Government Drugs Policy Debate
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Like others, I welcome the report of the Home Affairs Committee and the introductory speech that we heard from its Chairman. I also welcome the many aspects in the Government?s drugs strategy that have cross-party support.
Since I became involved in considering these issues and, in particular, since I published a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense on Cannabis”, I have been struck by how the debates tend to be bedevilled by a threefold confusion. First, there is the confusion between soft and hard drugs. Secondly, there is the confusion between the use and abuse of drugs and, thirdly, there is the confusion between what is immoral and what is and should be illegal. I shall say a few words about each of those sources of confusion.
On the confusion between soft and hard drugs, immense harm has been done by the attempt to demonise cannabis and to present it as if it is as bad as and on a par with heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs. Claiming that cannabis is as bad as hard drugs discredits what we say about hard drugs. Therefore, it is sensible in principle to reclassify cannabis in accordance with its true nature. I am predisposed to accepting the Committee?s recommendation that it is also sensible to reclassify ecstasy.
The argument that reclassification sends the wrong signals ignores the fact that maintaining an absurd classification also sends a false and misleading message. It sends the message that heroin and crack cocaine are no worse than cannabis and ecstasy. Heroin and cocaine are seriously worse, and we do not want people who discover that using cannabis in moderation has little ill effect on their health to think that, because it is classified in a similar category to more damaging drugs, those drugs will not damage them.
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Even greater damage is done by the attempt to confuse the two groups by claiming that soft drugs, while not in themselves as damaging as hard drugs, lead ineluctably to the use of hard drugs?the so-called gateway theory. It is not a valid theory. The fact that most heroin users previously used cannabis is not proof that they were caused to use heroin by their prior use of cannabis. In fact, most cannabis users previously used tobacco, but the simple fact is that most tobacco users do not go on to use cannabis and even fewer cannabis users go on to use heroin. There is certainly no chemical predisposition in the use of cannabis leading one to the use of heroin or cocaine.
If the gateway theory were true and people who used cannabis were led on to hard drugs, there would be a strong case for maintaining the toughest possible sanctions on cannabis to stop people moving down that slippery slope. If it is not true, the effect of keeping cannabis as an illegal drug creates a gateway effect of its own. Cannabis is available only from the same illegal sources that push hard drugs. We are saying to people that, if they wish to use cannabis, they must pass through the supply gateway and bring themselves into contact with the people who may push upon them hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
I fear that the Government are risking getting the worst of all worlds. They are simply reclassifying and reducing the criminal penalties, but are not going the logical step further that is essential if we are to break the link between soft and hard drugs. They are not providing through licensing committees legal outlets for cannabis in each area so that the people who insist on buying this boring and unattractive drug can do so legally without coming into contact with the people and gangs who will push the hard drugs. That would take the supply of the drug out of the hands of the gangs and thereby reduce their empire and wealth.
The second confusion is between the use and abuse of drugs. In “Common Sense on Cannabis”, published by the Social Market Foundation at ?5 or available free from my website www.peterlilley.co.uk, I argued that cannabis is relatively safe if it is not abused. I quoted The Lancet study of all the medical evidence available which said:
“On the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and that decisions to ban or 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 are not harmful. Indeed, I specifically stated that, although moderate and occasional cannabis use has few ill effects on health, it can be harmful if used heavily and continuously.
Several recent studies have been reported in ways which suggest that that picture has changed. If it has, we ought to accept the evidence. I am an old-fashioned person, perhaps because of my training as a scientist. I think it was Keynes who said, “If the evidence changes, I change my mind. What do you do?” Let us consider the recent evidence. There are number of studies. They all have one thing in common: if there is an ill effect that is causal, it is primarily the consequence of heavy and sustained use, and there is little, or much less, effect from occasional use.
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The first study, published by the British Lung Foundation, said that cannabis is more carcinogenic than tobacco. That is not a new idea. The study was simply a review of past studies, most of which were available to The Lancet report when it reviewed the evidence. I quoted The Lancet report as saying:
“There is some evidence that cannabis smoking may be even more likely than tobacco to generate bronchial ailments and to cause cancers especially if smoked in conjunction with tobacco.”
