The UK’s stance on cannabis has got many around the world asking what are they smoking? Canada is set to become the first G7 country to fully legalise recreational use of cannabis and other countries ranging from Spain, to Uruguay to allegedly North Korea have legalised it in some capacity. Let’s put this bluntly, now is the time to change our thinking on cannabis.
Cannabis, like any other legal or illegal drug for that matter, can be dangerous and has negative health effects on those who take it. The increase in cannabis-related mental health problems such as cannabis psychosis, as well as the potential for physical illnesses such as lung cancer — resulting from the popular habit of mixing cannabis and tobacco — illustrates the risks to health that cannabis can have.
Yet relaxation of the UK’s laws on cannabis would mean that these illnesses can be treated for what they actually are: illnesses. Like Portugal, we should treat drug-related illnesses as public health issues, rather than criminal ones. We don’t view the results of alcohol abuse or tobacco addiction the way we view damage caused by cannabis — even though the former are also psychoactive substances, with alcohol and tobacco arguably being more dangerous and with potentially greater side effects. Legalisation would mean a change to this.
As well as better regulation, the other big advantage that legalisation has is taxation. The Institute for Social and Economic affairs at the University of Essex estimates that legalisation could provide extra tax revenues totalling between £400 million and £900 million. The same study claimed that coupled with savings from the law enforcement of prohibition, legalisation could boost the UK economy by an extra £2 billion a year, with other estimates claiming that it could be more. Sales of the herb could be paying for hospitals and healthcare; stoners could be funding schools or social care. The economic argument for legalisation has obviously been won. If anything, continued prohibition has only had a detrimental effect on one of the world’s largest economies.
Netflix‘s hit series Narcos has opened the eyes of many to the amazing amount of wealth in the global narcotics market. The programme traces the life and times of Pablo Escobar in the 1980s and ’90s. More than 20 years on, the global market in illegal drugs is still worth big bucks, estimated at over $300 billion. The cannabis trade is approximately half of this, and legalisation across the world would go some way to dismantling this. Just as alcohol prohibition led to the rise of Al Capone in 1920s America, drug prohibition has allowed a modern generation of traders to flourish in similar ways to their American counterparts 90 years previously. Taking the grass out of the hands of gangsters and giving it to the government would reduce crime rates. In Denver, Colorado, in the first three months post legalisation crime rates fell by an astonishing 14 per cent.
Most importantly however, current cannabis regulation has criminalised a whole host of innocent people, including those who use it to medically treat aliments from MS to depression. The UK lags behind many nations in the world who have already legalised cannabis for medical use — something it seems reluctant to do despite the overwhelming evidence that illustrates the positive medical effects that cannabis can have. As a natural pain reliever alone, the CBD compound in cannabis can be used to help pain-stricken cancer patients, and it can also be used to relax the muscles to stop the involuntarily reactions and shaking that plague sufferers of Crohn’s Disease and multiple sclerosis. This shows that despite the potentially negative side effects of the drug, it is in its role as a medicine that the legalisation argument convinces most.
Around the world the question of cannabis legalisation has turned from one of if to when — but not in the UK. New Labour’s attempt at decriminalisation was a failed experiment, and the continued ignorance of successive governments and experts on this topic (such as Professor David Nutt), shows that there is little desire amongst the upper echelons of the British establishment to change this. However, the evidence is overwhelming and the hypocrisy of having alcohol and tobacco made legal, while cannabis which is far less harmful remaining illegal, is something that needs to change.
London is not going to become the world’s next Amsterdam any time soon, but this ‘second wave prohibition’ and the ‘Neo-McCarthyism’ that surrounds the drug is, like many other things, putting the role of this country as a progressive, forward thinking nation into much doubt.