I was not surprised to see the Centre for Social Justice, a socially conservative think tank (don’t be confused by the name), making the case against cannabis legalisation yesterday in The Telegraph. The CSJ has recently taken on the role of the token ‘anti’ voice, one that is becoming harder and harder to find as the country, and indeed the Western world, moves away from prohibition. The CSJ say in their piece that the building momentum for cannabis reform is taking place in a Westminster bubble, with campaigners and politicians giving little consideration to the values and experiences of communities where there is low support for cannabis reform.
To set the record straight, polls have shown that national support for legalisation ranges somewhere between 47%–59%, with those in opposition staying around 30%, and the rest undecided. Clearly it is not just the London liberal elite who want reform.
The CSJ warn that a rise in addiction and mental health problems would follow cannabis legalisation, estimating that 10% of those who use the drug regularly will become addicted. They say that there is little support for legalisation among mental health services. Yet the situation is untenable whilst high strength cannabis continues to dominate the market, a variety that is proven to significantly increase risk of harm. As it stands the Government has no regulatory tools it can draw upon to diversify the market and reduce potency, with even the CSJ admitting that ‘some people would benefit from increased access to regulated, lower potency cannabis’. Labelling would also mean that consumers know what they’re buying and can choose lower potency products.
The CSJ say that youth charities do not want to see more young people using cannabis. I absolutely agree that children should not be using cannabis as their brains are still developing and we know that use at this age can have a really detrimental impact on life chances and mental wellbeing.
Yet Volteface research has shown that children can access cannabis easier than alcohol as dealers do not ask for ID. If we regulated cannabis much like we do with alcohol we could stop children from accessing it. Since the early 2000s, the UK has made greater use of regulatory powers around alcohol, with data from Serve Legal, a private company offering test purchase services, showing that 45% of vendors sold to underage consumers in 2007, but that this had declined to 24% in 2010 and by 2015, only 13% of supermarkets and 17% of convenience stores failed test purchases. If we could delay young people from using cannabis until they become adults, or even reduce the frequency with which they use, this would do a tremendous job of safeguarding the wellbeing of the next generation.
Of course, if the UK did decide to place the legal age limit for consumption at 18, there could be a rise in 18-24 year olds using cannabis. However, data from US states that have legalised have shown that it is actually among the over 50’s where we are seeing the most significant increase in use, a group who are at a much lower risk of harm.
The CSJ say that a legal system ‘does little to ensure that industry harms are offset by contributions to treatment and recovery’. This is frankly untrue as government reports from states such as Colorado have shown that the tax revenue from cannabis legalisation has gone into substance abuse and treatment contracts, mental health services for juvenile and adult offenders, substance abuse prevention and public awareness cannabis education campaigns.
The CSJ claim that they have done two days of interviews with drug dealers who have said that if cannabis was legalised they would just sell others drugs. Volteface have not seen any of this research as the CSJ have not released it. What I would ask is whether our current approach to tackling the illicit cannabis market is working, with the evidence showing that million pound police operations and raids at best disrupt the market for just a few hours. And these are the ones that are still trying, most police have deprioritised enforcement of the cannabis market.
Are we really speaking sense if we allow criminal gangs to keep a £2.5 billion market, as we are fearful that if we take it away from them they will go on to do worse things. Our approach needs to grounded in taking the power and wealth away from criminal gangs- that is how we will stop them from spreading their influence.
The CSJ finish by referring to the recent cases of senior Conservative politicians who admit to using cannabis with little concern over how this could affect their careers. The CSJ say that ‘we have a practical free for all’, a conclusion which I would agree with, though I would add that this is the case only for the most privileged in society. The CSJ do not acknowledge that there are still thousands of people, disproportionately ethnic minorities, who are still criminalised for using cannabis. In the last two years alone there have been 41,189 cases of people receiving cautions or being proceeded against in court for possession of cannabis.
Any sensible Government must choose regulation and make it on the grounds of children protection, harm reduction and, ironically, social justice.
‘Ignore our London-centric political classes – cannabis legalisation is still a terrible idea’, Centre for Social Justice.
Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface. Tweets @Liz_McCll