I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill allows the production, supply, possession and use of cannabis resin for medicinal purposes. I feel almost apologetic that I am introducing a genuine Back-Bench Bill during the meagre time given to Back-Bench Bills, which successive Governments have treated as their own domain for some years.
The reason for introducing the Bill is that, in 1999, two men were jailed in separate courts in Wales for using cannabis for medicinal purposes. Their motive was not questioned, but that was the law. In 1999, in a similar case, a jury came back to the judge and asked for discretion. The jury said that it did not want to convict a wheelchair-bound, seriously ill man. The judge said:
You have no choice. Parliament lay down the law. It is up to you to implement the law.
In that case, the jury did not do its historical job of reflecting the common sense of the British people, but convicted.
In the long time since that conviction, no other jury has convicted in a similar prosecution, including one in which a man was accused of supplying cannabis to a co-operative of 40 people. Technically, he had broken the law. The jury, however, acted like most people with common sense would do by refusing to convict him. He was carried from the court on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. The current law on cannabis is an ass.
The Bill in its precise terms has the support of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, the Police Foundation—which conducted a study on the matter—a great majority of doctors, the Townswomen's Guild and 105 hon. Members. It also reflects the precise recommendations made in various reports to allow cannabis in its natural state to be prescribed by a limited number of doctors in an unlicensed form to named patients, just as heroin and cocaine are legally prescribed now.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the House was told that the Outworking Bill had the support of 105 hon. Members because they had signed an early-day motion, but that only 34 hon. Members bothered to turn up to support it today? Does he expect that the 105 hon. Members who signed his early-day motion will attend today to support his Bill? What support does he think he has?
I am aware of the realities of the House and the effects of the legislative assassins who infest this place on Friday mornings. Bearing in mind the true situation, I did not put pressure on those hon. Members to attend today. However, I assure the House that they are enthusiastically committed to the Bill.
It is not. Let us take some time to investigate the issue and explore the support.
There may be a quibble about using an unlicensed medicine, but I hope that the Minister will not raise that issue. If she does, I would remind her that 25 per cent. of medicines currently being prescribed to children in hospitals are unlicensed. I am proposing a return to the entirely sensible arrangement that existed before 1973. We are asking for the re-legalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
After publication of the Lords Select Committee report, the Government acted uniquely by rejecting my private Member's Bill within nanoseconds of its introduction. I have promoted essentially the same Bill in three Parliaments. In each debate, however, after leaving the Dispatch Box, Ministers left a lingering scent of hypocrisy, callousness, indifference and political cowardice. I hope that the Government's response today will not be the same. I urge the Minister to throw away her prepared brief, to act as the sympathetic, intelligent human being that she is and to give us a very different response.
Why is the legislation necessary? What is the problem? Cannabis is the most ancient medicine in the world. We shall probably be told that it has to be trialled. Cannabis trials, however, have been conducted for 5,000 years by billions of people on every continent. It is the world's most ancient medicine. It was used to treat eye problems by those who built the pyramids, and Queen Victoria used it to treat menstrual cramps. Indeed, many people have used it in the past century. I commend to hon. Members "The Emperors of Dreams", which is an excellent book on drug use in the past century.
A century ago, most of the drugs that are illegal now were being used—indeed, they were the only drugs that worked. The current Government will say that they are sympathetic to my proposals, but insist that they must have trials and a pharmaceutically acceptable form of cannabis.
In 1894, a similar argument was used about opium, which was widely used. It was decided that what was needed was a refined form of opium; not the raw, natural opium, but something from a laboratory. Chemists produced a refined form that could be packaged and put in a little pill. They wondered how they could market it so that opium would lose its bad reputation. It was used by low-life types; by immigrants, would you believe. They decided to market this wonderfully pure form of drug as the medicine for heroes. In order to associate it with heroes, they came up with a word that is very much like "heroism" in German and English; heroin. We have seen the results of that.
