LONDON — The United Kingdom, long home to anti-drug crusaders, is turning a corner on cannabis. Politicians and members of the public increasingly agree on the need to allow and smartly regulate medical cannabis, creating potential not only for reform but for the launch of a legal marketplace.
This week, the London-based free market-oriented think tank Adam Smith Institute (ASI)—where staff look more like Tory conservatives than herbal enthusiasts—released a report in coordination with English drug-policy think tank VolteFace that concludes the regulation of cannabis is “substantially more desirable than simple decriminalization or unregulated legalization.”
“Only regulation,” the report says, “addresses all four key issues: ensuring that the product meets acceptable standards of quality and purity; removing criminal gangs from the equation as far as possible; raising revenue for the Treasury through point-of-sale taxation; and best protecting public health.”
English authorities have long argued that cannabis has no medical value and merely exacerbates society’s problems, with cannabis-induced psychosis being the fear-mongering threat of choice among critics. But things are changing fast. In October the country’s health service announced that cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis, indeed holds medical value and should be regulated similarly to other medicines.
The ASI report follows a UK parliamentary report from September that supported medical cannabis regulation, and it and comes the same week as the Global Commission on Drugs called for decriminalization of all drugs worldwide.
Experts agreed with the ASI report’s conclusion that prohibition in England is only hurting society and that it’s time for change to a fact-based, harm-reduction approach. “I very, very much welcome this report,” Paul Hayes, a drug-policy professor and former CEO of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, said Monday at a public debate hosted by VolteFace.
The report’s findings include a recommendation that language around drugs—and cannabis in particular—needs to be amended so politicians and voters don’t get stuck in outdated paradigms. It notes that current regulations hamstring research into the benefits and harms of cannabis, adding that consumption should become a health department issue, not a criminal justice matter.
Both conservatives and liberals at the debate agreed on the need to put people first. How to accomplish that, however, is less clear.
The financial implications of cannabis legalization are a particular sticking point. A key finding of the report is that the UK cannabis market amounts to roughly £7 billion ($8.7 billion) annually—which could generate up to £1 billion a year in tax revenue.
Hayes, at the VolteFace debate, argued that he’s concerned that free market operators would be driven more by profit than public health. On top of that, he warned, cannabis marketing could have a negative impact on mental health.
“I would ask you to remember the people” who are at risk when drafting position papers on legalization, Hayes said at the debate to Sam Bowman, ASI’s deputy director.
Bowman replied that what currently exists in the UK “is the worst of all possible worlds,” suggesting that current British drug policy actually perpetuates crime, allows children relatively easy access to cannabis, and ignores the reality that cannabis does not kill even as hundreds of thousands die of problems related to alcohol, tobacco, and even refined sugar.
“If you care about young people, then legalize it and regulate it,” Bowman told Hayes, calling also for the expungement of criminal records for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.
The growing agreement in England that some form of legalization and smart regulation is needed comes on the coattails of recent developments in Ireland, where the Parliament on Dec. 1 is set to take up debate on a medical cannabis legalization bill.
Boris Starling, an English journalist who authored the ASI report, said that an honest debate on cannabis policy is “no longer an outlier. It’s happening around the world. We’re going to be left behind if we don’t do something.”