Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Brian Plester (DP046)

I am a 54 year old software developer from Milton Keynes and I would like to take this opportunity to give the Committee the benefit of my thoughts and experience with regard to drugs and my opinions on drug policy. While at university in the 70s, “sex and drugs and rock & roll” were almost part of the curriculum. I have tried a few, I have seen other people try a few more, and I have had friends die or become mentally ill due to their effects.

The largest supplier of drugs in this country is Her Majesty’s Government; excise duty on alcohol and tobacco is directly equivalent to protection money.

Is present policy fiscally responsible?

1. With regard to cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine, MDMA and heroin; absolutely not. The amount of time and money taken by the police and courts, versus the very significant potential tax income—especially with cannabis. Prohibition is a completely fiscally irresponsible policy; it’s a liability instead of an asset.

2. With regard to alcohol and nicotine; absolutely not. While the excise duty collected by licensed vendors makes a significant contribution to HM Exchequer, it is usurped by the cost to the NHS, police & courts in dealing with their consequences.

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

Science

3. Absolutely not: alcohol and nicotine are known to be toxic poisons, cannabis is not. You cannot die from cannabis poisoning. While there is scientific evidence which supports the view that cannabis may cause psychosis in susceptible individuals, there are millions of regular users in the UK who suffer no ill effects from its use at all and place no burden on the NHS, have regular employment and contribute to society via taxes and community engagement. Compare this to alcohol, which has millions more regular users and places an enormous burden on the NHS, police and courts.

4. Cannabis in the form of hemp used to be a major cash crop in the UK and USA. The fibres can be used to make fabric, paper and rope (at least). The utilisation of this versatile and safe crop is very restricted, to the point of strangulation by drug policy and enforcement, despite these “commercial” crops being grown with a variety of cannabis very low in Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. Powerful vested interests must be at work to deny society the benefits of hemp.

Health

5. Absolutely not. I repeat, alcohol and nicotine are both toxic. Cannabis is non-toxic. Why are toxic and dangerous drugs legal, but non-toxic, relatively very harmless drugs illegal? Why is there no mention of alcohol in the misuse of drugs act? My father was a smoker and he died from lung cancer.

6. While reading for my biology (botany) degree in the late 70s I came across a scientific journal with a series of articles describing 101 medicinal uses of cannabis. Thirty years later, the number of medicinal uses is unlikely to have decreased. I remember that cannabis had been proved to be effective in the treatment of both high and low blood pressure, having a “normalising” influence, as well as treatment of glaucoma.

7. Most importantly among the other 98 uses is the ability of cannabis to offer pain relief, and relief to the nauseating effects of some chemotherapy. Cannabis pain relief could be prescribed at a far lower cost and with fewer side-effects than traditional pain relief drugs, making it a safer choice. Cannabis has passed the test of time.

8. Cannabis in the form of solid hashish and other “powder” drugs (cocaine, amphetamine, MDMA, heroin etc.) are prone to adulteration with compounds one would probably not wish to consume, if you knew what they were. The same drugs available at a local pharmacy, by comparison would be of known measurable quality, consumption of which would be less injurious to the health of its consumers than an adulterated product. A lodger died during my university days because the heroin he took was much stronger than usual. If he’d got it from Boots he’d probably still be alive, and holding-down his regular job today. Similarly herbal cannabis grown under license one would hope would be free from contamination with fungicides, herbicides and other potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

9. Cannabis and alcohol are “opposite” drugs; the former belongs to a class of drugs called “stimulants”; they have the ability to stimulate the central nervous system, which is why many writers, artists and musicians enjoy their benefits. The latter drug belongs to a class of drugs called “depressants” which have the opposite effect on the central nervous system; a modest amount makes us gregarious, much more and we become intolerant. Critically, if you consume both at the same time, the two drugs fight for supremacy with your central nervous system as the battleground. You don’t need a degree in neuro-pharmacology to see that at best you’ll end up with a headache. At worst in the long term you may have metal health problems; I’ve seen it happen. If the government want a healthy population, then this kind of common-sense information about not mixing stimulant & depressant drugs, medicinal or recreational, needs to be more widely available. As does the ability to figure out which is which. Is aspirin a stimulant? It’s commonly available in tablet form mixed with caffeine, so typically, yes. If you smoke cannabis or snort some cocaine, then stick to tea, fruit juice & water for liquid refreshment and avoid alcohol. If you’ve had some aspirin and you want to get intoxicated, then take a stimulant not a depressant. Better still, don’t get intoxicated at all.

10. Cannabis has fewer adverse reactions than many common medicines available over the counter in a pharmacy. There are now hundreds of peer reviewed studies which document the beneficial effects of cannabis. I point the committee to “Emerging Clinical Applications For Cannabis & Cannabinoids, A Review of the Recent Scientific Literature, 2000–11” available online.1 Why is all this research totally ignored in government drug policy?

Security

11. Who’s security? Certainly not mine. I am far more at risk of violent attack from someone under the influence of alcohol than I am by someone “chilled out” having smoked a “joint”—unless they’ve adulterated the cannabis with other depressant drugs. I can compare crowd behaviour at Wembley during and after a football match compared to, say, a Pink Floyd concert.; I know which crowd I feel safer in. Why is alcohol banned at football matches?

Human rights

12. Absolutely not. Cannabis users who are otherwise law abiding, hard working, tax-paying, family supporting, community engaged people are under the constant threat of criminalisation from a vindictive power of authority. More importantly people suffering from ailments such as MS and cancer are under threat of criminalisation for trying to alleviate the effects of the ailment or its treatment, with a relatively harmless and non-toxic drug.

