23 Nov EXCLUSIVE. Norman Baker Interview

Norman Baker MP

Norman Baker MP

Following his resignation as a Home Office minister, Norman Baker invited me to interview him about drugs policy and his experience of government.

He came to meet me at reception in Portcullis House and we walked to the cafe discussing the previous day’s news that Bob Marley’s family is to launch a global cannabis brand. I asked how long it would be before I could buy a bag of Marley’s Jamaican Ganja in the cafe.

Norman disappointed me with his first answer: “Quite a long time”, he said.

When you were appointed to the Home Office, did you have a drug law reform agenda?

I didn’t know what the portfolio was to be until I got there although I knew that Jeremy Browne had dealt with drugs. Having established that drugs was in my portfolio, clearly I wanted to reform the present arrangements.

Was that something you talked about with Nick Clegg? Did he brief you to go into the Home Office and tackle the drugs issue?

Yes, we’d started the international comparator study. That was, as you may know, a trade off because we wanted a Royal Commission but the Tories didn’t want to touch that with a barge pole so that was a halfway house. That had started under Jeremy, he’d done a number of visits. He was probably two thirds of the way through. Nick wanted me to finish it, make sure it was published and that it was evidence based. Nick’s very strong on this. He thinks the present arrangements are crackers.

There seems to be quite a wide disparity of view within the party. I mean Jeremy Browne took a much more hard line approach than you.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that’s fair on Jeremy. Jeremy went out and saw the evidence for himself and he would have produced, I think, the same sort of – well the civil service produced it in the end, not me – he would have come up with the same sort of answer. I don’t think he’s completely hard line, Jeremy.

I remember seeing him at the LibDem conference talking about cannabis today being seven times stronger than it used to be.

Well some of it is and some of it isn’t. That doesn’t mean Jeremy is hard line on the answers.

If there was vote tomorrow to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes, would you vote in favour?

Well that’s a loaded term because, first of all, cannabis is available for medicinal purposes in theory, through Sativex – except that it’s difficult to get hold of. The principle that it can be used for medicinal purposes has been accepted. What I’m trying to do now is to broaden that arrowhead – to make sure more people can access if for more conditions And that’s what I think we have to do. So it doesn’t require a change of status, it requires better guidance from NICE or something else like that or the Department of Health to become more actively involved.

So I don’t think it needs to be legalised because it’s already legalised.

If there was a vote to legalise cannabis generally, as in Colorado, where would you stand on that?

I don’t think I’d want to do that at the moment. I think I’d want to look at what’s happening. We’ve got these experiments going on in other countries – at last. It’s good that they’re going on. It’s probably good they’re not going on here but somewhere else so we can have a look at them and there are a number of different approaches.

The Uruguay approach looks very organised and structured to me and may produce some good results. You’ve got Colorado which looks slightly anarchic in terms of how they’re doing it and there are other places like the cafes in Amsterdam. So there’s a number of different models which are being tried. We’ve got pressure from the South American and Central American countries to do something and then we’ve got UNGASS in 2016. By 2016 we’ll have had more of a chance to assess the impact of these things that have just started in Uruguay and everywhere else. We can assess what the results are at that stage.

I think we should try and have a more definitive position by 2016. I think it’s genuinely too early at present, with these things just started. The government of the day will have to prepare for UNGASS. In my view, and this is what came out of the international comparator study, round about September 2015 someone is going to have to analyse and assess what’s happened to all these experiments across the world and see where they’re going and that will determine the government’s position for UNGASS. That’s how I think we should look forward.

In the States, Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC have just legalised, as you know, presumably to start at the beginning of next year. Do you think it’s now unstoppable what’s happened over there? Can you see any way in which it could be reversed?

I can’t see any way in which it would be reversed. On the other hand, I mean you get these generational changes which come about, you know, whether it’s politics; Thatcherism, communism – big movements. Now this is a big movement in one direction, can it ever change? Who knows? Can we ever roll back gay rights? I don’t think so but you never know. All I can say is this is a big movement at the moment and its not running out of steam, its gathering steam. Whether it’s reversible at some point, who knows?

When you look at all the scare stories that are promoted about cannabis, why do you think they have such traction?

Because, I think, looking back in history, there was a kind of climate of fear amongst politicians in the late sixties – society was getting out control, hippies taking over the world and the old certanties were breaking down. People weren’t wearing bowler hats or carrying umbrellas any more. What the hell was happening?

So you think cannabis was regarded as a proxy for a sort of wider revolutionary movement?

I think it was ‘We’ve got to stop the rot. We don’t want people wearing kaftans and we don’t want people smoking cannabis’. In retrospect we can see now that there was a bit of a panic over it. The arguments were ramped up and that became the rhetoric. As evidence then started emerging that it had been a bit of an overreaction, nobody wanted to say that. If you said that, you were then ‘soft on drugs’ and it was sort of endorsing a breakdown in society. Now that’s not my view but that’s how it was seen. Therefore there’s been this sort of tacit agreement between politicians and the press that you present cannabis, and drugs generally, as hugely harmful.

