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Cannabis Research - Runciman Report

Drugs and the Law

REPORT OF THE
INDEPENDENT INQUIRY INTO THE MISUSE OF DRUGS ACT 1971

Chairman: Viscountess Runciman DBE

 

This document is Copyright, 1999, by the Police Foundation. It appears on this site with the cooperation of the Police Foundation. We are grateful to them for a job well done in preparing this report, and for allowing this work to appear on this site.

 

Legislative legitimacy

…cannabis is the drug most likely to bring people  into contact with the criminal justice system... If our drugs legislation is to be credible, effective and able to support a realistic programme of prevention and education, it has to strike the right balance between cannabis and other drugs. (Ch.7, para.1, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Potency and Health

 

It appears that, while some forms of herbal cannabis grown by hydroponic methods may have concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, of as much as 20%, the average THC content in both herbal cannabis and cannabis resin as analysed by the Forensic Science Service from seizures by the police is around 4-5%. There is no evidence that the presence of THC in higher concentrations leads to significantly higher health risks, just as it cannot be claimed that the risks would be eliminated if only lower-strength varieties of cannabis were available. (Ch. 7, para. 8, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Schizophrenia/Health

'...cannabis is neither poisonous..., nor highly addictive, and we do not believe that it can cause schizophrenia in a previously well user with no predisposition to develop the disease. (Ch.7, para.10, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Driving

a review of the scientific literature on drugs and driving commissioned by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) [7] found that evidence as to whether cannabis impairs driving and increases the risks of road accidents was not entirely consistent. Some studies found no significant effects on perception, and others pointed to some impairment of attention and short-term memory, although these effects are typically observed at higher doses. Still others suggest that drivers under the influence of cannabis actually drive more carefully. Interpretation of the causal contribution of cannabis to road accidents is further complicated by the concurrent presence of other drugs, especially alcohol. (Ch.7, para. 11, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Gateway Theory

the vast majority of cannabis users do not progress to the most dangerous drugs such as heroin. Any significant causal relationship in that direction would have resulted in a far higher population of hard drug users than we have. (Ch.7, para. 15, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

In our view nothing has emerged to disturb the conclusions of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence in 1968 [9], when they said that there was no convincing evidence that cannabis use in itself led to heroin use. This has been largely confirmed by more recent studies. (Ch.7, para. 16, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

The suggestion, already mentioned, that there are pharmacological properties of cannabis that predispose users of it to later heroin use, has been discounted in a recent review of the United States literature [13]. Taking cannabis is not by itself an indicator of future heroin or cocaine use unless the cannabis use is heavy and combined with psychiatric or conduct disorders and a family history of psychopathology. (Ch.7, para. 17, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

It may be that some cannabis users will go on to other drugs through the influence of friends or the pressure of other factors associated with problematic drug use, such as poverty and unemployment. The WHO concluded that the most plausible explanation for some cannabis users also using other drugs was:

'....a combination of selective recruitment into cannabis use of non-conforming and deviant adolescents who have a propensity to use illicit drugs, and the socialisation of cannabis users within an illicit drug-using subculture which increases the opportunity and encouragement to use other illicit drugs.' In particular, we take seriously the suggestion that pressure may be exercised by dealers on cannabis users to try harder drugs. If there is anything at all in the gateway theory, it is likely to be found in the structure of illegal markets.

-(Ch.7, para.18, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Criminality

There is no evidence that cannabis use is crime-related in the same way as heroin or crack cocaine. (Ch.7, para.19, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

 

Health

The British Medical Association has said [16] 'The acute toxicity of cannabinoids is extremely low: they are very safe drugs and no deaths have been directly attributed to their recreational or therapeutic use.' The Lancet published an article [17] summarising the evidence on the most probable adverse health and psychological consequences of acute and chronic use, and its editorial in the same issue comments that '...on the evidence summarised by Hall and Solowij, it would be reasonable to judge cannabis less of a threat than alcohol or tobacco....We...say that, on the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill-effect on health, and that decisions to ban or legalise cannabis should be based on other considerations.' (Ch.7, para. 20, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Relative Harm (vs/ Alcohol & Tobacco)

