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Cannabis (Legalisation and Regulation)

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to legalise the possession and consumption of cannabis; to provide for the regulation of the production, distribution and sale of cannabis; and for connected purposes.

Over the past few weeks, three of my constituents have, individually, come to see me to discuss cannabis. All three suffer acute continuing pain. One has fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and IBS. He had been prescribed Fentanyl, which we know is highly addictive and potentially fatal. He stopped taking it out of fear of the consequences. Cannabis offers him essential pain relief, but he has no option but to buy it illegally. He knows that, at any time, he could face arrest and prosecution. Following the Government’s reforms allowing for the prescribing of cannabis-based products for medicinal use, he went to see his GP to get a prescription. He was told that they—the GPs—were all under instructions not to refer patients to the pain clinic because there is no evidence of therapeutic value. Yet something as dangerous as Fentanyl remains available.

Another constituent, who has rapidly advancing Parkinson’s disease, also uses cannabis. It is the only thing that helps him. He has also been told by his GP that he cannot be referred to a specialist for cannabis to be prescribed. So we leave this man, who is acutely unwell, having to break the law in order to get relief from pain. This is surely cruel and inhuman.

The third man, in his 50s, finds that cannabis is the only thing that offers him respite from pain following an injury to his leg. He has a lifelong allergy to codeine. Other painkillers have caused serious problems with his kidneys. But cannabis works for him. Fearing the risks of buying from a street dealer, he bought some over the internet. He then faced a police raid. Despite my pleas to the police that giving him a criminal record would not be in the public interest, last week he was given a caution. This man has been a law-abiding citizen all his life. He has found this whole thing acutely distressing. He fears that the consequence of the caution is that he will not be able to visit his son in Australia. The treatment of this man is shameful. What is the point of doing this to him? What is the possible public interest?

Across the country, people like my constituent are left with no option but to break the law. The Government’s reforms raised expectations but have dashed hopes for so many people. The approach taken by the Government is so restrictive that the numbers who will benefit are minuscule. If someone is lucky, they might live in an area where the police force takes an enlightened approach. Chief Constable Mike Barton in Durham has effectively decriminalised cannabis for personal use. A recent parliamentary answer I received reveals that, in some areas, prosecutions and cautions have plummeted. Surely we cannot justify this postcode lottery, where two people behaving in exactly the same way are treated differently depending on where they live. One will be forever tarnished with a criminal record, and the other will not. It is clear that the recent reforms are not working, so the Government should look in the round at the harm that prohibition of cannabis is causing across the country and try to come up with a more enlightened approach.

In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government have implemented a new legal, regulated market for cannabis for recreational and medicinal use. Their approach is instructive. In June 2016, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Health jointly set out the key principles that should guide reform, including: protecting young people by keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and youth; keeping profits out of the hands of criminals; preventing people from receiving criminal records for simple cannabis possession offences, which reduces the burden on police and the justice system; protecting public health and safety by strengthening the law with respect to serious offences such as selling cannabis to minors and driving under influence; providing support for addiction treatment, mental health support and education programmes to inform people about the risks; and access to quality-controlled cannabis for medicinal purposes. Surely those principles should guide us too. Carrying on as we are has dreadful consequences.

I want to make four key points. First, nowhere across the world has prohibition worked—cannabis is available everywhere. Secondly, people have no idea what they are buying. We know that leaving supply in the hands of criminals puts teenagers in particular at risk. They are most susceptible to suffering mental health consequences, including psychosis, from regular use of potent strains available on the street. The widespread use of those dangerous strains is the result of our failure to regulate. A regulated market would allow Government to control the safety and potency of cannabis sold by legal vendors. Through a misplaced desire to be “tough on drugs”, we leave teenagers vulnerable to exploitation from sellers who have no interest at all in their welfare. Through inaction, Government and Parliament are culpable. If something is potentially dangerous to children and young people, we must control it and regulate it, not leave it freely available from those keen to make a fast buck.

Thirdly, we know that the illegal market for drugs generates extreme violence in many communities, and particularly the most disadvantaged. If a supplier faces competition, they do not resort to the courts to protect their market; they use extreme violence. Thousands of people have lost their lives as a result of illegal trade in drugs in countries such as Mexico, but on the streets of our poorest communities, violence is meted out regularly. Young vulnerable teenagers get caught up in this violent trade and cannot escape. It does not have to be like this.

Fourthly, we still criminalise thousands of people every year, taking up precious police time that could be used to fight serious crime. Careers are blighted for using a substance that no doubt many Members on the Government Benches have used at some stage of their lives. Meanwhile, the most harmful drug of all is consumed in large quantities right here in this building. Alcohol leads to violence on our streets and behind closed doors in people’s homes. It destroys families up and down our country, yet we tax it, and the Exchequer benefits enormously from it. Is there not a dreadful hypocrisy in the fact that we allow our drug of choice, while criminalising people who use another, less dangerous drug, many for the relief of pain?

