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Cannabis is harmful, that's why it needs to be regulated

Prohibition has failed — it is time for an open debate on how best to legislate for the UK's most popular drug.

The news of Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency was a bitter pill for liberals across the world.

But look closely, and there was the thinnest of silver linings: Americans were quietly voting down the war on drugs in a series of popular ballot initiatives.

The number of states providing legal cannabis to medical patients rose to 28 plus Washington DC. And in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine, voters approved the idea that cannabis should be available to adults for recreational use. Incredibly, the country that invented and propagated the war on drugs has now legalised the sale of cannabis in eight of its states.

It’s a world away from the UK. Last week saw the publication of a report from VolteFace and the Adam Smith Institute calling for the sale of cannabis to be regulated and taxed. This provoked the usual knee-jerk reaction from the government, that “cannabis is illegal because it is harmful”.

I never cease to be amazed by people’s instinctive reflex that unpleasant things can simply be removed from this world by “banning” them. The idea that cannabis can be eradicated from our society through the action of the criminal law flies in the face of 50 years of evidence of the failure of prohibition. No country has even got close. As we saw with alcohol in 1920s America, banning something that people enjoy doing doesn’t stop them from wanting to do it: it simply creates a criminal market to service that demand.

In the case of cannabis, the UK’s most popular drug, it’s a thriving multi-billion pound criminal industry. The winners are some of the most unpleasant characters in the country; the losers are millions of otherwise law-abiding people who face debilitating criminal records, arbitrary stop and search, and (for the unlucky few) a spell in prison. 

The Home Office and other inadvertent cheerleaders for organised crime like to employ the argument that reformers think of cannabis as “harmless”. On the contrary, we know there are risks both to physical and mental health. A small proportion (9%) of those who use cannabis go on to become dependent — much less than for alcohol (15%) or tobacco (32%), but significant nonetheless. Many of the health problems stem from the market dominance of “skunk”, which is high in THC (the intoxicating part) and low in CBD (a naturally-occurring anti-psychotic). Skunk itself is a product of prohibition, which drives producers towards high potency, low volume products just as prohibition-era bootleggers trafficked hard liquor rather than beer.

The question is, how best to deal with these harms?

The alternative to criminal profiteering is legal regulation. The prohibitionists want you to believe that regulation means less control. If that was true, then we would be merrily deregulating pubs, casinos, building sites, airline safety, you name it, in the mistaken belief that less regulation equals more safety.

We don’t regulate harmlessness; we regulate harms. Cannabis, like all drugs, can be harmful, which is precisely why it should be regulated. At the moment, give or take the occasional seizure, raid or arrest, the government has no policy levers whatsoever over the cannabis trade.

What kind of levers could we have? Well, let’s start with the product. We don’t have to legalise skunk in its current form. We could, if parliament wanted to, impose an upper limit on potency, and a minimum limit on the anti-psychotic CBD which seems to ameliorate most of the negative effects. In other words, we could use the tools of the regulator to regulate “skunk” out of existence, and usher in a range of alternative products, including milder strains.

Next, if we wanted to, we could use legal regulation to push people away from smoking cannabis and towards healthier forms of consumption, from vaping to edibles. In Colorado, where cannabis has been legal since 2012, the market has evolved rapidly. More than half of the product sold there is now in the form of concentrates and other non-smokeable forms of cannabis.

Lastly, regulation could do a better job of keeping cannabis out of the hands of children. We know that heavy cannabis use in teenage years is particularly problematic. Dealers don’t ask for ID, but licensed premises do. Regulators would conduct spot checks and remove people’s licenses if they were found selling cannabis to under-18s.  

It won’t all be plain sailing. While aggregate harms could be brought under control by making the product safer, commercial interests will try to exert influence over the drafting of the regulations, as they have done for alcohol and tobacco, and will seek to encourage higher levels of use. But the painstaking business of reconciling profits with public health is exactly what government does in so many other areas of life, and it’s a whole lot better than the alternative of leaving it to organised crime.

The United States is showing Europe the way on this issue, if on little else at the moment. California, the sixth-largest economy in the world, has turned the page on regulation. Canada is set to legalise next year. It is only a matter of time before the UK follows suit. In the meantime, let’s have a serious debate about regulation.

 

Nick Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Sheffield Hallam. Clegg initially trained as a journalist before working as a development and trade expert in the EU. He was elected as MEP for the East Midlands in 1999, stood down in 2004, lectured at Sheffield and Cambridge universities, and was elected to the UK parliament in 2005.
Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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