The Oxford Union Debate: 16 October 2001 - A brief report
"This House would legalise Cannabis"

Chaired by the Oxford Union President, IndraNeil Mahapatra.

Proposed by Jenny Twaite, DSc, St Annes College. Jenny spoke breathlessly in favour of the motion and had obviously absorbed the cannabis literature. She explained that the motion meant that the motion was to legalise of cannabis possession, cultivation and sale through licensed outlets similar to Dutch Style' coffee shops' with age restrictions of 18 on customers. She put all the main points that campaigners are familiar with arguing enthusiastically in favour of the motion. She said so much that it became hard to imagine what the other proposers could add.

Opposed by Fraser Campbell, Pembrooke College, on the grounds that society 'had let slip through' alcohol and tobacco which did enough damage. He said cannabis was addictive and legalising another addictive substance could only harm society. His approach was welcome as being light-hearted and he happily engaged himself with several interjections with Jenny.

Peter Lilley spoke in favour of the motion although he denied that he had ever taken cannabis himself. He had been presented in the press as the first conservative MP to admit taking cannabis. He said he had visited Amsterdam and seen that it had worked. He said millions of people do smoke cannabis in Britain and to criminalise them harms and costs society more. He said he would like to see a legalisation with Amsterdam type coffee shops where cannabis would be sold to adults. In Holland 'cannabis use and drug taking generally had decreased'.

Dr George Rae, Chairman of the representative body of the BMA opposed the motion. He was not against medical supply of cannabinoids where it proved to be beneficial but said that that was very different from smoking cannabis which had many possible health risks including cancer. In Amsterdam, the drug culture had ruined the country and other neighbouring countries were all pressing the European Government to pressurise the Dutch to change their policies. He said that cannabis was composed of hundreds of compounds as well as THC, and that the long term health effects of smoking it were still not known, although he suggested that they would be worse than for tobacco. He gave several antidotes of people he knew or heard of who had suffered harm through cannabis use.

Alun Buffry, National Co-ordinator of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, supported the motion. He said that there were stories and claims that cannabis was dangerous to health but that the DEA administrative judge, Francis Young, had after his study ruled that cannabis was safer than many common foods and that Prof Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School had testified that cannabis was remarkably safe. Alun said, that the anecdotes of cannabis causing harm mostly came from the laboratory experiments of monkey mice and rats and that was very different to people smoking cannabis. He said that the World Health Organisation report pointed to that difference. He said that he was convinced that cannabis was not illegal because it was dangerous but for some other reason that he did not know and that the law neither reduced usage, saved health damage nor helped society. Then he went on to say that the debate tonight was not about the health effects of cannabis or whether its use should be encouraged or discouraged. The debate was about the law and the effects of the law so we needed to look at that. Then he described a couple whose door had been kicked in and they had been arrested for a tiny amount of the dried but banned plant and elaborated on the consequences - searches and strip searches, arrest and interrogation, months waiting for court, names published in the press, criminal record, possible loss of employment, income and accommodation. When challenged by Kevin Sabet as to whether he had any evidence that had happened, he said he was speaking "from personal experience". Alun explained how that sort of police action had resulted in over one million prosecutions in the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of criminal records, and that at the end of the day there were no victims appearing in any court case. This he said, cost the country billions of pounds in the name of the 'War on drugs', which was in fact a war on drug users and that of the 100,000 plus arrests each year, consistently 80% were for cannabis possession. He asked what gain there had been, besides policemen, forensic scientists, court officials and lawyers getting paid, and that mostly the person arrested was only too happy to get home for another joint at huge cost in terms of money and police time and asked where was the justice and logic and why should we punish a person for a crime with no victim. He went on to say that he had used cannabis himself for the last 30 years, enquiring whether anyone would have felt threatened in any way if he produced cannabis from his pocket. He closed by telling the Chamber that they were the jury and it was up to them to decided whether to punish him for his choice of cannabis.

The next speaker was Kevin Sabet of Lady Margaret Hall opposed the motion saying that cannabis use and drug use should be discouraged in the strongest possible way and that in America where he came from the policy of zero tolerance had started to have a positive effect by reducing the number of drug users.

Then Commander Brain Paddick of the Lambeth Police took a neutral stance saying that as a police employee he should not take sides in such a debate. He therefore would speak on his experiences in Lambeth regarding the resent experimentation of issuing warnings and confiscating the cannabis of anyone caught rather than arresting them. He said this had proved successful and out of over 100 warnings issued no-body had been warned twice. He said plenty of people were arrested for being drunk and disorderly but nobody had been arrested for being stoned and disorderly. He said that a great amount of police time and public money was spent in the pursuit of cannabis smokers. There were many social reasons why people smoke - health, environmental and economic factors. He said that the police could not represent the law if the proportionality and reasonableness of their actions were not an appropriate response to the crime. In response to a "point of information" from the floor, asking whether he was going to arrest Mr Buffry, he replied "no, I'm off duty." Commander Paddick concluded by saying that aspirin did more harm.

Leslie Iverson, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, spoke in favour of the motion. He said that cannabis was not a single product and that there were adverse effects for some people i.e. the initiation of mental illness and an increase in the number of cannabis-induced driving accidents was only apparent because it was now being tested for and that the real cause for the increase in car accidents was antidepressants. He said Doctor George Rae had provided no evidence of harm only antidotes. He also admitted that he had tried cannabis himself but only in the name of research in a foreign country.

Dr Thomas Stutterford, a scientific correspondent for the Times, ex-GP and ex-MP (Norwich South for the Conservatives until the early 70's), disappointingly presented no scientific evidence preferring to attack the proposors of the motion. He said that his recent article in The Times citing evidence from a study of the effects of cannabis on driving had been wrongly criticised by the author of that study report. He said that Mr Buffry was wrong and wrong again, and went on to say that long-term cannabis smoking would have a seriously bad effect on health, including on memory, bodily functions and fertility, and that it would cause testicles to shrink and the onset of more feminine attributes such as long hair. He said that not nearly enough research had been done into cannabis and that legalisation would be a dangerous move, sending out the wrong message to people. During his time as GP, he said, he had seen many people with cannabis problems and cannabis-induced psychosis, including one elderly mother who had unwittingly consumed cannabis in food provided by her son. She had never recovered. He said cannabis smoke contained much more tar than cigarette smoke and was held in the lungs for longer, and that it caused cancer. Also that tests of drivers involved in road accidents had shown that cannabis was dangerous to driving. Most of what Dr Stutterford said seemed to have been designed to try to scare the audience of students away from smoking cannabis and he provided no real scientific evidence. Jon Owen Jones, MP for Cardiff, said that he hoped that the Oxford Union would continue to follow the example of Parliament and arrange for earlier debates, and that since he was at the end of the speakers he found that so much had already been said. Explaining briefly the purpose of his "Private Member's Bill" on legalisation of cannabis possession and trade which he was about to put towards Parliament on October 16th, he said that he knew that the Bill would fail. But he wanted a better system of supply than in Holland where coffeeshops were not able to buy their stock legally.

Peter Hitchens, a columnist from the Mail on Sunday, had spent the whole debate scowling at the speakers for the motion, and now came to speak in opposition. He gave the impression that he had serious mental problems with cannabis and said that he considered it dirty. He said Amsterdam was the crime capital of Europe and that was caused by the Dutch attitudes to cannabis - neighbouring countries were pressurising the Dutch to change their approach since it was also badly effecting them. Also in Alaska, he said, they had decriminalised cannabis possession but it had been so bad that they had to criminalise it again. He made several wild and unsubstantiated claims about health effects and said all drug taking was disgusting. He then went on to attack Mr Buffry and said that since Commander Paddick was not going to arrest him, he was thinking that he should report the Commander for failing to do his duty (Peter dismissed a point of information from Mr Buffry: "No, we've already had a public confession from you"). He said that the Lambeth experiment had been a failure and that crime had shot up. He said that cannabis smoking was dirty and should be stopped by making the laws harsher.

Four speakers from the floor were invited to the lecterns and the Guest speakers were then taken out for drinks whilst the floor debate continued amongst the Members.

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