Will the UK legalise recreational cannabis?

In October 2018, Canada became the first G7 country to legalise cannabis for recreational use. In the USA, recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 states and in several European countries including Portugal, Belgium and Spain, recreational cannabis use has been decriminalised. In November 2018, the UK Home Office relaxed the law on the prescription of medicinal cannabis by specialist doctors in England, Wales and Scotland. This gave rise to renewed debate on the possibility of cannabis legalisation for recreational use.

Politics gone to pot

Following the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for treating severe epilepsy, and vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy, Home Secretary Sajid Javid was quick to state: ‘I have no intention of legalising the recreational use of cannabis’.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties are currently against the legalisation of recreational cannabis.  In July 2018, however, Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘criminalising people for possession of small amounts of cannabis is not a particularly good idea’.  This led to suggestions that Labour were making a U-turn on their drugs policies although neither Corbyn nor the Labour party have advocated the drug’s legalisation.

In UK politics, it is only the Liberal Democrats and the Green party who have called for a fully regulated cannabis market.  With their current political standing, however, their influence in parliamentary decisions is not strong enough to initiate reform. Despite the seemingly resolute stance of the UK’s political elite being staunchly against recreational cannabis legalisation, Paul North, Director of External Affairs at drug policy think tank Volteface, believes that the UK are closer than ever to following Canada’s legislatorial reforms.

The pros and cons of legalising recreational cannabis

The cannabis debate has strong supporters on both sides.  With such an unknown market, however, it is difficult to accurately predict the potential consequences of blanket regulation.  According to various research, theories, and expert opinion, here are some of the pros and cons of legalising recreational cannabis use:

Pros

  • Remove the criminal element – Home Office statistics suggest that cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. Data from 2016 showed that 6.5% (approximately 2.1 million) people aged between 16 and 59 had used cannabis in the preceding year.  The illegal cannabis market has resulted in huge profits being made by drug lords and criminal gangs.  The current legal status of the drug also means that users are never certain of the quality and potential dangers of purchasing and using an unregulated substance.   Cannabis’ illegal status also places it in a similar category to other more dangerous drugs.
  • Boost tax revenue – With so many marijuana users, the potential tax income from recreational legalisation is truly staggering. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has predicted that cannabis legalisation will raise $400m in tax revenue in the first year alone.  A fully regulated cannabis market would also create thousands of jobs from production, cultivation and distribution through to marketing, sales and customer service.

Cons

  • Risks to mental health – Medical research has continually made links between cannabis use and the development of mental health problems. Research suggests that cannabis use, particularly in teenage years when the brain is still developing, makes the user 37% more likely to suffer from depression in later life.  Marijuana usage has also been linked to the increased likelihood of developing schizophrenia in people with a hereditary disposition to the condition.
  • Increase in lung disease – Some studies suggest that smoking cannabis is 20 times more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke. Although this statistic has been highly contested, the inhalation of any smoke can be damaging to the lungs.  This could lead to much more lung related illness and potentially place more pressure on the NHS.

Why is marijuana illegal?

In 1928, cannabis was made illegal by the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920.  Throughout the early 20th century, cannabis use in the UK was viewed as a marginal issue which had little impact on mainstream society.  During the 1960s, cannabis use in the UK increased exponentially.  This increased use led to a marked increase in arrests for cannabis related offences.  From only 230 arrests in 1960, by 1973, convictions for the possession of marijuana had risen to over 11,000 per year.

In 1971, cannabis was listed as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  In 2004, the Labour government under Tony Blair, downgraded cannabis to a Class C drug leading to speculation as to its imminent decriminalisation and legalisation.  The downgrading was short lived, however, and under Gordon Brown, cannabis was reclassified as a Class B drug due to its association with schizophrenia and suicide.  Despite continual call for decriminalisation, cannabis has remained Class B ever since.

The debate around cannabis legalisation is a complex one.  We constantly hear in the media that the war on drugs is failing and the UK’s drugs policies are in need of a radical overhaul.  Prohibition, as we saw in 1930s America, is destined to fail.  We could, however, learn from our mistakes.  If the UK is to legalise recreational cannabis, it must be done carefully and alongside a detailed programme of education.  In the UK, we are in an enviable position and can hopefully learn from Canada’s experience and make a fully informed decision after observing Canada’s cannabis market for several years.

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