punishment. We need a mass of other things that will enable us to educate people and move them away from using drugs. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, spoke about that at length, and it is absolutely right. We have a good story to tell.

Spending on Frank was about £6.5 million last year, and we are spending in excess of £5 million this year. There was a reduction because of our previous investment. That has achieved a great deal. There is a lot of communication to people who are at risk and a series of adverts. I have seen only one or two of them because I became aware of them, but they are not really aimed at people like us—they are aimed at the people who might be using drugs. It is known as the “brain warehouse”. I do not know whether any noble Lords have seen the adverts. They have hit the mark; 69 per cent of youngsters in the 13 to 18 year-old bracket, which we want to reach, are aware of what this means. The slogan is, “With stronger strains than ever before, the more you mess with cannabis the more it can mess with your mind”. They are aware of that message, and it is a good message to get across.

We are also involved with parents. We tell them how to get hold of access lines and how to talk to us. There is a 24-hour helpline and a number of areas where they can talk to non-government organisations that provide information and support to parents, such as DrugScope, Re-Solv, the Children’s Society and Adfam. There is a whole raft of such organisations. It is right that we should do those things, because at the end of the day one cannot just punish one’s way out of this; it is much more than that. The two things are complementary. It is right to get the message across about how dangerous and damaging cannabis is.

The issue of paraphernalia is important. In some shops there are all sorts of things making out that this is smart, clever and a rather trendy thing to do. We need to point out that it is not smart and trendy; it is breaking the law, it wrecks families and wrecks lives. Those are the messages that we need to get across. It is not a smart, clever thing to do. It is not at all the drug that was used 40 or 50 years ago in flower power times; it must be that long ago now. Skunk is lethal stuff; it is seriously damaging. It is very, very strong indeed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked how we can make this judgment when we have advice that we should leave it in its current category. It is only an advisory council. In the Statement, the Home Secretary explained why this was done. It is interesting that the police are firmly behind this. On the “Today” programme, Ian Johnston of the Police Superintendents’ Association talked about the report that had been given by the council. He said that the report says that they do not look at the impact on policing and that evidence from superintendents up and down the country is that cannabis is causing immense harm to society. He said that reclassifying it would help build a better and safer society and hoped that the Government would show political leadership and say that they believe that cannabis is harmful and that the police should take a stronger line. If that is the view of the police and of 59 per cent of the population who believe that we should do this, it is important that we take notice. I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, spoke so passionately in support of this. I quite understand where the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is coming from, but I believe that she is wrong in this case. I think that this move was the right thing to do.

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I declare an interest as a member of one of the technical sub-committees of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and I am a member of the UK Drug Policy Commission.

My concern relates to the fact that the Government have not listened to the plea to hold off for another year to look more closely at the evidence and the implications that there may be in rejecting scientific evidence and the politicisation of such an issue. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, clearly stated, there is not evidence that consumption has risen since the downgrading, nor is there evidence of an increase in the incidence of schizophrenia. No one underestimates the complete disaster that schizophrenia is, but there is no evidence that the classification will stop those who are at risk of schizophrenia consuming the drug, or that it will stop them developing schizophrenia.

The classification does not affect supply; it is a sentencing guideline. It was created in 1971 as a simple framework for sentencing. There is now a risk of it becoming discredited by political factors and of false expectations being pinned on the benefits of this so-called reclassification. The downgrading that occurred was portrayed in the media as giving a message of harmlessness; I want to be quite clear that there was never a message from ACMD that the downgrading was harmless. It related to the sentencing guidelines going from five years maximum to two years maximum.

The classification was never intended to send a message to young people, and both domestic and international evidence suggests that it is a poor vehicle to do so. The ACMD advised that the strategies designed to minimise use and harms must be predominantly public health ones and not based on criminal justice measures. I will quote a sentence from the letter at the beginning of the report from Professor Sir Michael Rawlins:

“In providing this advice … the Council wishes to emphasise that the use of cannabis is a significant public health issue. Cannabis can unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society”.

There are comparisons to be drawn in other areas of policy where the Government have been bold and devolved decision-making to independent experts. I hope that the Government will adopt all the other recommendations in full, including supporting research.

There is also a need to improve mental health services for young people, because there are young people who are developing mental health symptoms—

My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene, but I remind the House that this part of the debate following the Statement is for questions for elucidation, not for statements and debate.

My Lords, I apologise to the House. Does the Minister intend to increase the mental health services that are available to young people? There is evidence that young people self-medicate using cannabis. If further evidence comes forward that the reclassification has not made any difference at all, what will the Government do?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for her comments. She spoke about holding off for another year and about politicisation. I do not think that this is politicisation of the issue. The Home Secretary said in the other place that she was not prepared to wait another year and gamble with young people’s health. That is a very good reason for our move. It is far better to make the mistake in that way and not gamble with young people’s health.

