Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Derek Williams (DP014)


I am the owner/publisher of www.ukcia.org—a cannabis law reform website. UK Cannabis Internet Activist (UKCIA) is the oldest UK cannabis law reform site having been online since 1995. I am also a member of the CLEAR law reform campaign executive www.clear-uk.org.

I make this submission both as a private individual, but also in my capacity as the publisher of UKCIA and member of CLEAR. This submission principally concerns cannabis, although many of the general points also apply to all drugs.


If the aim of the present drugs policy is to prevent cannabis use becoming normalised, it has failed and in failing has created new dangers which need not exist.

The cannabis trade is a massive industry that reaches into every section of society. Cannabis use is widespread and in some sections of society it can rightly be considered as totally normalised.

In this submission I will argue that cannabis is not a controlled drug and that prohibition does not represent drug control. I will outline the dangers prohibition creates, the unintended consequences it has had on the UK cannabis trade and the obstacles it presents to understanding and measuring the current situation.

1. The extent to which the Government’s 2010 drug strategy is a “fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights” in line with the recent recommendation by the Global Commission on Drug Policy

1.1 Cannabis is classed as a “controlled substance” and prohibition as “drug control”, this is essentially a deception; the aim of prohibition is not to control drugs, but to control people. The law sets out to restrict what people are allowed to do with certain substances, even in the privacy of their own homes, it does not attempt to control drugs.

1.2 The only way a substance can be properly said to be controlled is to control the supply and distribution of that substance. Prohibition ensures that we don’t know who produces, transports, trades in or consumes the product and we have no idea from where the trade takes place. We have no reliable monitoring, much less control, over what is sold in terms of strength, potency or purity. There are no trading standards applied to the trade and no protection for vulnerable people such as children.

1.3 Any regime that attempts to control what an adult does to themselves or with other consenting adults in private is going to be seen by those adults as an infringement of their rights. This results in a never ending game of cat and mouse, leading to ever more draconian and intrusive policing techniques. Stop-search is a major cause of alienation between young people and the police. From June 2010 to July 2011 the Metropolitan Police made almost a quarter of a million stop-searches under the Misuse of Drugs Act1; searches concentrated on young people. According the research published in the Guardian which looked at the causes of the riots of Summer 2011:

1.4 The most common complaints related to people’s everyday experience of policing, with many expressing deep frustration at the way people in their communities were subjected to stop and search. An independent panel set up by the government in the aftermath of the riots identified stop and search as a possible “motivation factor” for black and Asian rioters.2

1.5 In some boroughs in some months more than 70% of searches were under Misuse of Drugs Act.

1.6 Far from protecting vulnerable groups, prohibition makes the dangers greater; the age of first use of cannabis has dropped and it is not unusual for children to be cannabis users, something unheard of before prohibition. There is a slogan within the law reform movement: The minimum age for buying cannabis is £20. The present policy has clearly failed to protect children.

2. The independence and quality of expert advice which is being given to the government

2.1 Prohibition prevents any proper monitoring of any aspect of the trade or the culture that supports it. It is impossible to use standard sampling techniques to gather date. The science underpinning prohibition is flawed as a result. Consider the market shift that occurred towards so-called “skunk” cannabis:

2.2 That this market shift had occurred was not confirmed until 2008 when the Home Office carried out a study into the cannabis on sale in the UK.3 This Home Office study suffered greatly from poor data. This was not highlighted as a source of error in the study, but simply described as:

2.3 “For operational reasons some forces chose to send in material from only one Borough Command Unit or from one of several forces collection points. Some forces experienced internal logistics problems; others were very enthusiastic and sent in everything received during the trial period.”

2.4 It is very easy to identify shortcomings with this data collection method; there is no way to ensure that the samples are in any way statistically representative. There is an old maxim which remains true: “Garbage in = garbage out”. Data collection like this is garbage and thus the Home Office Potency study of 2008 is, in truth, potentially little better than cod science. Comparison with older results was difficult because there has been no standardised method of measuring strength or potency. CBD was rarely measured previously.

2.5 No commercial company would rely on market research like this to estimate the commercial success of their product, this is the inevitable result of prohibition.

