Our approach to drugs is broken. Not only does it not work, it directly causes suffering that could otherwise be avoided.
Yesterday in the Commons, an Urgent Question was raised concerning the tragic case of Alfie Dingley, a six-year old boy who suffers with severe epilepsy. He has been treated with medicinal cannabis in the Netherlands, which reduces the frequency of seizures, but does not have access to the same treatment here in the UK.
These draconian drug laws have also been put to the test in my constituency of Lichfield recently. Vicky Clarke, a constituent of mine with advanced MS, has had to endure excruciating pain as a result of her condition. Her husband Andy has found that the only drug that alleviates this pain is cannabis, ground up in small quantities and mixed into a smoothie, yet twice he has been investigated by the police, simply for helping his wife to cope with the crippling pain.
Fortunately, the police took a grown up attitude to this felony and did not proceed with a prosecution. But the fault does not lie with the police, rather it is the law which they are duty-bound to enforce. As a society, we need to recognise when a law is doing more harm than good, and take action to rectify it.
In 12 (soon to be 15) EU countries and in 29 states across the USA, there is a framework of legal access to medicinal marijuana. We are lagging behind much of the developed world.
Provided there is adequate regulation, there is no evidence that allowing doctors to go down this path would do anything but provide immense relief to thousands of people in desperate pain. Furthermore, a recent Populus poll showed that legalising medical marijuana is supported by 68% of the general population. I am one of them.
On top of all this, cannabis is less dangerous than some of the legal drugs already prescribed by doctors. In the US state of Colorado for instance, opioid-related deaths decreased after marijuana was legalised there in 2014.
With the number of patients in the UK admitted to hospital for overdosing on painkillers having doubled in the last decade, it makes sense to give cannabis a try – on doctor’s prescription. If we’re not careful, we could soon have our own version of the opioid epidemic that is ravaging America. Tom Petty and Prince are but two of the recent victims of this scourge.
Those who become addicted to drugs are treated as criminals by the justice system when, more often than not, they are victims
This issue however goes far beyond medicinal marijuana. Our whole approach to drugs is flawed, with little attention paid to rehabilitation. As a result, drug use continues unabated, and criminal gangs are the only beneficiaries.
The figures are striking. According to the National Crime Agency, the illicit drug trade costs the UK an estimated £10.7billion every year. In turn, the government spends tens of millions every year attempting to tackle this issue.
Despite this, however, the UK remains one of the worst countries in Europe for consumption of illegal drugs, with cocaine and ketamine a particular problem.
The UK even has relatively high cannabis consumption, despite its illegality. Nothing highlights the ineffectiveness of our drug laws more than the fact that there are a number of European countries, such as Belgium, Portugal and Germany, which have laxer cannabis laws but lower rates of consumption.
Even the Netherlands, famed for its legal, weed-filled “coffee shops”, has only a slightly higher rate of cannabis consumption than the UK.
A million police hours are spent every year enforcing our cannabis laws, with precious little to show for it.
Worse yet, the current approach to drugs inadvertently allows criminals to thrive on the lucrative illegal drugs market that we have helped to create.
Prohibition of alcohol in America in the 1920s allowed gangsters to step in and fill the breech; the same thing is happening here, now, with drugs.
Criminals prey on teenagers outside schools and in clubs. It is here where the vicious cycle of addiction begins, which the authorities are often powerless to prevent.
Those who become addicted to drugs are treated as criminals by the justice system when, more often than not, they are victims.
Perhaps we should look at decriminalising possession of drugs altogether? The aim should not be to encourage drug use - quite the opposite in fact. However, it is clear that our current enforcement-first policy simply isn’t working.
A relaxation of drug laws would have several benefits. Not only would it help deprive gangs of a key source of income, it would even save lives by taking some of the more dangerous, impure and contaminated drugs out of circulation. Why buy something dubious from a pusher at inflated prices when you can get it cheaper at Boots?
Of course, this would have to be a delicate and measured process, with input from medical experts, law enforcement and the wider public. If we are to liberalise our drug laws, it must be done slowly and with care. And with some of the millions we currently spend on trying to prevent drugs circulating in the UK, we can advertise and educate how to avoid dangerous drug use.
One thing is for sure: we cannot continue to ignore the negative consequences of our war on drugs. It’s time to reform our draconian drug laws.
Michael Fabricant is the Conservative MP for Lichfield