Should the UK legalise cannabis?

Comment: US War on Drugs: Yes, it's worth it! 12 November 2012

This month, the mayor of Amsterdam announced that he wishes to maintain tourist access to the 220 cannabis cafes in the city. However, this stance is at odds with the national push to ban non-residents from frequenting these establishments.

Should the UK’s drugs policy change? Would the legalisation of cannabis encourage addiction, or would it herald more individual freedom?

Yes: Refuse to legalise cannabis, and you may as well be living in Prohibition America, argues Felix Bungay

There is a powerful argument for cannabis legalisation on the basis of personal freedom. Nobody has a right to regulate, control or mandate what you can or can’t do with your own body, life and liberty. In the words of J.S. Mill, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.” However, I wish to advance a more pragmatic case for those who aren’t swayed by this appeal to liberty.

America’s prohibition of alcohol was one of the greatest public policy failures of the 20th Century. During prohibition alcohol consumption actually rose, while organised crime flourished and grew rich by supplying illegal alcohol. When the evidence is so clear-cut that Prohibition failed, why is this policy still clung to with respect to cannabis and other illicit drugs?

What happened when Prohibition ended? Alcohol consumption fell, alcohol-related deaths declined and the world ultimately failed to turn into the debauched nightmare predicted by Prohibition’s proponents. By legalising alcohol, previous black market activity gave way to a safer, regulated system with legitimate companies producing alcoholic products for the American public.

The question those who favour keeping cannabis illegal must answer is: How would legalising cannabis be any different from ending Prohibition?

With the UK’s finances in a parlous state, it would make sense to tax and regulate cannabis in the same way as we do cigarettes. By doing so we would raise much needed revenue for the Exchequer; taxes on cigarettes (excise duty and VAT) raised just over £11 billion in 2010-’11, more money than the totality of the Coalition’s spending cuts so far. There is no reason to think cannabis revenues could not reach similar amounts. It could act as a much-needed plug for the deficits.

Furthermore, by legalising cannabis we would deal a serious blow to the criminal organisations that currently provide us with a healthy supply of herb. By legalising the drug and having it supplied by legally regulated companies and shops, we would cut the criminals out of the supply chain. In addition our police could focus on policing criminal activity such as assaults and robbery, rather than chasing people involved in the near-victimless crime of lighting up. Prison spaces currently dedicated to those who used cannabis (in America over 800,000 people were arrested last year alone for cannabis-related crimes) could be freed for ‘real’ criminals.

We would also be more able to effectively control the use of cannabis. As the law currently stands, no one is actually prevented from obtaining cannabis. I would wager that even the most naive of people could get their hands on some within 24 hours if they were really desperate. In fact, it’s arguable that for under-18s, cannabis is even easier to obtain than alcohol. After all, how many drug dealers ask for ID?

In spite of all this, perhaps the worst aspect of our current policy towards cannabis is the hypocrisy. Both David Cameron and Barack Obama have used cannabis in the past, and yet they pursue a drugs policy which means that they should themselves be criminals. Had either of them been caught and arrested, would they be in their respective positions today? Is it really right to support a policy which throws away peoples’ lives and opportunities because they have smoked a joint?

Felix Bungay is a Postgrad at Sidney Sussex, reading an MPhil in Intellectual History and Political Thought

No: Legalising cannabis would impede the liberty of those who take it and others, warns Jenny Steinitz

Cannabis is by far the most widely used and widely available illegal drug. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, it is smoked by around 2 million people in the UK and 125 million people across the globe. Admittedly, many users use it socially, without many harmful health effects. Some see this as an indication that prohibition of the drug is not working, and as a sign of an overly paternalistic state. But anyone who believes this does not fully understand the purpose of such laws. The purpose is to condemn the action and deter the population at large from undertaking such an action. A ban on cannabis may not be successful in this mission all of the time, but that does not mean we should condone its use. Even if we only put off a small number of vulnerable users by making its use illegal, it will still have been worth it.

Many of the arguments put forward by those in favour of legalisation (such as limited health effects and a right to liberty) are somewhat flawed. It is true that we do not yet know the full extent of the health effects of cannabis, in large part because of its illegality. However, there are well-known links between cannabis use and future mental or physical health problems later in life. The UN World Drug Report in 2009 found that the average THC content (the harmful psychotropic component) of hydroponic marijuana in North America and Europe has increased twofold in the last 10 years. This was accompanied by an increase in the number of people seeking treatment. Many studies have reported clear links between cannabis and anxiety or panic attacks in the short term, and have observed problems with short-term memory, cognition and motivation in the long term. These are exacerbated by the addictive qualities of cannabis, which in many cases have severely damaged the mental and social capacities of the long-term users. It stops addicted users from functioning in everyday life. Cannabis does not ‘open’ the mind; it harms it.

One cannot deny that the health effects of cannabis in the short term are in most cases less severe than alcohol or tobacco, but this does not mean that we should condone it. Even if they make up only a minority of potential cannabis users, those vulnerable to drug addiction will still be at risk of mental and physical health problems. The reason alcohol and tobacco are not banned is because they were being consumed on a large scale long before drug laws were passed, not because we consider them to be ‘healthy’. Anyone looking at admissions statistics for hospitals would agree that alcohol and tobacco are hugely harmful. Just because cannabis is slightly less harmful than other products we consume, does not mean we should allow it.

Many have also claimed that the prohibition of cannabis is an attack on our right to liberty. In fact it protects the liberty of everyone, as anyone under the influence of cannabis has the potential to harm others (through criminal acts, to those in social relationships with the user, and via passive smoking of cannabis, especially by younger children) and thus restricts the liberty of those around them. Furthermore, if the user becomes addicted to cannabis, his or her individual liberty is also reduced.

Ultimately, the current law may not be perfect, and there is certainly room for reform, but the arguments put up for its legalisation are short-sighted. It is not worth risking the well-being of vulnerable potential users and those around them.

Jenny Steinitz is a first year PPS student at Churchill

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