Should the UK legalise drugs?
Cannabis is the poster-boy for the liberalisation of drugs campaign that is sweeping the US (in state-legislation) and has had a significant following since the 1990s in the UK. By users cannabis has always had the nanny-state reputation of being illegal for reasons separate from harm. Whilst there is some grounding in support of keeping it scheduled as a Class B controlled substance, there are also other powerful arguments in support of a law reform.
It is proven that cannabis has a negative impact on cardiopulmonary conditions but other areas of research into the drug are murkier. Possibly the most significant anti-cannabis perspective is that of mental well-being. There are studies that suggest long-term use of cannabis increases the likelihood of developing psychosis. Often it’s one of the first health associations or assumptions people make. But, there is no research that that can say definitively one way or the other. The psychoactive compound found in cannabis, THC, could worsen existing mental health problems such as schizophrenia. We all remember those Talk To Frank ads, right?
In a greater amounts of users, but with less severe effects, cannabis contributes to a wide range of health problems from respiratory issues, anxiety, paranoia and depression. As yet there is no proven causal link between the use of cannabis and cancer. It is more likely that we haven’t found the link (rather than there not being one) due to current legislation making research-access to illegal drugs immensely difficult.
Ex-government drug advisor Professor David Nutt, who famously got fired in 2009, told the Guardian, “regulations, which are arbitrary, actually make it virtually impossible to research these drugs”. Nutt compared the governmental veto on cannabis and MDMA (ecstasy) studies to George Bush’s conquest to prevent stem cell research, saying that it was “a tougher case because it’s been going on since the 60’s”.
Often you hear scientists pining after miracle compounds that can ‘cure’ cancer, usually in response to fervent deforestation. But there are a whole, largely unresearched, group of drugs that have significant medical potential that scientists are effectively disallowed to experiment with. Legislation needs to be untangled so the complicated chemical mechanisms of illegal drugs can be explored to discover what their useful therapeutic qualities are.
Studies exist that indicate, in fact, some of them have real value. For example, UCL are currently exploring the relationship between THC and Cannbidiol, so far they’ve found that Cannabidiol could dampen the negative mental effects of THC and also that it has anti-addictive properties.
Cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, which means that the government considers it as having no therapeutic benefit. We couldn’t find out who schedules illegal drugs, although it’s clear the Home Office makes the final call. There are currently only four hospitals pharmacies in the UK that hold a licence to possess cannabis legally. The licence itself costs around £5,000 to enact, and takes a year to process. Staggeringly, cannabis placebos (without any of the compounds that gets you high) is also a schedule 1 drug so research is effectively gone, as they say, up in smoke.
Peter Reynolds, party leader for prominent pro-legalisation campaign CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform who we interviewed last month, said that “the primary aim of any decisions about the legality of drugs should be focused on the reduction of harm”. Harm not only relates to the physical and psychological effects on the user but also, and arguably more importantly, social harm from drug-related crime to home life issues and education. In 2009 Professor Nutt was dismissed from his position as chairman for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) due to a lecture where he “crossed the line from science to politics“. He published a paper which drew controversial conclusions, below is a graph from that report on the relative harms of drugs.
Professor Nutt used a complicated statistical algorithm to configure a ‘harm index’. What the graph shows is that alcohol causes more harm than heroin, and that tobacco causes more harm than cannabis. Of course both alcohol and tobacco are more widely available than cannabis and heroin, but that doesn’t contradict the point that alcohol and tobacco are seriously harmful, far more harmful than some illegal drugs. We seem to be stuck in a drug-law rut, where we’re continuing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results – that’s how Einstein defines insanity.
Here’s eminent academic Noam Chomsky on why tobacco is legal, and cannabis is not.
In the US, 21 states allow the use of medical cannabis for the alleviation of pain and other illnesses. Whilst four states have fully legalised the drug. The validity of cannabis use as a medicine is contested by some. In the UK a certified drug called Sativex is available through prescription. The way the drug is produced, essentially, is an alcohol solution called a tincture in which compounds from specially grown cannabis plants are dissolved. Peter Reynolds, CLEAR party leader, told us in interview that “Sativex is cannabis, there is no other way to describe it”.
