'Stubborn' Tories Immediately Dismiss Norman Baker's Calls For Legalisation Of Medicinal Cannabis

The Coalition Is Completely Confused About Its Stance On Drugs
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Norman Baker addresses the Lib Dem Annual Conference, at the ICC in Birmingham.
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Norman Baker addresses the Lib Dem Annual Conference, at the ICC in Birmingham.
Rui Vieira/PA Archive

Drug prevention charities have responded with exasperation after the Tories immediately slapped down calls from the drugs minister for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK for medicinal use and dismissed concerns that current drugs laws are overly restrictive.

Less than a week after Nick Clegg said "we are never going to win the war on drugs", senior Lib Dem MP Norman Baker called on the government to review the medicinal properties of cannabis, saying it can help those in need.

But, highlighting disarray within the coalition over the issue, the Department of Health has firmly stated it has no plans to change the law, because cannabis is a "harmful drug" - leading drug awareness charities to tell The Huffington Post UK that "the government is seemingly more confused than ever on drug policy."

The deputy prime minister said last week that the Lib Dem general election manifesto would include a pledge to end imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use as part of broader reform to the UK's "utterly senseless" drug laws.

Now, amid concerns that "credible people" are having to break the law in order to source cannabis for medicinal use, Baker appealed to Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to review the UK's drugs legislation.

Citing research that shows patients undergoing chemotherapy, HIV/Aids treatments or suffering from conditions such as Chrohn's disease benefit from the drug, Baker wrote that he wants to liberalise the use of cannabis.

"I am uncomfortable that there are credible people I have met who tell me that cannabis is the only substance that helps relieve their condition, but not only are they stopped from accessing it officially but have to break the law to help their health," he wrote in a letter obtained by The Guardian.

But a government spokesman told the newspaper the government "has no plans to legalise cannabis or to soften our approach to its use as a medicine."

"There is clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people's mental and physical health."

Drugs charities told The Huffington Post UK the government's response "sadly comes as no surprise."

"This stance, though, is becoming increasingly untenable as the attitudinal tide changes globally with regards to both recreational and medicinal use," Edward Fox, of the UK's leading drug law charity Release, told HuffPost UK.

Jason Reed, the UK coordinator for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) and Executive Director of LEAP UK, tolf HuffPost UK that the Tories, and Labour "are now firmly lagging behind political opinion from across the globe."

"Drug law reform needs cross party intervention, this is not a left or right issue," he said.

"This is about public health, being smart on crime, and exercising basic elements of compassion. We've tried the stick approach for over 40 years, it's now time we support and not punish."

"The Conservatives actually do acknowledge that criminalisation doesn't have any benefit. In 2010, when legislating on new psychoactive substances, a Tory minister stated that possession of temporarily banned substances would not carry a criminal offence so as to "prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of young people". If the government can admit this, why would it still maintain the criminal sanctions handed to vulnerable groups such as those that seek cannabis to alleviate serious health conditions?"

Steve Rolles, the Senior Policy Analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told HuffPost UK the Tories "remain stubbornly committed to old school 'war on drugs' tough talking."

"Any suggestions of reform are still met with a simplistic message of 'drugs destroy lives' from the home office," he said.

"There is no serious engagement with the reform arguments at all."

The Lib Dems have long argued for a more rational approach to our drugs laws, with Clegg making the point before that “If you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform.”

But the Tories have been repeatedly criticised by drugs charities for being "intent on keeping their head in the sand" regarding the reform of the UK's drug laws.

Cameron is "blindly insisting that the UK’s drug policy is working. It clearly is not, something he acknowledged 12 years ago when he was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee," Release previously told HuffPost UK.

The PM has already been urged by Tory modernisers to abandon Britain’s “futile” war against drugs and make partial legalisation a key pledge in next year’s general election manifesto.

Bright Blue – a Conservative think-tank which is backed by senior ministers including Theresa May, Francis Maude, and the former minister Andrew Mitchell – has urged for a shift in law in a series of policy proposals.

But, it seems, the calls for change have yet to be acknowledged.

Clegg, meanwhile, has clarified that his party will be calling for an immediate end to prison sentences for people whose only crime is the possession of drugs for personal use. Under the proposals, users would instead receive non-custodial sentences and appropriate medical treatment.

The Lib Dem's commitment is for the next election and does not mark a change in coalition policy, although Clegg's party have secured a review into drugs policy which is currently under way at the Home Office.

As he outlined aspects of the Liberal Democrats 2015 party manifesto, the Lib Dem leader last week said imprisonment does nothing to help addicts become drug free and is a waste of public money that could be better spent on tackling the problem in the community.

While Britain currently locks up youngsters and burdens them with criminal records for possessing small quantities of drugs – usually cannabis – the deputy prime minister has pledged to approach the problem as a health issue, rather than a law and order issue - stating that imprisoning someone for drug use "should no longer be an option."

"Addicts need treatment, not locking up," Mr Clegg said. "It is a nonsense to waste scarce resources on prison cells for cannabis users."

"Illegal drugs still cause immense harm to the people who use them and to the communities they live in. We need a radically smarter approach if we are serious about tackling this problem."

Nevertheless, the Home Office responded to Mr Clegg's pledge by stating "drugs destroy lives.. and this Government has no intention of decriminalising them."

Over the past 15 years the UK has criminalised 1.5 million people for drugs possession, according to Release. "These harsh policies – often carried out disproportionately with black people six times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched for drug offences in England and Wales – have a significant detrimental impact on people’s futures," the charity told HuffPost UK.

"For example, if a young person is given a criminal record for simple drug possession, their opportunities for future employment and education are hindered, and the chance of recidivism increased."

By the government’s own estimate, the UK is spending £1.5-£2.5 billion annually on drug law enforcement. "While of course not all of this is on policing drug use and possession, a significant amount is and is a huge drain of taxpayers’ money," Release added.

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