By Roland Sebestyén
Crispin Blunt, the Chair of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG), is maybe the most influential MP in the fight for fair drug policy and, among others, accessible medical cannabis in the UK. While it’s still an uphill battle, as a former Prisons Minister, Mr Blunt knows how an unregulated market exploits people, including young children, in our communities.
He knows the mood around the world is shifting, and that the UK must take the necessary steps to move forward while protecting its citizens. Can we succeed? Well, in an interview with Canex, Mr Blunt said he had a plan.
What do you think of the news about Germany legalising cannabis for recreational purposes?
The most important issue when countries and other jurisdictions are facing up to the legalisation question is how you legalise: What are the licence conditions? What is taxation? What are the regulations you put behind this?
Obviously, the critical thing is to put criminals out of business and protect the health of children. Only when you’ve got the crooks out of business, can you have the opportunity to protect the children from the psychosis associated with cannabis containing a very heavy dose of THC.
Do you support full legalisation, in general?
In principle, the evidence to me appears incredibly strong on the side of legalisation as a way of significantly raising wider benefits to the public good – in terms of health, crime, as well as in terms of revenue to the economy and the exchequer.
Do you think other Western European countries will join Germany? Luxembourg has indicated that it would legalise recreational cannabis and Italy is preparing for a referendum on the matter. It is clear that the mood has shifted in Europe.
The mood really is shifting around the world. The scale of this change, and the evidence that it will produce in terms of how it’s done, will be something that every European country will be looking at very closely.
They’ve got now over 13 state jurisdictions in the United States to look at as to how to do it, and Canada and Uruguay as nation-states who’ve gone down this road. Whenever a country comes to this point and decides in principle to legalise, it’s a critical thing. There are plenty of lessons to learn from people who have started down this road before.
Why wouldn’t the UK make a move now before it’s too late? Why wouldn’t the UK lead the pack when it comes to legalisation?
What we don’t have is a drug policy based on evidence. We have a drug policy based on prejudice, instinct, and a raft of misinformation. We are in a media prism that is not inclined to give serious and sober consideration to the alternatives available.
It’s time to get that quality of debate – which is why I set up the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) – in order to try and get the debate to a place where we are going to have policy-based evidence.
Do you think you’re making progress in your work at CDPRG?
Yes, it is a bit slower than I would like, but the challenge is huge in the criminal justice space, which is what brought me into this business. This is an opportunity for a Conservative to get into this space, not to be frightened of the issue and to make arguments for a policy that is based on evidence; where there is terrific harm being done to the public interest, whether it’s health, or whether it’s the criminal justice system, or whether it’s the missed opportunities that we haven’t been able to take because we’ve not been able to do the research.
We’re about 50 years behind in the science and research where we ought to be on classes of drugs like psychedelics and cannabis while there are many millions of people who are suffering from conditions that could have been dealt with more effectively.
Crispin Blunt MP
Why is the government against legalisation? Is it all about politics, or are we missing something?
People are always nervous to change. This is not a UK issue – the last time I looked at a poll published in Germany, 59% were against legalisation, so hats off to the coalition. What we do know is, actually, if the state gets its regulations and licencing right, and it doesn’t follow Colorado where they’ve effectively kept the criminals in business, they can get revenue into the exchequer.
If you keep the criminals in business, then people won’t know what they’re buying and you’re keeping people effectively employed by criminals and children will be able to access the drugs.
Is it not too late for the UK, already? It seems as though the UK can’t even utilise its medical cannabis industry while, as you’ve just said, millions are reportedly in need of life-changing and, in some cases, life-saving medicine.
The disbenefits of having a National Health Service in a way is it can be quite cautious and risk-averse around the development of new medicines. Our medical profession hasn’t been educated in cannabis in any way, so there is an awful lot of education to be done.
The professional politicians say we can’t decide here; let’s ask the doctors and the doctors can’t really decide because they’ve not been educated in the space. So, the whole National Health Service has moved with stunning slowness.
We’ve seen three prescriptions in three years, which is just laughable while some desperate families of epileptic children are forced to get in the private sector and pay £10,000 a year for access. That’s just a ludicrous price for what they’re buying.
Are you 100% positive that the issues around accessibility and affordability of medical cannabis will be resolved here in the near future?
No, because there’s still a strong debate with a very cautious approach to the authorisations of medicines. We’ve got GW Pharma, a global leader in this space who has invested an awful lot of money and 20 years of research into their products that they then brought to proper authorisations as medicines.
We’ve also got 50,000 people who are growing their own cannabis in order to treat their multiple sclerosis. They could be put in prison, so they are not that keen on the idea of sharing their information with the authorities. They are breaking the law in order to address very painful symptoms and give them mobility and quality of life they couldn’t otherwise achieve.
Does the government have a clear drug strategy in place?
The government has published its 10-year drug strategy and CPRG contributed papers to the government. It’s about creating the basis on which to have a better drugs policy – how do you create the evidence to actually get policy-based evidence and not policy based on prejudice and instinct and ideology? The government have taken almost all of Dame Carol Black’s two reports – done over the course of almost three years to examine the nature of the illegal drugs business in the UK.
Now, we’ve got one-half of the policy as rather interesting Civil Justice innovations, which appeared to be targeted at non-problematic drug users and is part of the Levelling Up agenda. Some of them are very good and innovative, some of them are eye-catching proposals – whether they will stand the test of time or not is an open question.
Is taking away the passports of drug users not a step backwards?
Well, that was the bit to capture the imagination of our enthusiastic members of the popular press. The government haven’t said yet how they would do it. That issue has been kicked off to a white paper in about six months’ time. I think that’s going to be really difficult to make a legal structure that will work in that way.
Do you think there’s enough support within the Tory party to move legalisation, or at least the discussion, forward? What’s the mood inside the party and parliament?
It is improving. The paper we will publish was part of the data we sent to government ministers. We’ve done some polling of MPs or parties, which actually show that most MPs, unsurprisingly, think that our drug policy strategy isn’t actually working, and we need a new approach.
People can see that the UK has the highest drug deaths in Europe on a scale, which then convinced Portugal over 20 years ago that they really had to change their system.
Do you ever feel alone in this fight?
I think there’s a big commitment in the government’s new drug strategy to evidence and data. The drugs minister, at the despatch box when presenting the policy to Parliament, confirmed to me that he would welcome working with the evidence including that presented by CDPRG given the knowledge and expertise that the people I employ have in this field.
It will show our seriousness of intent to the public next week, with the paper that we produced for ministers to aid their consideration of putting the policy in place. It may take a little time for us to change the structure inside governance as a consideration of policy.
There are still big issues to address, such as the missed opportunities in terms of psychedelic medicine, addressing big mental health questions, depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. However, there are huge prices available if we get this right.