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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.
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?