Analysis: Legal reform on cannabis will never come until our political class finds its nerve


As the Royal College of Psychiatrist reviews its opposition to cannabis decriminalisation, will politicians have the courage to assess their own past mistakes on drugs law?

NEWS that the Royal College of Psychiatrists is set to review its opposition to the legalisation of cannabis should not be overestimated, despite the hope it may inspire in advocates of drug law reform.

This is not just because the RCP has not yet abandoned its current official view on the matter, which has previously been informed by widespread (though not definitely proven) associations between high-strength cannabis strains and certain mental illnesses.

Even if those most eminently qualified to comment on such matters were to perform a spectacular U-turn and fully endorse legalisation, past experience has shown there is no certainty that the UK Government and the national political class would follow their lead.

Some might remember the cautionary tale of Professor David Nutt, the former chief drug advisor to the UK Government, who publicly offered some advice that the government didn’t care to hear – that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, including ecstasy, LSD and cannabis – and was summarily sacked for his trouble. Nutt, who attributed his firing to “political” reasons, acknowledged with some understatement that there has always been tension between science and politics, particularly when the former’s conclusions don’t line up with the latter’s preferences.

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Hopes that the RCP’s upcoming review might have some concrete impact on drug policy in the UK may rest on a changing political climate, rather than the results of expert consideration. This summer saw significant controversy over the seizure of a six-month supply of cannabis oil from Charlotte Caldwell, which she was using to help ease the effects of her 12-year-old son’s acute epilepsy.

Following a public outcry, the medicine was soon returned to her, and debate over the medicinal properties of cannabis returned to prominence. Even Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, whose party remains firmly opposed to any softening of the UK Government’s longstanding prohibition of the drug, reflected on his experience as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drug policy reform that the UK’s approach to medicinal cannabis was “frankly absurd”, considering the availability of potentially addictive opiates for medical reasons.

Although advocates for cannabis legalisation have historically framed their arguments as a matter of civil liberties, it has generally been as an issue of public health that the cause has gained any traction at all. Unfortunately, for those who hope to end the prohibition of a substance that has never directly killed anyone, this has allowed even those political parties in favour of medical cannabis to hedge their bets.

In October 2016, the SNP called for the decriminalisation of the drug for medicinal use and devolution of the necessary powers to do so, although the party confirmed it was not in favour of general decriminalisation, a position broadly shared by Plaid Cymru in Wales. Also in 2016, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn personally spoke out for decriminalisation on medicinal grounds, but the Labour Party itself remains opposed to legalisation. Only the Greens and, as of last year, the Liberal Democrats are in favour of drug legalisation and the introduction of a fully-regulated cannabis market.

Of course, party policy does not necessarily define every party’s politicians: SNP MP Ronnie Cowan has been a passionate and long-standing advocate of drug law reform, and even former Tory Party leader William Hague has argued – albeit rather belatedly – that the war against cannabis had been “irretrievably lost”, urging the UK Government to consider legalisation as an alternative. However, such voices remain outliers, and barring a Lib Dem-Green coalition government being unexpectedly swept into power, look likely to remain so.

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Some might argue that there is no harm in the debate remaining largely focused on medical grounds – in the minds of politicians, public health will usually trump lifestyle concerns – and that might be true, if there was any indication of actual movement on the issue from those in power.

Unfortunately, the opposite is the case. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Theresa May quickly distanced herself from UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s apparent confirmation that a review into medicinal cannabis would take place, despite recommendations from the House of Commons all-party parliamentary group that a system should be introduced to allow patients to access cannabis or grow small amounts in their home should be instituted.

Meanwhile in Holyrood, MSPs have repeatedly heard compelling evidence from the Medicinal Cannabis Reform Campaign Scotland and campaigner Bernadette McCready, a former auxiliary nurse who suffers from fibromyalgia, and has previously been forced to resort to illegal means to get the medicine she required. They were listened to – perhaps even with sympathy – but so far, little has come of such meetings.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the medicinal focus of the debate surrounding cannabis has provided politicians with a perfect excuse to continue kicking the can down the road; there will always someone calling for more study, more research, more excuses to prevent those in pain from accessing that which might give them comfort.

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There is also the ugly matter of priorities; even for those parties that support full, unqualified legalisation, neither the Greens nor the Lib Dems are likely to make cannabis and an end to prohibition a flagship manifesto policy, or spend too much of what political capital they have on the issue. How likely does anyone think it is that Willie Rennie will take time off from debating Brexit, or Patrick Harvie from local tax reform, in order to condemn unjust laws which persecute a demographic still caricatured as giggling, pie-eyed hippies?

Those same concerns over the effect of high-strength cannabis on mental health which have thus far prevented the RCP from endorsing decriminalisation have also provided a perfect cover for politicians satisfied with the status quo when it comes to drugs policy. Those concerns may not yet have been conclusively demonstrated, but when has that ever stopped a prohibitionist?

Over the years and decades, the public has been told that cannabis will act as a gateway to harder drugs, that it will lead to addiction, criminality, insanity, political subversion – all the way back to when racist US lawmakers were warning that the evil weed gave Mexican labourers superhuman strength and homicidal rage. If there are any legitimate health concerns attached to cannabis, any user could be forgiven for ignoring them, given that the War on Drugs discourse over the past century has been predicated almost entirely on state-sanctioned dishonesty.

While the need for medicinal cannabis may be the most pressing argument in favour of a change in the law, it is not the only one – unjust laws are never without victims, and wilier politicians might consider the economic benefits already being seen in US states which have introduced cannabis markets in the wake of local legislation. But until our political parties are prepared to devote more time, resources and sheer courage to the issue, the argument will remain academic.

Picture courtesy of Mark