Westminster Hall: Cannabis

- Monday, 12th October 2015

 

Cannabis

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who for many years and with great consistency has pursued his campaign on this front and, sadly, has not yet achieved his objective.

 

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Some years ago, members of the press asked Front Benchers from both parties whether they had ever consumed cannabis. I found that I was one of the very few who had never done so then, and I have not since. That may be why I had a clear enough head, when looking at the evidence, to conclude that we need not just to decriminalise cannabis, but to legalise its sale and use.

 

I duly wrote a booklet—it is still the definitive work on the subject—called "Common Sense on Cannabis", which is available, I suspect, from the Social Market Foundation or free on my website and in which I advocate legalisation. I still believe that that is the right policy and I shall explain why. I believe that not because I am an advocate of the use of cannabis. I abhor the stuff and, as I said, have never used it. I am not an advocate of it except for medical use, and I am sure that we could all agree that cannabis and derivatives of it should be made available for medical use when it can bring the relief that the hon. Gentleman described and that many of us will have heard about from our postbags. Even Queen Victoria allegedly used cannabis to relieve menstrual pain. If it is a Victorian value, surely it can be made more widely available.

 

There are practical reasons for wanting to move to legalisation. First, attempts to prohibit the sale and use of cannabis have failed. It is readily available and widely used. Until recently—it may still be the case—there has been a higher level of usage in this country, where it is illegal, than in Holland, where it is legally available. Nearly 30% of citizens of this country have at some stage or other used cannabis and few of them had any difficulty in obtaining it, so those attempts have failed. The second point is that they have failed despite the fact that 80% of the effort in the so-called war on drugs goes on trying to prohibit the use of cannabis. If we provided some legal outlets for cannabis, that enforcement effort, the treatment effort and so on could be diverted to tackling hard drugs, which really do harm people, enslave people and, sometimes, kill people.

 

Thirdly, keeping on the statute books a law that is widely ignored and impossible to enforce undermines faith not just in that law, but in law and the legal system more generally. Finally, legalisation would deprive the criminal world of a large and lucrative market. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) pointed out, that is particularly important in Northern Ireland, where that market is exploited by gangs—well, by and large by the IRA and other paramilitaries, who are likely to use that resource for the most odious and nefarious reasons.

 

Those arguments have led many to conclude that we should decriminalise cannabis; we should no longer make it an offence to possess or to use the stuff, but supplying or selling it should remain illegal. That is de facto the situation in some parts of the country, but I believe that as a policy it would be a mistake, and let me explain why. One of the key reasons used by prohibition advocates is that cannabis is a gateway drug. They say that once people have tried a soft drug such as cannabis, it awakens a desire for stronger drugs and leads them on to cocaine and heroin, so they must stop going down the slippery slope. There is no evidence for that at all. The truth is that it is only the criminalisation of the supply of cannabis that makes it into a gateway drug. Because cannabis users can obtain it only from illegal sources, they are forced into contact with the illegal 

 

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gangs that will try to persuade them to move on to hard drugs. Prohibition of cannabis drives soft drug users into the arms of hard drug pushers. Only by providing some legal outlets for cannabis can we break the contact between cannabis users and those pushing cocaine, crack and heroin. In my view, such legal outlets should not be numerous and we should ban active marketing, sales to minors and use of cannabis in a public place.

 

I invariably find that most arguments against legalising cannabis are based on the supposed health risks. I entirely accept that heavy and sustained use of cannabis can be harmful, but at the time of writing my pamphlet, I quoted the Lancet review of all the medical evidence on the use of cannabis, which said that

 

"on the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill-effect on health, and…decisions to ban or to legalise cannabis should be based on other considerations."

 

I emphasise "moderate" and "little". I am not saying that it has no effect or that heavy and sustained use is not harmful, but I specifically stated then that moderate and occasional use of cannabis has few ill effects on health. None the less, people constantly bring up the health arguments, and I notice that when they do, they always say, "Oh, there's just been a study that counteracts all that went before."

 

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): It is easy to quote studies, but the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which does not take a view on the criminality but takes a view on the medical evidence that is presented and gives people an option to make up their own mind, does point out that even moderate use in younger years can lead to increased risk of mental illness in later life.

 

Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend has not stated a specific study, but certainly that was not the view in the Lancet review of cannabis. I find that there is a searching around for evidence. It is policy-based evidence—evidence that has been looked for to justify a policy, rather than being found and leading to a policy. It is similar to the sort of thing we find in the global warming debate.

 

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I find myself agreeing with everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, perhaps with the exception of what he has just said. Does he agree that if a product is potentially dangerous, it is better to purchase it in a regulated market, with controls, rather than purchasing it from a criminal?

 

Mr Lilley: That is absolutely right. The product is most likely to be unhealthy if it is illegally obtained and probably impure—of course that is even more true of hard drugs—and likely therefore to cause side effects that are not necessarily caused directly by the cannabis itself. Obviously, it is usually used in association with tobacco, which is itself undoubtedly harmful.

 

Paul Flynn: Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Dr Nutt, made this assessment? I shall repeat what he said, to try to put the issue in perspective: we would need to stop 5,000 people taking cannabis to stop one possible case of psychosis. Although 

 

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one in 5,000 is a tiny number, it is not a matter that one can ignore altogether, but it certainly should not be exaggerated, either.

 

Mr Lilley: Yes, I think the hon. Gentleman puts the issue in perspective with that remark. There is evidence that cannabis may precipitate psychosis in those prone to it anyway, and they should certainly be discouraged from using it, as I would discourage everyone from using it, but it is better that it be available and regulated than illegally supplied but readily available in any case, and with a high level of usage in this country.

