Democracy is a great idea, but the problem is it gives us politicians who can be the most dishonest peddlers of misinformation on the planet. David Cameron showed just how badly politicians can mislead when he answered a question about cannabis law reform this week.

First of all, a reality check; In what now seems like a golden age of enlightenment Melanie Philips – herself the antithesis of enlightenment – in typical outraged style quoted David Cameron who said in 2002

Customs and Excise is supposed to keep the drugs out. The police and the courts are supposed to catch and punish users and dealers. It hasn’t worked.

Indeed, David Cameron, the leader of the ConDem government and sadly now our Prime Minister used to understand the futility of prohibition and before he took over the leadership of the Conservatives he was making some pretty intelligent comments about the need for drug law reform. Now he’s in a position to  actually do something about it it seems he’s changed from being a well informed person willing to consider change to a total bigot who justifies his actions on the back of deliberate misinformation.

That David Cameron  bases cannabis policy on total fabrication became clear last week when he answered a question  on Al Jazeera TV (watch it here) sent to him from “Owain R” from Lancashire concerning the legalisation of cannabis. Interestingly this was the second most popular subject people asked questions about so it’s clearly on the political agenda. Owain asked (the question happens at about 10min 40secs):

Why is marijuana illegal when alcohol and tobacco are more addictive and dangerous to our health, but we manage to control them?  Wouldn’t education about drugs from a younger age be better?

There are a lot of ways Cameron could have answered that question, including honestly, but instead he answered:

Well there’s one bit of that question I agree with which I think education about drugs is vital and we should make sure that education programmes are there in our schools and we should make sure that they work. But I don’t really accept the rest of the question. I think if you actually look at the sort of marijuana that is on sale today, it is actually incredibly damaging, very, very toxic and leads to, in many cases, huge mental health problems.  But I think the more fundamental reason for not making these drugs legal is that to make them legal would make them even more prevalent and would increase use levels even more than they are now. So I don’t think it is the right answer.  I think a combination of education, also treatment programmes for drug addicts, I think those are the two most important planks of a proper anti-drug policy.

On the subject of medial cannabis Cameron said

That is a matter for the science and medical authorities to determine and they are free to make independent determinations about that.

And to sum up he said

But the question here about whether illegal drugs should be made legal, my answer is no.

Leaving aside the issue of education – which is after all about learning facts based on the truth, the rest of Cameron’s answer was just so wrong

I think if you actually look at the sort of marijuana that is on sale today, it is actually incredibly damaging,

Cameron seems to be implying that the cannabis on sale these days is different to what used to be sold. This, of course, is the great “skunk scare” we’ve heard so much about; the claims that street cannabis is now “25 fold stronger” than it used to be (Sunday Independent) and that this is leading to all sorts of terrible harms as other gutter press tabloids like the Daily Mail have been claiming.

Of course most of us know these stupid claims made by papers are at best greatly exaggerated and more often just plain wrong, but there might have been a change in the THC/CBD profile of street cannabis leading to higher relative levels of THC. Of course, this change could be put down simply by the move from imported hash to home grown herbal varieties and in all honesty no-one can even be really sure it has actually happened, given the weakness of the data we have.

But Cameron is wrong to say cannabis today is “incredibly damaging”, it may cause problems for a vulnerable section of the population but compared to alcohol or tobacco – let alone many other prohibited drugs – it is a mild pussycat of a drug still. If is is causing harm to a vulnerable group it’s hard to see how treating that vulnerable group as criminals is going to help and it’s also hard to understand how making it impossible to know the strength, purity or strain of the cannabis purchased is supposed to help.

Of course the big twist of logic Cameron seems to be making is that if what he says is true and modern day cannabis is more dangerous than it used to be, his regime has caused that change!

We now have home grown herbal cannabis instead of imported North African hash because of prohibition – the crop eradication efforts and import restrictions we have pursued so enthusiastically have closed off this supply of old style hash and created the twisted market economics that have created the vast and highly profitable “skunk” growing industry. It is odd how prohibition supporters do not seem to understand that claiming cannabis has changed in recent years to become something more dangerous is an argument against prohibition, not in favour of it.

According to Cameron cannabis is

very, very toxic

Well, no it isn’t is the simple comment to that stupid remark. Cannabis has an amazingly low toxicity with virtually no overdose potential, this is not something that is in doubt.

and leads to, in many cases, huge mental health problems.

Oh dear, Cameron plays the reefer madness card. He will be aware of the research carried out by Keele University for the Home Office which found

The study cohort comprised almost 600,000 patients each year, representing approximately 2.3% of the UK population aged 16 to 44. Between 1996 and 2005 the incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia and psychoses were either stable or declining.

If cannabis use did lead to an increased risk of mental illness this result would have been very different. Moreover the study covers the period when the change from imported  resin to home grown herbal took place. He doesn’t seem to understand the complex argument that surrounds cannabis and mental illness, which is far from the “cannabis makes you mad” concept he seems to have.

If there is anything to the mental health debate it’s around the strains of cannabis being sold – high THC/low CBD varieties, its about children getting their hands on it and its about the effect cannabis has on people who are already ill. These issues are either the result of the policy of prohibition or are made much worse by it. Prohibition has abdicated control of the commercial trade to organised crime and is certainly not drug control in any plain English use of the word “control”.

The issue of cannabis and mental health, as with the claims that it has become a more dangerous product, are good arguments for legalisation, not for continuing the cause of the problems which is the present policy of prohibition.

