How the UK's Prohibition of Cannabis Harms Everyone
The UK’s Prohibition of Cannabis Harms Everyone
(Even Those Who Don’t Use It)
Amidst the commotion of last month’s U.S. presidential election, American voters took great strides forward in cannabis law reform. An initiative to legalise cannabis passed in New Jersey, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the state’s relatively liberal politics. More remarkably, three traditionally Republican states – Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana – also legalised the drug for recreational use. In the Deep South heartland of Mississippi, which regularly polls as the most right-wing state in the nation, voters decisively passed a comprehensive medical cannabis measure.
In an increasingly divided country, dismantling cannabis prohibition has become a unifying, bipartisan issue – it could become one in the UK too.
The benefits of cannabis legalisation have been proven time and time again, in the eleven U.S. states that had already legalised before 2020, in Canada, and in Uruguay. The evidence base is indisputable. Legalisation provides consumers with safe access to a relatively benign substance, allows them to know the potency of their drug before consuming it, and entrusts responsibility of production and distribution to a taxed and transparent supply chain. Nonetheless, in the UK, our leaders continue to cling to the long-failed approach of prohibition.
Perhaps, they think it’s too niche. Only a small proportion of the population actually consume cannabis, so why risk playing with a potentially controversial political football? Maybe they don’t know, or they don’t want the public to know, that prohibition is causing harms that reverberate across the country – to every person, whether they use cannabis or not.
The Institute of Economic Affairs estimates that legalisation would garner annual tax revenue of more than £1 billion. Or, in other words, the government’s moralistic commitment to prohibition is losing British taxpayers around £1 billion in revenue every year. That’s money for nurses, teachers, and other key workers who keep us and our loved ones safe. Maintaining prohibition is an egregious abdication of duty, particularly as essential services across the country struggle to find funding.
Not content with simply missing out on tax revenue, the government is instead wasting existing taxpayers’ money on the enforcement of its futile prohibitionism. The millions of pounds spent on policing people for cannabis use – from police searches to arrest to court procedures – could be invested in deprived communities. But instead of uplifting struggling areas with improved infrastructure and social services, the government is meting out punishments – compounding the problems of people trying to keep their head above the poverty line. And, as we know, these punishments aren’t imposed equally.
Prohibition strengthens the class divide. Middle-class tokers in their back gardens and balconies needn’t worry about being stopped and searched. Yet working class people partaking in the same activity on a street corner or alleyway must keep a watchful eye to avoid getting nicked and potentially saddled with a criminal record – for doing the exact same thing that neither David Cameron nor Boris Johnson ever faced legal consequences for. Those without the luxury of a private space to smoke risk potentially life-changing outcomes. Convictions for possession or low-level sales, even without imprisonment, make it harder for people to find employment or travel. In turn, this can further intergenerational poverty that harms whole communities.
Enforcement deepens distrust in police, and disproportionately targets Black communities. Around a fifth of people found guilty of cannabis possession in England and Wales are Black, despite similar rates of cannabis use across racial lines. At the same time, Black people are less likely to be found in possession of drugs when stopped and searched than white people – indicating that police are using prohibition as a cover to target and harass Black communities. Legalising cannabis won’t end racism, but it will remove a significant tool that police have at their disposal for targeting Black and other ethnic minority communities.
For those who fear the risks that cannabis use can pose, bear in mind that our current approach is the freest of free markets – no regulated consumer safety, no tax, no licensed distribution. Legalisation creates structure, it offers protection, security, and benefits for all of us – whether we use the drug or not. As the advantages of legalisation in the U.S. and elsewhere become more apparent, it is inevitable that enthusiasm for reform will grow across the UK’s political spectrum. As the pandemic and Brexit pose significant threats to our economy in the near future, there has never been a more opportune moment for the government to embrace evidence and legalise cannabis.
Written by Avinash Tharoor | Follow him for more at @AvinashTharoor