When cannabis is systematically compared with other drugs against the main criteria of harm (mortality, morbidity, toxicity, addictiveness and relationship with crime), it is less harmful to the individual and society than any of the other major illicit drugs or than alcohol and tobacco. This is why our consideration of the relative harmfulness of drugs has led us to the conclusion that cannabis is wrongly placed in Class B of Schedule 2 to the MDA. (Ch.7, para. 21, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

imprisonment is not required by the conventions as a sanction either for  possession or for cultivation for personal consumption. Alternatives to conviction and punishment may be considered, including treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation, or social reintegration. (Ch.7, para.23, iii, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

it would be possible without renegotiating the conventions to permit the therapeutic use of cannabis, cannabis resin or extracts and tincture of cannabis. (Ch.7, para.23, v, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

The United Nations conventions are restrictive but there is more room for manoeuvre in the case of cannabis and cannabis resin than there is over cannabinols. Cannabis and cannabis resin are contained in Schedule IV to the Single Convention. Article 2.5 (b) of this states 'A Party shall, if in its opinion the prevailing conditions in its country render it the most appropriate means of protecting the public health and welfare, prohibit the production, manufacture, export and import, trade in, possession or use of any [Schedule IV] drug except for amounts which may be necessary for medical and scientific research only, including clinical trials therewith to be conducted under or subject to the control of the Party.' This does not impose a mandatory obligation on the United Kingdom to prohibit any of those activities in relation to cannabis or cannabis resin because it is subject to the proviso that the prevailing conditions in the country concerned make it the most appropriate means of protecting the public health and welfare. For example, heroin, another drug contained in schedule IV to the Single Convention, is in fact available on prescription in the United Kingdom for the treatment of organic disease or injury. (Ch.7, para.59, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

To summarise, the government has the power to allow cannabis and cannabis resin, including tinctures and extracts, to be prescribed in this country without renegotiation of the international conventions. But for cannabinols other than dronabinol and nabilone to be used therapeutically, the conventions would have to be renegotiated first. (Ch.7, para.61, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

A primary concern of ours is minimising the adverse, unnecessary and disproportionate criminal consequences for very large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, usually young, people. Our recommendations are intended to support the education, prevention and treatment elements of a broader health agenda, which itself reflects the relative risks of different drugs including cannabis. Our recommendations are not in breach of the United Nations Conventions. All of the present cannabis offences are being retained. The recommendations are in fact closer to the spirit of the conventions in taking an approach to personal consumption that is less punitive and more orientated towards health and education. (Ch.7, para.72, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

UK Law/Enforcement

If, as we argue, the present classification of cannabis is not justified, it follows that the response of the law is disproportionate to the drug's harm, and may bring the law into disrepute. In our view, therefore, the maximum penalties for cannabis offences should be reduced. (Ch.7, para. 25, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

We do not criticise the police for their extensive use of cautioning. It is currently the only realistic and proportional response. Without it, the courts would have ground to a halt. However, the use of discretion does not lessen the disproportionate attention that the law and the implementation of the law unavoidably give to cannabis and cannabis possession in particular. (Ch.7, para. 31, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Even with the use of discretion on this scale, the law's implementation damages individuals in terms of criminal records and risks to jobs and relationships to a degree that far outweighs any harm that cannabis may be doing to society. (Ch.7, para.32, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

The concentration on cannabis as an objective of law enforcement is at odds with the views of a significant proportion of the population. The surveys conducted for us by MORI show that two-thirds of adults want strong legal controls on drugs and do not regard drug use as a private matter beyond the law. But most of them do not include cannabis among the drugs that need controlling. (Ch.7, para.36, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

There can be no doubt that, in implementing the law, the present concentration on cannabis weakens respect for the law. We have encountered a wide sense of unease, indeed scepticism, about the present control regime in relation to cannabis. It inhibits accurate education about the relative risks of different drugs including the risks of cannabis itself. It gives large numbers of otherwise law-abiding people a criminal record. It inordinately penalises and marginalises young people for what might be little more than youthful experimentation. It bears most heavily on young people in the streets of inner cities who are also more likely to be poor and members of minority ethnic communities. The evidence strongly indicates that the current law and its operation creates more harm than the drug itself. (Ch.7, para.75, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

 

Decriminalization

In considering the current operation of the law and sentencing patterns we are of the view that the possession of cannabis should not be an imprisonable offence. Consequentially, it should no longer be an arrestable offence in England and Wales under section 24 of PACE. Further, the prosecution of offences of cannabis possession should be the exception and only then should an offence, if there is a conviction, incur a criminal record. (Ch.7, para. 37, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

