Debate on Drug Strategy

- Friday, 9th November 2001


Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and I largely agree with what she said so lucidly. I shall endeavour to be brief, as I know that other hon. Members who have taken a consistent interest in the subject for longer, perhaps, than I have wish to speak.

I was reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that I raised the issue of alcohol prohibition in my maiden speech, when I quoted the shortest-ever maiden speech to the House, which was given during the 1920s, when prohibition was in force in the United States. It was made by a Labour Member representing a coal-mining constituency, who was incensed by Lady Astor banging on from the Conservative Benches about the need to ban the demon drink and outlaw the sale of alcohol. Eventually, as I said in my maiden speech, he could stand it no more, so he leapt to his feet, caught the Speaker‘s eye, and in six brief words gave his maiden and only speech:

"No bloody beer, no bloody coal."--[Official Report, 24 November 1983; Vol. 49, c. 498.]

Then he sat down again. I cannot promise to be that succinct, but I shall try to be brief.

One thing I learned when I was in the financial markets that is true also in the political world is that when something is inevitable, it happens sooner than one expects. In July, I published a pamphlet that began with the words:

"The decriminalisation of cannabis is inevitable".

I should not have been surprised that the Government made a move in that direction rather more speedily than most people thought likely and than I expected. I give due credit to the Home Secretary for that move and for having the courage to eat not only some of his own words, but a large meal of the Prime Minister‘s words in making that U-turn. It is welcome as far as it goes, but I shall explain why it does not go far enough.

First, however, I shall explain how I became convinced that reform of the cannabis laws was both inevitable and desirable and, secondly, discuss the extent to which the change announced by the Home Secretary will end the damage done by attempts to prohibit the sale and use of cannabis.

9 Nov 2001 : Column 518

The subject is characterised by a threefold confusion, between the immoral and the illegal, use and abuse, and soft and hard drugs. On use, I should say that I have never used cannabis and have no desire to do so. As far as I know, I am the only Member of either party who has been a Front Bencher who has emphatically and convincingly denied ever using cannabis. That is probably why I have a clear enough head to realise that the attempt to prohibit it is inevitably doomed to failure.

On a more serious note, with reference to morality and legality, as a Christian I have a profound moral objection to drug abuse, by which I mean abuse of anything, be it alcohol or cannabis, to the extent to which it deprives one of one‘s self-control and undermines one‘s conscience, thereby leading one to other acts that may be damaging to one‘s neighbour or ultimately to oneself and society as a whole.

There are many things, however, that are immoral but not illegal and which it would be foolish to make illegal. Adultery is immoral, but none of us would seriously suggest that the state make it illegal. If we were more willing to teach and do what the Minister said we should not do--preach what is right and wrong and what is moral and immoral--we would need less recourse to the law and have a freer and more responsible society.

Before I thought through all those arguments, I used to rehearse fairly mechanically, as one does, the line to take and the arguments for the status quo in constituency meetings with young people and their parents and grandparents. I hope that I am such a sufficiently convincing and experienced apologist that I convinced some that the status quo was sustainable, but each time I became less and less convinced. The arguments seemed to crumble in my hands when I was faced with the evidence.

The two main arguments that have been used to sustain the policy of prohibition are that cannabis is damaging to one‘s health and that it is a gateway drug. I read a great deal of medical research on the health issue. Instead of relying on my assessment, I quoted The Lancet review of the evidence in my pamphlet, which is available from the Social Market Foundation at ?5 or from my website free of charge. The Lancet published the evidence in 1998 and concluded:

"On the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and decisions to ban or to legalise cannabis should therefore be based on other considerations."

I have argued that in public, and the comeback was similar to Hegel‘s response when his disciples pointed out that his theories were refuted by the facts. He replied, "So much the worse for the facts."

There has been a tendency to dismiss the evidence. People say, "That‘s just The Lancet; I found an article in an obscure journal that says there is such and such a health risk." I prefer to rely on a review of all the evidence, published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, rather than picking a study by a lay person who has not subjected it to peer review. Almost all the comprehensive reviews of the evidence, not only that by The Lancet, show that the health risks of moderate use are not great.

I do not want simply to win the argument. In the past two or three months, I have tried to single out the most difficult arguments to tackle, and I shall speak about the two strongest counter-arguments. The first concerns schizophrenia. There is evidence that cannabis can precipitate psychotic episodes in those who are liable to

9 Nov 2001 : Column 519

schizophrenia, but it is disputed and not strong. It is based on the medical records of Swedish army conscripts, and half those heavy cannabis users who were subsequently diagnosed schizophrenic had taken amphetamines, which are known to precipitate the condition.

