Monday 12 October 2015
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Mr Speaker has agreed that, for this debate, members of the public can use handheld electronic devices in the Public Gallery, provided that such devices are silent. I am sure, however, that people will be so gripped by the debate that they will not be distracted at all by their handheld devices. Photos must not be taken.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered an e-petition relating to making the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, because you have played a distinguished part in debates on this issue—indeed, I might well quote some of the things you have said. One time, you complained that cannabis contained several hundred compounds, and the New Scientist wondered whether you knew how many compounds were in the cabbage you had had for your supper that night.
Before we start, I would like to illustrate how this Government—like all Governments—have handled this issue. It is typified by the response we had to this thunderously eloquent petition, which has been signed by 220,000 people. The response was trite: it could have been written 20 years ago. It does not reflect our current knowledge and experience, the great work that has been done, particularly in the last 20 years, or the serious case that has been made for decriminalising cannabis.
Let me start with a recent revelation about how the Government’s mind works. I put down a parliamentary question that could have been answered with one word. I asked how many prisons were free of illegal drug use; the answer that came back was that, for a month last year, 81 were. That was not the answer I was expecting, so I put down another question, asking how many prisons were free of illegal drug use for a year. The answer that came back was that one prison, Blantyre House, reported no drug use for a year. My next question was how many prisoners there were in Blantyre House, and the answer was none, because it had been closed down. The Government, in their secretive, defensive way, which denies the information, discovered that the answer to the drugs problem in prisons was to get rid not of the drugs, but of the prisoners—it is simple, really.
I am afraid that, since the decisions taken in the 1970s, Governments have been denying the truth that is before them: the attempt to reduce drugs in prisons has been a continuing, abject failure. They will not face up to that; they are in denial. The case I want to put today is that that failure has been going on for about 45 years. In the 1960s, the United Nations decided it would eliminate all illegal drug use throughout the planet in a decade. Many countries introduced laws. We introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which was supported by all parties and by two Governments—there was a change of Government. The Act was going to be the answer; it was going to eliminate all drug use.
We have introduced the harshest punishments in all Europe, with the result that, although there were fewer than 1,000 heroin and cocaine addicts in 1971, there are now 320,000, and cannabis use has increased exponentially. It is amazing that, throughout that period—this argument has been going on for a long time—Governments have said, “We have tried a tough policy, but it has not worked, so we will try a tougher policy.” When that does not work, we get a different tough policy. No Government have had the sense to introduce a policy that could be described as intelligent. We urge the Government to consider that today.
The Government response begins with the statement that “cannabis is…harmful”. We want to legalise it because it is harmful—of course it is; we do not want to legalise it because it is safe. We need to replace the current system in Britain, where we have the worst of all worlds, spending billions each year trying to restrict the use of drugs. We jail more people as a proportion of the population than anywhere else on the planet, except the United States. We end up with all the problems that emanate from the abuse of drugs, but we gain none of the medical advantages that we would have if we liberated people so that they could use their medicine of choice.
My constituent Bernadette McCreadie suffers from Crohn’s disease and psoriatic arthritis, and she is allergic to most of the pharmaceutical medicines that are prescribed —in fact, they have given her ulcers. She has found effective pain relief only through cannabis. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the ban on the use of cannabis in non-medicinal ways has led to a failure to allow people such as Bernadette to use a drug they find essential to their wellbeing? Sadly, the current situation sees her forced into the company of illegal drug dealers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have a host of stories going back to the ’80s and early ’90s, when we first had demonstrations in support of medicinal cannabis. It is a sad story. I have looked into the eyes of so many people who have said, “This is the only thing that gives me relief. Why on earth can’t I take it?”.
Cannabis is the oldest medicine in the world. It has been trialled and tested by tens of millions of people over 5,000 years. If there were any problems with natural cannabis, that would have been apparent a long time ago. However, all we have is this wall of denial by Governments who are afraid of the subject, afraid of becoming unpopular and afraid of it being said that they are going to pot.
I am not unrealistic, and I do not expect the Government to make a volte-face on recreational cannabis, but they should explain their position and realise what is going on. However, the case for medical cannabis, including in its natural form, is overwhelming. We can have it in Sativex, but there are problems with the drug, which is of limited value. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence does not like it, because the cost is very high.
Medical cannabis can now be used in 23 states in America. The best form is one produced in the Netherlands, which can be used in about a dozen countries in Europe. A change has to come. It is barbaric to deny people their medicine of choice. There can be no justification for doing that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the biggest scandal is that this Government, like successive Governments, have set their face against the evidence? If we look at an evidence-based approach, there is absolutely no correlation between a drug’s legal status and the amount it gets used. In other words, prohibition simply does not work.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. We look at the United States with incredulity because it does not accept the evidence on gun possession. We can all see the evidence; it has been shown over and over again that the more guns there are in society, the more deaths and murders take place. However, the United States will not accept that. We are in a similar state of denial on cannabis. Many places in the world now recognise that prohibition has been a continuing disaster—a disaster more serious than the prohibition of alcohol in the United States—yet we refuse to recognise the fact.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he accept that his analogy with gun control in America proves exactly the opposite point? The problem with guns in America is that there are too many of them and they are too easy to get, so I am not sure the analogy supports his argument in the way he used it.
The analogy is with the fact that we deny evidence. We do not look at evidence. As I illustrated, the evidence is that controlling drugs in prison has failed. The Government went to the idiotic palaver of requiring three questions to be asked before they admitted that there is not a prison in Britain free of illegal drug use. The point is about that defensive attitude and the denial of information.
I believe the word is spreading throughout the planet now. In the United States, which was the worst of the lot and the most in denial, four states are now selling cannabis recreationally. Has the sky fallen? Has it been a disaster? It has been a great success. In 2000, we saw politicians of great courage in Portugal introduce a depenalisation scheme. It was unpopular with other politicians, the press and the public, but they went ahead and it has turned out to be a brilliant success in every way. They cut down the number of deaths within five years. They have invested more money in health systems and support systems, and the scheme was widely praised by our own Health Committee when it went to Portugal. It also went to Colombia, and its report in 2012 asked for an investigation into drugs. It based its conclusions, after a year of investigations, on the success of Portugal, but do we talk about that? Are we going to follow suit? We do not have to take the courageous step now; Portugal has done it for us. It has done the work, which has been hugely beneficial.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have many particular problems in Northern Ireland due to paramilitary activity. Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have made a fortune out of the misery of others by selling illegal drugs, including cannabis. Has he had a chance to calculate what the impact on the activities of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland would be if cannabis were legalised?
I have not been to Northern Ireland to discuss this, but I went to the Oireachtas a number of years ago following a report on this issue; there were terrible problems with the criminal market in Dublin, as the hon. Lady will know.
What we are against is the fact that we have a substance of great popularity, used by millions of people, but the market for it is controlled by irresponsible criminals with little regard for the results for customers. They do not pay taxes. We have an empire of criminals building up throughout the world, exploiting their customers. The sensible way forward is to replace that market with one that is run by the state, has strong controls and does as much as it can to keep drugs out of the hands of vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems, the young, pregnant women and so on. No one is asking for free-for-all drug use; we are asking for an intelligent system that can be run and controlled.
It is ludicrous that these drugs should be known as “controlled” drugs when they are totally out of control. I have had constituents come to me and say, “Well, I thought it was legalised anyway.” The police are now very reluctant to arrest for these minor offences. It is many years since a case of someone using cannabis medicinally has been taken to court, because the juries are refusing to convict and it is a waste of everyone’s time, but that is still the law—the law supported by those who are against legalisation here.
If we can take the control of the drugs trade out of the hands of criminals, it will be an all-round improvement. That is what is happening elsewhere in the world. I mentioned the United States, but it is also going on throughout south America. A number of groups have come here recently from Mexico, Honduras and Bolivia to talk with the all-party groups about their revulsion at the drugs state and the terrible effect it has had on their countries. They were the producers, but the problems were in downtown Chicago; the consumers were on the other side. The most serious problems of drug trafficking and warfare involved people in south America.
One major benefit for countries—particularly Mexico—that border the United States, where they have seen the control of drugs taken into the hands of the state, is that there is less trafficking. Fewer drugs are going across the border, which will be a benefit.
My hon. Friend describes some quite exotic places, but I want to give an example from the Recovery Interventions Service Ealing, a drug and alcohol support service in my constituency. RISE put the point to me that these things are often about working smarter, not harder. It might be about not necessarily being punitive, but looking at joined-up thinking with other agencies. RISE has a joint working initiative with the West London Mental Health Trust to reduce harm, because it reports that the strength of some varieties of this drug—particularly skunk—is higher than it was 10 or 20 years ago. It has joint risk assessments, wrap-around treatment, and database and information sharing with other agencies. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good way forward?
A great deal of good work has been done by the agencies and those who work in this area. The previous MP who ran the all-party group on drug misuse in this country pointed out that there is an establishment of people who are involved and have a vested interest in drug prohibition. He went every year to a group who were helping people with drug problems, but he noticed in his 15 years in Parliament that there were more people coming every year.
Great work is being done, and it will always need to be done to rehabilitate people who are afflicted by drug addiction. One accepts that, but what has taken place in this country and throughout the world in the past 45 years of prohibition is hugely increased drug use. It is going down now, because of the matter to which the Chair referred at the beginning of the sitting: young people are obsessed with the new addiction of playing with their iPhones and iPads. They do not have time to roll a reefer. That is the new addiction, and it has a beneficial effect. That is the fashion throughout the world, and it probably does not do them much harm. The Home Office has admitted that there is no correlation between harsh punishment, harsh penalties and the use of drugs. It is entirely to do with fashion and what young people regard as acceptable and what they regard as naff.
We imagine that we can control what is going on, but we cannot. The whole process is out of control. Holland has given us a fine example over the past 40 years by de-penalising cannabis use. Now and for nearly all that period, cannabis use in Holland has been far less than here in the United Kingdom. There is a good reason for that: people in Holland can go to any coffee shop and have a cannabis cake with their grandmother. Where is the fun in that? They have taken away the allure of forbidden fruit.
