Person X supports the legalisation of cannabis

 

“Person X supports the legalisation of cannabis” is quite a headline. For that person to be a sports star or celebrity generates some interest. For it to be a user of cannabis, it often generates derision.

If X is the leader of a political party, or a former government health minister, it surely is big news. This is why I joined, and have stayed a member, of the Liberal Democrats: to have radical, evidence-based policies which strike out as making us distinctive and pleased Norman Lamb has put a motion forward to conference for this policy, and please Tim Farron has supported it.

When it comes to policy-making, we are the party that prides itself most on having an evidence base. Some parties go for populism over evidence, whereas we often prefer radical policies. And some parties go on mainly grabbing headlines. These three elements are often at odds and one usually wins over the other.

This is what was great about “Tim Farron calls for legalisation of cannabis…” – it ticked all 3 boxes – headline-grabbing, radical (and distinctive) and supported by evidence.

When I first saw the motion, my liberal reaction was “Finally!! Let’s do it!”; this was quickly followed by my mental health/psychology and academic reaction of “What about the evidence on the harms of cannabis?”

Research has often shown that heavy cannabis use in mid-late teens can have a detrimental effect on memory formation and retention in early/mid 20s – sometimes extreme and sometimes permanent.

So I aim to tackle the main argument against legalising of any illegal drugs, as I’m sure it will come up in the (potentially fiery) debate at conference – Allowing easier access to drugs will increase use, and thus increase the number of people harmed. Three reasons I argue this would be unlikely:

  1. As Norman Lamb rightly points out – if harm reduction is the main reason for making drugs illegal, having a government-enforced regulated market will ensure the quality of the product and reduce the harm more effectively. At the moment, street drugs are often “cut” (mixed) with other products to dilute them, and thus sell less product for the same money. The mixing could be with anything from dirt and dust to poisonous substances. By having a regulated market, we control the quality and thus potentially reduce harm in users.
  2. We’re not after creating more users. We’re after trying to make those who currently take it to have a safer experience or be helped off the drugs. This lessens harm on individuals, on families and friends and communities, Of course, this can also lessen the need for health care provision to pick up mental and physical issues following use of unregulated drugs; yes, regulated drug use can still be misused or overused, however the overall likelihood of health risks should come down.
  3. In speaking with Norman, we’re in agreement that education is a priority. We want to see schools, health care and community groups to be more open with teenagers about drug use and where they can be signposted for support. We need to ensure they are armed with as much information and support as we can.

To this end, an amendment has been submitted via the amazing Liberal Youth which, if voted in, would add a further explicit reference to education around drug use.

Please support the motion – we need to ensure our party maintains is radical, distinctive, evidence-led policy making, whilst supporting potentially vulnerable people in society.

 

* Lee has long campaigned on mental health in and out of the Lib Dems, he is the PPC for Birmingham Ladywood and speaks for the Party on Health, in the West Midlands.

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38 Comments

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Mar '16 - 6:07pm

    The Royal College of Psychiatrists have a website on Cannabis use which takes an evidence based approach and the possible dangers to brain development in the under 20’s, and mental health.

    My concern is that your support is couched in terms, for example, that a change in policy, might ‘potentially’ reduce harm, and that the overall risk to health ‘should ‘ come down. Is there evidence to suggest that this will be the case?

    I am genuinely undecided on the relative merits of different approaches when it comes to harm reduction.

  • Is “harm reduction” the real issue here? Surely people should generally be free to make an informed decision to do something that is potentially harmful to themselves provided they don’t put others at risk.

    So, we haven’t banned alcohol, but we have all but banned drinking and driving. We haven’t banned cigarettes but we have taken massive steps to reduce the incidence of passive smoke inhalation. And we don’t try to stop people from taking part in dangerous sports.

    Provided people are educated as to the risks, let adults make this choice for themselves. There is nothing liberal about a puritanical nanny state.

