Party Politics Are Getting in the Way of Cannabis Legalisation in the UK

Why isn't the UK progressing on cannabis legalisation? Alice Swift looks at the politics holding the country back from continued reform...

by Alice Swift

The trend towards decriminalisation and legalisation of recreational cannabis across the globe is snowballing. Have you noticed?

In light of the growing body of evidence highlighting the medicinal uses of cannabis and the harms of punitive drug policy, this controversial plant is now legal in Uruguay, Canada and across a multitude of US states. European countries like Portugal, Malta and Luxembourg have decriminalised possession for personal use, while Germany’s plans to create a fully regulated legal cannabis market are underway.

While the UK legalised cannabis for medical purposes in November 2018, laws on recreational use remain some of the strictest in Europe, with cannabis possession punishable by up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine. And yet, the available evidence shows that legalising cannabis would: improve patient access to treatments; combat racial injustice; and boost the economy in this innovative billion-pound field, creating tens of thousands of jobs in the process.

The UK’s legal stance on cannabis is becoming more incognizant with contemporary research by the day. These considerations leave many wondering why the government isn’t engaging in the creation of evidence-based drug policy, announcing plans to decriminalise cannabis or legalise its use recreationally.

Quick recap: criminalisation perpetuates harm

As it stands, the criminalisation of cannabis creates huge social and economic costs which perpetuate harm.

  • Social and racial injustice

If the War on Drugs was waged to minimise harm, then it is a resounding failure. In fact, criminalisation increases the risks associated with substance-use because it fails to tackle its root causes. Instead, punishing cannabis users generates stigma which marginalises individuals with problem drug use and lessens the chance of successful recovery. While punitive sanctions are ineffective, they do push the cannabis market underground. Criminal business models can thrive and cannabis products cannot be regulated to maximise consumer safety. 

In addition to this, the racial motivations behind the creation of the War on Drugs are now well-documented. A 2018 report found that cannabis laws in the UK criminalise the Black community at disproportionate rates. Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, despite being less likely to use drugs. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) individuals are more likely to be searched, prosecuted and convicted for cannabis offences. Sentencing is also harsher.

Chart From Police powers and procedures: England and Wales, year ending 31 March 2021.

  • Resource allocation

Criminalisation is expensive. Given that it is also an ineffective rehabilitative tool, it is doubly damaging that all the resources spent on prosecuting, sentencing and imprisoning cannabis growers, traders and users are not available to treat and support those affected by problematic cannabis use. 

Research shows that regulation – rather than prohibition – is the most effective pathway for addressing both the harms caused by criminalisation and the issues which can stem from substance use. Legalising cannabis would create the opportunity to restrict minors’ access to cannabis, increase consumer safety and tackle gang-related violence associated with the illicit cannabis industry. 

So why isn’t the government doing anything about it?

Cannabis: a hot potato?

Nancy Reagan posing with just say no logo on podiumThe 1980s and 90s saw the deployment of government-led advertising campaigns like ‘Just Say No,’ and ‘D.A.R.E’ (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) which claimed to discourage children from using recreational drugs such as cannabis, MDMA, and cocaine. Although the campaigns had no significant impact on recreational drug use, they had a paternalistic, scaremongering effect which created distorted perceptions of the plant and framed cannabis as a moral issue.

To this day the liberalisation of cannabis laws remains controversial among conservative voters. The 2018 Volteface cannabis poll found that younger populations are the strongest supporters of legalisation. This was also true in Canada, where legalisation was enacted in 2018 following the Liberal Party’s mobilisation of young and BIPOC voters. Meanwhile the Conservative Party’s core voting demographic is older populations, many of whom grew up during the height of the war on drugs hysteria. Despite the utilitarian benefits of cannabis reform, it is arguably not in the best interests of the party to consider reforming cannabis laws if they wish to secure the older vote at the next election. 

Even the most tentative, evidence-led efforts by politicians to explore progressive approaches to regulating cannabis are met with moral outcry and hyperbolic headlines in the media. A localised, non-punitive cannabis education scheme proposed by Sadiq Khan in 2022 generated such a wave of misinformation and controversy that more than a dozen Tory MPs consequently called on Khan to block its development. This was notwithstanding strong public support and the successful implementation of similar schemes in other constituencies across the country.

The thorny politics of long-term policy

Another formidable roadblock on the path to UK cannabis legalisation is the farsighted style of governance that is required to appreciate its benefits. From the Conservative Party’s perspective, cannabis legalisation has, at best, mixed support among their main voter demographic and the tangible advantages of such a move may not be fully realised until the next election cycle.

