On The Eve Of The Cannabis Debate, CLEAR Meets Top Government Minister.
Today, Friday 9th October, in advance of Monday’s cannabis debate in Parliament, I met with Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for the implementation of government policy.
According to The Independent, Oliver Letwin is “probably the most powerful person in the government after the Prime Minister and Chancellor”. I first met with him back in July and he agreed to investigate the possibility of cannabis being available on prescription. When the cannabis debate was announced, I asked to see him again before the debate took place and he very generously arranged to see me just in time.
Monday’s debate will be the first time in nearly 50 years that MPs have had an opportunity to consider the subject. Throughout the world, more and more governments are waking up to the huge damage that cannabis prohibition causes. Nearly all the harms around cannabis are not caused by cannabis itself but the laws against it. Prohibition of anything for which there is huge demand inevitably creates a criminal market. More than three million people in the UK choose to use cannabis regularly. We consume more than three and a half tons every day and spend more than £6 billion every year, all of which goes into the black economy.
Since the early 20th century, acres of newsprint have been devoted to telling us how harmful cannabis can be. The alcohol industry fiercely guards its monopoly of legal recreational drug use. It has enormous influence in government and its £800 million annual advertising spend give it great power over the media.
But the truth is becoming clear. Scientific evidence and real world experience show that compared to alcohol and even common painkillers and over-the-counter medicines, cannabis is very, very safe. Concerns about mental health impacts are proven to be wildly overblown as cannabis use has escalated by many orders of magnitude but mental health diagnoses have remained stable. Increasingly, those responsible for drugs policy realise that abandoning this huge market to criminals only makes things worse. Criminals don’t care who they sell to or what they sell, so children and the vulnerable become their customers and their product becomes low quality, contaminated, often very high strength ‘moonshine’ varieties.
A Win Win Proposal To The UK Government On Cannabis.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect of cannabis prohibition is the denial of access to it a medicine. On this, Mr Letwin has been consulting with other ministers in the Department of Health and the Home Office. He says he is now convinced that there is a very positive future for cannabinoid medicines. As a result, I hope to be meeting again shortly with George Freeman MP, the Life Sciences Minister. I led a delegation of medicinal cannabis users to meet with him at the beginning of this year. Mr Letwin has indicated to me that it is Mr Freeman’s office that needs to deal with this, so I am hopeful of real progress in the near future.
Mr Letwin warned me that the debate itself will not produce any change in the law and I acknowledge this but it is part of the process that will eventually get us there. I suggested that there is a win win option that could be implemented very easily and quickly. There is huge pressure on the government to act but also great inertia and resistance to change from the old guard. I proposed that if cannabis could be moved out of schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations it would enable doctors to prescribe it and researchers more easily begin the task of developing and testing new products.
The great benefit this would offer to the government is that it would be seen to be responding to the evidence, being progressive and keeping up with the worldwide movement towards reform. However, for the more conservative thinkers, the ‘tough on drugs’ mantra would remain in place. Cannabis would still be a class B drug and all the same penalties would remain in force. Both sides of the debate could see this move as a success for their argument.
So we all look forward to the debate. As is normal practice, no government ministers will participate but I expect a Home office minister will give some sort of response. We are making progress. Revolution is not the British way but I do think we can continue with guarded optimism that our message is getting through and the direction of travel is certain.