The tide effect
A new report by Boris Starling, published jointly by volteface and the Adam Smith Institute, argues that the vote to leaglise cannabis in California earlier this month is perhaps the last domino in a chain reaction which will see most “liberal” countries in the world legalise and/or regulate cannabis.
The tide effect: How the world is changing its mind on cannabis argues that the legalisation of cannabis in the UK is both overdue and imperative.
The report’s central argument has three prongs:
- Attempts to control consumption through prohibition do not work and have not done so for many decades.
- The health issues surrounding cannabis – for like all drugs, alcohol and tobacco included, it is not harmless, and no serious advocate for legal reform would suggest that it is – are left largely unexplored because the substance’s illegality makes meaningful long-term scientific tests difficult to carry out.
- The advantages of a properly regulated market providing tax revenues, strict product parameters and health advice far outweigh the disadvantages of such a move.
Beyond Rosie Boycott
The “Tide effect” starts with an analysis of the last sustained campaign for the legalisation of cannabis which was led by Independent on Sunday editor Rosie Boycott in 1997/8 (and evaporated quickly when she left the IoS).
It goes on to make eight key points:
- The government strategy is based around three main pillars: reducing demand, restricting supply and building recovery. All three are failing.
- Regulation is substantially more desirable than simple decriminalisation or unregulated legalisation, because only regulation addresses all four key issues: ensuring that the product meets acceptable standards of quality and purity; removing criminal gangs from the equation as far as possible; raising revenue for the Treasury through point-of-sale taxation; and best protecting public health.
- The entire language used to address cannabis-related issues needs to change. Language poses a barrier every bit as formidable as legislation does. The opponents of legalisation have long been able to reinforce their position by using the words of public fear – ‘illegal,’ ‘criminal’, ‘dangerous’, and so on. Only by using the language of public health, consumer rights and harm reduction, the same language used about alcohol and tobacco, can we move towards regulation.
- The scale of a legalised industry will be huge. The US market is estimated to be worth $25bn by the time of the next election in 2020. A similarly regulated UK market could be worth around £7bn per annum.
- Legally regulating cannabis will allow long-term studies of its health effects not currently possible. The effects of both tobacco and alcohol are well understood because of the amount of scientific scrutiny brought to bear on them.
- Many shifts in public policy are prompted, or at least prodded, by an emotional response on the part of the public. Greater efforts must be made to show that the cannabis issue also has a human aspect to which many people respond.
- Any campaign to legalise cannabis must be multifaceted, involving public support, media analysis and political engagement.
- Responsibility for cannabis policy should be moved primarily to the department for Health, while the role of the Home Office should change from enforcement of prohibition to enforcement of regulation and licensing.
This is a coherent and well-articulated argument. It differs from many similar reports in that it attempts to chart a pragmatic route forward rather than merely arguing that it’s the right thing to do.
When the report was conceived, Brexit and the resignation of David Cameron seemed unlikely and it was conceivable that Cameron’s social legacy could potentially include legalised cannabis alongside gay marriage.
The “Tide effect” acknowledges that the current government is very different in outlook and attitudes and that there are rarely votes in drug legalisation.
Nonetheless, it points to the increasing wave of legalisation across the world and argues that a practical debate about the advantages of a regulated cannabis market is the first step along the road to change.