UK drugs professionals give Blunkett good cause to think again

By Peter Stoker for HNN News

For some time now the organisations and individuals advocating preventive drug strategies have been watching in horror as the UK Government appeared to be selling prevention down the river, by downgrading cannabis to a lower category of perceived harmfulness. Currently Class B, its new classification of Class C would rate it lower than speed and codeine. But more than this, it would have given exactly the opposite effect to that sought in the UK strategy, which aimed (and still aims) to reduce use of all drugs of abuse.
But then, little obstacles like a national strategy – or UN Conventions – are of scant importance to the pro-drug lobbies, who are used to getting a good hearing in the UK corridors of power, thanks to their large resources and sympathetic contacts.
As reported elsewhere in HNN News, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett had been subjected to a barrage of pro-cannabis rhetoric over the months before the 2001 General Election which gave him a chance to replace Jack Straw as Home Secretary. The ink on his letter of appointment had scarcely dried before he uttered the fateful words, that he ‘was minded’ to reclassify cannabis; the location he chose was the opening session of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC), newly populated in consequence of the general election.  HASC had expressed its intention of reviewing UK’s whole drug strategy, including – of course – what to do about the most-used illegal drug which is cannabis. Mr Blunkett’s remarks inevitably added blinkers to this significant segment of their vision.

Buttressing his position, Mr Blunkett said he would take advice from a specialist committee. That committee was the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Seasoned observers could scarcely conceal their scepticism at this; the ACMD has very few scientists in its 35-strong line up, but does have a large contingent of people associated with liberalising lobbies. It has consistently leaned towards a more relaxed drug strategy, and had recommended downgrading cannabis as long ago as 1979. It was therefore no surprise when in March 2002 ACMD duly announced itself persuaded by the Home Secretary’s thinking. (Nevertheless, their report made a number of important concessions about the harmfulness of cannabis, and to this extent it is required reading).

HASC were not to be upstaged; in May 2002 they revealed their worst-kept secret; that they too had agreed with the Home Secretary’s notion. It must have seemed to the members of the inaccurately-titled Police Foundation (a small, self-elected liberalising lobby, not associated with any police authority) that the legalisation snowball they started rolling back under the chairmanship of Lady Runciman in 1999 was at last within sight of its destination. Cheering the snowball on would also have been Rosie Boycott, who as the then Editor of the Sunday Independent, in 1994, launched the first major UK media campaign for legalisation of cannabis.

This then is the environment in which prevention associations struggle to make themselves heard – no easy matter when you are short of breath through being denied the oxygen of funding.

In the summer of 2002, in the aftermath of HASC’s final report, prevention lobbies contemplated what to do next. It was clear that several aspects of the harms from cannabis had been lightly dismissed – or not even considered. The so-called ‘Lambeth experiment’ in which a senior police officer, Commander Brian Paddick, had recently jumped the gun by instructing his officers in the London Borough of Lambeth not to arrest for cannabis possession, overnight making him the darling of all apologists for cannabis. The combined efforts of Home Office, HASC and ACMD generated the image of a large, well-oiled steamroller, being given a helpful shove by liberalising lobbies like DrugScope and the Police Foundation. Flattened, figuratively and literally by this steamroller, the resistance took a while to pick itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again. But start again they did.

Internal seminars led to the first major public meeting, held in the Moses Room at the House of Lords, in November 2002, under the sponsorship of the Noble Lords Alton, Mackenzie, and Hylton; the Bishop of Wakefield, and MPs Alistair Burt and Gerald Howarth. The meeting was open to all MPs and Lords, and they would have struggled to get into a room packed to capacity.

Twenty one speakers included leading professors specialising in the subject, teachers, medical practitioners, police officers, prevention specialists and representatives from Holland and Sweden all presented. Ex users and parents gave testimony on how cannabis has damaged them or others around the users. Social, emotional and spiritual damage, as well as medical damage, came in for highlighting. Young people testified to the poor quality of drug education and the negative influences they experience in a drug-oriented society.

This initiative generated many useful waves; meetings and representations with parliament, the civil service, the media and within the drugs profession followed. From ‘friends in high places’ it was learnt that there was a far from united attitude to the reclassification idea – another encouragement to go that extra mile …

That ‘extra mile’ came in the form of another public meeting, on 21st October, this time in the plush new parliamentary offices of Portcullis House, across the road from Big Ben.

The proceedings were opened by a cross-party group of sponsors, Lady Ann Winterton (Conservative), Kate Hoey (Labour) and Bob Russell (Liberal Democrats) – an important display of non-partisan unity. All three spoke with evident knowledge on the subject, no mere figureheads. Ann Winterton had been a ‘front bench’ spokesperson on drugs, Kate Hoey represents Lambeth, so often a centre for drug policy confrontations – including the infamous Paddick ‘experiment’, and Bob Russell is a member of HASC, and one of the few dissenting with its more extreme liberalising recommendations.

