Opinion: Drugs – Evidence based policy, liberalism and some Uruguayan political courage

drugsAre we seeing some change in the way societies view drugs?

Last December Uruguay legalised cannabis, and in the US, the states of Colorado and Washington legalised cannabis for personal use in 2012. The Netherlands has, for some time, allowed cannabis use in specialist coffeeshops. Of course, none of these examples have opted for free and unfettered access for all, but rather a regulated system where the authorities can exert control. The Uruguayan plan includes a user registry, a tax, and quality control, with the aim of reducing profits for organised crime, and reducing drug related violence.

We know from Ewan Hoyle’s good work that more people (70%) support light and heavy regulation of cannabis compared to when offered the more simplistic choice of decriminalisation or not. This appears to represent a recognition that cannabis, although not without harm, does not warrant its place in the current prohibition system. Studies ranking drug harm by UK, Dutch, and Scottish experts consistently ranked cannabis as less harmful than heroin, cocaine, and more pertinently, alcohol and tobacco. The poor correlation between the classification (A, B, & C)/ legality of drugs with their relative harm rankings suggests this needs a radical rethink. This is supported even more by comparing ONS figures reporting 1,496 drug misuse deaths in 2012 (52% involving opiates) with 6999 alcohol related deaths and the whopping 79,100 deaths estimated to be caused by smoking (HSCIC 2011).

So Nick Clegg is right in saying that current UK drugs policy does not work, but it is less clear what kind of policy would work.

The ESRC has funded less than £4m of research on drugs in the last ten years. Although there are other sources of funding, this is pretty low considering the huge societal gains that might occur with a more progressive approach. Fortunately the Uruguayans have the political courage to try something different, and are providing more cautious politicians with evidence on what works (or not) on a national scale.

The resolution of this debate doesn’t just require more data though; we also need to promote an atmosphere where the evidence has more impact than historical prejudice and myths. The recent Caroline Lucas petition for a cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment on the Misuse of Drugs Act and Libdem calls for an independent review are sensible steps in the right direction, but we could go further. Stephen Rolles of Transform recently said “…I would expect some form of decriminalisation of possession in the next British parliament and probably legalisation and regulation of cannabis in the one after that.”

For many of us, the drugs debate is also about the relationship between the individual and the state. The state does have a role in minimising the risks to health and well-being that we might otherwise face, but should not interfere in our lives if no other person is harmed. As Donna Moss put it “In a free society you don’t need a reason to make something legal. You need a reason to make something illegal”.

In drug reform we have a liberal policy that could make a substantial positive difference to society, with potential to contribute to the exchequer, and that most people support. Why aren’t we making more of it?

* Tad Jones is a Liberal Democrat member in Nottingham and a member of ALDES. He writes in a personal capacity.

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  • Daniel Henry 4th Mar '14 - 10:29pm

    10 years ago, equal marriage would have been unthinkable. Now it’s considered a no brainer.

    In a similar way, I can see similar changes happening to drug policy very soon.

  • richardheathcote 5th Mar '14 - 6:57am

    why are people so keen to see such a harmful drug legalized? my brother has spent the last 15 years in and out of psychiatric wards as a result of smoking cannabis.

  • Take care in the use of statistics. There is a danger that one might be mislead by the sentence —
    ” …This is supported even more by comparing ONS figures reporting 1,496 drug misuse deaths in 2012 (52% involving opiates) with 6999 alcohol related deaths and the whopping 79,100 deaths estimated to be caused by smoking (HSCIC 2011). ”
    The deaths from smoking legal tobacco products are indeed huge compared to any illegal drug. I assume the figure quoted is mortality from smoking related diseases for England for 2011? But there is no dividing line between those who smoke tobacco and those who smoke cannabis. In the UK there are very few people who smoke cannabis but never touch tobacco. They die from smoking related diseases, heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer and a number of other cancers which result from breathing in smoke. You could smoke dried up banana leaves and still die of smoking.

    There is one very powerful vested interest that looks forward to the legalisation of cannabis and that is the Tobacco Industry. Ask yourself if the legalisation of cannabis is likely to help in the efforts to reduce the number of deaths from smoking.

  • Matt Downey 5th Mar '14 - 8:08am

    Nice Donna Moss quote, love it.

  • What about using dangerous machinery? Should people be allowed to drive cars after having consumed drugs? Should people be denied welfare if they take drugs? Why should people who look after themselves pay for those those who wish to spend money on drugs?

