‘This House Would Legalise Cannabis’. Reynolds v Hitchens. University Of Southampton, 29th September 2016.
A vote was taken before the debate started: For the proposition: 49 Against the proposition: 18 Abstain/undecided: 17
John Pritchard, studying economics. For the proposition.
Jacob Power, studying philosophy. Against the proposition.
Peter Reynolds, CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform. For the proposition.
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday. Against the proposition.
A vote was taken after the debate finished: For the proposition: 57 Against the proposition: 26 Abstain/undecided: 8
I start with an assertion that I think we can all agree on – the only purpose of any drugs policy is to reduce harm.
I argue that British drugs policy, specifically on cannabis, causes far more harm than it prevents and that the solution is to legalise. But by legalise, I do not mean a free for all. In fact, I mean a system of regulation which minimises harm.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, cannabis is called a “controlled drug” but nothing could be further from the truth. What every government since 1971 has done is abandon all control. They have abandoned our communities. they have abandoned our young people and they have abandoned those who need cannabis as medicine. All of them, Conservative, Labour and the coalition, they have abandoned us all to criminals.
The results are street dealing, dangerous hidden cannabis farms that cause fires, theft of electricity, destruction of rental properties, gangs that exploit children, both by selling them cannabis and getting them involved in dealing, human trafficking, modern slavery, most often Vietnamese children, smuggled into Britain and locked up in cannabis farms to look after the plants. And as for the product itself, it is frequently poor quality and often contaminated with toxic residues.
These are the harms that the Misuse of Drugs Act is supposed to prevent but, in fact, it creates them, promotes them and maximises them.
Now, it may surprise you to know that the law is not about protecting people from health harms. The exact words of the Act are that it is about the misuse of drugs “having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”. It is social harm that the Act seeks to prevent.
Which is just as well because the “harmful effects” of cannabis are very difficult to identify. Most of what you hear is either wild exaggeration or completely false. Even the Institute of Psychiatry, the source of many scare stories, admitted last year that its press office was misrepresenting and exaggerating its own research.
Now t’other Peter will tell you that cannabis is a dangerous drug which can cause serious, irreversible mental illness. In a debate like this it is impossible to compare all the various scientific studies that form the body of evidence on which cannabis policy should be based. I can certainly answer specific questions later on but for now, let’s rely, not on evidence, but on cold, hard facts.
The populist myth is that thousands of young people are afflicted by this terrible condition called ‘cannabis psychosis’. The facts are that in the last five years there has been an average of just 28 finished admission episodes in hospitals each year for people under 18 for cannabis psychosis.
Of course these are 28 tragedies and I don’t overlook that but in public health terms it is an insignificant figure. For instance, there are more than 3,000 finished admission episodes each year for peanut allergy but we don’t spend £500 million each year on a futile attempt to ban peanuts, do we? Yes, that’s how much we spend every year on police, courts, probation and prison services to try and stop people using cannabis.
However, it’s not as simple as that. Apart from hospitals, thousands of people each year receive what’s called ‘treatment’ for cannabis use disorder from community health services. Nearly 16,000 young people for the year 2014/15.
Now the only ‘treatment’ for cannabis is counselling but that’s not what this is really about. It’s actually about trying to force people to stop using cannabis regardless of whether it’s causing any harm. Public Health England, which records these figures, shows that 89% of all those in treatment have been referred from the courts, educational institutions or some other authority. In other words this is coercive treatment. You have no option. If you don’t agree the courts will impose a tougher penalty or you might get expelled from school. Only 11% of those receiving this treatment actually decide they need it themselves.
Don’t get me wrong now, I’m neither suggesting cannabis is harmless nor that it can’t be a real problem for some people. But I ask you this, if it has the potential for harm, is it better that we leave the entire market, now worth £6 billion per year, in the hands of criminals, or would it be better and safer for everyone if it was properly regulated and controlled? Wouldn’t any health harms be reduced, better treated, if we had quality control, age limits, proper labelling of what you’re buying? Isn’t this obvious, common sense?
