Drugs Policy - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:52 pm on 21st November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 7:52 pm, 21st November 2016

My Lords, I would like first to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for the dedication she has shown to revealing and reversing the completely illogical, indeed cruel, position we have in the UK on drugs policy. I will focus my remarks on medicinal cannabis. I attended every meeting of the noble Baroness’s inquiry into this. To me, the evidence in favour of a change in the law is overwhelming in terms of compassion, economics, public order, scientific progress and indeed logic. As the UN says, drugs are a health matter.

On the same day as the presidential election, two additional US states voted to legalise the medicinal use of cannabis. When we wrote our inquiry report, 24 states, plus DC and Guam, allowed such legal use under certain circumstances. Now, it is the majority of states. I read the words of an attorney from Florida who had been campaigning for the change. He said:

“Compassion is coming. This November, Florida will pass this law and hundreds of thousands of sick and suffering people will see relief. What Tallahassee politicians refused to do, the people will do together in this election”.

And they did. I suspect that the same would happen here in the UK if the question were put to the vote.

While I was listening to the evidence during the inquiry, two things struck me particularly: the evidence from patients, and the scientific and medical evidence of benefits to sufferers of many different diseases. Nobody who heard the testimony of these patients and medical professionals could accept the positioning of cannabis in Schedule 1 among drugs that are very harmful and have no medicinal use.

One patient, having explained her symptoms and described how cannabis helped her, showed us two pages of A4 paper on which she had listed the conventional medicines she had been prescribed by doctors, along with the unacceptable side-effects she had suffered. It was a horrific list. Nobody reading it could have doubted that conventional medical services had done their best to help her, but nobody reading it would have tolerated the side-effects any more than she did.

Determined not to break the law, that patient had to get her GP’s referral, go to the Netherlands several time a year, see a doctor there and get a prescription, collect the medicine, and make prior arrangement with Her Majesty’s Customs to ensure that she would not be arrested when bringing her medicine back—perfectly legally—into this country. This whole procedure cost her thousands of pounds and enormous effort—and all because successive Governments have resisted the overwhelming evidence that the benefits of laying down a legal framework for the provision of cannabis medicines vastly overtake any small perceived harms.

I hope that the Minister will not tell us that to raise this issue within government is above her pay grade. She is in a much more powerful position than I am. She is inside government and trusted by her colleagues. If she went back to her department and said, “Look here, we need to talk to the Department of Health about this and we need to do something”, she would make her name as someone with an open mind who acts on the evidence. She would also be thanked by up to a million people who might benefit. Otherwise, perfectly law-abiding sick people are having to risk their reputation and their liberty by breaking the law in order to alleviate their pain. That cannot be right.

What is it about the UK that is different from 28 US states, Canada, Israel, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, Portugal, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and, most recently, Germany? Why are we afraid of this medicine, which was used legally until the 1940s? The scheduling of cannabis medicines in Schedule 1, while Sativex is in Schedule 4, is a complete nonsense and contradictory, and most people know it. The Royal Society for Public Health put its finger on it in a recent report:

“Given the poor correlation between drug harm and classification, the current system risks sending misleading signals to the public about relative harm, and this may be contributing to avoidable risk”.

Cannabis is a valuable medicine. Its legal use is a health matter for up to a million people and it should be treated as such. Will the Minister please go and talk to the Home Secretary and tell her the facts?