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By Griff Ferris
Earlier this week, leaked government documents indicated what many perhaps already knew and believed: that a significant amount of the population smokes cannabis, and that legalisation would not only benefit these currently ‘criminal’ users, but would also enormously benefit the government and the wider population financially.
The leaked Treasury report noted widespread use of cannabis, and the potential for over a billion pounds worth of savings if the government wereas to legalise cannabis. Soon after, an online petition to ‘Make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal’ reached over 223,000 signatures. Therefore, MPs were obliged to give the concept at least some consideration in Parliament. Unfortunately for the petitioners, and cannabis smokers across the UK, they reached an all too predictable conclusion after several hours of debate — that legalisation would pose a health risk, ignoring the huge potential financial windfall.
Despite the outcome of the debate, the issue of legalisation has again been brought to the fore.
In rejecting the petition, the government reverted to its stock anti-drug response: ‘Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health’. There is a considerable body of reputable scientific evidence that heavy marijuana use – especially during teenage years – can have a detrimental effect on IQ levels, and is strongly linked to exacerbating existing mental illnesses such as paranoia, schizophrenia and depression. However in 2009 the government’ss’ top scientific advisor on drugs, Professor David Nutt, claimed that marijuana (among other drugs) was less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol, and called into question the ‘artificial’ division between them. Professor Nutt was promptly sacked.
The potential health detriments of widespread marijuana use cannot be ignored, yet countless studies have also rated the health risks of tobacco and alcohol as far exceeding those of cannabis. A 2015 study published in Scientific Reports noting that cannabis use was 114 times less deadly than alcohol, yet there is no question of alcohol use being made illegal.
Considering the issue of cannabis legalisation on Newsnight, Niamh Eastwood, the Executive Director of the drug-expert charity Release, queried ‘What causes more harm – the drug or the policy?’. Whilst the government clearly considers the drug more harmful than the policy, there are a number of factors suggesting the policy behind cannabis’s continued prohibition appears now to be either misguided, or the practical utility of its proscription is rapidly diminishing.
Ministry of Justice figures in 2010 noted that 24,000 young people were criminalised for drug possession, mostly cannabis, while there is little or no evidence that the risk of potential criminalisation has any deterrent effect on people’s use of the drug. Criminalising cannabis users, especially young people, merely prevents them from fulfilling an active and productive role in society. A criminal record will have a serious effect on educational ambitions, employment potential, and often drives people to further crime and even more serious drug use. Moreover police forces themselves are turning their backs on what they know to be a losing battle, as the police commissioners of both Durham and Derbyshire have recently announced that they will no longer be targeting those who possess and even grow cannabis for their own personal use.
The recent figures from the Treasury’s analysis also appear to support legalisation. The report confirmed the extensive use of cannabis throughout the population, with 216 tonnes smoked last year by 2.2 millionm people between the ages of 16 and 59. Drawing on research by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, the Treasury estimated that regulating the sale of cannabis could reduce the UK deficit yearly by up to £1.25 billion, taking into account taxes raised, and including savings in police and court costs of £200 million, not to mention the jobs created by the new industry. Legalisation would also introduce an important measure of control into an industry – and it is a multi-million pound industry even in its current black-market form – where there is none.
Meanwhile legalisation naysayers as yet cannot point to any failures in the flagship measures taking place in the US. The legalisation of cannabis by a number of states has not resulted in the disasters that the prohibition lobby predicted. Colorado has reported neither the predicted spike in cannabis users nor in road fatalities, while the criminal market has shrunk and there is a predicted tax windfall of over $100 million in 2015.
The two sides to the argument remain: whether the best solution is our current approach of prohibition, despite the fact that illegal substances such as cannabis are easily accessible on the black market, or an approach where such a substance is legal, and its quality, sale, and availability are (in theory) carefully regulated, with purity and age controls. It is considered that the latter approach works well enough for tobacco and alcohol; why, many are asking, is it not good enough for cannabis?
The fact of the matter is that this is an old debate, which has been played over and over for many decades. Yet due to the positive results of legalisation in the US and decriminalisation measures taken in a number of other countries, and the release of these recent and highly significant Treasury figures, the debate has been re-invigorated. There has perhaps never been a stronger case for the legalisation and commercial regulation of cannabis in the UK.