Time for a Joint Discussion

By Mark Richards.

Two stories in the UK – and a recent vote in Canada – have brought the possible legalisation of cannabis into the headlines. Is there really a sensible case for legalising the drug? Or is the government right when it refuses to even consider it?

Let me start this article by declaring my own position: I’m exactly the same as Bill Clinton, I tried it, but I never inhaled.

I am talking about cannabis – and long ago in a student house far, far away I tried to smoke a joint. It was a rite of passage that most students go through, but for me that was it. I accept that – on the balance of probabilities – my children had tried it: they may even have inhaled. It is part and parcel of being at university.

Suddenly though, the debate about cannabis is front and centre. It is no longer about middle-aged men trying to impress their children with tales of how cool they once were.

Why is cannabis suddenly in the news?

First and foremost there is the recent story of Billy Caldwell, the 12-year-old boy who suffers from potentially fatal seizures. Billy’s mother attempted to bring in cannabis oil from overseas in a bid to alleviate her son’s symptoms, only to have it confiscated at the UK border.

Home Secretary Sajid Javed then granted Billy a special exclusion, allowing him access to the oil in what was – literally – a life and death situation. There is now finally going to be a review of the use of cannabis for medical purposes.

Then we had an article written by former Conservative leader William Hague, writing in the Daily Telegraph. The war on cannabis has been “irretrievably lost” said Hague, calling for it to be fully legalised. Hague argued that cannabis is freely available in the UK, but available in unregulated forms, with a thriving black market bringing huge profits to criminal gangs and putting an unnecessary strain on the police and our criminal justice system.

What is the government’s position?

Very simple. While there may be a debate about the medicinal use of cannabis, any discussion about legalising recreational use is off the table. A recent announcement could not have been more clear:

“Any debate within government … does not extend to a review regarding the classification of cannabis, and the penalties will remain the same.”

What is the position in other countries?

Anyone who has ever walked around Amsterdam – or several other European capitals – will know that many countries have a far more relaxed approach to the recreational use of cannabis. But the country in the news recently is Canada, which has just voted to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes, with Canadian senator Tony Dean commenting

“[this vote] ends 90 years of needless criminalisation, it ends a prohibition model that inhibited and discouraged public health and community health in favour of just-say-no approaches that failed young people miserably.”

Perhaps the best example, though, is the US state of Colorado, which legalised cannabis in 2012. Teenage use of the drug in the state is now at its lowest level for a decade, opioid deaths are down, crime has not risen – but tax revenues have, by an estimated $230m over two years.

Is It Time to Legalise Cannabis in the UK?

Is there an economic case for legalising cannabis?

The population of Colorado is around 5.6m – that is around one-tenth of the UK, so it is easy to project the tax revenues that might result from legalisation here.

Sam Dumitriu, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute says,

“We estimate that legalisation would raise at least £1bn a year for the Treasury.” He added, “Just as the prohibition of alcohol failed in the US, so the prohibition of cannabis has failed here. Ensuring that licenced shops, not criminal gangs, selling cannabis for recreational use will prevent sales to children and make sure that people are better informed through correct labelling.”

But it is not just a question of raising money: legalising cannabis would also save money. In a recent report, the UK Taxpayers’ Alliance estimated that the UK could save £890m a year in reduced spending by the police, courts and prisons – and the NHS through pain relief treatment – by legalising cannabis.

Author of the report Ben Ramanauskas said, “Aside from the moral arguments, it is clear that the current attempts to prevent cannabis use are an enormous burden on the taxpayer, meaning that money is not spent on other priorities.”

But surely cannabis is dangerous?

Of course: all drugs are dangerous. Clearly, I have had to rely on research here, not first-hand knowledge, but it seems to be the case that cannabis is less harmful and less addictive in the long term than either alcohol or tobacco. It must be the case though that regulated and controlled cannabis, bought legally, would be safer than unregulated supplies of the drug, bought on a street corner or in the pub toilets.

Thanks to the case of Billy Caldwell, William Hague and a vote in Canada, the legalisation of cannabis is headline news this week – and however much the government might want to, the debates about medicinal and recreational use cannot be separated.

Simply saying “the harmful effects of cannabis are well-known, there are no plans to legalise it” is not an adequate response. The harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco and gambling are also well known and they are all legal and contributing to the government’s coffers.

When I am writing these reports I always try to be even-handed. This time it is difficult. We have three potentially addictive and harmful drugs – alcohol, tobacco and gambling – which are freely available in the UK. The latter – as anyone watching the World Cup must have noticed – is widely advertised when children are watching. Cannabis may or may not be harmful; people may or may not become addicted. But clearly, there are potential benefits.

Not to even have an informed debate – not to be willing to listen to arguments on both sides – seems to me to be madness and an insult to the intelligence of the average voter. If we could be trusted with a decision on Brexit, surely we could be trusted with a decision on cannabis?