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The Wootton Report

Extract from 'The Strange Case of Pot' by Michael Schofield (Penguin, 1971).

Schofield was a social psychologist who sat on the Wootton Committee and, dismayed by its reception, which led to the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act, he subsequently published this book.


In the introduction, he writes:

'The original title of this book was to have been 'The Case For And Against Pot.' It was intended to present both sides of the controversy and weight the evidence before coming to a conclusion. But once the myths were cleared, it became obvious that the case for and against was not evenly balanced. By any ordinary standards of objectivity, it is clear that cannabis is not a very harmful drug. But the simple ranging of issues side by side is to superficial an approach for what is a very complex situation - really a social problem, much less a legal problem, and still less a medical problem.'

'The book is divided into three major parts. In the first five chapters I present the basic information about cannabis and compare it with the other illegal drugs. In the next six chapters I try to explain the public attitudes to cannabis and discuss the main controversies. In the last five chapters I attempt to describe the legal and sociological aspects, and end by suggesting a more sensible plan of action.'

Chapter 7, The Wootton Report

- In this chapter, Schofield discusses the background to the establishment of the Wootton Committee and then goes on to outline the committee's recommendations, elucidating each one.

Other Reports

At first Government committees were only concerned with the opiates, and in particular with heroin addiction. The two reports of the Interdepartmental Committee under Lord Brain in 1961 and 1965 hardly mentioned cannabis. In the first report the committee decided that cannabis was not within their terms of reference and concluded: 'In our view cannabis is not a drug of addiction; it is an intoxicant.' In the second report they noted briefly that there is 'a risk that young people may be persuaded to turn to cannabis' which was something of an understatement even in 1965.

One important recommendation in the second Brain report was to set up a Standing Advisory Committee to keep under review the whole problem of drug dependence. As this was not a static but a changing problem, it would be useful to bring together a group of experts with authority to advise to advise on the social as well as the medical aspects. This committee was set up in early 1967 under the Chairmanship of Sir Edward Wayne, MD, PhD, DSc, FRCP, FRCP(G). Twenty-two other members were appointed, nine of whom were doctors. A small secretariat was formed to help the committee, but there was no money to pay for research and no special facilities. Some of the members were doctors treating addicts, but most of them had only a limited amount of knowledge of drugs although all of them have learnt over the years.

Without the facilities to initiate or carry out research, this committee cannot be expected to provide new facts or make important discoveries. All that the members can do is to discuss the matter between themselves and listen from time to time to witnesses called to give evidence because they are experts in some particular aspect of drug use. But nearly everyone who gives evidence to this committee does so as the representative of an organisation which has a special interest in drugs. Conflicting views will be heard from the representatives of other organisations. The function of the committee is essentially judicial and its purpose is to reconcile the conflicting claims of its witnesses. As there is a wide variety of opinion represented among the members, the suggested solutions to the various problems of drug dependence are obtained by compromising between opposing views. The reports which are issued from time to time usually consist of an aggregation of existing opinions. including those of the chairman, the committee members, and the witnesses. A research team of three or four people working full time is more likely to produce more penetrating and workable solutions to the problems of drug use than a committee of prominent citizens meeting three or four times a year to compile and select from conflicting expert opinions.

None the less the committee has been able to give useful advice to the Home Office and Ministry of Social Security on the best way to implement the earlier recommendations of the Brain committee. Treatment centres for heroin addicts have been set up and special arrangements were introduced to control the outbreak of methedrine injections. Perhaps the most important work has been done in the sub-committees which have met more regularly than the main committee. There have been sub-committees on rehabilitation (published as a report by HMSO in 1969) and health education (the results were circularised by the Department of Education), amphetamines, LSD, and the powers of search and arrest (these reports were published by HMSO in 1970). In April 1967 a special sub-committee was appointed to review the available evidence on the pharmacological, clinical, pathological, social and legal aspects of cannabis. After seventeen meetings under the chairmanship of Baroness Wootton, the sub-committee's report was published in January 1969.

The Recommendations

(1) We recommend that in the interest of public health, it is necessary for the time being to maintain restrictions on the availability of cannabis.

- Although it is stated in the report that the consumption of cannabis in moderate doses has no harmful effects, the committee felt less sure about the mental effects. This recommendation, therefore, is intended to be a temporary measure and should be reviewed from time to time, when more is known about the effects as a result of medical and social research. Meanwhile the courts should recognise that there is considerable variation in the personalities and motives of people who use cannabis.

(2) Every encouragement, both academic and financial, should be given to suitable projects for enquiry into the cannabis problem.

