Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. I am very flattered! I had the time to hone it to such beauty. One final question in this section: a number of you have talked about Holland, particularly on cannabis, what information can we glean from what is going on in other countries?
  (Mr Davies) On heroin, Switzerland—

  241. I would like someone to talk about Sweden if possible as well because they have more restrictions.
  (Mr Davies) On the prescription of heroin, the most interesting work has been done in Switzerland since 1994, where they had a ghastly black market—you may have seen the pictures of the needle park in Zurich with junkies everywhere, it was horrible stuff. They set up a prescribing programme and in fact just last week in The Lancet there was this very interesting report. I have looked up the figure, among the existing users of heroin the abstinence rate at the end of the three years is 29 per cent, which Keith Hellawell would give his soul for, it is extremely high. They have taken them out of the black market, stabilised them, given them a chance to get work and a home and all the rest, and then to deal with the underlying problem. It has been tremendously successful. Is it helpful if I send the report to you?


  242. Extremely helpful, thank you.
  (Mr Buffry) As far as cannabis is concerned, most of this has come from newspapers of course around the world. Holland at the moment are about to allow cannabis on prescription and about to tolerate large-scale farming of cannabis. Australia are happy with the effects of decriminalisation in South Australia. Belgium are in the process of decriminalising cannabis. They say that non-problematic use should not be a matter for the law. The Swiss are moving to legalise cannabis. In Canada, the High Court struck down the law banning the possession of cannabis based on the constitutional rights of people to self-medicate. The Ukraine are considering decriminalising the personal use of drugs. Portugal are decriminalising the personal use of drugs. Jamaica are holding a commission recommending that cannabis is legalised. Thailand are considering the decriminalisation of all drug use. The Catalan Parliament in Spain are pushing for legalisation of cannabis. Mostly the countries around the world seem to be changing their policy based upon constitutional rights.

Bridget Prentice

  243. Can someone respond on those areas where they have been going back from that, for example, Alaska or Sweden?
  (Mr Kushlick) Alaska is an important one. The Dutch evidence cited by the Home Office was fairly disingenuous when they talked about the increase in cannabis use which has taken place since the coffee shop system was put in place, because their rates of increasing prevalence were no different from the increasing prevalence in any other European state. It is the same. To say that is due to coffee shops is a lie.


  244. It could just be a mistake. You must accept that possibility.
  (Mr Kushlick) I am prepared to entertain that as an idea, however what I saw in a lot of the evidence was an attempt to rubbish a lot of interesting experiments which have taken place around the world with good evidence to support what they are doing. It seems to me the important question to us is why are they doing it. It certainly is not to wind up civil servants in the Home Office.

Bridget Prentice

  245. You have addressed tolerance, now address Alaska.
  (Mr Kushlick) Alaska had a tolerance of cannabis use for a long time, went for legalisation, and I do not know why it failed and why they changed their view on it, I would guess it was pressure federally which pushed them to do that. The Alaskans still have the most tolerant regime towards cannabis anywhere in North America, it is still decriminalised for personal possession—another mistake by the Home Office, they said it had been recriminalised. They certainly made changes which moved away from some of the progressive moves they had made, but possession in Alaska is still decriminalised. In terms of Sweden, I do not know much about what happened there, I know they operate tough prohibition, but if it works for them, I say fair play to them. If they are not running an inquiry into decriminalisation, they are not going to examine that policy. I think the danger is, we say, "It works over there, so let's see how it works over here."

  246. But that is exactly what you are asking us to do in terms of those who have a more liberal regime.
  (Mr Kushlick) Let's take a look at what they are doing.

  247. Some of us may argue that Sweden as a society is closer to us in lots of ways and perhaps the restrictions they have put on amphetamines might be more appropriate for us to use.
  (Mr Kushlick) We operate some of the toughest drug policies in the whole of Europe, we are pretty close to Sweden, and it does not work. If it works, let's carry on, if the evidence is there. I do not do this for fun, although I get some fun out of my job—

  248. So it is not an ideological position?
  (Mr Kushlick) I started asking Michael Howard when he was Home Secretary for evidence of the benefits of operating prohibition. Three and a half months later I got these very strange replies from somebody in the Home Office telling me how dangerous cannabis was. When I asked Tony Blair why, if prohibition caused more crime than it sought to solve, he told me he was terrified for his children. If I had asked him how terrified he was about his children, that would have been a bloody good answer, but that was not the question I asked and seemed to miss the point a little. What we have been doing is trying to create and look at an evidence base for what works. If it works in Sweden, good luck to them but it does not work here.

  249. I do not want you to miss the point we are getting at either. Is there a bit more about Sweden?
  (Mr Evans) There are two things about Sweden. Number one, Sweden in 1920 with this awful American deal went further than anywhere else except France and actually criminalised the consumption of all drugs. The rest of us, including those with the Dangerous Drugs Act, only criminalised . So the Commons in 1920 refused to criminalise consumption, the personal act of consumption, but Sweden and France went the whole hog and criminalised consumption as well.

