Dear Dr Wollaston,
May I begin by thanking you for attending the drug policy debate in Parliament, even if you weren’t planning on attending an event that 130,000 people signed a petition in support of. It was big of you to realise your mistake and change your plans from whatever it was that you had deemed more important.
As you were kind enough to provide me with a transcript of everything you said during the debate I would like to start there, and offer my own opinion, seeing as there seemed to be very little in the way of actual debate going on in the Commons.
In your opening statement you said – “It always surprises me that people who object to buying coffee in Starbucks and who refuse to support Amazon are quite happy to support cartels that cause untold misery to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Until such time as we have a change in drugs policy, I hope that people who support the drugs industry will reflect on the wider harms that they, personally, are causing.”
Skirting over the issue of whether people should support Starbucks and Amazon (I read your comments regarding tax avoidance with disdain), the callousness of blaming drug users and addicts for the existence of drug cartels is truly staggering in its ignorance and deserves to be addressed.
The existence of cartels cannot be blamed on drug users, but rather government policy which has, for 50-odd years, placed the control of production and supply of drugs squarely in the hands of organised criminals, without a thought to the harm that such a policy causes to society. Placing drugs into a regulated market would not only deprive organised criminals of a hugely lucrative source of income ($321.6 billion worldwide in 2003), but would also create a far safer environment for drug users, allowing them to know exactly what substances they were buying and giving them the chance to seek help should they need it rather than criminalising them and pushing them into committing far more serious crimes to feed their habits.
In addition – no amount of arresting drug users and blighting their lives with criminal records is going to make the cartels go away. The idea that our drug laws are causing even the tiniest of dents in the behemoth that is international drug cartels is laughable – almost all of the tax money spent on fighting a war on drugs is being used to arrest and imprison low-end drug users, not to put an end to the cartels themselves. This is not a lie politicians can hide behind any more.
Nowhere has this been made clearer than in the case of HSBC – fined $1.9 billion for laundering drug money in 2012. The fine covered only a fraction of the amount that was laundered, and was nothing compared to HSBC’s profits that year. What’s more – no one went to jail. Compare that to the fate of the 4000 people behind bars in this country (as of 2011) for drug possession or possession with intent to supply. Many of whom will have been people growing their own cannabis and having no contact whatsoever with the black market. Ruining these people’s lives with prison sentences does nothing to harm the cartels, especially when those directly responsible for allowing those cartels to operate within the banking system are let off with a fine (and in the case of Stephen Green, given a cushy government job advising the Chancellor).
The next point I would like to bring up from your speech in the Commons regards falling use of drugs and your belief that we are in fact winning the war on drugs. Caroline Lucas MP pretty well summed up what my response to that statement would be with her own reply – “The only real model that we can see over time is that there was a 32% increase in respect of some of the most serious drugs, heroin and morphine, last year. Cannabis use has been coming down, but that has happened irrespective of the policy context and of whether it has been class B, class C or anything else.”
Basically what Caroline Lucas is pointing out here is the fact that was backed up by the report issued by the Home Office on the morning of the debate (having been suppressed by your own party for months), namely that punitive drug laws have no impact on the rates of use of drugs. It is disingenuous to claim that our drug laws are responsible for a drop in use of cannabis among young people when the laws themselves and the way in which they have been applied have been in a state of constant flux. Indeed the application of the laws has been changed yet again this week with the abolition of cannabis cautions, supposedly to get rid of the ‘soft option’, despite the findings of the Home Office report you were kind enough to send me.
During the debate you skirted over the point raised by Ian Swales MP regarding legal highs and whether their rise has had anything to do with the decline in cannabis use. You may have been able to dodge the question in the Commons but it is one that deserves serious consideration. There is a clear correlation between the rise in popularity of synthetic cannabinoids and the fall in use of the real thing, particularly among young people. The policy of prohibition has caused the explosion of New Psychoactive Substances, many of which are potentially far more dangerous than the drugs that they imitate. Banning them has only led to ever more complex molecular structures being devised, leading to substances that have never been seen before and whose effects and risks are therefore unknown. This policy is putting people’s lives at risk, the market for these substances simply wouldn’t be nearly as huge if the drugs that we have known about and researched to death did not carry with them the threat of criminalisation.
