“Have you ever told your own story?” – After a recent meeting, these words rattled around my head for weeks. As much as I’ve alluded to my tale over the years through gritted teeth and coyness, I’ve never divulged it in full. I prefer instead to hide behind other people’s stories and promote the voices of those involved in drug law reform.

Those of us on the frontlines of the public discourse about the need to reform our drug laws are a varied and disparate band. From the police to the medical professionals, from politicians to bereaved families, and from scientists to those with serious health problems who find relief from medicinal cannabis – the people who campaign for a new and evidence-based approach to drugs are dedicated and tireless.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a great deal of national and international changes. I’ve come to have a privileged and unprecedented view of this frontier, and I believe that a look behind the scenes is every bit as interesting as the public-facing campaigns.

Which brings me back to the opening question: “Have you ever told your own story?”

Since the age of eight I’ve been housebound and disabled with what I can only describe as crippling pain and a disease that leaves the sufferer in the literal definition of exhaustion. As much as I’m not about to fully write my own story, this is unfortunately a necessary reveal; perhaps I’m not as forthcoming as the people I interview and promote, but my entry into ‘the war on drugs’ is a result of my own circumstances and the fact that medical use of cannabis has helped alleviate my pain.

I’ve now worked in pursuit of drug law reform for eight years, and over the course of this time I’ve taken on many roles and have been fortunate enough to collect many prestigious titles and accolades. I’m often reminded of Noel Gallagher’s lyrics as I go about my daily work: ‘So I start a revolution from my bed’ – my unique placement in this broad subject has led me to believe that  my insights may be worth sharing. It’s for these reasons that I wish to try and document this global movement in what I’ve loosely dubbed ‘my drug war diary’. Each month I hope to provide a round-up of the many highlights in drug policy and its reform around the world. So let’s have a quick recap of some notable developments this month:

In some cases, such as the Philippines, we’re seeing a retreat back into a dark age. As I type, President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen the extrajudicial killings of well over 12,000 of his own citizens. I recently spoke to Channel 4 News Asia Correspondent Jonathan Miller on my podcast Stop and Search about his new book, Duterte Harry. In this new biography, Jonathan takes a hard look at what led the president to oversee such a fatal policy. Duterte has created a narrative whereby all of his country’s woes are conveniently blamed on the people who use drugs and those who supply them. As in many cases, the reality doesn’t quite live up to Duterte’s yarn. The drug war in the Philippines just illustrates how we’re reaching new extremes in the way we deal with addiction and drug consumers.

For contrast, look at Canada. Opting out of the traditional prohibition and criminalisation model, Canada officially became the first G7 country to legalise and regulate recreational cannabis, joining Uruguay as the only two countries with a state-controlled system. The new approach aims to cut the ties with organised crime groups who traditionally control the trade when cannabis is illegal. Also high on the government’s agenda was the promotion of responsible cannabis use for adults through better education and awareness. What’s more, the new laws restrict access to children who were previously able to obtain cannabis relatively easily on the illegal market. That said, these changes won’t necessarily stop teenagers using cannabis, but may provide (illicit) access to less potent and less damaging strains of cannabis.

Here in the UK, the government has held firmly on to the policy of full prohibition and criminalisation. But we may have finally witnessed a breakthrough on the subject of medical cannabis. Two high-profile cases recently stirred up enough public sentiment to force the UK Home Office something to reconsider its position. As many people who have worked on drug law reform know, the Home Office has long taken the position that ‘cannabis has no medical value’, something that campaigners have been rather dismayed about. 

But Billy Caldwell, a 12-year-old boy suffering from severe epilepsy, took his long and agonising battle with the Home Office into the open. Billy’s mother Charlotte flew to Canada and back to obtain cannabis oil which has reduced Billy’s seizures dramatically. A similar story is that of Alfie Dingley, a boy suffering the same debilitating seizures. Alfie’s mother, Hannah Deacon, also had to wait for the Home Office to temporarily grant a special license for the use of cannabis oil. As any parent will know, you do what it takes to make a child better, no matter what. It’s for these reasons that my parents and I watched on with a great deal of interest and empathy for these two families.

As I’ve previously said in other articles, children like Alfie and Billy grow up and become adults, and the suffering does not cease. Thousands of families have been following closely, looking for support from the UK government in pushing out further medical cannabis reforms.

There have been voices in the UK who have called on broader reform of our cannabis laws. Using the recent cases of Billy and Alfie as a conversation starter, Lord Hague called on his Conservative party to be brave and reform cannabis laws in full. Further backing up Lord Hague, Durham’s Chief Constable Mike Barton also called for a fully regulated and taxed cannabis market. It’s a growing chorus for drug policy reform, including the British Medical Journal which recently supported the full regulation and taxation of drugs.

So much is happening at the moment that it’s hard to keep up, this is why I hope to create this monthly drug war diary in efforts to strip things down and give a summary of developments. Never before has it been so crucial we all take an interest in drug policy reform across the globe.


This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Images from gettyimages.

Comment