With Brexit largely out of the front pages and coronavirus news potentially lessening somewhat, other political and legal issues are making their way back to the forefront of the public consciousness. Arguably, one of the most controversial and therefore interesting of those is the move towards more liberal drug laws.
With more than half of people in the UK in favour of legalising the recreational use of cannabis, and countries around the world adopting more liberal stances to cannabis legislation, it seems inevitable that the fierce debate over cannabis regulation will resurface. The main question still stands – will cannabis be legalised in the UK?
The UK economy has already shrunk by a quarter as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The legalisation and regulation of cannabis in the UK has multiple benefits that could help revive our lagging economy including job creation, tax revenue and savings in public services. These benefits have stimulated the conversation surrounding the legalisation of cannabis and caught the attention of government officials looking to cushion the inevitable realities of a recession as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last month, it was announced that US-based private equity fund ‘Artemis Growth Partners’ acquired a British cannabis producer for £66 million. The investment company announced their belief that due to the huge financial pressures on governments around the world after the pandemic, cannabis could be legalised to make it taxable. If big investors are seeing opportunistic growth in the market, this could signal to legalisation not being far off. Economic advantages and opportunities just might be the key to long-awaited legalisation.
The implementation of cannabis legalisation across the world varies considerably from country to country. As with all laws, it is uniquely tailored to that country’s specific political, social and cultural conditions. It is also dependent upon market and commercial factors, and of course government monopolies. Uruguay’s cannabis legalisation model is particularly strict, heavily monitored with political red tape. Colorado in the US, however, have a more lenient, commercially-oriented model. Given such a wide spectrum of legal models surrounding cannabis worldwide, what could legalisation in the UK look like?
The free market model is the least likely model that the UK would implement. To go from one extreme of an unregulated criminal market to a largely unregulated legal market would be fairly unbelievable. A free market is a system in which products “are subject only to basic trading standards and product controls similar to those that exist for foods or beverages” and one where vendors may provide additional self-regulation. Considering the UK’s current cannabis laws, it seems wholly unrealistic that the drug would only have to adhere to the trading standards that apply to food and drinks.
There are some positives in using this model, such as minimal government interference with commercial freedoms and low costs due to increased competition. However, this model has considerable dangers which a western government is unlikely to approve of. Without government supervision, the absence of safety tests would grow, and standards would drop. Within the free-market model, cannabis would become distinctly commercial with those in control of trade motivated almost exclusively by profit.
Loosely regulated legal production
Most countries that have legalised cannabis for recreational use have a “quasi free market” system, or regulated legal production. The regulated commercial model can be compared to
Colorado’s system, which was modelled closely on the US alcohol market. The framework in the US for alcohol production follows specialised licensed outlets to sell products (liquor stores), and a stringent over 21 ID policy. In addition to this, strict product quality control. Aside from these measures, it maintains a commercially open system and a flourishing market.
There are certainly some advantages to the system in Colorado. With no restrictions placed on cannabis products, consumers are given a huge range of choice. From different strains of the plant to different forms. For medical users, this is very significant given the varying and specific conditions and illnesses for which the drug is used to treat. For recreational users, this means they can cater to their desired strength and potency, and preferred consumption.
Legislative frameworks can vary significantly as they affect everything from vendors to price to access to markets. A more likely model for the UK would be to allow the government some intervention in aspects of the market to reduce the risk of over-commercialization. A form of government intervention would be the most appealing to lawmakers as taxation generates revenue and allows for a degree of price control.
Decriminalised with personal plant/possession limits
Across Europe we have seen the decriminalization with regards to personal possession and cultivation of cannabis. Countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland are progressive in their attitudes to the plant.
Decriminalising the drug refers to the removal of its ‘criminal status’ and consequences of such status. In countries where decriminalization has been implemented, the laws differ. In the Netherlands, cultivation of five plants or less doesn’t allow for formal prosecution whereas in Portugal, personal cannabis use is legal but the cultivation of cannabis (even for personal use) is not.
Even prohibiting cannabis but having a system of harm reduction and decriminalisation could be massively beneficial in the UK with the stigma of criminality removed and costs across the criminal justice system lowered.
Cannabis social clubs
‘Cannabis Social Clubs’ are another legalisation model that has been spearheaded by the plant’s advocates. The model follows a closed production and distribution system. CSCs are effectively private, non-profit organisations whereby cannabis is collectively grown and then distributed to registered members. So far, the model has been ‘officially’ rejected by almost all European governments, yet they exist, usually within grey areas of the law. These clubs differ from cannabis coffee shops that you’d typically find in the Netherlands, in that they are only accessible to members. This model is heavily supported by cannabis activists in the UK and a number of such clubs exist with varying degrees of support from the police.
Licenced dispensary model
This is the model that exists in California. In the UK, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 empowers the Home Secretary to issue licences in respect of cannabis. These could be for cultivation, production, possession, supply or any other activity such as import or export. Providing they comply with the conditions, suppliers become official ‘Licensed Suppliers’. Following California’s chosen system could appeal to the UK government as a fairly fool-proof model, and offer easy access to significant tax revenues.
Production and supply under government control
Like Uruguay, the UK government could opt for a system whereby they have full ownership over supply and distribution. The main positive of this is preventing ‘corporate cannabis companies’ flourishing, wielding too much power and ultimately distorting policy in their favour – much like the tobacco industry today.
Tiny Uruguay was a cannabis pioneer and early advocate in launching innovative drug policies. Drug possession for personal use was legalised back in 1974, and in 2013 it was the first country that legalised the entire supply chain of marijuana. A small number of government approved companies produce cannabis that is sold through licensed pharmacies to registered civilians. Essentially, for users there, the government is their pot dealer.
Uruguayans want to prevent a capitalist cannabis economy, which we can see emerging in some U.S. states, where well-funded businesses have an impetus to encourage consumption and private profit is put before public health and safety.
It is difficult to predict or imagine what legalising cannabis in the UK might look like because, in reality, we are not yet at that stage. Right now, no significant changes in drug policy are on the imminent horizon. What is happening now, however, are attitude changes amongst the wider population and the establishment, and further awareness of the positives to its legalisation. What we can do right now is look both across the pond and at our European counterparts, for a picture of what cannabis legalisation could look like here. Significantly varying laws and models. Though the UK is bound to emulate some kind of quasi-free market, there’s no doubt our framework would be intricately tailored to suit the social, political and economic needs and demands of the country.
Many of us feel that the legalisation of cannabis will be the first effective step in ending the war on drugs. Cutting out the middle men, the dealers and the crime, in place of a transparent, legal and regulated system that is safe and sustainable. As a result, substantial economic savings in terms of the police and the criminal justice system, and the potential for sustainable tax revenue; not to mention the significant social and health impacts. With other nations realising the short and long-term benefits to society as a whole, and subsequently adopting reform and deregulation, the UK may well follow suit.