Next up in your tour of tired government excuses for maintaining the status quo, you moved onto cannabis. Immediately you fall into the trap of so many prohibitionist MPs before you (not to mention the Daily Mail), by falsely assuming that the argument for cannabis law reform has anything whatsoever to do with it being a ‘harmless’ drug. No one is arguing that cannabis cannot cause harm, of course it can. But so can anything, from fast food to alcohol to gambling. The question is how to minimise that harm, and whether or not our methods of dealing with cannabis use causes more harm than they prevent.
In fairness to you, your concern regarding the harms that cannabis can cause to young people are legitimate, and are shared by all sensible thinking people. I would argue however that the criminalisation of young people for the ‘crime’ of simple drug possession is an utterly disproportionate and ineffective way of minimising the potential harms that the use of cannabis could cause them. You have said in previous correspondence with me that in your role as an GP you witnessed young people whose lives had been blighted by cannabis use. I put it to you that this should be a sign to you that the current laws simply are not working to protect young people. From personal experience I can tell you that it is far easier as a young person (under 18) to get hold of cannabis than it is to get hold of alcohol and cigarettes. Indeed this is the very reason that a huge number of people take up cannabis smoking in their teens. And why?
Well it’s simple really – the legal and regulated marketplace for alcohol and tobacco allows us to demand that anyone purchasing either of these products must produce proof of age, as well as allowing quality control and health warnings on packaging. In an unregulated market dealers do not ask for ID, they do not care about the quality of the product (and often cut it with far more dangerous substances) and if someone gets into trouble they have nowhere to turn for fear of criminalisation.
This has led to some tragic stories in the recent past where young people have ended up committing suicide rather than go through the ignominy of a criminal trial and all the harm that such a trial and resulting criminal record would do to their future prospects.
If you really want to protect the children as you claim then the best way to do that would be to take the control away from unscrupulous and dangerous criminals and place it into a framework whereby young people’s access to cannabis could be prevented far more effectively – namely a legal, regulated framework. If we look at other countries that have adopted this idea we can see that it works – The Netherlands decriminalised cannabis 24 years ago and has one of the lowest rates of teen use in Europe. In order to buy cannabis from a coffeeshop you must provide proof of age. Indeed if a coffeeshop is found to not be asking for ID from everyone who purchases cannabis from them they can be shut down by the police, and rightly so.
Similarly, drug use in Portugal has fallen across the board since they decriminalised 12 years ago. I understand that you want to wait and see what happens in Colorado and Washington State, but the evidence from 24 years of various methods of decriminalisation in different countries, not to mention 50 years of failed prohibition, has shown that the current system does far more harm to our young people than good. I fail to understand your obsession with specifically waiting to see what happens in two states that are just the latest in a long line of places to understand that locking people up for drug possession is never going to work.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the prohibition of cannabis and other drugs has led to a situation where the only drug education children get growing up is ‘drugs are bad’. This is dangerous for a number of reasons. For starters we know that telling a young person not to do something is generally a bad idea; it’s pretty much what the whole concept of reverse psychology is based on. When you don’t educate and instead just tell young people that they mustn’t do drugs because if they do they will be arrested, you are pretty much guaranteeing that they will experiment with drugs, only they won’t be armed with the information they need to ensure their own safety. What’s more, once teenagers try cannabis and realise that it isn’t the monster they’ve been warned of they are more likely to think that they have been lied to and mislead about other drugs too. This is a far wider point than just drugs – once that trust is broken it leads to a breakdown in the relationship between the public and the police, as well as MPs such as yourself. You are no longer seen as protectors and instead as aggressors, randomly searching and arresting people for choosing to consume a plant that the people know to be safer than alcohol.
A great example of why education and the dissemination of good information is vitally important can be found by looking at tobacco. Everybody knows that smoking causes cancer and other nasty diseases, and whilst there are still a lot of tobacco smokers in this country, we have been able to bring those numbers way down. Less kids are taking up smoking tobacco now than ever before as a direct result of education programs, regulations banning advertising, a higher legal smoking age and other measures which were able to be implemented thanks to the fact that tobacco sales are legal and not just blanket banned.