Schizophrenia affects only slightly more than 1 per cent. of the population and appears to be genetically preconditioned. Those who rely on the evidence I described effectively acknowledge that the health risks for 98 per cent. of the population are those that The Lancet found. However, there is a risk to the 1 or 2 per cent. who are liable to schizophrenia. Cannabis use will not cause the condition, but it may induce it earlier.

We must acknowledge that hundreds of mentally ill people die every year from paracetamol and aspirin overdoses. Nobody gives that as a reason for outlawing their sale. I cannot help believing that people seize on the schizophrenia argument to try to outlaw cannabis for the other 98 per cent. of the population. We should make people more aware of the health risks for schizophrenics; legalisation will make that possible.

The other strong health argument involves cancer. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out, no one has died from a cannabis overdose, but if people smoked as much cannabis as ordinary cigarettes, they would probably be more likely to contract cancer than regular tobacco smokers. However, almost no one smokes cannabis as heavily as heavy smokers smoke tobacco, so the argument is somewhat artificial. We must acknowledge that the health risks exist and we should try to ensure that people know about them. That will be possible only if we move to a system more liberal than the current one or that proposed by the Government.

The other key argument is that of the gateway--taking cannabis leads to using hard drugs. There is clearly no chemical predisposition caused by taking cannabis that leads people to take hard drugs. That is essentially the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that, because people do one thing first and another later, the first caused the later. It is like saying that most people who ride motor cycles previously rode bicycles, but that if bicycles did not exist, they would never have got on a motor cycle or that we could stop people moving on to motor cycling by banning bicycles.

The underlying gateway argument is that cannabis leads to hard drugs and that we therefore need to prohibit cannabis, but that is the reverse of the truth. Making the supply and possession of cannabis a criminal offence drives people through the gates of the law into the illegal world in which they must acquire their supplies from people who may also push heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs.

The simple fact is that, so long as the possession and sale of cannabis remain criminal offences, that reverse gateway effect will apply. Legislation is the only way to overcome it, which is why I propose that we should empower the magistrates in each area to license one or more outlets to sell cannabis in small quantities for retail use to those over 18 from premises which would carry no alcohol, which would lose their licence if there were the slightest reasonable suspicion that they handled any hard or illegal drugs and which would be bound to carry a health warning on what they sold and in their premises.

Unless or until we do that, we shall not break the link between the supply of cannabis and the supply of hard drugs. That has been the great success in the Netherlands

9 Nov 2001 : Column 520

and one hears a great deal of information about it. Indeed, people frequently tell me what I must have seen when I went over to Amsterdam with the BBC, but they are wrong. I saw some fairly disgusting sights in the red-light quarter connected to the sale of women‘s bodies and the abuse of women through prostitution; I saw rather less that had to do with drugs.

Dr. Iddon: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a close link between prostitution and drugs in that many women have to exploit their bodies to pay for their drugs?

Mr. Lilley: That is true, if the drugs are illegal. So far as I know, it is not a correlated factor in the Amsterdam red-light quarter. The two happen to be adjacent because of the layout and policing of the area, just as lots of rather sordid things go on in Soho, and it seems to be traditional that they are linked in that area. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman‘s point.

The great success in Holland has been to break the link between the supply of cannabis and that of hard drugs. I visited the police, the drug rehabilitation clinics and the Salvation Army hostel for derelict users of hard drugs, and everyone agreed that going back, criminalising cannabis and restoring the link between the two supply routes would be a terrible loss to Dutch society. It should be emphatically put on record that no one wanted a return to that. In Holland, the age of heroin addicts and those addicted to other hard drugs is increasing, because they constitute a declining pool that receives relatively few new recruits from young cannabis users, who do not come into contact with the suppliers of hard drugs.

The greatest good that could be done by liberalisation is breaking the link between the supply of hard and soft drugs. Sadly, the reclassification proposed by the Home Secretary will not achieve that. It will, however, achieve one and a half of the four benefits that could be obtained by moving to legalisation. The authorities will be allowed to focus on tackling hard drugs instead of wasting so much effort on cannabis. Hard drugs are the real issue; they can enslave through addiction, drive people to crime and kill.

In this country, 80 per cent. of drug use is cannabis use. Most of the ?1 billion to ?2 billion spent on the attempt to prohibit drug use goes on trying to prohibit cannabis use. Two thirds of drugs arrests are cannabis related and three quarters of drugs seizures, by weight, are of cannabis. The change that the Home Secretary proposes will stop the cannabis tail wagging the hard drugs dog. It will allow us to focus on tackling hard drugs, not only by reinforcing the prohibition effort, but by allowing more creative effort to be put into policy formation and the health of users.

