Sadiq Khan has announced a commission to examine the effectiveness of UK drugs laws, with a particular focus on cannabis. The Mayor of London, recently returned from a trip to California to promote investment in the capital after COVID-19, appears to believe legalising ‘weed’ could be part of ‘building back better’.
The newly-appointed London Drugs Commission, chaired by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer QC, will look at different methods employed to prevent drug use and make policy recommendations to City Hall, the UK Government, the police, the criminal justice system, and public health services.
If the commission recommends a soft-touch approach to cannabis, it will be following a global trend. After a spate of legal changes, cannabis use is legal, decriminalised or somewhat acceptable in 29 countries. In South America, the US, Canada, and several European nations, people can ‘get high’ without fear of arrest.
Many police forces already take a relaxed approach to cannabis but Khan would see it fully legalised, taxed, and treated in every respect like that other legal drug, alcohol. Should we go down this path? There are several arguments for the approach and each of them fails to convince me it’s a good idea.
‘It’s safer than alcohol’
Due to its portrayal in pop culture, it’s often assumed cannabis is a safe drug. Many in the chattering classes still hold the view that weed is a harmless indulgence. They picture the poorly constructed joint passed around a party during school or university. Cannabis is something to laugh about, not something to be proscribed.
This characterisation doesn’t chime with evidence relating to cannabis use. A wealth of research links frequent consumption of the drug to both physical health problems and poor mental health outcomes: psychosis, early onset schizophrenia, and a loss in IQ. Consider this statement in leading science journal Nature:
“62 reviews showed associations between the drug and various adverse outcomes, including impaired driving, increased risk of stroke and testicular cancer, brain changes that could affect learning and memory, and a particularly consistent link between cannabis use and mental illnesses involving psychosis. Risks were highest for teenagers, pregnant women and people already at risk of mental illness.”
Sadiq Khan should know all about these harms. In 2019, the NHS was forced to open its first specialist clinic for patients suffering from cannabis psychosis in London, given the sheer volume of people presenting with the condition. Dr Marta Di Forti, one of the principal doctors at the clinic, said there is a “crisis” of cannabis-related health issues in the capital already.
Asked about legalising recreational use of the drug – one step further than Tony Blair, who declassified it in the early 2000s before changing his mind – Dr Di Forti said: “My concern is that there is no way you can legalise recreational cannabis without cannabis use going up, as has happened in America, and there is a potential for a lot of people to come to harm”.
When something becomes legal, it soon becomes normalised. People who may never have touched cannabis will change their minds. And young people will be more at risk of exposure. It would be easier for them to get hold of weed if it was lawful and available in shops. More users means more harm, to individuals, families, and communities.
Legal weed puts criminals out of business
Another common argument is that legalising cannabis and regulating it will pull the rug from under criminals’ feet and put them out of business. As logical as this argument sounds, it is undermined by the experience of countries such as Canada, which legalised recreational cannabis use in 2016.
After a few years of legal cannabis in Canada, one of the latest counties to go soft on weed, a black market is thriving. Statistics Canada, a state agency, reported in 2020 that just 29% of cannabis users buy all of their product from a legal source. Whilst 4 in 10 Canadians said they had bought at least some cannabis from illegal sources.
The success of the black market is due to the perceived poor-quality of cannabis on offer in shops. As one pro-drugs campaigner put it, “Why would anyone drive a few miles up the road to score bad weed from many of the government shops when your regular black-market dealer lives nearby, has better product and brings it to your door for half the price?”
In the US, concerns have also been raised about a burgeoning black market in states that have legalised the drug. In 2019, regulators in Oregon admitted that the State Government’s systems for controlling the drug are “flawed”, leading to legal product entering the black market and making its way to neighbouring states where cannabis isn’t legal.
Legalisation fills the coffers
Cannabis advocates argue that legalisation bolsters the economy, benefiting society as a whole. A legal, regulated market will create jobs, they say, and generate taxes that can be invested in roads, schools, and hospitals. Though this argument sounds noble, and holds some water, it deserves closer scrutiny.
Any economic gains resulting from legalisation would be mitigated by the investment required in the NHS and other areas to deal with problem cannabis use. Legal weed would result in more users, which equals more people presenting with serious mental health issues and more instances of crimes like drug driving. Are these things a price worth paying for some extra revenue?
It’s also worth asking what sector of society would profit most from legal cannabis. In 2020, an investigation by the British Medical Journal explored some of the major players behind the push for cannabis legalisation in the UK. The BMJ uncovered a complex web of investors, venture capitalists and private companies.
The network includes groups like Imperial Brands PLC, which owns several cigarettes brands, Kingsley Capital Partners, a London-based private equity and venture capitalist firm, and Casa Verde Capital, an investment group founded by rapper Snoop Dog. Faceless companies are queuing up to profit from a law change.
If the activity of big tobacco and the betting industry in the UK teaches us anything, it’s that such companies rarely place the welfare of customers high on their list of priorities. Young people, more vulnerable to addiction and cannabis-related harms, will be targeted as the most profitable cohort. Health risks will be minimised or ignored.
Debate a matter of time
The campaign for legal cannabis in the UK may soon pick up pace. Activists, funded by large corporations, will argue that legalisation will help average Joe public, prevent crime, and bring economic benefits. Politicians must not be hoodwinked. Cannabis is not safe, its legalisation will not eradicate crime, and if it does generate revenue, it will come at a high social cost.
Jamie Gillies is a political commentator and campaigner. He Tweets at @jmgillies