Alcohol is a much greater threat to people’s health than cannabis, former Home Office minister Norman Baker has warned, saying its dangers are being underplayed.
Pointing to figures that show there were only 13 deaths related to cannabis use last year compared with more than 7,000 caused by alcohol, the Lib Dem MP says there is “hysteria” over drug use in the UK.
Mr Baker, who resigned from the Home Office after saying that the experience of working with Theresa May was like “walking through mud”, said he had been shocked to learn of the extent of Britain’s drinking culture during his year as Crime Prevention Minister.
His battles included trying to shut down a JD Wetherspoon motorway pub on the M40, a move allegedly blocked by Number 10, and calling on shops to stop “irresponsible” alcoholic drinks promotions.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that of the 13 deaths in 2013 that were related to cannabis, 12 mentioned other factors as well on the death certificates.
“These figures show that we need to be less hysterical about cannabis and worried more about alcohol,” said Mr Baker. “I’m in favour of evidence-based policy, and we underplay the dangers of alcohol. Politicians need to reflect that society has changed since the 1970s, so the rhetoric should change.”
The ONS said that only one death certificate solely mentioned cannabis use.
This is believed to be Gemma Moss, a 31-year-old mother of three from Boscombe in Bournemouth, who died last October having taken up cannabis after a two-year break to help her sleep.
Even in that case, thought to be the first instance of a British woman to have died of cannabis poisoning, drugs charities have questioned the findings.
The devout Christian was found to have only a moderate to high level of the drug in her system, but it is thought to have caused a heart attack. In January, pro-cannabis campaigners from NORML UK claimed that it would take 20,000-40,000 joints to have reached a lethal dose and said a review into the circumstances of Ms Moss’ death.
The ONS figures showed that alcohol caused 7,080 deaths last year, with liver disease, degeneration of the nervous system, and chronic pancreatitis among the problems. About one in six of the 79,700 deaths of people aged 35 and over in 2012 were estimated to have been caused by smoking, though accurate figures are hard to pin down as smoking status is not included on death certificates.
Peter Reynolds, president of the CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform campaign, said: “The ratio [between alcohol and cannabis deaths] is enormous, a factor of thousands. It’s absurd. Alcolhol is a poison. The whole basis that cannabis is looked upon is subject to prejudice, misinformation, scaremongering, and rarely looked on in a scientific and rational way.”
Just before he resigned, Mr Baker had claimed that the Conservatives had “suppressed” a Home Office report written by civil servants, which was published last month, that showed tougher enforcement of drugs laws does not reduce use. As a result, Mr Baker called for reforms of drug laws – the LibDems do not believe that people should be imprisoned solely for possession. Mr Baker did not blame home secretary Theresa May when he alleged the report had been suppressed.
Crime Prevention Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “The Government currently has no plans to legalise cannabis or to change our approach to its use as a medicine. However, the Government takes all harms caused by alcohol and drugs seriously and will keep an open mind as evidence evolves on this complex issue.”
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