It’s already one of the defining images of 2014: hordes of cannabis enthusiasts braving freezing conditions to make their first legal purchases of their preferred drug. As the new year dawns, attitudes towards the global “War on Drugs” appear to be thawing. Cannabis is now legal for recreational use in the US states of Colorado and Washington, with others such as California expected to follow suit. President Obama, who openly admits to smoking weed in his youth, underlined this seemingly more relaxed attitude in a recent interview with the New Yorker stating that he believes cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”
America is not the only nation rethinking its stance on soft drugs. The small Latin American country of Uruguay has taken the bold step of becoming the first in the world to fully legalise marijuana, one of several progressive policies instituted by the left-of-centre government of President José Mujica, which has also legtimised gay marriage and abortion. Closer to home, there is the example of Portugal which radically overhauled its drugs laws 12 years ago – taking the drastic step of decriminalizing drug use. Owning and selling drugs is still illegal, but drug users are now dealt with through the health care system, rather than the courts. By pioneering a more liberal approach, Portugal has made impressive progress – the number of addicts injecting has halved, to 0.5 per cent of the population. Despite fears that drug use in Portugal would increase, it is currently below average within the European Union. And, crucially the country’s courts are freed up to deal with more serious issues such as trafficking and dealing.
Is the United Kingdom ready for drug reform on a similar scale? And why is the focus of policy in this country still on prohibition, when a recent survey by the reformist think tank Transform found that 55 per cent of people support legalising the production and supply of cannabis, or at least decriminalising its consumption. What would happen to our society if we followed Portugal’s example and began treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue? What if we stopped the increasingly futile effort of using force to decrease drug consumption? And what if we went even further and decriminalized all drugs, not just marijuana, but heroin, cocaine and ecstasy?
These are all valid questions. Yet, there appears to be a moral reticence among those in positions of power to re-examine British drug law, which still stems from the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Who knows how many of today’s political elite indulged in a spot of recreational drug use while at university? David Cameron has always dodged the question stating that he had a “normal experience” (whatever that means). But, the point is not how in or out-of-touch with drug culture politicians are, but rather why there has been such little progress on drug policy.
This government, and their predecessors, seem to be labouring under the impression that the British public are deeply fearful of narcotics and would immediately vote against any party which considered relaxing the laws. Yet, the research conducted by Transform also revealed that out of those surveyed who voted Conservative at the last election, 70 per cent were in favour of drug reform. It’s increasingly clear, even to those who read the Daily Mail, that the “war on drugs” has failed on every front, particularly with cannabis, and that the current situation wrongly criminalises young people and wastes police time.
Let’s consider the economics. If we attempt to separate the perception of drug law as a moral issue, which is partly what renders it such a difficult subject to unravel, the financial benefits of the legalisation of “soft drugs” such as cannabis are clear. Taxes could be levied against cannabis, creating a new revenue source for the government. The tobacco industry provides the obvious, highly lucrative, comparison – ASH (Action on Smoke and Health) produced a recent breakdown: “The Treasury earned £9.5 billion in revenue from tobacco duties in the financial year 2011-2012 (excluding VAT). This amounts to 2 per cent of total Government revenue. Including VAT at an estimated £2.6 billion, total tobacco revenue was £12.1bn. The price of a pack of 20 premium brand cigarettes currently costs around £7.98, of which £6.17 (77 per cent) is tax.”
In Colorado they are estimating that the legal cannabis trade, which has also created new jobs, will generate an extra $67m (£40.5m) in tax revenue, which the federal government has promised to spend on building new schools. In the UK the Home Office estimate that 6.4 per cent of adults aged 16 to 59 have taken cannabis in the last year (around 3m), although the Daily Mail puts the figure at a slightly more hysterical 9m. Whichever statistic you believe, that’s a significant market – the profits of which are currently lining the pockets of domestic drug dealers and international drug cartels. Not only would legalising soft drugs provide much-needed extra funds for the government during a period of austerity, it would also sever the link between cannabis and criminality.
Drug reform advocate Baroness Molly Meacher is the head of a cross-parliamentary group which last year produced an influential report pressing for drug law reform. Baroness Meacher has publicly expressed her support for better regulation of drugs, especially legal highs. In a debate in the House of Lords in October 2013 she said: “Whatever our personal views about the morality of taking drugs—and people’s views differ—we all surely agree that good policy is that which reduces the level of drug addiction and harm to the individual and to others. Criminalising young people is contrary to that aim.”
This follows an equally persuasive report into drug reform delivered in December 2012 by a cross-party groups of MPS who urgently advised David Cameron to set up a royal commission to consider all the alternatives to Britain’s failing drug laws, including decriminalisation and legalisation.
So far, the prime minister has shrugged off both reports and is doggedly clinging to the line that the system is working because the number of cannabis users has fallen overall, despite the fact that the number of those taking unregulated legal highs has sky rocketed. This is despite the prime minister espousing a more progressive position before he became Tory leader including reportedly telling The Independent in 2005 that the UK’s “drugs policy has been failing for decades.”
Does Cameron really believe the situation has markedly improved despite no progression in the law? Or is it more as Professor David Nutt, who used to chair the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, suggested to the Huffington Post that it was due to “pressure from the old men in the party who told him he could not get elected if he was not hard on drugs.”
What is certain is that the pressure for change is growing, especially on the issue of soft drugs. Will we see legal weed in the UK in the next five years? It seems unlikely but a global cultural shift is occurring. While some pressure groups might argue that either we legalise all drugs or nothing, that is a hugely flawed argument. There is no one size fits all policy when it comes to drug reform. In this country it appears the biggest barriers to change are fear of the unknown and a desire among careerist politicians to maintain the moral status quo.
As Baroness Meacher told the Guardian in January last year; “After 40 years of a policy built on the assumption that we can create a “drug-free world” while drug use increased exponentially – cannabis use has increased 20-fold in 40 years – we have to accept that many young people will use drugs, whether they are legal or not. Indeed some are attracted to taking a substance because it is banned. We will never eliminate drug use.”
Digital Editor of Prospect Magazine