Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Dave Harris (DP108)

Introduction

1. My name is Dave Harris. I am writing to this inquiry as a member of the public, with my only political affiliation being as a supporter of Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR.) I believe if any progression in policy is to occur, it makes sense to start with cannabis, being that it is the most socially accepted and widely used illegal drug, and also among the least pharmacologically harmful. I feel there needs to be a drastic change of direction in drug policy with appropriate models of regulation adopted for all drugs in the longer term, and that it should be done carefully in accordance with scientific guidance and evidence. It was clear a decade ago—and so must be abundantly clear at this point—that our current drugs policy is failing drastically in all areas; on health, social and fiscal grounds as well as unduly infringing on private life and personal liberties as it was never intended to do.

Fiscal Responsibility

2. It costs £5,000,000 per annum to enforce prohibition of cannabis according to the IDMU’s report into taxing the UK cannabis market,1 yet it has failed to produce a decrease in usage as was intended. Due to the nature of supply and demand, sentencing a dealer only serves to push up prices for consumers in the short term and create a gap in the market for another dealer to emerge and capitalise.

3. Regulation of cannabis alone is projected to generate up to £9B tax revenue per annum according to the IDMU report commissioned by CLEAR.2 If other drugs were also taxed and regulated, that figure would rise further. This is not an insignificant amount of money—over 2% of total tax revenue for the 2010–11 tax year (£447 billion.3) This is revenue that society needs at this time of great strain on the public purse. If it is accepted that such demand for drugs exists in society, the choice for the government is whether society should buy from the black market or from a tax-paying drug dispensary.

4. All potential tax revenue is currently being gifted to criminal enterprise. Their trade could be undermined through allowing legitimate tax-paying businesses, with which black market dealers’ artificially inflated prices could not compete. While not all illegal trade would disappear (as it has not with cigarettes or alcohol), there would be considerably less incentive to continue trading when cleaner, safer and cheaper legal alternatives exist for people. The United Kingdom desperately needs new industry and jobs, and the recreational drugs industry remains one of the greatest untapped resources.

Health Implications

5. With the drugs trade left to the black market, there are no measures in place to ensure the quality and safety of the drugs being consumed. Heroin is often contaminated, as are shared needles used to inject it, greatly contributing to the spread of HIV and other diseases. Cocaine and MDMA are often cut with other (often more dangerous) substances as bulking agents to maximise profits.4 Cannabis has no restriction or verifiable indication of strength, is sometimes sprayed with harmful pesticides or is mouldy at the point of sale, and some drugs sold as one substance are often another substance entirely (for instance, blotter paper sold as LSD is often found to contain chemicals belonging to the 2C-* and DO* phenethylamine families, which are known to be more pharmacologically harmful.)

6. An unintended side-effect of drug laws is the emergence of “legal highs”. Usually these substances are newly developed or discovered and have little-to-no history of human use; a consequence of which is that their potential harms are often not known or understood. As a result, it is often safer to consume illegal drugs than legal ones. This illuminates the absurdity of our laws; they were introduced with the intent of protecting people, but instead do the very opposite. Blanket prohibition of all new substances (at least until properly investigated) would likely see “legal high” usage plummet. Drug users only resort to legal highs because they are more readily available than generally more desirable illegal drugs.

7. Many illegal drugs demonstrate promise for medicinal use. MDMA is being investigated as a treatment for PTSD, psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms have been researched for their therapeutic value in treating mood disorders. Cannabis in particular is increasingly being adopted for medicinal purposes across the world, known to be beneficial for treating many ailments, including multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, cancer and chronic pain to name a few. In the United Kingdom, we are trailing behind many of the United States and many EU countries that have already adopted cannabis for medicinal use to various degrees. Patients in this country have no choice but to use other less effective or more toxic medications, or resort to the black market.

Social Implications

8. Drug legislation does little to reduce the availability of drugs to minors. Through regulation there could be a strictly enforced age limit, whereas currently illegal traders are only motivated by profit; who they sell to has no consequence if they are already in breach of the law. In some urban areas in particular, it is easier for minors to procure cannabis than alcohol. It is inevitable that even if drugs are regulated, some minors will still obtain them either through friends or family as they currently do with alcohol and tobacco; behaviour which could be more forcefully condemned through education, awareness campaigns or law. It should be made very clear that recreational use of drugs is an adult activity.

9. Despite drug use being no more common among the black minority, they are subject to police stop-and-searches far more often than whites. This leads to more arrests and incarcerations of blacks than whites for drug offences, producing data that appears to correlate drug use disproportionately to blacks. This gives enforcement the rationale to stop-and-search black people more often. There is a circular logic here that has resulted in drug prohibition contributing to racial discrimination.

10. Drugs traders naturally expect no protection by the law, so instead take matters into their own hands in settling disputes with rival businesses; often with violent consequences. The most pertinent example of this is Mexico, where drug cartels run rampant claiming thousands of lives every year, including many innocent civilians. While it is primarily demand for drugs in the United States that funds the crime in Mexico, the United Kingdom also has to be responsible for the social unrest the drugs trade causes domestically and abroad in the hands of gangs.

11. Prohibition artificially inflates the prices of drugs through demand being higher than supply. This becomes particularly problematic with more addictive substances like heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Those who develop addictions will often run out of money and resort to burglary or other crime to fund their addiction. In a regulated system, not only could dosages be controlled, ample warnings be given at the point of purchase (on packaging) to help prevent people becoming addicted in the first place, if the price is affordable there is a smaller chance of addicts resorting to burglary. This needs to be balanced against keeping usage low.