The change will half help in restoring respect for the law. Currently, the law is unenforceable, because it is indefensible. As a result, millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens break the law from time to time and use cannabis. Some 10 million people in this country claim to have done so, with 4 million doing so in the past year and probably 1 million in the past month. Some 100,000 people a year are arrested as a result.

All that increases the contempt for the law felt especially by young people, who see the differential treatment of cannabis, alcohol and nicotine as essentially

9 Nov 2001 : Column 521

hypocritical and demeaning. That effect would be diminished by the changes, although the Home Secretary will not alter the fact that the sale and use of cannabis will still be a crime. Those will not be arrestable offences, and that fact was spun to the media to suggest the end of any contact between cannabis users and the police, but they will remain prosecutable offences, although the police will have to prosecute by summons instead of by arresting people on the spot.

The change will mean that the police will have the option to enforce the law, but, in practice, they will not do so. They will no longer have to indulge in 300,000 stop-and-search operations on the street every year as they do at present. Those cause great friction between the police and some ethnic minority communities, which assume that they are being singled out. Only 12 per cent. of those 300,000 stop-and-search operations find evidence of drugs on the people concerned.

We will be left with an improved, but still odd, position in which the police may arrest people, but will probably just issue a warning that falls short of a criminal caution. If someone is arrested a second time, they will be warned that, if they do it again, they will be warned again. That will still undermine the respect that young people feel for the law.

Pete Wishart: Is not it important to retain some societal disapproval of the use of soft drugs and cannabis?

Mr. Lilley: Society can disapprove of things without making them against the law. Most of us disapprove of adultery, but we do not try to make it against the law. We must end the belief that there is an identity between morality and legality. Only in totalitarian societies is the state seen as the author of the moral law. In free societies, the moral law springs from within our conscience and our religion, not from the state.

The change will improve the situation, but the law will remain in a contemptible state. That will undermine respect for it among the law-abiding, who will ask why we have such laws on the statute book if they are not enforced in practice.

The change will not achieve the other major gain that would stem from legalisation: it will not prevent the enriching and enlarging of the criminal underworld. We have made an important area of economic activity illegal, so the fruits of that activity are enhanced and the profitability increased, and all goes to the criminal underworld. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) pointed out, that also increases violence and lawlessness among those dealing in cannabis.

New studies show that much of the rise in violence that tends to occur when a substance is prohibited--for example, alcohol in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and cannabis in this country--is down to the fact that the people involved in the trade can no longer resolve disputes by resorting to the law, so they resort to the gun and to force. A legalised system would undermine that and siphon off a great source of wealth for the underworld. I hope that, instead of being attracted to such

9 Nov 2001 : Column 522

wealth-creating activities, many such people would join the free and legitimate economy, get proper jobs and become integrated in normal life.

Ms Oona King: The right hon. Gentleman refers to the increase in violence and the criminal underworld. In the light of events on 11 September, does he agree that removing the supply side from those groups would undermine their ability to fund terrorist activities, which depends to a large extent on drug supply remaining illegal?

Mr. Lilley: That is a powerful point, although I have focused my attention on cannabis, not hard drugs. There is a distinction between the two, and it would be a much bigger step to legalise hard drugs. We should take the first step and legalise cannabis, but that would not have any impact on the Afghan situation.

Prohibiting the sale of cannabis has an effect on criminality. The counter argument that is always put is that if we stop people selling cannabis they will push hard drugs even harder, but the contention that criminal gangs do not push the high-margin, addictive substances as hard as they can and are distracted into selling cannabis instead is ludicrous. If it were true, we should prohibit the sale of ice cream so they would all be diverted into that activity, but no one proposes it, because it is nonsensical. Those gangs push hard drugs as hard as they can.

The fifth and final benefit to be gained from legalisation brings me back to where I began: it would leave people greater freedom for personal responsibility in these matters. I believe that the state should intervene only when an activity does clear social damage, when there is widespread support for trying to prevent that activity by law and when the law can achieve some practical purpose. None of those three is true in the case of cannabis.

In general, the more responsibility over their lives we give to people, the more responsibly they will behave--not all of them, but more of them. The more we nanny people and treat them like children, the more infantile will be their behaviour.

Mr. Bellingham: Like the Labour party.

Mr. Lilley: That is an important point, but not one I wanted to make at this juncture.

We should err on the side of liberalisation unless there are strong arguments to the contrary. The change proposed by the Home Secretary is welcome, but it is a first chapter, not the end of the story. He will have to move further in due course, and I hope that he will be encouraged to do so by the general tone of this debate.

9 November 2001 Col: 517-522



Current Location:


Home / Parliament / Questions / 2001

Debate on Drug Strategy


Search this Site



Contact Peter Lilley MP: