I attended the ACMD cannabis classification hearings on February 5th. There were 23 speakers in all, representing opinion and expertise from a range of fields relevant to the issue (see the whole list here). There were speakers from mental heath charities (Rethink and Sane) , a range of speakers on cannabis potency, cannabis and mental health, cannabis and lung damage, cannabis and driving, cannabis policy and law, as well as parents of cannabis users. It was comprehensive to the point of tedium; I was there for the whole occasionally interesting but generally rather miserable day and if there is a condition called power point induced psychosis, I was in danger of suffering it by nightfall. It was also in the grisly Excel conference center in the middle of nowhere, a magnificent 25 tube stops from my house.
There was even more evidence heard away from the public eye the following day (apparently unpublished draft research not for public dissemination), and of course the ACMD itself represents a considerable body of expertise. On top of all this were the written submissions from the speakers, and many others besides, which constituted four terrifying inch-think black ring-bound volumes. The committee (of around forty) spent three days in session and were expected to have read through all the written submissions in advance. It didn’t strike me a trifling exercise.
By contrast, reading an account of the ACMD hearings by David Raynes, old Transform sparring partner, occasional blog contributer, and representative of the NDPA, you would be excused for thinking the entire event was some sort of illuminati style plot, staged by a corrupt committee whose mind was already made up, and that the ACMD chair was guilty of ‘loading the witnesses with legalisers’ as head of some sinister pro-pot conspiracy (as also espoused by Melanie Philips in the Spectator ) .
The reality is somewhat different. Of the 23 speakers I was the only speaker, as the representative of Transform, nominally advocating for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, but since this was not an issue on the agenda I only addressed it tangentially (although I did comment on the issue in Transform's written submission). I described what we see as the political context for the decision to revisit cannabis reclassification (for the third time in six years), and called for the ACMD to stay focused on a scientific review of cannabis harms and not get drawn by the partisan political gamesmanship and tabloid scaremongering. (If anyone wants my speech – let me know and ill send it to you, but it was essentially a distillation of the written submission, minus the stuff about legal regulation). My specific calls were that:
- In the short term the ACMD maintain their long held position that cannabis should be a class C drug under the current system.
- That the ACMD call for or undertake the long promised review of the intellectual and empirical basis for the drug classification system more broadly, and review its effectiveness on key policy indicators
- That they complain about the process bywhich which the PM requested the ACMD review then made a series of clear statements on his intent to reclassify before the ACMD has reported
- That the ACMD deliberations consider the specific harms created by prohibition and enforcement and the punitive criminal justice approoach more generally, and disentangle these from the harms created by drug use per se. Specifically; prohibition related crime, the mass criminalisation of young - often vulnerable - individuals, and the exacerbation of drug harms to users (when produced and supplied through illicit channels).
Proffessor Lenton from Australia, according to Rayne’s account a co-conspirator of mine in perverting proceedings (‘is Lenton a closet legaliser cloaked in fine words, hiding his real intentions?’), spoke about the impacts of the civil penalty scheme in Western Australia, contrasting its impacts with other states that maintain the more familiar criminal penalty approach to cannabis offenses. His clearly made conclusion: that there were no obvious benefits but measurable social costs to the criminal penalty approach, was fascinating but in no way a call for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis markets, or even a discussion of it. It usefully demonstrated how a return to arrest and prosecution for cannabis possession did not suggest the prospect of positive criminal justice or public health outcomes. Lenton advocated a public health approach based on effective targeted education and prevention. It all seemed pretty sensible and uncontroversial stuff, and he was the only speaker to get a round of applause.
Rayne's disappointingly condemns Lenton by association (with some people he apparently doesn’t like or agree with), and questions why he was a speaker at all. Perhaps it was because he is a respected professor, extensively published academic expert on the subject and leading thinker in the field who can bring some international perspective to the debate - which has become somewhat blinkered and parochial over here in the UK? Or maybe because he is Soros-funded pro-pot Aussie infiltrator hell bent on corrupting the youth of Britain? You tell me.
Some also felt it inappropriate that Transform were present, like the journalist from the IOS (representing Jonathan Owen) who asked me only one question, nothing to do with drug policy: why had Transform been given a platform? It seemed an odd question, but my answer was that we represented an important constituency in the debate (somewhere between 30 and 58% of the population support legalisation/regulation of cannabis if the IPSOS MORI speaker was to be believed) and the ACMD were just doing their job in representing a variety of views in the field. I had no problem with
- those of the majority of cannabis consumers whose use is occasional, moderate and not causing them or anyone else significant problems,
- people who have been criminalised for cannabis possession and suffered unduley as a result,
- or mothers of problem cannabis users – like Helen Sello (who was in the audience but not given a platform) – who think that a punitive criminal justice approach is entirely counterproductive and the focus should be on public health education.