My Bill offers a more rational alternative to this mess. With strict regulation of the growing, sale and marketing of cannabis, with an age limit of 18 for the purchase and consumption of cannabis and with clear controls over potency of what is sold in licensed outlets, we can at last start to protect children and teenagers. We can at last treat with dignity and respect all those who suffer acute pain or who have conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and epilepsy. We can end the shameful treatment of these people as criminals.

We can at last end the extraordinary practice of handing billions of pounds every year to organised crime. We can instead start to tax the sale of cannabis, so that revenues can be used for good purpose—public health education, the NHS, schools and the police. We can start to take some of the violence and intimidation off our streets and restore order in our poorest communities, and we can free up police time to focus on serious crime. This is rational, evidence-based policy making. It is time for this country to act on the evidence and to protect children and young people from harm.

First, I want to pay respect to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for introducing the Bill. He has a long record of campaigning on this important issue, and while I strongly disagree with him, I respect his desire that something be done to address it.

I am sure we can all agree that something needs to be done about the current situation with cannabis use, which is wrong, unsustainable and doing a great deal of damage to our society, but I do not believe that liberalising and decriminalising it in this way is the answer. My view is largely informed by my experience of seeking to help and support people who have been regular users of cannabis. I have seen at first hand the lives that it wrecks, the impact on mental health and the cost to not only the individual but their families, their communities and wider society.

I was slightly confused by the line that the right hon. Gentleman took. He seemed to be confusing medicinal use of cannabis with recreational use. The Government should take great credit for the progress made recently on allowing the medicinal use of cannabis products. That is absolutely right, and I believe it has a great deal of support across the country. I agree that more should be done to ensure that cannabis for medicinal use gets to the people who really need it, and that more needs to be done to get medical professionals on board and adjusted to the new regime. However, the new measures were only introduced a few weeks ago, on 1 November, and we need to allow more time for the changes to come into effect before we take a huge leap of faith towards decriminalising cannabis altogether.

My concern is that, by liberalising cannabis use, we would send precisely the wrong message to our young people. We would be giving them the message that cannabis is safe and okay to use. We need to make very clear that cannabis is a dangerous drug and that there is no safe consumption of cannabis in an uncontrolled, unregulated way. We are clearly in the midst of a war on drugs, but we will not win the war by raising the white flag, giving up and surrendering. No war has ever been won by surrendering.

The impact of regular cannabis use on mental health has been well established. There is strong evidence to demonstrate that frequent use of cannabis is linked to the inducement of psychosis. One study in south London revealed a threefold increase in the risk of individuals having a psychotic disorder among regular cannabis users compared with those who do not use cannabis.

In recent years, we have seen a steady reduction in the use of cannabis: over the past 20 years, it has declined by 30%. YouGov polling conducted this year indicates that legislation could significantly disturb this overall downward trend. Over a quarter of people under 25 who have never tried cannabis indicated that they would definitely try it, or be likely to try it, if it were legalised. That is over 1 million 18 to 24-year-olds. Of those who have used cannabis before, well over a third of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they would be more likely to use it more regularly if it were decriminalised.

I believe that legislation would send the very wrong message to our young people that cannabis is okay to use. I think we all understand that for many people the use of cannabis is a gateway drug to more serious and more damaging drug use. It would be absolutely wrong to send the message that somehow cannabis is okay, because of where that would lead for many people. As with most laws, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is adhered to by the vast majority of people, but it is ignored by some. We must not forget that the current law deters a great many from drug use, which serves a very important public interest.

However, this is no endorsement of the status quo. We all have at least some common ground. It is intolerable to see our young people hurting themselves or ending their lives prematurely because of the effects of this dangerous drug. Our approach must be bolder. We must offer more meaningful support and aim to drive down consumption yet further. This will not be achieved by a new website or a helpline. We need to intervene and challenge, using experts in the field of drug use, recovered addicts and recovering users, who can reach out and offer a real prospect of change for users.

A procedure that replaces the current system of issuing a relatively ineffectual warning or punitive fine given by a police officer with the alternative of offering diversion through attendance at a local drugs awareness day would have a greater impact in reducing use. Part of what is currently charged as a fixed penalty notice could instead go to local treatment providers to pay for such a service.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the situation in Canada. Interestingly, on the eve of the legislation being introduced in Canada, an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal called the legislation

“a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”

Yes, we can learn from experiments taking place elsewhere, but we do not need to risk the lives of some of our most vulnerable residents in doing so.

This is one of the many substances that plague our communities and rob both young and old—and, predominantly, the most disadvantaged—of a full life. We must commit to doing more, to having a person-centric approach, to showing compassion, yet keep the decisiveness of the criminal law in intervening when the public interest demands. I accept that there is a trend in other nations to legalise cannabis, but the evidence at this stage is still very mixed.

Decriminalisation is at best a risky step for us to take. While I understand the desire for something to be done to address this issue, I do not believe that liberalisation in this way is right for our country at this time. We need to do better for our young people, but giving up the war on cannabis is not the way to achieve it. I cannot support this Bill, and if the House does divide on this issue, I will vote against it. I encourage other Members to join me in not allowing this Bill to progress.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).