And you lump them all together?

Yes, lump them all together, no ground must be given but, by the way, alcohol is just a bit of fun isn’t it? It causes billions of pounds of cost to society and death on the roads but it’s just a bit of fun. It’s doublespeak, Orwellian doublespeak about alcohol and drugs. Having said that, I think successive governments over the years have sort of realised that the rhetoric has been a bit overblown and have been gradually relaxing things under the radar.

I mean Peter Hitchens would say cannabis has been tacitly decriminalised anyway. You have to try quite hard to get arrested for it.

Well he would, but who has recognised that the current situation is wrong? The people closest to it. – the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the health bodies and, of course, the large number of people who do drugs . They all recognise that things have to move and indeed, so do I. The people who don’t want to recognise it are the spokespeople for the political parties and the press because they are frightened of being accused of something beyond cannabis, beyond drugs, kind of undermining society. That mentality is still there. Nevertheless, even under this mad rhetoric, politicians have introduced changes: the cautions, the downgrading from B to C, reversed of course, also the changes to the way the CPS and the police behave over the years. You know, the emphasis on rehabilitation for heroin users. Under the radar they’ve been doing some sensible things but the rhetoric hasn’t changed. Now I hope what will come out of the international comparator study, what I’ve been doing, and out of the debate in the Commons, which I think was very interesting actually, is that the genie is out of the bottle and people are now prepared to talk about things openly. I think they’ll be encouraged to do so because actually the press didn’t come down on it like a ton of bricks.

Yes, the press were remarkably receptive to it. What about the Sun coming out as they did?

Indeed, well we knew they would actually. So, I think the public is ahead of things and, frankly, across society, probably in newspaper offices, probably in crown courts, probably in the police, probably in politics, there are people who, you know, use drugs recreationally and actually carry on their business on a day to day basis.

Yes, I think probably 90% of people who use drugs recreationally do.

Well, I wouldn’t know the figure but it’s certainly true. When those people who have experience of drugs themselves read this rhetoric they think ‘well I know that’s not right because I had a joint last night and I’m at work this morning’.

Why do you think David Cameron so dramatically reversed his position on drugs policy?

Well exactly that, because he is one of these people who understand what’s under the radar but still felt obliged to buy into this rhetoric.

What about Theresa May, is she implacably opposed to drug law reform?

The Tories are hugely obsessed about drugs. They were probably more awkward to me on drugs than any other issue in the Home Office. Having said that, she’s made some reforms. She’s been quite good on the rehabilitation side. She recognises the value of that. She authorised the handing out of foil to heroin users.

That’s true. Which is a revolutionary thing really?

A revolutionary thing – the state handing our paraphenalia to drug users. She didn’t want to broadcast it. I was given that to deal with which I was very happy to deal with but she didn’t want to do it herself. But Theresa May agreed on it, so she’s not against evidence. But I think she and many other Conservatives, the rhetoric and the feeling that you’ve got to stick to the rhetoric, will ultimately trump the science and the evidence, if it’s a contest.

And do you think that was what was happening about khat?

I think to some extent it was. There was also a genuine fear, I don’t know how well founded it was, that we were becoming the khat capital of the world.

So tell me, if there’s a new Conservative Liberal coalition, which I think all sensible people probably hope for, do you think drugs policy will be in the coalition agreement?

I think Nick will want it there. Whether it gets there in the mix amongst 500 other things that we need to discuss, I don’t know. I think that society as a whole though will demand movement, the public will demand movement. I would say this – I think I’m more hopeful of movement on this from the Tory party than I am from the Labour party because the Tory party is full of people who actually feel like Cameron, who really thinks something different makes more sense. And, because, also, you heard in the debate there are libertarians who are the the nucleus of the Tory party. So I think they’re more likely to move than the Labour party which feels obliged to stick to their right wing rhetoric on law and order.

Well the Labour party doesn’t really have a drugs policy!

No!

On the question of legal highs, it intrigues me that you recognise the harms of prohibition and the huge damage it causes. Why then are you so in favour of an outright ban on legal highs?

I appointed the expert panel to look into this. It was widely drawn. I chose the membership. It had people who you might call from the left wing and the right wing of the issues and it was a unanimous report. I mean if you’re going to appoint a review body then you want to listen to the panel and that was their unanimous view. I think the interesting thing, and the only caveat I put on it, which actually the Home Secretary agreed on when I reasoned with her, was the issue of thresholds. The threshold in Ireland might be too low – the threshold for what qualifies. There needs to be some sort of chemical test. I don’t know how you do it. You need to leave alone tea and coffee but include the more potent things.

