Amy Winehouse / Liverpool Echo. Good reasons to change the UK drugs laws

Yesterday saw the death of a young woman who can only be described as a problem drug user, the fact that this young woman was famous probably didn’t help but what happened is a story depressingly familiar to many of us. The young woman in question of course was Amy Winehouse, famous as a singer catapulted to stardom over the past 5 years or so. The press had made much of her drug problems, her use of class A prohibited substances was front page news for several years in the tabloid press, which generally revels in the misfortune of famous people.

Much has been written about Amy’s  death, but there are a couple of points worth making about the whole sorry affair

1: She was a problem drug user and the law had no effect in moderating her behaviour, it was of no consequence to her. The whole idea of prohibition of course is to prevent problematic drug use and the harm it can cause. What Amy shows, and what thousands of similar cases up and down the country also show, is that the law isn’t a deterrent to the people most at risk. As a means of protecting people who have this self-destructive instinct (or whatever it is) criminalisation makes as much sense as a chocolate fire guard.

Our drug laws are based on the idea of preventing a sin by making it a criminal offence. Drug addiction / problematic drug use, call it what you will is not a “sin”, but an illness and making an illness a criminal offence is just plain wrong. Also the idea that someone like this can be forced into “recovery” (to use the jargon of the moment) through compulsory abstinence is simply delusionary.

2: It looks very much like the drug that finally “got” her was alcohol, or at least it is no secret she had an enormous problem with that particular drug. In the UK we have a drug law based on the Act of Parliament known as the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 which is designed to control drugs which

… are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem

“Them” being the Advisory Committee on the misuse of Drugs, (ACMD). This, for some reason however, doesn’t include alcohol as being a drug ” likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears … capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”, yet does include cannabis which, although not without the potential to cause problems to some extent, doesn’t come close to the harm alcohol can cause. This rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK drugs policy is the result of a purely political decision taken by politicians  not to include it in the act for “based in large part on historical and cultural precedents” (DEA website). It should be noted that the Misuse of Drugs Act makes no provision for such an exception. Tobacco is also likewise excludes from the act for the same arbitrary reason, despite all the problems associated with that drug.

The Misuse of drugs Act 1971 is, at its core, a good act but it has been perverted by politicians who have used to to enforce the prohibition laws on certain drugs, whilst preventing it from being used in relation to two of the most socially destructive drugs out there. The suspicion is that politicians, who of course use alcohol socially themselves, simply didn’t see themselves as drug users.

As always, politicians are the problem and people like Amy Winehouse are the victims. The Miusue of Drugs Act should of course apply to alcohol (and tobacco), which means the definition of a “controlled drug” would need to be changed from meaning a “prohibited drug” to one which includes proper and effective control of a legal market. In other words, the Misuse of Drugs Act should cease to be the instrument of prohibition  and be allowed to do what it sets out to achieve.

But for heavens sake, surely enough people have died?

Newspapers whipping up anti cannabis sentiment with groundless hype is nothing new, but the Liverpool Echo tried just a little too hard this week. The Echo ran a three part series on cannabis, which started off very badly indeed. The first part outlined the violence rocking Liverpool at the moment, which includes shoot outs and turf wars. The article can be seen here, but the points it makes are summed up in what must be the most ignorant and illogical – not to say deliberately misleading – editorial ever written on any subject entitled “Cannabis a harmless drug – come off it!. Read it here and whince

According to the editorial, which although not credited was written by the editor Alastair Machray makes the claim that cannabis is a dangerous drug because it is liked to violent organised crime.

As one top officer has told us: “This is not harmless, it is not ‘just a bit of cannabis’, it is organised crime and it is bringing firearms onto our streets.”
We should be under no illusion – cannabis is a harmful drug, in more ways than one.
This is why the police need help from the public – because keeping cannabis off our streets will also help keep guns off our streets.

This view was reflected in the main article

Assistant Chief Constable Colin Matthews, a former drugs squad officer in his younger days, said the explosion of cannabis farms in Merseyside can be linked back to the decision in 2004 to downgrade the drug from a Class B to a Class C.
ACC Matthews said: “Uncovering large-scale cannabis cultivation has become a big part of our job now.
“Either through intelligence-led operations or through general policing, we find ourselves coming across commercial cultivation sites probably a couple of times a week now.
“When we moved cannabis to a Class C drug classification, it sent out completely the wrong message.

Views like this were simply reprinted without any critical examination. The argument of curse is simple to counter; what we’re seeing here is a massive demand for a product being driven into the arms of organised crime by the actions of the police in enforcing the prohibition law. It is entirely down the prohibition of cannabis that this is happening and of course it’s only to be expected becuase we’ve seen it all before with alcohol prohibition in 1920’s America; it’s what prohibition does.

