We find ourselves in yet another Tory leadership election, and consequently in the fine tradition began in the distant past of 2019, it’s time to talk about drugs.
Through the dying thralls of the last Parliament we learned that just about every senior Conservative leadership candidate had dabbled in illicit substances when they were younger. Mostly Cannabis (even Jeremy Hunt!), but some famously admitting to cocaine use (Michael Gove), or even smoking Iranian opium (Rory Stewart).
Indeed, ONS figures estimate that one in every three people in the UK have taken illicit drugs in their lifetime. One third of the UK population is 22 million people.Frankly, the 2019 leadership contest burst the dam. An open secret had been acknowledged. Andwe had all moved a lot further on from the days of “I didn’t inhale”.
Yet whilst this gaggle of successful politicians at the top of their game admitted to dabbling in drugs, their policies continue to persecute those who did exactly the same as them. Revealing perhaps most disgracefully of all the unequal way in which modern drug prohibition policy is applied – mostly hurting those who happen to be lower down the socio-economic ladder.
The last leadership contest became about growth. Economic growth, that is, and rightly so. From housing to childcare to business investment, state barriers have been holding back this country’s ability to deliver better opportunity, wages, and living standards.
Yet the outgoing Prime Minister found how difficult it was to take on all of what she described as the “anti-growth coalition” at one time. In charging ahead with unpopular tax cuts, migration liberalisation, controversial energy policy, and at least eight areas of supply side reform, it all became too much.
The anti-growth coalition she vowed to take on grew and grew until the Prime Minister became one of the few people in the country not joining its ranks. Liz Truss was not incorrect in diagnosing the UK’s problem of low growth. Nor was she wrong in highlighting various vested interests resisting change. She was just wrong to think that she could take them on all at once. If the UK is to deliver sustainable pro-growth reform, the government has to be a lot smarter in how it goes about achieving it. Pro-growth coalition building is the name of the game.
And that means finding areas ripe for reform. Areas where the majority of the country is already minded to agree. Areas where other countries are already going. Areas where the Treasury doesn’t balk at the cost. And areas where the potential benefits are demonstrable.
It’s clear that near the top of that list must be Cannabis legalisation.
Last year YouGov found that the British public support legalisation by 52 to 32 percent. A 20 point lead, even before ‘don’t knows’ are removed. And as other developed countries like Canada, Germany, and the Untied States legalise, the UK risks beginning to look left behind.
And far from a costly policy, ending the failed prohibition of a substance most of the Cabinet admitted to having tried could be a boon to UK coffers. At a time when every penny counts, the tax revenue potential from an open market is not to be sniffed at.
Last year the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board revealed the UK as the world’s largest producer of legal cannabis. Yet this potential world leading industry is hampered the longer the UK denies a regulated market to its own consumers. In 2018 Health Poverty Action estimated that a legalised Cannabis market could raise £3.5bn a year in tax revenue. That’s almost twice as much as the shortfall that the abolition of the 45p rate had been predicted to bring about. This, alongside cutting a decent portion of the current £22 billion pounds a year cost to the economy of illegal drugs, represents a sizeable economic incentive to legalise cannabis.
WorldFinance reports that since Canada (a country with half the population of the UK) legalised cannabis in 2018, “the industry has added tens of billions of dollars to the country’s gross domestic product and has created more than 150,000 jobs.”
But the economic benefits are wider than simply revenue for the state. Ending the gateway to criminality that gang led distribution creates could be of enormous social and personal benefit. Less crime, and more business.
Over 3 million criminal records have been issued for drug offences since 1973. Those are three million individuals who, due to the focus on criminality rather than health, are unable to be as productive in the labour market. Unable to live out their full potential.
Prohibition of cannabis hurts the UK’s ability to deal with the harms caused by the use of the drug. It makes more potent drugs available to individuals with no oversight or regulation. Ending the black market could allow for better treatment for those with issues, less abuse, more control… and help grow the economy to boot!
The next Tory PM could and should take on the anti-growth coalition in a measured and popular way. Delivering cannabis reform is one surprisingly deliverable way to get there.
This piece was written by Tom Harwood. Tom is Political Correspondent at GB News. Tweets @tomfh.