  • If X is the leader of a political party, or a former government health minister, it surely is big news

    If it were the leader of a major party it would be, but it’s not big news if it’s the leader of a small fringe group with single-digit numbers of MPs, like the Greens or the Liberal Democrats.

  • nigel hunter 10th Mar '16 - 9:25pm

    Yes education is needed. Also I believe that those who do buy it should have to show name address etc. sent to a department that can monitor their health The purchaser can contact this dept. to ask any questions he has, maybe a part of the NHS.

  • Point 1 only stands up if there are no new users (existing users not harmed) – what evidence is there that there will be no new users of a readily available product?

    Point 2 might be true of the Lib Dems who advocate this. Are you suggesting it will be by the profit driven companies who will grow and sell the product?

    Point 3 – Because there’s so much spare time in the curriculum (and community projects have loads of spare capacity)? Are schools not already providing information anyway?

    I see no suggestion that this policy helps support potentially vulnerable people and would be interested in the justification for this claim.

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Mar '16 - 11:52pm

    @ Nick Baird,
    As far as I am concerned, it is about harm reduction. Given that the proposals regarding regulation only apply to those 18 and above, in what way will they help with harm reduction for young people?

    Education is crucial, but is it really the case that young people are not already given information on the dangers of cannabis use, particularly the risk of addiction when cannabis use starts early?

  • To me it’s a freedom of choice argument.

  • @Glenn, then why are you still in the Liberal Democrats? So sad that while the US is legalising cannabis on a state-by-state basis, the Lib Dems are wringing their hands over reefer madness.

    The reasons these articles give are managerialist reasons why civil servants might support legalisation, not reasons why a political party should. Without a clear ideology based on freedom there’s no reason for a liberal party to exist.

  • @Jayne

    I quoted from a RCPsych health information leaflet in replying to another recent LDV article on this subject and, as you say, it doesn’t make very comfortable reading. With cannabis linked to psychosis, depression, anxiety and increased car accidents I don’t think this is something we should be advocating,

    This is what MIND says about the effects of cannabis use on its website\:

    Short-term effects:

    • Feeling relaxed
    • Talkative
    • Finding things very funny and laughing a lot
    • Feeling excited by the things you see, hear and feel
    • Hunger

    High doses may cause:

    • Distorted perceptions
    • Forgetfulness
    • Distress and confusion
    • Psychotic experiences (hallucinations and other experiences which other people don’t share)

    Long-term effects

    • Long-lasting symptoms of psychosis that may be diagnosed as schizophrenia
    • May cause depression in later life if you use it a lot as a teenager

    I think the Lib Dems should be really careful what they are recommending here. As cannabis is addictive, do we really want to advocate legalising sales and allowing the marketers to get involved.

  • Martin Land 11th Mar '16 - 7:57am

    1. Legalising Cannabis would immediately reduce consumption.
    2. Either legalise it or ban tobacco and alcohol.

  • Peter Reynolds 11th Mar '16 - 8:56am

    The risks and harms of cannabis are massively overstated, particularly by organisations such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which has a vested interest in drumming up business for charlatan ‘drug treatment’ programmes and endless, repetitive and inconclusive ‘studies’ on the harms of cannabis. There is a lot of money in overstated, hysterical claims about psychosis. Last December, the Institute of Psychiatry admitted it had misled the media on its latest study, claiming things which it had no evidence to support:

    http://clear-uk.org/a-clear-response-to-the-liberal-democrats-proposals-for-cannabis-regulation/

    Instead of all the hype and the “may” and “could” and “might” which all these scaremongers pepper their propaganda with, try looking at the facts.

    The big scare story that cannabis is filling our hospitals with psychotic young people is a myth, an absolute falsehood. Last year, the Department of Health revealed there has been an average of just over 28 ‘finished admission episodes’ for each of the past five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean 28 people as it could include the same person being admitted more than once.