  • richardheathcote 5th Mar '14 - 10:22am

    All i can say from my experience with my brother is it has been blamed without question on his use of cannabis by mental health services. He is currently in the CARS ward at Macclesfield hospital where he has been “detained” for the last 18 months and is basically forced to do a rehabilitation programme, they wont release him until he is sufficiently rehabilitated and doesn’t want to smoke weed. Skunk weed with the elevated levels of THC are harmful, as is the delivery system which contains tobbaco. I hate it when people downplay the negative effects weed has on peoples health and would suggest to anyone who thinks its harmless to visit the local psychiatric ward and see for yourself how many are there through cannabis use. From my own perspective my brother off weed in hospital is himself out of hospital smoking weed and his health drops and the mental health problems, anxiety and paranoia start all over again

  • @richardheathcote
    Sorry about your brother. I appreciate that cannabis is not without harm. However, cannabis use has increased over decades and we haven’t seen a corresponding increase in schizophrenia, so perhaps there isn’t a causal link. With regulation we should be able to do more to minimise the harm.

    You are right that statistics can be tricky, but I think the general point of relative harm still stands up. The smoking figure is for England in 2011.
    I’ve heard the argument that tobacco (cigarette) smoking is more harmful because people smoke more frequently than with cannabis. So couple this with the disparity in general use, the smoking related deaths are likely to be in large part due to cigarette smoking. But you make an interesting point, and if you’re arguing for greater efforts in harm reduction for legal and illegal drugs I would agree. I think harm reduction would be more effective under a regulated system, rather than prohibition.

  • richardheathcote 5th Mar '14 - 11:02am

    Chris that link you posted relates to medical cannabis I don’t see how that has anything to do with the drugs people buy from dealers. Could also say morphine has some really good pain killing properties so lets legalize heroin use on the street. I think there is way to many myths about cannabis both ways some saying harmful some saying harmless to really make a case either way. Based on my personal experiences i think its harmful i read stuff like


    and yes there are plenty of articles about the positives of marajuana. I also feel if legalized how do you propose it will be regulated or sold, will it be a THC reduced product in the form of a pill? will people still want the stronger more potent forms of the drug from dealers.

  • richardheathcote 5th Mar '14 - 1:56pm

    peter where do you get your figures from http://www.sane.org.uk/uploads/the-mental-health-risks-of-cannabis.pdf this suggests the numbers are higher.

    The link chris put up earlier doesn’t help either as it is about medical use of cannabis which is a different thing completely to recreational use.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Mar '14 - 3:10pm

    Apologies if I have two posts saying the same thing here – not sure if my earlier one has fallen foul of the moderators.

    @Chris Naden
    “all the medical science, and I do mean *all*, suggests that the correlation between cannabis use and mental health is that people with poor mental health turn to cannabis as a palliative.”

    What you are saying there is flatly contradicted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists :-


    “recent research has suggested that it can be a major cause of psychotic illnesses in those who are genetically vulnerable.”
    “Three major studies followed large numbers of people over several years, and showed that those people who use cannabis have a higher than average risk of developing schizophrenia. If you start smoking it before the age of 15, you are 4 times more likely to develop a psychotic disorder by the time you are 26. They found no evidence of self-medication.”

  • richardheathcote 5th Mar '14 - 10:28pm

    i looked at that website

    “HSCIC must be quoted as the source of these figures

    *Regional figures are available

    Today’s 2012-13 figures show a five per cent rise in overall admissions (6,550) for drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders compared to 2011-12 (6,230). Today’s figure is 15 per cent fewer than in 2002-03 (7,690) and admissions for these disorders have fluctuated over the past ten years.

    The Statistics on Drug Misuse – England, 2013 report published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) provides a summary of previously published statistics on drug misuse covering prevalence, trends, patterns and health outcomes related to drug misuse as well as new 2012-13 information on hospital admissions.3,4

    One in three hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders were for those aged 25 to 34 years (2,190 out of 6,550). The proportion was similar for those with a primary or secondary diagnosis (19,750 out of 61,140).

    Today’s report also shows5:

    The prevalence of school pupils recorded as ever having taking drugs fell by 10 percentage points between 2002 (27 per cent) and 2012 (17 per cent).
    Cannabis was the most widely used drug in school pupils6 with 8 per cent having used it in 2012/4 and this was the same figure in 2011.”

    I still dont see where you get your figue of 800 admissions per year.

  • Christopher Ford 7th Mar '14 - 8:36pm

    @richardheathcote I truely hope many like and including your brother make a full recovery

    1. SANE and psychiatrists are currently saying that 9 out of ten criminals are mentally ill.
    Therefore breaking the law leads to mental illness…

    2. The first information provided to patients and visiters I read whilst visiting a psychiatric ward in Australia read “Not a lot is known about mental illness, but…”

    3. Using a standard Oxford dictionary, find a single words that could describe each of the following schizophrenic symptoms as termed by psychiatrists:-

    • Auditory Hallucination
    • Involuntary Muscle Movement
    • Passivity Phenomena

    Now you know some of the true causes of mental illness. But if you believe this and repeat it this – you may be called crazy yourself. This is the world we live in.

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