Naked Politics Blogger
During an internship in Manchester city centre last summer, my evening walk from work to the station was inevitably rainy, tiring and, increasingly, uncomfortable. Manchester’s homelessness problem was more prevalent than ever. Worse still was their comatose state, as they staggered around and collapsed on benches or in doorways. I approached one man in this zombie-like condition. ‘Can I call you an ambulance?’ I asked. No response. I asked again, reaching for my phone. ‘Don’t you effing dare!’ hissed a surprisingly loud voice from the man who was so hunched over he couldn’t meet my eyes. I jumped back, startled. I didn’t make the call, but soon after – when I found out the probable cause of his affliction – I wished I had.
In the summer of 2017, Manchester was experiencing an epidemic of the drug spice – a form of ‘synthetic cannabis’ that is, in fact, significantly more harmful than the natural variety. It is more addictive and affects the brain in unpredictable and powerful ways, which ultimately leads to higher drug-related crime and death rates.
Until May 2016, spice was one of many legal highs created specifically with the intention of circumventing legislation on drugs. Its criminalisation demonstrates the adverse effects of driving a drug trade underground.
Recently, cannabis hit the headlines again, after cannabis oil was seized at Heathrow airport from Charlotte Cauldwell, despite her protests that it is needed to abate the fits of her severely epileptic twelve-year-old son. The home secretary, Sajid Javid, has promised to review the rules on medicinal cannabis (largely banned in the UK) but has refused to consider legalising the drug for recreational purposes.
Some senior figures though have called for a more radical change. Ex-leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, has urged Theresa May to decriminalise cannabis. More recently, the chief of police in Durham, Mike Barton, has also called for cannabis to be legalised. He says that its current status as a Class B drug takes up too much police time and “gives millions of pounds to organised crime”.
Consider this: Since 2001 in Portugal, possession of any drug has been decriminalised along as the amount does not exceed a ten-day personal supply. Dealing remains illegal, which prevents the regulation of trade. This approach appears to be working. Portugal has the lowest number of both synthetic drug users and drug-related deaths in the EU.
If these benefits can be achieved with decriminalisation, just think what the legalisation of cannabis could do. The trade could be properly regulated, and the supply of the drug would no longer be in the hands of organised criminals. There would be fewer adulterated and synthetic substances on the market, leading to more safety in drug-taking.
Police time would be saved too. A report by Health Poverty Action notes the financial benefits to legalising cannabis – assuming it was taxed in the same way as tobacco – and concludes that it could add £3.5 billion a year to the Treasury’s coffers. This money could be enough to cover the NHS deficit, and when savings to the police force and criminal justice system are factored in, the economic benefits of legalisation seem astronomical.
The recreational use of cannabis may not be beneficial for individuals involved. While the general consensus is that cannabis is much less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, it has been linked to psychosis and paranoia. But the fact is, prohibition has failed and cannabis is here to stay.
The hysteria over medical cannabinoids shows that the current state-sanctioned approach lacks nuance. But we can and should change that.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the drive to reduce cannabis use can be implemented with its decriminalisation. The legal status of tobacco enables legislators to reduce demand by inflating prices with punitive tax rates, insisting that cigarette packaging must contain health warnings, and applying advertising restrictions. A similar approach should replace the failing “war against drugs”.