(formatting has been thrown out a little, and missing the footnotes & citations, but you get the idea)
Response to the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry: Drug Policy
I’d like to contribute to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s call for written evidence on drug policy.
My name is Jason Reed, I appeared on the BBC Three programme, Cannabis - What’s the Harm in early 2011. I blog for the Huffington Post - primarily on drug policy.
I am also connected to LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - I am currently acting as a UK admin and liaison for LEAP UK - I do not represent or speak for this organisation in any way.
Furthermore, I’m an active member and supporter of the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform.
All views and testimony is that of my own and non-affecting of any organisation. I represent only myself.
I would like to address what I feel is a distinct lack of an evidence based policy. Present policy seems to exists on a basis of tautology.
In this submission, I am to convey my concerns with the media - their handling of drug policy, and the hand they play in shaping current stances. There are a number of worrying myths and pseudoscience that now exists - most notably Skunk.
I will predominantly address cannabis in my written evidence, and I would like to detail a series of exchanges that I have had via FOI requests and the Home Office. The issues that are most concerning to me are that of the medicinal aspects of cannabis and the disabled members of society who still receive punitive measures in the UK; there is a flagrant distortion of truth and a disingenuous dialogue within this specific subject matter.
1 In no way do I believe present policy makes fiscal sense. The current model employed to ‘control’ drugs is that of prohibition. The burden that this model places on law enforcement is quite heavy. In 2009, Transform Drug Policy Foundation undertook a cost benefit analysis#; it was their findings that the estimated costs to the CJS was around 3-4 billion. It’s hard to find accurate figures, and this is owing to the mystic nature of present policy and the underground nature of drugs. A change in policy could lead to transparency and accuracy in figures.
2 The IDMU report; Taxing the UK Cannabis Market suggests that 500 million is spent on enforcing cannabis laws alone, and an estimated 200 million on police costs#. The prevalence of all drugs has never been greater, so it is hard to see how present policy is working, let alone fiscally sustainable.
3 With regards to a science and evidence based policy, we have found ourselves at a place where we have fully strayed from the original mandate of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The act was written to be fully reviewed and evidence based. 41 years on from its inception, the act has become anchored in law enforcement and prohibition. The very first part of the MoDA1971 proclaims:
(under Section 1) -
(2) (a) for restricting the availability of such drugs or supervising the arrangements for their supply.
This clearly indicates that if present application is deemed untenable, then new avenues should be explored.
4 In the House of Lords - 9th March 2011 - behest of Lord Norton; a Question for Short Debate was initiated to discus drug policy and the call for a Royal Commission#. Within the debate, there was a literally overwhelming call for an evidence based policy. In fact, the word evidence was used 42 times. There were further calls for an impact assessment, and yet no credence was given to the encompassing matter at all by the Government.
5 The biggest cloud that hangs over drug policy has to be the recent events of the ACMD - The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs . The ACMD has, unfortunately, become a redundant entity in the shaping of drug policy. Once more, the mandate for the MoDA1971 is to be under constant review, and the advice to the ACMD constitutes and evidence based board. Over the last few years, most notably Professor Nutt, the ACMD has been involved an embarrassing series of events that has seen senior scientists sacked, resign and disenfranchised. The advice from the ACMD is not always welcomed by the Government, and often ignored. This leaves us in a curious position: When the MoDA1971 is mandated to be evidence based, and the ACMD is that base, how can we proclaim that current policy is acting in accordance with evidence, and how far can advice be ignored before a new act - an arbitrary act - ensues. The official line for why we have disparity in our drug laws, and why alcohol and tobacco are tolerated: Historical and Cultural reasons#. - This does not inspire confidence in that we have an evidence based policy.
