09 Dec A Response To Lord Henley Of the Home Office Concerning Cannabis

For years the Home Office has been trotting out its nonsense about cannabis. Old timers like me can recite its standard phrases and paragraphs from memory. There is no other way to describe its position except as dishonest. It’s astonishing that even as governments and home secretaries come and go, the Home Office’s misinformation never changes. It says the same things over and over again even though they fly in the face of the evidence and the facts.

CLEAR member Steve McNamara recently wrote to his MP, John Baron. He used the template letter on cannabis farms and received a response from Lord Henley, the Home Office minister responsible for the drugs strategy.

Steve posted Lord Henley’s response on the CLEAR Facebook page and it seemed the ideal opportunity for me to draft a reply. Please use all or part of this in your own correspondence. It is a template for all cannabis campaigners that rebuts every single point of the Home Office’s stance on cannabis.

Dear Mr Baron,

Thank you for forwarding Lord Henley’s letter on to me. It is a very unsatisfactory reply which fails to deal with the issue properly at all.

I’m afraid it is just regurgitation of very tired cliches and phrases from the Home Office that haven’t changed in years – even across different home secretaries and governments. It takes no account of the latest scientific and medical evidence or of changes in public opinion. I have responded in detail below. I would be grateful if you would forward my reply to Lord Henley and that you will support me in asking for a more considered response.

The figures that I quote are right up to date and come from the “Taxing the UK Cannabis Market” report1 (TUKCM) from the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IDMU) published in September 2011. IDMU is an independent and authoritative research organisation which numbers many government departments amongst its clients. Its figures are based on official statistics and original research and can be relied upon.

We spend £500 million every year on the criminal justice system for cannabis alone. Around three tonnes of cannabis is consumed in Britain every single day and the market is worth around £6 billion per year – all in the black economy. Probably the most visible harm of current policy is the massive increase in cannabis farms. In 2007 police found around 800, in 2008 they found 3000, in 2009 the figure soared to 6800. Clearly there is a huge demand for cannabis in Britain and massive consumption. Around three million people use it at least once per month.

What is the point of present policy? If it is to reduce demand then it clearly doesn’t work.

Lord Henley writes that “cannabis is a harmful drug”. Of course, this is impossible to contradict. Even oxygen catalyses the aging process. With respect, this statement is meaningless and its use to justify government policy is disingenuous. There is now a huge body of peer reviewed, scientific evidence which shows that cannabis is hundreds of times less harmful than alcohol, tobacco, most POM and OTC medicines and even energy drinks. This is no justification for prohibition at all.

Lord Henley writes “It has a number of acute and chronic health effects, including dependence”. In the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) 2008 report2 which Lord Henley relies on, section 4 deals with physical harms and mentions effects on circulation, the respiratory system and reproduction. It says the effects on circulation “do not constitute a risk in healthy adolescents or adults”, that “smoking cannabis, even when mixed with tobacco, is less likley to harm lungs than if tobacco is used alone” and that effects on the reproductive system are “uncertain”.

Section 5 deals with short term harms to mental health. It says that cannabis “usually gives rise to pleasurable feelings” although acute intoxication can produce “short-lived” undesirable effects and that cannabis should not be used by drivers, aircraft pilots, etc.

Section 8 deals with long-term psychotic illnesses. It says that the risk of developing schizophrenia from lifelong cannabis use in men aged 20 -24 (the age of highest risk) is about 0.002%.

Section 6 deals with dependency. It uses data that show the prevalence of cannabis dependency at about 2.6% of the population (16 -74). However, it says these data “almost certainly overestimate”. Numerous other studies show that approximately 9% of cannabis users exhibit signs of mild dependence and that prevalence and withdrawal symptoms are equivalent to caffeine dependence (Hall et al 2001, Coffey et al 2002, Copeland et al 2004, DSM-IV)

None of these acute and chronic health effects, nor the data on dependency can possibly justify prohibition unless we also want to prohibit coffee.

However, more up to date government data on cannabis harms are now available. In August 2011, the Department of Health (DOH) published “A summary of the health harms of drugs”3.

Section 5.1 lists the “acute adverse effects associated with the use of cannabis”. By any standards these are relatively trivial and mostly amount to the effects that people deliberately seek by using cannabis.

Section 5.2 lists the “chronic adverse effects associated with the use of cannabis”. Throughout these refer to “no conclusive evidence” or “no evidence” or “evidence is limited” or “may” or “might”.

I suggest that these latest data deserve close attention. They show very clearly just how few and how minor are the acute and chronic health effects of cannabis.

While Lord Henley relies on the advice of the ACMD and its 2008 report, in fact he picks and chooses which of the report’s conclusions he prefers. The report actually recommended that cannabis should remain in class C, which the government ignored, and said that “criminal justice measures…will have only a limited effect on usage” and urged the government to adopt “a public health strategy” which advice the government also ignored and in fact did precisely the opposite.