We will continue to put most of our effort into the medical campaign because that is what morality and compassion demands But actually, there is far more harm caused by the prohibition of recreational use. As well as all the social harms I mentioned earlier, do you know there are one million people in the UK with a conviction for cannabis? People whose careers, ability to travel, even their credit score can be damaged because they got caught smoking a joint.
In all jurisdictions where cannabis is legally available, the benefits are dramatic and very easy to see. In Holland, far fewer children use cannabis than in the UK. Underage use is declining in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska where cannabis is legal for all adults and in the other 30 US states where medical cannabis is legal. Crime is down, fatal traffic accidents are down, alcohol consumption is down, overdoses and deaths from dangerous opioid painkillers are down.
The prohibition of cannabis is a great force for evil in our society. It promotes crime, it maximises the health harms of cannabis, it ruins lives, it denies people medicine that science proves will help them, it blights communities, endangers children, fritters away precious law enforcement resources.
Indeed, prohibition is a fundamentally immoral policy. It sets the police and the courts against the communities they are supposed to protect. After all, the demand comes from us and it is not going away. We are adults, free human beings who are entitled to act as we wish provided it doesn’t harm others. Our government and our police should serve us. It is an affront to justice, to the rule of law, to morality and to each one of us that this oppressive, ridiculous, evidence-free policy persists.
Legalise cannabis now! Please vote in favour of the motion.
CLEAR is the largest drug policy reform group in the UK with more than 685,000 registered supporters. It was formed in 1999 and its main aim is to “To promote as a matter of urgency and compassion the prescription of medicinal cannabis by doctors.”.
Crispin Blunt is a graduate in politics from the University of Durham and an ex-Army officer. He has represented the constituency of Reigate, Surrey as a Conservative MP since 1997. He is presently chair of the foreign affairs select committee.
He commented on his appointment:
“I am pleased to join the board of CLEAR. It is wrong that people with a range of conditions are missing out from medicinal benefits of cannabis because of the UK’s out-of-date drug laws. We need a new approach and a sensible regulatory system to support patients and their healthcare professionals in accessing safe and effective medicinal cannabis products.”
Mr Blunt’s appointment comes a few days in advance of the publication of a Parliamentary report on medicinal cannabis. It is to be announced in the House of Lords, committee room 2 at 11.00am on Tuesday 13th September 2016. Alongside the report, Professor Mike Barnes, the world-renowned neurologist, who is also a member of the CLEAR advisory board, will be publishing a comprehensive review of the evidence of the medicinal applications of cannabis.
Peter Reynolds, president of CLEAR, said:
“This is what we need, a forward-thinking, Conservative MP, Crispin Blunt, alongside an eminent scientist and clinician, Professor Mike Barnes. Very shortly, we will also be appointing a human rights barrister to our advisory board. We aim to shake up the cruel, anti-evidence policy that denies British people access to cannabis as medicine. The UK is in the dark ages on this compared to most of Europe, the USA, Canada, Israel and Australia.”
The launch of the APPG report on its inquiry into medicinal cannabis is a public event which anyone can attend. It takes place at the House of Lords committee room 2 on 13th September 2016 at 11.00am.
Baroness Molly Meacher and Caroline Lucas MP, are co-chairs of the APPG. The guest speakers will be:
Frank Field MP
Ron Hogg, Police and Crime Commissioner for County Durham
Professor Mike Barnes, Neurologist, CLEAR Scientific and Medical Advisor
Lara Smith, Medicinal Cannabis Patient, Life Fellow of CLEAR
Lara was awarded a Life Fellowship of CLEAR in August 2014 in recognition of her enormous contribution to our campaign. She suffers from a terrible chronic pain condition which is only relieved by cannabis. Her consultant is one of those few courageous doctors in the UK who have supported their patient by prescribing access to Bedrocan medicinal cannabis products. Using the protocol which CLEAR pioneered, which exploits loopholes in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Lara now gains legal access to Bedrocan products on a regular basis. She has to travel to the Netherlands in person to collect her medicine every three months and it has to be paid for on a private basis. The important thing is she gets the medicine she needs and she is within the law.