13. By comparison, alcohol users regularly abuse other people’s human rights by aggressive or violent behaviour. Ask any policeman or casualty nurse.

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

14. What criteria do the government actually use to measure efficacy?

If it’s the number of arrests for possession or cultivation, then any number above zero indicates an increasing degree of policy failure.

If it’s the amount of money spent by the NHS to deal with the effects of drugs, then it’s an absolute policy failure. Alcohol would be banned tomorrow if that was a criterion.

If it’s a valuation of the time spent by the police and courts to deal with the consequences of drug use, then it’s a policy failure.

If it’s a measure of the value of the drug related turnover of the black market, then it’s a huge policy failure.

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

15. There is plenty of independent, expert, peer-reviewed evidence and advice available to the government, which it chooses to ignore. The resignation of professor Nutt from the drugs advisory council was a clear measure of how the government chooses to ignore the expert evidence and advice available to it.

It begs the question as to what forces are at work to make the government choose to supply toxic as opposed to non-toxic drugs?

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

16. If there is a reduction of expenditure on drug-related policing as a result of budget reductions, then this will have a beneficial effect of reducing the likelihood that people suffering from MS or cancer might be criminalised by trying to alleviate the effects of their condition. Actually this can be viewed as a good reason to reduce police budgets.

The cost effectiveness of different policies to reduce drug usage

17. A policy of prohibition is clearly, and historically hopelessly ineffective and expensive to police. Where there is a demand, there will always be a supply.

By contrast, a policy of legalisation has been shown in Holland, Portugal and the US to lead to a reduction in demand. The cost of policing a policy of legalisation (licensing, quality control, etc) must surely be cheaper and more effective in reducing demand than the cost of policing a failing prohibition policy.

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

18. Much of the damage to health caused by taking drugs is down to a lack of simple knowledge—like not mixing stimulants & depressants for example. Damage to health is also caused by compounds used to adulterate drugs.

19. There will always be a demand for drugs, and we know prohibition doesn’t work so on the basis that a percentage of the population will always be taking drugs, then surely it’s in society’s interest to minimise the damaging effects on health. By legalising drugs, the quality can be controlled. In reality how many people are going to go to Boots the chemist and buy a gram of cocaine or a few grams of cannabis for the weekend? Some will, but for many, especially among the younger generation it simply won’t be a “cool” thing to do. Legalisation will have the effect of reducing peer pressure to take drugs.

The relationship between drug and alcohol abuse

20. Is this a trick question? By any definition, alcohol is a drug, so the question becomes “The relationship between drug and drug abuse”. This a fair question; I have already made the distinction between stimulant and depressant drugs and why it’s not a good idea to mix them. Of all the people who have ever been addicted to any type of drug, I am certain the vast majority first got intoxicated on alcohol, and then moved-on to try the intoxicating effects of other compounds. Alcohol is the main “gateway” to trying other drugs.

The comparative harm and cost of legal and illegal drugs

21. Is this another trick question? I would say that alcohol and nicotine are expensive and the harm they cause and their cost to society is well documented. Cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine and MDMA for example are also expensive, due to their illegality rather than excise duty, but the harm they cause and the cost to society is much less clear.

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

22. I have no opinion to offer. Why would one group of civil servants be better than another group of civil servants?

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

23. Another trick question. What is a “legal high”? I get “high” after having consumed chilli. Should chilli be considered to be a “legal high”? Should every Indian & Thai restaurant be licensed to sell legal highs?

24. There will always be a demand for drugs, so what is the point of some lawyers playing a cat & mouse game with some chemists? There will be no point in designing and manufacturing “legal highs” (in the sense of the question) if something with similar effect is available in Boots at a modest cost and known quality.

The links between drugs, organised crime and terrorism

25. Yet another trick question. What is the government definition of a “terrorist”?

I have no opinion to offer on any link there may or may not be between drugs & terrorism, but I’m willing to bet that more than a few “terrorists” have taken alcohol (except the Muslim ones presumably)—particularly if the definition of “terrorist” includes everyone treated under the terrorism acts—including the people who heckle at party political conferences.

26. A cynic might say that drug policy is deliberately aimed at prohibition to keep the police and courts busy. If drugs were legal, then the “organised crime” aspect evaporates overnight and so does a lot of work for the police & courts.

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

27. I have no opinion to offer.

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)

28. I have only just become aware of the opportunity to submit written evidence to the committee so I have not had time to read these reports, thus I don’t know what the recommendations were. I would say however that we most certainly do urgently need to look at alternative ways of tackling the damage caused to society by drug abuse.

Summary

29. In short I recommend the aims of the Cannabis Law Reform group (CLEAR), but I also support the legalisation of all drugs. I think we need two things:

1.Education and information based on the scientific facts. Treat people as adults, give people access to all the information and let them decide how to live their lives.

Who is teaching us that other personal activities like exercise or making and performing music, or sports like sailing for example are a better “buzz” than intoxication? We should be tackling the need which people feel to get intoxicated in the first place. Controlling the desire to get intoxicated is nothing to do with law and order, it’s a health/spiritual/moral issue and there is a total vacuum regarding authority in this respect.

2.License and control the supply, distribution and quality of all drugs, not just alcohol and nicotine.

January 2012

1 http://norml.org/component/zoo/category/recent-research-on-medical-marijuana

Prepared 8th December 2012