27 Dec 2006 - Bruno Prior
Mark and Lezley Gibson and Marcus Davies were convicted on 15 December of distributing cannabis-laced chocolate bars to multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers. They await sentencing on 26 January.
Lezley is herself a MS-sufferer, who was told at the age of 21 that she would be incontinent and wheel-chair bound within a few years. Conventional treatment (steroid injections) had such unpleasant side-effects that she could not continue. In her search for alternatives, she came across comments on the benefits of cannabis, which she discovered worked for her. She is now 42 and living a quality of life that the medical profession had considered improbable when she was first diagnosed.
After publicity in local media, Lezley was contacted by other sufferers wanting to try the benefits of cannabis. Though she hoped to be able simply to provide instructions for people to prepare their own cannabis treatments, many of the sufferers were not in a physical condition to do so, so she and her husband began sending out the chocolate bars in exchange for donations. The police discovered £30,000 of receipts from donors, which the couple claim was ploughed straight back in to fund the operation.
The police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the jury and the judge were not wrong to act, because it is their job to enforce and apply the law, not make subjective judgments about where it should or should not be applied. Yet these people should not have found themselves in the dock, let alone convicted of an offence. The fault lies squarely with the law-makers.
Laws prohibiting activities are only justified where those activities cause direct and substantial harm. These people were harming no one and helping many. The law should never have been framed to prevent this sort of activity. Our parliamentarians should have framed the law to prohibit as little as necessary, not as much as possible. To err is human, and it would be unreasonable to expect our legislators to be any less human (they often appear to be more so than the average). But having realised that they have made a mistake, which they must surely have done some time ago, they should have given priority to amending the law to exclude this sort of activity from control, rather than ignoring their errors, and pressing forward with yet more laws extending the powers of the state. But that would require a statist Government to admit that it has extended the barriers of the state too far. So our justice system will have to continue to administer injustice for the sake of flawed ideology and egos.
One aspect on which comment has focused has been the £30,000, as though this was somehow an indecent amount of money for the Gibsons to receive in return for their palliative product. Is the suggestion that they would have been justified in breaking the law had it been worth less to them? No one was compelled to pay them anything, but many people valued what they provided sufficiently that they were able to make a cottage industry out of their activities. If sufferers felt that their product was worth £30,000 between them, who are we to say otherwise?
The BBC, in their report on this issue on Radio 4 today, mentioned that there is a medically-approved product available that provides similar benefits. This product is not, however, available across the NHS, so the ability of the sufferer to receive this relief on the NHS is at the discretion of their doctor. Why should they not make their own choice? Medical professionals warned that other chemicals in cannabis posed a risk to health, chemicals that were not present in the approved product. But whose right should it be, other than the sufferer, to decide whether the risk from these other chemicals outweighs the benefit of ameliorating their condition? This is a classic case of the state thinking it knows better than the individuals what is good for them, and that what is good for one person is the same as what is good for another. Only with a presumption that the state should interfere in people's lives as little as possible could we avoid the repetition of this sort cruel and unjustified intrusion into people's choices.
Very likely, this question has become entangled in the broader issue of drugs legislation, and the legislators have convinced themselves that they could not make allowance for this form of drugs distribution without opening a loophole for other, less legitimate purposes. The drugs question is a minefield for a classical liberal, as principle would dictate that it is no business of the government how people seek their pleasures, but reality shows that the majority of crime is committed to support a drug habit.
It is not the purpose of this article to debate these difficult questions. It is not necessary in this case, because whether one believes in the maintenance, reformation or abolition of the current drug laws, it is only with the greatest lack of imagination that one cannot see a way to remove this particular form of prohibition from the scope of the law. It is not difficult to define the group for whom cannabis may provide a palliative benefit. Doctors could certify people as suffering from the relevant diseases. If the state feels the need to control drugs distribution, it can require that suppliers of these products require proof of illness from their customers, and keep records showing that they have only distributed to sufferers. The job of doctors would not be to prescribe cannabis-containing products, but simply to certify whether someone suffers from a particular disease, upon which certification the sufferer can contact suppliers to obtain their products. It is more cumbersome than a truly liberal solution, but very much less cumbersome than most interventionist solutions, and of very much greater benefit. The Government should take immediate action to stop making bigger losers out of those whom fate has already dealt an unkind hand.