 

Another argument that people invoke is, "Cannabis nowadays is different from what it was in your youth, Mr Lilley." Since I did not take it in my youth, that does not make a great deal of difference, but people say that it is now available in much stronger and more potent forms. Of course, that is partly a symptom of illegality. In the same way, during prohibition people moved from beer to spirits, because the more concentrated alcohol was, the easier it was to transport and supply while escaping the authorities.

 

Mr George Howarth: The argument of the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is that cannabis, whether for medical purposes or general recreational use, should be decriminalised. However, does he accept—as, I believe, my hon. Friend does—that he might make more progress if he concentrated for the time being on whether a product could be developed with the right efficacy to justify it in medical terms, rather than focusing on general decriminalisation, which I believe is more problematic?

 

Mr Lilley: I certainly agree that the medical arguments are overwhelming. I cannot think of any good reasons for not allowing the use of cannabis and its derivatives for medical purposes, although there clearly are arguments, which I do not find compelling, for prohibiting it generally.

 

The more I examine the arguments for prohibition, the clearer it is to me that although the pretence is that it is for health reasons, the actual reason is moral disapprobation of drugs. I am probably one of the few people in this room who is prepared to say that I share that moral disapprobation. Of course, the greatest sin that one can commit in this country is to take a moral view on anything; that is the supreme immorality. I do think that it is wrong, however, to get stoned out of one's mind on anything. It is degrading. God gave us minds to see things clearly, not to befuddle and bemuse. There are greater moral arguments, the traditional one being that it undermines one's self-control and leads to other, more serious wrongdoing. For all those reasons, I am against using it and I would discourage people from using it.

 

Those who are motivated by moral disapproval of the abuse of drugs make two mistakes. First, they confuse use and abuse. Occasionally to have a relaxing spliff is one thing. I have never done so, and I would not advocate it, but I occasionally go home and drink a glass of wine to relax after a hard day of looking at 38 Degrees petitions, and I do not see any great difficulty in that. I would, however, discourage people from abusing either alcohol or cannabis.

 

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Secondly, those who are motivated by moral disapproval jump to the conclusion that because something is morally wrong, it should be against the law. Lots of things are morally wrong that are not against the law. Adultery is wrong; one should not betray one's spouse, but we should not put people in jail if they do. We have to get used to the idea that in a free country, people will have to make many moral decisions themselves without being told by the law what to do. We would be a healthier and better country if we gave people that moral responsibility, without saying that it is something that we approve of. It is a choice that people should make, and those of us who disapprove of certain decisions should make the moral arguments against them, rather than dressing them up as, or hiding behind, largely spurious and bogus health concerns, which are at best greatly exaggerated, and at worst non-existent.

 

Norman Lamb: I want to intervene briefly to say that that was the most perfect explanation of liberalism, and I applaud the right hon. Gentleman for giving it.

 

Mr Lilley: To make the right hon. Gentleman's contribution into a genuine intervention—I had finished—I will say that there is quite an overlap between conservatism and liberalism, and if he would abandon the wrong bits and keep the right bits, he could join a larger party.

 

 

 

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Mr Lilley: We obviously listen with great respect to the hon. Lady because of her expertise, as we did to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who has similar expertise. I just wonder whether the studies that she and he have mentioned consider the prevalence of the illnesses in society as a whole, and whether the recent decline in cannabis use has led to a decline in the incidence of the illnesses. Similarly, when there was a rise in the use of cannabis, did that lead to a rise in their incidence? Is the incidence greater in countries with high cannabis use than in countries with low use, or has such research not yet been done?

 

Dr Lisa Cameron: The studies I mention do not specifically answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions, but they indicate that people with particular vulnerabilities might be more likely to develop mental health problems, along with individuals with heavy and sustained cannabis use. It was not necessarily that a vulnerability was required for someone to go on to develop depression or anxiety.

 

Regarding physical health, it appears that the main risk from cannabis is that from the tobacco that it is often smoked with, although the British Lung Foundation reported in 2012 that cannabis smoking carries a greater risk of smoking-related disease than tobacco alone. It has also been reported that cannabis can affect fertility, and new research has found that the cannabis plant contains cancerogenic mutagens that can affect the lungs.

 

In conclusion, it is my position that further research, and perhaps the addressing of the level of schedulisation of cannabis, would be particularly helpful for medical conditions, and that at some point in the future there might be a case for prescribed use for certain conditions, where it is shown to have an ameliorative effect on an individual's health. Overall though, there appear to be significant mental—and some physical—health concerns associated with cannabis use, which make it necessary for careful consideration to be given to the most effective methods of managing and addressing the issue and to any changes to legislation.

 

 

 

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Mr Lilley: Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that the one argument that those opposing our position have leant upon is the evidence of the Royal College of 

 

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Psychiatrists studies, but the very fact that studies can be carried out on people who use and do not use cannabis shows that the present prohibition is not effective. It also suggests that, although there may be health risks, their incidence will probably not be altered by legalisation, whereas all the other issues that the hon. Gentleman and I have raised would be ameliorated. We hope the Minister will take that into account in his further consideration.

 

Paul Flynn: As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is a belief that persists. Recently, one of the legal highs was criminalised, and the result in my area was a 300% increase in its use. We cannot go on believing that we are the masters of the universe. We are throwing 2 million or 3 million of our young people into the hands of 

 

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irresponsible gangsters. We should ensure that these drugs are controlled so that they are kept out of the hands of people with mental ill health and others whose health might be threatened, such as pregnant women. That is the point of a controlled drug, and we will get it controlled only with legalisation. We will carry on with the chaos, waste and cruelty if we continue with our mistaken policy of prohibition.

 

Question put and agreed to.

 

Resolved,

 

That this House has considered an e-petition relating to making the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.

 

6.53 pm

Sitting adjourned.

 

 

 

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