The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group: driving reform in the UK

The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group: driving reform in the UK
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The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group weighs in on the current situation surrounding access to cannabis-based medicines in the UK.

The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) was the brainchild of its Chairman, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt. As a former Prisons Minister in the Cameron government, he had seen first-hand the damage UK and international drugs policy was wreaking on society and was determined to do something about it.

Something easier said than done on the centre-right of British politics, where for many years debate about drug policy reform has been rather limited. Blunt decided to raise funds wherever he could find support, in the hope that a proper evidence-based policy debate could be encouraged.

He found support from the private sector and cannabis companies and approached me, a former Conservative MP and Minister for Civil Society, to run the organisation. Before launching the organisation in late June 2019, we assured that the CDPRG was completely independent in its outlook and thinking, purely focused on the evidence and supported by a strong Policy Advisory Council, with many internationally renowned advisers joining the group.

CDPRG is committed to examining the evidence for change after half a century of prohibition policies that have failed to deliver better outcomes for society or improve life chances. We intend to present the evidence, openly and even-handedly, good or bad, for reform. However, CDPRG is not committed to any specific outcome of the debate it promotes. In exploring the evidence from the UK and worldwide, we will challenge the basis for the current UK policies, asking its advocates to justify the outcomes against current medical and scientific knowledge and in terms of public health, law enforcement and life chances.

The CDPRG’s three principle aims are to:

  • Achieve the earliest possible safe access to the benefits of medicine derived from cannabis for British patients;
  • explore the evidence on overall benefits of international models of a licensed and regulated adult use cannabis market set against the current British experience; and
  • seek an appropriate vehicle, such as a Royal or Parliamentary Commission, on wider UK drug policy and the evaluation of the costs and benefits of prohibition of narcotic drugs and the alternatives.

The CDPRG accepts the clear and mounting body of evidence that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed globally and in the UK. We have just seen an all-time high number of deaths from illicit drugs in 2018 in England, Scotland and Wales according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

That’s around ten people dying every day from drugs misuse in the UK. Based on these figures alone, there is little doubt that drug policies are failing to protect people, despite the Home Office itself estimating a huge annual cost to the taxpayer, amounting to £10.7 bn (~€11.7 bn) in policing, healthcare and crime.

Promoting evidence-based policy

In the light of this, CDPRG believes the time is right to analyse and assess objectively and transparently all the available evidence. In facilitating this debate, CDPRG will provide the basis for a rational and educated approach to future policies. The key to policy must be the reduction of harm to society done by drugs.

Our recent research of national UK opinion on drug use and policy, conducted by YouGov, indicates there is widespread concern about the poor outcomes of current drug policy and little public support for criminalising users. Indeed, prohibition policies are widely perceived to have been unsuccessful. These views need to be tested and require better understanding of all available evidence from around the world so that changes, ultimately made by government, will improve the lives of families and communities.

CDPRG will follow the evidence and engage as many people as possible in an informed debate. In doing so, we will assess the unfolding evidence both from the UK and globally, particularly as it emerges from territories where change is already established or underway.

However, doing so will not be without its challenges.

The reason we are branded as Conservative and therefore a centre right focused organisation is precisely to respond to one very significant challenge. As our YouGov research showed, Conservative Party supporters are most resistant to considering changes to drugs policy. Whilst some leading Conservatives recognise the need for change, this is still a very sensitive area amongst the party’s membership and voters.

There is also strong media opposition to even considering the merits of the evidence for change. The strong media reaction and public support for government announcements on crackdowns on crime as the ultimate in logical responses to drugs, means the drugs debate over several decades has been either avoided or closed down.

Whilst the CDPRG is not affiliated to the Conservative Party, it is clearly essential that an organisation exists on the centre right that is run by Conservatives and offers a factual and honest perspective to Conservative minded supporters about what is working and what is not. Our YouGov survey demonstrates a recognition of serial government failure in this policy area and a greater openness to reform than ever before.

We will watch and gather the evidence from changes in drug policy from around the world.

Change is sweeping across the Americas and Europe with several countries either decriminalising or legalising some or all drugs. We believe it would be wise for the UK to watch these experiments unfold and see what works and is applicable to UK circumstances. But we will also collect individual and community stories from around the UK.

‘Your Voices’ campaign

We have launched ‘YourVoices’ a public campaign which aims to break down some of that stigma that exists by fostering debate about drug policy in the UK. The campaign collects and shares the experiences of real people in the UK discussing how drugs have impacted their lives, for good or bad, directly or indirectly, as well as how they view government drug policy.

The stories and photos are shared primarily on the campaign’s Instagram account @yourvoicesuk but many are also shared to our Facebook discussion page Voices on Choices. As the campaign continues, we are building a library of real life drug experiences and drug policy views which can be used as case studies in our research and the media.

One of the consequences of global prohibition since 1961 is that we are half a century of research behind in exploring the benefits of medicine from cannabis.

The Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health Dame Sally Davies found enough evidence to suggest that medicines derived from cannabis can play a role in treating some medical conditions. These results supported the rescheduling of cannabis-based medicinal products (CBMPs) in November 2018, which theoretically allowed British patients access to such medications for some conditions but very few patients have been able to benefit. At the moment a private prescription is the only viable route for most patients, and this can cost more than £2000 a month.

