Up until very recently, every time the argument that Cannabis, a drug which evidence suggests is less harmful than the very much legal alcohol and tobacco, should be legalised, you have a generic Labour or Conservative politician uses scaremongering rhetoric which are not based in facts for the reason of its illegality. The reason I say before very recently is because up until the last 6 years, all arguments were theoretical; the Dutch Model of Cannabis legalisation was not an actual full legal system (production/supply and possession of more than 5 grams were and are still illegal) and there were no other real practical systems to go by. Now, as the medical legalisation of Cannabis looks to become a likely reality, and as Canada becomes the first advanced country to fully legalise the drug, the topic is back in the news, and politicians are forced to talked about an issue most of them don’t fully understand, but do understand that the press barons of The Daily Mail/The Daily Telegraph/The Mirror and the Murdoch Empire don’t particularly like the idea of it so they should be against it as well to avoid looking weak on crime.
In 2015 – 2016, I studied in depth the effects of recent legalisations in Uruguay and the US and applied them to what legalisation would look like in the UK and how likely it was to be successful, and although there has been some different in results to now compared to when my dissertation was published, the vast majority of it is still relevant to the arguments being brought up today. To level with readers, I believed Cannabis must be legalised medically for 2 – 5 years first, to allow public opinion to get behind full regulated legalisation and to allow a framework to be put in place for the country to be able to cope with a full legalisation. Since hearing most of the, let’s be honest, very lowbrow and simplistic arguments from many I have heard since Cannabis has been back in the news, I would like to go through why the two main parties put out a rhetoric which is not born in facts, and will counter any common arguments made by both sides of the debates which do not hold up under proper scrutiny.
A clear argument of the usual dross fed by mainstream Conservative and Labour politicians when this subject is brought up was perfectly shown on Question Time (21/06/2018) by Damien Green and Jon Ashworth. Jon Ashworth of Labour’s argument seemed to me to simply compare Cannabis to other illegal substances and that some people have died from abusing other abusive substances, which firstly ignored that there have been no recorded fatalities caused by Cannabis but also ignored that Alcohol and Tobacco also has recorded deaths from abuse. Damien Green of The Tories however, seemed to be convinced that it was still only middle-class hippies who wanted recreational legalisation, and described that “this will hit working class people more”, in a cynical but factual point that abuse happens numerically more around poorer people than more well off people. However both conceded that not allowing epileptic children not to have the Cannibol Oils which are the only known successful treatment of the condition against all evidence since Cannabis was legalised medically elsewhere was a bit too far, probably also influenced that the majority of people in the country support medical use of that kind and that even the Royal College of Nursing support medical legalisation.
The reason why both these politicians brought out rhetoric which was not based in fact but was based on playing on people’s fears is because their two political parties have a consensus of having a prohibitionist policy on drugs in general. To be short Prohibitionist thought, which has dominated UK policy since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and indeed world drug policy since President Nixon declared a War on Drugs the same year, has the belief that drugs considered illicit and against the cultural norms at least at the time (ie not Alcohol, Caffine and Tobacco) are inherently bad and that its use and production should be eliminated. This theory is all and good if the facts had not bare that use of illegal drugs since 1971 have increased by over 2000% (with the amount of those who become problematic users still rising) and that the war on production and sale has created an illegal trade worth £435 Billion and mass violence in many countries. If you are interested, the other two broad alternatives to prohibition, is the Libertarian view that all drugs should be available for anyone to use with very limited restrictions, or the surely most realistic Harm Prevention view that drug policy should reflect a Public Health form of policy rather than a criminal form of policy.
The perfect way to describe the Prohibitionist view on Cannabis can be seen in the photo below, from a conversation between Jaqui Smith of Labour, who was trying to move Cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug, and David Nutt, an independent Scientist working within a government framework.