In America, groups of young former hippies were sent out to the sticks to deter drug use. At that time, drug use was rampant in cities, but not in rural areas, so these attractive, long-haired hippies went there with guitars and said, “We’ve been subject to degradation. We’ve been through hell. We’ve been through sexual orgies. It was terrible. For goodness sake, don’t do drugs.” Their message was: “Drugs are dangerous. They will upset your parents and destroy your health”—rather forgetting that young people all know that they are immortal. Danger is an attraction, as is upsetting their parents and establishing their own identity, and drug use followed the drug education programme as surely as night follows day. This futile experiment, lasting 45 years, should now come to an end.
Let me give just one example of what has happened. People in America suggested that if cannabis were decriminalised for recreational purposes, there would be all kinds of consequences, but in Colorado and Washington, decriminalisation of recreational drugs took place a year ago, and the disasters have not occurred. The evidence shows no spike in cannabis use among young people and no increase in road fatalities. What there has been, of course, is a large reduction in the criminal market because the state now runs 60% of the market. In Colorado, they are nearing control. If the state government decides that problems are emerging, they can change things, because they pull the levers. They can decide what happens, instead of allowing criminals to use their drugs freely and sell them irresponsibly to build up their criminal networks, as happens in Northern Ireland, or to sell them to people whose mental health is fragile.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for prompting me to get to my feet again by mentioning Northern Ireland; it is so kind of him. In response to my first intervention, he referred to his first trip to Dublin, but not to Northern Ireland. As he knows, cannabis is still illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Will he give some attention to the thought that, although cannabis remains illegal in the Republic of Ireland, we have a very porous border, and it is easy to move into Northern Ireland and therefore into the rest of the UK? What does he believe the impact would be of changing the status of cannabis in the UK but not in the Republic of Ireland?
Similar concerns were expressed about the Netherlands and other countries when the laws were changed. It was said that there would be drug tourism and that people would flock across, and there have been examples of that, but one hopes that the world will gradually come to its senses, through a gradual process—it is happening now—and that laws can be synchronous and work in that way, as happens in many other areas. My trip to the Oireachtas happened because I was writing a report for the Council of Europe at the time. I was representing the United Kingdom, rather than my own opinions on the matter. What we saw in Dublin with regard to criminality was horrendous. It was very much a replay of what happened in the ’20s in America, and we have yet to learn that lesson.
One of the interventions reminded me of our attitude in this place. We have been talking about this for many years, and I prize the memory of one debate in which the Opposition spokesman and the Minister in charge had to leave. They could not stay for the full period because they needed to go outside the Chamber for a fix—they were both tobacco addicts. They did not see any contradiction in denouncing the use of an addictive drug in the Chamber, for young people, while they were themselves addicted to another drug.
I will not mention any names, but I recall another Conservative MP saying to me, “I just can’t understand it. I went to a prison and my constituent told me he wanted to get hold of some paracetamol for his toothache. He was told, ‘You can’t get that until you go and see the doctor tomorrow morning. You might be supplied with it then.’” The MP’s constituent made this point: “I can go out of this cell now and within 10 minutes, I can get heroin, cocaine”—Mr Evans, you might recall this story—“and cannabis as well”, because they were freely available. Can we persuade the Government to face up to the abject failure that has occurred over this long period?
I have spoken for longer than I intended, and I know that there are many other Members here with a long history in this subject who want to speak. I particularly welcome the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for the Green party, and the Liberal Democrat Members who—I read in my copy of The Guardian this morning—are going to take up this issue in a more serious way. No party in this House has contributed more to this subject and the cause of reform than the Liberal Democrats. It is sad to see that a number of them lost out in the last election, particularly the former Member for Cambridge and the former Member for Lewes. Those people have perhaps been punished by the press and possibly the public for having been caught in possession of an intelligent idea, but they deserve credit from this House. I look forward to hearing what Members have to say.
I shall conclude my remarks with a story about a person called Elizabeth Brice, who campaigned under the name of Clare Hodges. Sadly, she died in 2011. Elizabeth Brice led protest after protest here, and she single-handedly convinced the Belgian Government in 1998 to change their law on medicinal cannabis. She was an extremely gifted woman; she was a producer for a television company and a classicist. Among her more bizarre achievements, she was translating the Noddy books into Latin, of which I have a prized copy. I mention her story, although I am grateful to all the people who have written to me recently—there is no way that I can do justice to the number of letters and submissions I have received.
“Multiple Sclerosis is a cruel disease. You develop it when you’re young and healthy, and slowly but surely you lose all your faculties, abilities and functions. Nowadays you can expect to live your full life span often until you are completely dependent. And of course this is a very depressing prospect…all the future seemed to hold was deteriorating health and no medicines that really helped.
When I did try cannabis, the physical relief was almost immediate. The tension in my spine and bladder was eased, and I slept well. I was comfortable with my body for the first time in years. But, just as important, I felt happy that there was something, after all, that could help me. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from me.”
“Cannabis helps my body relax. I function and move much easier. The physical effects are very clear. It is not just a vague feeling of well-being.”
On one of her visits to the House of Commons, she committed a serious crime. Out on the Terrace, she asked for a cup of hot water, to which she added a green substance—I am sure that the staff were curious about what those green specks were in the cup afterwards. She had taken herbal cannabis in the House of Commons. The law at the moment says that she could be put in prison for five years, for the crime of seeking relief from pain. Does anyone believe that that law is sensible? That law is an ass. For so long, this House has been held back from full-scale reform by the timidity of Members of Parliament, because of a reluctance to reform for fear of being attacked by the media and losing votes. Now is the time for compassion and courage.
Order. No applause, please.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who for many years and with great consistency has pursued his campaign on this front and, sadly, has not yet achieved his objective.
Some years ago, members of the press asked Front Benchers from both parties whether they had ever consumed cannabis. I found that I was one of the very few who had never done so then, and I have not since. That may be why I had a clear enough head, when looking at the evidence, to conclude that we need not just to decriminalise cannabis, but to legalise its sale and use.
I duly wrote a booklet—it is still the definitive work on the subject—called “Common Sense on Cannabis”, which is available, I suspect, from the Social Market Foundation or free on my website and in which I advocate legalisation. I still believe that that is the right policy and I shall explain why. I believe that not because I am an advocate of the use of cannabis. I abhor the stuff and, as I said, have never used it. I am not an advocate of it except for medical use, and I am sure that we could all agree that cannabis and its derivatives should be made available for medical use when it can bring the relief that the hon. Gentleman described and that many of us will have heard about from our postbags. Even Queen Victoria allegedly used cannabis to relieve menstrual pain. If it is a Victorian value, surely it can be made more widely available.
There are practical reasons for wanting to move to legalisation. First, attempts to prohibit the sale and use of cannabis have failed. It is readily available and widely used. Until recently—it may still be the case—there has been a higher level of usage in this country, where it is illegal, than in Holland, where it is legally available. Nearly 30% of citizens of this country have at some stage or other used cannabis and few of them had any difficulty in obtaining it, so those attempts have failed. The second point is that they have failed despite the fact that 80% of the effort in the so-called war on drugs goes on trying to prohibit the use of cannabis. If we provided some legal outlets for cannabis, that enforcement effort, the treatment effort and so on could be diverted to tackling hard drugs, which really do harm people, enslave people and, sometimes, kill people.
Thirdly, keeping on the statute books a law that is widely ignored and impossible to enforce undermines faith not just in that law, but in law and the legal system more generally. Finally, legalisation would deprive the criminal world of a large and lucrative market. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) pointed out, that is particularly important in Northern Ireland, where that market is exploited by gangs—well, by and large by the IRA and other paramilitaries, who are likely to use that resource for the most odious and nefarious reasons.
Those arguments have led many to conclude that we should decriminalise cannabis; we should no longer make it an offence to possess or to use the stuff, but supplying or selling it should remain illegal. That is de facto the situation in some parts of the country, but I believe that as a policy it would be a mistake, and let me explain why. One of the key reasons used by prohibition advocates is that cannabis is a gateway drug. They say that once people have tried a soft drug such as cannabis, it awakens a desire for stronger drugs and leads them on to cocaine and heroin, so they must stop going down the slippery slope. There is no evidence for that at all. The truth is that it is only the criminalisation of the supply of cannabis that makes it into a gateway drug. Because cannabis users can obtain it only from illegal sources, they are forced into contact with the illegal gangs that will try to persuade them to move on to hard drugs. Prohibition of cannabis drives soft drug users into the arms of hard drug pushers. Only by providing some legal outlets for cannabis can we break the contact between cannabis users and those pushing cocaine, crack and heroin. In my view, such legal outlets should not be numerous and we should ban active marketing, sales to minors and use of cannabis in a public place.
I invariably find that most arguments against legalising cannabis are based on the supposed health risks. I entirely accept that heavy and sustained use of cannabis can be harmful, but at the time of writing my pamphlet, I quoted the Lancet review of all the medical evidence on the use of cannabis, which said that
“on the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill-effect on health, and…decisions to ban or to legalise cannabis should be based on other considerations.”
I emphasise “moderate” and “little”. I am not saying that it has no effect or that heavy and sustained use is not harmful, but I specifically stated then that moderate and occasional use of cannabis has few ill effects on health. None the less, people constantly bring up the health arguments, and I notice that when they do, they always say, “Oh, there’s just been a study that counteracts all that went before.”
It is easy to quote studies, but the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which does not take a view on the criminality but takes a view on the medical evidence that is presented and gives people an option to make up their own mind, does point out that even moderate use in younger years can lead to increased risk of mental illness in later life.
My hon. Friend has not stated a specific study, but certainly that was not the view in the Lancet review of cannabis. I find that there is a searching around for evidence. It is policy-based evidence—evidence that has been looked for to justify a policy, rather than being found and leading to a policy. It is similar to the sort of thing we find in the global warming debate.
I find myself agreeing with everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, perhaps with the exception of what he has just said. Does he agree that if a product is potentially dangerous, it is better to purchase it in a regulated market, with controls, rather than purchasing it from a criminal?
That is absolutely right. The product is most likely to be unhealthy if it is illegally obtained and probably impure—of course that is even more true of hard drugs—and likely therefore to cause side effects that are not necessarily caused directly by the cannabis itself. Obviously, it is usually used in association with tobacco, which is itself undoubtedly harmful.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Dr Nutt, made this assessment? I shall repeat what he said, to try to put the issue in perspective: we would need to stop 5,000 people taking cannabis to stop one possible case of psychosis. Although one in 5,000 is a tiny number, it is not a matter that one can ignore altogether, but it certainly should not be exaggerated, either.