Mr Cameron

  250. What is the difference between consumption and use? Sorry.
  (Mr Evans) Consumption is the actual act of consuming it. Use is simply being in possession. Perhaps I should have said "possession" and "consumption". We only criminalised possession, not use, or consumption. Sweden and France went back from Versailles and criminalised actual use, the consumption of the drug itself. They have maintained for the last 80 years a very tough regime, there is no doubt about that, they have had 80 years of practice of running a very tough regime. Secondly, my impression is, and when you are evaluating the Swedish evidence I would ask you to take this into account, although Sweden is similar to us in many respects has always given heavier weight to collectivist reasoning and collective benefit than to human rights in contrast to the individualism of this country's tradition, which prevented the Commons from rendering consumption illegal in 1920. They said, "No, we are not going to make it illegal to consume anything. That goes against fundamental liberal principles". Sweden ignored that and made the actual consumption illegal and shows there is a difference, however great the similarity is, between our two value systems. I do not have detailed figures.

Mr Prosser

  251. We have heard a lot this morning about the view that cannabis is almost harmless, some people say it makes them yawn, it is boring, it has almost fallen off the scale, and Alun Buffry has told us about a US research paper which does almost bring it down to zero for harmful effects. Yet other witnesses have come to us and talked about the dangers of psychosis, the dangers of exacerbating schizophrenia, and one group keeps telling us that cannabis can blow your mind. Even in the course of this morning's discussion, I got the impression from Nick Davies that heroin in its pure, protected form in a legalised regime is less harmful as a drug, as a chemical, than cannabis.
  (Mr Davies) That is correct.

  252. So you see the difficulty people like us have in pulling all that together. Have I picked up those messages correctly?
  (Mr Davies) You have. The specific difficulty with heroin is that the statistical information on which all the academic and Home Office researchers do their job is completely polluted by the black market drug. So the coroner at his inquest says, "This is a heroin death" but he was consuming black market heroin. The researchers at the Maudsley Hospital then look at it and say, "Heroin is very dangerous, it is killing people, we have to keep it illegal". I would say, remember the point of principle here, even if we manage to produce an agreed league table, ranking all the drugs in order of harmfulness, the mistake is to say, "Let's ban the ones at the top of the table". You have to say, "Does the drug become more or less dangerous if we ban it?" Whether it is physical and mental health or social health, they will always become dangerous if banned. I would not mind my children smoking cannabis, even though I understand it to be implicated in lung cancer, memory loss and anxiety attacks, but if it is illegal they are exposed to the social damage of being involved in crime, so they get a criminal record, they cannot get their American visa, they cannot get a job. I do not want them exposed to that but I am happy for them to run that small health risk. With other drugs which are pharmaceutical, where you have some idiot criminal in the laboratory putting them together, your ecstasy, heroin and amphetamine sulphate, it is a complete lottery and then you can get the physical and mental damage.

  253. If you were to create this league table of harmful effects but particularly take into account the adulteration of the drug or the misuse of the drug, would it still be an arbitrary list or could you still have a league table and say the most likely drug which causes damage and death when adulterated is heroin?
  (Mr Davies) I am not sure about this. Cannabis is organic, as Alun says, you take the plant, chop it up and smoke it, so there is not much opportunity for adulterating it but anything which is put together in a laboratory is capable of being adulterated. I am not sure if you can make a terribly helpful distinction between the adulteration of LSD, heroin, amphetamine sulphate, and which is most likely as a result to kill you, you would have to put any of those adulterated black market drugs much higher than cannabis.
  (Mr Evans) Can I make a point which has been made to me by a number of the drugs campaigners. Heroin has emerged as a highly concentrated form of opium, and it is in itself the product of prohibition, because if you go back before prohibition of course people smoked opium through bubble pipes or whatever, but you cannot go around trafficking a large armful of opium in its poppy form, you have to distil it and therefore heroin is an extremely powerful distillation of an opiate drug. It is much easier to transport, it is much easier to smuggle here from Afghanistan than an armful of poppies. It is a drug which has virtually been created by the prohibited trade because it is easier to carry around and most concentrated.
  (Mr Kushlick) We sloganise legalising drugs because they are dangerous, not because they are safe, but if it is true that those drugs which we have chosen to criminalise are so dangerous, why is not the Department of Health leading on this? I read the transcripts of people who were giving evidence last week and it was astonishing to hear Rosemary Jenkins saying, "I think the Home Office are doing a great job, we will pick up the pieces after they have referred them the through the criminal justice system." If I was in the Department of Health and part of their drugs strategy, I would be saying, "Give me my damn patients back, will you stop locking them up?" If it is to do with the damage which drugs are causing or the underlying issues which are leading them to misuse, whatever, it is to do with harm, and this is something which really has fallen off the agenda here. It is a Department of Health issue, not a Home Office one. We do not deal with anything like that.
  (Mr Buffry) I would like to say two points as regards cannabis. One, the evidence contradicts what is seen from studies on actual populations of people who smoke the plant and clinical trials which have come from laboratory experiments using concentrated THC on mice, monkeys and rats. Much of the evidence that cannabis is harmful comes from the World Health Organisation report and they themselves deal with this conflicting evidence by saying that a great many assumptions have been made in extrapolating from the health effects observed in laboratory animals to probable health effects of equivalent doses and patterns of use in humans. In addition, there may be problems in extrapolating studies on the purity of THC to human experience with cannabis preparations. The plant material contains many other compounds both cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid in nature, and the possibility must always be considered that differences between experimental and clinical observations may be due in part to the effects of these other substances. The second point, regarding adulteration, is a lot of cannabis resin which is on the streets today is of very, very low quality. I have written several times to the Government to ask them if they have ever done any survey on the non-cannabis content in confiscated cannabis, and all I have ever been told is that cannabis contains 400 cannabinoids. I have been told that the cannabis I have seen on the streets has stuff like barbiturates and kefamine inside as well as boot polish and solvents and glues to bind it back into a block. It is commonly referred to as "soap bar" which is sold on the streets. It originates mostly in places like Morocco where they produce slabs of pure cannabis which is then broken down by unscrupulous suppliers and cut. When that gets on the streets many young people who do not know the difference may be smoking that and some of their problems might be coming from the stuff in that pure cannabis.

