Legalising Cannabis, A Question of When and How

When do ideas reach the tipping point from which their advance becomes inevitable?

One of the criteria must surely be that their cause is taken up by the unexpected.

We expect members of the Scottish Nationalists to speak of independence for Scotland; however we might reach a tipping point when it becomes more common in the Labour Party.

We expect leftists to cheer on the idea of a republic; however, the Royal Family might think about packing their bags when the abolition of the monarchy becomes a cause beyond the left.

Therefore what are we to make of William Hague’s call for the legalisation of marijuana not just for medicinal purposes but for recreational use?

Denial that drugs laws need reviewing neglects that cannabis is all but decriminalised already

The idea of decriminalising the drug had been knocking around the political fields since the mid-1990s when it was adopted by the Liberal Democrats. The policy has developed. The Liberal Democrats went into the last election promising the legalisation marijuana.

The recent case of Billy Caldwell whose medicinal cannabis was seized by immigration officials has brought the debate in from the fringe. At first the political reaction was one of callous bureaucratism. Then Home Secretary Sajid Javid relented and promised a review into the medicinal uses of cannabis.

That Javid denied it was a first step towards legalisation indicates how the debate has changed. Cannabis may not be a gateway drug, but medical marijuana laws are often a gateway to more practical drugs laws.

Denial that drugs laws need reviewing neglects that cannabis is all but decriminalised already: police take a more tolerant attitude towards individual users than in previous decades. Cannabis arrests are down 46% since 2010, charges have fallen by a third. Just one in four cannabis users are charged. There comes a point where symbolism looks ridiculous.

UNODC data suggests that 6.5% of the population (aged 16-59)  smoke cannabis on a regular basis. That is lower than many countries but makes cannabis the most used drug in the UK. Moreover, roughly a third take the drug during the course of their lifetimes, and use is more common (15.8%) among young people.

In 1998 the UN General Assembly pledged to create a “drug-free world”. The war on drugs has been a costly failure. It was a war on supply but it failed to stop demand. Furthermore, the battle against the supply increased prices, and profits that fuelled drugs-related crimes.

Around 35% of the Organised Crime Groups active in the EU or internationally are involved in the production, trafficking or distribution of illegal drugs. Cannabis accounts for around 38% of the retail market for illicit drugs in the EU, so is an important source of revenue for OCGs.

A recent study showed that in U.S. states, where medical marijuana laws were in effect, violent crime fell by 12.5%. In the eight border states where cannabis has effectively been decriminalised robberies were down 19%, drug-related murders down 41%. A low threshold for legal consumption means demand for the illegal drug plummets

In 2009, the increase in ‘skunk’ caused the Independent on Sunday to back away from its previous support for drugs law reform.

Nearly 94% of cannabis seized by the police is high-grade skunk whose THC levels are estimated to be three times the strength of hash. A 2015 report looked at the link between psychosis and cannabis. While users who smoked cannabis with lower levels THC were no more likely than non-users to develop psychosis; skunk smokers were three times more likely. Moreover, higher levels of CBD (another cannabinoid like THC) in cannabis (most skunk contains only traces) reduced psychosis.

A better response to the change in street cannabis might have been bolder reform not retraction. The illegal market has no public health, only profit.

It is also why any government that seeks to legalise cannabis must do so with clearly stated aims. While in government the Liberal Democrats commissioned a Treasury report to look at how much tax revenue could be raised from the legal sale of marijuana. Their figure was £1bn with other benefits including reduced police and courts costs of up to £200m.

More recently, Health Poverty Action has estimated that revenues could reach £3.5bn. Colorado (population 5m) raised £147m from cannabis taxation. However, if taxes are too high then it becomes harder to reduce the illegal market.

Once seen as radical, decriminalisation is too timid a policy

Prohibition has failed. Its advocates only offer more of the same but tougher, then tougher, then tougher. They go against the evidence that the war on drugs has not acted as a deterrent, it has merely allowed organised crime to amass billions while we waste further billions fighting it. The strain is unsustainable and it is the poor in society who bear this burden the most heavily.

Once seen as radical, decriminalisation is too timid a policy. It often leaves the criminal market in place. It is only now that the Netherlands are moving towards legal production. However, legalising marijuana need not mean a free-for all.

As world cannabis policy develops, the UK has different models to consider. Some are commercially oriented, other are heavily regulated. Greater regulation can prevent OCGs gaining a foothold in the legal market. The debate in Canada about how to prevent organised crime infiltrating the legal production of cannabis is instructive.

With large fines and a withdrawal of licenses for those who sell to underage persons, legislation could make it harder to sell to underage people. By reducing the illegal market, legalisation means cannabis becomes harder not easier for young people to procure. Taxation could be used to encourage cannabis with lesser THC quantities and greater CBD. By bringing the process into the open there is the opportunity for greater education.

It is too much to expect reform from a figure temperamentally conservative and rigid such as Theresa May. William Hague is not the only Tory who has talked more honestly about legalisation: Crispin Blunt, Tory MP for Reigate, had already called for a Royal Commission. On the Labour side Diane Abbott called for a review in drugs policy.

Each are small ripples in the pond.

However, the case of Billy Caldwell was the splash that changed the nature of the debate.



More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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