Speaking as a chemist, I believe that going down the course chosen by the Government will produce a monster. I urge people to allow the use of natural cannabis because of the long centuries in which it has been trialled. If there were major problems or serious side-effects, these would have occurred during that period and would have been well known to us, as has been the case with all natural drugs that are used. Nothing has appeared in that time.
The drug is less toxic than aspirin and has never knowingly killed anyone. Large numbers of people are killed by, for example, anti-inflammatory drugs, which kill 3,000 people a year; by Paracetamol, which kills 600 a year; and by anti-depressants, which kill nearly 600 a year. All those are approved by the Government because they come in neat, white packages and have the blessing of the chemical industry.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to a layman. Would it be fair to describe cannabis as an organic product, like those we are urged to buy in supermarkets?
Organic and natural are entirely accurate words to use for cannabis. Every drug with which we have had problems—eraldin, thalidomide and opren—have been chemical abstracts that have come out of a laboratory, never having been ingested by human beings before. After a period in the laboratory, the Government might produce some cannabinoids and find that, of the 400 compounds in cannabis, compound No. 6 neutralises compound No. 384. We need those to be in balance. The chemistry is highly complex. We could well find something that works in a beneficial way on animals but which, after a period of use on human beings—where the only real experiments take place—has dreadful side-effects. The safest thing is to allow people to use natural, organic cannabis in its present form.
We know that people in their thousands are using cannabis in this country. These people, according to the Government, are the master criminals. I wish to refer to a couple of real cases of what cannabis is used for now. One of the main uses is for the nausea caused by the effects of chemotherapy. Nausea is trivial, but not when it is as a result of chemotherapy. It is not just a feeling of sickness; it is all-pervading and goes on for 24 hours a day, destroying the will to fight the cancer. One drug used for it has the effect of mimicking a secondary cancer. We know the effect that that has on a patient. There is an alternative available, which is widely used: cannabis.
In another case, a woman had a 28-year-old daughter who was dying from a rare form of cancer. The girl, in her final months, was using another drug to deal with the effects of chemotherapy. It turned her into a zombie. She could not communicate lucidly with her mother, who went on the streets of Poole, obtained cannabis and gave it to her daughter, who knew that she was dying. She could then communicate clearly, and give her mother the precious messages that she wanted to give in her final days.
We are saying that that woman is a criminal, who should be sentenced to 14 years in prison, and we criminalise others in a similar position. One lady who has become famous, Clare Hodges, has visited the House on a number of occasions. She recently visited Belgium. Partly as a result of her visit to Belgium, the Belgian Government have decriminalised cannabis not just for medicinal uses but for all uses.
Clare Hodges told the Senate in Belgium:
I discovered that I had Multiple Sclerosis 18 years ago when I was 25 years old. For several years I was only mildly affected, I carried on working, married and had two children. But slowly my condition became worse, so that now I am constantly uncomfortable and tired, I am visually impaired and cannot sleep, eat or move very well.
She discovered MS to be a very cruel disease. She said:
You develop it when you're young and healthy, and slowly but surely, you lose all your faculties, abilities and functions. Nowadays, you can expect to live your full life span often until you're completely dependent.
That is a very depressing prospect. We can imagine the gloom of knowing that increasing debility will affect our life. She tried cannabis. The "criminal" said:
the physical relief was almost immediate. The tension in my spine and bladder was eased, and I slept well. I was comfortable with my body for the first time in years. But, just as important, I felt happy that there was something, after all, that could help me. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from me.
I have been using cannabis now for nine years. There is no doubt that my condition has improved in different ways. I do not have to take as many prescribed medicines. I now eat better, sleep better, and I feel more positive and motivated. As my health is more stable, I find I can now do simple things that I hadn't been able to do, like go to the shops or cook my children's dinner after school.
Clare Hodges is one of many people who is in that position. How does she get cannabis? She grows it at home. She says that the worst thing is that seriously ill people are regularly taken to court for growing cannabis by this Parliament—it is our decision—and are regularly acquitted by juries. She says that the trials simply bring the law into disrepute. She is absolutely right. The law is in disrepute—the law is a joke.