But let’s be clear: I didn't talk about legalisation, Lenton didn't talk about legalisation. The legalisation question was barely touched on, only being alluded to briefly on a couple of occasions during the day, with references to the Dutch tolerance model (which isn’t technically legalisation anyway, and besides was raised by the Speaker from SANE who advocated a move back to B). Legalisation was barely mentioned for one simple reason: for better or worse this was a discussion about cannabis harms and classification harm rankings. Much as I think the ACMD should hold a similar session looking at the legalisation/regulation debate - this wasn't it. The proposed change in harm rankings and associated change in related penalties is nothing to do with the legalisation debate - why I found Rayne's piece especially baffling. If some of the defenders of the status quo saw reclassification as the first crack in the citadel of prohibition from the ‘pro-drugs lobby’ (?) that's their business, but it is a view non-congruent with reality and nothing whatsoever to do with what was being discussed on Feb 5th.
I’m not paranoid enough to think it was a conspiracy of course, but myself and Prof. Lenton had our presentations timed for the end of the day so all the journalists had left to go and fill their copy before the evening deadlines and we achieved (a very non-sinister) zero coverage the following day. I probably should have done a press release, still, I did get an invite to go on radio Five Live the previous night but couldn't make it. There was a lot of journalists there but, rather like Raynes, you sensed many had arrived not to really listen and analyse, but rather to filter the day’s information to fit a preconceived narrative, or just trawl for the juiciest panic headline. When skunk or psychosis was mentioned all the journos seemed to perk up and start scribbling. The coverage ranged from OK (the Guardian) to dismal (the Daily Mail), mostly focused on an morning presentations about the proportion of ‘skunk’ now found in police raids, reported to be 70% - 80% (not that police raids necessarily represent the market but anyway). The suggestion made by myself and others that the economics of unregulated markets was fueling this increasing prevalence of stronger cannabis went unreported.
The Times won the bad reporting oscar, scraping the tabloid barrel (not for the first time) with a ludicrous bit of sensationalism, leading, on its front page with the headline that ‘Cannabis dealers prey on Hospitals’, stemming from one brief comment from a speaker on cannabis and mental health treatment. It probably warrants a blog all of its own, but needless to say, Rethink and others have identified and talked about this (completely non-shocking nor surprising) issue for years.
General thoughts on the day
One theme I noticed throughout the day, even amongst the many speakers who wanted to see cannabis moved back to B, was a desire not to see more young people criminalised. Whilst welcome it seemed odd, given that the result of a move back to B would achieve precisely this, but there it was, from ACPO, from several of the Mums, from the Magistrates representative, and even from David Raynes. Yet it is also an unavoidably contradictory position and one that highlights the wider problems with a classification system that ties the harm rankings to a hierarchy of penalties. The only logical solution would appear to be what the Science and Technology committee recommended and ‘decouple’ the classifications from penalties in some way, but quite where this would lead isn’t clear. The ABC system is built around and exists to establish the hierarchy of penalties and doesn’t really serve any other useful purpose; it offers no practical public health benefits in terms of education, or if you like ‘sending out messages’, (even ‘unequivocal’ ones). It was a point raised several times in the day, not least from me; that there’s no evidence that changes in classification have any impact on use or overall harm.
The obvious answer for those who want to send out honest and effective messages about cannabis risks, especially if they are increasing (which I think we can safely assume includes everyone) is to use proven public health education and targeted prevention strategies. The B/C debate seems entirely pointless, and as Rethink pointed out, is a distraction from the more important challenges around how best to address the harm cannabis can cause.
I don’t think for a second that the ACMD will change their views in cannabis classification, but not because the evidence sessions were inadequate or manipulated by the evil pro-pot legalisation lobby, but rather because the ACMD don’t think there is significant new evidence on cannabis harms to emerge in the last 2 years that changes their long held view that it should be in Class C based on relative harms. Not harmless, just less harmful than say, amphetamines. The evidence at the hearings was comprehensive and mostly excellent, but I genuinely don’t think there was anything on the table that wasn’t there 2 years ago. If the committee seemed occasionally exasperated then that’s probably why, we are talking about 40 very busy and highly trained people spending 3-4 days of their own (unpaid) time on what was essentially a pointless political exercise.
What the Government will do when the ACMD report back in favour of Class C is hard to say. To go against the ACMD would be unprecedented and leave them horribly exposed as populist and unscientific, with any last vestige of us having an evidence based drug policy in tatters. The Government after all hand picked the ACMD in the first place. So I suspect the ACMD call will be used as an opportunity to step away from the debate again with moral credentials intact probably in tandem with an announcement on a big education push cannabis risks to show they are ‘doing something’.
In the meantime cannabis users will carry on using, the unregulated illegal market will carry on making lots of untaxed profits for often unsavory characters whilst maximising harms, and all the moral grandstanding, tabloid scaremongering political posturing – that has been going on for longer than I’ve been alive - will have got us precisely nowhere.
Maybe now we can have a debate about models for the legal regulation of cannabis, based on evidence of effectiveness, proven harm reduction initiatives and established public health principles? Or maybe not.