The Times reports “Stone me: cannabis users don’t like hard work”
The Independent says “Getting high on cannabis makes you less likely to work hard for money, study says”
The mendacious Daily Mail claims: “How just one cannabis joint harms your will to work: Fears long-term drug use could harm motivation even when not high”
Utterly pointless research. Such results can be determined by common sense and experience.
UCL has a habit of frittering money away on pointless research into cannabis.
First of all we had the reckless overdosing of Jon Snow for the Channel 4 Drugs Live programme, equivalent to asking a teetotaller to drink a bottle of scotch in 10 minutes – set up purely for sensationalism and tabloid headlines. Results? Cannabis was shown to be very safe for 95% of people – as if we didn’t know that already.
Currently Prof Val Curran is studying whether cannabis can be used to treat cannabis dependency. Yes, seriously, Sativex, the cannabis oil mouthspray, is being trialled to see if it can help people give up smoking cannabis!! Not that cannabis dependency is anything like a serious problem anyway. Fewer regular users of cannabis become dependent on it than regular users of coffee become dependent on caffeine. Incredibly the University of Sydney is also conducting an identical trial.
Now we have this absurd study on motivation. Why do people use cannabis? To relax of course, so hardly surprising they become less motivated, that is the point! And the study showed that motivation returns to normal levels after smoking! You really couldn’t make it up that so-called scientists waste their time on this sort of nonsense.
What we need is some constructive research on the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. In the 34 US states that permit medicinal use, expenditure on dangerous and addictive pharmaceutical painkillers has plummeted by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now that would be something sensible to look into. But maybe it doesn’t suit the agenda of whoever provides UCL with money to conduct its frivolous and pointless studies?
In a letter dated 15th August 2016, Amber Rudd, the new Home Secretary, has invited CLEAR to raise “any queries and concerns” about present UK policy on cannabis. This is the first time since 2006, with Charles Clarke, that the UK cannabis campaign has had any direct contact with a serving Home Secretary. It reflects the reality, now recognised in government, that changes in cannabis policy are imminent.
In recent months, there has been a manifest and significant change in attitudes within the Home Office. We have seen this through the process of obtaining a low THC cultivation licence for our partnership with GroGlo Research and Development. The response from the drugs licensing department has been enthusiastic. There has been no difficulty with our declared purpose of producing CBD oil for sale as a food supplement and we are now in detailed discussions on our application for a high THC licence, looking towards clinical trials for a medical product for chronic pain.
As soon as Theresa May announced that Amber Rudd would be heading up the Home Office, I contacted my MP, now Sir Oliver Letwin, thanks to Cameron’s resignation honours list. Although he will not openly support our campaign, in the past year or so he has been very helpful indeed, meeting with me on roughly a monthly basis and helping me navigate through the Conservative government. He has now put me in direct contact with Ms Rudd and I will be preparing a written submission as a preliminary to a face-to-face meeting.
In accordance with CLEAR policy, our first concern is how we can enable UK residents to gain access to medicinal cannabis on a doctor’s prescription. In practice that means Bedrocan products as there is presently no other source of prescribable, consistent, high-quality, herbal cannabis. I would expect that to change very soon though. Both Canada and Israel look like potential near-future sources. GW Pharmaceuticals is undoubtedly considering entering the market and our venture with GroGlo could shift gear depending on how quickly UK policy changes.
We will also be addressing the need for wider reform and a legally regulated market for adult consumers. Although medicinal access remains the top priority, there is no doubt that more overall harm is caused by prohibition of the recreational market. It is this that creates the £6 billon per annum criminal market which is the cause of all the social harms around cannabis. This will need to be handled much more carefully as, due to nearly a century of misinformation and media scaremongering, many people still retain great fear as to what legal cannabis will mean.
