The issue of legalising cannabis has been in the news in recent weeks. It began with the heart-rending story of a small boy having up to 50 epileptic seizures a day and his mother’s wish for him to receive medicinal cannabis oil which relieved his symptoms. The Home Secretary obliged with a temporary licence but made it clear there were no intentions to legalise cannabis for recreational use.
The only mainstream political party in the UK that supports the creation of a legal, licensed market for recreational cannabis is the Liberal Democrats. However, pressure for change is increasing, with Canada and nine US states legalising cannabis for “medicinal purposes” or full legalisation. Can change in the UK be far behind?
What are the arguments? Research indicates about three million UK adults regularly smoke cannabis – 7% of the adult population. The reputation of cannabis as a “soft drug” has become tarnished in recent years because the nature of cannabis itself has changed. Let me explain. Cannabis contains two chemical compounds – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) – and it’s the THC that gets you stoned! But THC can also cause mental health problems in a small but significant number of users – particularly people with a history of mental illness. High doses of THC can cause psychotic episodes and paranoia. CBD, on the other hand, acts as a natural anti-psychotic medication and mitigates the chances of the mental health problems that can arise from THC use.
“Traditional cannabis” contained a balanced mix of THC and CBD but in the first decade of this century it was pushed out of the black market by sinsemilla – “skunk” – which has a high level of THC and very little CBD. Mental health referrals began to climb. Between 2006 and 2014 it is estimated the use of skunk declined 25% but THC-induced mental health referrals rose 50%. Skunk is a product of cannabis prohibition because it can be grown indoors using hydroponic equipment and doesn’t need to be smuggled-in across borders.
Those advocating legalisation argue we’ve failed to suppress the mass market for cannabis and a licensed, legal market would be a better way of managing use and reducing harm. However, this is not a simple or one-sided argument. If legalisation is to deliver better outcomes and eliminate the black market for skunk, the government would have to get the licensing model right.
How might this work? First, government would have to mandate a maximum level of THC (say 15%) and a minimum level of CBD to create a safer product. But the new, legal, “safer” cannabis would also have to be cheaper than black market skunk. There’s plenty of margin to play with as a gram of skunk currently sells for about £10 so there is a margin for producers, retailers and government, which would introduce a cannabis duty and levy VAT. It would also be necessary to ensure the product was easily available at chemists, off-licences and a network of cannabis cafes.
But let’s take a step back. If we enable a new, fully legal industry of intoxication and make cannabis safer to use, cheaper to buy and even easier to get hold of, what would happen to the level of demand? Again, research indicates a 10% reduction in price would trigger a 7% increase in consumption – at a time when it is falling. But it would be increased consumption of a safer product. Police time would be saved and government would gain perhaps £1bn a year in tax revenues.
Here’s where it gets complicated. THC-induced mental health problems didn’t start with skunk – they just got worse. So if consumption of legal cannabis remained the same, the incidence of mental health referrals would fall. If consumption significantly increased, the incidence of mental health referrals would still fall but the absolute number might rise.
You can see why this is a difficult issue for politicians. On the face of it, if we accept we can’t suppress a mass market in an open society and a failed policy of prohibition just lines the pockets of criminals, licensing sales of a quality-controlled product where we can control strength and ingredients and deliver a revenue stream for government seems a win-win situation. But think how the Daily Mail would spin this. Who would grow and produce cannabis products? The tobacco industry is best placed to do so. And who would retail them – bar or coffee chains? You can imagine the narrative of those opposed to change – Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol are behind this.
My own view is that, on balance, a licensing system offers a better chance of public protection and harm reduction than the status quo. But politically, I just don’t think this kite will fly in the UK.