Yes, I think the hon. Gentleman puts the issue in perspective with that remark. There is evidence that cannabis may precipitate psychosis in those prone to it anyway, and they should certainly be discouraged from using it, as I would discourage everyone from using it, but it is better that it be available and regulated than illegally supplied but readily available in any case, and with a high level of usage in this country.
Another argument that people invoke is, “Cannabis nowadays is different from what it was in your youth, Mr Lilley.” Since I did not take it in my youth, that does not make a great deal of difference, but people say that it is now available in much stronger and more potent forms. Of course, that is partly a symptom of illegality. In the same way, during prohibition people moved from beer to spirits, because the more concentrated alcohol was, the easier it was to transport and supply, while escaping the authorities.
The argument of the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is that cannabis, whether for medical purposes or general recreational use, should be decriminalised. However, does he accept—as, I believe, my hon. Friend does—that he might make more progress if he concentrated for the time being on whether a product could be developed with the right efficacy to justify it in medical terms, rather than focusing on general decriminalisation, which I believe is more problematic?
I certainly agree that the medical arguments are overwhelming. I cannot think of any good reasons for not allowing the use of cannabis and its derivatives for medical purposes, although there clearly are arguments, which I do not find compelling, for prohibiting it generally.
The more I examine the arguments for prohibition, the clearer it is to me that although the pretence is that it is for health reasons, the actual reason is moral disapprobation of drugs. I am probably one of the few people in this room who is prepared to say that I share that moral disapprobation. Of course, the greatest sin that one can commit in this country is to take a moral view on anything; that is the supreme immorality. I do think that it is wrong, however, to get stoned out of one’s mind on anything. It is degrading. God gave us minds to see things clearly, not to befuddle and bemuse. There are greater moral arguments, the traditional one being that it undermines one’s self-control and leads to other, more serious wrongdoing. For all those reasons, I am against using it and I would discourage people from using it.
Those who are motivated by moral disapproval of the abuse of drugs make two mistakes. First, they confuse use and abuse. Occasionally to have a relaxing spliff is one thing. I have never done so, and I would not advocate it, but I occasionally go home and drink a glass of wine to relax after a hard day of looking at 38 Degrees petitions, and I do not see any great difficulty in that. I would, however, discourage people from abusing either alcohol or cannabis.
Secondly, those who are motivated by moral disapproval jump to the conclusion that because something is morally wrong, it should be against the law. Lots of things are morally wrong that are not against the law. Adultery is wrong; one should not betray one’s spouse, but we should not put people in jail if they do. We have to get used to the idea that in a free country, people will have to make many moral decisions themselves without being told by the law what to do. We would be a healthier and better country if we gave people that moral responsibility, without saying that it is something that we approve of. It is a choice that people should make, and those of us who disapprove of certain decisions should make the moral arguments against them, rather than dressing them up as, or hiding behind, largely spurious and bogus health concerns, which are at best greatly exaggerated, and at worst non-existent.
I want to intervene briefly to say that that was the most perfect explanation of liberalism, and I applaud the right hon. Gentleman for giving it.
To make the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution into a genuine intervention—I had finished—I will say that there is quite an overlap between conservatism and liberalism, and if he would abandon the wrong bits and keep the right bits, he could join a larger party.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing it. A debate about the regulation of cannabis to reduce harm is welcome. I will immediately declare an interest. For many years, I have had the privilege of being the director of the Inverness Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre. Cannabis has brought some relief to some sufferers of MS, and I am anxious to support those individuals. I am also the vice-chair of the all-party group on drug policy reform. That widely respected group has undertaken significant research into the medical and social use of cannabis, and its findings are, I believe, unassailable.
There are strong arguments to support the regulation of cannabis for social use, but I will focus today on the medical use of cannabis. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to consider urgently the legalisation of cannabis for medical use. The many applications of cannabis as a medicine are impeded by its inclusion in schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Schedule 1 drugs are controlled substances considered to have no medicinal value. A simple change to schedule 2 would recognise the drug’s undoubted medicinal value and place it on a par with opiates. It would also enable research to be carried out into the vast potential for a range of medical applications and facilitate relief for thousands of people, including the many who suffer from MS and epilepsy who are not helped by other medicines.
Cannabis is already an important medicine. The utility of cannabis and its derivatives has been established through analysis of the treatment of a range of conditions including multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, numerous forms of chronic pain, glaucoma, and nausea and loss of appetite caused by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Estimates suggest that some 30,000 people across the UK are at risk of breaking the law by using cannabis medicinally, but they do so primarily because it provides relief from chronic medical conditions and has relatively mild side effects.
There are a number of anomalies in the UK system. Sativex, which is a synthetic form of two of the main cannabinoids in cannabis, THC and CBD, is authorised in the UK as an extra treatment for patients with spasticity caused by MS. Sativex contains the same constituents as drugs classified in schedule 1 as cannabis derivatives, and it can cost more than 10 times as much as medicinal cannabis imported from Holland.
Cannabis’s schedule 1 status makes research into medical applications an expensive obstacle course. Such research involves a minimum outlay of £5,000 to cover licensing and security, and licence applications take about a year. In the UK, only four hospitals have been granted a licence to hold stocks of cannabis, although they can all hold heroin. It has been calculated that research into cannabis costs 10 times as much as, and takes significantly longer than, research into all other forms of drug.
It is worth noting that the recent Home Office report “Drugs: International Comparators” suggests that the severity of the cannabis drug control regime has had little impact on the prevalence of drug use. An adjustment to the UK control regime to give patients the right to medication that they believe works for them is unlikely to have any wider impact on the level of recreational cannabis use. Indeed, I would argue that no sensible argument can be mounted in support of the idea that medicinal regulation would impact adversely on other forms of illegal drug use.
The case for the regulation of cannabis for social use is primarily about ending criminalisation, reducing harm and creating separate drugs markets. Laudable as those arguments are, they are only tangentially related to the regulation of cannabis for medicinal use. That fact is evidenced in the drug’s regulation for use in many parts of the world. More than 20 states in the USA have provision for the supply of medicinal cannabis. In Europe, medicinal cannabis is produced in the Netherlands, and it is available on application by a physician in the following European countries: Italy, Finland, Switzerland and Germany. Recently, Canada also legalised the use of medicinal cannabis.
We must be clear that cannabis does have a legitimate medical use that is not recognised by its schedule 1 classification. Cannabis is, in fact, an important medicine with a legitimate role in treating a host of conditions including, as I have said, the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and various forms of chronic pain. There is mounting evidence to support its use as an effective treatment for Dravet syndrome, an extreme form of childhood epilepsy—sufferers have up to 100 seizures each day. Some families have reported that CBD is the only thing that has been effective in easing their child’s symptoms. Further research into this and the ability to access medicinal cannabis legally would be life changing for sufferers of the condition.
It is enormously important that we should be able to research the further potential medicinal use of cannabis. To do that, we need to change it from being a schedule 1 drug to being a schedule 2 drug and we need to do that soon. People could then be prescribed medicinal cannabis by a physician when appropriate. Patients who find the drug helpful for their condition would no longer need to break the law to obtain it and would have access to high-quality cannabis with monitored cannabinoid content. Such a change would greatly facilitate important research into the medical uses of cannabis. I hope the Minister will consider regulating cannabis for medicinal use. Quite frankly, our constituents deserve nothing less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I commend the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on bringing the debate to the House and on this grown-up, sensible discussion about a topic that is often taboo and should not be because it affects the lives of many of our constituents.
A number of issues have been covered, including the criminal justice system, which I will come back to. I will pick up on a couple of points made articulately by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on the medicinal uses of cannabis. There are some issues with the current law that need to be looked at, which perhaps make the medicinal use and the research of medicinal use more challenging. I also want to touch on some medical evidence. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) made some compelling points during his eloquent speech for the legalisation of cannabis. I am not, unfortunately, able to support him and I hope that my discussion of some of the medical background will help to explain why.
I have picked many of my remarks from a balanced review by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which I hope we all consider to be well-resourced and an appropriate source of material for balancing the medical evidence on the use of cannabis as it looks at not only mental health, but physical health. Most of my remarks will be based on the evidence that it has collated. The college does not have a view on the legal position but, none the less, it wants people to look at the evidence and make up their minds. I will give my view, having reviewed some of that evidence.
Although there has been a steady reduction in the use of cannabis since 1996, about 2.3 million of those aged 16 to 59 have reported using cannabis in the past year. Frequent use of cannabis is more than twice as likely among young people. In spite of many Government and media warnings about health risks, many people see cannabis as a harmless substance that helps people to relax and chill—a drug that, unlike alcohol and cigarettes, might even be good for their physical and mental health. I will come to the point that that is clearly not the case.
It is worth quoting directly from the Royal College of Psychiatrists about how cannabis and cannabis plants have evolved over the past few years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said that drug use is very different from when he was at university. That may well be the case, but the evolution of cannabis and the increasing frequency of high-potency cannabis—skunk, as a number of types of stronger cannabis in general are often referred to—has changed some of the health risks associated with cannabis use. As the Royal College of Psychiatrists says,
“Over the last 15 years, skunk has invaded the street market and its THC content is about 2-3 times higher than the ‘traditional’ cannabis used in earlier years.”
I will come to THC content and the different chemical components of cannabis, but the royal college continues:
“In the UK, most sold materials is home grown because of a loop hole in the law making it legal to buy seeds over the internet.”
I have some sympathy with the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden: there are some challenges in the law and, de facto, we effectively have decriminalisation of cannabis in many areas of the country. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that. Does he see a clear distinction between legalising a drug that we know to be harmful and a more decriminalising approach with police discretion, as we have at the moment? I believe the approach we have at the moment is probably the right one, given some of the harmful effects that I will speak about.
Will not the hon. Gentleman respond to what was said by his right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley): skunk—that expression is only used in this country because there are different strengths of THC—is a product of prohibition just as distilled spirit, the main killer drug, was in America? Does he agree that if we end prohibition and have a legal market, people will get to use the cannabis of their choice—not necessarily the one that the illegal market wants them to take?
I do not necessarily accept the view that stronger or different forms of cannabis are developed as a result of prohibition. Take Holland as an example: different varieties of cannabis are available in various cannabis coffee shops in Amsterdam. People there have an opportunity to decide which potency and strength they use. I do not necessarily accept that prohibition has driven a market towards creating stronger varieties of cannabis. We know that stronger types of cannabis, such as skunk, have a stronger correlation with psychosis and some of the harmful mental health effects that are linked with the use of cannabis and the chemicals it contains.
