Getting to Know - Tim Colbourne
Tim is a policy expert and problem solver with two decades experience working at the highest levels of government and politics in the UK. His strengths are his ability to analyse national and international policy issues; developing and delivering solutions to problems; negotiating politically sensitive dossiers in the glare of media attention; managing delicate stakeholder relationships; and designing and delivering legislation.
Tim served as a special advisor during the Coalition government, spending time in the Downing Street Policy Unit and as deputy chief of staff to Nick Clegg. He previously worked for the Liberal Democrats as senior home affairs adviser, for HM Prison Service and for the Howard League for Penal Reform. He currently works as Director of Policy for Nick Clegg's "Think Tank" Open Reason
He has a particular interest and expertise in:
- Europe and Brexit
- Environmental policy
- Drug law reform
- Reform of the criminal justice system
- Digital policies, including privacy, free expression, and the social impact of technological change.
We have asked our Trustees and Patrons some "Quick-Fire" Questions so you can get to know a little more about their involvement with United Patients Alliance and capture their thoughts on how medical cannabis policy is progressing the UK.
Why do you support patients accessing cannabis as medicine?
I think when it comes to health we should follow the evidence. It’s really very simple. We now know that cannabis has some important medical applications, and so the law - and the NHS - needs to evolve to recognise it as a legitimate medicine. Instead we have this fundamentally inhumane situation where an effective treatment is withheld from people who have few if any alternatives, and we criminalise people who are ill for doing something to dramatically improve their quality of life. There are lots of debates about how to make cannabis available as a medicine, but that’s the basic shape of it. It makes no sense.
How did you first get involved with cannabis as medicine law change/campaigning?
I became aware of the issue as a result of my time working in government. Norman Baker, who was then the drugs minister, was adamant that this was something we should try to change, and he was right. At the time, the Conservative party wanted nothing to do with it, so we didn’t make any progress. After leaving government in 2015, I started to get more involved with the various campaigns and felt I could offer some insight into how government and politics works, and what kind of messages and tactics might have a chance of success.
Why did you choose to get involved with United Patients Alliance?
I was impressed by the UPA’s professionalism and by its passionate and articulate spokespeople.
What is your personal background and why is this relevant to cannabis as medicine?
I’ve had a longstanding interest in drug policy reform going back to the late 1990s when I worked for the Prison Service on a project about preventing the spread of HIV and Hep C among injecting drug users. I started working as policy adviser for the Liberal Democrats around the time that the party came out in favour of decriminalising cannabis in 2002, and I’ve been immersed in the politics of drug policy ever since. I’ve also got a liberal attachment to the idea that governments should make decisions based on the facts, not on fear or prejudice, or what the papers might say about you tomorrow. That tension is at the heart of the debate about medical cannabis.
What are the most compelling arguments for legal access to cannabis as medicine?
Scientific evidence is crucial, but actually the most compelling arguments - the ones that make the media and the politicians sit up and take notice - are always the personal stories of patients and their families. That’s why the UPA’s testimony is so powerful.
What are the biggest hurdles in the UK to achieving legal access to cannabis as medicine?
Until a few weeks ago I would have said that the government - and the Home Office in particular - were the biggest obstacle. That’s no longer the case. The real challenge now is persuading the medical community that this is a substance that can be incorporated into the NHS in a way that gets it into the hands of patients who need it in a reasonable timescale. The NHS rightly operates on the basis of licensed medicines supported by evidence of effectiveness from clinical trials. We don’t have ‘gold standard’ clinical trial data on the whole for cannabis, not least because its legal status has made it difficult to research. But if we proceed by the book, patients will be waiting another 10-20 years for a range of products to make it through the approvals process. So the UPA and others are going to need to work closely with doctors and pharmacists to come up with an approach that ensures that patients who need medical cannabis are able to access it quickly.
What existing systems/policies for accessing cannabis as medicine would you support and why?
I don’t personally think you need to invent a radically new way of providing access. It’s unlikely that we’re going to see a US-style dispensary model here in the UK, because the politicians would see that as too close for comfort to a recreational market. I think the aim now should be to integrate it into the NHS, with doctors able to use their professional judgement about when they prescribe it, and some flexibility to allow patients to work with GPs and pharmacists to find the right strain and dosage to suit them. Some patients of course will continue to grow their own medicine, and that is bound to become an issue of public debate. One thing is clear: if the government has accepted that cannabis has legitimate medical uses, then possession or cultivation of cannabis where it is clearly done for medical purposes ought to be decriminalised.
What are your biggest concerns right now for future medical cannabis legislation in the UK?
Looking at what’s happened in other countries, I would say the biggest risk is that mistakes will be made in the design of the model, and that it will many more years of campaigning and legal action to force the government to fix it. I hope that we can avoid that by learning from the successes and failures of other countries.
Why is the 2018 UPA Medical Cannabis Patient Survey so important?
Because you can’t design a service unless you understand the needs of the people who are going to use it! Filling in the survey means the government, doctors and regulators will have much clearer idea of how cannabis is used and what patients really need.
Thank you Tim!
Tim in the Media
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