Norman Lamb MP (@normanlamb): charlatan or fool?

Anyone who cannot see, or refuses to acknowledge, that cannabis is decriminalised in all but name in Britain, that it harms the user and others, and that large corporations exploit the alleged medical benefits of certain derivatives of cannabis to soften attitudes to the pleasure drug and ensure they are well positioned if and when cannabis is legalised, is either a charlatan or a fool. Most drug policy ‘reform’ activists are the latter, while those MPs and politicians who favour legalisation, such as Crispin Blunt and Zac Goldsmith, are the former. Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, though, is a mystery.

Member for North Norfolk since 2001, Mr Lamb was private secretary to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, another cannabis enthusiast, during the coalition years. The strange thing about his support for legalisation is that it appears to be based not on connections to the cannabis industry, as with Mr Blunt, Mr Goldsmith and others, but on his own perception of reality. Worryingly, his delusion is matched only by his determination.

Last December, while most MPs and journalists were distracted by the matter of exiting the EU, Mr Lamb tried to smuggle a cannabis legalisation bill through the Commons. Despite cross-party support, including from nine Conservatives, the bill failed by 14 votes. Conservative MP Steve Double deserves credit for leading the opposition.

Two months later, in February, Mr Lamb wrote an article about cannabis legalisation for liberal website 1828, which gave it the terribly original title ‘The war on drugs has failed – it’s time to pursue legalisation’. I have copied it below with my comments added in italics.

There is a great irony in the government’s continued support for drug prohibition. It is founded on the claim that people must be protected from harm, yet the effect of their approach is precisely the opposite. This isn’t ironic, and there is, in any case, no ‘prohibition’. 

Indeed, the government itself, and many others around the world, stands accused of directly putting children and young people at great risk of harm. Universal Credit might put people at risk of harm, but smoking cannabis is a choice. Those who buy it and smoke it put themselves at risk of harm. 

So, my support for reform is based on a harm reduction approach. Ah, ‘harm reduction’, the most slippery and dishonest euphemism of the legalisation lexicon. As we shall see, the basis of his support is rather less noble. 

As a liberal, I also make the case for an individual’s freedom to make their own decisions about what they want to do, provided it does not harm others. Cannabis ‘does not harm others’? Try telling that to the victims listed on this site. 

But you don’t have to be convinced by that principle. Just consider the impact of our current approach, and you will conclude that it is reckless and irresponsible. It is indeed ‘reckless and irresponsible’ to decriminalise cannabis in all but name, as the Conservative government of Ted Heath did in 1971.

First, drugs are everywhere. One of the few true statements in this piece.

The so-called war on drugs has failed miserably. Why ‘so-called’? Perhaps this cautious phrase is a sign that Mr Lamb isn’t quite as sure of the existence of this ‘war’ as he was at the beginning of the article.

Opponents of reform will often point to teenagers whose lives have been ruined, for example, by smoking potent strains of skunk. Some might, but I don’t. Most of the cases I cite mention only cannabis. In addition, like a lot of slang terms, ‘skunk’ has fallen out of use in the last two years or so. 

Yet this is happening here and now with cannabis prohibited. It’s happening because supply is in the hands of criminal networks. It’s happening because teenagers have no idea what they are buying and whether it is contaminated. Note the contradiction: hapless young people, Mr Lamb claims, are smoking cannabis that contains a large amount of THC, aka ‘skunk’, but these same young people also ‘have no idea what they are buying’. In other words, they don’t know what they’re smoking, but Mr Lamb does. Maybe in the cases of suicide and psychopathic violence I cite the cannabis was strong, maybe it wasn’t. In any case, what Mr Lamb implies is that certain strains of cannabis are safe, and that in the Brave New World of legalisation these are the only strains teenagers would buy. (By the way, how old are these teenagers? Mr Lamb wisely does not say what he thinks the legal minimum age would be, but it appears he means 18, as it is for cigarettes and alcohol. As with cigarettes and alcohol, though, this would be based on practicality rather than any objective scientific evidence, for such evidence suggests that cannabis can do a great deal of harm to the mind of an 18-year-old.)

So, leaving the supply of cannabis in the hands of criminals is stupid and dangerous. Leaving? I thought we were at ‘war’ with these criminals. It does nothing to protect young people from harm, but it does put them at risk of harm. To be at risk of harm they must choose to buy and smoke cannabis.

Second, with every additional gram of cannabis sold, more money goes to criminals – individuals who certainly won’t pay tax on their earnings. How ridiculous is that? It’s not ‘ridiculous’ at all, but predictable and logical, as it is for large corporations, such as Altria and Imperial Brands, to legally evade as much tax as they can. What he means, as we shall presently see, is that it’s a terrible shame the government can’t get its hands on that revenue.