    Of course, each of these 28 cases is a tragedy for the people involved and nothing must distract from that but it clearly shows that in public health terms, ‘cannabis psychosis’ (which some senior psychiatrists don’t even believe is a genuine diagnosis) is virtually unheard of.

    http://clear-uk.org/for-all-the-hysteria-about-cannabis-and-psychosis-here-are-the-facts/

    Also look at the actual experience from the Netherlands, Colorado, Washington and Oregon. In reality, cannabis is about as harmful as coffee so just as young people should probably avoid six double espressos a day, they should avoid any psychoactive substance. For those of us that are older, cannabis is actually beneficial in moderation, helping to protect against autoimmune diseases, cancer, dementia and other diseases of aging.

    Professsor Gary Wenk, Ohio State University: “…using low doses of marijuana for prolonged periods of time at some point in your life, possibly when you’re middle-aged to late middle-aged, is probably going to slow the onset or development of dementia, to the point where you’ll most likely die of old age before you get Alzheimer’s.”

  • As Peter has provided evidence to the extremely low cases psychosis that have been linked to cannabis – considering the huge amounts of teenage & adult cannabis users (estimated over 1 million) if it was high risk to mental health, then surely they would see a large number of cases that rise and fall with the increasing or decreasing cannabis consumption over the decades. Based on evidence I can see, I believe the dangers has been hugely overstated, due to cannabis being classified as an illegal drug back in the 1920s (thrown in with heroin etc) minds have been conditioned into believing it must be extremely dangerous. Compared to alcohol, the dangers to the user and society, to me seem extremely low. Surely the dangers of prohibition and the criminal underworld that profit from it and much more damaging to society. Legalisation & regulation, imo would have a great benefit to society.

  • @Peter Reynolds

    I understand you are not happy with arguments that include “may”, “could” and “might” but do you not accept this is undercut somewhat when Professor Gary Wenk qualifies his alzheimer’s claim with the words ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’?

    As a Liberal Democrat I’m happy enough with this (if it’s passed) as a personal liberty argument but I think trying to package this up as health beneficial (or as something that will lead to no increase in take up) is complete pie in the sky.

  • There should be a simple click to show support- Iv’e donated but not all can be bothered!

  • Peter Reynolds 11th Mar '16 - 10:33am

    @D McKay

    Contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as a fact in science, only evidence. However, as evidence accumulates we eventually reach a point where we accept it as conclusive.

    There are 22,000 studies about cannabis on PubMed and researchers have been desperately trying to prove it is a dangerous, extremely harmful drug for more than 50 years without success. Meanwhile, use of cannabis has increased by many orders of magnitude, the sky hasn’t fallen in, there has been no increase in rates of psychosis and all the evidence from jurisdictions which have ended prohibition is positive.

    All I ask is that people look at the evidence, not the tabloid and vested interest scare stories. In the 1930s they used to say cannabis makes white women promiscuous with black men. The arguments used today have no more basis in evidence and are equally firmly based in prejudice and hate.

  • @Peter Reynolds

    This policy is being presented (at least partly) as reducing harm (be it of poorly cut product or people uneducated of the dangers). If cannabis is not harmful then this justification is incorrect, no? I understand (nay agree) with personal liberty arguments but just can’t get along with the arguments in this article for reasons already given.

    Anyway if passed [on the left hand side ;)] there’s no hope of this forming any part of a coalition agreement so hard to get too worked up really!

  • @ nigel hunter
    “Also I believe that those who do buy it should have to show name address etc. sent to a department that can monitor their health”

    Is this seriously something you consider to be a liberal policy?

  • Jayne Mansfield 11th Mar '16 - 11:59am

    @ Peter Reynolds,
    I find your assertion that those who argue that there might be dangers associated with the use of cannabis quite extraordinary.

    I suggest that you check out the website of Drugscience. Independent Science Committee on Drugs, from its initial disclaimers to the evidence it gives.

    In my opinion, if one is interested in harm reduction one needs to take a less impassioned approach, because no researcher is a martian, free from the biases and values of normal mortals, and any researcher worth their salt acknowledges this and tries to be scrupulous, even those who are being funded by vested interests one hopes!

