The Labour MP on why it's time for the UK to catch up with the rest of the world.
This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
It seems a reasonable question to ask the new government drugs minster.
"Fifty years of intelligent, pragmatic drugs policies of decriminalisation in the Netherlands has delivered a prison crisis: there are not enough prisoners to fill their prisons. Isn't this a problem we would like to share?"
The minister blinked back at me, baffled. I have jousted with a score of her predecessors in my 30-year Commons battle for drugs sense. All have been fed garbage by civil servants – evidence-free, prejudice-rich. The abiding ethos of the civil service is the unimportance of being right. Most meekly submit to the tabloid's populist views; they refuse to challenge their vote-gluttonous political masters. Their careers prosper. Others caught in possession of intelligent ideas – who know that drugs prohibition increases deaths and crimes – stay silent or suffer career wreckage.
The UK's approach has delivered drugs misery at vast cost, and two past drugs ministers were troubled by the futility of pushing harm-multiplication policies. Mo Mowlam would add hand-written messages to me on the bottom of official ministerial correspondence, saying, "I'll see you in the Strangers' Bar and tell you what I really think." She explained that Prime Minister Blair would "go ape-shit" if she spoke the truth. At the end of her career she decided to write a book condemning the UK's drug policies. I worked on it with her, but very sadly she died and it was not finished. Another Labour drugs minister, Bob Ainsworth, toed the party line in office but became an impassioned anti-prohibitionist when he returned to the back-benches.
Two public prohibitionists who did not believe a word of the civil service scripts they were compelled to obey.
WATCH: High Society – How Weed Laws Are Failing the UK
Two recent events stung me into a call for medicinal cannabis users to break the law, via using cannabis at Parliament. (Press reports inaccurately suggested I urged users to smoke cannabis on the parliamentary estate. Mixing cannabis with the deadly drug tobacco is unwise and unnecessary with the alternatives of ingesting it as a drink, food or a vapour.) It caused a minor flutter because MPs are not supposed to incite crime, but after 20 years of campaigning impatience is now justified. The law I am inviting seriously ill people to break is an ass.
First, fond memories were stirred by an invitation to help with a new drama-documentary on the life of Elizabeth Brice. She was a marvellous lady, a television producer who listed translating Noddy books into Latin among her many achievements. She campaigned under the name of Clare Hodges, drank cannabis tea on the terrace of the Commons and persuaded the Belgian Parliament to legalise medicinal cannabis in 2001. She died in 2011 with her life's work unfinished.
My pangs of regret and guilt for the lack of progress on Elisabeth's campaign were sharpened by the renewed culpable futility of the "new" government drugs strategy. It is a repeat of the lame, moronic, bovine cowardice of the past 46 years, in place since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Added is some window-dressing of meaningless adjectival jargon: "joined-up, holistic, multi-disciplined, all-embracing, comprehensive" new concepts. Joining one failed policy to another failed one does not make a successful policy. It creates a bigger failure. There is no sign that a single brain cell in the civil service or government has been flickered into new thinking by the current global disillusionment with drugs law.
Until 1973, before drugs policy as we know it was introduced, tinctures of cannabis had been medically available for over 100 years in the UK. In its natural form, it has been used for 5,000 years as a medicine in all continents. Our country was swept along with the international hysteria provoked by President Nixon's missionary zeal to eliminate all illegal drugs use.
The legal use of cannabis is being increasingly established in many parts of the world. Twenty-nine of the USA's 50 states have provision for the supply of medicinal cannabis. In Canada, it has also been legalised. In Europe, medicinal cannabis is produced in the Netherlands and is available in Italy, Finland, Switzerland and Germany.
Incredibly, British laws are locked in a permafrost of ignorance. Nothing has changed. Public opinion is in advance of Parliament. In 1999, a jury sought to be compassionate to a wheelchair-bound cannabis user. They asked the judge if they could disregard a law they all thought was unjust. The judge ruled that Parliament decides, and they were forced to convict. Injustices were meted out as Parliament continued to dodge its responsibility and failed to reform.
Our present law forces users onto the black market, where the most hazardous forms of the drugs are marketed by irresponsible dealers and consumed in the most dangerous ways. A female police officer forced into early retirement by MS had no choice but to buy her cannabis from the petty criminals she once locked up. Others have solved their supply problems by importing seeds from Amsterdam and growing their own. For this victimless "crime", Parliament's law is still punishment by years of imprisonment.
The police and prosecutors are doing Parliament's work for us by ignoring the law. There has been no repeat of the frequent arrest of medicinal cannabis users in the 90s. The law has been ridiculed by druggie grannies into public contempt. But it's still the law.
Medical cannabis legalisation has in every case shown no spike in cannabis use, no increase in road fatalities, reductions in the criminal market and tax breaks of millions of dollars.
On the 10th of October, I will present a ten-minute rule bill to the Commons to legalise cannabis prescriptions. Are UK MPs ready to join the world-wild reform of laws that kill more people than the drugs?