Cannabis legalisation – alongside the creation of a regulated legal market – is a large and ambitious undertaking. The legal infrastructure it requires must comprehensively cover a range of core aspects including cultivation, manufacture, distribution, THC limits and advertising. While legalisation requires investment in the present, it could take years for the benefits of such a move to fully emerge. This presents a thorny issue in a governance system premised on constant competition for mass public approval. 

To what extent do elected politicians invest in the future at short-term cost? Governments are faced with the need to strike an appropriate balance between maximising social welfare in the present and investing in future goals. However, the need for public support can maximise the value of short-term return at the cost of longer-term achievements. In this way what seems like a policy priority might not be politically desirable. This problem is not exclusive to the current government but is demonstrative of the intertemporal nature of the tradeoffs which take place in modern democracies. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting cannabis legalisation and some vocal, in-party support for cannabis policy reform, the structural and temporal limits of modern democracies makes long-term issues challenging to engage with. From a strategic standpoint, this conundrum engenders an aversion to taking positive action on controversial issues which the current government may not reap the rewards from.

How are decriminalisation efforts and public opinion impacting the legalisation of cannabis in the UK?

The UK is currently witnessing a series of discussions and actions surrounding the decriminalization of drugs, particularly cannabis. One prominent figure endorsing this movement is London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has taken steps to decriminalize drugs in the capital. While Sadiq Khan’s initiative has received both support and criticism, the public sentiment regarding the legalization of cannabis is undergoing a noticeable shift.

Reports indicate that there is an increasing acceptance of legal cannabis among the general population in the UK. In fact, according to recent surveys, only about 32% of the UK populace opposes the idea of cannabis legalization. This growing public support has sparked curiosity among many about the possibility of cannabis becoming legal in the UK in the near future.

The impact of decriminalization efforts and changing public opinion on the legalization of cannabis cannot be overlooked. The actions taken by influential figures like Sadiq Khan in favor of decriminalization signify a shift in the approach towards drug policies. This, coupled with the significant proportion of the population voicing their support for legalizing cannabis, creates an environment where the topic is gaining attention and generating discussions at various levels.

While the question of whether weed will be legal in the UK soon remains uncertain, the combined influence of decriminalization efforts and the changing public opinion certainly suggests that the topic is gaining traction in the country. The ongoing debates and increasing public support for legal cannabis indicate that the possibility of legalization in the future cannot be ruled out.

It is important to note, however, that the process of legalizing cannabis involves numerous factors that extend beyond public opinion. Policymakers, government regulations, scientific research, and international drug treaties also play significant roles in shaping the path towards legalization. As the discussions surrounding decriminalization of drugs continue and public sentiment evolves, it will be interesting to observe how these factors interact and impact the potential legalization of cannabis in the UK.

What are the changing perceptions of cannabis in the UK?

The perceptions of cannabis in the UK are undergoing significant changes due to various factors. Firstly, there is a growing belief that decriminalization of cannabis could help address issues of racial and social disparities within the criminal justice system. Recent analysis of police data by House of Commons researchers has revealed a decline in cannabis possession offenses. However, it has also shed light on lingering racial biases in arrests and prosecutions, prompting calls for reform.

Secondly, the recognition of the medical benefits of cannabis is playing a crucial role in altering perceptions. As more scientific research emerges, the potential therapeutic uses of cannabis are becoming increasingly evident. Despite the complex legal landscape surrounding cannabis, certain products like CBD flowers and hash are already widely available in the UK. This accessibility speaks to the growing understanding of the plant’s medicinal potential, driving a shift in perspectives.

Additionally, political platforms have started to adopt more progressive stances towards cannabis. Parties such as Labour have included more liberal drug policies in their manifestos, indicating a potential shift towards a more accepting view of cannabis. This political acknowledgment reflects the changing attitudes of the general public and suggests a willingness to reconsider existing regulations.

Overall, the changing perceptions of cannabis in the UK are driven by the desires for decriminalization and social justice, the recognition of its medical benefits, and the evolving political landscape that seeks more progressive drug policies.

What is the road ahead for cannabis legalisation in the UK?

The road ahead for cannabis legalization in the UK is a complex journey filled with numerous factors and considerations. As the global trend towards cannabis reform continues, it becomes a matter of when, rather than if, the UK will legalize weed. The push for legal cannabis is gaining momentum, driven by various factors such as potential economic gains, societal benefits, and shifting public opinion.

However, the path to full legalization in the UK is not a straightforward one. It entails extensive debates, thorough research, and open public discourse to address various aspects of cannabis legalization. These discussions will primarily focus on the potential benefits and risks associated with legalizing cannabis, including its impact on public health, law enforcement, taxation, and overall society.