NHS England currently does not offer it to their patients due to its prohibitively expensive price tag. However, NHS Wales does offer Sativex to sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis for relief of spasticity. GW Pharma is the company that produces Sativex, the drug is an oral spray which delivers a calculated dose of THC and Cannabidiol.
The licensing of Sativex for prescription in the UK condones, at a decision-making level, that the active compounds in cannabis are effectual on some illnesses. As Professor Nutt describes them “arbitrary rules” on drug legalisation seem to stem from social stigma and politicking rather than scientific, empirical research.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is the piece of legislation that controls drugs in the UK. The act itself was a progressive piece of legislation. Peter Reynolds told us that “when the bill was passed its intention was to create a system of regulation based on advice from a select committee of scientists, it was an attempt at removing politics from the equation”. What actually happens is that the politicians choose which advice to follow, likely to be based on votes rather than a concerted effort at reducing harm.
Professor Nutt’s 2009 dismissal stands testament to this. Current Prime Minister David Cameron used to hold different views about drug policy, he once suggested, before his leadership of the Conservative party, that the state should legalise drugs and establish heroin prescriptions and create “shooting galleries”. Now, the Home Office “has no intention of legalising cannabis”, David Cameron added “I don’t believe in decriminalising drugs that are illegal today”. Clearly Cameron doesn’t believe in integrity either.
The national newspapers choose sides on the cannabis conversation. Recently the Telegraph and the Daily Mail published sensational headlines concerning a ‘twenty-year study’ that finds “cannabis is more addictive than heroin”. The study in question was written by Professor Wayne Hall who is the director for Youth Substance Abuse Research at the University of Queensland. We spoke to Professor Hall, he said “that’s not what the study says at all, in fact, if you read it, it says quite the opposite”. CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform party have logged complaints with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) on grounds of misrepresentation. Professor Hall added, “the paper was what is called a longitudinal study, which is looking back at different pieces of research from the past and finding new links”.
Through statistics it is evident that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed (and costs the US $51 billion annually). We have more users now than we did forty years ago. A recent study signed off by Home Secretary Theresa May and recently resigned Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker suggests that there is no evidence that tougher drug possession laws leads to lower levels of drug use. In the US, a country that imprisons 1 person out of every 108 (a world record), 51% of inmates are behind bars for dug offences, the vast majority of which are non-violent.
The cyclic system of stigmatising drug users, penalising them, and not offering enough support upon release creates a network of underserved, unemployable and forgotten citizens.
Any law reform needs to not be focused on leftfield liberalisation, but on real issues that are negatively affecting our society in a varied and complex way. Often the convincing arguments for the legalisation of drugs are marred by the unenlightened, anarchic sort who just want to buy cannabis on their high-street – but really that’s not what it should be about at all.
Logistically it would be simpler than you might initially think to establish a UK market. Medical cannabis could be imported from Nederland-based company Bedrocan, who have the resilience in infrastructure to support such a move. Relocating cannabis from Schedule 1’s ‘no therapeutic qualities’ to Schedule 4 (alongside steroids and benzodiazepines) would be confirmation of its medical value, whilst decriminalising possession would remove common drug use from the police’s responsibility. But will it happen?
Statistics coming out of Colorado (one of the states where recreational cannabis is legalised and very much established) suggests nothing but good news. Whilst only six months of data exists, violent crime has fallen by 4.8% and major property crime (burglary) fell by 11.4%. When compared to the month by month staggering increase in revenue, 35% between February and March to $19 million, it seems as if it really is a “smarter approach“.
Vice’s investigative outlet Motherboard produced this illuminating documentary about what’s happening under the skin in Colorado right now.
The CLEAR campaign commissioned an independent IDMU study into a taxable UK cannabis market, and estimated an annual £6.8 billion in revenue straight into the economy and out of the pockets of street dealers and criminals. An intelligent approach would be to appropriate this money directly into research, education and support infrastructure to build towards a future of safer controlled drug-use.
Because, let’s be honest, they’re loads of fun and we’re going to do them anyway.