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Drugs: Cannabis

Volume 714: debated on Thursday 5 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they made, in moving cannabis from class C to class B, of what the effect would be on the prices charged by criminal dealers.

My Lords, the Government have made no formal assessment of the effect that reclassification of cannabis to a class B drug in January 2009 would have had on the prices charged by drug dealers.

I thank the noble Lord for that rather predictable response. Would he agree that it is a disgrace that the drugs trade, which is now said to be the second largest global market, after oil, is totally in the hands of criminals? Should not the United Nations and national Governments be looking for new policies such as, for example, those that have been successfully trialled in Portugal?

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord has for some time held the view that we should legalise controlled drugs. I understand the complex arguments for their being looked after in a regulated manner, but I am afraid that I believe, and the Government have concluded, that the disadvantages would far outweigh the benefits.

At a time when we are trying to reduce the use of tobacco and the misuse of alcohol due to concerns over their safety, it would be absolutely perverse to take a huge gamble on public health in legalising currently illegal drugs. These things have a real impact on the streets. People talk about them in a remote, airy-fairy way, but the reality on the streets in some areas of our country is really quite horrendous. What we are doing is absolutely right.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former head of a drugs squad. Does my noble friend agree that the increasing strength of cannabis, particularly skunk, creates a very real danger to young people and makes it far more dangerous? Does he also agree that it is more carcinogenic than tobacco? Could my noble friend explain to the House what steps the Government are taking to prevent people driving under the influence of cannabis, which is increasing daily? Is a roadside detection device, rather like a breathalyser, being developed?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those questions. I agree with him: skunk is far more dangerous. I know this from the experience of my youngsters and their friends. One of my sons has two friends who have been severely affected by the use of this really strong drug. It is nonsense to say that it does not have appalling effects. Also, in referring to alcohol, all the chaps and women who take cannabis seem also to drink and smoke ordinary cigarettes, so there is another issue there. We need to be very careful. As regards driving, there is no doubt that these drugs have an impact on people. We are looking hard at ways to identify this clearly. Skunk has a huge impact on people’s ability to drive, particularly if they have had even one drink as well, making them a danger with a lethal weapon on our streets.

My Lords, we on these Benches agree about the dangers of skunk. Following up on that, what proportion of the domestic drugs market is now made up of high-potency skunk, given that it is a serious danger? How widespread is the domestic cultivation of this strain, compared with the amount that is imported? It is important to know how this market is evolving.

My Lords, may I get back to the noble Baroness with the exact figures? I know I have them somewhere, but I cannot get to them in time. Domestic cultivation accounts for a growing proportion of the market. One of our real concerns, and one of the reasons for the reclassification, is that we want to home in on cultivation. Very often we find foreign criminal gangs growing huge amounts of this very strong skunk—not the ordinary cannabis that people remember from years ago. It is a real issue; we want to be able to get the people who are doing this and putting skunk on to the market.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that reclassification does not have much impact on the streets, as he puts it, or indeed on the international drug traffickers? Would he comment on the record of the Navy in seizing illegal drugs? In 2006, I think it seized some £600 million-worth; in the following two years, the figure was £200 million. However, the figure that I have for this year is only £7 million. Can the Minister account for the drop-off in naval seizures? Is the Navy now not being resourced enough to do this?

My Lords, the noble Baroness knows how to hit my heart with this issue. The Navy has had huge success in this field. Just under £4 billion-worth at street value, primarily of cocaine, has been captured since the turn of the millennium. In September, the “Iron Duke” caught the biggest haul ever, worth £240 million at street value. This is having a slight—but only slight—impact. These people make such profits that they can afford to lose two-thirds of all the drugs they are transporting before it hits them. However, it is beginning to have an impact; that haul and the flights are affecting the flow of drugs through west Africa, which we were very worried about. It is really good stuff. I am always delighted to speak about the Navy. Sixty-nine years ago today, Captain Fegen got a VC for steaming towards two German battle cruisers in a little merchant ship. The Navy still shows the same spirit towards drugs.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some years ago, your Lordships’ Select Committee on Science and Technology conducted a major inquiry into the medical uses of cannabis? It came to the conclusion that there was anecdotal evidence to suggest that cannabis might, on occasions, have beneficial effects on the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, but it condemned the smoking of cannabis because the evidence was clear that smoking cannabis leaf was much more dangerous than smoking tobacco. Since that time, a standardised preparation of cannabis leaf for absorption through the oral mucous membrane has been developed. Controlled trials have shown significant benefit in some patients with multiple sclerosis. Can the noble Lord give an assurance that the reclassification of cannabis will not have an adverse effect on the availability of that preparation if and when it is licensed by the MHRA?

My Lords, I am somewhat thrown back on being a simple sailor as regards the detail of that. However, I will certainly look at this. It seems to me a very important issue and I am sure that we would not allow that to happen, but I shall get back in writing.

My Lords, everyone accepts that drugs are dangerous, but in view of the increasing acceptance across the globe that criminal penalties for the possession of drugs for personal use have been a failure, and the increasing move across the globe to civil penalties or indeed the medicalisation of drugs, does the Minister agree that the Government should now undertake an impact assessment of our outdated drugs legislation, at least in an attempt to restore their reputation in the scientific community?

My Lords, as I stated before, there are a number of issues involved in all this. I understand all the arguments about the possible legalisation of certain aspects and dealing with drugs in different ways, and that groups of people do a lot of good work in countering drug use. These things are all extremely important, but I believe that we needed to send a very strong message to our youngsters and our population that these things are really dangerous. Walking back from it and saying they are not sends a message that they are all right really, but they are not. We have to be very careful about that. We need also to focus on the people who are growing skunk on an ever bigger scale and give the police an opportunity to get them. We should bear in mind that, although cannabis is a class B drug, the police can first give a warning. It is up to them whether they give two warnings and then move on to a PND. We are trying to do this to an extent.