The pros and cons of legalising drugs in Britain

Oct 13, 2015

Legalising cannabis could generate hundreds of millions of pounds a year, according to leaked report

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Legalising cannabis could be worth hundreds of millions to the Exchequer and create large savings for the criminal justice system, according to a leaked government report.

The internal report, commissioned by former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, revealed that the Treasury could receive a significant boost if cannabis was regulated in the same way as tobacco. The state would also make savings of up to £200m in court and police costs every year, says the BBC.

The report has reignited the debate about the benefits of legalisation. The Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb believes the study will trigger a new approach to soft drugs and pointed to the pioneering efforts of the US and other countries.

"There are successful cannabis markets emerging in different parts of the world and we should look to learn from these experiences," he said.

"And of course the basic principle it seems to me is, do you put a potentially dangerous product into the hands of criminals who have no interest in your welfare at all or do you seek to regulate it?"

But the Home Office said it had "no plans" to change the law, citing "clear scientific and medical evidence" that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people's mental and physical health.

The pros and cons of legalising drugs

Pro: The war on drugs creates addicts

Russell Brand, Sir Richard Branson, Sting and Michael Mansfield QC were among high-profile signatories to an open letter asking David Cameron to consider decriminalising possession of cannabis, The Independent reported last year. Cannabis has been classified as a Class B drug in the UK since 2008 and carries a prison sentence of up to five years for possession. 

Release, the drugs charity which organised the letter, says arresting users "creates more harm for individuals, their families and society". It says that if users are not "caught up in the criminal justice system" they have a better chance of escaping addiction and argues that evidence from other countries supports this view. According to Release, users of ‘soft’ drugs like cannabis are more likely to try something harder, including heroin, when both are illegal.

Con: Legalising drugs would create addicts

Kevin Sabet, a leading US academic and opponent of drug liberalisation, told The Guardian last year: "Legal regulation has been a disaster for drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Both of those drugs are now sold by highly commercialised industries who thrive off addiction for profit." He concluded: "What we need is much smarter law-enforcement, coupled with real demand reduction in places like Europe and the US." At a time when governments are uniting to stop people smoking, should they really be becoming more laissez-faire about drug use?

Pro: If you can’t beat them, regulate them

Sir William Patey, the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, ruffled feathers last year when he came out in favour of legalising the trade in opium poppies, from which heroin is derived. Writing in The Guardian, Patey said it was impossible to stop Afghan farmers from growing and exporting opium illegally, and concluded that "if we cannot deal effectively with supply" the only alternative is to "limit the demand for illicit drugs by making a licit supply of them available from a legally-regulated market". This would create stability and peace in drug-producing nations.

Con: Regulation may overstep the mark

The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 classifies drugs as illegal in the UK based on their chemical compounds. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that, due to small alterations in the chemical formulae of illegal drugs, two new legal highs are discovered in Europe every week. In an effort to combat this trend, ministers have introduced a law banning all psychoactive substances, which could technically cover everything from hot chocolate to heroine, The Guardian reports. Notably, caffeine, food and nicotine are exempt. Among the proposed banned substances are drugs that have been legally sold and used in the UK for decades, such as laughing gas and poppers.

Pro: Ganja is good for business

In Jamaica, one of the major arguments in favour of decriminalising ganja, as cannabis is known there, was an economic one. As well as making possession less dangerous (it currently only results in a fine), the government has now legalised growing for medical purposes.

The island hopes for a gold-rush selling the drug to US states which allow its therapeutic use, says the Daily Telegraph. Even the US State Department acknowledges that Jamaica is the largest Caribbean supplier of marijuana to the United States. 

The Pope wouldn't like it

Pope Francis has tarnished his glowing liberal credentials as the tweeting pontiff who spoke inclusively about gay people, denounced "unbridled capitalism" and reached out to Muslims, by speaking out against decriminalisation. Francis is a native of Argentina, which borders Uruguay where cannabis is now legally grown and smoked. He said legalising recreational drugs was "highly questionable" and would "fail to produce the desired effects", reported the Daily Mail. He added that legalisation was "a veiled means of surrendering to the problem".

Drug laws around the world

Jamaica decriminalised the possession of small amounts of the drug in February, and in Portugal the possession of small quantities of any drug has been decriminalised.

In December 2013, Uruguay became the first nation to make it legal to grow, consume and sell the plant. That said, all sales must pass through a government-run marketplace, and the administration has yet to set up that system.

Twenty-three US states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes and Washington became the first to permit the recreational use of the plant in 2012, despite a federal ban. Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. Cannabis went on sale in Washington in July 2014.

What happened as a result?

The legalisation of cannabis in some US states has not led to a rise in adolescent use, a US study found earlier this year. It revealed that while cannabis use was generally higher in the states that had passed medical marijuana legislation before 2014, the passage of such laws did not affect the rate of marijuana use in those states. 

British experts pushing for medicinal and research use of the drug welcomed the news. "Patients with ... severe health problems are currently being denied effective treatment in the UK," Professor Val Curran, the UK's foremost expert on medical marijuana, wrote in a report for the All Party Parliament Group for Drug Policy Reform.   

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