The one thing that has been very lacking in the cannabis campaign is pragmatism. Most campaigners for recreational use continue to be lost in a swirl of ‘free the weed’, teenage angst, outrage, revolution and delight in being a rebellious outlaw. That was until 2011 when CLEAR introduced a new approach which has led to more engagement with government than ever before. The emergence of the United Patients Alliance and now the End Our Pain campaign has helped this but these campaigns are focused only on medicinal use
The fact is that we need to work with Theresa May’s government and the anti-Tory tribalism that many still adopt is nothing but an obstacle to reform.
In addressing Ms Rudd, our overall strategy for wider reform will be:
1. A final separation from the ridiculous ‘free the weed’ movement and ‘stoner’ groups which are incapable of understanding how they are seen and despised by wider society.
2. Differentiation between medicinal use and the more controversial legalisation for adult, recreational use.
3. Shift public attention onto scientific and medical evidence rather than the very poor standard of media reporting.
4. End the fake policy that says ‘cannabis is dangerous therefore it must be regulated’. Educate that nearly all the harms around cannabis are caused by its prohibition, not by cannabis itself.
5. Emphasise the importance of harm reduction information, education about excessive use and essential investment in treatment for those who do suffer health harms.
6. Clarify that decriminalisation is no solution and is a dangerous option that would probably increase harm. The product needs to be sold within a properly regulated environment, careful that over-regulation would support a continuing criminal market.
It’s a bit like when Russell Brand came out in favour. He’s right, just as Corbyn is but it doesn’t do us any good. It just gives our opponents ammunition to portray the campaign as the preserve of losers and eccentrics.
I quite like Jeremy Corbyn, even if many of his policies are, in my opinion, bonkers. I certainly think he’s a very healthy influence on British politics but his support is not going to help us gain legal access to medicinal cannabis. If anything it’ll get in the way. With at least 10 years of Tory government in front of us, probably 20, allying ourselves with Corbyn is going to alienate those whose minds we need to change.
Again, like Russell Brand, whose intellect is beyond doubt, so is Corbyn’s sincerity – although his statements on wider drugs policy at last night’s leadership hustings are as confused as any politician on the illiberal wing of the Conservative Party or the authoritarian wing of Labour. It seems Mr Corbyn is just as much in favour of prohibition and supporting criminal drugs markets as any alcohol-sponsored Tory MP.
It’s not Jeremy Corbyn we want onside. It’s politicians that now or in the future will hold the reins of power. I admire the way he has seen off the despicable rump of New Labour, Blairite ponces. Their spiritual leader, Peter Mandelson, and his up and coming disciples like Chuka Umunna are the last people we want anywhere near government. The record of science-deniers like Jack Straw, Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson is best forgotten. If Corbyn can keep that nasty bunch occupied and distracted he will deserve huge credit. I wouldn’t quite, yet, place him in the same category as Tony Benn, a man who I disagreed with profoundly yet respected enormously but he’s cast from the same mould. He is a man of integrity but sadly, not a man cut out for success in terms of gaining political power.
If I’m wrong about Corbyn and his support does positively influence the campaign for medicinal cannabis, I’ll gladly eat my hat – or present Match of the Day in my underpants or whatever forfeit is deemed appropriate. In the meantime though, CLEAR will continue to focus on and work with politicians who can actually make a difference.
Would that we were in spring looking forward to a splendid summer. Instead, in mid-July we are heading into autumn towards what looks like a stern, drab and ominous future. Theresa May is prime minister, perhaps the worst nightmare for those who seek cannabis law reform.
You have to admire her first few days though. What you see is what you get. She is smart, calculated and very, very certain about the nature of the government she will lead. I have no doubt she has a softer, caring side and there is testimony to that effect from those who support her. She is a strong woman, she will be sympathetic to people and causes that she chooses but ruthless and absolute against those she opposes. Our problem is that, as confirmed by both the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, evidence has nothing to do with it. Theresa May’s drugs policy is based on her personal opinions and even the plight of those in chronic pain and disability is unlikely to change her mind even on the medicinal use of cannabis. I remember Norman Baker told me that she simply does not comprehend that cannabis can be a legitimate medicine. The very idea is anathema to her. It is beyond her comprehension. The daughter of a vicar, who attended a convent then a grammar school, she has a lot about her that suggests piety, reserve, self-discipline and control. Admirable qualities but lacking perhaps in empathy with modern lifestyles and values.
