Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Andy Lyonette (DP153)

Executive Summary

The main points made in this memorandum are that current drug policies are ineffective in reducing drug-related harm or reducing use and in fact cause many disproportionate and unintended negative consequences at an unsustainable cost to the government. Strong consideration should be given to legal and regulated alternatives to prohibition, particularly in the case of cannabis not least because of its medicinal benefits that are currently denied to patients.


I’m an IT manager working in the IT industry in Berkshire; originally from the North West I went to the University of Reading to study Information Technology and have since settled in the area and am in my late twenties. I write to you not because of any specific expertise but as an informed citizen who feels current drugs policies are ineffective and expensive. For the most part this document focuses on cannabis.

Is present policy fiscally responsible?

According to the IDMU report “Taxing the UK Cannabis Market” [http://clear-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/TaxUKCan.pdf] the most up to date, authoritative evidence available it concludes that there is an estimated up to 3.6 million active cannabis users in the UK consuming up to 1,400 metric tonnes of cannabis each year with an estimated market value up to £8.6 billion per annum. Based on estimated excise duty revenues at £1 per gram per 5% THC, £200 per square metre in license fees, and £200 per annum per cannabis offender (assuming records expunged) the total expected revenue raised by licensing and taxing cannabis could be up to £9.2 billion per annum. Estimated cost savings to the criminal justice system would fall up to £646 million per annum with new costs of between £157 million and £317 million. The overall net benefit of a taxed and regulated cannabis market could be £9.5 billion per annum, with a best estimate of £6.7 billion. Current policies prohibiting the use of drugs are hugely costly and are largely ineffective in reducing drug supply or drug use and organised crime to profit from this unregulated market. Regulation would generate revenue in taxes currently being diverted to the black market and reduce current policing, legal and other costs significantly more than any increase required to cover additional health and social services which is a far more fiscally responsible and sustainable approach.

Is policy grounded in science, health, security and human rights?

Present policy is not grounded in science or health. An NHS document, the most up to date and authoritative evidence available—“A summary of the health harms of drugs”1 describes the acute and chronic adverse effects associated with the use of drugs, specifically in the case of cannabis it shows that there have never been any cases of fatal overdose or confirmed case of human death compared with a plethora of both direct and indirect fatalities associated with alcohol such as acute pancreatitis and cardiovascular deaths to road traffic accidents and drowning. Further scrutiny of this document will demonstrate further mismatches between the classifications of drugs and their effect on health based on scientific evidence. In an article by Prof David Nutt titled “Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis
[http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140–6736(10)61462–6/fulltext?_eventId=login] figure 2 (above) shows a graph detailing the weight of harm of each drug split into 16 different criteria. It’s fair to say that the health harms of cannabis are very modest compared with alcohol that as an adult you can purchase legally. It is also worth noting that the recent media stories regarding risk of psychosis from cannabis use should be put into perspective someone is more at risk of psychosis from smoking tobacco, or even some energy drinks, both of which are legally available as demonstrated by the following comparison between cannabinoids and alcohol:

Count of finished admission episodes (FAE) with a primary diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders due to use of cannabinoids (ICD10 code F12) and alcohol (ICD10 code F10)

Cannabinoids (F12)

2009–10 713

2010–11 799

Alcohol (F10)

2009–10 47,402

2010–11 47,287

Source: Hospital Episode Statistics (HES), The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.

There are now hundreds of peer reviewed, scientific studies that prove the efficacy of cannabis in the treatment of MS, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, spinal injury, and a wide range of other conditions, some of which are available from the NORML summary of research article “Emerging Clinical Applications For Cannabis & Cannabinoids. A Review of the Recent Scientific Literature, 2000–11”. Despite this, and the fact that the UK Government has granted a unique license to GW Pharmaceuticals to manufacture cannabis to produce Sativex which is pharmacologically identical to cannabis and produces the same euphoria described with natural cannabis use the UK government maintains that cannabis has no medicinal benefit.

The current policy of prohibition creates more than a £6 billion criminal market with all the associated harms that are greatly disproportionate to the harms of, in this example, cannabis. Human rights are infringed both by organised crime through human trafficking and slave labour to run cannabis farms through and the government with sometimes questionable methods used by police or the judiciary services, for example, Judge John Potter, Bradford Crown Court in November 2011 is quoted saying “Recent research indicates one in four cannabis users will trigger psychosis because of what they are doing” which is simply false. These factors, coupled with the lack of scientific basis and the length of time this failed policy has been allowed to continue undermines the legal system, and puts up barriers between otherwise non-violent, law-abiding citizens and the police.

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

The criteria used by the government to decide upon, and measure the efficacy of its drug policies are inherently flawed, and subjective to the extreme. The media seem in part responsible for the continuation of current policy due to some sensationalist, scare mongering articles published that have no founding in evidence and can sometimes contradict fact. Measures, such number of arrests or contraband seized cannot accurately estimate the proliferation of drug use nor relative numbers of those receiving help compared with those not. In most part arrest figures are irrelevant to the harm of drug use but are more indicative of the harms caused by prohibition. If we had a legally regulated system for drugs more effective mechanisms would be available to the government to try and reduce harm and more reliable statistics to measure their success.

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

The independence and quality of expert advice given to the government regarding drugs is poor. The ACMD is losing its reputation for being independent and lacks more and more scientific backbone for such an organisation needs to be based upon to be independent and credible. More emphasis should be given to the successes of other European countries such as Portugal, Holland, and others in decriminalising drugs and subsequent remain constant or decline.