There is no reason for us to change our minds on that because we all know and accept that there is a carcinogenic risk. It would therefore be much better to have legal supplies of the substance, which are obliged to carry a health warning explaining that risk and others, as tobacco products do.
The British Lung Foundation also made the point, which has been mentioned, that modern cannabis supplies may contain much higher concentrations of its active element tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC. It implies that cannabis smoking is much more dangerous than it used to be and that although surveys have not found severe ill effects, they will in future. Whisky is much stronger than beer, but few people order it by the pint. I have not tried the stuff, and have no intention of doing so, but I understand that when people have stronger supplies of cannabis, they smoke less of it to get the same effect. So there is also no reason to change our mind on that.
The three other studies were more substantial. An Australian study said that there are risks of depression from heavy and sustained use of cannabis, especially if one starts young and if one is a woman. If I am not misinterpreting the figures, it seems to suggest that sustained use of cannabis reduces the risk of depression in young men. However, it certainly seems to show an increased risk of depression among the relatively small number of heavy female users.
The New Zealand study covers schizophrenia and depression. By contrast, it finds no link between depression and cannabis use, thereby undermining the Australian study. However, it finds a link between schizophrenic-type problems and the heavy and sustained use of cannabis.
The third major study is a reworking of the famous Swedish study of 50,000 people who were conscripted in 1969 and have been followed since. That reinforces previous evidence that suggests a link between cannabis use and schizophrenic symptoms. The Lancet report referred to the earlier reports of the Swedish study and agreed that cannabis could perhaps precipitate and exacerbate schizophrenic symptoms, but it concluded that cannabis is unlikely to have caused cases of schizophrenia that would not otherwise have occurred.
In the light of the latest reworking of the Swedish data, we cannot be quite so certain. Swedish researchers think that there may be some net addition to schizophrenic symptoms caused by cannabis smoking. However, we cannot yet accept that until there is some explanation. If that is the case, why has there not been a rise in the incidence of schizophrenia in the general population in western countries with the increased use of cannabis in recent decades? Unless and until we can explain that absence, we cannot suggest that the incidence will increase. Either way, however, we should discourage those who are susceptible to schizophrenia from taking cannabis, and discourage anybody from abusing it and using it excessively.
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There is confusion between what is immoral and what is illegal. There are many who feel instinctively that even if cannabis had no risks to health and was in no danger of acting as a gateway to hard drugs, indulgence in it?and certainly excessive indulgence?would be morally wrong. However, in our modern world there is no greater sin than to moralise. Instead of voicing their moral disapproval of the abuse of cannabis, or explaining why they believe it to be immoral, people express their disapproval by exaggerating the health risks, by reading every conceivable study suggesting that there may be serious health risks, and by fostering the two previous confusions to which I have referred, that between soft drugs and hard drugs and between use and abuse.
I am an old-fashioned moralist. I accept that abuse of any drug to the point of intoxication is morally wrong, whether it be alcohol or anything else. It is degrading to get drunk out of one?s mind. It undermines the conscience, and therefore for traditional Christian reasons it is wrong because it opens up the individual to committing far worse sins and evils. I believe that people would be better off explaining those moral consequences rather than exaggerating health and other risks.
In any event, many things are immoral or contrary to the prevailing moral code but are not crimes. Most people consider adultery to be wrong, but we do not fine or jail adulterers. It is bizarre to let people get drunk on alcohol, which is far more likely than cannabis to lead to violence, but to criminalise them for smoking one relaxing joint. A society with better understanding of the moral law and which was more willing to express its moral concerns would be less inclined to resort to the criminal law to solve social problems.
It is a sign of moral decadence to look to the state to uphold, to preach and to enforce what is morally right rather than to look to the individual conscience, to teachers and parents and others with moral standing to advise us on what is right and wrong. If we expect everything that is wrong to be made illegal, we shall find ourselves living in a very unpleasant society. I believe that the greater the freedoms we possess and the more responsibility we are allowed, in general the more responsibly people will behave.
I return to my original argument that both to break the?