    I rather hope that researchers will continue to study whether cannabis is carcinogenic or whether it is a trigger for psychosis in vulnerable people or in given circumstances Ongoing research allows people to make truly informed choices. All research is open to peer review. One can only make decisions on the best evidence available at a particular point in time.

  • @Jayne Mansfield – “As far as I am concerned, it is about harm reduction. Given that the proposals regarding regulation only apply to those 18 and above, in what way will they help with harm reduction for young people?”

    Consumption by those under 18 will remain illegal, just as it is now, so the situation cannot be any “worse”.

    However, it is likely to actually be better. With cannabis legal and regulated, we will as a society be able to have better and more open discussions about it. We will be able to monitor it’s effects more easily, and the quality of the cannabis will better and more consistent as the stuff the kids smoke will almost certainly have leaked out of the legal supply chain via careless or complicit adults.

    Decades of cannabis prohibition have not stopped millions of kids smoking it.

  • Peter Reynolds 11th Mar '16 - 2:39pm

    @Jayne Mansfield

    Of course there might be dangers associated with cannabis use, just as with the consumption of any substance. What matters is the extent of the risk and despite thousands of studies with the unscientific aim of proving that cannabis is a dangerous drug, it is impossible to show any evidence that it is any more harmful than coffee. It is certainly a lot less harmful than peanuts which cause hundreds of deaths every year.

    That we spend £500 million each year on law enforcement for cannabis alone and that one million people have had their careers and lives ruined by a cannabis conviction says it all really.

    We spend £6 billion each year on cannabis and consume more than 3.5 tons every day. Isn’t it time we took responsibility for this instead of abandoning our children and our communities to criminal gangs?

    Do you really want to continue with this delusional, vastly expensive and pointless fearmongering for another 50 years?

  • Consumption by those under 18 will remain illegal, just as it is now, so the situation cannot be any “worse”.

    It is illegal to sell cigarettes to those under 18. However, many under-18s still smoke.

    The question is, do more under-18s smoke cigarettes or cannabis?

    If the former, then it seems reasonable to assume that if cannabis were made legal for supply to over-18s, just like cigarettes, then the consumption of cannabis by under-18s would rise to match that of cigarettes, doesn’t it?

    After all, why wouldn’t it?

  • @Dav – “After all, why wouldn’t it?”

    Because not all under 18s want to smoke cannabis.

    Just like not all under 18s smoke tobacco or drink. Some actually listen to the warnings and are put off, and cannabis is made to sound “worse” than tobacco or alcohol. This attracts some teenagers, and repels others. The ones who are attracted can get hold of it already (everyone knows someone who knows someone).

  • Anybody wishing to take a liberal position on this issue ought to stop worrying about the relative health effects of smoking or not smoking cannabis. This is not so much about health as it is about rights. Do we ban every food or drug that is potentially dangerous or carcinogenic? Of course we don’t. We allow individuals to make up their own minds. The cannabis user has a right not to be criminalised for his or her decisions, just as we all take it for granted that we can choose to drink alcohol or not to, to consume chocolate or cheese or coffee or not to. Even with the recent studies demonstrating the terrible effects of sugar on children and adults, nobody is proposing a sugar ban. Yes, the government is rightly looking at what can be done to increase the public’s understanding of the issue and to promote harm reduction. But we do not ban things simply because they are or may be harmful, or because they can be abused by people who are not good at controlling their impulses. Anyone who thinks that banning such things – and criminalising those who use them safely – is a liberal policy needs to take a crash course in what liberalism actually is.

  • @ Dav
    “The question is, do more under-18s smoke cigarettes or cannabis?”

    This is not the question. The question is:

    Is it easier for under-18s to get their hands on cannabis when the sale of cannabis is carried out by legitimate businesses which are licensed and regulated by the government, or is it easier in a completely unregulated market which necessarily (thanks to government policy) exists entirely in the hands of criminals?