Quite rightly, the trials taking place have no chance of success because of the common sense of the juries. The Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill will never get through the House while that situation exists. It is quite right that those who oppose the Bill, including myself, will go to any lengths necessary to make sure that the powers of juries are not truncated as the Government intend. The juries speak for the common sense and compassion of the country in this regard. We need those juries, not an unfeeling Government.
Unless the Minister changes her mind about this Bill, we shall hear that the Government are compassionate. We shall hear the words again—I have heard them in three Parliaments. They say, "Oh, we are very sympathetic towards these poor people with cancer and glaucoma destroying the will to live. We care about them so much." When we ask the Government what they will do about it, they say, "We shall make sure that the pills are available." When? Someone suffering from MS wants a night's sleep tonight; they want relief from the spasms tonight. They want to get rid of their nausea; they want a clear head. They do not want to be tormented by pain throughout the day.
When will the Government help them? In five years, 10 years, some time, never? That is what the Government are saying and have said repeatedly. Should we not say that they are hypocrites, callous, cruel and stupid, because of their attitude to this and previous Bills?
There is no reason why the Bill should not go through. The whole weight of the medical profession is behind it. It would make a simple change that would affect a small number of desperately ill people who are looking to this place to lift from them the anxiety of using an illegal drug.
There is nothing trivial or minor about this. This is not a game; it is not a matter of playing politics. It affects thousands of human beings who are suffering unnecessary pain and living daily with the anxiety of the knowledge that they are disobeying the law and that they could be dragged into the courts at any time because of our stupidity and political cowardice.
That is not just something that could happen; it happened six months ago. That was the last time a desperately ill MS sufferer was dragged into court. Strangely, that happened on the day that a chief constable announced that he would not arrest anyone whom he saw using cannabis recreationally at a party.
It is nonsense that, although cannabis is used by 60 per cent. of young people recreationally, to get a kick, and although that kind of use is out of control and the police are not arresting them, people seeking relief from serious pain can be, and have been, thrown into prison.
I do not say that cannabis is a safe drug. As a chemist, and also as someone who has a great interest in such matters, I believe that all drugs, including medicinal and legal drugs, fall into two categories: 50 per cent. of them have dangerous side effects, and the other 50 per cent. have dangerous side effects that we have yet to discover. There is a long history of the discovery of the dangers of drugs.
However, of all the drugs that we have, cannabis is in the lowest risk category. Some reports were published yesterday, all of which are helpful to the Bill—although in contradiction of many other reports, one of those suggested that cannabis could lead to bouts of mental ill health. The Select Committee on Science and Technology has examined that part of the report and decided that there is no such risk, but I would not want to minimise the risks.
Even if there are risks, especially for those who smoke their cannabis, people are less likely to be exposed to the dangers if the Bill is passed, because it will then be up to doctors to take serious decisions about people who are ill.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment, even if only in passing—although I would prefer him to expand on the subject a little—on why we as a society tolerate substances such as tobacco and alcohol, which are legal, widely available and consumed, although they have both psychological and physiological side effects, yet the product that we are talking about, which also has those effects, is illegal? Has the hon. Gentleman any thoughts on that subject?
A great many. Alcohol was once prohibited, with disastrous effects. Prohibition led to the build-up of an empire of criminals, and many people were poisoned by bad alcohol.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing me to my next point, which is to ask what is being sold to people now, and what their choice is.
Kate Bradley is an ex-policewoman, who during her years in the force went out on the streets to bring in people who were dealing drugs. She is now a 58-year-old woman with MS; she is in serious trouble, and has given a statement to a Member of Parliament. Her role now is to go out on to the same streets and become a customer of the people whom she once arrested. That is Britain 2001. That is the effect of a law that we created and support, but which we could change today.
