Written by Luke Paterson & Tom Whitehead
21 July 2020
Reading time: 8 minutes
As more and more countries begin to take a more liberal stance on cannabis use, should the UK follow suit? Or is criminalisation justified?
- Health problems (mental and physical)
- Gateway to harder drugs
- Fear of increase in users
- Quality assurance – regulated market
- Decreasing organised crime
- Tax revenue and cost savings
- Inconsistencies with Tobacco and Alcohol legislation
As of 2020, recreational use of cannabis, commonly known as weed, remains illegal in the UK – currently classified as a class B drug, but legalised for medical use in 2018. However, the last decade has seen numerous countries beginning to fully legalise cannabis; for example, Canada fully legalised recreational use in October 2018, and currently cannabis is legal for recreational use in 11 US states. Should the UK follow the trend and move towards a more liberal cannabis policy?
Cannabis use in the UK is far from being uncommon, with recent data showing that 30.2% of individuals aged 16-59 had used it in their lifetime (Home Office, 2019). Another eye-opening statistic, demonstrating the prevalence of cannabis use, is that 7.6% of the population of England and Wales have used the drug within the last year (~4.7 million people). Under current legislation, all of these people who have tried cannabis are technically criminals – are we really suggesting that this is a true characterisation? As we hope our argument will portray, there is a very strong case for legalisation and a move towards a regulated, taxed market for cannabis.
Negative Impact of Cannabis
To begin with we will look at some of the negative impacts of cannabis that are often cited when justifying its prohibition. One such argument against legalisation is the physical health issues it can cause. All following physical harms are taken from the NHS website. If people take cannabis by smoking it then they are more likely to develop bronchitis. Also, as many people smoke cannabis with tobacco, it can lead to an increased risk of cancer (and all other harms associated with smoking tobacco). Cannabis smoking may also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke; however, the NHS website states that it is cannabis smoke that increases the risk, not any of the active ingredients in cannabis itself. The common theme among all these physical harms is that most of them are caused through smoking cannabis, rather than being directly linked to the drug itself.
There is equally concern over the effect cannabis use may have on an individual’s mental health. Some studies have suggested that cannabis use, especially among adolescents, can be associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. However, it must be noted that although there is evidence to suggest a genetic link between cannabis and schizophrenia, it is a highly debated area with no definitive conclusion. Not to mention that high THC potency, the psychoactive component of cannabis, has been dominating the illegal market in the UK for the past 2 decades. In fact, 93.6% of all indoor cannabis farms in the UK in 2015/16 were specifically bred to have high levels of THC compared to only 50.6% in 2005 (NHS website). This is generally concerning as high-potency strains, commonly referred to as skunk, are often accredited to seizures, paranoia, and anxiety. This comes as UK rapper Stormzy came out saying he has stopped smoking weed as the drug was taking a toll on his mental health (Daily Mail, 2020).
Many also raise the concern that cannabis use subsequently leads to the use of harder drugs – such as crack or heroin. This is commonly known as the ‘gateway theory’. Therefore, the concern is that legalising cannabis will lead to more people eventually taking harder drugs and overall drug-related problems will increase. However, critics of this theory point out that this is based on correlation not causation. Put simply, many heroin users tried cannabis first, but most cannabis users never try heroin. Most cannabis users previously took alcohol or caffeine, but we do not call them ‘gateway drugs’. It is arguably not cannabis itself that leads to the use of harder drugs, but the fact that it is part of the criminal market makes moving on to other drugs easier – legalising it may help prevent this.
An obvious defence of criminalising cannabis is that making the drug legal would lead to more users. The Centre for Social Justice in 2018 estimated that the legalisation of cannabis in the UK could lead to an increase of 1 million new users under the age of 25. In addition, they predicted that of these new users around 100,000 would become addicted to the drug, as like alcohol and tobacco it has an addictive nature. Such fears are what lead the Home Office to declare in 2018 that “the legalisation of cannabis would send the wrong message to the vast majority of people who do not take drugs, especially young and vulnerable people, with the potential grave risk of increased misuse of drugs”.