6 Human Rights are often ignored within the drug policy discussion; there’s an almost blatant disregard for any such notion - it’s hard to have a sensible discussion on this aspect. It may be subjective, but there are basic parallels that can lend a certain perspective to the issue. If we assume that all drug users are problem users, and treatment is a necessitous path, then we must look to how we deal with alcoholics and other problematic behaviours. I’m sure that the logic can be seen that enforcing alcoholism prevention using the CJS is of oblique reasoning. We could go further and speculate that the obesity crisis could be solved with the CJS, but it soon becomes apparent that the prevention of these health issues will not be solved nor helped in any way by relying on law enforcement.
7 There is arguably no greater injustice than that of the sick, ill, and infirm, who still receive the full weight of judicial reprisal for using cannabis for pain & symptom relief. The official stance of the Government and Home Office is that cannabis has no medicinal benefit in its raw form; consequently, cannabis is of schedule 1 status.
There are hundreds of peer reviewed studies that attest to the fact that cannabis has a substantial benefit to an individual who is suffering#. Dr Lester Grinspoon, Professor emeritus of Harvard Medical School U.S has been a proponent in the U.S medical marijuana movement, and he is also instrumental in the study and utilisation of cannabis in medicine. His work spans the decades. In his book; Marihuana the Forbidden Medicine, Dr Grinspoon documents his own trials within the U.S and bureaucracy. Britain is one of the last countries in the developed world who still prohibits cannabinoid therapy. Moreover, the U.K does actually allow the use of prescribed cannabis under the Schengen Agreement - if you are a EU resident with a prescription for cannabis, you are permitted to use cannabis on British soil. However, the Home Office now excludes UK citizens.
8 I have recently been involved in a series of FOI exchanges regarding the Government’s position on the medical value of cannabis. The Prime Minister commented on a live Al-Jazeer interview# (25/02/11), saying:
“That [medical cannabis] is a matter for the science and the medical authorities to determine, and they are free to make independent determinations on that…”
- I enquired:
I would like to request information on what the Government have done and are doing to investigate this area; or what they are planning to do.
The reply read:
You ask for information regarding the steps taken by the Government to investigate the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
I should inform you that the Government refers to the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the independent statutory body comprised of experts.
9 - Subsequent to this reply, and owing to the fact that onus was placed on the ACMD on the issue, I emailed the ACMD’s secretary with regards to the medicinal aspects and evaluation of cannabis, the ACMD said:
“The ACMD is not constituted to provide advice on the medical benefits of any drug.”
I now have a pending FOI asking who takes responsibility for the declaration that cannabis has no medical benefits given the ACMD does not give advice on this area; there’s an arbitrary onus that has been placed on the ACMD by the Home Office. It is quite apparent that there is a disingenuous dialogue and a muddying of the issue of medical cannabis.
ALL FOI REQUESTS, REPONSES, AND SUBSEQUENT CORRESPONDENCES CAN BE PROVIDED
10 An overlooked aspect of present drug policy is that of friends and family who also suffer judicial consequences; as it stands, a property owner can be prosecuted. With regards to medicinal users of cannabinoids, this directly means that friends and family that support an individual’s cause for solace, wellness, and relief, also fully face the reprisal of law. This places a monumental strain on health, relationships, and wellbeing. I would like it to be questioned if it’s really ethical to burden disabled persons, and their support networks, with such turmoil. The stress that these restrictions place on families is all too real and overwhelming.
11 One of the reasons cannabis is not an issue that can be handled with dignity is owing to media’s interpretation and handling of drugs in general. The fiction that is printed and passed off as fact has now become an epidemic. The Daily Mail has to be the flag bearer of science fiction and pseudoscience. Dr Ben Goldacre writes a publication and book called ‘Bad Science’ - he sets about dismantling the horrific interpretations of all science related media. He has also tackled cannabis as an issue on many occasions. Specifically addressing the cannabis psychosis issue - which often hinders the dialogue with regards to cannabinoid therapy - Dr Goldacre places a firm perspective around the time that reclassification was on the agenda due to high potency ‘skunk’ and mental health concerns:
“And craziest of all is the fantasy that reclassifying cannabis will stop six million people smoking it, and so eradicate those 800 extra cases of psychosis.#”
The risks of cannabis related psychosis have been grossly overstated by the mainstream press, and what is now regarded as fact is actually pseudoscience personified. The Keele Study# also gives a firm perspective on the slight risks of cannabis related psychosis.