We recommend that the cultivation of small numbers of cannabis plants for personal use should be a separate offence from production, and should be treated in the same way as possession of cannabis. (Ch.7, para.41, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

The possession of cannabis should not be an imprisonable offence. As a consequence, it will no longer be an arrestable offence in England and Wales under section 24 of PACE, and arrests will only be possible under section 25 of PACE where there are identification or preventative grounds. (Ch.7, para.77, ii, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

The cultivation of small numbers of cannabis plants for personal use should be a separate offence from production and should be treated in the same way as possession of cannabis, being neither arrestable nor imprisonable and attracting the same range of sanctions. Cultivation of cannabis for personal use under section 6 and production under section 4 should be mutually exclusive offences. (Ch.7, para.77, iv, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Dutch Policy and Drug Deaths

drug-related deaths per million population (in Holland) are the lowest in Europe. In 1995, the figure for the Netherlands was 2.4 as against 31.1 for the United Kingdom. (We recognise the difficulty of comparing mortality statistics between countries on a like for like basis but the relative success of the Netherlands seems undeniable on any conceivable interpretation). (Ch.7, para.48, iv, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Dutch Policy and the Gateway Theory

The coffee shop approach has not been without critics even in Holland itself. It seems, however, that Holland can justly claim to have separated the heroin and cannabis markets. As a result, young people are far less likely in Holland than elsewhere to experiment with heroin. Although there is room for argument over how precisely this has been achieved, it is difficult to deny that the policy of separation of markets, including the toleration of coffee shops, has made a contribution. (Ch.7, para.49, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

 

…we think that the Dutch experience holds two important lessons for the United Kingdom. The first is the potential benefit from treating the possession and personal use of all drugs - not just cannabis - primarily as health problems. This should ensure that young people who experiment with drugs remain integrated into society rather than becoming marginalised. The second is the potential benefit from separating the market for cannabis from that of heroin. By doing so, the Dutch have provided persuasive evidence against the gateway theory of cannabis use, and in favour of the theory that if there is a gateway it is the illegal market place. (Ch.7, para.52, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Irrelevance of Drug Policy – USA

During the 1970s several states in the U.S.A. reduced the maximum penalty for the first offence of possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use to a small fine. Levels of marijuana use increased between 1972 and l977 in those states but even more so in the states that had not reduced penalties. In fact the greatest rises in use took place in states with the most severe penalties. (Ch.7, para.54, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Medical Cannabis

Until 1973, tincture of cannabis had been available for medical use for over 100 years. In 1973, the medical use of cannabis was prohibited in the United Kingdom following a long decline in its use in favour of what were considered more reliable drugs. Beginning in the 1980s, interest in the potential benefits of cannabis for the treatment of certain medical conditions was renewed, and has become a significant issue. (ch.7, para.56)

Cannabis and cannabis resin should be moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 of the MDA Regulations thereby permitting supply and possession for medical purposes. If there is to be any delay in adopting this recommendation pending the development of a plant with consistent dosage, we recommend a defence of duress of circumstance on medical grounds for those accused of the possession, cultivation or supply of cannabis. (Ch.7, para.viii, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

 

Rescheduling

We conclude that there is evidence that there are therapeutic benefits from the use of cannabis by people with certain serious illnesses and that these benefits outweigh any potential harm to themselves. We therefore agree with the House of Lords Select Committee that cannabis and cannabis resin, together with tincture and extracts not covered by the 1971 convention, should be transferred from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 to the 1985 regulations. That would automatically ensure that doctors who prescribed such substances were not criminally liable. The same would apply to their patients in possession and doctors or pharmacists who supplied cannabis. Arrangements would need to be worked out for pharmacies to secure legitimate supplies of stocks, but that should not pose insuperable problems. We do not share the Government's anxiety about the capacity of GPs to withstand pressure for the prescription of cannabis. There is no evidence that this has been a problem where the prescription of heroin for pain control is concerned. (Ch.7, para.67, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)

Our recommendations on the law on cannabis and its implementation are:

    1. Cannabis should be transferred from Class B to Class C of Schedule 2 of the MDA and cannabinol and its derivatives should be transferred from Class A to Class C. (Ch.7, para.77, i, Police Foundation Report of the Independent Inquiry on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, U.K., 1999)