Cannabis is a human rights issue – has the reform movement forgotten?
Is the ‘medical route’ to legalisation a dead-end, and Britain’s new grassroots cannabis reform movement its own worst enemy? It seems many of its most powerful opponents agree – not least, the Home Office.
Back in November 1997 enthusiastic civil servants at Whitehall were signing off on a license to grant the right to research and develop cannabis medicines to Dr. Geoffrey Guy, an entrepreneurial scientist who had made a fortune from opiate painkillers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The following year Dr. Guy established GW Pharmaceuticals, a business viewed by many in the movement as a kind of cannabis ‘Monsanto’. Guy’s flagship product, Sativex, developed to treat Multiple Sclerosis, would go on to receive its first approval for prescription in Canada in 2005. This followed on the back of years of dedicated lobbying by Clare Hodges of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, which had established a UK branch in 1992, and had eventually fought its way to two meetings with the Department of Health and the Home Office. Diagnosed with MS at 26, Hodges had teamed up with MS specialist Dr. William Notcutt to persuade the Home Office to work with Dr. Guy. Interestingly, it was ministers at the Home Office who had instigated a key meeting between Guy and Hortapharm, an Amsterdam based outfit that was working with intensive modern breeding techniques to create medicinal cannabis plants. Hortapharm had been started in the ‘70s by American ex-pats Rob Clarke and David Watson – the latter widely believed by cannabis aficionados to be the legendary ‘Skunkman’, said to have first brought the hybrid Skunk strain into being in the deserts outside San Diego, California in the ‘70s. Yet in sending their emissaries on a trip to the ‘Dam the ministers had a clear strategy, as Mills explains in Cannabis Nation:
“Scientists such as Roger Pertwee and [William] Notcutt who had been working with cannabis since the 1980s recall that this sudden receptiveness of the Home Office to licensing experiments with cannabis medicines was quite deliberate. Officials such as MacFarlane at the Home Office were increasingly troubled by the medical consumers’ lobby and the sympathetic headlines that they generated, not least of all because the legalise cannabis campaigners showed signs of trying to co-opt them for their more general purposes. As such, the bureaucrats could see the merit of encouraging controlled scientific trials with the drug as by demonstrating that they were committed to establishing the efficacy and safety of cannabis medicines they hoped to clearly mark out the medical potential of the drug as a separate issue from those related to recreational consumption.”
Fielding a question on Al Jazeera in 2011, David Cameron can be seen holding this same line: in the light of accumulating evidence of cannabis’s powerful anti-tumour properties, asks the questioner, when will members of the public be granted the freedom to use cannabis to treat cancer? That, says Cameron, is “a matter for science and medical authorities to determine.” Scientific authority carries great weight and can be a powerful means of diminishing and excluding the voice of the general public. As Mills writes, the medical cannabis movement “perfectly suited the Home Office agenda of separating out the medical from the recreational uses of cannabis as in this scenario the cultures of consumption would be entirely divorced from one another; the tablet or spray would be distinct from the joint or hash-chocolate.”
On 10th April 2013 this process culminated with Sativex being granted Schedule 4 Part 1 status under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, while cannabis remained at Schedule 1. “The move follows a recommendation to the Home Office by the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which determined that Sativex® has a low potential for abuse and low risk of diversion.” Schedule 4 Part 1 drugs include benzodiazapines such as diazepam (‘Valium’), which are controlled but carry no possession offence. By contrast a Schedule 1 drug like cannabis has “no therapeutic value”.
There are some ironies here worth noting. Sativex is an extract of the active ingredients taken from two cannabis strains (one high in THC, one high in CBD) and blended together in a 1:1 ratio. Once a cannabis flower’s active ingredients – the resins – have been extracted, what is left is little more than inert cellulose and carbohydrate. In any meaningful sense, it is the oils exuded by cannabis which make it what it is, being responsible both for the aromas and the effects – in the Sativex bottle, to quote Geoffrey Guy, is the “essence of cannabis”. Amusingly enough – and Guy is very open about this – GW Pharmaceuticals’ chosen blend of 1 part THC to 1 part CBD gives Sativex the same basic cannabinoid profile typical of traditional imported hashish. The Home Office Cannabis Potency Study 2008 puts the mean THC levels of seized imported hashish (most from Morocco) at 5%, and the mean CBD level at 3.5%. For the same arcane reasons (the genes that code for THC and CBD are co-dominant at the same allele) roughly half of the plants in a field of traditional hashish cultivars would likewise share this 1:1 THC:CBD profile. The active ingredients of Sativex can, in other words, be found in the 1:1 ratio in bog standard ‘hash’, or in a flower plucked in fields from Morocco to Mazar-i-Sharif. To compound things, the breeding techniques needed to create 1:1 THC:CBD strains that can be grown consistently from seed are now well within the capability of the underground seedbanks: CBD Crew, Mr. Nice, Resin Seeds and various others have developed 1:1 THC:CBD hybrid strains that can be grown by anyone, anywhere, who has the courage: ‘Sativex in a seed’.
