17 Aug The Inside Story On What Could Be The Biggest Ever Shift In UK Drugs Policy
Norman Baker MP
Fleet Street Gangster
Victoria Hodgson, Norman Baker MP, Lara Smith, Peter Reynolds, Nicolas Ellis
Home Office minister Norman Baker called last week for medicinal cannabis to be legalised. This is the inside story of a campaign that began in 1999, started to gain real traction in 2011 and may finally come to fruition in 2014.
The last British politician to have the courage to follow the evidence on drugs policy and introduce radical reform was Margaret Thatcher. Now Norman Baker isn’t normally in the same category as Thatcher but they have both demonstrated courage in the face of opposition from their colleagues and widespread bigotry and ignorance throughout parliament and Whitehall.
Tory cabinet members in 1986 must have been spluttering into their claret and very large whiskies when they heard that Margaret was insisting on introducing clean needle exchange for injecting drug users. She was absolutely right to do so and her action saved thousands of lives. Many other countries followed her lead and it slowed the spread of HIV dramatically.
Of course, Margaret Thatcher was that very rare thing amongst leading politicians – a scientist. She knew the value of evidence and that even when it was pointing in an uncomfortable direction, that was the right way to go.
Norman Baker’s call this week follows exactly the same logic. All he has suggested is that drugs policy should follow the evidence and it says much about the quality and intelligence of other MPs that his idea is controversial. Most MPs and ministers follow a drugs policy that is created out of fear of what the Daily Mail might say. Then they’re straight off to one of the taxpayer-subsidised bars in the Palace of Westminster to consume vast quantities of the most dangerous and damaging drug of all at knock down prices.
Norman Baker said:
“I’ve seen in my capacity as drugs minister many credible individuals who tell me that they have medical conditions that traditional forms of treatment do not help, conditions that are relieved by cannabis.
It’s wrong that the government should prevent people having access to something that will help their health and doubly wrong that the government criminalises them.
I want to see cannabis more widely used in the same way drugs like morphine are.
Morphine is illegal for recreational use but legal for medicinal and cannabis should be the same – controlled by the NHS under strict conditions.”
So what brought Norman to this conclusion? Shortly after his appointment as a minister earlier this year he was still saying that the evidence for the medicinal benefits of cannabis was “limited“. What changed his mind?
CLEAR was founded back in 1999. We were called the Legalise Cannabis Alliance then and, as remains the case today, our primary aim was to end the prohibition of cannabis for all purposes. Medicinal use though, has always been a priority. Fast forward to last month, July 2014, and the inter-departmental conference, chaired by Norman Baker, that led to his call for legal medicinal cannabis, I explained why it is a move that must be made without further delay.
I was accompanied by a delegation from the CLEAR Medicinal Cannabis Users Panel. I opened our presentation to Mr Baker and a phalanx of officials from the Home Office and Department of Health by saying:
“It may be an injustice that I, as an adult in the privacy of my own home, am not allowed to grow a few cannabis plants and consume them as I wish. For these people though, who otherwise are trapped in a world of pain, suffering and disability, it’s not an injustice, it’s an obscenity”
The Legalise Cannabis Alliance followed a path that everyone believed was right. Marches and demos were held throughout the country, candidates were fielded in local and general elections. In 2003, then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, downgraded cannabis to a class C drug. This was widely seen as effective decriminalisation and campaigners confidently expected that it wouldn’t be long until the last vestiges of prohibition were swept away and full legalisation would become a reality. How wrong we were. The malevolent and corrupt Paul Dacre, ‘capo di tutti capi’ of the Fleet Street Mafia, twisted Gordon Brown’s arm behind his back and as 2009 dawned cannabis was upgraded back to class B.
This is not the occasion to review that mistake again but suffice to say that all the evidence of consumption, arrests, hospital admissions and use by children proved it to be disastrous. It increased harms and problems around cannabis, accelerated the rush of organised crime into cannabis farms and the prevalence of high THC, low CBD ‘moonshine’ weed.
In 2011, with membership in the doldrums and literally nothing happening in the campaign anywhere in the UK, we relaunched as CLEAR. We dropped the word ‘legalise‘ because it’s widely misunderstood and almost always results in some tabloid hack or washed up radio host making jokes about ‘buying crack in Tescos’.
Of course, what we really advocate is more control, not less. We have none at the moment because in their idiocy, successive governments have chosen to abandon our children, our communities and the £6 billion cannabis market to criminals. A properly regulated system would enforce age limits, quality and labelling standards, do away with street dealers and dangerous hidden cannabis farms which often cause fires. Instead we’d have thousands of new jobs and a rational, responsible approach to a market that is not about to disappear just because bigoted and ignorant politicians want it to.
For the first time , our new constitution, adopted by a two thirds majority of members, enshrined medicinal use as our top priority. Promoting reform for those who need cannabis as medicine accounts for at least three quarters of our time and resources.
Our strategy has been to try and incorporate medicinal cannabis into the established procedures, rules and regulations that underpin all medicine and healthcare in the UK. It is probably not yet viable to advance the argument for home cultivation for medicinal use. That will come in due course, once the efficacy and safety of cannabis is more widely understood. To begin with we argue that doctors should be able to prescribe cannabis. This is the first step in regulating the entire cannabis market. It is difficult for even the most hardened and cruel prohibitionist to argue against a doctor’s judgement. If a doctor uses his or her professional expertise to decide that cannabis is what a patient needs, then how can some politician, journalist or civil servant stand against it?