Another example of this was when the Ex-Police Chief, Lord Stephens, used an anecdote about some Heroin users in a decriminalised Holland in 1986 being dead 18 months later, ignoring that fact that heroin drug abuse and fatalities are still higher per capita in the UK and that it has absolutely no bearing on Cannabis policy. While I spoke to Chris Leslie, Labour MP for Nottingham East, regarding the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, an act regarding “legal highs”, which despite some scientists claiming it was “one of stupidest, most dangerous and most unscientific pieces of drug legislation ever conceived” was voted for overwhelmingly by other Labour and Conservative parties. When I questioned on why the MP voted for it Leslie said that “The law currently needed updating and this bill was rightly doing it”. When I followed up by mentioning the concerns of many scientists Leslie said “well I agree that we shouldn’t make something illegal just because some of us don’t like it”, when this legislation he had voted for effectively did that for Nitrous Oxide for example, which was much more of a media sensation that an actual danger to people.
Taking away from the bogus arguments which we have discussed, there are legitimate, more based in fact disputes on both sides of the argument which need to be addressed, for a proper understanding on what the consequences on legalisation are. These are the actual effects of legalisation based on evidence, the role of skunk and its impact on mental health, and the realistic effect on the illegal market.
First things first, and this is actually a point against people who agree with me here, legalisation is not a single magic bullet which can solve every problem and cannot be done very simplistically and crudely. There are, for example, very strict regulations that need to be put in place to make a legalised industry safe for the general public. There must be equivalents to Alcohol made, like a drug driving limit judged by the amount of THC in the blood, or that higher THC products will cost a higher amount of money, and that there will be safeguards in place to maintain that there are strict limits to legal consumption, for example tax rates, restrictions of use in certain areas like there are with Tobacco, a minimum age, and a limit to how much can be brought at once. There would also have to be a support based on research through the NHS. If there aren’t these restrictions in place, and there is a free-for-all, legalisation would simply fail to create neither harm reduction nor the tax or job benefits that would justify legalisation.
One good argument prohibitionists do have is in relation the illegal market, although the early signs in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay suggested a drop in crime overall, over the past years of legalisation drug offenses have failed to fall. However, this does leave out the case that drug offenses have stayed the same because those getting it produced legally are then transporting and selling the substance in places where Cannabis is still illegal. In Britain, being an island and the increased risk for a decreased reward for those attempting to sell illegally, this is less likely to have the same phenomenon. Another legitimate concern many people bring up is the rise of “skunk”, which describes many forms of Cannabis which have a high THC level and has been commonly sold in the UK since the 1990s, which also has links to damaging mental health such as schizophrenia individuals who are already predisposed to psychosis. What is failed to bring up is “skunk” only became a common sold form because the illegal market more aggressively pushed this type onto its customers, as they knew in having the higher amount of what gets you high, that they could sell a higher volume. In a legal market, you could, 1. Manage to through research produce Cannabis which the same THC levels which were less harmful to mental health 2. Sell a wider range, which would not force just “skunk” to be solely sold it is in plenty of places now, and 3. Be able to properly fund parts of the NHS to deal with issue with the mental health.
However, the biggest mistake Prohibitionist make, which I believe is an honest mistake, is the idea that legalisation would normalise Cannabis use. I say this, because all sociological and psychological studies I saw in research to this, as well as looking at Western culture from a large and from personal experience state that the idea Cannabis use is not already normalised is an absolute nonsense. To his credit, Damien Green did mention that the current law is seen by the majority of young people as “a joke”, and he is right. All you need to do is go to any University hall, or College, or any pub across the land and there will be always at least one person who could get hold of it at anytime, and in fact statistically a 1 in 4 chance of in any given situation that any random stranger has used the drug in the past.
There are some signs that the law on Cannabis at least is going to change somewhat, Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, has launched a commission into the current Cannabis laws, and although he has ruled out “recreational legalisation”, I would suggest if the government listens to a shred of the evidence from the commission that Cannabis will be legalised medically to certain illnesses that there are overwhelming evidence that it can treat for example certain cancers and epilepsy and that the drug may be lowered to a class C or even decriminalised (use and possession legal, production and sale illegal). But if the Prohibitionist ideology wins out over evidence, our drug system will continue to be an archaic mess which fails to listen to science and continue to prioritise a spectacularly failed policy over human well-being, the right of human choice and the opportunities to spent money (ie the NHS and Police) more efficiently. What one will hope more than anything else is that the upcoming debates which will arise will be factual and intellectual rather than simply the scaremongering and general lack of knowledge as described earlier.