On that subject, there are about 400 chemicals in an average cannabis plant. The four main compounds are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol, delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabinol. Apart from CBD—cannabidiol—these compounds are psychoactive, the strongest being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. The stronger varieties of the plant contain little CBD, while the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol content is a lot higher. We are talking about a number of psychoactive substances. The stronger plants and varieties tend to contain larger amounts of the more psychoactive components and compounds.
When cannabis is smoked, its compounds rapidly enter the bloodstream and are transported directly to the brain and other parts of the body. The feeling of being stoned or high—like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, I have not had the experience—is caused mainly by the delta-9-tetra- hydrocannabinol binding to a cannabinoid receptor in the brain. Most of these receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence emotion, pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, and sensory and time perception. Cannabis compounds can also affect the eyes, ears, skin and stomach.
There are a number of effects, some of which people describe as pleasurable and some of which we know are harmful. I want to touch on the mental health problems associated with cannabis use in some detail. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has published information on the subject:
“There is growing evidence that people with serious mental illness, including depression and psychosis, are more likely to use cannabis or have used it for long periods of time in the past. Regular use of the drug has appeared to double the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia. However, does cannabis cause depression and schizophrenia”—
there is a legitimate discussion about reverse causality—
“or do people with these disorders use it as a medication?
Over the past few years, research has strongly suggested that there is a clear link between early cannabis use and later mental health problems in those with a genetic vulnerability”—
my right hon. Friend made that point—
“and that there is a particular issue with the use of cannabis by adolescents.”
On depression, the Royal College of Psychiatrists says:
“A study following 1,600 Australian school-children, aged 14 to 15 for seven years, found that while children who use cannabis regularly have a significantly higher risk of depression, the opposite was not the case—children who already suffered from depression were not more likely than anyone else to use cannabis. However, adolescents who used cannabis daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later life.”
That covers the issue of reverse causality.
I particularly want to talk about psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The Royal College of Psychiatrists states:
“There is now sufficient evidence to show that those who use cannabis particularly at a younger age, such as around the age of 15, have a higher than average risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
These studies also show that the risk is dose-related. In other words, the more cannabis someone used, the more likely they were to develop a psychotic illness… a study in Australia recently showed that those who used cannabis could develop the illness about 2.70 years earlier than those who did not.
Why should teenagers be particularly vulnerable to the use of cannabis? It is thought that this has something to do with brain development. The brain is still developing in the teenage years—up to the age of around 20, in fact. A massive process of ‘neural pruning’ is going on. This is rather like streamlining a tangled jumble of circuits so they can work more effectively. Any experience, or substance, that affects this process has the potential to produce long-term psychological effects.
It is also known that not everyone who uses cannabis, even at a young age, develops a psychotic illness.”
My right hon. Friend articulately raised that point. The Royal College of Psychiatrists continues:
“The available research shows that those who have a family history of a psychotic illness, or those who have certain characteristics such as schizotypal personality, or possibly have certain types of genes, may increase the risk of developing a psychotic illness following the regular use of strong cannabis.”
Research increasingly shows that there is a strong link between psychosis and the use of cannabis, with young people having a particular vulnerability and susceptibility.
On physical health problems, the Royal College of Psychiatrists says:
“Even though the main risk to physical health from cannabis is probably from the tobacco that it is often smoked with, new research has found that the cannabis plant also contains cancerogenic mutagens that can affect people’s lungs.”
We now have evidence of potential physical harm caused by smoking cannabis, and the approach taken by this House over the years has been to discourage people from smoking and using substances that harm their physical health. There is emerging evidence of the physical harm caused by smoking cannabis, so there is a strong argument that we should be consistent by discouraging people, as much as possible, from smoking cannabis. That, as my right hon. Friend has said, could be done by legalising cannabis and giving people an open choice, but when there is compelling evidence of physical harm, it would be wrong to legalise a substance that we know to damage people’s mental health and, increasingly, their physical health.
Several issues have been raised about the medical use of cannabis. Cannabis is widely used by people who attend pain clinics—such people self-administer illegally obtained cannabis for symptom relief. At the moment, it is very difficult for medical researchers to research the potential benefits of some substances contained in cannabis in alleviating pain in palliative care or in other legitimate medical settings.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross eloquently discussed Sativex, a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis. The drug remains a schedule 1 controlled drug, which means that under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and in regulation there are no requirements on pharmacists to keep records or on the prescriber to write prescriptions in a form other than that required by the Medicines Act 1968—in other words, for prescription-only medications.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has also issued the manufacturer of Sativex in the UK with a wholesale dealer’s licence and an importation licence for patients with MS. The Home Office has therefore been able to issue licences for such supplies, and has done so through a general licence that covers all doctors who apply on behalf of individual MS patients. Dispensing pharmacists are also covered by that licence, which is triggered by an application by the doctor to the Home Office Inspectorate. Supplies can be made directly from the company’s domestic stocks.
There is a challenging framework for the medicinal use of cannabis in this country, and it needs to be reconsidered. It was suggested earlier that we should consider changing cannabis from a schedule 1 drug to a schedule 2 drug, which would be consistent with opioids—doctors are able to prescribe, say, methadone as an alternative for someone who is being treated for heroin dependence. That merits some consideration, and I would be grateful if the Minister responded on that point. A number of studies in the United States have shown that cannabis has potential medicinal benefits for pain relief in palliative care, so will we in this country be able to consider some of those issues? If we can help patients use pain control better to manage the symptoms of terminal or progressive diseases or illnesses, that has to be a good thing. We would not want the unintended consequences of the current legal framework to get in the way of achieving that.
This is not a simple issue. I have looked at the evidence and, on balance, I am not currently persuaded that making access to a substance that is harmful to both physical and mental health legal, as opposed to decriminalised, would be a good thing. We need to make it easier to research the potential medical benefits of cannabis in pain control in terminal and progressives illnesses. Finally, there is a lot for us to do in the criminal justice system. There were encouraging words from the Secretary of State for Justice last week on the need to stop the cycle of reoffending by better supporting prisoners with mental illnesses or substance misuse challenges, including the misuse of cannabis and other drugs. We can help such people not by criminalising their activities but by supporting their rehabilitation and helping them to cope better with their substance misuse problems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. It was good to hear the opening contribution of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who has long campaigned on such issues. He has always been consistent, for which I greatly admire him.
It was also good to hear the contribution of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who is my sister’s MP. I found myself agreeing with much of what he said. He thinks he is alone but, actually, I have never taken cannabis. I am instinctively hostile to the excessive use of any drug, legal or illegal, because of the impact on the individual and, sometimes, on their family and the wider community. It is precisely the potential health risks to which the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) referred that make me conclude that cannabis should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Surely it is absolutely inappropriate to criminalise people the way we do at the moment.
The global war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure. It dates all the way back to President Nixon. Profits from the global trade in drugs, to the tune of £200 billion, go exclusively to organised crime. It is a remarkable failure of public policy to have enriched criminals so successfully. Despite the efforts of the UK and US military forces in Afghanistan, the production of poppies has increased threefold during the period of their involvement there.
We spend about £65 billion globally a year on enforcement, and it achieves absolutely nothing. Thousands of people lose their lives. We have seen many gruesome beheadings in Mexico of people caught up in drug wars. The trade corrupts Governments in central and south America. Critically—I suspect that Conservatives ought to recognise this—it undermines the rule of law, which is the foundation stone of a civilised society.
Incredibly, the war on drugs leads to the criminalisation of tens of thousands of young people in our country. Last year, 30,000 people were criminalised for the use of cannabis. I am acutely aware of the comorbidity of mental ill health and drug use, but often people who suffer from mental ill health resort to cannabis for relief. Then we choose to criminalise them. It is a remarkable thing to do in a so-called civilised society.
Yet there is extraordinary hypocrisy on the issue. Senior politicians are frequently challenged about their use of cannabis and other drugs in their teenage and early adult years. Those who admit to such drug use laugh it off as a youthful indiscretion, apparently comfortable with the fact that tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen and women—usually people less fortunate than the politicians who reach the top of Government—end up with a criminal record for doing precisely the same thing. We should be uncomfortable about that.
Although the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and I have never taken cannabis, probably at least 50% of the Government have, yet thousands of their fellow citizens end up with a criminal record for doing the same. Incidentally, there is one notable exception. Lord Prior, the Conservative whom I defeated in North Norfolk, bravely admitted while Member of Parliament for North Norfolk to using cannabis as a student and called for reform of our drug laws. I hope that he maintains that view. I think that he does, but he is the exception that proves the rule.
The whole policy is disastrous in public health terms. Many people lose their lives unnecessarily through dangerous drug use. Someone who buys drugs from a criminal has no idea what they are buying, and the criminal has no interest in their welfare. That is catastrophic and must be challenged. At the same time, two of the most dangerous drugs available, tobacco and alcohol, are legal in our country. We talk about the potential risks of cannabis, but tobacco kills about 100,000 people in the United Kingdom every single year. About half of regular smokers end up dying of a smoking-related illness, and it is a legal drug.
Alcohol causes untold damage in our society to families. Thousands of families in my county of Norfolk have a problem alcohol user in the household, damaging children along the way. Violence on our streets and domestic violence are linked to alcohol. It kills 20 times more people in our country than heroin, yet the Government resist introducing even minimum unit pricing on alcohol as a regulatory limit that might reduce the carnage. My own former party leader, Charles Kennedy, lost his life to alcohol, a legal drug in our country.
We need a new approach. As the hon. Member for Newport West said, we need an approach based on evidence, but where national politicians have failed to take the lead, change is happening locally. Many police officers around the country show commendable creativity and openness of mind in challenging how things are done. Tom Lloyd, a former chief constable in Cambridgeshire, was a police officer who lead the way early. Now police and crime commissioners, recognising the pressures on public resources in their area, have moved away from criminalising people for taking cannabis. Ron Hogg in Durham, for example, has effectively decriminalised cannabis in his area. Alan Charles in Derbyshire has done the same. Martyn Underhill, an impressive independent police and crime commissioner from Dorset and an ex-police officer, has spoken of his support for those initiatives.