Then we get this old chestnut:

But I think the more fundamental reason for not making these drugs legal is that to make them legal would make them even more prevalent and would increase use levels even more than they are now.

The great claim of prohibition supporters is that their regime produces the lowest level of use and therefore the lowest level of harm. This is a claim with at best no evidence base and indeed much to suggest it is simply wrong, both in the claims it produces the lowest level of use and the lowest level of harm.

For a start, decriminalisation in Portugal and Holland has apparently not increased use, indeed use in those countries  is apparently lower than here or in the home of prohibition the USA. In any case, because prohibition makes sampling the user group in any scientifically valid way impossible, the claims that prohibition does actually reduce use to a minimum can’t ever be tested properly.

But of course a simplistic measure such as the rates of use is largely meaningless, what matters rather more is the nature of that use. Take as an example 100 adults drinking beer in a pub and 10 kids swigging vodka from a bottle in a derelict building; it’s pretty clear that the 10 kids are more of a problem then the 100 adult beer drinkers, but of course they all count as “alcohol users”. Prohibition would prevent the 100 adults drinking beer in the pub, thus greatly reducing the level of alcohol use, but would do nothing to prevent the kids swigging vodka in the derelict building – except that under prohibition the kids would now be swigging moonshine. So although prohibition would create a much lower level of overall use it would make the problem worse.

As regards medical cannabis he seems just as badly informed:

That is a matter for the science and medical authorities to determine and they are free to make independent determinations about that.

Of course he’s simply wrong, it isn’t a matter left to the medical authorities because the government is of the view that herbal cannabis has no medical value and has it placed in category 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

As to his conclusion

But the question here about whether illegal drugs should be made legal, my answer is no.

An answer based on a total lack of knowledge about the subject in hand it would seem. Cameron is determined to criminalise millions of people based on total and utter ignorance, that is something which should be of great concern to us all. This is especially unsettling because he knows from his own personal experience of having used cannabis that the deterrence effect of the law doesn’t work – because it didn’t work with him.

He also chose not to answer a very important part of Owain’s question

Why is marijuana illegal when alcohol and tobacco are more addictive and dangerous to our health, but we manage to control them?

The reason, as the government has now made clear is that alcohol and tobacco are culturally accepted. Now there is no provision for cultural acceptance in the Misuse of Drugs Act, the wording of which is quite clear that any drug which is, or appears to be, capable of misuse should come under the control of the act. The reason alcohol and tobacco are not is because the law makers – the politicians who created this madness – used those drugs themselves and didn’t consider them to be “real” drugs. It is nothing short of hypocrisy, pure and simple.

Owain actually framed his question very well, because he seems to understand that we do control alcohol and tobacco whereas we don’t control prohibited drugs. Understanding such a concept is clearly way beyond Cameron, which again is worrying given this guy is in such a position of power.

As a footnote to all this, an interesting article appeared in the Guardian this week about drug use in the UK – How the British fell out of love with drugs. It seems that since 2002 the levels of cannabis use have been dropping – totally independent of the changing classification and after rising throughout  the 1990’s. What could have happened to bring this about? As cannabis use rose throughout the time it was a class B substance (including failing to prevent David Cameron having a toke), fell when it was moved to C and continues to fall having been moved back to B it would seem the law has very little to do with it.

There are probably two reasons recreational drug use has been dropping since the start of this century. The first is pretty obvious really, the party’s over. For several years running up to the year 2000 it was party time (“party like its 1999” as Prince put it) and for a brief period this country enjoyed itself fuelled by a sort of millennium madness – it was great fun, I was there! But it’s not the millennium any more and the party culture has withered, instead of a vibrant and fun musical scene we’ve had some pathetic role models such as Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse and and all there is to celebrate these days is the end of the week.

The other big influence has been the tobacco ban. Cannabis in particular was unfortunately entwined with this foul smelling, addictive and carcinogenic drug. In most ways the smoking ban has been literally a breath of fresh air and we are all much better off for it, in all ways apart from one;  socialising type entertianment has suffered badly. This is nowhere more true than in clubs and pubs, which now stink of stale beer and unwashed sweaty bodies. the lights which used to shine colourful beams through the smog you could cut with a knife now just hang like the coloured bulbs they actually are.

If any drug is a “gateway” it’s probably tobacco, it goes with everything and enhances the drug experience of just about all drugs. Without tobacco things just aren’t the same and drug use isn’t so enjoyable. Banning tobacco use in public places has possibly done more to reduce recreational use than the prohibition law could ever hope to do. It’s worth noting that almost all problematical drug users and just about all “cainers” – heavy drug users – smoke tobacco.

The fly in the ointment is that the drug use that’s dropped is in large part the non-problematic social type of drug use, the sort linked to culture and fun. The sort that hasn’t dropped is the damaging sort. As the Guardian article says

Sadly, the decline in the use of drugs has not brought a similar decline in the damage they do. Indeed, hospital admissions for drug-poisoning rose last year by 4.8%, and for mental health problems by 5.7%

Which takes us back to the simplistic concept of the lowest level of use leading to the lowest harm, it just isn’t true. What matters far more is the way drugs are used, the reason they are used and the type of people using them. It will be especially ironic if we now see a huge rise in mental illness amongst young people as cannabis use decreases, when no such increase was seen as it increased, it would be ironic but not perhaps unexpected.


Edit to add you can join a letter writing campaign being organised by the LCA – see Peter Reynold’s blog here