However, Lord Henley then writes that “public health…is the key issue on which the law is based”. This is incorrect. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is explicit in that it seeks to limit the “social harm” caused by drugs. Health is not even mentioned. If, as Lord Henley writes, “the government must balance the rights of individuals and the greater public health and welfare considerations”, how, in a free society, can these demonstrably very minor considerations possibly outweigh individual rights?

Lord Henley writes “Legalisation will not address the risk factors which lead individuals to misuse drugs”. I would be grateful if you would ask him to clarify this as I can fathom no sense in it at all. Clearly, according to both the ACMD and the DOH, individuals can use cannabis relatively safely. “Misuse” means what? Where is the provision for safe and responsible use?

Lord Henley goes on “…nor the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes…” but the evidence clearly shows that cannabis dependency is about as prevalent and harmful as caffeine dependency. Surely, Lord Henley is confusing cannabis with other far more harmful and addictive drugs?

Lord Henley then suggests a range of costs that a regulated supply of cannabis would incur and implies that these would outweigh any income from tax revenue. In fact, TUKCM makes a very detailed and erudite estimate of all costs and shows that such a system could produce a surplus to the UK exchequer of up to £9.5 billion per annum. It is absolutely clear that Lord Henley’s claims are speculative and bear no relation to the evidence.

Lord Henley then suggests that legalising cannabis would lead to increased “crimes and anti-social behaviour committed under the influence” but this is again in contradiction to the evidence. Section 9.3 to 9.5 of the ACMD 2008 report shows that there is no evidence of this. Recent research from the US shows that where a regulated supply of cannabis is available crime and anti-social behaviour actually reduces in the vicinity of outlets (Chang, Jacobson et al 2011. Rand Corp) and that road traffic fatalities are reduced as a consequence of reduced alcohol consumption (Anderson, Rees et al 2011. IZA)

Finally, Lord Henley claims a “focus on evidence and outcomes in drug policy” when, as I have shown, the reverse is the case.

Lord Henley’s response simply does not stand up to scrutiny. His claims of harmful health and other effects are not supported by the evidence.

I am particularly concerned that this policy is preventing access to cannabis by those who need it as medicine. There are now literally hundreds of peer reviewed, scientific studies that prove the efficacy of cannabis in the treatment of MS, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, spinal injury and a wide range of other conditions4.

The Home Office repeatedly states “there is no medicinal value” in cannabis but it has granted a unique licence to GW Pharmaceuticals to grow 20 tonnes per year for the production of its medicine Sativex. Currently this is approved for the treatment of spasticity in MS and is pending approval for use for cancer pain, neuropathic pain, arthritis, bladder dysfunction, diabetes, anorexia, chemotherapy side effects, epilepsy and psychiatric disorders.

Clearly, the Home Office’s position on the medicinal use of cannabis is absurd and unsustainable but for individuals in pain, suffering and disability it amounts to cruel and inhuman treatment.

Sativex is a highly concentrated form of skunk cannabis containing 51% THC. In the context of Lord Henley’s concerns about the health effects of cannabis, GW Pharmaceuticals recently announced the results of phase III trials stating “the tolerability profile of this medicine is favourable, with limited relevant adverse effects and – particularly reassuring – the drug does not appear to lead to withdrawal effects if patients suddenly stop using it.”

On public opinion, a poll last year commissioned by the Liberal Democrats showed that 70% of all adults are in favour of legal regulation of cannabis. Recent online polls by the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Daily Mail show support for regulation in excess of 90% (These are self -selecting of interested parties only but they are useful indicators.)

Given the cost of present policy and the scientific and medical evidence about cannabis, it makes no sense at all to continue on our present course. The taxpayer’s money that we are wasting, the billions with which we are sustaining organised crime, the massive damage that illegal cannabis farms are causing to communities and the complete failure of the law to prevent children using cannabis, when is Lord Henley going to change course?

Everyone wants to see the harms associated with cannabis minimised. Right now there is far more harm caused by prohibition than by cannabis itself and we are allowing hundreds of thousands of people to persist in pain, suffering and disability when a safe, effective and inexpensive medicine is available.

As requested, please forward this reply to Lord Henley and ask him for a proper response. I wonder, in fact, whether you might be able to arrange a meeting with him? I am a member of the Cannabis Law Reform party known as CLEAR. It would be very helpful if you could arrange for a face to face meeting at which this important subject could be properly discussed.

Yours sincerely,

Steve McNamara


1. Taxing the UK Cannabis Market, IDMU 2011 /wp-content/previous/media/uploads/2011/09/TaxUKCan.pdf

2. Cannabis: Classification and Public Health, ACMD 2008 http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/alcohol-drugs/drugs/acmd1/acmd-cannabis-report-2008

3. A summary of the health harms of drugs, DOH 2011 http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/healthharmsfinal-v1.pdf

4. Emerging Clinical Applications For Cannabis & Cannabinoids. A Review of the Recent Scientific Literature, 2000 — 2011, NORML 2011 http://norml.org/component/zoo/category/recent-research-on-medical-marijuana

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