As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said earlier, decriminalisation is not ultimately the right legislative solution. We need to go further and introduce a regulated market. Internationally, things are changing and the momentum is growing stronger. In the United States, Colorado, Washington and Alaska—yes, the state Sarah Palin comes from, Republican to its core—have voted to legalise cannabis. Oregon, another western state, and Washington D.C. have also done so. Uruguay has decided to introduce a regulated market, which has now been established. California and several other states, including the deeply conservative Ohio, are now looking towards a legalised regulated market.
Some 23 states now allow the medical use of cannabis. As others have said, what possible justification can there be for continuing to criminalise people with multiple sclerosis who choose to relieve their pain? It is unbelievable. This Government could act straight away on that if they had the will to do so, and they would have massive public backing. In Europe, the Czech Republic is now pressing for reform, and there are cannabis social clubs in Spain.
An issue with UN treaties makes it difficult, on the face of it, for states to introduce regulated legal markets, but in October last year, the US assistant Secretary of State, William Brownfield, said that the international community should
“accept flexible interpretation”
of UN conventions,
“tolerate different national drug policies…accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs…How could I, a representative of the Government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a Government that permits any experimentation with legalisation of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?”
That is commendable.
Change is happening, and I desperately want the United Kingdom to consider the evidence and not base policy on fear, stigma and prejudice. As the hon. Member for Newport West said in his opening remarks, my party, the Liberal Democrats, has established an expert panel to consider how a regulated legal market for cannabis could work in our country. Professor David Nutt, the former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, will sit on the panel, along with Tom Lloyd, the ex-chief constable who has been brave enough to speak out. Niamh Eastwood will also sit on the panel, which will be chaired by Steve Rolles of Transform. Let us have an approach that focuses first on health, not criminal justice. People know what they are buying in a regulated market. Let us focus policy on taking money away from criminals, taking control of the market and allowing tax revenues to be used to educate people about the dangers of drugs. Is that not a more rational approach? It is fiscally responsible—something the Government should recognise. It would be a better use of public money, protect young people and end the crazy criminalisation of many young people. That approach ought to be attractive to the Government.
The panel will focus on how to reduce harm and minimise the illicit market. It will look at Colorado and other states that have gone ahead with such work. The early evidence from Colorado is positive. There has been no obvious spike in young people’s use of cannabis, no increase in crime and no increase in road fatalities. As the hon. Member for Newport West said, the majority of the market is now regulated and has been taken away from criminals, thus reducing the profits of criminal networks. The tax revenues are used for a social purpose.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene as he is coming to the end of his contribution. He rightly emphasises looking at the evidence. May I invite him—my right hon. friend from a different party—to revise what he suggested earlier in his contribution? I am not a member of the Government, nor do I wish to be, but he cited a percentage of the Government who he said were users of cannabis, and I do not think that he would want that percentage to stay on the record without correction, without evidence.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course, my suggestion was speculation, but very many young people—about a third—choose to take cannabis at some stage. As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said earlier, that percentage of the population choosing to use cannabis starts to undermine the rule of law. Perhaps the percentage is a third and not a half, but one can make a reasonable judgment that a significant proportion of this Government will have used cannabis at some point. That is a reasonable assumption to make, yet the Government appear to be comfortable with other people in this country ending up with a criminal record. That is what I find distasteful and that is what has to be challenged. We need policy based on evidence, which focuses on health and not criminal justice.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am conscious that other people want to contribute to the debate, so I must remain disciplined or I will be told off by Mr Evans.
The case is overwhelming. I urge the Government to act and listen to the evidence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—I think I completely agree with everything he said. I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for securing the debate and all the people who signed the petition, which raised the profile of this important issue.
I shall start with a few quotations:
“Drugs policy has been failing for decades.”
“fresh thinking and a new approach.”
Not my words, but those of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, back in 2005 when he was a contender for leadership of the Conservative party. At that time, he also said that it would be “disappointing” if radical options on the law on cannabis were not looked at. Since then, he has reversed his position almost 180° and done what, sadly, all too many politicians do once they have secured power—ignored the evidence and, in the face of what can be a hostile media environment, retreated to the status quo.
My position, which I have set out repeatedly in the House, is that we should be guided by the evidence. We need an urgent review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to determine whether the legislation has been effective and to consider whether alternative approaches might better reduce drug-related harms. That other countries and some US states have been more committed to following the evidence on cannabis than the UK has been creates an opportunity for us to learn from their experiences, whether they be of decriminalisation or some form of regulation.
There are clear and compelling grounds to legalise cannabis for medical use in particular and, having studied the evidence, I am fully persuaded that we need to do just that. Not because it is popular—although it is, with 53% of the UK public backing the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis for medical and non-medical use, according to an Ipsos MORI poll from last year. Not because many of those who already use cannabis-based medicines testify to the positive effects—although they do, with many claiming benefits for chronic pain, including that caused by neuropathy, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, and others, such as MS sufferers, citing its benefits. Not because the UK lags behind other nations when it comes to recognising the therapeutic value of cannabis—although it does, with 20 US states, Canada, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Israel, among others, legalising the production and supply of cannabis for medical use. I am fully persuaded, because a strong evidence base justifies looking in much more detail at exactly how we should regulate the production and supply of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
We owe it to people like my constituent, Charlotte, a 34-year-old mother living with a palliative cancer diagnosis. She told me:
“When you are faced with such a diagnosis, you either accept it and let the rot set in or you look outside the box!”
She believes that cannabis oil is saving her life and allowing her to live well:
“I would be dead or very, very ill if not for cannabis oil.”
She goes on to say that
“the Government is shooting itself in the foot, if it supported cannabis and proper evidence based trials were properly funded it would have a huge impact on the cancer costs.”
We owe it to Charlotte, and the many people like her who use or want to use cannabis medically, to stop our ideological opposition and start gathering, and then listening, to the evidence.
Trials of the regulation of medical-based cannabis could, for example, answer questions about how we differentiate types of use and how to avoid the potential for leakage into non-medical supply. They could facilitate research that might otherwise be hindered and, if successful, they could provide a potential stepping stone for regulated legal production and supply of cannabis more widely.
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
It is important to note that in those countries where medical cannabis is already regulated, implementation and practice has varied enormously. Some models have successfully demonstrated what effective, controlled production and responsible prescribing or retailing can look like. Elsewhere, regulation has been inadequate, leading to over-commercialisation and irresponsible sales practices and promotions. All that and more must be looked at within an agreed framework of what might be achieved through regulation, so that any proposals brought forward in the UK have learned from and built on existing good practice. That principle applies not just to medical cannabis; we have an opportunity to learn from countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark and US states that have introduced various regulated models for the sale of cannabis for recreational use too.
Colorado, which in 2012 became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise cannabis, demonstrates the benefits of ending the criminalisation of users and putting the Government in control of the trade. Despite dire predictions, early evidence suggests that legalisation in Colorado has had the following positive outcomes: no spike in cannabis use among young people; thousands no longer receiving criminal records; no increase in road fatalities; and a significant reduction in the size of the criminal market, as the state now controls 60% of supply.
In these times of austerity, it is also interesting to note that in Colorado, for example, legal marijuana tax revenues have been breaking records. Through the first seven months of this year, Colorado has brought in nearly $73.5 million, putting the state on track to collect more than $125 million for the year, with $40 million of that allocated for school building programmes. If that kind of benefit can be properly balanced with a regulatory regime that minimises individual and social harm, which theoretically Governments are supposed to do for the production, sale and use of alcohol, why does it not make sense to be open to alternatives to prohibition? There is growing pressure to learn from what is being tried in other countries. The Select Committee on Home Affairs concluded that Government action is needed “now, more than ever” to learn from the models adopted in, for example, Portugal.
We should also pay attention to the evidence from closer to home. When in 2004 cannabis was declassified from a class B to a class C drug in the UK, most estimates suggest that there was a decline in cannabis consumption or no change. A study from Newcastle University Business School also concluded that there is generally no evidence for an increase in the consumption of any other drugs by young people, in particular heroin, cocaine, crack, amphetamines, ecstasy, acid or glue, or for an increase in the consumption of any class A drug.
There is also no evidence for an increase in various forms of criminal behaviour, including drug production and distribution, with the possible exception of a small increase in property crime among 15 to 17-year-olds relative to those under 15. Finally, there is no evidence for an increase in antisocial behaviour, victimisation or any other types of risky or antisocial behaviour.
In other words, and this is borne out by looking at long-term trends across drugs and other different classification regimes, illegality or otherwise has very little effect on whether people use drugs.
Does the hon. Lady recall a very spiky example here of one of the scare stories about cannabis? It was said that cannabis users were on the slippery slope and that if they started with cannabis they would end in a life of degradation in the gutter. It was followed up by Ann Widdecombe, who wanted to introduce some new punitive laws, until half the shadow Cabinet declared that they had taken cannabis as young people. They ended up on the slippery slope to a form of degradation on the Tory Front Bench, but one that is not illegal yet.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his recollection. It is of a time before I was in this House, but he has made a very eloquent testament to the fact that cannabis does not act as a gateway drug; it does not drive people to crime or to act antisocially.
Successive Governments have used carefully calibrated snapshots in time in an attempt to illustrate that the laws are working to reduce drug use, but if one looks at overall trends over time the only thing that is really certain is that there is no link between illegality and use. For example, cannabis use has been in decline since 2000 and that trend was completely unaffected by the drug being downgraded in 2004 and subsequently upgraded again in 2009. In other words, the relative illegality of cannabis does not appear by itself to act as a deterrent.
That conclusion is also reached in research published in the Journal of Substance Use, for example, which corroborates previous studies that found that whether or not a drug is illegal has very little bearing on people’s decision to use it. One study compared Norway, which has a relatively liberal regime, with Sweden, where strict controls are in place, and both countries have similar levels of drug use. Again, that undermines any correlation between levels of punishment and levels of drug taking.
However, there is powerful evidence that the so-called war on drugs is actually making things an awful lot worse. Far from being neutral, in many cases the current model pushes users towards more harmful products, behaviours and environments. I know that many of us are concerned about the long-term effects of newer and stronger forms of skunk, for example, and prohibition makes it incredibly difficult to monitor or test new drugs, to evaluate their impact or to provide users with health information. On the other hand, regulation would allow individuals to make more informed choices and to reduce many of the risks associated with illegal consumption.
