Summary of the House of Commons Cannabis Debate, by Calum Kennedy

“Rescue them from their bed of thistles” – Paul Flynn

Yesterday (October 12th) the House of Commons had a debate on the e-petition to make the production, sale, and use of cannabis legal. The Government has already made an official statement regarding the petition saying that “Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health. There are no plans to legalise cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities.” However this debate gave members of the House a chance to share their opinions on the matter, and to send a signal to the government. The results of the debate have no role in the official production of government policies.

Labour MP Paul Flynn led the debate and criticised the government’s response, calling it “trite”, and stated that we should view the refusal of the government to look at the available evidence surrounding cannabis in the same way that we view the refusal of people in the US to look at the evidence surrounding guns. He points to the complete failure of the 1971 misuse of drugs act and the reluctance of police to make arrests over the possession and use of cannabis and concludes that “That law is an ass”

Peter Lilley MP took Paul Flynn’s introductory statements further saying that the government’s opposition of cannabis resorted to the use of policy based evidence, which was substantiated later in the debate when both Daniel Porter and Mike Penning (Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice and Victims) denounced all evidence as unsatisfactory except that evidence that pointed to the harm cannabis may cause, which they brought forward repeatedly.

Mr Lilley also discussed the opinion of cannabis as a gateway drug and claimed that this was due to its legal status requiring the association with criminals who dealt with hard drugs as well. In addition to this he identifies that the current potency of cannabis, in comparison to cannabis that was available before 1971,  is a result of its illegality, comparing it to the move from beer to spirits under prohibition.

Apart from Mr Lilley, there was hesitation amongst other members of the debate to go so far as to legalise cannabis in its entirety. Rather they supported the idea of classifying it as a schedule 2 drug for medical use. Norman Lamb for example stressed that “This should be dealt with as a health issue, not as a criminal justice issue”. This is where the majority of the debate rested. It became a debate between those who supported the use of cannabis for the treatment of illnesses and pain caused by diseases not treatable by other methods as well as the effect decriminalisation would have on the quality of the drug, and those who were concerned about the possible side effects of cannabis. There was no discussion of the economic effect of legalisation.

There were two speakers in opposition to the legalisation of cannabis. The first was Daniel Porter who rested his entire speech on information gained from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He heavily stressed the effect that cannabis can have on the brains of teenagers and the indications that this can cause psychoses. Though he seemed sympathetic to the plight of those wanting to use it for medical purposes he stated that we should remain consistent about discouraging the use of things that can be harmful and this is not best done by decriminalisation. He instead claimed that the de-facto decriminalisation that is currently in place with police unwilling to make arrests is the way to go, and refused the interjection of Paul Flynn that the current legal status of the drug has caused there to be stronger varieties, skunk, that are more potentially dangerous.

The main opposition in the Debate came from Mike Penning, the minister of state for policing, crime, and criminal justice and victims. A man perfectly placed to address the health debate that was under way. He committed to looking at the evidence, yet not at any of the evidence presented during the debate stating that there will be experts in one part of the world saying one thing and other experts saying differently. Continuing on he determines that the Royal colleges are the one who should be listened to as they are the people he determines to be experts. When challenged on the fact that even the Royal Colleges admit that cannabis is likely less damaging than Alcohol, Mr Penning responded that, given the chance, he would not have allowed alcohol to gain its current legal status. He concluded by saying “I cannot support the petition”.

Even with these vague protestations, the motion passed with no audible voices in objection.

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