    Yes, it is a fact that some under-18s currently get access to alcohol and cigarettes which they should not be able to have. But try thinking of it this way: if cigarettes and alcohol were made illegal, and their supply driven into the hands of criminals, would the existing problem of under-age access become better or worse?

  • On cannabis use, a Yale Professor raised serious concerns in the Independent in 2014 about its use on a whole number of fronts:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/is-cannabis-dangerous-a-review-of-research-over-the-last-20-years-says-yes-9780679.html

    On smoking, 80,000 people die every year in the UK of smoking-related illnesses. I personally think, over time, tobacco should be banned. When so many people cannot get the NHS treatment they need, we need to think about ways to eliminate NHS spending on treating completely avoidable illnesses.

  • @Judy Abel

    Tax revenue from tobacco sales raises over £12 billion every year. What taxes will you raise to replace this?

    The cost of treating smoking related disease is not the issue. The tax raised is greater than the treatment cost. And people who die young from lung cancer probably actually save money compared to those who slowly end their lives in a care home suffering from dementia.

  • @ Nick Bard. I find that quite sinister thinking. Allowing the sale of something that can lead to death and disability and taxing the agent of that death and disability as well. Never thought of it like that before. Good to know that public health being looked after so nicely. PS California has just voted to ban smoking in the under-21s.

  • California has also recently legalised medical marijuana and decriminalised possession for recreational use.

    Really, the issue here is not about the dangers. Cannabis is relatively safe as drugs go, and certainly safer than alcohol, many prescription drugs, and many of the foods we eat everyday.

    The inescapable reality is that alcohol, prescription drugs, food, driving, sports and countless other potentially dangerous things are rendered significantly safer for those who chose to partake in them by the fact that these things take place in the bright light of legality, social acceptability, and government regulation. To deny these legal protections to cannabis users is entirely unjustified.

  • I think the truth is that Governments will have to ban or tighten controls on a while range of things that cause ill health (I think the sugar tax is on the way) because the NHS simply cannot afford to pay for the associated treatments any more.

    The NHS is in financial meltdown and we are going to have to face stark choices. Legalising cannabis will lead to more addiction and raise treatment costs for the NHS. It will be just another burden on the health service with mental health services already stretched to the limit.

    Kevin Sabet, a US academic said in the Guardian last yea: “Legal regulation has been a disaster for drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Both of those drugs are now sold by highly commercialised industries who thrive off addiction for profit.” They don’t pick up the pieces they just enjoy the profits.

    If we had known then what we now know about tobacco, it would never have been legalised. Let’s not make the same mistake with cannabis.

  • Judy Abel
    The research shows that smokers have a much lower lifetime cost to the NHS than people with healthier lifestyles. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive but it’s not surprising if you think about it. Everybody dies of something. Costly chronic diseases of one type or another are more or less inevitable once you get beyond a certain age. The smoker who keels over with a heart attack at 65 costs the NHS very little.
    Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t promote good health but it does mean that the problem with funding the NHS is exactly the reverse of how you put it. The NHS is under financial pressure because more of us are living longer and suffering the chronic diseases of old age. Measures to promote good health (sugar taxes, restrictions on tobacco) don’t help the funding problem, they make it more acute. The truth is there is only one real solution to the ‘problem’ of the NHS. We are going to have to spend more money on it.

  • @Judy Abel

    You are the one who keeps making this an issue of cost to the NHS by saying things like “we need to think about ways to eliminate NHS spending on treating completely avoidable illnesses”. Myself and AndrewR are pointing out that cost is not the issue as the tax raised from tobacco and alcohol (and soon cannabis?) sales provides vital revenue to actually fund the NHS, and more than covers the cost.

    Of course if someone dies of lung cancer it is a tragedy for that person, and more so for the friends and family that they leave behind. So I would rather that people don’t smoke.

    But ultimately people sometimes choose to do risky activities that give them pleasure. Apart from tobacco, alcohol and cannabis, some people take part in dangerous sports, or eat unhealthy food. Even doing DIY carries risks. Provided that the information is available to allow them to make an educated decision, and they don’t put others at risk, then this should be entirely their decision. It’s not for you or the Government to take those choices away from other people.