Therefore, it is crucial to differentiate the suffering caused by drugs and the suffering caused by drugs policy. The scandal is that it is the latter problems—those caused by drugs policy—that are the more serious, and they are the things that we could make a difference to if we could just garner sufficient political will and courage in this House. The vast majority of drug-related offending takes place not because people take drugs but because of drugs policy; users are driven to burglary and theft to buy drugs at vastly inflated prices in an unregulated market. There is enormous potential to reduce crime and its impact on our communities significantly if we were to adopt a different, regulated system.
Cannabis is a good place to start with that, so that we can introduce change gradually and safely, monitor the effects on individuals and wider society, and ensure that we have a model that minimises harms and does not encourage so-called drug tourism but instead educates users and—critically—removes the trade from the hands of the criminals and the gangs. This is a chance to take the best of what has been tried elsewhere and reject the worst, finding a legal, regulated model for the production, sale and use of cannabis.
This week, we will be giving the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill its Second Reading, and I will argue that if the Government were serious about devolution they would also allow local authorities far greater scope to pursue drug policies that are shown to work locally, even if local priorities are at odds with national policy or legislation. Such an approach would be in keeping with the advice from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which has recommended that national Governments allow local initiatives to experiment with locally designed policies that are, as the commission puts it:
“designed to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
That is exactly what we tried to do in Brighton and Hove, the city that I represent here, because when I was first elected in Brighton, Pavilion, our constituency had the much unwanted title of the drugs death capital of the UK; at that time, more people were dying of heroin overdoses in Brighton than anywhere else in the UK. As a result, a group of us got together and set up a commission on drugs, and we looked at what we could do to try to make a difference, based on evidence. Although we made big strides forward, I have to say that the national policy framework was a real obstacle to our going as far as we would have liked to, in terms of some of the measures that we wanted to pursue.
None the less, by looking at the evidence, we have managed to achieve a 17% increase in the number of people leaving treatment successfully, compared with a national average of 7%; we have actively tackled concerns about whether people were too easily left on maintenance programmes, so that almost half the people leaving treatment services now do so in a drugs-free way, compared with 35% at the end of 2010-11; we have rolled out training to administer naloxone and reverse heroin or methadone overdoses, and we have reduced benzodiazepine prescribing rates; and the number of drug-related deaths in the city has also fallen, at a time of massive Government-imposed spending cuts and massive upheavals for the NHS and police services in particular.
In conclusion, the call contained in this petition that so many of our constituents have signed—930 in my own constituency alone—is an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to the evidence, to genuine devolution and, indeed, to fiscal responsibility, and I hope that the Minister will be able to offer us reassurances on all those fronts.
I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for securing this debate today. It is an extremely important debate, which has been brought forward in response to an overwhelming petition by the public.
Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. Although it appears that there has been a steady reduction in its use since 1996, between 2013 and 2014 about 2.3 million 16 to 59-year-olds reported using cannabis. Frequent use of cannabis is also about twice as likely among young people, with nearly 5.3 million 16 to 24-year-olds reporting having used it during the same time period.
Despite Government and media warnings about health risks, many people see cannabis as a harmless substance that helps them to relax, and as a drug that, unlike alcohol or cigarettes, might even be good for their physical and mental health. Proponents for decriminalisation have also highlighted the potential medicinal properties of cannabis, and argued that legalising the production, supply and use of cannabis would also have a number of benefits for society as a whole. We have heard many of these arguments today.
Transform, a charitable think-tank that campaigns for the legal regulation of drugs both in the UK and internationally, argues that the current approach of prohibition is failing and will never be successful in protecting individuals or society from the misuse of drugs. It highlights that the unintended consequence of prohibition is that it creates an illicit market, which allows the drugs trade to be monopolised by organised crime factions.
A number of my constituents who feel extremely strongly about this issue have contacted me in the run-up to this debate. One of them, Paul, who wished to be mentioned today, supports a motion to decriminalise cannabis due to its medicinal properties, and he has told me that he feels that criminalising a substance produced from organic matter and that holds medicinal potential while allowing “over the counter” sale of many more harmful substances could be viewed as disproportionate, as could driving someone to use the black market to gain hope or relief from a medical condition, such as multiple sclerosis, because nothing else offers the same relief.
On the other hand, medical bodies have reported evidence indicating the significant potential harm that can be caused by cannabis. I am a clinical psychologist who specialised in addiction and forensic populations in my previous career, so the impact of cannabis on mental health is of particular interest to me. Literature published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2014 has highlighted several issues of concern in this regard. While it is acknowledged that not everyone who uses cannabis will develop mental health problems, even among those in the groups in society identified as being the most vulnerable, the royal college’s publication highlights the growing evidence that people with serious mental illness, including depression and psychosis, are more likely to use cannabis or to have used it for long periods in the past. It also appears that regular use doubles the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia.
Research has found that adolescents who use cannabis regularly have a significantly higher risk of developing depression, anxiety and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A longitudinal study of 1,600 Australian adolescents, already described by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), found that while children who used cannabis regularly had a significantly higher risk of depression, the opposite was not the case, with children who already suffered from depression no more likely than anyone else to use cannabis to ameliorate their problems. The study found that adolescents who used cannabis daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later life.
Evidence also shows that individuals who use cannabis, particularly at a younger age—around 15, which is when many people start to use it—have a higher than average risk of developing a psychotic illness. It has been found that the increased risk is related to increased use, and that those who use cannabis are also at risk of an earlier onset of illness compared to those who do not.
Available research shows that people with a family history of psychotic illness, or those who have certain characteristics or a certain vulnerability, may be at an increased risk of developing an illness following the regular use of strong cannabis. As has been eloquently described, research also indicates that the UK market has been flooded with stronger varieties of cannabis, such as skunk, which contain higher quantities of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is cannabis’s main psychoactive ingredient. It has been found that there is a higher risk of developing a psychotic illness from cannabis if it has high levels of THC, and if people are regular users. The easy availability of the stronger varieties carries a specific risk to young people with a genetic predisposition. In addition, it has been highlighted that cannabis with high amounts of THC can cause cognitive problems, such as with short-term memory and processing speed.
While in the past it was thought that cannabis was not addictive, current evidence suggests that it can be, particularly if it is used regularly and heavily.
We obviously listen with great respect to the hon. Lady because of her expertise, as we did to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who has similar expertise. I just wonder whether the studies that she and he have mentioned consider the prevalence of the illnesses in society as a whole, and whether the recent decline in cannabis use has led to a decline in the incidence of the illnesses. Similarly, when there was a rise in the use of cannabis, did that lead to a rise in their incidence? Is the incidence greater in countries with high cannabis use than in countries with low use, or has such research not yet been done?
The studies I mention do not specifically answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, but they indicate that people with particular vulnerabilities might be more likely to develop mental health problems, along with individuals with heavy and sustained cannabis use. It was not necessarily that a vulnerability was required for someone to go on to develop depression or anxiety.
Regarding physical health, it appears that the main risk from cannabis is that from the tobacco that it is often smoked with, although the British Lung Foundation reported in 2012 that cannabis smoking carries a greater risk of smoking-related disease than tobacco alone. It has also been reported that cannabis can affect fertility, and new research has found that the cannabis plant contains cancerogenic mutagens that can affect the lungs.
In conclusion, it is my position that further research, and perhaps the addressing of the level of schedulisation of cannabis, would be particularly helpful for medical conditions, and that at some point in the future there might be a case for prescribed use for certain conditions, where it is shown to have an ameliorative effect on an individual’s health. Overall though, there appear to be significant mental—and some physical—health concerns associated with cannabis use, which make it necessary for careful consideration to be given to the most effective methods of managing and addressing the issue and to any changes to legislation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on bringing the petition to the House and all those who signed it. That is probably the last time I will remember the name of a constituency; I have not yet got to grips with the constituencies, so I will probably point a lot.
It is clear from the petition that cannabis and its production, use and legislation is an important issue to the people of the United Kingdom. I received an email from a constituent yesterday informing me that more people signed the petition in Scotland than anywhere else, and that Glasgow was the city with the highest number of signatories, with my own constituency having one of the highest rates. For that reason, and because I am the Scottish National party spokesperson on civil liberties, I am pleased to contribute to the debate.
The frustration that the signatories to the petition must feel is that, although the issue evokes strong emotions in different quarters, there is no settled demand for any specific legislative change. Even today, most of the speakers, however they feel about the matter, acknowledged the other side of the debate. I do not envy those who have to make the decision, but I echo everyone else’s calls for much more research, so that we can get to the bottom of the argument.
The debate also reflects some of the idiosyncrasies of the current devolutionary settlement, in that control of drugs is reserved to the UK Parliament under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but the treatment and prevention of drug problems is devolved to the Scottish Government. That is an unhelpful division in a policy area that is too important for there to be a fragmented approach, but it also illustrates that there are a number of facets to the issue: harm reduction and public health on the one hand and legality and criminalisation on the other. There is a strong argument—I have heard this a couple of times today—that public health should be the focus when considering drug and alcohol use and misuse. The right hon. Member for some constituency, which I am sure is wonderful—
The right hon. Gentleman made the strong argument that the Department of Health should consider the issue, not the Ministry of Justice. In Wales they do things differently—health is devolved to Wales. They have centres there where they carry out tests so that those who choose to use illegal substances can find out what is in them. I am interested in hearing more about the impact of those centres.
Taking a multifaceted approach stands in contrast to the often ill-informed populism that, as many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Newport West, have said, often decided policy under all Governments in the past. There is a need, therefore, for much more research and more definite conclusions, to remove the debate from the realms of both an ill-informed populism —on both sides of the debate at times—or an abstract legalism.
Many hon. Members will know of the real difficulties that criminal records cause people in the poorest communities. Those communities are also often the ones most heavily blighted by the antisocial use of drugs. At this point, I want to do a “bit of a Jeremy Corbyn” and provide a voice for my constituents because, like most hon. Members , I have had many emails on the issue. I will quote just a couple of them, because they have asked me to be their voice here today, although they have differing views on the matter. Drew from Robroyston says:
“I understand arguments on both sides but it is hypocritical that we freely sell and consume substances such as alcohol and tobacco but prosecute those who choose to ingest less harmful drugs.”
Caroline, however, says:
“My brother was managing his schizophrenia until he started cannabis.”
