Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by James Taylor (DP165)

Executive Summary

I am a final year undergraduate chemistry student at a UK university. A significant part of my course is dedicated to the study of compounds that affect the body. We learn how science and reason are applied to the development of compounds that treat disease and the regulatory strategy that governs how they are brought to the market. This has enhanced my awareness of the chemicals I put into my own body and what others may put into theirs. I believe that the strategy the UK government takes in response to the major health issue of drug abuse is urgently in need of reform in order to reduce crime and human suffering and the huge expense this creates.

I have considered:

The inconsistencies in the classification of drugs according to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The degree of harm legal and illegal drugs pose to the individual and society.

The failure of the war on drugs to reduce drug use and related harm.

The success of the war on drugs in installing organised crime in all corners of the country and allowing criminals to profit at the citizen’s expense.

The additional harm to all drug users caused by the criminalisation of drugs.

The established medicinal uses of certain substances to alleviate suffering for which vulnerable people are frequently criminalised.

1. I am aware that every bioactive substance has its individual mode of action, effects and side effects. This affects the potential of a drug to cause harm to an individual or society. The 1979 Misuse of Drugs act aimed to differentiate illicit drugs by relative harm by assigning them to classes A, B or C. This seems a logical strategy until you look at which substances are assigned where. Class A drugs are claimed to cause the most devastation to the user and society. In this category are heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, which are all highly addictive with serious long term health effects. I would agree that these are some of the most harmful drugs in existence. However, in the same category are MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD. These drugs have a higher therapeutic index than the other drugs making death by overdose far less likely. They have a far lower potential for addiction and therefore score much lower on Dr David Nutt’s scale of drug harm.1

The problem here is the message that LSD and ecstasy are just as dangerous as cocaine, heroin and crystal meth. A user of ecstasy for example might reason that class A drugs aren’t as dangerous as everyone makes them out to be because they have taken one without ruining their life. It ruins the credibility of drug education and with all of these drugs in the same market, increases the likelihood of the aforementioned user to try even more harmful drugs.

2. Cannabis is included in class B, the same category as ketamine. Does the harm match up?

Based on the criteria of individual and societal harm, where would alcohol with its astronomical cost to the NHS place among these substances?

Cannabis is by far the most widely used illicit drug, with sales estimated at £6 billion each year.2 A significant portion of this goes to organised criminals, those who may also have a stake in human trafficking operations. Cannabis factories bring these criminals into residential areas. The product of these factories is the cannabis equivalent of the bathtub gin from the 1920s prohibitionist USA. Dubbed “skunk” by street dealers and press alike, it is grown purely for weight and potency. It may contain dangerous levels of fertilisers and pesticides which would be flushed before harvesting by a personal or medicinal grower. It could be adulterated with another drug. PCP was once common, now it is likely that “legal highs”, synthetic cannabinoids made for research and not tested for human consumption, are added due to their low price and high availability. Such compounds, marketed as “Spice”, “K2” or “Legal Bud” may cause serious health problems.3 When one is banned, sellers move onto the next structural analogue, often more untested and dangerous than the one before.4 Even without the inclusion of other substances, skunk is grown primarily for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. THC is the major psychoactive component of cannabis, yet THC alone may cause paranoia and anxiety. Another compound, cannabidiol (CBD) is known to moderate the effects of THC and is thought to contribute significantly to medicinal effects (Sativex is a formulation of whole cannabis extracts, containing THC and CBD in an approximately 1:1 ratio, marketed by GW pharmaceuticals and approved for sale as a medicine in the UK).5, 6 In places where medicinal or recreational cannabis users can grow or purchase cannabis without fear of prosecution (eg California, the Netherlands), the average CBD/THC ratio of the cannabis is higher. Those with existing psychotic or schizophrenic symptoms will likely experience greater aggravation of those symptoms in places where growing of cannabis is criminalised due to prohibition skunk being the only cannabis available.

3. Switzerland have taken the approach of allowing the cultivation of up to four cannabis plants by one person for personal use, allowing cannabis users to cease to support drug dealers and to eliminate the additional health risks from prohibition skunk. This also removes the added dangers of “legal highs” marketed as a cannabis substitutes as given the choice, users will always choose cannabis due to the unreliability and danger of these untested substances.

The primary goal of the Misuse of Drugs Act was not to improve public health or reduce crime, but simply to eliminate all use of illicit drugs which has since proven to be impossible. Why should we continue with the same strategy and expect different results? It is time for a more considered approach which is centred on public health. As an act of compassion we must urgently cease to prosecute medicinal users of cannabis with serious and debilitating conditions. We should focus our funds and efforts on improving public health, ending the prohibition of certain, less dangerous drugs such as cannabis and decriminalising others to encourage addicts to seek help.

References

1 Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis, The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9752, Pages 1558–65, 6 November 2010.

2 Taxing the UK Cannabis Market, A report commissioned by CLEAR, IMDU Ltd, http://clear-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/TaxUKCan.pdf As accessed 9 February 2012, 20:24 GMT.

3 Warning: Legal Synthetic Cannabinoid Rector Agonists such as JH-018 may Precipitate Psychosis in Vulnerable Individuals, Addiction, Volume 105, Issue 10, pages 1859–60, October 2010.

4 Synthetic Cannabinoids: The Newest, Almost Illicit Drug of Abuse www.emedmag.com/PDF/043020026.pdf As accessed 9 February 2012, 21:00 GMT.

5 Distinct Effects of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol and Cannabidiol on Neural Activation During Emotional Processing, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009; 66(1): 95–105.

6 Sativex, www.medicines.org.uk/EMC/medicine/23262/SPC/Sativex+Oromucosal+Spray/
As accessed 9 February 2012, 21:10 GMT

2 http://clear-uk.org/some-people-smoke-weed/ As accessed 9 February 2012, 20:00 GMT.

February 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012