- It follows that if there is a lack of information on an important and controversial problem, every effort should be made to provide research facilities. Although three working parties have been set up by the medical Research Council and an Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence has been established, progress is very slow. It is inevitable that research into drug use will be a lengthy business, but it is disquieting that even three years after the formation of the Government's Advisory Committee, very few large-scale research projects have even been started.

In March 1970, the Home Office issued a list of research on drug dependence. This list contained ten biochemical and pharmacological studies, mainly concerned with the developments of techniques for detecting cannabis in the body. there were no cannabis studies listed under the clinical and treatment section. Five studies were listed under the social and psychological section; three of these (Chapple, 1966; Paton, 1968; Tylden, 1968) who had written papers strongly opposed to the use of cannabis even before starting the research; only one of the five has been undertaken by a sociologist. so far the Social Science Research Council has not supported any researches on the use of cannabis even though it is in the area of sociology that we most need information.

The Wootton committee found that it was impossible to estimate the number of people who used cannabis and the guesses seem to range between 30,000 and 300,000. It is clearly impossible to make sense of statements about the social consequences of widespread use of cannabis until there are some reliable estimates of the prevalence of regular users. No detailed information is available about the extent of cannabis use by immigrants. There is an immediate need for sociological and psychological studies to define the different social groups and to describe the personalities of people who smoke cannabis. People do not hesitate to criticise the young for taking drugs, but in fact no one knows how many adolescents do take cannabis, how many use the drug only occasionally at parties and week-ends, and how many take it regularly. Only a well-planned research would show if there are differentiating characteristics between users who take only cannabis and people who used to take cannabis but have now given up all drug use.

(3) The law should progressively be recast to give Parliament greater flexibility of control over individual drugs.

- This was one of the few recommendations which the Home Secretary found acceptable, although it seems likely that he does not interpret the 'greater flexibility of control' in the same sense as the Wootton Committee. Mr Callaghan, speaking during the debate on the Wootton report, said that he would put before the House proposals which would give him more power to handle the problem in a much more flexible manner. He then went on to criticise the restrictions of the 1964 Drugs Act which in fact does not apply to cannabis. He wanted the power to bring new synthetic drugs under the Act as they were developed and became popular with users, and he also mentioned the need to have stronger legal control over manufacturers, doctors, chemists, and others who distribute the drugs. he felt that there was 'a clear risk that each new fashion of drug taking will find new gaps in the defences, which will only be plugged too late' and the solution would be 'to have a single comprehensive code which would rationalise and strengthen the Government's powers.' (Quoted from Hansard, 27 January, 1969, column 967). There is much substance in Mr Callaghan's remarks about changing fashions in the drugs scene but this has nothing to do with the Wootton report which is about cannabis, a drug that is already fashionable and is hardly ever prescribed by medical men. It is difficult to see what the Home Secretary's call for new legislation has to do with cannabis unless he feels that one drug is much like another, an attitude of mind that Lady Wootton and her colleagues were most anxious to alter.

The Wootton committee suggested changes in the law because there is now a better understanding of the reasons why people use drugs. Criminological studies have cast doubts on the effectiveness of deterrents and the general law on the treatment of offenders has been changed considerable. The committee felt that 'the penalties for cannabis offences have gone unreviewed for too long'. Their idea of flexibility was that the law should be adjusted according to the dangers of the drug and the way it is misused.

(4) The association in legislation of cannabis and heroin and the other opiates is inappropriate and new legislation to deal specifically and separately with cannabis and its synthetic derivatives should be introduced as soon as possible.

- There are two reasons for this. Many people agree that the confusion between cannabis and heroin leads to misunderstandings and, in some cases, to injustice. The committee also stated quite clearly that the present penalties for possession of cannabis were altogether too high. The Government accepted the third recommendation for reasons other than those given by the committee, and after some hesitation, the fourth recommendation was also incorporated into the new (Misuse of Drugs) Bill, although the penalties for possession of cannabis are still severe.

(5) Unlawful possession of cannabis without knowledge should not be an offence. The practicability of distinguishing between possession intended for use and possession intended for supply should be examined.