William asks me:
“If the Misuse of Drugs Act is there to prevent social harm and alcohol and tobacco aren’t illegal, why am I made to be a criminal for smoking cannabis?”
Another constituent says:
“The fact that alcohol is legal is not an argument for also legalising cannabis. If we were considering legalising alcohol today, would we?”
The petitioners may not get all they are campaigning for today—they may; I have no idea what the Minister will say—but they need to know that their arguments are being listened to, and the best way to achieve that is to commit to researching the issues properly. Those opposed to the petition would surely be satisfied by that, because they believe that research will back up their arguments. It is a win-win for the Government, and I urge the Minister to commit to that research today.
One of the clearest things we know from the research that has already been done is how much work remains. The effects of alcohol and tobacco are well documented in our society, and the Scottish Government continue, via their minimum pricing regulation, to stand up for public health in the face of pressure from the industry and, sometimes, the public. However, the health effects of cannabis at a societal level, its relation to other drugs including tobacco and its relationship, causal or otherwise, with mental health problems require further study.
A very close associate of mine has bipolar. She was a regular user of cannabis. She asked two different psychiatrists, “Did that make it worse?”, and one said yes and the other said no. She asked them whether it caused her bipolar, and one said, “Possibly”, and the other said, “You possibly started to use it to cope with the effects of an undiagnosed condition.” That is the problem. I have heard a couple of Members say that there is conclusive evidence, but there is no conclusive evidence that cannabis does not exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems. Anyone with any experience of mental illness would never support anything that would exacerbate or cause psychotic episodes. Another argument that is put is on whether alcohol exacerbates mental health conditions. If research is done and it is found that cannabis has a serious impact on people’s mental health, that would be a strong argument against its legalisation.
On the other hand, we have to look at physical conditions. We have heard much today about medicinal cannabis. I was emailed by Michelle Anne; I think she probably emailed everyone. She was demonstrating outside today, and she is possibly in the Public Gallery. She described the physical symptoms of some of her conditions. I cannot read all the email out, but she talked about waking up and how before she moves, she has to fight spasms, cramps and electric shocks. She described it as like being
“thrown into a bed of nettles”.
She spoke movingly about how, as a result of her using what she referred to as organic, well-grown, cured cannabis, she now feels happy, sleepy and hungry—all welcome benefits.
Although we have heard arguments in favour of legalisation, it is clear that that is not a panacea. The evidence from the US states that have proceeded with decriminalisation indicates a variety of outcomes. All parties would probably benefit from a continued study of those jurisdictions and our European neighbours to inform policy in this country. It is surely a gift to us that we do not have to rely on a debate to come to a conclusion; we have evidence from around the world and other countries willing to share it with us. As the hon. Member for Newport West said, they have done the work for us, so let us use it.
There are clear arguments against legalisation, but the House would do well to heed some of the real problems associated with the policy as it stands. Those from our poorest communities and from black and minority ethnic communities are affected most severely by the criminalisation policy. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) talked about morality, but I would put it another way: there is a snobbish attitude to cannabis as compared with other drugs. As other Members have said, it would appear from various media reports that those of a middle to upper-class background can partake in illicit substances in their university days without ever jeopardising their future careers. However, for many people from a working-class background, a drugs-related conviction, no matter how minor, can have a devastating impact on their life chances in terms of employment.
Let us also consider one group of primarily black and minority ethnic users—Rastafarians. Their use of cannabis is part of their religious and spiritual beliefs. I am probably the only speaker here today—Members can prove me wrong if they like—whose partner is a Rastafarian. I might get shot down in flames for this, but he is probably the only Rastafarian who has never used cannabis. It is not compulsory for Rastafarians to use cannabis, but it is part of their spiritual outlook. He has asked, “If I choose to use cannabis because it is part of my religious beliefs, where are my civil liberties if that criminalises me?”
I end by making one final point. The international context of our drug legislation must be considered. The UN drug conventions are all more than a quarter of a century old, and there is growing anticipation ahead of the international discussions in 2016, which will be informed by a far broader base of evidence accumulated in the interim period. It is noteworthy that some of the countries that requested that the discussions be brought forward are very much at the forefront of what was once called the war on drugs. The Government should ensure that the United Kingdom participates fully in the UN discussions on drugs policy. That will allow us to act responsibly on the international stage, using UK evidence to inform international approaches and utilising the latest international research to influence policy here on these islands.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I start by thanking the Petitions Committee for scheduling this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for his measured and well-researched contribution. The e-petitions process is an invaluable addition to our democracy, as it ensures that we can directly respond to the interests of the British public. That can only be a good thing. The petition that sparked this debate was signed by 125,000 people in just four days. It is clear that there is a degree of public interest in the legal status of cannabis, and it is right that we carefully consider the issue. The debate’s quality has allowed us to do precisely that, although this is clearly not the end of the debate.
Since the late 1990s, cannabis use in Britain has significantly reduced, particularly among the young. According to Home Office statistics, nearly 30% of 16 to 24-year-olds had used cannabis in 1998. In 2014-15, it was a little over 16%, although the percentage had slightly increased over the previous two years from 13%. We are still on a positive trend, although it would be invaluable to understand what has driven the increase in the past two years. I wonder whether that is related to the cuts we have seen to youth services. It is also important to note that there has been an increase in synthetic cannabinoids.
As has been discussed, Portugal and other countries have chosen to decriminalise cannabis and other drugs. I know some would like to see us go down the same route in Britain. When considering lessons from Portugal, we should be clear that its drug policy is far from permissive. It removes criminal penalties for simple possession of small amounts, rather than having the wholesale decriminalisation of possession, supply and production offences. Those caught with drugs are summoned before a tribunal or dissuasion commission, which includes a psychiatrist and a social worker, who often mandate rehabilitation services or issue financial penalties. There is still a concerted effort by law enforcement, working in conjunction with the health service, to reduce drug use and in particular to control production and supply.
I am aware that Björn Hibell’s study of European drug trends shows that cannabis use is reducing among the Portuguese young. However, we must recognise that cannabis use is decreasing even faster among British youths, although from a higher base, and that there has been an increase in the use of cannabis and other decriminalised drugs among older groups in Portugal.
I understand that one reason why many may have signed the petition is that too many people, young and old, feel that they have had their lives blighted by a conviction for the possession of cannabis. A conviction may well prevent someone from getting a job while it is still on their record, and some professions—in law, accountancy and medicine—even require the disclosure of spent convictions. Our police have discretion over how to enforce the law against possession. In some areas, such as Durham, that means a force-wide policy of not charging people for possession, or even for growing their own plants. In other areas, individual police officers are allowed to make their own judgment, which includes charging people with a first offence and the possibility of a custodial sentence. We have de facto decriminalisation in some parts of the country and enforcement in others. This is an extraordinary postcode lottery. Given that a drug conviction has such a serious impact on a person’s life, this postcode lottery is simply unacceptable.
We should also recognise racial disparities. Black people, on average, use drugs less than white people, but are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs. This inequity needs to stop, so I say gently to the Minister that what we lack at the moment is Government direction and leadership. If the debate does nothing more, I hope that it will flag up to the Minister that he might have some work to do to ensure the equity of law across the country and for all citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has consistently campaigned for the use of cannabis to be legalised for medicinal purposes, and he has made that case again today with characteristic eloquence and sincerity. I have enormous sympathy for anyone who seeks the most effective way to access pain relief. I do not doubt the reports made by those with multiple sclerosis and other illnesses that drugs can bring pain relief and improve muscle control. However, I do not believe that we need to legalise cannabis to have access to its medical benefits.
THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, is used as an ingredient in the drug Sativex, which we heard about earlier. It is already licensed in the UK—in Wales—to relieve the symptoms of MS and other medical conditions. We can and do benefit from THC without legalising forms of cannabis that are used recreationally. I understand that this is something that the Government’s drug advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, support.
I am also aware that Sativex is not available on the NHS in England owing to the cost of the drug. Although that is ultimately a decision for NICE—I accept that—I ask that Ministers look at this again. Sativex is, after all, available on prescription in Wales, as I have said, and MS sufferers in England should not face greater pain and difficulty simply because they live on the wrong side of a border. Despite the medical benefits of THC, which can be accessed through Sativex, there remains real public concern about the negative impact that recreational cannabis has on health. I share many of those concerns. My main worry about the drug is its impact on mental health, as eloquently outlined by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). We know that regular users are more likely to develop psychotic illnesses, including schizophrenia. There is also a link between cannabis use and developing depression or anxiety, particularly among those who started smoking cannabis as adolescents.
Britain has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the world. The Mental Health Foundation and Mind tell us that one in four Britons suffers from a mental health problem over the course of each year. According to the Office for National Statistics, 15% of us will seriously contemplate suicide at some point in our lifetime. Given these mental health concerns, I think it would be irresponsible to support measures that may make the drug more readily available—something likely to occur if we legalise the drug.
As I understand it, Holland abandoned its model of completely ignoring personal possession due to the impact of the drug on mental health conditions. This is worrisome, especially given the potency of cannabis on our streets. According to the Home Office’s most recent potency study, intensively grown cannabis, which is the most common form of the drug in the UK, has on average a 15% THC concentration. Traditional cannabis, if there is such a thing, has just 9%. Strong strands of cannabis have all the more impact on minds. We also have the growing problem of synthetic cannabinoids.
In conclusion, I ask appropriate Ministers to look again at Sativex and the use of cannabis for those with particular physical conditions that can be alleviated by the drug. I believe the Minister should look at the postcode lottery of criminalisation due to cannabis possession and use, but I am not persuaded of the case for the legalisation of cannabis. In this place, we should always have mind to the impact of our actions on public health. Legalisation will not improve this. Legalisation has the potential to exacerbate the problems that we have with drug dependency and mental illness.
Before I call the Minister, it may be helpful to tell you that I intend to call Mr Flynn, the proposer, at the end. He has indicated that he would like to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I welcome the new shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), to her role. I did not get an opportunity to do so at Home Office questions earlier. We are friends, which is a dangerous thing in this place, and we agree on many things. In fact, I agree with most of what she has said in her comments today.
May I start by saying that I am not from the university elite who smoked cannabis when they went to university? I am not cynical and I am not horrible—I hope. I worked very closely with the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) when he and I were shadow Health Ministers and when he was a Health Minister with responsibility for mental health and I was in a different role.
