In order to prevent continued irrelevance beyond 2020, the Liberal Democrats need to be bold. By adopting a radical stance on cannabis, they’re doing just that.
In the lead up to last year’s general election, no one expected the Liberal Democrats to go unscathed after the votes were counted. Most predicted they would lose a considerable amount of seats as voters abandoned the party following five years of coalition government with the Conservatives.
But there were few who thought they would lose as many as 49 seats, leaving them with only eight MPs. Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown famously said “if this exit poll is right, Andrew, I will publicly eat my hat on your programme” during live coverage of the election when the exit poll predicted the party would receive only ten seats. Of course, even this dire prediction underestimated the scale of the party’s woes.
Overnight, the Liberal Democrats went from an influential parliamentary force with a place in government to a near-irrelevant political joke. Now, almost a year on, the party is still trying to regain its dignity.
Tim Farron, who was elected leader of the party in July last year, has done a decent job of doing so thus far. He has tirelessly campaigned for Britain to do more to help refugees, especially unaccompanied minors living in squalid camps erected in Calais and elsewhere. Now, he is attempting to put another important issue on the table: drug reform.
On March 7, the party endorsed a study calling for the legalisation of cannabis accompanied with a regulated market. Carried out by a panel of experts including scientists, academics and police chiefs, the report calls for the sale of marijuana to over-18s to be legalised in the UK.
And recently at their Spring Conference, the Lib Dems officially decided to adopt the proposals as party policy, meaning they are the first political party to support a regulated cannabis market in the UK.
However, although this stance may be radical, it is also pragmatic and logical. As with any drug, smoking cannabis entails profound risks, such as lung damage and increased chances of mental illness. As a result, regardless of whether the drug is legalised or not, it is important to continue highlighting these risks.
Nevertheless, it is just as important to highlight that smoking cannabis is considerably less deadly than smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol. Cannabis accounted for only a single drug-related death in 2013, compared to smoking which accounted for a staggering 79,700 deaths in the same year and alcohol which accounted for 8,367 in 2012. Inevitably, such revealing figures beg the question why alcohol and cigarettes, both far more damaging than cannabis, are illegal, yet cannabis remains a Class B drug in the UK.
Furthermore, the legalisation of cannabis would prevent criminals from benefiting from the trade and instead it is estimated that around £1bn could be generated through taxation every year; money which could be spent on the NHS or tackling the mental health issues associated with drug use. Moreover, a regulated cannabis market would ensure that those who wish to take the drug know exactly what they are taking. Thus, smoking cannabis would become safer and more transparent.
And as we have seen in Colorado, which legalised recreational cannabis in 2012, the move has been a resounding success. There has been no evidence to suggest any major jump in cannabis use among teens; crime has held steady or dropped; and tax revenues have increased as a result.
Nonetheless, by advocating the legalisation of cannabis the Lib Dems could be shooting themselves in the foot, considering the majority of the British public still oppose such a move. However, taking into account the party’s smaller status, the Liberal Democrats now have the luxury of being able to support policies which have reasonable levels of backing amongst the public but not necessarily overwhelming support.
However, simply advocating the legalisation of cannabis alone will not save the Lib Dems from irrelevance. The party will have to continue to be bold in the coming years and form a coherent and original set of policies if it is to perform well in 2020. But this radical move demonstrates that the Liberal Democrats are not only prepared to take audacious steps in order to regain their influence, but that they are also a voice worth listening to.