By Nick Thompson
The MS Society's statement on cannabis last week flew under the news radar, but it's an important development in the drug debate. For the first time, the organisation said the drug should be "legalised for medicinal use for people with MS to relieve their pain and muscle spasms when other treatments haven’t worked". This would include about 10,000 people in the UK. The charity argued that on balance the plant seems to aid symptoms.
This is a significant shift. I was researching the British cannabis world and how it intersects with MS patients six months ago and didn't get the sense the charity was willing to take the leap into defending cannabis use. Sure, there were positive testimonies and encouraging evidence, but the thing was still illegal. Clearly something's given.
The statement broadened the growing medical consensus on the potential uses of cannabis. But it did something else too. It showed that arguments for drug reform can be repackaged and used in unusual ways, to people who would otherwise be resistant to them. These moments are always worth paying attention to, because at some point someone is going to have to change the mind of the Conservative party on drugs, and we might as well start now.
Prohibition, like the parochial beliefs which sustain it, is pervasive. But the MS Society statement puts a much needed spotlight on the plight of thousands of MS patients pushed to the margins of society and legality in their pursuit of relief. In Westminster, the deeply entrenched anti-weed sentiment is cross-party, but the party with the power – with the hearts and minds in need of some gentle polemics – is the Conservative party.
"There hasn't really been much engagement in drug reform arguments from Conservatives," says Henry Fisher, science and health policy director at Volteface, the drug policy think tank working with small c conservatives to establish arguments that might cut through. "Not necessarily out of the explicit animosity, but because their natural instincts would side against drug reform arguments, and they've not thought about them at all. We've had to work to change their level of understanding to get them to support what we’re advocating."
Volteface conducted a poll and found medicinal cannabis was popular with all political parties, but that regulation of cannabis for general adult use didn’t have as much support. The case for medicinal cannabis for MS patients is rather clear-cut in that it can help pain and spasticity and is relatively cheap, while certain MS medications are ineffectual, cause difficult side-effects and can be a profligate exercise for the NHS.
John Liebling, political director of the United Patients Alliance, an organisation entirely made up of patients with various illnesses who medicate with cannabis, has been looking at how things have gone in US states which allowed medicinal cannabis use. If the lowest estimates of cannabis-exclusive users with MS were applied to the UK MS population, it would constitute a saving of £480 million for the NHS a year in prescriptions.
Research has found cannabis to be beneficial to varying degrees of effectiveness for an array of conditions. MS patients make up about five per cent of the cannabis medical community in the UK.
But what about a general legalisation? One socially conservative argument is that people continue to use cannabis despite its illegal status and the police doesn’t have the capacity to enforce the law effectively anyway. "So the only sensible argument for keeping people safe – and in particular young people safe – is regulating drugs much more effectively than we are right now," Fisher says. "Obviously the economically right wing argument is the fact that you can make more tax from it and that can be put into services, that can then effectively combat the problems of drugs."
But there's clearly a reason why cannabis has been illegal in this country for almost a century. "There will always be a certain of element from socially conservative people in particular that have a more moral aversion," Fisher says. "A lot of people sort of have a blind spot for alcohol because it's legal, while anything that's illegal is wrong just by definition of being illegal. They’re the harder arguments to win because you’re essentially going against someone’s moral stance on the issue rather than actually looking at the facts."
To understand what is possible, cast an eye over working models across the world. Colorado has pursued a free market-led approach, regulating and selling cannabis like it would alcohol. Brian Vicente was one of the authors of the state’s cannabis policies and served as the chief spokesperson for the legalisation campaign, traversing the state debating at public events. "Our opponents always had very radical arguments," he says. "They felt there would be blood in the streets if marijuana would be legalised; there would be a giant black market and kids would be using it at these crazy rates. None of that has come true. Really we’ve seen teen consumption rates flatten out, and in fact it dropped slightly from pre-legalisation." Teen cannabis consumption in Colorado was 21.2% in 2015, down from 22.0% in 2011, according to a poll from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
"We haven't seen any real increase in people driving under the influence and getting in wrecks," he adds, "and our economy has really gone through the roof. It's the number one economy in our country." It was reported in October 2016 the state received a $2.4 billion boost from its approach to marijuana in 2015 alone. Opiate deaths, a US epidemic, have decreased generally by a third in states with legalised cannabis provisions. The massive tax-revenue from cannabis has changed people’s perceptions. "They're seeing schools being built with funding from marijuana sales, they’re seeing nonprofits getting much needed funding in terms of millions of dollars. People are seeing this as a net positive instead of something that should be hidden away."
But as Fisher points out, the civil liberties and increased tax revenue arguments which play well in the US don’t necessarily in the UK due to cultural differences. Actually Canada represents a more obvious parallel with Britain, with a more similar culture, legal system and government. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau introduced a cannabis bill which framed the case for a less commercial model of regulated cannabis around children's’ safety. He placed particular emphasis on reducing the power of criminals and the burden on the criminal justice system. Industry figures praised this approach of inverting the safety argument as a masterstroke worthy of imitation.
Ultimately, airtime will continue to be the biggest issue facing cannabis proponents seeking to change conservative attitudes, both medicinal and general. That's why the MS Society's statement really matters. "The biggest stumbling block for everyone on this issue is that it's not seen as a major issue," Fisher says. "People aren't having conversations about it enough. When you get down to it, there's some subtle arguments we’re making about regulation, control, age restrictions and safety. You only get a public understanding of those subtle arguments when people are just talking about those arguments. At the moment we don’t have that saliency so the hardest thing is just raising it as an issue."
The MS Society statement is important to that process in its own right. But it also shows how the case for drug regulation can be done in a way which is sympathetic to the people hearing it. If we can be successful in that endeavour, we can push the drug debate into more rational territory. Let’s be clear, cannabis isn't without its dangers. But to deny its medicinal value and stubbornly high usage rates by not regulating it actually accentuates the worst aspects of our society and hurts those in pain.
Nick Thompson is a journalist and writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.