This morning we finally received a response from parliament concerning the petition to legalise cannabis, and it’s safe to say we were given quite a resounding no. I don’t think anybody was shocked to discover that the Conservative party wasn’t keen on the idea, but the response itself was rather weak, and at times rife with contradictory material. A closer look at the response reveals some startling gaps in their knowledge, so I thought it would be useful to examine it in greater detail.
“Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health.”
This is the opening line in their response. I’m not highlighting it because I disagree with it, I do disagree but that’s actually incidental. My problem with this claim is that at no point in the response is any kind of evidence to support this mentioned. They do reference one paper, but it doesn’t support this somewhat generic claim they have made here. They just make this claim and leave the burden of finding any evidence on the reader. But it gets worse the more you think about it. What harm are they even referring to? They never say.
Are they referring to possible links to mental health problems? Are they talking about the possibly risks associated with smoke inhalation? There are so many issues they could be referring to, but they don’t, and it’s because they can’t actually make unsubstantiated claims. If they said “cannabis causes mental health problems” we could respond with the appropriate evidence to the contrary, and have a legitimate debate. We can’t respond to an extremely generic statement like that with evidence. It’s not a statement with any shred of scientific accountability, so we can’t hold it to account.
“The latest evidence from the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is that the use of cannabis is a significant public health issue (‘Cannabis Classification and Public Health’, 2008).”
When I first read this statement, my initial reaction was to point out that this is the same government agency that sacked Professor David Nutt in 2009 for producing research that contradicted party views. So the government’s one and only research paper they use to back up their claims is 7 years old and has been shown to be simply ignored when it doesn’t suit them. Well, it’s actually a lot worse than that. You see, I read the ‘Cannabis Classification and Public Health’ paper from the ACMD in 2008, and this is from the introduction:
“Based on its harmfulness to individuals and society… cannabis should remain a Class C substance. It is judged that the harmfulness of cannabis more closely equates with other Class C substances than with those currently classified as Class B.”
I was genuinely shocked to read that. This is the paper that they are using to give credibility to their claims on the danger of cannabis, and it actually contradicts what they are saying. So I kept reading, and it just got worse and worse. Here are a few extracts from the conclusions that the ACMD paper draws:
“Criminal justice measures – irrespective of classification – will have only a limited effect on usage.”
“The effects of cannabis on the heart and blood vessels are similar to the effects of moderate exercise and do not constitute a risk in healthy adolescents or adults.”
“The Council… considers that smoking cannabis, even when mixed with tobacco, is less likely to harm lungs than if tobacco is used alone.”
“These data… do not suggest that there has been a recent increase in acute poisoning from cannabis with the availability of higher-potency products.”
“Despite public anxieties, there is little real evidence that cannabis is a significant cause of acquisitive crime or of anti-social behaviour.”
I cannot stress enough that this paper is used by the government to support their response. Yes, all of these quotes are out of context, I picked the ones that leapt out at the page. I picked them because they glaringly disagree with what the Government is saying about cannabis use, yet politicians are holding this paper up as evidence to keep cannabis not only illegal, but a class B drug. So what happened, have the politicians not actually read this paper, or do they just not expect us to read it? I would absolutely encourage everyone to read it, and I imagine I will be revisiting this topic in greater detail in the future, but for now I have to move on.
The response then goes on to use the term “Drug dependency” when referring to the harms associated with cannabis. This shows a disturbing amount of ignorance on the topic if our politicians seem to think that you can become easily dependent on cannabis. Also, they use the word “harms” which was the key phrase used in the Lancet report on the extent of various “harms” each drug does to both society and the individual. I find myself in danger of becoming that broken record and having to once again point out that they sacked the last person who tried to produce an independent and unbiased report on the nature of “harms” done by various drugs.
And here we get to the point in the response where the government seems to contradict itself quite a lot.
They admit that there is a potential for substantial gains in revenue, but cite increasing law enforcement costs as a drawback.
This doesn’t make sense.
If the police are no longer wasting time arresting people for extremely minor crimes and are focusing on actual criminals, how is this going to increase costs to policing? If anything, it will make the police force more efficient.
Secondly, if these costs were potentially as high as they claim, then surely we would see increased policing costs in all of the nations and states in the USA that have legalised cannabis. But they didn’t see that, they saw the exact opposite. It’s been a whole year since Colorado legalised cannabis, so we can now start to gather evidence from the state as a relevant and contemporary case study.
Their next sentence contradicts their own manifesto. They claim that their goal is to “help dependent individuals through treatment and wider recovery support”, yet in their manifesto they say that they wish to “Keep abstinence as the main goal of drug treatment, instead of maintaining addiction through the use of substitute drugs.” So they say they want to promote treatment and wider recovery support, but earlier they said they wanted to treat people with just abstinence, a method that has been tried and tested, and always fails when it comes to drug treatment. I understand that they aren’t referring to cannabis here, they’re addressing drug addiction as a whole, but you cannot have treatment and abstinence, the two are a total contradiction.
The next paragraph is frighteningly contradictory.
“The Government will build on the Drugs Strategy by continuing to take a balanced and coherent approach to address the evolving challenges posed.”
They have made it very clear, not just in this response but in all public statements about drug use, that they favour prosecution over treatment, so I don’t know where they are getting this idea of “Balance” from.
They then say that they want to face the evolving challenges of drug use. They want to do this by maintaining an intransigent stance, and refusing to adapt their policies. So they’ve said that they won’t be changing any policies, yet here they freely admit that they will need to adapt their policies to fit the new challenges. The lack of consistency in this response is infuriating.
Finally, we get some data. Of course there are no references, so I can only assume this data they collected themselves, and given that they claim only 6.7% of people aged 16-59 use cannabis, it’s a bit difficult to take it seriously. It’s almost like Coke announcing that their products are actually good for you and then citing research they did that shows a decrease in diabetes rates. First of all the research is obviously going to present the government policies in a favourable light, rather than reflect the truth. Second of all, these statistics don’t answer any question that anyone asked, it’s just a flashy statistic they can wave around. We aren’t asking the government to cut down the amount of cannabis use, we want cannabis to be legalised, as stated in the petition, why on earth is flashing that number around going to convince anyone?
Overall this response was a confusing mess that failed to address the situation seriously at all. They seem to think us all incapable of accessing the relevant information necessary to point out the flaws in this statement, and use scientifically unaccountable statements to avoid being dragged into an actual debate. I wasn’t surprised that they said no to the petition, I was expecting that, but I was surprised at the poor quality of the response.
This is a prime example of how the continued prosecution of cannabis in the United Kingdom is based on a policy of moral disapproval and a failure to recognise the true nature of the harm done to society and the individual. This could easily be corrected by simply doing the research, but politicians continue to ignore the evidence in favour of what they can use as political leverage.
- Christopher Hootan, ‘A year after marijuana legalisation in Colorado, ‘everything’s fine’ confirm police’, The Independent (2015) http://www.independent.co.uk
- John M. Grohol, ‘Harvard: Marijuana Doesn’t Cause Schizophrenia’ (2013) http://psychcentral.com
- Mark Tran, ‘Government drug adviser David Nutt sacked’, The Guardian (2009) http://www.theguardian.com
- Rob Waugh, ‘Smoking weed DOESN’T cause psychosis in teens, after all’, The Metro (2015) http://metro.co.uk