Recently, Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee (HSSC) published Drugs policy: medicinal cannabis, summarising how the rescheduling of cannabis-based medicinal products has affected clinical practice and providing an overview of current obstacles in accessing CBMPs through the UK health system.

There are still a wide range of barriers to progress on prescribing medical cannabis with a complex tangle of regulations, responsibilities and costs holding things up at every turn. This has understandably led to the disappointment of many patients and families. Meeting the urgent needs of British patients who can benefit from medical cannabis requires priority action. The longer we delay in accessing these benefits for British patients, the greater harm we inflict on untreated or inappropriately treated patients.

With access to cannabis-based medical products (CBMPs) likely to remain limited for some time, we need to ensure that those who are treating their conditions successfully with cannabis products sourced from abroad or through home cultivation are not prosecuted.

As our YouGov survey showed, there is little public support for the prosecution of those self-treating medical conditions unlawfully with cannabis. Only 17 per cent of the public supported prosecution in such cases. This is why we will support sensible test cases in the courts, where for example those with medical cannabis prescriptions are currently being unfairly criminalised. It would of course be better if there were constructive collaborations between government, clinical science and industry.

We also need assurances that, as promised by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, funding won’t be an obstacle to prescriptions. CDPRG is keen to see movement on these issues and movement on each of the barriers to easy access for patients. Patients deserve a robustly evidence-based yet compassionate and pragmatic approach to medical cannabis that achieves better health outcomes for Britain.

Over the next 12 months we will be undertaking comprehensive research, running events, bringing people together, running campaigns, talking to government and much more. CDPRG will be an active influence and source of education, information and evidence, leading to reduced harm and better outcomes for families and communities across the UK.

CDPRG and YouGov Poll show overwhelming public backing for medicinal cannabis

A major new survey commissioned by the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) demonstrates powerful public support for making medical cannabis legally available to patients who could safely benefit from it. It also indicates a clear and growing appetite overall for a new approach to drug policy in the UK.

Altogether 77% of those questioned by YouGov supported legalisation of cannabis-based medicines, while 76% responded that that they would personally consider using a cannabis-based medicine to treat a condition where there was strong evidence of benefit.

Almost a quarter (24%) think that patients who have been prescribed cannabis by their doctor should be allowed to grow their own plants (23% among Conservative voters), with 22% believing anyone should be allowed to grow cannabis. However, opinion is divided on home-growing with 40% saying that no-one should be allowed to grow cannabis under any circumstances. A majority (69%) are not concerned medical cannabis will have negative consequences for society.

The findings on attitudes to medical cannabis come after the government legalised some cannabis-based medicines from November 2018, giving specialist doctors the power to prescribe. Despite this, virtually no NHS prescriptions have been issued to date, leaving expensive private prescriptions well beyond the reach of most families.

On the broader question of drug policy, seven out of ten YouGov respondents believe the UK’s drug policy focusing on prohibition and criminalisation has not been successful in reducing the harm done by drugs. Almost eight of ten people questioned (79%) do not believe government policy deals well with the country’s drug problems.

While a majority understand the harmful effect of drugs, more than half (53%) of the 1690 people questioned by YouGov felt that drug use was now best viewed as a health issue to be dealt with by healthcare professionals focused on reducing harms, rather than maintaining the current emphasis on criminalising users.

More than three-quarters (76%) said that the threat of criminal punishment was not effective at deterring individuals from using illegal drugs. Tellingly, more than one third (35%) admitted to having used an illegal substance at some point, making them criminals in the eyes of the law.

When asked a general question on government legalisation of cannabis, 48% expressed support – up from 43 per cent in a comparable YouGov survey carried out 13 months earlier. Support rose to 52% of respondents nationwide aged between 18 and 49 and to 56% of the same demographic in London.

CEO of the CDPRG Rob Wilson says: “Illegal drugs are doing terrible damage to families and communities throughout the country. Thousands of people are dying, many hundreds of thousands of young people are taking drugs which they neither understand nor know what they contain. At the same time violent criminal gangs are making massive financial gains while preying on the weak and vulnerable.

“The findings of this survey demonstrate the urgent need for policymakers and government to start to rethink policy as part of an open, fully informed and evidence-based debate on the future of drugs policy.”

“The CDPRG exists to promote exactly that debate, taking account of all the mounting evidence from around the world where different solutions have been applied. Public thinking is moving ahead of the government’s commitment to the rhetoric, if not the reality, of kneejerk prohibition. It is vital that we provide policy makers and public alike with all the evidence possible to inform their decisions and opinions.

“We also support the public’s belief, clearly expressed in this survey, that there should be the earliest access possible to medicinal cannabis where it provides safe benefits for users – including pain relief for sufferers.”

Commenting on the findings, former Chief Constable of Durham Police Mike Barton said: “We simply cannot arrest our way out of drug problems. Many of us in law enforcement have long been calling for a public health approach to drugs. These figures show the British public agree criminalisation isn’t the solution to drug problems. A public health approach could reduce harms for users as well as freeing up police resources to tackle serious crime.”

The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group aims to promote an evidence-based debate on drug policy and the setting up of a Royal or Parliamentary Commission to review all the evidence and make recommendations.

You can read the full report titled Public Attitudes to Drugs in the UK 2019: Is the UK ready for reform? Here.

Rob Wilson
The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group
+44 (0)7572 239957

Please note, this article appeared in issue 11 of Health Europa Quarterly, which is available to read now.

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