Where drug-related policing and expenditure is likely to decrease in line with police budgets and what impact this may have

Any decrease in expenditure on policing current policy will result in a decline in the already poor sub 10% success rates acknowledged by police forces across the UK. It seems likely that if expenditure is cut then the proliferation of criminal organisations funded through drug sales will increase including all associated harms. It should not be a question of where within the current policy we can save money as the success rate is already so low and has been year on year that a completely new approach is required. According to the 2011 IDMU report “Taxing the UK Cannabis Market”, £500 million is spent every year on the criminal justice system for cannabis alone of which £200 million is for police costs. This could virtually all be diverted elsewhere and would have the benefit of starving organised crime from a source of income that would prove far more effective than any policing currently in place.

The cost effectiveness of different policies to reduce drug usage

Current policies prohibiting drugs, particularly cannabis are largely ineffective and produce harms that are disproportionate to the harms of cannabis use. Evidence from the US, Holland and Portugal shows when availability of cannabis is legally regulated, consumption actually decreases. This is particularly true amongst children, due to those licensed to sell cannabis are subject to rules such as minimum age with repercussions if these regulations are broken. These regulations are of course lacking in the current criminal market and in areas of the UK it has been reported that children can obtain drugs easier than they can alcohol. A system of regulation generating jobs and taxes whilst also saving on policing and judicial costs make much more fiscal sense allowing more money to be spent elsewhere on health services, education, and releasing some of the burden on the current UK financial situation. A legalised and regulated market would remove the stigma and thus enabled many more in need of help for drug dependence to seek help, much like alcohol and tobacco and any increased costs incurred would be mitigated by the reduction in policing and judicial costs.

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

Public health considerations should play a leading role in developing drugs policy but it is important that any consideration is made based on the consumption of the substance in question without the associated risks and harms of prohibition being included. A study out in November 2011 by the “Institute for the Study of Labor” in the US found that states that have legalised medical cannabis have also seen a decline in traffic fatalities, largely due to a decline in alcohol-related road traffic accidents that has been directly attributed to cannabis use as a substitute to alcohol.

The relationship between drug and alcohol abuse

Alcohol is a drug and the distinction made between alcohol and drugs is inaccurate and misleading. As shown by the 2007 ACMD report Alcohol is the fifth most harmful drug out of the 20 in the list with tobacco rating ninth. If the public were given the choice of less harmful drugs such as cannabis along with appropriate advice and education, then alcohol abuse and its associated violence and antisocial behaviour would decrease. Many people consume alcohol because they believe it to be the safe option relatively speaking compared with illegal drugs and the reason for this is due to a policy mismatched with science and the continued misinformation from the government.

The comparative harm and cost of legal and illegal drugs

The comparative harm of legal and illegal drugs is indicated in the 2007 ACMD report, specifically in the graph above paragraph 4 of this document. It shows that alcohol is at the top of the scale producing the most harm, where cannabis, an illegal drug is considered to be less harmful to both the individual and society, this comparison is often skewed when the additional harms produced by the prohibition of drugs like cannabis are included in the harms of cannabis that simply wouldn’t exist in a legal, regulated market.

The impact of the transfer of functions of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse to Public Health England and how this will affect the provision of treatment

I am unsure as to the implications of this however if drugs controlled under the Missuse of Drugs Act 1971 were legalised and regulated then we would be in a better position to provide treatment for those that need it than we are in our current situation.

The availability of “legal highs” and the challenges associated with adapting the legal framework to deal with new substances

The availability of legal highs simply highlights how current policies are not suitable and make a mockery of drugs policy. Reactionary decisions are made on the basis of largely unsubstantiated stories in the media rather than science that are inappropriate. In the case of synthetic cannabinoids manufactured to avoid the laws against cannabis they can be more harmful than the cannabis plant itself demonstrating how current policies undermine what they are designed to achieve. The legal framework needs to be amended to include provision for legal sale of drugs so that producers and sellers can be regulated to be effectively deal with new substances.

The links between drugs, organised crime and terrorism

The vast majority of the links between drugs, organised crime and terrorism stem from current prohibition policies. The cannabis market in the Britain is worth over £6 billion (concluded by the IDMU report “Taxing the UK Cannabis Market”) that the government leaves for organised crime whereby illegal cannabis farms are producing cheap poor quality cannabis often using human trafficked labour sold for an inflated price due to the illegality allowing profits to be maximised to fund other crime and potentially terrorism. This is a direct result of current policy and not cannabis itself. If cannabis were to be taxed and regulated then immediately a large proportion of the funds from this market would be redirected to the legitimate, taxed economy and out of the hands of organised crime.

Whether the UK is supporting its global partners effectively and what changes may occur with the introduction of the national crime agency

Our current adherence to the UN Single Convention is not working. Other countries develop their own policies, such as Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, the Basque region of Spain yet Britain has yet to try alternatives. Current UK policies fail other drug-producing countries by fuelling demand because prohibition has not reduced demand.

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)

Very detailed consideration ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs delimma. In particular with regard to cannabis consideration should be given to removing the criminality from the user and legally regulating the market thus removing the majority of the harms to the user and society associated with cannabis. Legitimate jobs would be created in the new legal cannabis market where taxes would be accrued allowing for the provision of education, health and social services to inform the general public to make educated decisions and sensible decision on drug use and provide help for the minority that may need it. The net result of this is more fiscally sustainable policy that provides a reduction in direct drug harm through quality control we expect from any other legal industry and truthful, scientific education as well as a significant drop in social harms, criminality, and funding to organised crime.

January 2012

1 http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/healthharmsfinal-v1.pdf

Prepared 8th December 2012