Discussion on the possible legalisation of cannabis in the UK is rife amidst the launch of the Evening Standard’s special investigation into cannabis reform. Whilst the investigation has been positively received by many, others have been more critical.
On the July 3rd 2019, an article was published by Alice Thomson in The Times titled ‘Only fools rush in to cannabis legalisation’.
The article raises several concerns regarding the legalisation of cannabis, notably:
- The link between cannabis and psychosis due to the increasing number of cannabis treatment presentations.
- Concerns around big business pushing the legalisation of cannabis up the political agenda, with the article claiming that they are keen to replace dealers and will be determined to get as much of the population as ‘hooked’ on cannabis as they can.
- A lack of evidence into the impact of regulated markets of cannabis and a call for us to wait to see the long-term evidence from Canada and US states before rushing into cannabis legalisation.
In the following response, Volteface will directly counter these arguments and provide alternative lines of thought. Arguments made are similar to those voiced in Volteface’s response to the CSJ’s report against cannabis legalisation.
The Times article advises that we must be cautious of the legalisation of cannabis due to the links between cannabis, addiction and mental illness, particularly in the context of rising cannabis treatment presentations. Drawing on extensive work from Dr Marta Di Forti and Professor Sir Robin Murray, which shows that two-thirds of psychosis patients had a history of cannabis use, there is a fear that if we legalise cannabis, problematic use will increase.
While it is right to highlight concerns around the harms of cannabis, the answers in reducing these harms lie in regulation rather than continued prohibition. In fact prohibition itself has contributed to the issue both in terms of the type of cannabis which is available and how widely available cannabis is.
As it stands, young people are able to access cannabis easier than they can alcohol and the type of cannabis which dominates the market is the most harmful to a developing brain. In a regulated cannabis market, the Government could set age restrictions for cannabis and regulate the potency. Cannabis potency is currently unregulated under the UK’s current system, with a recent study showing that 94% of black-market cannabis is of the high potency variety. Use of stronger cannabis is associated with an increased risk of addiction and psychosis. Legalising cannabis would: 1) increase availability of lower strength cannabis 2) enable the UK to launch a nationwide public education campaign and 3) put a cap on THC level e.g. at 15% as advocated by Professor David Nutt in this Evening Standard article.
Whilst it is likely that cannabis use amongst the adult population will increase following legalisation, the truth is that cannabis is far less problematic in a regulated market. Regulation provides the Government with a range of tools that could be used to control and regulate cannabis consumption, just like we do alcohol, tobacco and sugar. As cannabis becomes far less harmful in a regulated market, the harms we currently see in an illegal market are reduced.
The article expresses concerns around big business interests in pushing cannabis legalisation. The article states that “it is businesses that are pushing the weed agenda hardest because they are keen to replace the dealers” and are “determined to get as much of the population (legally) hooked as possible”. It is true that big business are interested in pushing legalisation in the UK, but suggesting they are ‘determined to get as much of the population (legally) hooked’ is simply scaremongering.
People across the entire ideological spectrum are pushing for cannabis reform, not just businesses. Many who care about issues of social justice, addiction, law and order and the economy are actively calling for changes to our cannabis laws. Businesses are new to this debate, but they are not alone.
It is also the case the cannabis businesses are taking steps to undo the harms of prohibition. As we have seen in several US states where cannabis has been legalised, there have been positive moves to introduce social equity programmes which aim to help individuals who have suffered the adverse impacts of cannabis prohibition. These social equity programmes work alongside businesses to ensure equitable ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry for those who have felt the disproportionate impacts of prohibition, particularly for low income and minority community members.
Finally the article calls for further research around the effects of cannabis, including determining whether cannabis is a gateway drug. The gateway theory suggests that once a person tries cannabis they are more likely to then experiment with other drugs. This excellent briefing by the Drug Policy Alliance comprehensively debunks the ‘gateway theory’ and is a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to learn more.
The reason that we will see a regulated cannabis market here in the UK in the near future is not because it is an agenda being rushed or pushed by ‘fools’, but the only evidence-based path to follow after years of failed prohibition. Cannabis is not without risks and anyone claiming so would be foolish, it is however far safer in a regulated system which we can control, and for the vast majority a drug which they can safely and sensibly enjoy.
This article was written by Volteface’s Policy Advisor, Scarlett Furlong