It’s quite usual for Bills to attract amendments which are wide of the Government’s intentions. In the Lords we have been dealing with the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which imposes a blanket ban on all “legal highs” (or attempts to do so – history does not show that prohibition works, rather that it pushes the market underground and towards sometimes more harmful substances), and the Liberal Democrats saw the Bill as an opportunity to raise the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Medicinal herbal cannabis is very effective for many people (not all) suffering from some very severe and debilitating conditions, the spasms and cramps associated with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord damage, Parkinson’s Disease and some of the symptoms of cancer and of the treatment of cancer among them.
It is available in 23 states of the USA, Canada, Israel and Netherlands from where it is exported to several other countries of the EU. But not – legally – the UK. The Dutch have used genetic alteration to maximise the benign content and eliminate the dangerous, psychosis-inducing component.
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No wonder that so many British people go to great lengths to go abroad to get hold of it. The cannabis-based drug licensed in England is much more expensive and only prescribed on a “named basis” as NICE regards it as not cost-effective (it is approved in Wales). No wonder so many people find their own sources, with the concomitant risks of severe side-effects, greater potential harm and not necessarily any benefit, because street cannabis – skunk – with a high content of the dangerous component is very different. We are pushing people into the risk of harm, and of breaking the law – I have heard the figure of 30,000 people.
Added to this, research into cannabis in the UK has been described as a costly obstacle course, and is the subject of an inflexible licensing system.
I had no expectation that our amendments (I have tried twice, at different stages of the Bill) would make any progress, though some powerful voices were raised in support. I did not argue that cannabis should go from illegal to unlicensed, unregulated use overnight, but rather that for the purpose of prescribing it should have the same classification as heroin. The Labour front bench were non-committal and “unconvinced”.
The Minister relied on “clear scientific evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health, and which can have a pernicious effect on communities”, and emphasised the need for an evidence base. I don’t dispute that, though whether the British are significantly different physiologically from the Dutch, I do wonder. And when the Government’s whole Bill seems to be based on evidence which, at best, is being questioned, this is particularly ironic. The issue won’t go away – but I am sorry not to have been able at this point to advance the cause of those whose suffering could to some extent be alleviated.
Baroness Sally Hamwee is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary spokesperson on Home Affairs