Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Anthony Coombs and Alexander Coombs (DP193)

I make the following submission as a former Member of the House and jointly with my son Alexander Coombs.

Our purpose is to make the case for the legalisation of medical cannabis and for it to be made available via licensed, taxed, and regulated dispensaries for medical use. Medical cannabis would only be made available to patients that had been approved and verified by a fully qualified and licensed doctor. It would be dispensed—and the user registered—only through licensed outlets such as doctor’ surgeries, medical centres, hospitals and pharmacies.

Whilst we accept that, like any drug, including tobacco and alcohol, excessive use (particularly by adolescents and those particularly susceptible) may lead to undesirable side effects. We feel that legal access to medical cannabis would have a number of advantages. It would save Police and Court time for many cases of simple possession and cultivation; improve and control the quality supplied; and reduce consumer’s exposure to other drugs and substances whilst purchasing their cannabis.

The vast majorities of drug dealers do not just sell one particular type of drug, and will just sell what is most profitable or available, without giving a second thought to their customers’ health or well being. Creating a fully regulated and taxed market, would lessen the power and profits of criminals and organised crime.

The benefits would be enormous. First, in reducing people trafficking where gangs force illegal immigrants to work as cannabis gardeners, confining them to grow locations for months at a time and physically and mentally abusing them and threatening their families. Illegal cannabis factories also create huge health and safety problems damaging property, causing electricity theftpans creating a major fire hazard not just for the cultivation property, but all those properties surrounding them.

As you will be aware, drugs policy internationally dating back to the UN Convention of 1998 has been based upon the misplaced and unrealistic hope that Government action can produce “a drug free world”. Drug users of all kinds from the casual and recreational to the confirmed addict—were basically regarded as miscreants. The assumption was that antisocial and irresponsible behaviour could and should be deterred, controlled and ultimately eliminated by sufficiently draconian use of the criminal law.

The success of this policy was to be measured by the number of drug arrests, convictions and seizures by law enforcement agencies. Drugs policy was to focus on enforcement and not reform and was to be the province of Interior and Justice Departments rather than health agencies.

Much like the Jesuits curing heresy during the Inquisition, or Victorian Poorhouses promoting moral reform and financial responsibility, Government policy in the UK and UN has used punishment to solve problems which are essentially personal, psychological and emotional. Being “tough on crime” for the satisfaction of Daily Mail readers has been both ineffective in controlling use but all too effective in unnecessarily criminalizing large numbers of harmless citizens.

As a result, Government drugs policy has been both inconsistent and ineffective—as David Cameron recognized when a member of your Committee in relation to cannabis, the nadir of this approach was reached under the last Government. Having actually downgraded the classification of cannabis in 2004 from a grade B drug to grade C, only five years later it performs a volte face and upgrades again to B.... and that against the advice of its own expert committee on drugs policy. Its chairman consequently resigned.

As a UN commission review recently pointed out, the results of such policies have been ineffective, disproportionate, unjust and in many cases positively counter productive in maintaining drugs prices and hence incentivising criminal activity, by making it more profitable.

Their spectacular failure is evidenced in the increased use worldwide of Opiates (34%) Cannabis (8%) and Heroin (27%) in the decade since 1998 when the UN’s crusade began. For instance there are currently an estimated 160 million Cannabis users throughout the world, most of whom are using the drug sensibly and recreationally. An increasing number are using it for medicinal purposes’ for treating the systems of Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, psychological illness and as palliative pain relief.

We recognise that whatever the wishes of the UN Commission in changing legal regimes for ALL drugs, the current political climate in the UK could make this difficult. Hence the great importance of your Committee’s inquiry and the influence it will have on the current climate for decision making.

We believe there is now an overwhelming case for the decriminalization, subject to the controls stipulated above, of cannabis in particular. In Britain it is regularly and responsibly used by around one million of our fellow citizens. You will be aware from testimony given to your committee by Sir Richard Branson that Portugal did actually decriminalise all drugs use in the past decade and has found that use has nevertheless continued to decline. More important, drugs related violence and other crimes have reduced, and the number of young people becoming regular users has also fallen as the “thrill and allure” of drugs has dropped out of fashion.

Similarly, certain states of America and some counties within California have decriminalised cannabis use if medically prescribed at certain centres. Again, the slight downward trend in cannabis use has continued after decriminalization; other benefits like access to medical treatment for heavy users have also been seen.

Finally Holland, or more specifically the towns in the north surrounding Amsterdam, have, for many years allowed the use, purchase and small scale growing of cannabis as legal. If anything, the result has been more responsible behaviour surrounding this and other drugs and a shutting off of funds previously cornered by criminals.

An alternative approach to full legalisation would be depenalisation, with law enforcement basically turning a blind eye to use of certain soft drugs. Although this is the effective policy by police in many cities in the UK it is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. First, selective use or enforcement of the criminal law can never be desirable—on grounds of consistency, fairness and general respect for the law. Second, it would still restrict supply, thus risking profiteering and cannabis of poor and even dangerous quality. Third, the path for real rehabilitation for over-users, through the medical profession, would be blocked.

We are therefore asking your committee to recommend the full legalisation of cannabis provided that supply is through controlled and licensed outlets, as described above.

Even here the supply would be limited—the amount would be discussed by doctors—and quality and place of origin would be monitored. Actual consumption in public places could be restricted in exactly the way cigarettes are now.

Most important, this would guide users away from confronting the criminal justice system and instead open the door of our health and social system. Indeed there have been recent newspaper reports that Chief Police officers are already instituting a system of warnings for small scale personal use and even personal cultivation.

In short it appears that good practice and the Zeitgeist are seriously out of kilter with both the current criminal law on dealing with, and classifying, Cannabis in particular. Sensible reform based upon responsible, medically sanctioned use would be practical, proportionate and just.

June 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012