The serious criminalisation of cannabis users started as a result of Richard Nixon being elected US president in 1968 and then perpetrating his “war on drugs”. The rest of the world followed suit, with the UK doing so in part, many would argue, because of antipathy to the growing Caribbean population, many of whom used cannabis. Now the US has reversed its policy. Almost half of Americans have legal access to recreational cannabis and Joe Biden, the president, has now pardoned thousands of people convicted of cannabis possession.
In the UK we seem to want to go backwards. We have calls from Conservative police commissioners to make cannabis a Class A drug with enhanced sentences. Suella Braverman, our new Home Secretary, seems to support this approach and still to believe the long-discredited rhetoric of serious harms from cannabis use. Both parties appear ignorant of the overwhelming evidence that policies of prohibition and criminalisation cause much more harm than cannabis itself does, as well as being much more expensive. Hopefully once the cost burden of this regressive proposal becomes apparent its supporters will U-turn like the Chancellor did on tax cuts.
The way forward is surely to legalise recreational cannabis in the form of a regulated market. This could take the form of special shops that only sell cannabis products – perhaps even with smoking areas, as exist in the Dutch coffee shop model.
The advantages of legalisation are manifold. First, purchasers know what they are getting and can get advice on type strength and method of taking it from experienced registered sellers. This separates the purchaser from the street market with its uncertain levels of active ingredients and possible contaminants. Thresholds for d9THC (the active ingredient that gets users stoned) can be set, probably at about 15 per cent total content, to reduce the risk of acute accidental excessive intoxication with possible anxiety and paranoia.
Further, it could be required that all sold products contain cannabidiol, the other main ingredient in the cannabis plant, which we now know acts as a protective element against some of the worst effects of strong d9THC and can mitigate the risk of psychosis and dependence. Currently, for predictable reasons, about 95 per cent of all illegal street-sourced recreational cannabis maximises d9THC and so has no cannabidiol. Most experts who used to believe cannabis caused schizophrenia now agree that this risk – if it exists at all – is only present in strong d9THC variants that are devoid of cannabidiol.
Experience in states in the US where cannabis is legal has shown that, paradoxically, use in young people may reduce after legalisation. This is probably because of the need to show evidence of age to purchase, which the street dealer certainly doesn’t require.
And if these huge harm reduction benefits are not enough there is the value to the Exchequer of taxing cannabis sales. These could be in the region of several billion pounds within a couple of years, and probably more later as the recreational use of cannabis becomes more accepted.
[See also: How John Cleese became the hero of the right]