Crispin Blunt is the Chair of the APPG on Drug Policy Reform, and is MP for Reigate.
Alongside my work as Conservative MP for Reigate, I am the unremunerated Chair of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG), which calls for evidence-based UK drug policymaking. CDPRG is non partisan – but evidence-based policy is a proper Conservative response to reducing drug related harms that have exploded over the last six decades.
That is since the USA led the world to comprehensive prohibition of all narcotics without any greater underpinning than the belief that ‘all drugs are bad so they are banned’. This was done with no evidence about the drug harms we are aiming to protect people from or proper tally of the cost of the policy of prohibition.
Look at cannabis, for example. This has received a great deal of bad press over the past few months. The harms associated with cannabis are only too well known and restricted, in general, to principally a small proportion developing young minds. This is made worse by the super-strength skunk pedaled to our children by criminal supply chains with no restraint on education.
Yet when a group of Conservative Police Commissioners called recently for cannabis to be recategorised as a Class A drug, they did so based on health evidence. I have no doubt such a move would make things worse.
Interestingly, this ‘hardline’ approach is also out of step with the public – according to recent polling from YouGov, 42 per cent of voters favour a more liberal approach towards cannabis, with only 23 per cent saying the rules should be tighter. The reason, I suggest, is simple: re-categorising cannabis may sound tough, but it is unlikely to yield results.
The call to re-categorise cannabis as a Class A drug is out of step with the international context. Joe Biden, the US President, recently announced a pardon of those federally convicted of cannabis possession, as well as seeking to reclassify the plant into a lower harm category.
Moreover, the German and Czechia governments are pressing ahead with plans to introduce regulated domestic markets, including allowing the legal cultivation and sale of cannabis.
Even Thailand, which has had a reputation for tough drug laws, has shifted its policy, decriminalising cannabis for some medicinal and recreational purposes. Germany too has introduced reforms in the hope of improving the protection of minors and protecting public health.
These moves are an acknowledgement that so-called ‘tough’ approaches are mostly not very effective. Particularly when the harms associated with cannabis are a fraction of the harms of the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. We all want the same thing. To protect our children from skunk, fight organised crime, and reduce the harm from drugs and the world is waking up to the failures of prohibition to achieve these outcomes.
There is, however, another big argument for change. Medical research into the chemical compounds present in cannabis and appropriate medical use of cannabis have the potential to bring an array of medical and economic benefits. In 2018, the Chief Medical Officer of England was asked by the Government to report on the potential efficacy of medicines based on cannabis. She concluded that there is indeed such potential. As a result the Government rescheduled cannabis from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug. This means that since 2018 the Government has acknowledged its potential for medical use.
Current UK drugs policy nevertheless creates prohibitive barriers to medical research and reams of red tape for NHS practitioners in treating their patients. These include Novel Food rules, licensing conditions, THC limits, regulatory guidelines, proceeds of crime legislation and associated investment, insurance criteria, and the inability for GPs to prescribe cannabis to patients with a range of physical or mental health conditions, even if they believe this to be the most appropriate prescription for their patient.
Again, the UK risks becoming an outlier in its approach to medical cannabis. We are in danger of being left behind as investment that might have come to the UK is diverted to our competitors.
Perhaps the strongest case for a more fact based approach to cannabis is harm reduction. The law as it stands has the unintended consequence that many thousands of people seeking cannabis for medical use have little choice but to acquire it illegally. A legal route for these people to acquire medical cannabis would mean a safer, more medically appropriate product and, what is more, it would take power and income away from the vile criminal gangs who prey on our young people.
The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group exists to promote evidence-based drug policy reform. As the evidence for models other than prohibition emerges around the world, we are supporting a sector initiative to secure a parliamentary debate on the challenges and opportunities from cannabis.
We urge Conservatives to write to your MP on this important matter by completing this form. The form is created by industry advocates Maple Tree and the Cannabis Industry Council and it takes very little time to complete.
A more fact-based UK drug policy has the potential to bring significant benefits to our economy and our society by creating well-paying jobs in every region of the UK, helping to attract investment into our country, and even supporting British farmers. Most importantly, it will help keep our young people safe and take power away from the criminal gangs who blight our country. Prohibitionist and evidence-based reformers both want our drug policy to succeed in its objectives. With prohibition having failed across the world, it’s time for the UK to also embrace evidence-based reform.
We can’t achieve a perfect world, but we can make it a great deal better by following the evidence, not a simple ideology that may make politicians comfortable but leads to major missed medical treatment opportunity and carnage in many parts of the world.