12 A case in point for the media’s hand in drug science comes from the Daily Mail (26/10/11) -
Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory
Strongest evidence yet, claim scientists
I have had extensive conversations with the study’s author; he is: “Very disappointed, but not surprised” by the Daily Mail’s version of reporting. The Mail’s article has no semblance of truth to it whatsoever. With a very keen interest in holding scientific journalism to account, I am currently in process of writing an article that aims to place a primary source for any scientific reporting in the media. This basic premise was conceived by Dr Ben Goldacre, and its utilisation has been championed by many scientific figures.
13 Pseudoscience also exists around the subject of Skunk. Skunk is said to be the super strength cousin of cannabis, and its potency (THC levels) is far greater than normal cannabis. This notion is simply false. Skunk is a media rebrand, and with little to no scientific basis whatsoever.
Dr Ben Goldacre once more addresses the myth of increased potency cannabis in his publications. It requires a vast amount of statistical manipulation to even remotely justify the super strength issue#.
Moreover, to fully address skunk and high potency cannabis, I refer to the 4th of April 2011; in a Written answers and Statement by Charles Walker MP - he asked:
“…what the average THC content of seized skunk cannabis was in the latest period for which figures are available; what the average THC content of cannabis seizures was (a) five, (b) 10 and (c) 20 years ago”1#
The reply given by James Brokneshire MP:
“The latest data from the Forensic Science Service Ltd (FSS) show that the average tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of mature flowering tops from plants, otherwise known as sinsemilla, seized and submitted to the FSS from the 1 January 2008 to the present day was 14.0%. By comparison, during the same period, the average THC content of traditional imported cannabis and cannabis resin was 12.5% and 5.5% respectively.
Information on average THC levels of cannabis available in the UK prior to 2008 is available in the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs 2008 report 'Cannabis: Classification and Public Health', which can be found on the Home Office website via the following link:
This summarises data available at that time, including FSS data from 1995 to 2007 and data from the Home Office's Cannabis Potency Study 2008, published by the Home Office Scientific Development Branch. Information on average THC levels of cannabis prior to 1995 is not available.” 1
To reiterate, the Government’s own figures and statistics cannot justify the claims that cannabis has increased in potency to any degree.
14 Cannabis is similar to alcohol with regards to comparative potency. Some beverages (spirits) have a high percentage of alcohol, whereas beers have a lower alcohol percentage. Similarly, some strains of cannabis have higher THC properties that others, and it is with quality control and education of substance that you can get a correct dosage. Street cannabis is currently of dire quality, it is being hastily harvested for weight and money only. An under ripe cannabis plant has more potential to cause harm than a plant that has been harvested correctly with the correct balance of cannabinoids. The regulation of a cannabis market would minimise the potential harms of cannabis exponentially.
15 I do not believe that current policy is successful, will have any success, or suitable to human rights. The ACMD’s remit is in jeopardy from the Home Office. As it stands, the ACMD has become a redundant force.
The issue of medicinal use of cannabinoids and the holistic nature of cannabis on an individual’s wellbeing needs a serious debate. As it stands, the Home Office have placed the issue on the shelf through red tape and misinterpretation of mandates and duties.
The families and carers of those who are infirm - who also face prosecution simply through showing support - need addressing in an ethical drug policy.
The media’s role in drug policy has, until now, been overbearing and has caused a serious fracture in science.
Myths such as ‘skunk’ are a direct consequence of current drug policy and the media’s hyperbole. Skunk demonstrates the need for greater transparency, and the dire need for science to intervene.
Aspects such as the direct consequences of prohibition and the harms it creates, need to be kept in mind when shaping drug policy. The default setting of ‘drugs are bad, ergo, they’re deemed illegal’ is myopic, sophomoric based on tautology, and does little to address the actuality of the encumbered issue.