3. The criteria used by the Government to measure the efficacy of its drug policies

3.1 The criteria used as measures of “success” fly in the face of public health considerations. “Success” is measured in terms of high levels of contamination and variable, uncertain doses caused by a disrupted supply side. Fear of unknown quality of the product is used as a method to dissuade people from using drugs. For this reason prohibition is correctly defined as “harm Maximisation”. This makes prohibition unique as a social policy.

3.2 The 2008 Home Office study claims to have discovered a market shift from an imported product which contained high levels of CBD to a home produced product with low levels of that drug. If some researchers are to be believed4 this may have a significant and damaging effect on mental health amongst vulnerable people.

3.3 The criteria has clearly failed to properly assess developments over the years. The desire to disrupt the supply side caused the market shift to home produced herbal cannabis, away from imported hashish, yet it was apparently unnoticed by the authorities for nearly 10 years.

4. The cost effectiveness of different policies to reduce drug usage

4.1 The main aim of prohibition is to reduce the level of use to a minimum, the assumption being that the lowest level of use equates to the lowest level of harm. This is flawed for two reasons:

4.2 There is no evidence that prohibition does, in fact, produce the lowest level of drug use. Work by Prof Neil Mckeganey5 indicates that suppression of the supply side has very limited, almost negligible impact

4.3 Not all use is abuse, and therefore the lowest level of overall use may not equate to the lowest level of harm, the nature of the use is vastly more important. It is hard to understand how any benefit is gained from preventing non-problematic drug use by people not at risk, which would seem to be the case regarding adults and cannabis.

4.4 There should be a full cost/benefit analysis undertaken of the drugs policy, of the sort applied to any other area of social policy. It should include the wider costs to society of increased violence etc caused by prohibition.

5. The extent to which public health considerations should play a leading role in developing drugs policy

5.1 It is hard to reconcile prohibition with the promotion of public health, also such issues as social cohesion and prevention of violence.

5.2 Cannabis is usually smoked mixed with tobacco. The government should incorporate a safer use campaign aimed at cannabis users into its information site, Talk to Frank similar to the UKCIA and CLEAR campaign “Toke Pure”6 designed to discourage the use of tobacco with cannabis. The Government position is summed up by the Minister responsible for the Dept of Health, Anne Milton, who stated in a letter7 that:

5.3 “If… we were to advocate that people smoke cannabis without tobacco, we would be… putting people at risk of harm”.

5.4 Tobacco presents by far the biggest health risk to cannabis users, the ministers attitude is clearly not based in public health concerns, nor science.

5.5 Prohibition ensures consumers have no idea of the strength or potency8 of the product on sale. Cannabis varies greatly between strains, which have different ratios of THC and CBD, this can have significant impacts on the user experience and may have serious implications for mental health.9

5.6 Cannabis contamination is rife and high levels of contamination are common, perhaps with simple bulking agents but also with glass or lead dust and UKCIA has heard reports of contamination with homosildenafil and thiohomosildenafil—aka “Viagra”.10 It may be that intensive commercial “grow ops” use excessive amounts of chemicals, including OP pesticides which would have unknown effects of the health of users.

6. The relationship between drug and alcohol abuse

6.1 This question demonstrates a fundamental problem with present drugs policy: Alcohol is a drug, therefore any question asking about “the relationship between drug and alcohol abuse” is simply missing the point and misunderstands the situation. The fact that many people think of “alcohol and drugs” as essentially two unrelated issues is one of the major problems with UK drugs policy.

6.2 This confusion is perhaps rooted in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act which is supposed to control:

6.3 “drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.”

6.4 This would seem to include alcohol and tobacco, yet these two drugs are specifically excluded from the Act for—apparently—“cultural” reasons, however there is no provision in the Act for such an exclusion. This “cultural” exclusion is often seen as discriminatory, even racist, in origin because clearly a similar “cultural” exception could be made for cannabis, if not other drugs. If the MoD Act were allowed to work as written this false distinction would end, the artificial distinction between “alcohol” and “drugs” is a block to the development of a coherent policy.