    If you want to start banning things because they are dangerous, then you should be consistent and ban everything. And you won’t find much support for that.

  • @Nick I know what you mean, but the fact remains that we luckily do ban certain things to reduce harm , for example drinking too much alcohol while driving.

    I am worried about young people’s mental health and the clear evidence which is out there that links cannabis to mental health disturbances, more so than before because or rising THC levels in the drug (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabino) – the active constituent of the compound. We are not talking about the stuff people smoked years ago. Also legalisation has led to increased us in the US. That is an incontrovertible fact and some of those users will now be addicts.

    What worries me as much though is that the Lib Dems are promoting this without any information saying smoking drugs can cause harm and long-term dependence. Nothing. This is irresponsible and I think the wider world outside the Lib Dem bubble will not be that impressed, especially after we let young people down on tuition fees.

    PS The think tank Policy Exchange tried to quantify the wider costs to society of smoking in 2010, coming up with a figure of £14 billion in total (including the £2.7 billion estimated NHS costs), although admittedly the sums are not that clear.
    https://fullfact.org/economy/does-smoking-cost-much-it-makes-treasury/

  • It is true that some strains of cannabis are more harmful than others, and THC levels can vary greatly. But why is it so difficult to understand that legalisation and regulation makes a huge difference in terms of being able to control what types of cannabis are available and, crucially, enable the purchaser to have accurate information about what they are buying?

    Is the current situation, in which cannabis users are at the mercy of a completely unregulated market, with no verifiable information whatsoever regarding what they are using, so much safer?

    To the people arguing against legalisation, do you realise that these are real people you are discriminating against? Your fellow citizens are being forced into the dark, into the back alleys, doing dodgy deals with unsavoury characters in order to get their hands on something that is orders of magnitude safer than alcohol, and considerably less antisocial to boot. Do these people not have a right to know exactly what it is they are buying and where it came from? Do they not have a right to the same protections from the police that other citizens take for granted?

    Do you realise that the market for cannabis exists already and it is a black market: unregulated, dangerous, untaxed, and making massive profits for unscrupulous criminal gangs?

    To protect people’s health, bring this market into the open, tax and regulate it. It is simple and liberal, and it is already working well in other countries and certain states in America.

  • nick Baird/Andrew R
    Exactly.

  • Jayne Mansfield 12th Mar '16 - 10:04am

    @ Peter Reynolds,
    What did Professor Wenk say about the effect of marijuana on young brains? Also, aren’t there limitations on how far one can extrapolate the findings in mice to humans?

    @ Judy,
    It is perfectly clear to me what your main concern is, the long term consequences of cannabis usage on young people’s mental health, and it is admirable.

    Even if one believes that prohibition does not work, and that there may be an important function for Marijuana in relieving medical conditions, a healthy scepticism to the current proposal seems a sensible approach to me.

  • @ Thanks Jayne. You are absolutely right. The wellbeing of young people is my prime concern.

  • Peter Reynolds 13th Mar '16 - 7:57am

    @Jayne Mansfield and @Judy Abel

    I have already posted above the facts of hospital admissions for cannabis-related mental health issues. This sweeps aside the falsehood, exaggeration and misinformation that is so popular in the tabloid press that it has become accepted even by sincere intelligent people who don’t realise they have been duped.

    There are risks to young people but they are very small. For instance, energy drinks carry a far higher risk of both mental and physical harm to health.

    What is certain is that a regulated market will be safer for everyone. There will be age restrictions and quality controls. It won’t completely eliminate all risk but it will minimise it. Present policy maximises harms and risk by abandoning our young people to criminal gangs.

  • @ I am very disheartened by what has happened. It seems wrong to me that we think Government should take the place of drug dealers and even raise taxes out of selling potentially harmful and addictive substances. Cannabis use has been falling because of really good drugs education in schools. I think this move is purely ideological and not in young people’s best interests at all.

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