Should the UK legalise cannabis?

‘Judges smoke it, even lawyers too.’ – Peter Tosh. www.shutterstock.com

A number of countries have decriminalised cannabis for personal use. None of them have descended into anarchy, so what’s preventing the UK government from following suit?

The Conservative government claims to be in favour of evidence-based policies – in rhetoric, at least – yet successive UK governments have signed up to the United Nations international drug convention, a convention based on prohibition and the “war on drugs”, neither of which have any evidence of working.

But does signing up to UN drug conventions matter when agreements can be sidestepped by individual states? Portugal’s decision to decriminalise all psychoactive substances in 2001 being a case in point.

And Portugal is not alone. It is now 25 years since the Czech Republic effectively decriminalised the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. And in 1994, Switzerland introduced heroin-assisted treatment, a form of state-sanctioned heroin supply for certain users. But it is with cannabis that the most significant developments have occurred. In late 2013, Uruguay took the decision to legalise the recreational use of cannabis (as opposed to “decriminalise” where possession can lead to a fine, but not a criminal record). It was the first country to do so since the global drug prohibition framework was established by the United Nations in 1961.

Uruguay demonstrates that policy alternatives are possible without any international enforcement. Several US states have followed Uruguay, extending liberalisation to recreational as well as medical cannabis users. But the UK remains steadfast in its resolve, maintaining that current policy is working.

False logic

The UK is looking increasingly out of step with many other countries when it comes to its approach to drugs in general and cannabis in particular. In the aftermath of changes in the US, polling suggests increasing numbers of UK citizens are also in favour of a change in the law.

The Home Office acknowledges that there is no “obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”. Convictions relating to cannabis use have reduced by 46% over the last five years. This could suggest that cannabis has been quietly and partially decriminalised. Yet the government maintains its outdated and dogmatic tough approach to drugs when making public statements about cannabis.

The government claims that prohibition works because cannabis use has declined in the UK in recent years. This decline in use may account for some of the fall in cannabis conviction rates. But if we follow the government’s false logic in relation to prohibition and simply wait for cannabis use to fall further, assuming it does (a very big assumption), then it would take a further five decades before their aim of eliminating cannabis use is achieved.

But such simplistic interpretation of the data is clearly wrong. Although cannabis use has fallen it ignores what is happening with certain sub-groups of cannabis users. For example, an increasing number of young people are accessing drug treatment services as a result of using potent strains of cannabis.

Individual and covert commercial growers have used advances in seed technology and access to hydroponic growing equipment to cultivate more potent varieties of cannabis. There is little doubt that stronger strains of cannabis elevate the risk of developing a range of health problems such as psychosis. Increasing potency is a compelling reason to change the current legal position, not one that endorses it.

What are the options?

Although the drugs debate is commonly framed as a debate of two extremes – legalise or criminalise – there are actually many options. For example, Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center suggests an incremental approach to regulation (see chart below).

Source: Beau Kilmer, RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

This proposal could inform a new policy approach which has the potential to enhance health at a population level. Introducing state regulation would provide users with a cannabis product that has been tested for potency and supplied without the risk of harmful additives. It would also generate revenue, adding to our collective wealth. Evidence supporting such a change is accumulating across the world thanks to those jurisdictions that have moved beyond an ideological commitment to the drug war.

The government’s duty is to protect the people it serves. With cannabis it fails to meet this obligation in two ways. First, it outsources the production and supply of a widely used product to organised crime, meaning that there is no quality control or regulated standards of production. This leaves people who use cannabis conducting daily experiments with their health. Second, by publicly endorsing prohibition yet quietly allowing its agencies to do the opposite, it lacks credibility. It’s difficult to work out who this policy serves other than a few elite criminals who control the production and supply of cannabis.