Civil Liberties

12. We do not criminalise all harmful or potentially harmful activities. For example, many outdoor sports, fatty food, use of alcohol and tobacco, and ownership of certain guns. It is the responsibility of the government and law enforcement to protect us from harm others may cause us; it is not their responsibility to protect us from ourselves. Advice about lifestyle should be given by awareness campaigns, doctors, schools and parents, not the law.

13. Drug use does not inherently harm anyone but the user. Our current laws criminalise otherwise innocent and functional members of society for what is essentially a victimless crime. In the worst cases, drug users are imprisoned and given criminal records that follow them for the rest of their lives. While there can be no doubt that drugs can be harmful, and families are constantly losing loved ones to drug abuse, we have to allow adults to be responsible for their own lives and make their own decisions. We do not tolerate racism, sexism or homophobia; we should also not accept persecution of drug users, particularly against those who require them out of medical necessity.

14. Civil rights have been sacrificed in the name of protecting society, being that for most people using drugs is a lifestyle choice. However, millions of citizens in the United Kingdom are using prohibited drugs, and will continue to do so whether it is against the law or not. Attempts to halt this activity through coercion is not only a moral grey area, it is also too expensive and ineffective in respect of all other problems created through prohibition.

Alcohol and Tobacco

15. Society and law already tolerates drug use in this country. Both alcohol and tobacco are widely used, mostly socially accepted, and among the most pharmacologically harmful recreationally used drugs known,5 each contributing towards hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. Despite this, they are often not even referred to as “drugs” by the media, and the harms they cause are vastly under-reported (whereas nearly every Ecstasy-related casualty is reported.) Presumably such a distinction exists only due to their legal status. If the aim of drug classification is to stress the dangers of drugs, then it is wholly inconsistent by excluding alcohol and tobacco.

16. Despite the large amount of harm tobacco causes, current policy is proving successful in minimising harm. Through reducing the availability and visibility of tobacco, banning smoking in public places, as well as education anti-smoking health campaigns, usage over the last decade has fallen considerably and continues to drop. This I believe is the ideal balance between protecting the health of the nation but stopping short of interfering with the private lives of individuals, and similar approaches could be adopted for other drugs.

17. However, alcohol continues to be treated casually, perhaps for cultural reasons. Despite its well-documented destruction to health, binge drinking becoming a huge public nuisance and continually rising usage, the alcohol industry is permitted to self-regulate, alcohol advertisements are permitted on television, and health warnings on labels are unclear and do not go as far as those on cigarette packages. Far more can be done to limit the harm alcohol causes without first restricting sales.

Conclusion

18. Rewriting drug legislation presents an opportunity for the United Kingdom to be a world leader and set an example to other countries. Change in policy need not be a magic bullet; it need only be better than current policy. One thing is certain; if new policies are not experimented with, we will never know how effective they are in practice, and we will be in the same situation in another ten years, having another inquiry. Considering the now overwhelming evidence and the increase in public support for drug law reform, the potential benefits by far outweigh the potential harms. Even the Liberal Democrats voted overwhelmingly to adopt drug decriminalisation and regulated cannabis as a party policy in October, demonstrating that not only is the public ready, but politicians are too. The fact that drugs can be harmful is precisely why the trade should not be left in the hands of criminals. The time is right for a drastic change in direction and to excuse the government for the disastrous policies of the last 40 years.

Executive Summary

19. Policing cannabis prohibition alone costs £5 million annually and has failed reduce use. Tax payers should no longer be required to fund ineffective policies.

20. Billions in potential tax revenue is lost to the black market, and this is no longer affordable. Policy is failing to reduce demand so it must rethink supply.

21. Regulation of drugs could simultaneously create many new jobs and reduce drug related crime.

22. The unregulated supply of drugs is a hazard to the health of drug users and regulation would ensure that any drugs sold are fit for human consumption.

23. “Legal highs” make a mockery of drug laws and in some cases make drug use more hazardous. All new substances could be prohibited by default until their harms have been determined.

24. Drug prohibition stops many drugs from being used as treatments, when they could at least be available via prescription, thereby improving the health of society.

25. Teenagers and children can get drugs too easily, a problem which could be improved by controlling their sale.

26. Current drug laws unfairly discriminate against black minorities.

27. Trade in illegal drugs funds organised crime responsible for the death of thousands of people, therefore drug users need to be offered a socially and morally conscious alternative to the black market.

28. Some addicts will resort to crime to fund their addiction, a problem only exacerbated by high street prices of drugs. Regulating supply to meet demand could reduce prices and addiction-fuelled crime.

29. Many aspects of life are dangerous, and it appears discriminatory to use coercive legislation against users of drugs when such measures are not used for other often more dangerous activities.

30. Drug use intrinsically victimises no-one other than potentially the drug user themselves. If their usage causes no harm, there is no basis for punishment, and if their usage does cause them harm, they should not be punished a second time.

31. The premise that the right to use drugs can be sacrificed for the better safety of society is no longer justified when drug law cannot be demonstrated to be effective, and has itself created so many secondary harms.

32. Messages on alcohol and tobacco are inconsistent with those on drugs and do not reflect the actual harms caused by all substances. It would be consistent to regulate tobacco and particularly alcohol more strictly while introducing degrees of regulation for other drugs.

33. The current regulatory model for tobacco appears to be working well, and policies for other drugs could be based on it.

34. Policy on alcohol is too lenient, and more should be done to discourage use.

January 2012

1 IDMU Ltd, “Taxing the UK Cannabis Market”. clear-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/TaxUKCan.pdf

2 Ibid.

3 “HM Revenue and Customs receipts”. www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/tax_receipts/tax-receipts-and-taxpayers.pdf

4 EcstasyData. http://ecstasydata.org

5 Professor David Nutt, “Estimating Drug Harms.”
www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/opus1714/Estimating_drug_harms.pdf

Prepared 8th December 2012