The World Health Organisation, in an authoritative work, has examined the dangers of all drugs, and categorised them. It says clearly that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, even if it is used in the same way. I know little about such things, because I have never used an illegal drug in my life and I never will, but I understand that nobody uses cannabis in the same way as tobacco, because if someone smoked 40 joints a day they would be floating on the ceiling.
We now have the worst of all worlds. Those who have to go on to the streets to get their cannabis have no idea of the quality or strength of what they are using. The Bill would liberate the medical profession to produce cannabis that could be taken in ways other than smoking. The most dangerous aspect of using cannabis in joints is that it is mixed with that deadly, addictive, poisonous killer drug—tobacco.
I am aware that some research is taking place, but if there could be freer research, we could find out how to use cannabis in other ways—as a drink, in food, as a spray, and so on. Those methods will then be freely available. It is not open to someone who grows cannabis in their back garden to use the drug in that way. Those forms of use will come; they should be available now. If the Bill is passed, the research could be carried out immediately.
I promised that I would not speak for too long, as there are other Bills to be debated. The Bill is necessary; it has the support of every free-thinking and conscientious person. It will make a great difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people. We cannot say, hand on heart, that we do not support the Bill. I challenge anyone in the House to say that, if one of their loved ones asked them for relief from a terrible pain or ailment, they would reply, "No, you can't have it, I'm not going to get cannabis for you because it's against the law". Every one of us would go and get cannabis from the street to relieve the pain of a loved one. Many people are in that position at present.
If we are not prepared to obey that law, how dare we suggest that it should remain the law of the land? It is indefensible, cruel and foolish. The law is certainly an ass in this instance. If anyone suggests that there is no strong feeling about this matter, I shall be happy to reintroduce the Bill if it is killed today. I will then bring to the House many people in wheelchairs and people who are in pain or dying. They will give witness to the House.
I plead with the Minister to take a fair view of the Bill. We can act today to ensure that at least the Bill receives a Second Reading. Those adults who suffer so much and have taken their own decision to use a medicine of their choice should not be treated as criminals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on so eloquently and movingly introducing the Bill. During my remarks, which, I emphasise, are made in a personal, lay capacity, I hope to respond to the challenge that he so dramatically puts to the House.
We are considering the use, production and supply of cannabis not for recreational, but for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. I recognise that there can be therapeutic benefits, but the House must ask whether the benefits of amending the original legislation to allow such therapeutic use outweigh the possible disbenefits or even dangers of doing so.
If we accepted the Bill, I am concerned that we should give the wrong message to those people who want to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. That matter should be explored. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. He did not seem to put much emphasis on the comments of the police on that point.
I have a particular anxiety about the safety and storage of dangerous drugs. The hon. Gentleman himself referred to the history of the use of heroin—perhaps more commonly known as morphine—for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. We are considering cannabis and cannabinoids.
I declare a family interest: I am related to several doctors and a long line of—I believe—distinguished chemists. Indeed, my grandfather had the distinction of being awarded a royal warrant to serve as chemist when the then king was in residence in Holyrood, in Edinburgh. I have taken a great interest in those family matters for some time. In my student days in Edinburgh a number of years ago, my flat mate and I had the good fortune to occupy the flat next to one of the chemist's premises run by my uncle down Dublin street in Edinburgh. Fortifications and security measures were increasingly required because so many burglaries were undertaken by persistent users of heroin who wished to enter the premises run by my uncle and owned by my family purely to get into the dangerous drugs cabinet.
It might be a small point to the hon. Gentleman, but it should be considered that family doctors such as my brother, who is a GP in North Yorkshire, and chemists such as my grandfather and two uncles who worked as chemists in Edinburgh, will be put at substantial risk of burglaries by carrying small amounts of cannabis and, more appropriately, cannabinoids on their persons, in their vehicles and in their dispensaries. I urge the House to consider what special measures may be taken to protect them.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. It is helpful, but he will understand why it is a source of concern to me and my family.
