Professor David Nutt: Cannabis is the oldest medicine in the world '“ why is it banned?

Cannabis is generally thought to be the oldest medicine in the world, with evidence of use from Egypt and China dating back four millennia.

It was a medicine in the UK until 1971 and was found useful by many in society – including Queen Victoria! Then an act of parliament, the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, declared that medical use was illegal.

This was an odd decision, in that was driven by pressure from the USA to conform with their ban. It was little-opposed by the medical profession, perhaps as the cannabis products were not being marketed by any major pharmaceutical company. Since then millions of people have broken the law to obtain relief that only cannabis can bring to their pain and suffering, and thousands have been prosecuted for it.

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The absurdity and injustice of this ban was apparent from the outset and in many countries – most notably the USA – where local pressure leading to referenda in individual states has put cannabis back into the pharmacopeia.

Now over 200 million US citizens have access to this medicine as do the populations of 11 other countries. But the UK holds firm in its ban despite having one of the highest proportions of recreational cannabis users in the world – even higher than that in countries where it is legal, like Holland.

So if the cannabis ban isn’t stopping recreational use why keep medical use illegal? The government continues to refuse to debate this issue, simply parroting their well-worn phrase – “drugs are illegal because drug use is harmful” – with no balance in the argument. Many effective medicines that are more harmful than cannabis are illegal for recreational use, such as morphine and ketamine, so why not treat cannabis the same? The benefit-risk ratio of medical cannabis would be at least as great as these other medicines, so why exaggerate the risk?

Since the government won’t answer this question let me suggest some reasons. One is embarrassment, as changing the legal status of cannabis would mean that the politicians and civil servants and government advisers would have to admit they were wrong. Another is the pressure from some elements of the press who see opening the door to medicinal cannabis would mean that other “illegal” drugs with medicinal value like MDMA and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) would also become more easily available.

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Ignorance is another factor. Senior politicians have been heard to say that the UK can’t change the Schedule 1 status of cannabis as this is enshrined in the UN Conventions. This is completely untrue, as they are different sets of regulations, and as the USA and Holland have shown nation states can make their own rules for medicines. Indeed the UK did this in 1971 when it kept heroin as a medicine despite the UN/USA attempting to ban it world-wide.

The government position on cannabis as a medicine is simply an attempt to maintain the status quo and avoid extra parliamentary and legislative work. It is one of the last battles in the failed war-on-drugs. Because the patient population being denied access are ill and often dying they are an easy target for prohibitionist posturing and prejudice; they may well not vote so their voices can be ignored. Surely now we should put this outmoded rhetoric behind us and allow access to cannabis for medical purposes in those who need it.

All that needs to happen is for the Home Secretary to move cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 of the 1971 Act. This would have the added benefit of allowing the UK scientists who have been pioneering the many other uses of cannabis products to research them free from the intense regulations that currently treat cannabis as more dangerous than heroin.

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