Almost fifty years after Nixon launched the war on drugs, there now exists a building momentum to abandon the fight. Canada’s recent legalisation of cannabis, the second nation in the world to do so, embodies this motion. The question remains: Should the U.K. follow in Canada’s footsteps?
With an estimated 23.5 million users, cannabis is currently one of the most widely used drugs in the EU. Despite possession of cannabis in the U.K. being punishable by up to five years in jail, nearly a third of British adults admit to having used an illegal substance their lifetime, proving that the war on drugs is far from being won. The prioritisation of convictions has led to growing prison populations, with little impact on drug use, drug-related harm, or drug-related crime.
Current policy is also putting public safety in jeopardy. In 2015, there were 2,479 registered deaths in the U.K. related to drug misuse. This is an increase of 10 per cent on 2014 and is also the highest level since comparable records began in 1993.
“the current system is ineffective”
Clearly, the current system is ineffective, both in terms of convictions and prevention from harm. However, not only is the war on drugs failing, but it is actively compromising security in allowing criminal networks to flourish. The United Nations Office on Drug Control (UNODC), responsible for monitoring and managing the international drug control conventions, acknowledged this failure from the creation of “a criminal black market of staggering proportions”, a fundamental threat to global security.
Indeed, in the 1990s Canada made human security one of the key components of their policies, one which guaranteed security for an acceptable quality of life, and of fundamental human rights. It is only natural that the legalisation of drugs would fall under this.
“Portugal became the first country to decriminalise all drugs”
In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalise all drugs. Since then, their usage rates are now among the lowest in the EU, with 2.7 million active drug users. The U.K, in comparison, has the highest usage rate in Europe. The country also has an extremely low rate of drug-overdose deaths per million (just 6), whereas the figure in the U.K. has risen to 66.1 per million. Portugal’s regime is unmistakably effective, and it is unsurprising that very few citizens are calling for a repeal of the law.
When Portugal handed over drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health, the country also experienced an enormous cultural shift in perception of drugs. Current expenditure goes overwhelmingly to treatment and prevention, with only around 10% going to policing and punishment. This is because addiction is treated as a health issue rather than a legal issue. The sympathetic online response to the recent death of artist Mac Miller displays the more global cultural shift in viewing addiction as matter of health, as currently valuable resources are being diverted into policing as opposed to rehabilitation.
“could be life-changing to those who suffer from seizures”
This shift is already tangible in the U.K., as doctors in England, Wales and Scotland will be able to prescribe cannabis-derived medicine as of November this year. This could be life-changing to those who suffer from seizures, and is just one of many potential benefits from the legalisation of cannabis.
Legalising cannabis would allow for huge measures to be taken in harm reduction, with a regulated market, better labelling, regulation of potency, and more consumer choice becoming available. Not only this, but the U.K. would reap huge rewards too. If the Treasury were to tax cannabis at the same level as tobacco, this could generate over £3.5 billion, money that could assist the NHS, public health and rehabilitation programmes. This would also free up time and resources in enforcement expenditure (as treatment is significantly cheaper than incarceration) and would have huge social benefits too, particularly for BME communities that are disproportionately affected by current drug policy.
“eliminate the appeal of the illicit drug market”
Drugs cost pennies to produce, but their value increases to reflect the risk of losing a yield to government officials or rival criminal organizations. Through legalisation, we would not only remove the illegality of drug use, but eliminate the appeal of the illicit drug market.
Of course, legalisation is not a panacea, and there are disadvantages to cannabis usage, but none sufficiently more so than alcohol or tobacco, and certainly none sufficient enough to rule out its legalisation altogether. For instance, there is evidence to show that people who use cannabis at a younger age have a higher risk of developing a psychotic illness. However, with regulation, ID will be required to purchase the substance. This could also be compared with the damage alcohol does to developing brains – which can impact memory function and attention span – and with legislation, those who would buy drugs for underage persons would face criminal penalties much the same as those who purchase alcohol for minors.
“uphold this reputation and lead the way on drug reform”
The U.K. has had a long-standing history of radical harm reduction initiatives, having had some of the first needle exchange schemes in the world. Now, it must uphold this reputation and lead the way on drug reform so as not to be left behind. A sensible drug policy of legalisation is long overdue, one that truly protects its citizens from harm in both in matters of health and security.
This article does not reflect the views of Impact Magazine or the university.