Aside from the prohibitively expensive Sativex, the only prescribable form of medicinal cannabis is the Bedrocan range. Regulated by the Dutch government’s Bureau voor Medicinale Cannabis, it is grown to the very highest standards, irradiated to destroy any mould or bacteria and available in differing ratios of THC:CBD. Recently introduced new products offer an indica variety and a low THC, high CBD option.
Over the last three and a half years we have campaigned for doctors to prescribe Bedrocan products. We formed the CLEAR Medicinal Cannabis Users Panel and dozens of brave people with the most debilitating conditions have stepped up to give testimony, to approach their doctors and their MPs for support. Several members of the panel have successfully obtained prescriptions from their doctor, some GPs but also consultants in pain management and rehabilitation medicine. In each instance we have applied to the Home Office for an import licence to bring in the Bedrocan from a Dutch pharmacy.
Without exception, the Home Office has been difficult and obstructive about every licence application. It is remarkable how many have been ‘lost’. Not one has been responded to in a timely fashion. In the end they have all been rejected.
Simultaneously, armed with their prescriptions, seven CLEAR members have travelled to Holland, had their prescriptions filled at a Dutch pharmacy and returned to the UK, declaring their medicine at customs. In all but one instance they have been waved through with the prescription satisfying the Border Force officers that they were legitimate. One fortunate individual has now successfully completed half a dozen trips and the officers at his port of entry are familiar with his credentials.
For all intents and purposes these few people have legally obtained their cannabis. Any prosecution against them would have been bound to fail but this is still not a solution for the thousands more who need access to medicinal cannabis.
Through this process we have found fantastic support from Andrew Turner, MP for the Isle of Wight. Although opposed to wider legalisation, he is convinced that his constituents who have been prescribed Bedrocan should have access to it. In particular, George Hutchings has been our point man in this effort. Ironically and cruelly, it was George who had his medicine seized by the Border Force at Southampton Airport. Stricken with Charcot Marie Tooth disease, his consultant had prescribed him the Bedrocan product Bedrobinol and even wrote to the Border Force requesting that they return it to him.
George is an extraordinary individual, even more so considering the uncertain future he faces with a neurodegenerative disease for which there is no cure. George has been brave and strong enough to work with us as we searched for and eventually found a top tier firm of solicitors, Bindmans, who took on his case on legal aid. They retained the services of Ben Cooper from Doughty Street Chambers, the go to barrister on all matters relating to cannabis. Together, George’s legal advisers have tested the law to its very limits from every angle and with creative, open minds.
The result is not positive. In fact, we have discovered little known legislation, carried by ministerial order, which places cannabis under further restriction, even beyond its class B and schedule 1 status. We now know that it is actually unlawful for a doctor to prescribe cannabis as specific legislation prohibits it.
Very shortly, we will be publishing documents from Bindmans and Ben Cooper which amount to the definitive legal advice on medical cannabis. There is no opportunity for judicial review or other challenge to the current regime but there are new possible lines of defence for anyone facing criminal charges.
It is with the support of George’s MP, Andrew Turner, that we have made real progress though. Mr Turner and his office have tirelessly lobbied the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Home Affairs Select Committee. In February, we met with Keith Vaz MP, chair of the committee. He agreed that he would work with Julian Huppert MP, another committee member to hold an inquiry into the subject. He also said that he would write to Norman Baker, the new drugs minister, urging him to meet with us.
When the call came, it was out of the blue. I took Nick Ellis, Vicky Hodgson and Lara Smith to the inter-departmental conference and it was clear that their stories touched Mr Baker. I shall never forget the reaction when Nick produced a syringe full of CBD oil and explained that it was only because of it that he was able to cope with travelling to the meeting. Also, the passionate and convincing testimony of Vicky, describing how cannabis is the only thing that helps with her agonising cluster headaches. And Lara, moved to a few discreet tears as she explained the intimate details of how her condition affects her life and how it is cannabis that enables her to maintain a family life with her three school age children and hardworking husband.
So Norman Baker acted and he acted fast. He had also met with a couple of constituents, also medicinal users, Clark French with MS and Keiron Reeves with epilepsy.
I cannot think of another example, in any policy area, where a government minister has come out so boldly and directly for a radical change in current policy. It is beyond irony that a minister can make such a statement and then an ‘official government spokesperson’ can directly contradict him. This says worrying things about so-called democracy in the UK but cannot detract from the importance of Mr Baker’s words.
This may not quite be a breakthrough. Unsurprisingly, the usual bigots and bullies and ignoramuses have attacked what is actually a mission of mercy. The Daily Telegraph and The Times have simply ignored it because it doesn’t suit their agenda but The Sun and The Daily Mail have reported it.
I pay tribute to Norman Baker and also to all those who have worked with us on this campaign. We’re not quite there yet but we will be soon.
Please write a short letter to your MP in support of Norman Baker’s suggestion that cannabis should be legalised for medicinal use.
Go to http://clear-uk.org/letter-to-your-mp-in-support-of-the-drugs-ministers-proposal/ where you will see three template letters (depending on whether your MP is Labour, Tory or LibDem). Simply copy them or write your own version. You will see how to find your MP and how to e-mail him or her on the page.
Please do this now. We can’t emphasise how important this development is and it is absolutely vital we show as much support as possible.