The timing of the Bill is curious. It reaches the House this afternoon, as we are informed that clinical trials are just about to start. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the 1998 report of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords. The Committee took evidence on the medicinal effects of cannabis and recommended that it be made legally available for therapeutic purposes. The Government rejected any immediate changes in legislation at that time. I am delighted to see the Minister in her place this afternoon. I hope that she will confirm that clinical trials have not only been ordered but are about to start. I hope that she will tell the House when the results of those trials will be available for the House to consider so that at least we can judge the safety and efficacy of the medicinal form of cannabis.
I urge the hon. Member for Newport, West to be a little patient. I admire the fact that he speaks with certain knowledge as a chemist, but he must be aware that we and our constituents need to be reassured that the dangers as well as the potential health benefits will be taken into account.
The hon. Lady is not telling me to be patient. She is telling tens of thousands of desperately ill people to wait for five years until they can take their medicine legally.
The hon. Gentleman eloquently made that point, and I accept it, but alternatives are being pursued.
I should like to go through some of the medical effects that we know about from research into the potentially damaging effects on individuals. The possible short-term effects on the cardiovascular system include an increase in the heart rate and a decrease in blood pressure, possibly even invoking angina or other cardiovascular disease. There can be short-term memory impairment, poor body co-ordination, severe psychological distress and confusion and—perhaps something not uncommon to Members of this House on certain occasions—less extreme feelings of anxiety, panic and suspicion.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must appreciate that, as the hon. Member for Newport, West would probably accept, the short-term effects are more likely be experienced by those who take cannabis or cannabinoids for recreational purposes. We have to consider that, if the patients whom the hon. Gentleman hopes to help become hooked on the drug, it could lead to tolerance. They may wish to take more to produce the same effect, and medical practitioners accept that that symptom can develop. There can be a physical dependence, meaning that the withdrawal of the drug produces physical symptoms. There are also damaging psychological dependence effects, although they are probably less common.
I am greatly concerned about the fact that drug abuse can increase the incidence of driving accidents. The Library's excellent research paper on cannabis lays heavy emphasis on possible driving impairment. I accept that that is probably more common when cannabis is used for recreational rather than therapeutic purposes. However, the hon. Gentleman must consider the risk, especially to MS sufferers such as the lady in her mid-50s to whom he referred.
A few weeks ago, the Transport Research Laboratory published a report—it costs £50—in which it stated that it cannot come to any decision on whether cannabis use has any effect on road accidents. In fact, perversely, reports from other parts of the world suggest that the evidence shows that there is less danger. That is a strange conclusion, but the effect of cannabis is to make people more cautious, so they drive either more carefully, or not at all. The effect of alcohol is to convince people that they are better drivers, and they drive more recklessly. I urge the hon. Lady to read the TRL report, from which no one can reach any conclusion at all.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that most illuminating intervention. Perhaps after the debate, he will give me the full reference to the report so I can read it for myself.
The long-term effects on respiratory disorders, including coughs, bronchitis and asthma, are again probably more relevant to recreational use, but we should consider them none the less.
I turn to the therapeutic purposes, especially as examined in the British Medical Association's report, "Therapeutic uses of cannabis", published in November 1997. The BMA concluded that certain additional cannabinoids, not cannabis itself, should be legalised for wider medicinal use, but alarm bells were rung. The report states:
The information is meagre but nevertheless it can be concluded that although cannabis itself is unsuitable for medical use, individual cannabinoids have a therapeutic potential in a number of medical conditions in which present drugs or other treatments are not fully adequate.
That raises the concern, which I hope the Minister will address in winding up the debate, that the Government are aware of the flimsy, inconclusive evidence that exists in the medical profession, the chemists' profession and others.
I accept that there are compelling reasons, but the weight of evidence is inconclusive. I would prefer to make a reasoned judgment against the background of the results of clinical trials. I hope that we shall hear this afternoon that the trials are about begin and when they might be concluded.