During the coalition, the Liberal Democrats commissioned the Treasury to undertake an analysis of the potential tax revenues which would flow into government coffers if cannabis were legal and regulated. Up to £1bn a year was the answer. Instead of enriching organised crime, this money could do good – extra funding for the NHS, social care, education or the police, for example. The positive language strongly suggests Mr Lamb hopes and expects people to continue smoking cannabis, which contradicts a claim he makes later, and does not sit well with his support for ‘harm reduction’. Moreover, would £1bn compensate for even just one young man losing his mind from smoking cannabis? 

But there are other awful consequences of prohibition. Given just how profitable the drugs trade is for organised crime, it is important to defend your market. They can’t issue a writ in the high court if they are faced by a competitive threat. So they depend on the use of extreme violence. And this impacts most heavily on the most deprived communities, with children and young people sucked into the drugs trade, putting them at enormous risk.

Just recently there was a news report of unscrupulous adults encouraging vulnerable children to take knives into school in order to get them excluded so they could then be exploited. Week after week we get horror stories of “county lines” – the despicable practice of using children to traffick [sic] drugs into rural areas. This is child exploitation of the worst sort when children are living in fear of drug masters, petrified of breaking rank for fear of violence or something even worse.

Too often the exploited children are treated as culpable, yet they are victims of a disgusting trade facilitated by government policy. When will we start to recognise the link between the illegal drugs trade and youth violence? When will we start to understand that there is a better way of confronting these horrors? See my post Does knife crime have anything to do with drugs markets? for evidence that very little, if any, violent crime is the result of drug dealers fighting to control a market. Note also that Mr Lamb offers no evidence that legalisation would eliminate these illicit markets, nor say whether putting the trade in the hands of Altria and Imperial Brands would make it any less ‘disgusting’. 

And then there is the fact that we still prosecute more than 10,000 people every year for possession of cannabis, let alone other drugs. This is risible. If we take a conservative estimate of one million regular cannabis smokers in Britain, then it is the case, by Mr Lamb’s own figure, that 1% are prosecuted. How many of these go to prison? He doesn’t say, possibly because he knows the answer is zero. He also doesn’t mention that more than 30,000 smokers are let off every year with a meaningless ‘cannabis warning’.

A caution is enough to damage your career prospects – for doing something that half the cabinet have probably done at some point in their lives. I’d happily support the arrest and prosecution of these cabinet members. The hypocrisy beggars belief If they supported the punishment of cannabis possession by day and smoked cannabis by night, they would be hypocrites. Otherwise, they are not. – indeed, the most dangerous drug of all, in terms of harm to oneself and others, alcohol A ridiculous claim based on no objective evidence whatever., is consumed in vast quantities in our national parliament. And yet the government and the Labour party continue to support the criminalisation of fellow citizens for using cannabis, which is less dangerous. People who choose to break the law ‘criminalise’ themselves, if they are arrested and prosecuted, which they rarely are.

I am instinctively hostile to drugs, both legal and illegal, because I fear the dangers of consuming any drug in significant quantities. This contradicts his earlier enthusiasm for the estimated £1bn in tax revenue that legalisation could bring, which is dependent on the drug being bought and smoked in ‘significant quantities’. But I know that the present approach is a catastrophic failure. It is indeed, but he doesn’t know, or won’t admit, that that ‘approach’ is, in fact, decriminalisation, not ‘prohibition’. I know that the best way to protect young people from harm is to, first of all, legalise and regulate cannabis. Just as ‘regulated’ cigarettes cause cancer, so ‘regulated’ cannabis can cause mental illness. Let’s follow the rational approach (who says it’s ‘rational’?) of the Liberal government in Canada, and let’s have an informed discussion about how best to reduce the harm caused by other drugs.

Sooner or later, the people of this country will recognise the folly of the Conservative government’s approach, which is driven by fear-based, rather than evidence-based, policymaking [sic]. They will recognise that the stubborn refusal of those who govern us to look at the evidence is endangering our nation’s young people. It is shameful. Mr Lamb is interested only in evidence that appears to support his position. I have posted him a hard copy of Attacker Smoked Cannabis, which he has not read, nor acknowledged receipt of. He also refuses to answer any of my questions on Twitter. People, though, are indeed recognising the folly of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat policy of de facto decriminalisation. The cannabis zeitgeist is shifting, but Mr Lamb will not shift with it.

Charlatan or fool. You decide.

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