The first speaker was Professor Robin Murray from the Institute of Psychiatry. Leaving no doubt as to his focus, Professor Murray entitled his talk ‘Marijuana and Madness’. Recent research has confirmed suspicions long held in the field, that cannabis can cause psychoses. The correlation of psychosis with cannabis users is at least twice that for non-users. Whilst correlations are not of themselves proof of causality, there are now studies to show causality; in the case of a study of 4,000 people in Holland, heavy users of cannabis were seen to be seven times more likely to suffer psychosis. Similar studies in New Zealand and Sweden supported this finding. Professor Murray ended by considering why this should be so; psychotic symptoms such as schizophrenia are mediated by dopamine, and recent evidence demonstrates that THC increases the release of dopamine within the brain, increasing the level of cerebral dopamine.

Next up was Professor John Henry of Imperial College, London and a professor of Accident and Emergency Medicine at the prestigious St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, which has long specialised in treatment of drug users. With a career in this specialism spanning decades, and including a long period as one of the leaders of the National Poisons Unit, John was able to enunciate from firsthand observation the real damage cannabis causes, from both short term and long term use. He concluded with a comparison between cannabis and tobacco. Quoting the highly-regarded New England Journal of Medicine, he said ‘Prevention and cessation are the two principal strategies in the battle against tobacco. However there is no such battle against cannabis. The lesson should be learnt from tobacco, and we should be prepared to do likewise with cannabis’.

Hamish Turner is a Past President of the Coroner’s Society of England and Wales. The title of his paper – ‘The view from the mortuary slab’ gives a fair indication of his topic. He was unequivocal on the progression or ‘gateway’ syndrome whereby a significant proportion of those who use cannabis move on to other drugs. Jan Berry, Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales described the frustrations of police officers at street level in wrestling with the aftermath of the Home Secretary’s flirtation with cannabis liberalism, and the Reverend Chris Andre-Watson, based in Lambeth, was able to give a particularly vivid picture of how this had affected his area – and how Commander Paddick’s autonomous initiative had made things even worse. Chris also made the point that – contrary to stereotypes – it was the black community who were more opposed to cannabis law relaxation then anyone else.

Mary Brett, a qualified biologist and Head of Health Education at one of England’s top secondary schools, spoke on the mess that is drug education in the UK. Too often in the hands of doctrinaire zealots, the education rarely seeks to dissuade pupils from drug use, but instead pre-supposes that they will use and tells them ways to do so – in the forlorn hope that they will be persuaded to do something irresponsible in a responsible manner. Some purveyors of ‘soft porn’ drug education material have been exposed, but they are still operating. Peter Stoker, Director of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, described Britain’s drug education process as ‘…not just neutral, but neutered’. The proponents of drug lifestyles, having emasculated drug education, have moved on to prevention, asserting without evidence that it is ineffective, using a process which he described as ‘a lie told ten times becomes the truth’. (It has subsequently been found that Goebbels said something rather similar). Peter closed by referring to the powerful outcome of the Rome conference last month, convened by the Global Drug Prevention Network, and uniting 84 countries in taking a preventive approach to drug policy.

Three young people from the NDPA’s ‘Teenex’ programme – Darren West, Beth Fairweather and Anthony Hassan – then made emphatic statements. Angry at the assumption that ‘all youth are doing drugs’ they made it clear that the opposite is true, especially when discounting the number that have one or two tries before rejecting the practice. Blaming the government and other authorities for inducing more use by their limp approach, Beth, Darren and Anthony told how Teenex had made them confident enough to not only avoid drugs themselves but also help others to do the same. They found the knowledge and the lifeskills in this low-budget enterprise to promote health instead of leaving the arena to the drug promoters.

Two medical practitioners concluded the proceedings. Dr Ivan van Damme from Belgium described the evaluations of random drug testing in several schools in a number of countries; provided that testing is used as a means of helping rather than an excuse to expel unwanted pupils, it has been found to have tangible benefits. Dr Hans-Christian Raabe summed up the mood of the seminar, saying that the next action would be to engage once more with Mr Blunkett, giving him the large amount of evidence that fully justified him thinking again about reclassification.

Subsequent to the Portcullis seminar, appeals for a meeting with the Home Secretary have been vigorously prosecuted by the Coalition on Cannabis. The stakes were raised a few days ago when it was learnt that there would be a debate this week (Wednesday 29th October) on reclassification, suddenly inserted in between Prime Minister’s Questions and another debate, on the problems of Northern Ireland – if nothing else this juxtapositioning should increase the number attending this particular drugs debate from the usual near-invisible level on such occasions. The Coalition is working on several fronts this week, and if nothing else the disciples of dope will not find an empty goal facing them. “These are exciting times …”

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