This piece was first published by the Guardian.
Pressure for cannabis law reform is gaining international momentum – and Britain is no exception. Last week saw over 100,000 people petitioning the government to introduce a legal and regulated cannabis market. Meanwhile Durham’s police commissioner, Ron Hogg, stated a preference for deprioritising tokers and small-scale growers to “break that cycle [of criminalisation] whilst also having a sensible debate around cannabis”.
The movement for ending cannabis prohibition has had a longstanding association with leftwing and liberal politics, from the anti-war hippies of the 1960s to today’s social activists calling for an end to the unjust treatment and human rights abuses of the people swept up by the drug war. Conservatives have generally been seen as unsympathetic to the cause. David Cameron, before becoming PM, derided politicians for attempting to “appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies” but rapidly changed his position after he entered office, firmly opposing reform and erroneously describing cannabis as “very, very toxic” in a 2011 interview.
It needn’t be that way. There is a solid conservative case for legalising cannabis. If there is one non-pejorative word that can define the past five years of Tory rule, it’s cuts. The legalisation and regulation of the cannabis trade could justify considerable spending cuts, as the current black market trade is a huge drain on our resources. The government spends upwards of £2bn a year fighting the war on drugs in England and Wales, and the cannabis trade is undoubtedly a huge reason for that, as cannabis is – by far – the preferred illegal drug in the country (approximately 29% of Brits have consumed it). The money and resources being allocated to police – for stopping, searching and arresting stoners – could essentially be scrapped overnight. Simultaneously the courtroom hours and prison cells assigned to cannabis farmers and sellers could be used far more appropriately and efficiently.
Before May’s election, Cameron promised that he would create 2m jobs by 2020 and legalisation could contribute significantly to this. The government could create a new regulated industry with a pre-existing customer base of over three million. Five percent of the nation are regularly consuming cannabis and the revenue is being diverted to criminal gangs rather than legitimate companies or state coffers. From examining the success of cannabis legalisation in Colorado and Washington it is clear that there is a huge variety of jobs that reform can create: farmers, harvesters, deliverers, producers of related items (such as pipes), and even creators of cannabis edibles – like cookies – and concentrates.
Many of the psychological issues related to “skunk” cannabis could be averted by regulating the market, so smokers can opt for the strain of their choice in a licensed shop, rather than whatever they are handed in a bag down a dingy alleyway. Regulation could, therefore, reduce health problems associated with cannabis use – saving the NHS money – and create tax revenue, some of which could be used to treat any medical problems that do arise (as is currently the case with alcohol and tobacco). Colorado – which has a population around one-twelfth of the UK’s – raised $76m (£48m) in cannabis tax revenues during its first year of legalisation alone.
Theresa May and Cameron seek to portray their government as tough on crime. What better way to make life hard for illegal weed dealers than to take their entire industry away from them? The three million regular cannabis smokers in Britain are inadvertently funding gang violence and human trafficking – the real, deadly crimes that May and Cameron should be focusing on. The failure of the drug war has taught us that it is impossible to control or regulate a market that operates outside the law. Whenever the police imprisons a dealer, two more pop up to replace him or her. The war on drugs goes back and forth like a spliff. It is irrational and illogical to continue with cannabis prohibition, particularly as 52% of the public support legalisation.
Several US states and countries across Europe and Latin America have reformed their cannabis laws recently. It is inevitable that it will eventually be legalised in Britain. The sudden popularity of the cause has reignited the debate and it is the responsibility of activists and politicians, liberals and conservatives, to keep it burning.