Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
TUESDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2001
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 marketyou 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.
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
(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
245. You have addressed tolerance, now address
(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 possessionanother
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
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.
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
(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
(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
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
(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.