But this is a fresh start. Amber Rudd, the new Home Secretary, is cast from the same mould as Ms May. My MP, Oliver Letwin, himself disposed of in the new cabinet, has already written to Ms Rudd and asked her to see me. As of today, CLEAR represents nearly 700,000 registered supporters, equivalent to the electorate in more than eight parliamentary constituencies, so I think she has a good reason to give me a few minutes. I will continue to press for a meeting until she or one of her junior ministers agrees to see me.
It can only help that I am now a fully paid-up member of the Conservative Party. I made this decision shortly after the EU referendum and I have also joined the Conservative Policy Forum which works to influence Conservative Party policy from the grassroots. I will be advancing the cause of medicinal cannabis and wider drugs policy reform as quickly and effectively as I can through the party’s established channels. Whether it is a short or long game, it has to get started now.
I do believe this is the best way forward for the cannabis campaign. I will work from within the party of government to try and influence change. It is more than likely that the Tories will be in power for the next 10 years, if not more. Now is the time to get involved, face our opposition, engage with those who have power. Every other UK political party is in disarray.
When we relaunched the Legalise Cannabis Alliance as CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform in 2011, we brought a totally new, professional approach to the campaign. Others have followed and there is now a significant group that understands how to use professional lobbying techniques. The greatest achievement of this has been to get the Liberal Democrats involved and although there remains great resistance amongst party members in the shires, the leadership is very much onside. Sadly, the party itself is as far away from power as it has ever been and, in my view, has swung widely off course in a futile and misguided effort to reverse the referendum result. Such whimsical strategies have always been the LibDems’ problem. Unless a political revolution suddenly makes Corbyn a serious contender then there will be no other party in power but the Tories. This is where we must invest time, effort and all our resources. We must understand how to turn Tory aims, ambitions and viewpoints to our advantage. Which arguments will work and how do we get them across?
Although we now have a more professional campaign and several individuals with real ability, now is not the time to revert to talking amongst ourselves. Conferences, meetings, documentary films and events are all very well but they almost exclusively preach to the choir. Just like the demos and protests that have at last ebbed away, they make those involved feel good and they ramp up morale but they do little to create change. This is no way to make progress. I will ensure that CLEAR is on the front line. It is those who oppose us that we need to be talking to, not those who already agree with us.
At the same time, specifically on medicinal cannabis, our focus must be on the medical profession. We published ‘Medicinal Cannabis:The Evidence’ just over a year ago and it has added real credibility to the campaign. In a few weeks when the APPG for Drug Policy Reform publishes its report on medicinal cannabis, Professor Mike Barnes will release his own review of current evidence and it will become the definitive work on the subject. CLEAR will be taking this to GPs all over the country, to the Royal Colleges and particularly to those working in pain management. We already know that thousands of doctors endorse their patients’ use of cannabis for chronic pain, it is time to bring this out of the closet. Doctors and nurses have literally been terrorised into keeping quiet about cannabis. We have first hand knowledge of Home Office officials warning off doctors who have tried to assist their patients by prescribing Sativex off label or recommending Bedrocan. This must stop. We must equip the medical profession with the evidence it needs to be able to do the best by its patients.
I know many will be downhearted by this new government but change is always a good thing. It offers us the opportunity to renew our campaign. Most important, we must walk towards the enemy, not hide in our bunkers, fearful of their response. All over the world, mainstream opinion is turning in favour of cannabis as medicine and wider drugs policy reform. Now is the time to step forward, to do all we can to educate and inform those who are still in the dark. I have set out above what CLEAR’s new strategy will be. Please join us. Become a member. Sign up here. Your first duty? Make an appointment to see your MP. This is the most effective thing you can do. We will publish new guidance in the next few days on how to prepare for and conduct these meetings.