As the noble Baroness said quite correctly, we can look at this as time goes on. We need to look at these issues to see how things are moving and what we are achieving. Then there might be a possibility of changing where we have gone; but, at the moment, I am absolutely sure that it was right not to gamble with young people. It was right to make this decision and to make sure that the police are well able to conduct the things that they need to do to enforce it—and to make sure that all the other supportive measures are in place because that is the way, finally, for people who have a drug habit to break out of their dependency .

Perhaps I may get back to the noble Baroness in writing on her question on mental health services for young people, as I do not have an answer.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in 2004 the Statement made on behalf of Her Majesty's Government did not receive universal support on this side of the House; but I am not going to criticise the Government for changing their mind. It is a sign of strength, rather than weakness to change your mind when you are so clearly wrong. I just regret the fact that it took four years to get around to making the right decision.

I have one or two specific questions to ask my noble friend. The Statement talks at some length about the massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis in the United Kingdom. It talks about knowing about these cannabis farms that are controlled by organised criminals who stand to make large profits and will stoop to using trafficked children on these premises. If we have so much knowledge about such patently criminal activities, can we have some detail about what to date has taken place in terms of prosecuting those activities and what level of success there has been? How many of those organised farms have been raided by the police? How many perpetrators of illegal cultivation have been arrested? How many have been brought to justice and with what effect? I note from the Statement that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is today writing to the chief executives of the six largest energy suppliers about the illegal abstraction of electricity to fuel these farms. If we have enough evidence today, coincidental with the Statement, to be writing, what have we done historically in relation to that illegal abstraction?

There is more joy in heaven over the repentant sinner than the one who does not require repentance, but some of the repentance would be better accepted if we had a little empirical evidence to back up the claims of the Statement on knowledge of criminal activity.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Tomlinson for his comments. I entirely agree with him about changing minds. There seems to be a great focus on U-turns. I feel slightly scarred by that. Although there are shouts of “U-turn!”, it seems logical that we should look at things closely and then make a judgment based on that. If that judgment has changed slightly—if it is better for the nation and one’s people—then it is best to carry that out.

I do not have exact details on cannabis farming, but I understand that more than 2,000 cannabis farms have been raided and shut down, and people have been charged. I am sure that noble Lords have read in the newspapers about ordinary houses that were found to have been stripped out entirely, with rows and rows of cannabis plants growing—not that I know that much about cannabis, I hasten to add. Little did I know some four years ago, when I was in command of a naval battle group, that I would be talking about cannabis on the Floor of the House.

Growing cannabis demands heat and a lot of power. We found that the places that we raided had high electricity readings if the power had been taken off the grid properly and charged for. The Home Secretary has decided that we need to look at whether there are extremely high power demands in any region and that might be act as a focus for us to find more farms. I understand that that is being done. Equally, a lot of these people had bypassed the normal power supply lines and were taking power directly from the grid, so that there was no way of monitoring that power through their bills. We are asking energy companies to see if there is a way of identifying where power is being drawn off, because that could help us. I hope that that answers my noble friend’s question.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept from me that there is no place here for triumphalism about U-turns? The Government were on the wrong course and, as he as a mariner would know, if you are on the wrong course it is best to turn around and go back. I congratulate the Government on that.

Secondly, I hope that, through the appropriate channels, the attention of the judiciary will be drawn to the fact that this new policy is widely endorsed on both sides of the House by both of the parties that matter. Therefore, perhaps the judiciary might take note of that.

Thirdly, does the Minister not agree that, while the Government are right to listen to advice—and we are all right to do that—they are responsible for initiating policy and Parliament has the responsibility for endorsing or repudiating that policy? It is not the business of advisers to take decisions. They should be thanked for their advice and reminded of that.

Finally, will the Minister ask his colleagues in the Home Office to look at the article in the Los Angeles Times on 30 March by the American commentator James Q. Wilson? He drew attention to what appears to be a highly successful drug rehabilitation programme, slightly unorthodox by our standards, which for some time now has been carried out in Hawaii. It might have some good lessons for us.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, for his useful points. He is right that we need to point out to the judiciary that the key parties feel very strongly about this issue. I will make sure that that happens through the proper channels.

In terms of listening to advice, the noble Lord is again absolutely right. Advisory groups and advisory panels are there to give advice and they are very useful at times. Indeed, a lot of their advice is superb. On this occasion, all of the advice has been accepted, except on one thing. But such groups are advisory and in the final analysis have no responsibility for anything. The Government then correctly have to take the initiative and it is for Parliament then to decide. That is the way that things should be done; and that is what I hope will happen in this case, because Parliament will finally be asked to agree to the recategorisation.

I have not seen the Los Angeles Times article. We will certainly look at that, because we do not have answers to all these issues. We have a long way to go in many areas and should use anything that is useful and is seen to be useful. I am particularly willing to go to Hawaii to check out the rehabilitation programme.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while of course the Government are lawfully entitled not to accept the main recommendation of the advisory committee, nevertheless there is a high moral obligation on them to justify taking a different course? Will he give urgent thought to the two sides of this question? On the one hand, of course, cannabis has immense dangers for those using it and has a close link with very serious crime. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of young people who otherwise have entirely decent habits and attitudes go through a phase in life where it seems almost to be a part of growing up to have a few puffs, as the Minister has said. It would be a grave tragedy if hundreds of thousands of young people were brought into the criminal system in that way.

