Is it time for a new UK drugs policy?

Is it time for a new UK drugs policy?

by Nick Cook
article from Wednesday 31, July, 2019

HURRICANE BORIS already makes it feel like a lifetime ago. But for a brief period early in the summer, the Conservative Party leadership contest appeared set to become the unlikely catalyst for a fresh national discussion on recreational drug use.

But the admission from Michael Gove that he’d snorted cocaine as a social-climbing Times journalist quickly morphed into one about Gove’s character and trustworthiness.

Before said debate shifted, we were treated to increasingly irrelevant and sometimes outright comical, admissions from fellow leadership contenders. 

Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab both tried cannabis at university – to the shock of absolutely nobody with an undergraduate degree. Jeremy Hunt, keen to burnish his outward looking, international credentials, once drank a ‘cannabis lassy’ whilst traveling abroad in his youth.

Meanwhile, Rory Stewart told the Telegraphhe’d smoked opium at an Afghan wedding... before adding that the family may have been so poor they probably had little opium to actually add to the pipe.

The opportunity for any proper drugs debate looked to have passed. 

It has proved refreshing then, to see London’s Evening Standarduse a recent front page to begin to ponder in depth whether the UK should follow the lead of North America, where places like Canada, California and a clutch of other US states have now legalised cannabis.

The Standard’s pollingundertaken by Survationsays legalising and regulating is a move that Londoners ‘overwhelmingly support’ (63 per cent of respondents). Touted by the paper as the first test of public opinion since the UK Government gave the green light to medicinal cannabis use last year, UK wide, the data shows that almost half of people (47 per cent) support legalisation, while just under a quarter are undecided. Subsequent polling by the British Medical Journal indicated public support for legalisation was as high as 80 per cent.

As a country, where are we and where might we go on cannabis?

An argument many – particularly on the political right – find compelling is economic in nature. The UK’s most widely used illegal drug is estimated to be worth a massive £2.5 billion per year. The Institute for Economic Affairs believes that as a legal enterprise, the multi-billion pound cannabis industry would open up potential revenues for the exchequer of £1 billion. 

These are funds which many argue could be ring-fenced for investment in crime prevention, employment support and NHS services – including around addiction treatment and adolescent mental health.

The links between cannabis and conditions such as schizophrenia and psychosis are serious and have been well publicised – though they relate most directly to the use of extremely high potency ‘skunk’.

It is therefore essential that any sensible discussion around legalising or decriminalising would need to study objectively the widely varying north American examples and look at how best to regulate (read tax) potency as to almost eliminate demand for higher strength products that currently pose the greatest health dangers. 

Done conservatively – along the lines of the approach taken by Justin Trudeau’s Canadian government – legalisation could provide a framework for strong regulation, clear, clinical-style labelling, tobacco-style government health warnings, transparency and strict limits around potency and the prohibition of sale to all minors. 

Any black market would take time, resources and political will to eradicate. But in the longer term could also create paths to legitimate employment across the supply chain and even opportunities for a generation of young entrepreneurs. 

This market would be a legal, regulated industry selling an adult-only recreational product treated in a similar way to tobacco – a product over which increasing regulation and education has delivered declining use and a clear public health dividend.

Of course, there are other, more nakedly libertarian, market driven examples – such as that used in the US state of Colorado. While some of the same benefits would be present, such a model would likely prove a harder sell here in the UK – to parliamentarians and the public – not least due to our starkly differing approach to public health and healthcare services.

Let me be clear – giving consideration to any form of cannabis decriminalisation in isolation would be a pointless exercise. 

Drug use, although primarily amongst hard drugs, is a complex and rising problem in many parts of the world, including here in Scotland, which as a nation we have found out to our collective shame. 

Tackling the issues around hard drugs is one which requires bold action to address decades-long issues around the lackof economic opportunities, social stigma, exclusion and mental health to be comprehensively tackled together, across political divides.

However, a legal, public health driven approach to a ‘lesser’ drug like cannabis – if done properly – could take thousands of people and millions of pounds out of the orbit of the drugs underworld and allow our healthcare and justice professionals greater resources to focus on the more destructive effects of hard drugs.

All of this would require strong political will and cross party working within and between parliaments. The recent cross-party trip of MPs to Canada – which resulted in the Labour MP, David Lammy, switching his stance to back legalisation – shows at least some politicians are alive to the issue.

But given the way in which our politics has become so entrenched and defined by two binary constitutional issues, I’m sadly less than optimistic that the drugs debate will be given the attention and the considered debate from supporters and opponents it deserves. This in itself is a tragedy. 

Nick Cook is a Conservative Councillor in Edinburgh. This article represents his personal views as a commentator – not Conservative Party policy.


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