6.5 In addition it should be noted that “drugs” is not a single substance, but a grouping of widely differing substances with a spectrum of perceived harms/benefits. There will never be a “one size fits all” approach, but what is broadly true as a policy approach for alcohol will be broadly true for cannabis.

7. The comparative harm and cost of legal and illegal drugs

7.1 Any comparison of the health effects of drugs should take into consideration the regime the drugs exist in. For example, the health harms from alcohol are well known, but the health harms from alcohol existing as a bootleg product like cannabis would be substantially higher. Any meaningful comparison of harms should refer to the use of pure drugs of known strength, or the harms caused directly by prohibition quantified.

7.2 Despite all the added risks caused by prohibition, cannabis still presents a lower risk than does alcohol or tobacco; Cannabis is not toxic and doesn’t kill11 and even if smoked (without tobacco) doesn’t seem to be associated with serious lung conditions such as COPT or cancer.12

7.3 Only by removing the added dangers caused by prohibition can sensible and meaningful comparisons of harm really be made between cannabis and alcohol.

8. The links between drugs, organised crime and terrorism

8.1 On a local distribution level, cannabis is sold from locations within the community, often quite openly. Most users get their supply from friends or relatives. There exists an “underground” supply network of contacts and supply sources. The extent to which this exists is truly impressive. Unlike a legal trade, there are no restrictions on the underground supply side. The only qualification needed to be a cannabis dealer is an ability to know people and be unaccountable to the authorities. Cannabis dealers can also provide other, more dangerous, substances.

8.2 The value of a legalised, regulated and taxed cannabis market was recently estimated in a report by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit for CLEAR13 to be worth between £3,368,779,690 and £6,684,714,865 to the UK economy.

8.3 Prohibition is impacting the lives of millions of people around the globe and is the focus of what can only be called real wars.

9. Whether detailed consideration ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs dilemma, as recommended by the Select Committee in 2002 (The Government’s Drugs Policy: Is It Working?, HC 318, 2001–02) and the Justice Committee’s 2010 Report on justice reinvestment (Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment, HC 94, 2009–10)

9.1 It should be remembered that prohibition can only ever mean one thing: repression of the population, in the extreme a war on our own people. Drug law reform however can take a wide range of directions tailored to the specifics of each substance.

9.2 Along with the options for regulation and control of the trade there are other considerations such as limitations on advertising and promotion which need to be explored.

9.3 Decriminalisation is a difficult concept to support. Although it allows a refocusing of effort from criminal sanctions to a public health approach, which would be a welcome development, it does nothing to address the criminal supply side. It can do nothing to support proper regulation of the trade and control of the products sold. It would represent a massive leap forward from the failure of the present war on drugs, but it is no solution.

9.4 The only thing which can be said for sure is that the present regime has failed, and in failing it has caused and continues to cause great damage to society here and around the world. A change is overdue.


1 MPS Publication Scheme—MPS Stop and Search. www.met.police.uk/foi/units/stop_and_search.htm

2 The Guardian. www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/05/anger-police-fuelled-riots-study

3 Home Office Cannabis Potency Study 2008.
http://drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk/publication-search/cannabis/potency?view=Binary (offline 1 January 2012,
alternative URL www.drugslibrary.stir.ac.uk/documents/potency.pdf)

4 Kings College London—Institute of Psychiatry news. www.iop.kcl.ac.uk/news/default.aspx?id=274&

5 Heroin seizures and heroin use in Scotland. N Mckeganey et al 2009.

6 Toke Pure (CLEAR). http://clear-uk.org/tokepure/

7 Toke Pure—another reply from Anne Milton at the Dept of Health (UKCIA).

8 THC, CBD and the misleading concept of “Potency”. (UKCIA) http://ukcia.org/wordpress/?p=50

9 Does Cannabis Make You Mad (CLEAR). http://clear-uk.org/does-cannabis-make-you-mad/

10 “Latest cannabis contamination—homosildenafil and thiohomosildenafil (AKA Viagra)” (UKCIA).

11 “A summary of the health harms of drugs”—NHS. www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/healthharmsfinal-v1.pdf

12 Marijuana and chronic obstructive lung disease: a population-based study.

13 Taxing the UK Cannabis Market (IDMU).

January 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012