Will the noble Lord give urgent thought to examining what happened some 40 years ago when the Wootton report was considered in both Houses? I declare an interest as a Minister in the Home Office in those days. It was decided not to decriminalise cannabis but to make it absolutely clear that young persons would not be sent to prison for simple possession unless they showed complete and open defiance of authority. It might be difficult now, with legislation, to go along that path of 40 years ago, but will the Minister consider the two dangers and the fact that somehow or other the Government have to avoid both if possible?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. This has to be done with discretion and with a certain amount of sense, and we need to avoid any ratcheting-up of the situation. There is no intention whatever that the rather foolish young person aged 18 who is caught having one puff on a joint will be given five years in prison. However, there are some people whom I jolly well would like to put away when they are in possession of a lot of this stuff, even though they are not meant to be supplying it. When they have been caught and warned, and that has happened again and again, I have no doubt that it is absolutely right that the full weight of the law should be brought against them.

We talk about people having one little puff but I am afraid that that is now far more dangerous with skunk. The drug is not what it used to be, and that is one of the problems. People sometimes talk about it being no worse than alcohol but we have to put it in context. Over the past month, something like one and a half million people will probably have had a puff of a joint and something like 42 million people will have had a drink. One has to bear that in mind and get these things into perspective. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right: this is something that we have to think about. However, there is a balance to be struck and discretion has to be applied. The police have made it very clear that they will do that but they have to be told that this is a serious matter. We certainly take it very seriously.

My Lords, after we have seen what happens in practice after perhaps two years, will the Government agree to issue a report on how the reclassification is working and consider the alternative? In other words, I am asking for a very full report on the whole issue.

My Lords, I am not quite clear what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is asking. As I understand it, he is asking for this matter to be reviewed in about two years’ time. Rather than formalise that, I can say that we will keep looking at this issue, as we have been doing. That is why we have now decided that we should recategorise cannabis. I do not think that I could commit the Government to a formal report but we will constantly monitor the situation and see where we are going. As I said, I believe that the criminalising aspect is important to show how serious the matter is and that we take it very seriously. However, education and the other methods that we employ are the ways to resolve the problems of people getting into the drug culture.

My Lords, the Minister will not be aware of this but when the announcement by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, was made, I said how unwise it would be to downgrade strong cannabis. It is all written down in Hansard. Perhaps this Statement will encourage more research into cannabis and the triggering of schizophrenia. This is a serious matter and I hope that the Minister will set that research in motion.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point. The situation is very difficult at the moment because the scientific evidence is not at all clear. As I said, my right honourable friend in the other place is absolutely right not to take a risk with our young people but, equally, there is a difficult balance to be struck. The scientific evidence is not at all clear and we do not know some of the details. It is therefore essential that more research is done. I am afraid that I do not know exactly what has to be put in hand for that to happen but I believe it is essential that it does happen.

Perhaps I may get back to the noble Baroness in writing. I think that we need to do more research to ensure that we know all the answers. I fear that some of them will take some time because the impact of things such as smoking skunk takes a rather long time to come out. With the more mild variants, the question that always used to be asked was: how do you know whether someone is taking too many drugs? The answer was: if you had a wheelbarrow-load of money at the top of a hill and an armchair half way up, the chap who was smoking cannabis would sit in the armchair and think about it, whereas other people would go and get the money. Skunk is very different; it has a huge impact on people. It is not just the benign substance that people thought cannabis was years ago. It is very harmful and, as I said, it destroys families and lives. It has a huge impact on our quality of life.

My Lords, in 2004 I spoke passionately about the downgrading of cannabis, and the very reasons that I gave are in the report today. Mothers, teachers and other people who have control of young people will be delighted that the Government have reconsidered this matter. It is suggested that there has been a decrease in the taking of cannabis, but we have not been vigilant and we do not know the figures. There are mothers in this country today who spent pounds and pounds on their children’s education. Those children come out of college addicted to this drug. Will the Minister congratulate the Home Secretary on taking this bold step? We cannot afford to be liberal. The killing of young black men by other young black men has its roots in the drug trade.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Howells for her interjection: she has expressed matters much more eloquently than I could have done. This drug has a huge impact on many lives and I think that the Home Secretary made absolutely the right decision. I shall certainly pass on my noble friend’s congratulations to my right honourable friend in the other place. My noble friend is absolutely right: some of the figures relating to a reduction in use and so on came about due to the drug’s reclassification. They did not mean that fewer people were smoking the drug but were due to the fact that we had reclassified it to class C. Therefore, the statistics did not reflect how it was being used, and that was a very dangerous situation.