‘Drugs policy has been a no-go area for most politicians, with a few notable – and brave – exceptions. Taking a tough line, calling for a war on drugs and stiffer penalties has been the stock in trade of politicians of both major parties. Proposals to liberalise the law lead to accusations of being ‘soft on drugs’ and cost votes.’ – David Cameron, May 2002.
If this last chapter had been written on 22nd June 2016 rather than in early October, it would have read very differently. David Cameron, as socially liberal a modern-day Tory leader as one could imagine, was still Prime Minister. Both the opinion polls and the bookies had Remain to win the EU referendum, which would put the issue of Europe to bed for at least the foreseeable future. Cameron would have had plenty of time to concentrate on his much-vaunted ‘life chances’ agenda before stepping down in good time for the 2020 election. Perhaps cannabis reform would even have ended up alongside gay marriage in his legacy.
All that is now history. If you had gone through a likely list of candidates for Prime Minister as Cameron stood outside Number Ten and announced his resignation, Theresa May would have been very near, if not at, the top. Her tenure as Home Secretary proved her a formidable tackler of injustice when the issues move her, as they did with modern slavery and FGM. But cannabis has never been remotely on her agenda, except in terms of maintaining the status quo. Nick Clegg called her ‘spectacularly unimaginative’ on the issue and accused her of trying to alter a 2014 Whitehall report which concluded there was no link between tough laws and the levels of illegal drug use, ‘arguing that there would be no change whatsoever as long as she led the Home Office’. 1
It seems extremely unlikely that anything will change now Mrs May has moved from Marsham Street to Downing Street. This is not just down to her intransigence on the issue, but also because the referendum which turfed her predecessor from office has also ensured that the issue of Brexit will dominate the next few years of British politics to an extent rarely seen on a single issue (at least outside wartime).
Photo by Jeff Djevdet (speedpropertybuyers.co.uk)
Three separate departments fighting within themselves, let alone with each other, as to who does what. Endlessly complicated negotiations requiring both steely overall control and nitpicking of the finest details. Both a media and a population bitterly divided on the outcomes and not shy of offering their opinions. At times it will feel as though there’s no room for any other aspect of public discourse to get a look-in. The only parties really pressing for cannabis reform are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, but in parliamentary terms they have very little representation. More generally, Britain (and particularly England) is a rather conservative nation. There is little or no mileage for most MPs to press the cause of cannabis reform, since it will win them no support and may indeed cost them some.
Therefore the campaign for cannabis must be fought on other fronts – in particular, through the tide effect of what is happening in other countries. Change can come from without as well as from within. A groundswell of reform across North America will be increasingly hard to ignore, especially if the benefits to public health, law enforcement and taxation revenue are demonstrably positive.
Photos by Jeff Djevdet (speedpropertybuyers.co.uk)
This will not happen overnight, of course. Even the most optimistic reform advocate doubts that Trudeau can push legislation through in Canada before 2019 at the earliest. It will also take at least two or three years for the full effects of Californian legalisation to filter through in terms of other states following suit in any large numbers. Both timescales are consistent with the proposed final date for Brexit and a possible subsequent realignment of political priorities.
When the question of cannabis law reform does again cross the desks of UK parliamentarians, it must be made clear to them that the status quo is failing, and what solutions the examples of Canada and US states have to offer to remedy this failure – those laid out here in The Tide Effect. Rather than inching towards reform by a muddle of police-led decriminalisation efforts, legal regulation of cannabis must be sought outright. The illegal market can be left no space in which to operate, and a UK-based cannabis industry must be allowed to establish itself under a new regulatory framework to replace the illegal trade. Revenue from taxation of the legal market will benefit the Treasury, although this benefit must be secondary to ensuring the legal market is placed at a competitive advantage to the illicit alternative.
Principle responsibility for cannabis should move from the Home Office to the Department of Health, where the terms of the regulated market can be set to an agenda that protects children and public health, targets crime and safeguards consumer rights. The role of the Home Office itself in cannabis policy must pivot from enforcer of prohibition, to that of a regulatory and licencing body, as it is in the case of alcohol. This change in role necessitates a change in the language and thinking used to refer to cannabis. That of public fear – ‘illegal’, ‘criminal’, ‘dangerous’ – must be replaced by the measured language of regulation and harm reduction.
Any moves towards the legalisation of cannabis will be slow and painstaking in the making. But what looks impossible today seems inevitable in retrospect. Imagine some years from now, when you can walk into a cannabis store the same way you do into an off-licence today, and you take one as much for granted as the other. You peruse shelves of cannabis products arranged by potency, taste, geographical origin, manufacturer and so on. Those products are labelled with comprehensive health information, most obviously the respective THC and CBD percentages – no product can be sold without those clearly on view.
The staff answer any questions you have and give you recommendations – staff picks, perhaps, in the way Waterstone’s assistants flag the books they love. Your fellow shoppers are – well, they are as diverse and different as humanity itself. The woman over there is a teacher whose PSHE classes cover cannabis, tobacco and alcohol. The man a few paces along from her is a taxi driver, though he’d no more take cannabis before starting a shift than he would have a drink, as either would imperil his licence and neither is worth the risk. On the other side of the shop, the young man in a tracksuit is an undercover government inspector, come to check that the shop is obeying all the laws which make up the conditions of its licence. He watches the way the staff deal with a customer who’s already badly stoned – they gently but firmly remove him, and give him the number of a health centre two streets down who will look after him – and makes a mental note of approval.
You choose your purchases, take them in a basket to the till, pay and leave the shop. There used to be some small-time dealers on the streets round here, especially at the entrance to the Tube station, but no longer. The legitimate market has put them all out of business (though a couple of them have retrained and now work at the cannabis store you’ve just left: no point letting all that market knowledge go to waste, after all). When you get home, you smoke a medium-strength joint while your partner vapes. Just like having a glass of wine in front of the latest box set.
And the most extraordinary thing about all this is the fact that it’s not extraordinary in the least. It’s what millions of people do every day. It’s a quotidian and unremarkable part of the social fabric. The language around the cannabis business – ‘store’, ‘staff’, ‘recommendations’, ‘licence’ – is the language of business and regulations. Not controversial or subversive. Rather boring, in fact.
That is our destination. It is not a place we will reach easily or any time soon. Before we get there, we need to pass through several checkpoints: public opinion, parliamentary debate, executive action. We must make sure the regulatory framework is both sufficiently solid to sustain the industry built upon it and sufficiently pliable to adapt to the inevitable changes along the way. Like all long journeys, it starts with a single step. We just need to take that step.
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