In an interview with Buzzfeed News last week, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Julian Huppert revealed that the party intends to fully legalise and regulate the production, sale, and use of cannabis, should they secure a shock victory in the upcoming General Election.
Their plans, which are based on a report commissioned by the party in 2015 and published last year, are thought to include strict regulation around the potency of cannabis, as well as plans for retail outlets, cannabis social clubs, and limited home growing.
It’s safe to say they’ve been met with a mixed response. Some reactions have been comical:
#libdems you gits, i want to leave the EU, but i want legal weed more than i want to leave the EU, so you win with your limp leader
— john smith (@dotdiecast2017) May 12, 2017
But most have been far more measured and thoughtful. Writing for City A.M., Elliott Haworth heaped praise on the Lib Dem’s plan, despite quite clearly not being a fan of their other policies. “While much Liberal Democrat policy, especially regarding Brexit, is largely untenable,” he writes, “the party’s position on creating a legalised, regulated cannabis market must be lauded.”
Even one Conservative think tank, Bright Blue, has praised the policy. Commenting, Sam Hall, senior researcher at Bright Blue, said:
“The Liberal Democrats should be applauded for calling for an end to imprisonment for illegal drug possession and to create a regulated market for cannabis. The strongest arguments in favour of this courageous and correct move are not libertarian ones, but social justice ones.”
Others, however, have not been so kind. Some have bordered on apoplectic. The Bow Group, the oldest Conservative think-tank in the UK, were perhaps the most damning in their assessment.
Bow Group member David Sergeant produced a report, titled “Facts and Evidence: A Case for the Eradication of Cannabis,” that – as you would imagine from the title – was about as far from agreeing with the Lib Dem policy as it is possible to be. Sergeant sets out his stall in the opening lines, declaring that “The evidence couldn’t be clearer. Cannabis is a hugely damaging drug that causes misery, particularly for our poorest citizens. Our aim should be its eradication and that can never be achieved through legalised capitulation.”
Kathy Gyngell at Conservative Woman was equally as baffled by the announcement, calling the Lib Dems “potty” (ba-boom!) and arguing that legalisation would increase use and add “to our already overcrowded and underfunded secure psychiatric units.”
This is not the place to pick apart Gyngell’s diatribe or the Bow Group’s report in full, but suffice to say they go back over the well-trodden prohibitionist rhetoric – cannabis is harmful, think of the kids, etc – whilst the Bow Group attempt a surprising new approach by (bizarrely) choosing to quote leading advocates of regulation such as Professor David Nutt and Volteface’s own Steve Moore. Their report is as out of touch with reality as you might expect from a deeply conservative think tank founded in 1951, but is nonetheless one of a number of negative responses to the Liberal Democrat’s proposals.
To be fair, the Lib Dems were probably expecting a degree of hostility from the right-leaning, Daily Mail-reading sections of society. They have not traditionally been seen as allies in the fight for reform. What they may not have been anticipating, however, is the backlash that their policy has suffered among the very people you’d expect to be overjoyed by it: cannabis users, and particularly cannabis activists, are far from universally thrilled.
Judging by social media, their reaction has been, at best, sceptical. At worst, the Lib Dems have been accused of trying to implement a kind of ‘Prohibition 2.0.” This cannot have been the response that the Lib Dem top brass were hoping for. Having said that, they probably were expecting scepticism. Despite their best attempts to rid themselves of the stigma that came along with being junior coalition partners from 2010-2015, and the now-infamous pledge to scrap tuition fees, voter trust in the Lib Dems is still painfully low.
This is arguably unfair – if anything, the last two years have shown that the Lib Dems’ presence may well have held back some of the more draconian Tory cuts and abuses. But whether it is deserved or not, it is true that for the majority of the electorate, the Lib Dems simply can’t be trusted to deliver on their promises. Cannabis legalisation, then, is being seen by many as ‘the new tuition fees.’
Other criticisms may not have been so expected, however. Prominent activists linked to groups such as the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs, Bud Buddies, and others, have been damning in their assessment of the proposals as they understand them. Particularly egregious to most, it would seem, is the issue of regulating potency. In much of the media coverage linked to the announcement of the legalisation plans, one of the main issues mentioned is the impact that prohibition has had on the strength of cannabis. There are many mentions of the dreaded ‘skunk.’
This, for many activists, is a red flag. They see it – not without reason – as an attempt by politicians to impose restrictions on what they can and cannot consume even in a regulated market, and argue that it is not based on scientific evidence. Skunk, they argue, is just one strain of cannabis among hundreds if not thousands, and the new definition of ‘skunk’ as any cannabis containing large amounts of THC and little of CBD does not convince them either. They point out that high-THC cannabis is, for many, a vital medicine, and is not intrinsically any worse than strains with an equal balance of THC and CBD. Implementing some kind of ban on high potency strains, they argue, would be like banning vodka but leaving bitter untouched. It would make little sense.