I would like to ask you exactly how you think that the current policy of prohibition is protecting children? You are obviously concerned about the possible link to mental illness but I fear you may have been blinded by media propaganda and fear-mongering. The most in depth studies into the link between cannabis and adverse mental health outcomes have shown that despite huge rises in cannabis use and the prevalence of high-THC strains, the rates of schizophrenia and psychosis in this country have remained at the same level or have decreased. Whilst there is probably a greater risk of triggering mental illness for young people who are predisposed to such an illness and who are regular users of cannabis, it has been said that in order to stop one person from developing schizophrenia, we would have to stop 5000 young men or 7000 young women from ever smoking cannabis. These figures come from the Swedish Conscript study – the only study with large enough numbers to determine whether or not there is a risk of schizophrenia as a result of using cannabis. As you can see, that risk is very small, and the criminal records that have been given to over 1 million young people in this country for smoking cannabis are far more dangerous and harmful to their lives than cannabis.
An area of the debate that was hardly touched upon in the commons is the medical uses for cannabis. Medicinal marijuana is available in 23 US states plus the District of Columbia, as well as a huge number of countries around the world. In the UK GW Pharmaceuticals produce tonnes of medical grade cannabis every year which is used to make medicines such as Sativex, an oral spray which has just been blacklisted by NICE due to cost effectiveness worries. This blacklisting has nothing to do with the efficacy of the drugs and everything to do with the fact that GW, being the sole owners of a government license to grow cannabis, are able to charge pretty much whatever they like for them. Cannabis is proven to be massively beneficial for a huge number of medical conditions and the fact that the UK government continues to class it as having no medical value is beyond ludicrous – it is criminal. Allowing cannabis to be prescribed to sick people who need it would be the humane thing to do and would save the NHS millions as patients would literally be able to grow their own medicine. But instead we insist on breaking down the doors of people growing a plant to improve their lives, branding them criminals, and in some cases locking them up and forcing them back onto legal medications which often don’t work and almost always have far greater risks to the individual than cannabis.
I was quite pleasantly surprised to see that you sent me links to the both of the reports that were released by the Home Office on the morning of the debate as I was planning on mentioning them anyway. To me the release of these reports and the subsequent statements from Norman Baker MP and others offers the clearest insight into the absurdity of how the government operates – it is a farce. On one hand the report undertaken into how other countries deal with drug policy and the outcomes they have had in comparison to us came to a pretty clear cut conclusion – that punitive drug laws and harsh sentences for drug users have no impact on the rates of drug use in a country. And yet on the other hand there was a report calling for legal highs to be banned and Norman Baker crowing about wanting to destroy head shops. Politicians like to talk a lot about sending a clear message to children; about not wanting to give them mixed messages about drugs. But here we have the Home Office saying “banning drugs doesn’t work, so we’re going to ban some more”. Einstein’s definition of insanity seems quite appropriate – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The final link you sent me was to Professor Wayne Hall’s review into the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use. I had guessed you would as you quoted it in the Commons debate. Or rather you quoted the Daily Mail’s version of it – that one in six users become dependent, rather than the one in ten that Dr Hall actually wrote in the review. I can only presume that you read about this review in the media and took it at face value, rather than reading it yourself, so I suggest you do so. You may want to bear in mind that Professor Hall has himself said that his review is far from definitive, and that he is in favour of decriminalisation. Even the NHS have had to step in and debunk the Mail’s reporting.
If you have made it this far I am impressed and grateful for you for hearing me out. I will end this letter by reminding you that you are an elected representative of the 69,000 people in your constituency. The people are way ahead of the politicians on this issue and poll after poll shows that the people believe prohibition has had its day and needs to be replaced by a system that puts evidence first. There are thousands in Devon and all over the country who will simply not vote for a party that wants to continue to criminalise non-violent drug users. The UK branch of the oldest cannabis law reform movement in the world, NORML, is based in Totnes, and its numbers are growing daily. If you want to be on the right side of history and to continue to represent us I suggest you start listening.
Source: Open Letter to Dr. Sarah Wollaston.