- This brings to notice two of the several difficulties encountered in a law which is about possession when what we are really concerned about is the misuse of drugs. Although a recent test case was taken as far as the House of Lords the resulting decision was by no means clear because the issues in that particular case were complex. The law should make it quite certain that a person cannot be incriminated, for example, by someone putting cannabis in his coat pocket without his knowledge. The police maintain that is extremely difficult to catch someone in the act of dealing in cannabis or any other drug. The unsatisfactory solution to this problem under the 1965 Act was to retain high maximum penalties for the offence of possession so that the courts could sentence a man who had been found guilty of one offence (i.e. possession) as if he has been found guilty of another (i.e. supply). It is a form of justice that is open to question, it is a bit like the bench saying to a motorist: 'You have been caught exceeding the speed limit and we have been told that you had been drinking rather heavily; however, we can't prove that you were drunk, so we are going to give you a very heavy sentence for speeding.' The proposals for the new legislation allow this practise to continue: although the new offence of 'possession with intent to supply' is introduced, a maximum penalty of five years for the possession of cannabis is proposed. It is difficult to imagine a situation where the simple possession of cannabis deserves such a severe sentence. The new Bill distinguishes between possession and trafficking and increases the penalty for selling cannabis to a maximum of fourteen years. This reflects the public demand for heavy penalties for traffickers which is based on a misunderstanding of the role of the dealer. Nevertheless if a man is making money out of selling an illegal substance, it is reasonable to expect him to be dealt with more severely than someone who is merely using the drug.

(6) Possession of a small amount of cannabis should not normally be regarded as a serious crime to be punished by imprisonment.

- This is a very radical recommendation and one which caused a large amount of adverse comment in the press. But informed opinion is coming round to the idea that prison is not a sensible way to treat people who wish to use cannabis. What even informed opinion found it difficult to take was the explicit statement that possession in not a serious crime. But the committee went still further in paragraph 90 of the report, where they state that prison is the wrong place even for those who supply on a limited scale. they do not attempt to define what they mean by a limited scale, but even a fairly strict definition would include about nine out of ten of the transactions between users and sellers because the amounts involved are so small.

(7) The offence of unlawful possession, sale or supply of cannabis should be punishable on summary conviction with a fine not exceeding 100, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding four months, or both such fine and imprisonment. On conviction or indictment the penalty should be an unlimited fine, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both such fine and imprisonment.

- Thus the committee recommended considerable reductions in the penalties. The penalties for possession under the 1965 Act in force when the committee reported, the penalties in the new Bill and the penalties recommended in the Wootton report are summarised as follows:

Maximum         1965 Act                1970 Bill               Wootton penalties                                                               Report
Summary conviction:
Fine                    250            400            100 Imprisonment    12 months               6 months                4 months
Fine                    1,000          unlimited               unlimited Imprisonment    10 years                5 years         2 years

Some members of the committee argued strongly against any kind of prison sentence for simple possession, but in the end were persuaded to agree to a maximum penalty of four months imprisonment because this sentence would allow the defendant the option of going for trial by jury and also because a prison sentence gives the judiciary the chance to deal with what the committee called 'difficult individual cases'. The committee were aware that a substantial part of the smuggling of cannabis is in small amounts (paragraph 37) and is not exploited to any significant extent by professional criminals (paragraph 38). Therefore they expected that most cases would be dealt with summarily by imposing a small fine. the reaction to this showed that it was a most unpopular recommendation. The home secretary and the opposition spokesman on Home Affairs both said that this recommendation would make it appear that Parliament was condoning the smoking of cannabis. ('If we were to adopt what is proposed or started to take a namby-pampy attitude about it, we should need our heads examined. I range myself wholeheartedly behind the Home Secretary on this issue.' Quentin Hogg in Hansard, 27 January 1969, column 957)

(8) The existing law which inhibits research requiring the smoking of cannabis (section 5, Dangerous Drugs Act, 1965) should be amended to allow qualified workers to study its use both by observation and by laboratory and social experiments.

- There has been considerable uncertainty about the smoking of cannabis for research purposes with the result that no serious study has been made in this country on the effects of smoking on humans, even in laboratory conditions. As the social factors are even more important than the pharmacological problems, it is essential that researchers should be free to study these phenomena by observations and experiments outside as well as inside the laboratory without the risk of prosecution. Although the Home Secretary gave the lack of information as the reason for rejecting many of the recommendations in the Wootton Report, it was notable that he never mentioned this in the House of Commons. In fact this was one of the earliest and most urgent of the suggestions made by the full Standing Advisory committee, long before the Wootton report was published. Many members realised that their work was hindered by the shortage of information that could only be obtained by fairly elaborate and lengthy research. It was suggested that a short Bill should be put before Parliament to make research on cannabis possible without the risk of prosecution. It was thought that such a bill would not arouse much opposition, but the Home Office advisors to the committee felt that this plan was not practical. They maintained that for a short Bill on the subject of research into cannabis could not be confined to this subject and far-reaching amendments would be added during its passage through Parliament. so it was decided to wait until the Government was ready to introduce comprehensive legislation into which a special clause would be included to allow bona fide research workers to investigate the effects of smoking cannabis. But in fact three years have been lost between the time when the law on cannabis research might have been changed and the introduction of this new legislation. It is possible that much useful information could have been obtained in that time, information which would have been invaluable during the preparation of the new Bill and the subsequent discussion of various proposals.

