Cannabis for medical purposes first – a winning strategy?

One of the many things I have learned in my time as a drug policy adviser is that there is considerable room for improvement in the way in which we campaign for change.  I could ponder the effectiveness of different tactics such as public demonstrations in the form of picnics, public consumption of cannabis to commemorate key dates and signing petitions. I could, but I won’t.   Instead I want to look at the aims of drug law reform with particular reference to cannabis and how best we can focus the campaign.

I’m pretty sure that we all want legal access to cannabis for adults and legal access to cannabis for medical purposes for all.  Of course, while closely linked, there are two clear and separate aims articulated in that vision for a better future. That presents us with options for developing a successful strategic approach; do we concentrate on both, or one at the expense of the other or do we time our efforts to deliver consecutive rather that concurrent impact?  How best should we shape our campaigning strategy so that we achieve maximum change in minimum time?

Years ago, when sat for academic exams (with some success I modestly add!), I followed the wise advice from my father to read through all the questions, choose which ones to answer and then do the easiest ones first as your brain, subconsciously, got to grips with the harder ones.  That system also meant that you didn’t run out of time, and lose certain marks, to write down the answers that you knew.  In other words concentrate on the “easy” wins as a priority.

I see a real parallel in the campaign for cannabis law reform.  In my view, and following the example of significant progress in the US, achieving legal access to cannabis for medical purposes for all is much more likely to be achieved sooner than legal access to cannabis for “recreational” purposes.  I do not say that one is more important than the other, although that could be argued, as both are about unjust restrictions on human behaviour, but I do say that aiming for an “easier” target makes sense provided it does not harm the chances of succeeding in the more challenging quest.

Although there is a growing body of evidence to show that prohibition is a hugely costly, counter-productive and harmful failure facts alone are not enough to deliver change; successive governments have operated in an evidence-free zone. We need to go further and engage with people’s imaginations, arouse their emotions and empathy through telling compelling stories about real people.  Of course we have to marshal the facts to challenge the lies, myths and distortions of the past 40 or so years of media coverage but our approach should also appeal to emotion and compassion in order to deliver change. Frankly, it’s easier to arouse public empathy for a suffering child or disabled adult being helped by cannabis than it is for someone who “simply” wants to get stoned. That may not be fair, but it’s reality.

I know there will be some (many?) who will feel that a narrow strategy focusing on medical use alone would be a betrayal of the many millions who do not consume cannabis for medical reasons.  My argument is that this approach will hasten, not slow, the opportunity for legal enjoyment of cannabis for the full range of reasons: enhanced spirituality, creativity and enjoyment of music for example, as well as for relaxation and calm.  Think of it, perhaps, as a wedge driven into the wall of prohibition at its weakest point; bringing the whole edifice down with the minimum effort, maximum impact and in the shortest time.

A focused, determined campaign to achieve legal access to cannabis for medical purposes could unite the cannabis law reform movement, harness tremendous energy, expertise and commitment and, after decades of lack of progress, deliver the change we all want and need.

Once medical use of cannabis becomes widespread I’m sure that the resistance to consumption for all other purposes will fade much more quickly.

I’ll now stand back to await the cries of protest that I’m sure to have provoked…


About tomclloyd

International Drug Policy Adviser and former UK Chief Constable
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