A significant aspect of the ongoing discussions is the consideration of evidence-based research to guide decision-making. Evaluating the experiences of countries that have already legalized cannabis, such as Canada, Uruguay, and several states in the United States, will play a crucial role in shaping the future policies in the UK. This research will explore aspects like the effectiveness of regulation, the impact on the black market, and the potential revenue generated through taxation.

Public opinion also plays a vital role in shaping the road ahead for cannabis legalization. With more awareness and education about the potential benefits and harms of cannabis, public perception towards its legalization continues to evolve. Public opinion polls consistently indicate a growing acceptance of cannabis reform in the UK, which further fuels the momentum for legalization.

However, despite the growing support, there are still concerns and opposing viewpoints that need to be addressed. These include concerns about the potential risks associated with increased cannabis use, especially among young people and vulnerable populations. Additionally, regulatory frameworks, public safety measures, and proper control of cannabis production, distribution, and consumption need to be thoroughly explored to ensure responsible and safe practices.

In conclusion, the road ahead for cannabis legalization in the UK involves ongoing debates, research, and public discourse. While the trend towards legalization is increasingly apparent, the exact timeline and specific regulations will depend on various factors. By thoroughly examining the evidence, engaging in informed discussions, and considering societal impacts, the goal is to pave the way for a responsible and beneficial cannabis industry in the UK.

When will cannabis be fully legalised in the UK?

Based on various considerations, including prevailing circumstances, accurately determining the exact timeline for full cannabis legalization in the UK proves to be a challenge. However, if we exercise caution and take into account the existing factors, it is conceivable that significant strides towards cannabis decriminalisation or even legalisation could occur within the next 5-10 years. This progression may first involve an expansion of decriminalisation measures, followed by the establishment of a regulated recreational market, similar to models implemented in other nations.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that predicting political outcomes, particularly on contentious matters such as this, always carries an inherent level of uncertainty. The dynamic nature of the political landscape means that unforeseen events, shifts in public opinion, or the influence of global trends could potentially accelerate or delay the process of legalisation. Thus, while a cautious prediction can be made, it is essential to acknowledge the potential for rapid changes and acknowledge the fluidity of the situation.

Will weed be legal in the UK anytime soon?

The legalisation of cannabis in the United Kingdom has garnered increasing attention and speculation. Considering the global trend towards cannabis decriminalisation and legalisation, it is reasonable to question if and when the UK might follow suit.

One key aspect to consider is the potential economic benefits that cannabis legalisation could bring. Countries such as Germany have seen significant financial gains, with an estimated £4 billion per year resulting from cannabis legalisation. Particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK may be compelled to explore new avenues for economic recovery, and the potential economic advantages of cannabis legalisation cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, public support for legalising cannabis is on the rise. According to reports, only 32% of the UK population opposes the idea, indicating changing attitudes and a growing acceptance of cannabis use. A 2019 YouGov survey revealed shifting public opinion, which may eventually exert pressure on political parties to reconsider their stance on cannabis legislation.

While providing an exact timeline is challenging, it is plausible to predict that the UK could witness significant steps towards cannabis decriminalisation or legalisation within the next 5-10 years. This progress may initially manifest as broader decriminalisation efforts, followed by the establishment of a regulated market for recreational use, mirroring the models adopted by other countries.

It is important to note that the legislative process surrounding cannabis legalisation involves various factors, including research, public opinion, and political dynamics. These elements can significantly impact the timeline for cannabis legalisation. As such, while it is reasonable to anticipate progress in the foreseeable future, the exact timeframe for full cannabis legalisation in the UK remains uncertain.

Greener days ahead

Evidence-based advocacy is an important tool to shed light on the long shadow cast over cannabis as a result of the war on drugs. Increased awareness and the growth of the cannabis industry worldwide are mutually reinforcing factors aligning perceptions of the plant with the evidence available. Similarly, disseminating a more nuanced understanding of problematic substance use and the ways in which criminalising it is counter-productive will ensure lawmakers have the necessary tools to create effective, harm-reducing drug policies.

Despite decades of suppression cannabis remains the most widely cultivated, trafficked and used illicit drug worldwide. The fact is that it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and the question regarding cannabis drug policy reform is not ‘if’ but ‘when’. The need to develop a political environment in which politicians are able to invest in long-term goals is a challenge to which modern democracy must rise in order to manage intergenerational socioeconomic issues like cannabis legalisation.

Alice Swift is a performer and writer based in London. Their work promotes compassion and community through the study and exploration of cannabis, psychedelics, the human condition, astrology, social justice and drug policy reform.

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