We must wake up now to Britain’s disastrous policy on cannabis

Adam Lehodey // 05th January 2021

The clash between reality and the ideal is not a new one. It is present throughout history, and in all aspects of life and culture. In contemporary Britain, nowhere has this done more harm than in the current policy on the prohibition of marijuana.

Even if one were to accept the arguments for continuing prohibition: that cannabis is dangerous and that it is a ‘gateway’ drug, the reality is that prohibition itself has failed badly. Cannabis is cheap, plentiful, and easy to acquire, despite the best attempts of police forces to curb the distribution, importation and sale of both cannabis and other illegal drugs.

For a policy whose objective is to ‘reduce harm’, it’s done the exact opposite. Rather than consumers purchasing cannabis through corporations operating within the framework of the law, they are forced to pass through criminal organisations. The harms are two-fold: the consumer himself has little knowledge of whether the product he is purchasing is legitimate as there is no brand or company to be held accountable or to sue if it is not the case, resulting in an increased rate of harm; and any profits that are made are channelled towards criminal organisations which go to fund other forms of crime, both domestically and internationally, instead of the residual gains being reinvested into the business or into other legitimate parts of the economy.

The argument that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ is also somewhat cyclical. Firstly, even if there is a link between cannabis use and the use of other drugs, there is no robust evidence to suggest that the latter was caused by the former. Correlation does not equal causation. What is certain is that it’s in the financial interests of drug dealers to hook consumers of marijuana onto more addictive and more potent drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. In the case of these drugs, there is strong evidence to suggest that the harms, both to the self and to others, are real and significant. If the cannabis industry was organised in a legal and regulated way, as is the case with tobacco, it would be possible to effectively restrict this activity from occurring. Just like the pharmacist at Boots does not try and sell you morphine when you go in to buy paracetamol, the incentive to move consumers of cannabis onto more addictive substances could be eliminated. So, cannabis is banned because it’s a ‘gateway drug’, which is the case because cannabis is banned.

Some will try and justify both the added harm to consumers and the knock-on effects to society by arguing that prohibition still does less harm than not restricting the use of cannabis, given that it reduces the total number of users who would otherwise take the drug. Although some may suffer, society as a whole is better off. Unfortunately, this argument fails to live up to both historical and real-world evidence in places where cannabis is legal. Ignoring the moral critiques against this communitarian line of thinking, even if the legalisation of cannabis were to increase use and, in the worst-case scenario, petty crime similar to that associated with alcoholism (though most evidence suggests that it does not), those costs are far outweighed by the immense benefits of legalisation. Less harm to the individual, significant tax revenue to plug Britain’s budget deficit, police having more time to deal with other crimes, increased capacity in courts, and of course less funding for organised crime.

Revenue from cannabis sales is at present funding organisations involved in human-trafficking, terrorism, money-laundering, corruption and slavery. If done correctly, legalisation cuts off a large source of their funding. It also means that rather than profits being channelled towards the above, companies could invest into other parts of the economy, boosting growth for all. This would create jobs indirectly, and along with the primary jobs created, young people would have real incentives to choose legitimate work over joining criminal gangs — helping to boost social mobility and reduce inequality.

Judged on outcomes rather than intentions, it is apparent that the prohibition of cannabis is a dismal failure. So why is marijuana still illegal despite all the evidence? The answer lies in the fact that, either consciously or unconsciously, decisions are being made not based on reality, but on idealism. ‘Drugs are bad, so they should be banned.’ However, wishing something to be doesn’t make it so. Even if one is personally opposed to the use of cannabis for the moral reason that it causes harm, they can accept that given that others continue to use the drug, less overall harm will be caused to both consumers and wider society though having a legal regulated framework, which is therefore a preferable solution. Thus, a lot of good will be achieved by moving away from what ought, to looking at what is.

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Adam Louis Sebastian Lehodey

I write about economics, literature, philosophy, sociology, urbanism, and anything that interests me at the time.