Cannabis legalisation has typically been rebuffed by UK politicians, only for them to back it after experiencing a moment of “realisation” at the end of their career.
However, in a break from tradition, we’re now seeing high profile members of the Labour party endorsing legalisation. London mayor Sadiq Khan has announced that he will consider legalising cannabis as a way to cut violent crime, and outspoken MP David Lammy concluded in a BBC documentary that the UK cannabis market should be regulated and taken out of the hands of criminal gangs.
Even the Labour front bench have committed to a royal commission that would “review independently all drugs legislation and policy to address related issues of public health”.
Arguably, this is kicking the issue into the long grass, as royal commissions take years to complete, but there’s no doubt that momentum is building within the Labour party.
Historically, cannabis legalisation is not an issue which has seen much movement with the Tories, with both Theresa May and David Cameron vehemently opposed to it during their time in office.
There is, of course, a risk that Boris Johnson will take a similarly hardline approach. When asked during the 2019 leadership election about his cannabis use as a teenager, he said: “It was jolly nice. But apparently it is very different these days, much stronger. I’ve become very illiberal about it. I don’t want my kids to take drugs.”
But if anyone in Westminster is to break from precedent, it will be Boris.
A liberal at heart, Johnson was one of the first senior Conservative politicians to call for the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use. His government has abandoned plans, years in the making, to introduce a nationwide age-verification system for online pornography, demonstrating that he isn’t afraid to take bold policy positions that enshrine freedoms.
His special advisors have been vocal supporters of legalisation. His political secretary, Danny Kruger, wrote after visiting Canada that it would be far better to legalise cannabis and use the regulatory tools at our disposal to encourage reductions in use, much like we do with alcohol and tobacco.
And Blair Gibbs, Johnson’s special adviser on crime and justice policy, is a well-known advocate of legalisation. Since leaving Johnson’s mayoral office in 2012, Gibbs has co-founded the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis and been an advisor to Volteface, the UK’s leading cannabis campaign group.
And for the first time, legalisation could actually be a vote winner for the Conservative party. Polling data released in July 2019 YouGov has shown that 53 per cent of the general public now support cannabis legalisation, with 32 per cent opposed and the rest unsure. It showed that there has been a 10 per cent increase in support for legalisation since May 2018.
Conservative voters are divided on the issue, with equal numbers opposed and in favour (44 per cent). A similar situation happened with same-sex marriage – Conservative voters were split in 2012 but the majority of the British public were in support. By 2014, 61 per cent of Conservative voters supported the policy and the party was able to regain ground taken by the Liberal Democrats. A commitment to legalise cannabis could bring in new voters.
And what should be most convincing of all is that legalisation is a great idea. Evidence from North America has shown that by regulating the cannabis market, the UK could reduce use among children (dealers don’t ask for ID), make our communities safer by taking cannabis out of the criminal market and reducing the harms of consuming cannabis.
This is all while paving the way for a new industry that could transform communities that have been left behind.
Currently, Number 10’s position remains unchanged, announcing shortly after Johnson took office that “the UK government has absolutely no plans to legalise cannabis for recreational use, and the penalties for unauthorised supply, possession and production remain unchanged.”
However, we no longer live in an age where policy positions are taken seriously, and announcing that the UK will legalise cannabis is exactly the sort of move one would expect from Boris Johnson. Before we know it, Boris buds could be hitting UK shelves.