was originally published on this site
There was much publicity about legalisation of Cannabis this last week. Two reasons. The Home Secretary signalled a changed approach from Government, introducing some flexibility into Cannabis use for medicinal purposes. And former Conservative Leader and recent Home Secretary, Lord (William) Hague called for Cannabis to be legalised for both medicinal and recreational use. Thatâ€™s further than Iâ€™ve ever gone. William is always logical and worth listening to. On this he may be too far ahead of social change, and public opinion wonâ€™t be ready accept it. Personally, Iâ€™m open to a review of evidence, including from jurisdictions where marijuana use is already legal. And looking forwards to a discussion with William about this next week. Anyway, here is the column he wrote for the Telegraph last Tuesday, which Iâ€™ve just read again. Itâ€™s worth reading.
â€œThe case of Billy Caldwell, the 12 year old with epilepsy whose vital cannabis oil medication was confiscated by Border Force officials to comply with UK drugs laws, provides one of those illuminating moments when a longstanding policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date.
That our border officials, with so much to deal with to prevent the smuggling of arms, people, wildlife and much else, should be expected to make off with a medicine that contains a tiny quantity of the psychoactive element in marijuana but had clear benefits for a boy with severe seizures, is beyond ridiculous. It suggests that official intransigence is now at odds with common sense.
Over the weekend, the Home Office sensibly backed down and returned Billyâ€™s medicine. By doing so, it implicitly conceded that the law has become indefensible. It must now be asked whether Britain should join the many other countries that permit medical-grade marijuana, or indeed join Canada in preparing for a lawful, regulated market in cannabis for recreational use as well.
Under successive governments it has been assumed that there has been little alternative to trying to win a war on drugs, cannabis included. Medical advice to ministers has always stressed that limited use of soft drugs can lead to harder drugs and addiction. It has also been one of the taboo subjects of British politics at a senior level, on which taking an alternative view has been regarded as indicating a tendency to weird, irresponsible or crazily liberal opinions.
Itâ€™s time to acknowledge facts, and to embrace a decisive change that would be economically and socially beneficial, as well as rather liberating for Conservatives in showing sensible new opinions are welcome.
First of all, as far as marijuana, or cannabis, is concerned, any war has been comprehensively and irreversibly lost. The idea that the drug can be driven off the streets and out of peopleâ€™s lives by the state is nothing short of deluded. Surveys of young people attest that they find it easier to purchase cannabis than virtually anything else, including fast food, cigarettes and alcohol. Everyone sitting in a Whitehall conference room needs to recognise that, out there, cannabis is ubiquitous, and issuing orders to the police to defeat its use is about as up to date and relevant as asking the army to recover the Empire. This battle is effectively over.
Some police forces, recognising this and focusing their resources on more serious crimes, have stopped worrying about it. When a law has ceased to be credible and worth enforcing to many police as well as the public, respect for the law in general is damaged. We should have laws we believe in and enforce or we should get rid of them.
Just as bad is the next unavoidable fact, that where prosecutions still take place they create burdens on the criminal justice system for no appreciable gain. Tens of millions of pounds are still spent each year in forensics, legal aid, courts, prisons and probation services. Estimates of the savings involved from ending the prohibition on cannabis vary, but can easily add up to about Â£300 million a year.
In the meantime, something of decisive importance has happened, which for me has tipped the balance of argument. The grey zone of something being illegal but not effectively prevented has permitted the worst of all worlds to arise. The potency of drugs available on the streets has risen sharply in recent years. This has led to an increase in dependency and health problems, but of course people are reluctant to seek help for using drugs that are still illegal. The overall result is the rise of a multi-billion pound black market for an unregulated and increasingly potent product, creating more addiction and mental health problems but without any enforceable policy to do something about it. The only beneficiaries are organised crime gangs. It is absolutely unacceptable to allow this situation to continue.
A major change in policy is therefore necessary. The licensing of medical products, such as Billy Caldwellâ€™s oil, is already allowed in Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands and most of the US. Adopting the same approach would be a step forward. But the Canadian parliament is now on the verge of agreeing something much more radical: a legal, regulated market for cannabis for recreational use.
The proponents of this in Canada have been clear from the outset that a legal market will involve licensed stores selling cannabis of regulated strength, with a strict prohibition on sales to teenagers and no relaxation of laws against other and more powerful drugs. The expected benefits include reduced harm and addiction for users, a major reduction in the black market, less pressure on police and courts and tax revenues running into billions of dollars. If this works, it sounds more sensible than the current position.
Can British Conservatives be as bold as Canadian Liberals? We ought to be. After all, we believe in market forces and the responsible exercise of freedom, regulated as necessary. We should prefer to provide for lawful taxes than preside over increased profits from crime. And we are pragmatists, who change with society and revise our opinions when the facts change. On this issue, the facts have changed very seriously and clearly.
For Tories who cannot quite bring themselves to admit that this is all necessary, I leave you with the story of one of our great heroes, William Wilberforce. One of the fascinating aspects of writing a biography of him was the realisation that he was, for his whole life from his late twenties onwards, a daily user of opium. He lived when the dangers of addiction were only just becoming recognised, but finding that opium brought reliable relief from debilitating digestive problems, he recommended it widely while going on to achieve the abolition of the slave trade and become one of the most universally admired figures in British history.
I feel that Wilberforce would have spoken up very quickly for the Billy Caldwells of today. And while not advocating the recreational use of any drugs at all, I think it is right that people of all persuasions should now focus on sorting out a failed policy and an unsustainable law, and replacing both with new ideas that might just command respect and success.