I want to speak briefly. I apologise for missing the first part of the speech made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), because of the previous Division, which I mistimed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill. I know of the passion with which he has pursued this cause. As a member of the all-party disablement group, I am very much aware of the unnecessary suffering of countless thousands of people who could be helped, some of whom take advantage of cannabis, although illegally at present.
I have great respect for the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), but I was surprised that she should accept that people will be acting outside the law in taking cannabis, as they undoubtedly will be unless legislation along the lines of the Bill is passed.
That means urging them not to take the assistance that is available and which makes such a very great difference to many people.
The evidence that has come to the all-party disablement group, from many directions, over an extended period, leaves me in no doubt that cannabis can be beneficial. The Bill is restricted in scope. It does not open the floodgates to the consequences foreseen by the hon. Lady. That is a matter for future legislation or perhaps a royal commission. This is a matter of urgency, and one that cannot wait for another four or five years for the tests to be concluded, evaluated and acted on.
We have the opportunity to show that we understand the suffering of people with MS and other conditions, and it is up to us to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and ensure that there is a legislative change that will bring their assistance through such drugs within the law. I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.
Though brief, this has been a very good debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) spoke with great conviction. I cannot respond to him as he would like, but I say with all sincerity that I recognise the seriousness, commitment and passion that he brings to the issue. Nobody could fail to be moved by his accounts of people suffering from very debilitating illnesses.
The Government believe that it would be premature to amend the misuse of drugs legislation to allow the prescribing of cannabis before the quality, safety and efficacy of a medicinal form of the drug has been scientifically established—that was the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—and a marketing authorisation has been issued by the Medicines Control Agency. All prospective new medicines have to go through that procedure.
The Government have the support of the British Medical Association and the Royal Society in the view that raw cannabis should not be available for medicinal purposes, but we welcome, and have encouraged, research into the possible medicinal uses of cannabis. If current trials are successful and lead to a medical cannabis preparation that is approved by the Medicines Control Agency, we have made it clear that we would be willing to amend the regulations to allow it to be prescribed.
We have to take into account the fact that cannabis is a harmful drug. A 1997 World Health Organisation report confirmed that it has both acute and chronic health effects. Work was published this week by Professor Heather Ashton of the university of Newcastle on the effect that it can have in exacerbating schizophrenia. We have to be mindful of the context in which we are operating.
The Home Office has licensed a number of laboratory and medical research projects over the past few years, including two current projects involving or leading to clinical trials. Dr. Geoffrey Guy of GW Pharmaceuticals is conducting a large-scale research project aimed at developing non-smoked medicines derived from cannabis. The research involves patients with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer pain and other serious conditions. Clinical trial studies are now being conducted. There are four main phases, involving pre-clinical and clinical research. Phase one is the cultivation of suitable plants; phase two is designing a method of administration; phase three is the start of the clinical trials; and phase four is the licensing application for a medicinal product.
That research has now been under way for two years, and the first two stages have been accomplished. The Home Office drugs inspectorate and the Medicines Control Agency have overseen them. I hope that that helps to reassure the House that the work is being done—a fact that it is important for me to point out. GW Pharmaceuticals hopes to have completed the phase three trials by mid-2002 and to be in a position to submit a dossier to the MCA in application for marketing authorisation in autumn 2002.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that the Government cannot support the Bill, because of its implications. Without a marketing authorisation for a medicinal form of the drug, cannabis could be prescribed for any ailment that the doctor chooses. One can imagine the pressure on doctors in such circumstances.
As I said at the start of my speech, the Bill is well intentioned, but it would have far-reaching and unacceptable consequences. For those reasons, the Government are unable to support it.
|Division No. 102]||[2.11 pm|
|Austin, John||Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)|
|Burden, Richard||Taylor, David (NW Leics)|
|Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Harris, Dr Evan||Ann Clwyd and Mr. Dafydd Wigley|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Leigh, Edward||Mr. Andrew Dismore and Mr. Gareth R. Thomas|
|McIntosh, Miss Anne|
|Maclean, Rt Hon David|