Comment: MPs' letters show how little they understand cannabis policy

The cannabis debate will be heard in parliament next month
The cannabis debate will be heard in parliament next month

By Peter Reynolds

Our organisation, Clear, has been mobilising its members as never before to lobby their MPs in advance of the cannabis debate in parliament on October 12th.

There are honourable exceptions, but most responses have been unhelpful, dismissive and completely failed to deal with the arguments put forward. Most MPs are indoctrinated with the false reporting churned out by the press, scared stiff of the subject and not prepared to look any deeper.

Usually, from both Tory and Labour MPs, the responses parrot the official Home Office line. Most are too lazy to inform themselves about cannabis and the facts of the UK's current £10 billion per year policy. This vast sum comprises a futile waste of law enforcement resources and the loss of a huge amount of tax revenue.  It provides funding to organised crime, including human trafficking, and does nothing to prevent any health or social harms around cannabis. If anything it maximises these harms, endangering health, communities and the whole of our society by enforcing a policy which is based not on evidence but prejudice.


As Paul Flynn said in the Commons last month:

"There is [a debate] in a fortnight’s time, on a subject that terrifies MPs. We hide our heads under the pillow to avoid talking about it, but the public are very happy to talk about it in great numbers. That subject is the idea of legalising cannabis so that people here can enjoy the benefits enjoyed in many other countries that do not have a neurotic policy that is self-defeating and actually increases cannabis harm."

Below I reproduce a reply from one MP. This is the standard MP line on cannabis.  The words may vary slightly but essentially this is the response that the Home Office enforces and, irrespective of party, these are the statements MPs hide behind.

"I believe cannabis is a harmful substance and use can lead to a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. I therefore do not support the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis at this time. I welcome that there has been a significant fall in the numbers of young people using cannabis, and the number of drug-related deaths among under-30s has halved in a decade and I would not want to see this progress undermined."

Stating cannabis is harmful is meaningless and an evasion of the question. Anything can be harmful. Such an assertion only has any meaning when in comparison to other substances.  In fact, cannabis is relatively benign, even when compared to many foods.  It is much less harmful than energy drinks, junk food, all over-the-counter and prescription medicines and, of course, tobacco and alcohol.  Compared to these two most popular legal drugs, cannabis is hundreds of times less harmful.

If cannabis can lead to a wide range of physical and psychological conditions, what are they and how likely is cannabis to bring them on compared to other substances? In fact, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, whose publications are often presented as evidence of cannabis harms, states unequivocally that "there is no evidence that cannabis causes specific health hazards".

There is a reported fall in cannabis use from the British Crime Survey. However, the Association of Chief Police Officers reports ever-increasing incidents of cannabis cultivation and there has been a massive surge in the use of 'legal highs' or novel psychoactive substances.  Without exception, these are far more harmful than cannabis and their very existence is the product of government policy.  In places such as Holland and the US states that have legalised, there is no problem at all with such substances.

As for "drug-related deaths", this is classic disinformation.  What does it have to do with cannabis? Are our MPs so badly informed that they cannot distinguish between different drugs?  Sadly, in many cases the answer is yes. Even allowing for that, the claim is false. The latest figures show an increase in the number of drug poisoning deaths to the highest level since records began in 1993. So much for the claimed "progress".

Recently MPs have started to address the question of medicinal use, almost certainly because of the rising clamour from people in pain, suffering and disability. And also perhaps because the UK is now so far out of step with the rest of Europe, the USA, Canada, Israel, Australia and most first world countries.

"I am aware that one of the issues raised is around enabling the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. I know that cannabis does not have marketing authorisation for medical use in the UK, and I understand that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency can grant marketing authorisation to drug compositions recognised as having medicinal properties, such as in the case of Sativex."

A marketing authorisation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is a deliberate diversion from the issue. Medicines do not have to have an MHRA marketing authorisation. Doctors can prescribe any medicine, licensed or unlicensed, as they wish. However, since 1971, medical practitioners have been specifically prohibited from prescribing cannabis on the basis of no evidence at all except minsters' personal opinions.

Applying for an MHRA marketing authorisation costs over £100,000 as an initial fee and clinical trials have to be conducted at a cost of at least the same again. Instead, minsters could simply move cannabis from schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations to schedule 2 alongside heroin and or, more logically, to schedule 4, alongside the cannabis oil medicine Sativex. This would place the whole question of the use of cannabis as medicine in the hands of doctors and not in the politically motivated hands of Westminster. Isn't that where it should be?

This is the most important short term objective of Clear's cannabis campaign – to move cannabis out of schedule 1. Not only would this enable doctors to prescribe Bedrocan medicinal cannabis as regulated by the Dutch government, but it would mean research could start in earnest. The restrictions presently in place on cannabis, because it is schedule 1, make research very expensive and complicated. They are a real deterrent.

The parliamentary debate fast approaches, but MPs' letters suggest most of them they still don't know what they're talking about.

Peter Reynolds is president of Clear: Cannabis Law Reform campaign.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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