It is for this reason that many have already dismissed the Lib Dem plans as being ‘prohibition lite,’ but the reality is far from clear cut. The problem is that despite announcing their intention to legalise and regulate cannabis before the launch of their manifesto, the Lib Dems made little if any effort to explain how they would do this, and just what a regulated market for cannabis made in their vision would look like. Now that the manifesto has been launched, you would expect to see some detail, but there is none. Indeed, legalisation is mentioned in none of the headline articles that appeared across the media to celebrate the manifesto’s launch, and is only very briefly mentioned in the manifesto itself. However, a Lib Dem spokesman has since confirmed that their vision for a legally regulated market simply contains too much detail to be reprinted in full as part of their manifesto.
Some might see this as an attempt to backtrack by the Lib Dems. Their proposal to legalise cannabis did not meet with the kind of approval they anticipated, did not appear to be winning many votes, and so has been put on the back burner. The reality though is probably a little more complicated, and it’s intrinsically linked to the skunk issue.
The Lib Dem’s decision to put legalisation in their manifesto came about after they commissioned a panel of experts to write a report for them discussing what a potential legal cannabis market could look like in the UK. That report came out last year and included many policy recommendations, from cannabis social clubs to, yes, regulation of potency, all of which were adopted by an overwhelming majority at the party conference in March of last year, but skunk was only mentioned once, and that was to explain that the name is unscientific. A Lib Dem Spokesman has since confirmed that, despite its omission from the manifesto, cannabis strains with less than 4% and over 15% CBD would still be permitted for home growing, despite their not being included on the shelves of market retailers.
The fact is that the political climate in the UK is still fairly hostile towards any kind of drug policy reform, and what the Lib Dems are proposing is pretty radical: they not only want to legalise cannabis, they also want to decriminalise all drugs, and repeal the Psychoactive Substances Act. By proposing these reforms, they know they’re going to face a backlash, and so – rightly or wrongly – appear to have made the decision to emphasise certain aspects of their legalisation plan (potency controls, clamping down on ‘skunk’) in an effort to appease those who will no doubt claim that they are being soft on drugs and are putting people’s mental health at risk.
It’s actually quite a smart plan. If the Lib Dems are in fact going to follow the recommendations of last year’s report – and given their approval of those recommendations at conference, that surely is the plan – then emphasising the more palatable (to the Daily Mail) sections of the legalisation plan should in theory ensure that the media blowback isn’t too severe, whilst appeasing those activists who are vehemently opposed to any kind of potency regulation with the details of the report, which make it clear that such regulation will only, at most, apply to retail outlets. Social Clubs and home growers will be exempt.
The report itself is actually a fascinating and highly feasible plan for a regulated cannabis market, but it is one that has caution built into it from the outset. Steve Rolles, who Chaired the expert panel that wrote the report, told me that, “The report made a clear case for why a cautious, phased roll out of a regulated market was sensible both politically – because we have to bring an understandably skeptical public with us; and practically – because there are things we don’t know about how a regulated cannabis market will work – so deploying the precautionary principle is justified.”
“I think it’s important for the people who feel that the report doesn’t go far enough to look beyond the headlines and actually read it. It doesn’t rule out concentrates, edibles, cannabis e-cigs and coffee-shops for example – but rather suggests these should be considered in a phase two roll out – once a more restricted retail market for herbal cannabis has bedded in and teething problems have been addressed.”
After their initial anger at the seemingly harsh regulations the Lib Dems were proposing, the signs are that a significant number of cannabis users and activists have now seen the logic behind this approach. However, they are still not necessarily convinced, and the reason why cuts to the core of why the Lib Dems look set to struggle at this election. Greg de Hoedt, Chairman of the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs, was pleased that legalisation was on the agenda, but told me, “It’s a shame to see that cannabis social clubs were omitted from the official manifesto. That doesn’t sit well with voters that have seen the party stumble on keeping policy promises in the past.” However, a spokesman from the Lib Dems has confirmed that despite no explicit mention in the manifesto, the recommendations of the independent expert panel which advocated the inclusion of cannabis social clubs in a regulated model, are party policy, as voted for unanimously by members during last year’s conference.
The Lib Dems might not have got the voters fully onside, but the fact is that their desire to legalise and regulate cannabis is one that is shared by a growing number of people in the UK. The press coverage of their proposals has been largely positive, or at least neutral, and their plans are based on solid evidence. What is holding them back, it would seem, is the political climate. Drugs are still a taboo, even now, and the reality is that the issue of drug policy reform is barely cutting through in an election that is all about Brexit.
Having said that, they shouldn’t despair. And they certainly shouldn’t change their minds on this issue. This election has almost certainly come too early for cannabis regulation, and we look set to end up with another five years of Prime Minister May refusing to countenance any kind of reform at all. But it is now on the agenda, even if it is only the Liberal Democrats who currently support it openly. Labour could well have a new leader in the near future, and as support for reform among the general public grows, it may well be the case that the Lib Dem’s move, whilst seemingly insignificant right now, helps to galvanise supporters of drug policy reform across all political parties into action. As Ethan Nadelmann would say, the genie is out of the bottle.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He is a regular columnist for Volteface, writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at LEAP UK. Tweets @sullivandeej