Advantages of Legalising Cannabis
On the other hand, we will now consider some of the advantages to legalising cannabis in the UK. One of the arguments for having a regulated market in the UK regards quality assurance. The issue with an unregulated market is consumers don’t know the potency nor exact contents of the drug they’re purchasing. There is no guarantee that the dealer is offering what they say they are, and this is dangerous as consumers may end up taking a very high potency or impure substance. Essentially, we recognise that individuals will take drugs whether they are legal or not. So the focus should not be on preventing drug use, but instead on minimising the associated harms; this is best done through a regulated market that guarantees the quality of a product and accurately labels the potency/ingredients of the cannabis on offer.
To address criminalisation directly, the prevalence of cannabis use shows clearly that making the drug illegal has limited – or no – impact on deterrence. In addition, criminalisation creates an underground drug market for cannabis controlled by organised crime groups/gangs, where the revenues from selling cannabis goes mainly into funding these organisations, leading to turf wars and generating financing for potentially more dangerous activities (Adam Smith Institute, 2017). Giving control of cannabis supply to organised gangs results in a heightened risk of exploitation of vulnerable people, as well as an increase in drug-related violence. Ironically, criminalising cannabis may be creating crime rather than preventing it.
The direct economic argument for legalising cannabis is the potential tax revenue such a market would generate and the savings from alleviating the burden of enforcing anti-cannabis laws. The Institute of Economic Affairs estimated that the UK’s illicit cannabis market in 2018 was worth £2.5 billion; legalised this would be substantially more. In 2019, the Lib Dems stated that cannabis duty and savings would equate to £1.49 billion. This is without consideration to the jobs, business, and opportunities the cannabis industry would bring. Additionally, the tax revenue could be ring fenced to support drug users as opposed to criminalising them.
The current legislation banning cannabis use is not consistent with alcohol or tobacco laws. Strangely, cannabis has the lowest risk of addition with around 10% of users developing a dependency. In comparison, 32% of tobacco users and 15% of alcohol users become addicted, yet they’re legalised? As well as this, it is common knowledge that alcohol and tobacco use is related to numerous health conditions, but despite this the government does not prohibit their use. In terms of health impact, these drugs are arguably more damaging than cannabis but yet cannabis is criminalised. The World Health Organization in 2020 reported that tobacco kills up to half of its users (yet is legal), and alcohol consumption is attributed as a causal factor in more than 200 diseases or injury conditions (WHO, 2018). Furthermore, there has never been a confirmed death from direct Cannabis use in the UK (The Week, 2020).
Finally, the public have become increasingly supportive of the legalisation of recreational cannabis use in the UK. Most recently, a survey by YouGov in 2018 found that public opinion, although close, was in favour – 43% to 41% – of legalising cannabis. Support for legalisation is particularly strong among younger age groups, which highlights that this support may continue to grow in the coming years.
There are 2 million people using cannabis in the UK, with a very small fraction suffering from addiction. The current informal market for cannabis makes it impossible for users to accurately know the potency and contents of the drug they are taking. In addition, they do not have any health warnings or safety advice and the black market provides easy access for all ages; even though there is evidence suggesting regular use of the drug may be potentially damaging to teenagers. We must consider the widespread prevalence of cannabis use in society – some would even say it is normalised. The current drug laws are not properly enforceable given the extent of the drug’s prevalence. Considering the evidence-based benefits from CBD and the potential to regulate THC, in addition to the tax revenue, it appears that the advantages for legalising cannabis significantly outweigh the drawbacks. There is an argument that legalisation might lead to a greater number of individuals becoming addicted and, potentially, an increase of sufferers with mental health problems, but these problems can be mitigated in a regulated and controlled system through direct policies. This is almost impossible to achieve in an unregulated market. Thus, the regulation of cannabis as a consumer product seems obvious!
The lawyer portal
Medical Cannabis Network
Drug misuse: findings from the 2018 to 2019 CSEW: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/drug-misuse-findings-from-the-2018-to-2019-csew
The Centre for Social Justice
Adam Smith Institute
YouGov survey: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2018/05/30/majority-now-support-liberalising-policy-towards-c