Theresa May’s attitude towards drug policy is backward – the legalisation of cannabis could provide the UK with many economic and social benefits. Let’s end the war on drugs.
More and more countries are becoming open towards the legalisation of cannabis and other drugs. Germany and Canada are making steps towards it, many American states (most recently California, Massachusetts, and Nevada) have legalised it for recreational use, and the UK… has banned legal highs in the Psychoactive Substances Act. Oh.
With the Snooper’s Charter and internet censorship looming, and Theresa May’s staunch anti-drug stance evident, it looks like the UK is going backwards in terms of civil liberties. Yet the Prime Minister only needs to look at countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands to see how the legalisation (or at least decriminalisation) of drugs can bring about huge economic benefits, as well as profound social change.
For example, the Netherlands decriminalised cannabis for use in public places and cannabis “coffee shops” in 1976 with the Opium Act, as long as the user is in possession of less than 5 grams. The government believed that keeping cannabis use to safe spaces like “coffee shops” would prevent young people from moving on to “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
A report from the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program shows that the Opium Act has very much succeeded its aim. In the report, only 14% of cannabis users surveyed reported that their suppliers also offered other drugs. Compare that to Sweden’s 52% and it becomes a telling statistic. The separation of hard and soft drug markets in the Netherlands means that many Dutch have limited exposure to cocaine or heroin – Holland has the lowest number of problem drug users in the EU, according to the report.
Or take a look at Portugal. In 2001, the government passed legislation that meant that the possession of small amounts of an illegal drug would no longer be a criminal offence punishable by prison, but a health problem solved by therapy. Dealers and growers still face jail time, but help is given to those who need it, instead of a prison sentence that doesn’t address the underlying issue and take up government resources.
15 years later, and Portugal isn’t some drug-laden wasteland where addicts roam the streets and cartels control everything – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Drug-related HIV infections fell by over 90 per cent from 2001 to 2012, and as of 2015 Portugal has the second-lowest drug death rate in the EU at three deaths per million people. Not only that, but the amount of adults who said that they’d taken drugs in the past year fell between 2001 to 2012, and young Portuguese use the fewest legal highs out of any EU country. Not bad for a country that, in 1999, had one per cent of its population addicted to heroin and the highest rate of drug-related AIDS death in the EU.
Legalising cannabis and other drugs could also benefit the UK economically. A tax on drugs could bring more money to the Treasury – neoliberal think tank The Adam Smith Institute (backed by MPs such as former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and former Health Minister Norman Lamb, among others) claims in a report that a legal cannabis market could potentially net between £750 million and £1.05 billion, which could be fed into the NHS, an organisation that desperately needs funding. In fact, in 2015 the US state of Colorado made so much revenue from cannabis sales that it legally had to give some back to the population in the form of tax rebates!
With less arrests, the number of prisoners would be reduced, and therefore taxpayer funds would be saved – the 1,363 cannabis-related prisoners in England and Wales costs the government £50 million a year. Why should someone have their life ruined just because they ingest a certain plant – and why should taxpayers have to foot the bill?
Regulation could also be put in place, were cannabis to be legalised. While criminal gangs can cut costs with a number of harmful substances, government-regulated cannabis growers would be put under checks in order to ensure that their product is pure and not tainted. It should also be put under the same regulations that tobacco and alcohol are in terms of selling. It shouldn’t be sold to anyone under 18, it should be sold with plain packaging, and there should be plenty of resources that show the medical problems that can stem from cannabis and where to get help in case of addiction.
Plenty of studies have also revealed cannabis’ medical benefits. It’s a depressant, which means that those who suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, or other mental problems can use it to relax, as well as cannabis’ ability to act as a painkiller. A study in May 2012 showed that it could ease multiple sclerosis symptoms, while another showed that it had the possibility to ease the tremors of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Granted, there’s a lot that we don’t know about cannabis, and scientists are still investigating its medical use, but surely legalising it would give researchers more data with which to determine its usefulness.
Sure, cannabis does have its dangers, but so do other legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Sure, cannabis has its medical downsides, but so do alcohol and tobacco. In 2014, there were 8,697 alcohol related deaths in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics, while in 2013 78,200 people died prematurely for tobacco-related reasons.
So why don’t we legalise it? Cannabis has medical benefits, is generally safer than alcohol and tobacco, and legalising it would bring in plenty of money for the government. If Portugal is anything to go by, the best way forward is mass drug decriminalisation. It’s time for governments to embrace legalisation and reap the benefits – the war on drugs has failed, so now is the time to move to more progressive policies.
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