I have every sympathy for my friends and members of my family who have had MS and the terrible pain and anguish that they go through because of an incurable disease. So I start from the premise of having sympathy. Let us see what we can do in the 21st century to take people out of that environment. However, I have real concerns about legalising cannabis. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on his position, which has not changed in 40 years. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). I expected him to be sitting here when I came in to the debate today.
We have had two contributions from people who are medically qualified and who know—not anecdotally—about the medical side and the patient’s point of view. Their contributions have been enormously significant. I believe that the debate would have been more useful if we had talked about the medical side and the help available, rather than the generality.
Will the Minister give way?
If I can make a little more progress, I promise I will give way shortly. I am always generous in that way.
Although we have had a huge petition from people who are for legalisation, I am sure that colleagues in the House have also had people writing to them saying no to legalisation, as indicated by the SNP shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), a moment ago. There is no petition from those who do not want to change the legislation, but a large petition from those who do. I think a significant minority also need to be considered in this debate.
I do not think there is any dispute about medical risk. The question is about how one responds to it. Does the Minister really think it is appropriate to give someone who is perhaps suffering from mental ill health a criminal record?
To be fair, that is different from the point I was trying to make. In the modern way in which we police—not just in the past five years, but for many years—the discretion of a police officer to make a decision is an operational matter for them, and not for politicians. Also, it is not for police and crime commissioners to make such decisions. I know what the Durham PCC said, but operational decisions are for the chief constable. PCCs were not set up to make such decisions. We now have cross-party support for PCCs. I am pleased about the Labour party’s conversion since the election. That is not a snipe—yes, it is—but I am really pleased that there has been a change, because there are excellent PCCs out there and they do an excellent job.
I am also conscious that there are devolved Administrations looking at this matter differently. I will come to some of those points later. Let us see what positives can come out of this. I will not stand here and say, “We are going to legalise cannabis.” I am not going to say that from a moral, personal or Government position. However, we could look carefully, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), at the research. We need to look at why the research is not taking place and at the effects of certain parts of the legislation.
Believe it or not, I took a week off the week before last and went to my favourite part of Norfolk: the Norfolk broads. I spent a week fishing while my wife and mother-in-law looked at the other beautiful parts of Norfolk. I used a lot of hemp—we discussed the seeds earlier in the debate. I live in and represent Hemel Hempstead. Some of the bread that some of us buy contains hemp seeds. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich alluded to the problem of the seeds being legal, and the rationale behind that, although that does not mean we should not look carefully at the matter, and we will. There should be nothing in statute that prevents research into improving people’s quality of life. I will go away and work with other relevant Departments to see how we can do that.
My good friend the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) alluded to what would happen with the republican response. As a former Northern Ireland Minister, and having served in Northern Ireland in uniform in a different capacity, I know that the sad thing is that these thugs and organised criminals will find something else with which to raise money and destroy their communities, as they have done with diesel laundering and other things over the years. I do not think that legalisation would make a huge difference to what they do, but it might make a huge difference to the lives of the hon. Lady’s constituents, whether mentally or physically, according to the evidence we have heard today.
Another issue, which I discuss with my constituents, is the diverse views about where we should be on this subject. We are as one in wanting to protect our constituents, but we are perhaps looking at it in different ways. Going back to the point made a moment ago by my former right hon. Friend, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, mental health protection for vulnerable people is probably one of the most difficult and important issues we face, which is why I am so pleased that, after the work we did in the past, so many police forces now have mental health professionals with them on the streets and in the custody suites, and use sections 135 and 136 less.
As we have heard, there is conflicting evidence from studies from across the world. The majority of the world has not legalised cannabis. There is movement, but the majority of the world is in roughly the same position as us. The shadow Minister talked extensively and absolutely correctly about Portugal, but they have a completely different strategy for working with people and moving forward, and that is true not only of their health service. Only last month, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy said that it is too early to decide whether what is going in that state is going to work. The evidence I have before me says that the institute thinks it will not be clear until at least 2017.
Will the Minister give way?
I would like to make some progress. The hon. Gentleman will be summing up at the end, but I will give way shortly.
There will always be one expert in one part of the world saying one thing and another in another part of the world saying another, not least because there will always be such diverse views. Nevertheless, we have to listen to what is going on and use that as our evidence base, as was asked for earlier.
The situation in Holland is really interesting. We have heard different usage statistics today, but the latest figures I have—I might be wrong; if I am, I will write to colleagues and ensure that they know—are 6.5% or 6.7%, according to the crime survey for England and Wales for 2014-15, while the latest figures for Holland are 7%, which is a larger percentage than ours. Holland legalised cannabis and a different situation is occurring there: while usage is dropping here, it has stayed higher in Holland. I am not saying that what Holland has done is wrong—it is an independent country and it is absolutely right and proper that it has its own policy—but when we compare ourselves with Holland, we must not use statistics that might be out of date. If my figures are out of date, I apologise, and I will write to colleagues to correct them. Other points were raised on which I would like to write to not only those colleagues present, but every colleague in the House—those who were not able to attend this debate—to answer such queries.
To the hon. Member for Brighton and Hove, which I think is the name of that constituency now—
I apologise. She is the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—my civil servants will be told off later for the notes I was given. I say to her: do not believe everything that Ipsos MORI or any other pollster says. I was supposed to have lost my seat in 2010, but I returned with a majority of 13,000. Pollsters get it wrong; it is about the questioner.
The hon. Lady can shake her head, but it is a fact that we were not predicted to win the election, yet we did. There are different views about what pollsters say and can measure, but our job is to protect our constituents.
I was shaking my head only because the polls are one tiny part of the overall case that I and colleagues have been making. Our case has been about looking at the evidence. I find it shocking to hear from both the Minister and, sadly, the shadow Minister no real interest in looking at the evidence. Yes, we have heard two medically qualified people speak, but there is plenty of medical evidence out there that suggests that, for example, freeing up cannabis for medicinal use is a positive thing to do. Will the Minister undertake to look at the evidence?
I am not certain that the hon. Lady was listening to what I said, but I suggest she read Hansard tomorrow morning. We have cross-party agreement that we will look at research and see how we can help people. I am committed to that, as is the shadow Minister. We will try to do that, but I cannot do it at the Home Office alone; it has to be done across the board. That is the most important thing that can come out of this debate. It is not about who is right and wrong; let us try to work out what can help individuals.
The Minister says that he is keen to look at evidence, so will he re-read the report of the Home Affairs Committee? With a Tory majority, it looked at the subject very seriously for a whole year, and concluded that what happened in Portugal was entirely beneficial, with no harmful effects, and is now supported by all parties in Portugal, as well as the police there. Why does he think that an anecdotal sideswipe at that is going to mean anything? Is he not relying on an evidence-free policy instead of taking up the Select Committee’s recommendation to set up a royal commission on this issue?
The hon. Gentleman is never going to change his view, and that is fine.
That was the Select Committee’s view.
From a sedentary position he chunters on. Let us listen to what the royal colleges have said, because they are the experts. The Select Committee took evidence. I have sat on Select Committees and I know exactly what goes on. I think I am due to give evidence to the Select Committee next week. It is crucial that we do not set ourselves in one position but that instead, we ask what research could help take things forward. That is what I have committed to doing and it is very important.
I am delighted that the Minister visited the Norfolk broads. I wonder whether, when he was there, he enjoyed a pint in one of the many pubs. There is very clear, overwhelming evidence that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis. Can the Minister give any explanation of why it makes sense for that more dangerous product to be legal while a less dangerous product is illegal?
Well, I am not actually convinced, on the evidence, that cannabis is less dangerous for certain people. As was said earlier, if we were to start alcohol and tobacco policy again from today, of course we would not be where we are now. I accept that point.
In conclusion, I am committed to working with other Departments and whoever else wants to work with us to ensure that, in the 21st century, where cannabis can be helpful through pharmaceuticals, we will try to make sure that that happens. I am committed to looking at the research and at what work we should be doing. This debate has been enormously useful, but I cannot support the petition.
I am afraid that, as usual, the point of the debate has been missed. It is not my debate, but the debate of the 220,000 people who tried a new procedure—this is only the second time it has been used—to ask that the House debate this subject. Our chief task in this Parliament is to restore the reputation of this place. Democracy was invented in Greece 2,500 years ago and has come to us in stages. People had expectations that, because they signed the petition and we held this debate, they would hear a positive, sensible and constructive answer from the Government. They have been disappointed.
The great myth that is perpetrated is that if we ban something people do not use it and that if we make something illegal it stops being used, but the reverse is true. The prohibition we introduced in 1971 has been a continuing disaster. We heard medical evidence from the same source, and we have to take it seriously. The small percentages do not relate to the extent of the danger. I remind the House that Professor Nutt said that we would have to stop 5,000 people using cannabis to prevent one case of psychosis. That still makes it a serious problem, but the great lesson is that prohibition has caused people to suffer greatly. People have been criminalised, and their lives have been ruined.
I have only two minutes, so I will make a final point. Tens of thousands of people have written impassioned letters to us about their suffering. They want the Government to move their drug of choice, which is a natural substance, not a chemical one like Sativex—the natural form of cannabis has been used for 5,000 years without any serious side effects—from schedule 1 to schedule 2. Simple—it could be done. It has just been done in 23 states in America without any harm. I beg the Government to look again at the evidence to rescue sufferers of MS from their bed of thistles.
Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that the one argument that those opposing our position have leant upon is the evidence of the Royal College of Psychiatrists studies, but the very fact that studies can be carried out on people who use and do not use cannabis shows that the present prohibition is not effective. It also suggests that, although there may be health risks, their incidence will probably not be altered by legalisation, whereas all the other issues that the hon. Gentleman and I have raised would be ameliorated. We hope the Minister will take that into account in his further consideration.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is a belief that persists. Recently, one of the legal highs was criminalised, and the result in my area was a 300% increase in its use. We cannot go on believing that we are the masters of the universe. We are throwing 2 million or 3 million of our young people into the hands of irresponsible gangsters. We should ensure that these drugs are controlled so that they are kept out of the hands of people with mental ill health and others whose health might be threatened, such as pregnant women. That is the point of a controlled drug, and we will get it controlled only with legalisation. We will carry on with the chaos, waste and cruelty if we continue with our mistaken policy of prohibition.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered an e-petition relating to making the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.