The world is changing on cannabis, but Britain is left behind

"The world is moving on and so is the Tory party. The prime minister needs to keep up."
"The world is moving on and so is the Tory party. The prime minister needs to keep up."

By Deej Sullivan

A new report from the Adam Smith Institute and VolteFace yesterday reopened the debate around the legalisation of cannabis. The report - The Tide Effect - takes aim at what it calls "shameful failures" in UK drug policy and urges the government to take heed of the movement for reform currently sweeping the globe, or else see the UK be left behind.

The unstoppable tide of progress unleashed by legalisation measures in a growing number of US states, Canada, Uruguay, and others, the report argues, prove that regulation is not just inevitable - it is simply the only cure for the myriad harms of prohibition. At a time when much of global politics seems to be lurching further to the right, this liberal ideal has continued to gain ground, and shows no sign yet of slowing down.

Yet in the face of all this, the British government has stubbornly stuck to the same line: that cannabis is a harmful drug, and should be banned. The result has been a patchwork of legislation which has led to a ‘postcode lottery'. While Westminster has dithered, police forces have taken it upon themselves to enforce the law as they see fit. As a result, a cannabis user in Durham is far less likely to face punitive punishment than one in Redcar & Cleveland, despite the two towns being a mere 38 miles apart.


All of this points to an urgent need for the UK to catch up. Current policy has singularly failed to restrict supply, reduce demand or promote harm reduction, despite decades of punitive law enforcement. Those failures have always been obvious to those inclined to look, but with law enforcement and MPs increasingly vocal about the urgent need for change, policy makers can no longer bury their heads in the sand. As Sam Bowman, executive director of the Adam Smith Institute puts it, the transparent failure of prohibition "makes an ass of the law".

Ultimately, this report is likely to fall on deaf ears. Theresa May has long been an opponent of drug policy reform, and just last week the government issued a typically asinine response to calls from within Westminster to legalise the medical use of cannabis. But the pressure is sure to keep growing. Keeping cannabis 'criminals' in prison currently costs the taxpayer £50m per year, while today's report argues that legalisation could be worth as much as £6.8 billion annually, at a time when economic growth is slow and the full impact of Brexit is still to be felt. Legalising would also severely hinder organised crime, and put a dent in human trafficking - something which history suggests the PM should be all for.

Should May decide to finally pay attention to the evidence and implement regulation of the UK's cannabis market, she would not be short of support, even from within her own party. A poll earlier this year, commissioned by VolteFace, found that over half of Conservative MPs supported legalisation. In response to today's report, two of the PM's colleagues have already spoken out.

"It is time we legalised cannabis," said Peter Lilley MP. "Currently cannabis can only be obtained from illegal gangs who also push hard drugs. So we are driving soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers."

Michael Fabricant MP echoed his views. "There can be no doubt that just as prohibition on the sale of alcohol failed in the United States and encouraged gangsterism, the banning of drugs has promoted a wicked and lucrative black market which pushes illegal drugs on the innocent," he said.

"The argument that excessive amounts of even natural cannabis might do harm just doesn't wash. The same can be said of alcohol or even sugary drinks; both of which can eventually lead to death. We need a grown up debate on this whole issue and a national education programme on the use and abuse of drugs."

The world is moving on and so is the Tory party. The prime minister needs to keep up.

Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for VolteFace, London Real, and many others, and is the policy & communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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