Canada is about to legalise marijuana - should we be following in their footsteps, and if so, how far off would that be?
Former Metropolitan police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe has urged the government to rethink its stance on marijuana, calling for a change of policy in the wake of, among other things, the high-profile case earlier this year of a 16-year-old epileptic boy being denied treatment under UK law, legalisation in Canada and a general gradual shift towards a more relaxed stance towards medical cannabis.
He said: “We already know from the evidence around the world that where people use it for medicinal purposes, it slides into recreational. Surely it’s better that we get ready for that potential change.”
Earlier this year, former Tory leader William Hague described existing cannabis laws as “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”. The Home Office responded by setting up an expert panel to review the medical marijuana laws, but have also adamantly stated that the laws regarding recreational use are in no way going to be reviewed. Home secretary Sajid Javid has stated that “Recent cases involving sick children made it clear to me that we needed to take a fresh look at the scheduling of cannabis-related medicinal products”, while backing up the claim that its status in terms of recreational use would remain unchanged.
Marijuana is illegal over here, but increasing numbers of states in the US are relaxing the laws surrounding it, with nine (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachussets, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) and Washington DC entirely legalising it for recreational use and another 29 legalising it for medical use. It has just become entirely legal in Canada, although with new laws in place involving the supplying of it to minors and driving while high.
Could it happen here? Would it happen here? Should it happen here?
We spoke to two people that know their cannabis-infused onions: Steve Moore of Volteface, an innovation hub looking at alternatives to current drug policies, and Peter Reynolds, president of cannabis law reform group Clear. Both are pretty adamant that something has to change.
Here’s everything that would need to happen for weed to become entirely legal in Britain.
The government would need to accept that the current system isn’t working
Peter Reynolds of Clear: “Current drug policy has created a massive criminal market worth £6billion a year. It promotes crime and maximises all the risks around cannabis. It promotes street dealing and selling to children as well as exposure to adulterated products and moonshine weed with high THC [the main psychoactive component] and low CBD [an antipsychotic component which mitigates THC’s effects].
“Everything government policy does maximises the harm it can do, which is an awful position to be in. Something has to change.”
We’d need to have a different Prime Minister
Steve Moore of VolteFace: “There won’t be any movement on this issue as long as Theresa May is Prime Minister. There are lots of barriers, but the single biggest one is the particular conservatism of the Prime Minister.
“No parties support legalisation, but she seems to have a very strong personal view that it’s no different to any other illegal drugs. She has a very deep commitment to pursuing punitive policies on illegal drug use. Her influence and her long history of this means she’s not likely to support policy change.”
Peter Reynolds of Clear: “Theresa May said back in November 2017 that it was very important that we continue the war on drugs. If you look around the world, there is no other world leader other than President Duterte of the Philippines, who is murdering his own citizens, who is advocating continuing the war on drugs.
“Even Donald Trump said that he recognises the right of states to provide medical cannabis programmes, and that the states who have legalised it have the right to do so. She is the single biggest obstacle. There are many Tory MPs who recognise the need for reform, and when we finally get rid of that dreadful woman then I think we’ll begin to see real progress. She is the problem.”
The next government would need to accept that people like cannabis and want it to be legally available
Steve Moore of Volteface: “The reason why cannabis can be treated separately from other illegal drugs is public opinion. It’s overwhelmingly the most popular of all drugs. It’s five times more popular than the next, and support for legalising it is twice that of legalising any other drug.
“45% of people would agree with legalising cannabis, 22% with legalising all drugs. At the moment there’s no country which is legalising all drugs. You can’t really legalise all drugs. But because of cannabis’s near ubiquity it can be treated differently.”
Peter Reynolds of Clear: “250 million people worldwide use cannabis regularly, as in once a month. 3 million use it regularly in the UK - to put in in perspective, that’s the same amount as there are Muslims. A few years ago there were just a handful of MPs sympathetic to it, and now there are hundreds.
“Public opinion is now massively in favour of cannabis reform - something like 78% of the public think medical cannabis should be more available, and something like 55% are in favour of legalising it in general. The government is way behind public opinion. It’s believed a third of regular users are using it for medical reasons - chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, anxiety and depression.
“The most inhumane aspect of the current law is that we deny people access to medical cannabis, which is widely available elsewhere. It’s disgraceful and shameful.”
We’d need to do it properly, legalising rather than decriminalising
Peter Reynolds of Clear: “Decriminalisation isn’t a good idea. Decriminalisation essentially frees up the market to an extent but still leaves it in the hands of criminal gangs. There are many people growing and selling who aren’t evil criminals, just people doing it for their friends, but nevertheless the market is dominated by criminal gangs. Decriminalise it and all you’ll do it make their lives easier.
“It’s not a responsible thing to do, and this is what it’s all about ultimately, a government taking responsibility. At present the government is completely irresponsible in how it abandons communities, children and vulnerable people to criminal gangs, and it needs to step up to the mark. It’s shameful.”
Canada’s move to legalization would need to work and set a good model to emulate
Steve Moore of Volteface: “Cannabis is now legal in Canada. If they can prove that their system works, where people over 21 can buy it, but they restrict access to kids, the UK perhaps would follow suit. If you could prove that you could stop kids accessing cannabis by legalising it, that would be a popular policy for a government to adopt. Trudeau’s policy is all about protecting kids.
“Most people’s issues with cannabis are (1) their kids accessing it; (2) the potency; and (3) the fear that cannabis use will lead onto other more problematic drug use. The Canadian approach solves all of those problems. You take away the first issue by restricting access to adults, you can reduce the potency of what is available by using milder strains of cannabis the same way there are limitations on what alcohol can be sold, and other drugs wouldn’t be legally available so nothing would be pushed on anybody.
Government infrastructure would need to be in place for taxation, support of new businesses and public education
Steve Moore of Volteface: “In markets where it’s legal - I just got back from one, Washington state - the government issue licences to people to cultivate it, and licences to people who want to retail it. You go to a licenced dispensary to acquire it. They’re generally on the edge of the city centre and are quite agreeable places to go, a bit like a liquor store. There’s no social smoking anywhere, only sale for home use.
“There’s a respect for the fact that not everyone wants to support it. Most states then invest the tax revenue into public education programmes - there are more drugs education programs in Washington state for its population of 9 million than the whole UK.”
Peter Reynolds of Clear: “We commissioned independent research back in 2011 that showed a cannabis tax similar to the one Colorado now has would produce a net gain to the UK Exchequer of £9.5bn a year, which is a sum of money not to be sniffed at.”