To draw attention to the government’s inconsistency around medicinal cannabis use, NORML UK organised a ‘Cannabis Hypocrisy Protest’ outside Parliament on October 9th. But it remains to be seen if this will prove to be a success. Having spent years preparing the ground around the medical cannabis issue – setting up a trap, as it were – it seems unlikely ministers at the Home Office will be quaking in their boots. More probably, they believe these activists are wasting their time, and will look on the demonstration with some relief, as proof that the new grassroots movement has set off down the wrong path.
Ironically, given the incessant propagandising about ‘skunk’ and mental illness, the problem with today’s cannabis activists is that they are far too rational, and expect the rest of Britain to be the same. ‘Like shooting fish in a barrel’ seems to be how the conservative right and authoritarian left view dealing with arguments made by ‘legalisers’ – and there even seems to be a view that the more reasonable the arguments the better. If you doubt that then have a look at a September 2013 article in the Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ which is entitled – mockingly – ‘Why legalising cannabis isn’t logical’. The author is Melissa Kite, contributing editor of The Spectator and author of a book called Real Life. If only 200,000 people die each year from illegal drugs as compared to five million from tobacco “that is probably because so few do cannabis”, she explains, and after some more of this impressively freewheeling scaremongering she gets right to the heart of the matter: “what is needed is restraint and protection for children.” Release admin posted this to facebook with the header “can anyone discern a tangible argument?” – which is a valid comment, but one that also completely misses the point. As Tom Lloyd, a former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, astutely explained: ‘This article is not about logic, reason or evidence, it’s about winning over the worried and ill informed to the prohibitionist point of view and endorsing the views of those already happy with the status quo. Probably, in those terms, quite an effective and successful article.’ He goes on: ‘Let’s not forget that simple, emotional messages work; look at how some governments get elected.’ And then, importantly: ‘We need to use similar tactics (but always maintaining integrity) to get across our much more logical and potentially powerful message.’
The reactionaries on the Melissa Kite side of the argument long ago learned this lesson: emotion trounces reason. A conspicuously similar ‘think of the children’ argument was used a few days later by Chief Constable Andy Bliss of ACPO to beat back an unexpected call for the decriminalisation of Class A drugs by one of his colleagues, Mike Barton, intelligence lead for ACPO, and Chief Constable of Durham. Bliss commented: “We need in particular to be very thoughtful about setting clear boundaries, especially for young people, in relation to drugs, their misuse and criminal activity surrounding them.” Astonishingly – to the rational mind of a reformer – he then continued: “We also need to take account of the fact that illicit drugs markets are dynamic and the wider issue is not just about class A drugs. Issues like cannabis farms and new psychoactive drugs also create social harms and attract organised criminality.” If there’s clear, malign dishonesty wafting around Melissa Kite’s article, then going on those final comments from ACPO’s drug policy lead, it looks like Andy Bliss may just be genuinely confused.
More to the point: how has the public discussion in the UK arrived at a place where prohibitionists have the monopoly on calls to ‘think of the children’? This argument belongs to the reformers, and it is time we took it back.
As ACPO well knows, children from the villages of rural Vietnam, some as young as 13, are being trafficked into the UK and forced to work on ‘skunk’ farms as bonded slaves. They are trapped by unpayable debt and the constant threat of violence both to them and their families back home. And when the violence comes – be it in a dark wood outside an English city or the sound proofed backroom of some suburban property – it is merciless and extreme. Several of these kids are known to have been murdered. This, quite plainly, is the price of continuing with cannabis prohibition in the UK: an ever-growing heap of abused and murdered youngsters. And that – surely – is a simple and emotional message.
This issue really needs to be at the heart of any campaign for ‘legalisation’ in the UK. The fact that ethnic minorities are being hit disproportionally hard by policing, and millions of otherwise law abiding people being made criminals seems to be the best reason to decriminalise possession. Right now, the strongest argument for the UK developing a common sense regulated market in cannabis has to be that Vietnamese children are being abused, enslaved and sometimes even killed – all in the name of getting the biggest possible piece of this verdant land of opportunity that has been created by criminalising the production of cannabis.
This is a brilliant documentary produced by Mei-ling Mcnamara for Al Jazeera’s People and Power series, ‘Children of the cannabis trade’, from 2011.
Mercifully, the government’s senseless habit of prosecuting and convicting these children as criminals – sometimes criminal masterminds – seems to have come to an end. In June 2013 the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of three Vietnamese children, the judge noting that they were “victims of a “vile trade in people” and should not have been prosecuted.” The details of the judgement can be found here.
But children continue to be trafficked into the UK in ever greater numbers, as can be seen in an August 2013 report from the UK Human Trafficking Centre, commissioned by the Home Office. ECPAT UK writes that this is “a welcome acknowledgement of the growing scale of the issue,” but that “it is also an indication of the Government’s continued failure to make the UK a safe place for children.”
“In 2012 alone, according to the ‘UK Human Trafficking Centre’, there was a 12% increase in the number of children identified as potential victims of trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, a total of 549. Overall, the report identified 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking in the UK, up from 2,077 in 2011.” The real numbers are likely to be substantially higher.