UK Drugs Policy: A Rethink

This article is written in light of the heart-breaking case of Alfie Dingley, which has recently attracted significant media attention. Alfie is a six-year-old boy with a rare form of epilepsy. His family are seeking permission from the Home Office for him to be able to legally take cannabis in order to alleviate his condition. At the time of writing, this permission has not been granted. The article argues that Alfie’s case demonstrates that the UK government’s policy on drugs is too hard-line; it is not acceptable that Alfie may be denied medicinal cannabis treatment. Moreover, the article goes further and argues that there are compelling reasons to assert that the UK’s stance on drugs should be liberalised across the board, not just in relation to medical treatment.

Medicinal marijuana

Alfie Dingley has a rare and severe form of epilepsy. His condition means that he can suffer up to 30 violent seizures a day. He has previously been treated with cannabis oil in the Netherlands and his mother recounts that this reduced the number, duration and severity of his seizures. Understandably, therefore, the mother now seeks permission to use this treatment in the UK. Thus far such permission has been denied, although it should be noted that the Home Office is considering holding a trial to decide on the issue (i.e. whether or not a licence allowing cannabis use should be issued).

The above episode demonstrates that the UK position is out-dated for a number of reasons.

  1. Firstly the UK’s policy does not correspond with scientific evidence. Currently, cannabis, in its raw form, is not recognised by the Home Office as having any ‘medicinal or legitimate uses beyond potential research’. This position is certainly contestable and contradicts the findings of numerous scientific studies (for example Harvard Medical School notes that cannabis can be used as a pain-killer).
  1. Secondly, it is not acceptable that those seeking the legal use of cannabis have to endure a lengthy procedure before being granted permission, judicial proceedings being necessary in order for the determination of whether or not a licence should be granted. Take the case of Alfie Dingley. As a result of this inefficient procedure, he will have to be subjected to violent seizures for a far longer amount of time than necessary. In addition, more often than not judicial proceedings are extremely costly, if not for the parties directly concerned, for the public as a whole.

A more general rethink?

Medicinal marijuana aside, there are other criticisms that can be levelled at the UK’s policy on drugs. The current position is outlined by The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This Act criminalises the possession of the substances that it lists as being class A, B or C drugs. Again there are a number of reasons why this is unsatisfactory, three of which will be advanced.

  1. Firstly, the policy is not working: it has not stopped a significant enough amount of people from taking drugs. Indeed last year the NHS reported that ‘Deaths related to drug misuse are at their highest level since comparable records began in 1993’. Recreational drug use is also commonplace. Indeed the student newspaper “the Tab” issued an article last year that listed 13 universities where over 50% of students admitted to taking ecstasy pills. This included over 70% of students at UWE, Northumbria and Aberdeen.

The above could be countered by saying that such findings do not mean that the content of the policy is wrong, but more so that it is not being effectively enforced. This, however, highlights another flaw of drug criminalisation. Those that have a drug problem should not be treated as criminals but as individuals who suffer addiction and have a severe health problem. This is not only more in line with the reality of the situation, but also would facilitate such individuals’ treatment, which should be taking place in an appropriate rehabilitation centre, not in a prison.

  1. Secondly, the legalisation of drugs, or at least some drugs, makes sense from an economic point of view. The point is best demonstrated by the experience of various US states that have legalised cannabis. Indeed a recent news article reported that the cannabis industry in the USA took in nearly $9 billion in sales in 2017.

Linked to this, it is important to note that not only can drug legalisation be economically beneficial, but also this money can be used in a more responsible way. At the moment the criminalisation of drugs has enriched criminal drug dealers. If the market was made legal and thus properly regulated, it would be the government, and not the criminal gangs, that would benefit from the profits.

  1. Finally, it is arguably more responsible from a health point of view to legalise drugs. This is because if drugs were legalised they could be brought under regulation and sold under specific rules in a controlled environment. The drugs would therefore be tested and sold in line with the way in which they had been marketed. This is in stark contrast to the way in which drugs are sold now, where they are cut with other substances and thus the buyer is at the mercy of the word of the (criminal) dealer.  It is therefore not surprising that, for example, deaths related to the ingesting of “MDMA” have not been as a result of the MDMA per se, but the fact that the substance had been cut with another substance, this substance proving fatal.

Article by Helen Taylor



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