Four decades have passed since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which criminalised cannabis in the UK. Since then the use of marijuana, as the drug is also commonly known, has continued to be demonised by press and politicians alike. But British drug policy remains far behind that of other western nations. It is time to play catch up.

Though cannabis is synonymous with the 1960s, its history in the west goes back much further. It is thought that Europeans first found their fondness for the drug following the Battle of the Nile, in 1798, when marooned French troops discovered its intoxicating qualities. In the following century it joined cocaine and opium as a substance deified by the medical establishment for its mystical and medicinal properties (and to an extent still is today, as even the Dalai Lama has hinted).

Since the latter half of the twentieth-century, however, the rise in drug cartels, trafficking and substance abuse has generated a climate of fear surrounding drugs. Cannabis is no exception. In 2009, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown reinstated the status of the drug to a Class B in Britain – from the less serious and less damning Class C grading – over concerns that the long-term use of cannabis could lead to deteriorating mental health. There may be some truth to this. Nonetheless, merely increasing the seriousness with which cannabis use will be dealt with only papers-over the issue. An overhaul of drug policy is what is needed.

A glance at Europe may reveal how the decriminalisation of cannabis, which is being suggested, may work in Britain. In Portugal, legislation passed in 2001 declared that people found in possession of small, personal amounts of cannabis would not be prosecuted. Instead of being arrested, cannabis users are advised by the police to visit “dissuasion boards” made up of doctors, psychologists and other specialists in an attempt to steer them away from further drug use. Such a progressive approach removes the social stigma attached to drug use, presenting it as an important health and social issue rather than a simple criminal offence. Moreover, addressing drug use early on may help to prevent some drug users from experimenting with harder drugs, which has been dubbed the “gateway effect” (though this theory is itself widely disputed). Indeed, so successful has the Portuguese experiment been that, according to a report published by the Cato Institute, a think tank, in 2009, the country had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the EU.

Portugal is not the only reason why Britain should think about legalising cannabis. In America, too, Colorado and Washington have become the first states to pass laws legalising the drug. This will have huge consequences. For a start, Mexican drug cartels that supply up to 70% of the American marijuana market, and who are responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of people each year, will begin to wane in influence. Regulating the sale of cannabis through controlled, legal and monitored channels will not only ensure that the quality of cannabis remains consistent – and therefore reducing the risk of contaminated or over-potent batches – but also that the demand for a seedy underground market is slowly starved. This can surely only be of a benefit to any society.

By adopting a similar policy, Britain, too, would feel added benefits.  Not only would legalising cannabis remove the need for underground suppliers and street dealers, but it would also line taxpayer’s pockets.  According to The Economist, a long-term advocate of such a policy, legalisation would boost the Treasury to the tune of £1.3 billion per year. Much of this would come from the estimated £900 million or so that would be made on levies from tax sales – like those made on tobacco today – but also from savings made by the Home Office on the reduced need for policing and law enforcement. Through legalisation, cannabis use would be normalised and would lose much of its lure and attraction to the youth: user numbers would be more likely to fall than to rise. In fact, as government statistics already show, cannabis use in the UK is on the decline.

Of course, the use of cannabis – like that of any other drug – carries risks. Numerous medical bodies, including the Royal College of Psychiatry, support claims that the prolonged use of cannabis can lead to mental health problems. Substantial research proves that this is likely to be the case. But other, legal drugs are worse. Alcohol, for instance, is widely and uncontroversially advertised throughout the national media. It is everywhere. In some cases, its use is even promoted and playfully encouraged. Yet, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), alcohol was responsible for nearly 9,000 deaths in Britain in 2011 alone. What is more, alcohol-related illnesses cost the NHS a reported £3.5 billion each year.

Cannabis is often tenuously linked with mental health issues. This cannot be ignored. However, its use has never been linked to heart disease, mouth cancer or liver damage; nor has it been responsible for cases of physical violence, domestic abuse, rape or fatal road accidents. And yet alcohol is openly accepted, even promoted in our society, whilst cannabis remains an illegal taboo. This is hypocritical.

Every day in the UK we smoke cigarettes, we binge drink and we ride bicycles without wearing helmets – all of which carry calculated risks. This is the luxury (or not, some may say) of living in a democracy where we have a freedom to choose. Surely the use of cannabis, then, is as much a question about individual freedom and liberty as it is about drugs?

BY: Neil Andrews

online poll by Opinion Stage

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