A regulated online cannabis market in the UK?

The Green Screen

Could an online only, legal cannabis market in the UK be the way to disrupt the illicit black market? In the music industry, Spotify is making its mark on music piracy. Their platform is malware free, easy to use and has an ever expanding range of content.

Currently, the two main options for cannabis consumers in the UK are street or dark web dealers, who supply cannabis of varying qualities, along with other illegal drugs– and they don’t ask for ID. Could digital innovation in the legal cannabis sphere be an effective way to tackle the prominence of the black market, and the associated harms that come with such an unregulated marketplace?

That’s the introduction to a new report, The Green Screen, by Mike Power (author of the best-selling and highly recommended Drugs 2.0) for volteface.

A digital cannabis market

The report sets out three key objectives for a proposed digital cannabis market:

  1. To outline a novel strategy for controlling the cannabis market, making it safer through the creation of a regulated digital marketplace model.
  2. To limit access to this system, by technical design, by underage cannabis users through industry-leading identity control and verification procedures that will be enforced upon both purchase and delivery.
  3. To offer a roadmap to legislators looking to act in the public interest and modernise and formalise this chaotic and archaic industry.

Assumptions

The volteface report assumes that the so-called Tide Effect of cannabis policy innovation seen in the US, Canada, Uruguay and elsewhere will soon be witnessed in the UK, and stands prepared in full readiness for such a rational time when cannabis law reform has been enacted. It includes in its ambitions the fostering of a political, cultural and technological climate whereby such conditions will come to exist.

As cannabis law increasingly liberalises internationally, whether for medicinal or recreational use, political pressure for its legalisation in the UK is likely to continue building – especially when proper consideration is made of its potential as a net contributor to the public purse via taxation, rather than the current burden it places upon public finances through the cost of enforcement.

Arguments

Volteface argue that Britain’s multibillion-pound cannabis market should be developed and operated exclusively online by a private sector that is stringently controlled and regulated by democratically elected governments:

By almost any metric, a digital and legal solution such as the Online Cannabis Market (OCM) we propose offers many significant improvements upon all current models for the production, distribution and use of the drug.

A controlled and regulated online market is both essential and long overdue in order to protect users from the risks of the illicit market; to limit access to younger users; to offer safer products and increase consumer choice; to develop less harmful products and safer routes of administration; and to control marketing and advertising in any eventual legal context.

Volteface say that the current cannabis market is currently served by three models, all of them illicit, that present, in descending order, a number of  undesirable sociocultural, practical and medical impacts. The three models are:

  1. Traditional dealer networks, ranging from anonymous street-dealing to more formalised, organised criminal networks and neo-social supply.
  2. Illegal suppliers on the dark web, who use the encrypted web browser Tor, encryption software (PGP or Pretty Good Encryption) to obscure user data and cryptocurrency (generally, if not exclusively, Bitcoin) to obfuscate payees’ and vendors’ identity.
  3. Small-scale homegrowers and their associated socio-commercial supply.

The report explores these models and their negative effects in depth and outlines the ways that an OCM might address and solve these problems using free-market principles to influence consumer choice.

Stronger strains of cannabis, such as the badly named “skunk” varieties, now dominate the UK market, since they offer a better commercial return for operators in an illegal environment. Research suggests that strains such as these with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that causes its distinctive “high” – can increase the harms that may be associated with cannabis use in those with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Given a favourable legal climate, OCMs would offer users a range of products with a balanced cannabinoid profile, including higher-strength products and even concentrates, and propose the creation of new strains bred specifically with Dutch, Spanish and American expertise to increase the cannabidiol (CBD) content of each variety, since CBD has been demonstrated to act as an antipsychotic.

Conclusions

The report puts forward practical, workable suggestions for the online supply of cannabis in what many consider to be the inevitable event of cannabis law reform in the UK and similar countries.

Mike Power argues that, in common with many digital disruptors, the current, so-called dark web model of online cannabis sales and delivery offers a precursor to what is likely to be the final, preferred model: digital marketplaces for cannabis sales, using standard delivery mechanisms to answer market needs.

The effect of such a model would be to protect users; to eliminate incentives for an illicit marketplace through a combination of convenience, pricing, quality and choice; and to create incentives for the uptake of less harmful products and consumption practices through pricing, tax and regulatory models.

Analysis

This is a very valuable report. I am a fan of volteface’s work because they are the only organisation I know who are prepared to take a balanced view of cannabis legalisation; acknowledging the potential harms as well as the benefits of regulation.

Their willingness to propose real world solutions rather than just repeating the same arguments for legalisation that have been made for the last thirty years, in my opinion, takes the debate forward in a much more useful way.

 

 

Blog posts in the drug and alcohol category are kindly sponsored by Breaking Free Group which has developed a powerful and adaptable digital health platform which targets the underlying psychological and lifestyle factors that drive addictive behaviours. Breaking Free has no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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