  254. What do you feel would be the effect of the encouragement, or discouragement I should say, of people seeking treatment under a regime which legalised drugs and almost made it unacceptably tolerable? With all the diverse opinions we have had this morning there is a common theme, everyone agrees that taking drugs, especially tobacco, is harmful and we want to get off it and want treatment for it, but in this new picture of the future which some of you have painted, would it be easier or less easy to seek treatment?
  (Mr Buffry) I think it would be much easier. I have personal experience of somebody who was diagnosed as suffering from cannabis psychosis. He went to Jamaica and sat with Rastas in Jamaica and his mind went and he was brought back to the country by his wife and taken to hospital, and he told the doctors he had smoked about 8 oz of cannabis overnight in Jamaica and, as I say, he was diagnosed as suffering from cannabis psychosis. What he did not tell the doctors was he had also snorted about half an ounce of cocaine. This is one of the problems we get, the fact the drugs are illegal means people are less likely to go for help as soon as they need it because of fear of arrest, and when they do go for help they are more likely to say, "I smoked cannabis" rather than, "I have taken amphetamines or cocaine", simply because it is regarded as more socially acceptable.
  (Mr McNicholas) If we are to take drugs into a legal framework where we say, "This is something which as a society we will talk about", we still as a society do not properly have the language for that discourse. We are still learning what it is. People are very wary about speaking about their own personal drug use or about drugs in general. The situation has changed radically in the media over the last couple of years. Previously, if you mentioned any kind of legalisation of drugs, you were considered an absolute psycho, now you have a situation where most of the broadsheets want legalisation of some form or another. Even the Daily Mail reacted to the reclassification of cannabis with a question rather than with vitriol. By taking these things and bringing them into society and recognising they are part of society, that is when you start to have the discourse and you start to say, "These are things we can accept. If you are having problems, we have institutions, areas, places, which are available where you can seek help." You look at the advertising which is going on at the moment to try and lose some of the stigma about people who have mental health problems. The Government advertising says something like three-quarters of the population suffer from depression or not being able to sleep or anxiety or stress at some stage. They are all mental issues and it is something which is a concern to all of us. The same can be said of drug use for large sections of society but as long as you try and keep the lid on it and pretend it does not happen and it is dirty and wrong, people are less likely to seek treatment than if you say, "We understand your situation, we have institutions in place for you."

  255. But if all the young people going to clubs sought treatment and it was effective and they came off these so-called dance drugs, the whole culture of the club would change.
  (Mr Kushlick) Let us make it clear, people use drugs because they enjoy them. Well, there are two reasons, because they are really enjoying what they are doing or they want to avoid something.

  256. Or they are hooked on them?
  (Mr Kushlick) Yes, so the feelings people get when they come off them are too much for them, so they want to continue to take the drug. So it is either to feel good or to stop feeling bad. It is really simple. Most people want to continue to feel good, so in any using population there is only a minority who want treatment at any one time. We need to get it out of our heads this idea that everyone who is hooked on drugs wants to get off them. A lot of people who smoke tobacco just continue to smoke, they are not anxious to seek treatment all the time. The Home Office will tell you that the important thing about having the criminal justice system in place is that people can access treatment through it, and that is true, but if you throw most of your treatment money through the criminal justice system, that is where it will be. If you prohibit drugs, people will be inclined to go through those systems. If you provide it before they get in trouble with the law, they will access it then and they will not come out robbing our cars and houses.

  257. In your earlier evidence, Mr Evans, you made the point that the Angel Group wanted to see reform and a change of policy, and that would probably be decriminalisation or legalisation.
  (Mr Evans) Legalisation.

  258. But then you said, quite frankly, what a difficult job this was for all of us and governments of any complexion. Have you any advice on how we set off on that journey?
  (Mr Evans) It would be nice to set off on the journey. It is a matter of talking about it and talking about all the evils of the present regime. The present regime is an appalling catalogue of indignity to our young people, of inhumanity and insensitivity to our children, and the creation of appalling risks to our children.


  259. We understand all that.
  (Mr Evans) We have to talk about it. The answer is, you have to talk about it.

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