Deliberately misrepresenting the situation like this is a highly questionable thing of a major newspaper to be doing and the question “why” needs to be asked. Is it really the role of a newspaper to carry police/government propaganda like this?

The second article wasn’t much better and threw up some old chestnuts. Entitled “Cannabis users admitted to Liverpool hospitals for heart and mental health problems every week” (read it here) it started off with an alarmist sounding claim

DOCTORS in Liverpool’s A&E units today revealed they treat patients with psychosis or heart problems caused by cannabis on a weekly basis.

Now “associated with their cannabis use” might have been acceptable, but “caused by” is a big claim to make and one which any serious medical professional would think twice before making. Even so they don’t say how many people they treat or how severe the issues are, which is odd. The suspicion is, of course, that the numbers are probably quite small because if they had been substantial they would have been reported.

However, the article goes on to identify the cause of the problem

Assistant Chief Constable for Merseyside Police Colin Matthews said cannabis has got stronger, meaning the health effects can be more serious: He said: “It is a totally different product nowadays.
“The strength and the potency has gone through the roof.
“We send about 300 samples off for testing to the Home Office every year and very little of what we get back nowadays is resin.
“It is mainly skunk.
“And we’re seeing THC levels (the active hallucinogen in cannabis) of around 15% – four times what is was 20 years ago.
“And in contrast to that, we’re seeing very little CBD, which is the counter-balancing chemical to THC normally found in cannabis.
“There’s still a market for resin among the older more sedate ‘old school’ smokers but the skunk we find that is mainly being smoked now is packed full of THC with very little in the way of CBD making it ridiculously strong.

Who’s fault is that then, Assistant Chief Constable  Colin Matthews? It is truly farcical for the police to warn of a danger they created by their enforcement actions. They create a problem, then use the fear of the problem they created to justify their actions. Worse, the media reprints their comments without any form of critical examination.


Cannabis law reform campaigners were justifiably outraged by this distorted coverage and we hit the phones. I ran the call centre number on Friday and was answered by a very polite lady who asked what I wanted to complain about. When I told her it was in relation to the cannabis articles and editorial she pumped me for more details of why I wanted to complain. Although a little take aback by he probing I explained and she then told me that she was also very unhappy about is “as my mother has MS” and she said “I’m a fellow traveller” and told me to hang on while she found the person to talk to. I eventually talked to the writer of the first story, Ben Rossington, who gave the impression I wasn’t the first person to complain and told me to wait for part three, due the next day, when they would be “looking at the legalisation argument”.


It seems that Peter Reynolds had beaten me to it and he managed to get the third part of the series to reflect the law reform position (read it here) entitled “Cannabis special report – The case for legalisation”.

Author Peter Reynolds, leader of Clear, says ending the prohibition completely and bringing in a fully taxed and regulated system for the sale of cannabis would put a stop to many of the problems the police and society are facing.
Mr Reynolds said: “The prohibition of cannabis, one of the least toxic therapeutically active substances known to man, leads to crime.

Given the way this series began – and especially considering the rabid and ignorant editorial which accompanied the first instalment – and given Peter Reynolds didn’t get involved until after the series had began, it seems quote likely the third instalment did not go as originally planned, I would love to have been a fly on the wall of the editorial room that day! If so this is a remarkable example of what the law reform movement can do to reshape the debate, yet another feather in the cap of CLEAR

One thought on “Amy Winehouse / Liverpool Echo. Good reasons to change the UK drugs laws

  1. Sadly with Ms Winehouse, i do wonder is there any saving everybody?. Its a big question. Alcohol seems to have been her downfall. Just dont expect it be banned anytime soon. Personaly i woouldnt see the point off banning it. She’d have found another way to die. I truly hope shes found peace. Its seems in life she couldnt find it. any chemical can fool the lost into thinking theyve found a personal resting place from their darkest toughts.
    As for the Echo’s piece. Propaganda thats all. It’s put into context when someone dies even the people we never even know. The name less. who die in the gutter like Ms Winehouse, the ones we never get told about. Neglect is at the heart of it, lack of compassion. The hoards watch people crash and burn on the Propaganda sets each day. The media pushes a Political ajenda and we wonder why we read Scare stories about Cannabis?. We know the most unregulated drugs kill more than anything else,but the pushers of lies in governments and media corps dont care about Amy Winehouse or you and me. Profit over people. Propaganda and Horror storys fill our minds eveyday, cultures of fear and card trick politics. Dispearing Billlions and a never ending Drug war, waged on people. Lets wake up. Rest in Peace. All the victims of teh war on Drugs.

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