The UK needs a rational debate about marijuana legalisation

The recent high-profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley have brought into focus medicinal cannabis and the wider use of the drug in society – and, in particular, whether it should be legalised. It’s a question that polarises opinion and commands entrenched views. But are some of these views still appropriate in modern Britain?

Cannabis is currently a class B drug, with the maximum penalty for possession being five years in prison and the option too of an unlimited fine. However, the usual penalty imposed by the police for first-time possession is a £90 fixed penalty fine, along the same lines as dropping a cigarette butt and causing a nuisance with your wheelie bin. Why is possession of a class B drug treated in what appears to be such a lenient manner? Quite possibly because its use has become so widespread that it is nigh-on impossible to police effectively.

Cannabis has become nearly as ubiquitous as alcohol or nicotine. According to the Home Office crime survey for England and Wales in 2017/18, nine per cent of adults had used drugs, with this figure rising to 19.8 per cent of 16-24 year-olds. Cannabis was the most commonly consumed drug with around 2.4 million users. You could, therefore, argue that the current position of criminalising cannabis simply isn’t working.

Criminalisation was strengthened further in 2015 with new drug-driving legislation, yet in the first three years since the change, 8,336 drivers tested positive for cannabis. The legal limit for cannabis is two micrograms – highly stringent when you consider that a single joint would most likely render someone over the legal limit for up to 12 hours, and there are cases of individuals being over the limit for up to nine days after use. This clearly shows that there are, in fact, comprehensive sanctions in place to deal with those who risk harming others, as well as themselves – but, again, it is not working.

Cannabis is illegal because tetrahydrocannabinol – its psychoactive component – is dangerous. Various medical studies show that even infrequent or casual use of cannabis can cause mental illness, even psychosis, as well as exacerbate or trigger other mental illnesses. These risks are greater for young people, and as society wakes up to the value of mental health and emotional wellbeing, particularly for the young, legalising cannabis appears completely counterintuitive.

So, if cannabis is illegal and dangerous, why is the question of its potential legalisation moving towards centre stage? As above, one reason is that its use has become so prevalent that it is difficult to treat differently from other addictive substances with potentially harmful side effects, such as tobacco, alcohol, and gambling, which are already regulated and taxed.

Regulation would allow the cultivation, distribution and sale to be controlled, reducing the risk of excessive strength and dangerous concoctions finding their way onto the streets. Taxation would generate revenue which could be used to help those who find themselves dealing with substance abuse and addiction. If we accept that people are going to take cannabis, is it so absurd to think about mitigating the risks by permitting its use in a regulated environment?

Cannabis is widely available, and usage among the 16-24-year-old demographic suggests it has found its way into our secondary schools. Contact with drug dealers puts young people closer to harder drugs, with associated damage inflicted on individuals, families, and society – not to mention the cost to the police, NHS, and social services. As a parent, I am acutely aware of the myriad of issues to which our children can be exposed, and at present, the available information suggests that cannabis is harmful to young people.

Consider cigarettes, however. You would have near universal agreement that smoking is very harmful, and it is illegal for under-18s to buy tobacco – although since the law was changed in 2007, there is no minimum age for smoking in public, with the proviso that the police can confiscate cigarettes from someone under the age of 16. Yet it would be ridiculous to believe that, as a result of these measures, no young people smoke.

When you transpose this view to cannabis, where the health implications are less established, it is easy to understand why we need to do something to raise awareness and consider whether the current position is effective. The scale of cannabis usage implies that it is not a short-term fad and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Moreover, how do you eradicate something that is already illegal?

Another reason is the social mood. When it’s positive, there is a general move toward banning drugs – often then carried through by political action. But when it’s negative, the societal view inverts, giving rise to a more tolerant stance.

This can be demonstrated by the increasingly positive view on marijuana legalisation in the United States, where the negative social mood has caused support for legalisation to rise from just over 30 per cent in 2000 to around 60 per cent now. One country’s position does not automatically justify another’s, though it is important to note that recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 US States, with medicinal marijuana legal in another 23.

While public support for legalisation in the UK is still in the minority, there is greater support for the notion of legalising and taxing marijuana, thereby maintaining greater control over the distribution and, in a simplistic equation, using the revenue generated from its taxation.

I believe that we need to respond to the changing social mood and begin a conversation about the utility of legalising cannabis. For clarity, I am not saying that at present cannabis should be legalised. I believe the discussion is still far too nascent with too many studies producing seemingly conflicting conclusions that make it impossible to say for sure that a change in the law is appropriate.

And the current medical position, as communicated by organisations such as the NHS and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, is crystal clear in setting out the very real risks of recreational cannabis use. Indeed, when children as young as 12 are experimenting with high-strength “skunk”, it is abundantly clear to me that the current approach is not working and a better system, based on harm reduction, is needed.

Because marijuana’s widespread use within society means that we cannot ignore its existence. Instead, we need to engage in a comprehensive, detailed, and – more importantly – honest debate about the pros and the cons of legalisation.

In this respect, the government is well placed to initiate the discussion and ensure that it encompasses and pragmatically considers the views of all sides – not just of those who stand to benefit, but of those who stand to lose out or deal with the consequences.

In addition to the clinicians, the police, and charities, the experiences of those who currently use cannabis should be listened to, as well as the lessons learned – both good and bad – from those countries which have already legalised the drug. Canada is one of these countries. It legalised recreational cannabis only four months ago, a full 17 years after legalising it for medicinal use – and the period between these two events suggests prudence.

As such, it would be appropriate to assess the data that comes out of Canada in the period following recreational legalisation, particularly with regard to the accuracy of forecasts and anticipated impacts. Their results will likely be thought-provoking and highly useful to our domestic situation.

Because here in the United Kingdom, the available data does not yet support any one outcome to the degree that it can be proven to be the right outcome in the long term. However, there is sufficient variation in the data to support more detailed studies into the potential legalisation of cannabis and to prompt a wider discussion in society about legalisation.

I have spoken before about my belief in 21st-century politics, the pressing need to move away from the perspective of binary outcomes, and to take a more nuanced approach that reflects the composition and needs of modern Britain. Tobacco and alcohol, for example, are neither universally available without controls, nor banned outright.

Similar thinking may work for cannabis: an approach of regulation and taxation. This does not encourage or reward usage, but rather it manages the side effects and fights the criminal dealers who currently roam the streets. The question of drug legalisation is not easy to raise, but as a society we should be prepared to have a rational debate and listen to the possible answers.

Written by Scott Mann

Scott Mann is the Conservative MP for North Cornwall.