The interesting point that I would draw to your attention is what the review panel concluded and which I endorse and which the Home Secretary endorsed, is it’s a ban on the sale and the marketing, it’s not a ban on possession.

Which could be described as a form of decriminalisation?

Yes it fits in with my idea of dealing with people who make money out of it rather than people who use it. I think that’s quite important. It’s the same as temporary class drug class orders which don’t criminalise people who use them. From my point of view that was an important principle to establish.

So coming back to cannabis, do you draw a clear line between cannabis and other drugs?

Well I think cannabis is less harmful. I do take the point that some of the varieties now are much more powerful. By the way, some of the synthetic cannabinoids are barbarous.

When I brought members of the CLEAR medicinal users panel to meet you, you seemed quite struck by the testimony they offered.

I was. They all seemed to me to be credible witnesses with a variety of conditions. I think what’s needed is some compassion. The idea that you withhold a medicine from somebody that is useful to them and then on top of that you prosecute them for accessing it seems to me to be a form of evil.

Were you able to talk to Theresa May or other ministers about what the CLEAR members had told you?

They don’t understand the issue I don’t think. They don’t differentiate between medicinal use and recreational use. The Department of Health understands it. I wrote to Jeremy Hunt and I had a letter back from Jane Ellison which absolutely understands the issue. Norman Lamb supports it but ‘sotto voce’ as the Department of Health. So I think the progress to be made on medicinal cannabis is by the Department of Health rather than the Home Office.

As you know the proposal we have put forward is that if a doctor prescribes Bedrocan, regulated by the Dutch government, the Home Office should issue an import licence. This is a very tightly defined, narrow reform. What do think it would take to actually make something like that happen?

I think you need to get some health professionals involved, the Department of Health, Public Health England. I don’t know who you get involved but my view is that you talk about it from a health perspective and get the Department of Health to deal with it rather than the Home Office.

So you think if enough pressure comes from the Department of Health, the Home Office will respond?

Yes. It’s Jeremy Hunt you need to get to appreciate the argument. If the Department of Health civil servants are in the right place that will help an awful lot.

OK, so if we were able to get the Department of Health talking to the Home Secretary about it, how soon do you think there could be some sort of access for medicinal use?

Well in theory it could be quite soon.

What do you think that we at CLEAR and other campaigners could do to help?

Well I think you need to be running a big campaign on medicinal cannabis because that’s the way into things. It changes the mindset and changing the mindset is what you need to do.

I’m fascinated by what you say that ministers like Theresa May really don’t understand the difference.

Well they didn’t seem to. I think what they assumed was that I was trying to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. They think medicinal use is a kind of smokescreen.

Because the UK is pretty much isolated now. Most of America, all of Canada, Israel and every country in Europe except France, Ireland and the UK have medicinal access.

That’s right. I think what the Home Secretary thought, she didn’t actually say this so perhaps I’m being unfair but I think she thought that as a woolly liberal I’m interested in legalising cannabis and this medicinal thing is just a smokescreen, so I don’t think she was examining the issue on its merits.

On the wider scale, Professor David Nutt says that if some form of regulated access to cannabis was available it would reduce alcohol consumption by up to 25% which would be a tremendous benefit to public health. What do you think of that?

Well if it did occur it would be a tremendous benefit to public health. Whether it would or not, I don’t know. One of the issues in Colorado and Uruguay is it will be very interesting to see what happens to alcohol sales there. That needs to be monitored as part of the experiment.

You see that much difference between the harms of alcohol and the harms of cannabis?

I’ve just put a parliamentary question down, I don’t know whether it’ll be answered or not, how many deaths there were last year from a: cannabis: b tobacco and c: alcohol. I don’t know but I understand there may be about five from cannabis and about 50,000 from tobacco and alcohol. We’ll see.

Final question, CLEAR is a political party but the last election we stood in was the Corby by-election in 2012 and it cost us about £6000, money which we could spend to much better effect. It looks as if the Liberal Democrats new manifesto will meet all our ambitions, so we’re considering revising our constitution, endorsing the Liberal Democrats and asking all our 270,000 followers to vote accordingly. What do you think?

From your point of view, a very sensible approach. One issue parties tend to be regarded as slightly weird. The only exception to that was the guy who set up the NHS party. Apart from that they’re regarded as a bit odd. And Peter, if you need a bridgehead in parliament, the LibDems will do that. Get out in our 57 parliamentary seats and start campaigning for us!

How do you feel about your chances of re-election in Lewes?

Well its tough. The Tories have embarked on a spending spree. They probably spent about £50,000 in my constituency alone last month. We spent about £3,000. So if you have any CLEAR members in Lewes, tell them to get in touch and come and help!

OK, thanks Norman, thanks for your time.