Last week’s Scottish National Party conference was littered with talking points, from Nicola Sturgeon’s vow to hold a second independence referendum in the event of ‘hard Brexit’, to the election of Angus Robertson MP as deputy leader of the party. Aside from the main headline grabbers though, there was one vote which could prove to be just as important as any other in the months and years to come.
A motion was put forward by the Ayr North branch of the party to decriminalise the medical use of cannabis, and delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of it. The vote makes official a desire to reform cannabis policy that has long been implied, even publicly stated, but never formally discussed at a conference. Back in May, addressing a crowd at Queen’s Hotel, Dundee, party leader Nicola Sturgeon had signalled her support, saying:
Cannabis is not a harmless substance. I am not in favour of general decriminalisation but I do think there is a specific case for medicinal use.
She went on to cite Sativex as evidence of both cannabis’ medical value, and the absurdity of licensing it as a medicine but refusing to allow access to it to people in genuine medical need.
Ms Sturgeon is not the only SNP politician to speak out in favour of reforming cannabis laws in recent times. In August, West Dunbartonshire MP Martin Docherty-Hughes told The Greenock Telegraph:
The medical benefits of cannabis are well known and hundreds of millions of people around the world have safe and legal access to medical marijuana.
It’s a disgrace in the 21st century that my constituents, living with chronic pain from conditions such as multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and avascular necrosis have to choose between suffering and breaking the law.
I am delighted to pledge my support for the legalisation of cannabis as a treatment option for doctors and their patients
I will be encouraging colleagues to pledge their support and I hope that a change in the law will not be too far off.
The outcome of the vote, then, was far from a surprising result, although the margin of victory may have come as a shock to some.
During the proceedings, Multiple Sclerosis sufferer Laura Brennan-Whitefield spoke eloquently about her illness, telling the gathered delegates:
I have been living with multiple sclerosis for nine years and the fact that I’m standing here giving this speech means I am one of the lucky ones. “It has become very clear to me over these last nine years that many people living with MS have been using cannabis to help with the symptoms of that condition, in fact it’s one of the worst kept secrets at the hospital.
I don’t think someone who is in pain should be criminalised for trying to ease that pain. I am talking about the medical use only of cannabis, and it’s that medical use that is wider than just MS – arthritis, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, palliative care, have all been shown to benefit from cannabis medication.
Having spoken so passionately and movingly about her desire to see Scotland introduce compassion into its cannabis policy, and to not be left behind whilst the rest of the world (if not the UK as a whole) carried on along the path of progress, Ms Brennan-Whitefield was unsurprisingly thrilled with the outcome of the vote, telling me that it was “even more than I had hoped for,” and that she is now more convinced than ever that the political and public will is there in Scotland to ensure that medical cannabis policy is reformed to allow a “logical, common sense” approach to helping those in greatest need.
She may well be correct. A recent poll commissioned by VolteFace found that 58% of MPs support the legalisation of medical cannabis, with 88% support from within the ranks of SNP MPs. A poll by The Independent in April found that public support in Scotland is also high, with 58% of those surveyed supporting legalisation, a dramatic number given that the 2015 petition calling for cannabis legalisation, which gathered a record number of signatures (236,995) and was debated in Parliament, was only signed by 17,649 Scottish residents (7.5% of the total signatures).
Ms Brennan-Whitefield hopes that the passing of this motion, and the public interest it is sure to generate, will illicit a response from the Conservative government in Westminster, but is not resting on her laurels, and is determined to lobby every MP and MSP in Scotland tirelessly until they stop ignoring the issue.
There is sure to be opposition to Laura’s (and the SNP’s) vision, however. Indeed, during the debate, one councillor in particular was extremely outspoken. Audrey Doig, who sits on Renfrewshire Council, ensured that the proceedings became more ill-tempered than most when she took to the stage to express her fervent opposition to the motion. To a chorus of boos, she suggested that genuine patients like Ms Brennan-Whitefield were simply “playing the MS card,” in order to get a quick fix of pain relief, when all they really needed was a better “fitness regime.”
Attempts to contact Cllr Doig for this article were rebuffed by an email stating simply, “Due to the hate mail I have received in the past few days, I will make no further comment on this issue.” A wise policy, perhaps; it seems unlikely that her comments will have won her many admirers. Despite the callousness of Cllr Doig’s words, however, Ms Brennan-Whitefield was saddened to hear that she had received hate mail, and was very clear that this was not how she wanted to change people’s minds.
Thoughtless comments like those made by Cllr Doig may be difficult to hear, but are sure to be quickly dismissed as those looking to force change focus on more important, and pressing, challenges. The campaign’s victory at conference is merely the first small step on what could prove to be a long journey, given that as things stand, the SNP has very little power to make changes to Scottish cannabis policy.
Currently, the issue of medical cannabis is still considered a criminal one, and is therefore dictated to Holyrood by the government in Westminster, where changing drug policy is currently a long way down Theresa May’s agenda, if it’s even on her radar at all. Health policy, on the other hand, has in large part been devolved, but thanks to the clearly illogical position which states that the use of a drug as medicine is a criminal rather than a health issue, this hugely important facet of Scottish health policy, which could affect thousands of people, cannot be satisfactorily addressed.
Ms Brennan-Whitefield explained that her campaign was not interested in changing drug policy as a whole. Like her party leader, she is not campaigning for the legalisation or even decriminalisation of recreational cannabis use, but is instead fully focussed on the plight of those using the drug medicinally. Pressed on whether she had used cannabis herself as a treatment for the symptoms of MS, she explained that she had not, due to its illegality.
This is truly the crux of the issue – that an otherwise law abiding citizen is forced to make a choice between trying everything possible to improve her health and wellbeing, and not breaking the law. Ms Brennan-Whitefield, like countless others, had spoken to her consultant about obtaining Sativex, but thanks to its prohibitive cost was unable to. Were the issue of cannabis policy, and particularly medical cannabis policy, to be thought of finally as a medical issue, this would surely not be the case.
A petition has been set up calling on the Westminster government to devolve to Holyrood the power to decriminalise medical cannabis in Scotland. It is hoped that this will at least force the government to issue a statement, but in reality it is unlikely to force genuine change.
More promising, perhaps, is the announcement of a second independence referendum. If this is to happen, the power to create their own medical cannabis policy could become a useful bargaining chip with which Westminster MPs might hope to stave off the break up of the Union once again. And if they fail to do so, the SNP will surely change the policy themselves, which could have a profound impact not just on Scotland, but on the rest of the UK as well. Whatever happens – and not everyone is as confident as Laura Brennan-Whitefield – it is sure to be an eventful couple of years for cannabis policy in Scotland, and is a situation which I’m sure the thousands of medical cannabis patients south of the border will be watching with interest.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real, and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. Tweets @sullivandeej