(9) Section 5 of the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1965 (permitting premises to be used for smoking cannabis, etc.) should be redefined in scope so as to apply to premises open to the public, to exclude the reference to dealing in cannabis and cannabis resin, and to remove the absolute nature of the liability on managers.

- This recommendation has been partly approved by the Home Secretary in the proposals for new legislation so that occupiers and managers commit an offence if they knowingly permit a drug to be used or sold in their premises. This will obviate the liability of the landlord of private premises who would have been convicted under the old law even if he was able to show that he did not know that pot was being smoked in his house. But the Home Secretary has rejected the suggestion that this should only be an offence in public premises.

(10) The Advisory Committee should undertake, as a matter of urgency, a review of police powers of arrest and search in relation to drug offences generally, with a view to advising the Secretary of State on any changes that may be appropriate in the law, particularly as regards cannabis.

- The Wootton committee seemed to think this task was too big for them because they felt that the question of police powers could not be realistically considered in relation to cannabis alone. But there is no doubt that this is a most important issue. There is a growing public concern about the way the police are using their powers of search and arrest and many youth workers see this as one of the main causes of the substantial deterioration in the relations between young people and the police. It may be said that this recommendation is a bit timid. In a large numbers of cases, the police search for drugs in general, but this is not true of every case. There must be occasions when the reasonable grounds for suspicion relate only to the use of cannabis; for example, it is the only drug that has a pungent smell. the very extensive police powers of search and arrest, which may be necessary for the more harmful drugs, are difficult to justify for cannabis, the possession of which, according to the report, is a relatively minor offence. This recommendation was thought to be 'a matter of urgency' and a new sub-committee under the chairmanship of William Deedes was set up soon after the Wootton report was published. In an early debate on drugs Mr Deedes said in the House of Commons: 'It makes no sense for the police to go round raiding and stripping young people at parties to find drugs, some of which their elders treat as a staple diet. the posture against the young becomes morally untenable.' But his report turned out to be rather a disappointing document, with few positive recommendations.

(11) The development of the manufacture of synthetic cannabinols should be kept under review and, if necessary, control should be imposed under powers provided by the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, 1933, and The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964.

- Much progress is being made in the pharmacological study of cannabis and the active ingredient has been synthesised. It is possible that synthetic pot will be available in large quantities before long, and this substance is likely to be purer and safer, and perhaps more potent, than the product obtained from the plant. Such a substance would not be covered by the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1965, but the proposed legislation would make it possible to add new products of the pharmacological industry to the schedule of restricted drugs simply by regulations placed before the two Houses of Parliament.

(12) Preparations of cannabis and its derivatives should continue to be available on prescription for purposes of medical treatment and research. Provision should be made in legislation for records to be maintained so that the position can be kept under review.

- The committee did not want to hinder the few doctors who are experimenting with the use of cannabis in the treatment of disturbed adolescents, amphetamine dependence, alcoholism and other conditions which are difficult medical problems. Although there have been few indications of success in this treatment, it is hoped that the new legislation will not interfere with these experiments. In summary, the Wootton report found that most of the fears about cannabis were groundless. Physically it is much less dangerous than the other illegal drugs; most people can give it up readily and without withdrawal symptoms. Most cannabis users are industrious and law-abiding; there is no evidence that in Britain it provokes the user to crime other than the crime of possessing it. nor is there any evidence to support the widely held belief that cannabis is a significant step in the escalation to heroin. It was agreed that cannabis is a potent drug, like alcohol, and that is was necessary to maintain restrictions on its availability for the time being; these restrictions would have to be more severe than they are for alcohol until more was known about the long-term effects of the drug. Nevertheless it was quite inappropriate to make cannabis subject to the same penalties as heroin under the Dangerous Drugs Act and it was wrong to send people to prison for the possession of a small amount. Research has been hampered and the law should be changed so as to encourage careful long-term investigations into the effects of smoking cannabis. When these results are available, the interim recommendations should be reviewed. These main conclusions were not so very different from the results found in earlier reports including the very thorough investigations made in India and the city of New York, and the more recent studies made in Canada and by the President's Commission in Washington. But the publication of the Wootton report was greeted with a chorus of abuse from politicians, press and the public.

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