Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to provide for the lawful production, packaging, marketing, sale, purchase, possession and consumption of herbal cannabis in specific circumstances by certain persons; and for connected purposes.
It is long overdue that we call time on the so-called war on drugs launched 45 years ago by the then President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon. Since then, billions of dollars every year have gone straight into the hands of organised crime, Governments have been corrupted by the drugs trade, thousands upon thousands of people have lost their lives in countries such as Mexico and Colombia, profits from the drugs trade have funded terrorism—as recognised by the United Nations Security Council—and thousands of our fellow citizens every year are criminalised for using drugs. This has been a catastrophic failure.
There is an urgent and compelling case for a more rational approach. Thankfully, around the world, sense is breaking out. In the United States, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have all legalised cannabis, introducing a regulated market. Uruguay has done the same thing. In Europe, Portugal has decriminalised drug use—a move that now has cross-party support from right to left—and is instead taking a health-based approach. Drug-related deaths and sexually transmitted diseases due to drug use have decreased dramatically as a result of the change. And now in Canada, the new Liberal Government have been elected on a manifesto that commits them to legislating for the legalisation of cannabis. My plea is that in this country we should base our approach on evidence and on reducing harms rather than on fear and anxiety about public reaction. My sense is that the public are, in many respects, way ahead of the politicians on this subject.
My starting point is that I am instinctively hostile to drugs, legal and illegal. Tobacco kills about 100,000 people in our country every year. Alcohol causes untold damage to very many families, not least because of its association with domestic violence. It also leads to violence on our streets. The most potent strains of cannabis also carry health risks, including psychosis and memory loss, but do we really think that we best protect people by leaving the supply of cannabis in the hands of organised crime? No criminal is interested in people’s welfare. When someone chooses to buy cannabis, they have no idea what they are buying or how potent the product is. So-called skunk is widely available on the criminal market in every town and city across our country. Any idea that we can protect people by keeping it illegal is fanciful. No one now believes that we can actually win the war on drugs, so a public policy intended to protect people from harm is achieving precisely the opposite, and we are putting billions of pounds every year into the pockets of organised crime. What a spectacularly stupid self-defeating policy!
Some people raise a legitimate anxiety about people moving from cannabis to harder, more dangerous drugs, but the risk is self-evidently far higher when people buy from criminals, who have a direct interest in persuading them to do just that. On top of that, we criminalise tens of thousands of people every year for the use of cannabis, blighting their careers, damaging their life chances and restricting their ability to travel. Many people with mental ill health resort to cannabis as a relief from the pain they suffer, and then we criminalise them. What a cruel, unjust policy that is. We criminalise multiple sclerosis sufferers and many others who use cannabis to relieve pain, so I strongly support the “End Our Pain” campaign.
There is real hypocrisy here. While those people are knocked back by criminal convictions, others, usually the more privileged, go on to build successful careers. How many members of the Government have smoked cannabis while maintaining their support for the conviction of their fellow citizens? The Prime Minister was a reformer. It has also been reported that he and others were caught smoking cannabis at Eton. He has gone on to do quite well. Having signed up to a Select Committee on Home Affairs report in 2002 calling for the then Labour Government to initiate a discussion of alternative ways, including the possibility of legalisation and regulation, to tackle the global drugs dilemma, he retreated once elected Conservative leader and now seems implacably opposed to reform. Why has the Prime Minister changed his mind? Why continue to allow our fellow citizens to be put at risk, with the possibility of criminal conviction, for doing exactly what he did?
My party, the Liberal Democrats, commissioned an independent expert panel to advise on a more rational approach. The panel was made up of leading experts and included a retired chief constable of Cambridgeshire, Tom Lloyd, and the serving chief constable of Durham, Mike Barton. They know better than anyone the drain on police time caused by dealing with drug possession offences. The report, published on 8 March, is rational, wise and balanced. It points to a different approach, and the Bill seeks to implement that approach.
The proposed framework is based on the primary goal of protecting and enhancing public health and community safety, with a particular focus on the health and wellbeing of vulnerable and marginalised groups. It is guided by evidence and deliberately cautious and proposes regular reviews. It sets out plans to establish a cannabis regulatory authority. Producers and products and sales would be licensed. Cannabis would be sold through licensed outlets. There would be mandatory provision of health advice to consumers at the point of sale. Cannabis would be sold in plain packaging. There would be a minimum age of 18 for the purchase and consumption of cannabis. Critically, there would be controls on potency, with a minimum requirement of 4% cannabidiol, which is important for reducing the risk of dependence, psychosis and memory loss. Of course, no such safeguards are available on the existing criminal-controlled market.
The expectation is that sales could raise up to £1 billion in tax. There would be significant savings of police time, enabling them to focus on serious and violent crime. Limited amounts of home growing for personal use would be permitted, with an enforceable limit of plants per household. The scheme would also permit small-scale licensed production for membership-based cannabis social clubs similar to those that have existed for years in Spain. They would have to be operated on a not-for-profit basis and would be subject to conditions, including limiting the size of clubs to fewer than 100 adult members and limiting per-member production and supply. It would remain a serious criminal offence to drive while impaired by cannabis.
I understand why many people’s first instinct might be to fear the consequences of legalising cannabis, yet thinking through the disastrous consequences of maintaining prohibition of this drug—the profiting of criminals, the health risks resulting from people not knowing what they are buying, the criminalising of so many people, including those with mental ill health and multiple sclerosis—leads to the recognition that a new, more rational approach is desperately needed.
Question put and agreed to.
That Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, Mr Nick Clegg, Tom Brake, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Caroline Lucas, Paul Flynn, Michael Fabricant, Crispin Blunt and Mr Peter Lilley present the Bill.
Norman Lamb accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 April, and to be printed (Bill 156).