Across the world attitudes seem to be shifting on the issue of cannabis. In December of last year Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize the sale, production and distribution of the plant, and for those that support a change in legislation, Uruguay is the role model. What was once only discussed by students and hippies, now seems to be a topic of genuine credibility. High-profile British figures such as Nick Clegg, Caroline Lucas, Russel Brand and Richard Branson are all in favour of a change in legislation on the issue of cannabis. Is the UK set to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington, the two American states that have recently legalised cannabis?
Though any topic is complicated, this one appears to be one of the toughest to fully understand. There is such a range of arguments and issues that need to be addressed when looking at cannabis legislation, it is not simply an issue of the drug. Economically there are arguments for a change in laws because it could provide revenue; personally and philosophically there are questions of ethics and self determination, what are a humans freedoms and where should they begin and end; medically there are arguments on both sides of the coin arguing that cannabis could be beneficial, or harmful, if legislation was changed; in terms of crime and punishment we must look at those who have been imprisoned because of drugs offences; financially we have to consider how much money is spent policing the drug, the sellers and users. The list is almost endless, and no one article will ever be able to cover all the topics and provide a definitive answer.
With that said I decided my articles on cannabis – I say articles because there will undoubtedly be more in the future – should not seek to solve the cannabis question once and for all, and should instead add to the on-going debate and provide stimulation for those that refuse to consider that a change in drugs laws may be necessary.
We start with an interview I conducted with Tristan Williams, who is a trainee pharmacist in South Wales. I hoped that his background and knowledge in the field of medicine would provide me with a different perspective on the issue. Though I did not explicitly ask, it seems as if Williams is against any change in legislation, he cited the health problems as one of his biggest concerns. Williams said, “cannabis has similar risks to smoking [cigarettes], with any type of smoke containing cancer-causing chemicals”, this brings with it a “risk of lung disease” and “heart disease”. He also mentioned the “additional dangers” that have been linked to cannabis, “mental health problems and worsening of mental problems in those already diagnosed with a disorder”.
Unlike others I have spoken to Williams did not suffer from the hypocrisy of being pro-cigarettes and anti-cannabis. He appeared to be just as opposed to both but conceded that it is too late to ban smoking, stating “I don’t think smoking is legal out of choice. More that it has become too ingrained in society”. Not wanting to put words in his mouth, but ideally I guess a society where both would be illegal would be his preferred situation. Williams spoke of the tremendous burden that smoking has put on an already struggling NHS, he claims that “smoking costs the NHS billions every year” and it would be in nobodies interest to increase this burden by changing the laws on cannabis.
I asked about the medicinal benefits of cannabis but Williams was quick to downplay this point as well. He told me “cannabis extract has been used in some conditions such as multiple sclerosis although it is not licensed in this country. It comes as a nasal spray so smoking it would have no benefit and there would be no benefit to the average person”. He added that cannabis which is smoked “has no benefits”, it is in fact “certain chemicals within it that have to be manufactured into a medical product”.
I was then able to speak to another man of science, we shall call him Edward as he wishes to remain anonymous. Edward is a PHD student focusing on chemistry and catalysis, and he seemed to be much more open to changing cannabis legislation in this country. He agreed with what Williams said, in that cannabis is “certainly not harmless” but he added that “most evidence shows the physical damage caused by cannabis is lesser so than most illegal and legal recreational drugs”. Effectively saying that although cannabis is harmful, it is one of the least harmful drugs a person could take, and this includes cigarettes and alcohol. The fact that cannabis does less damage to a person than currently legal substances definitely supports the campaign for a change in laws, but on its own it is not enough to justify any change. Edward believes that “if a drugs damage to society is lesser than other drugs, and we create more damage by it being illegal, it seems like an exercise in wasting money and police time”. This is basically the argument of Jose Mujica, the Uruguayan president, who believed that the illegalisation of cannabis was in fact doing more harm than the legalisation would.
One of the main reasons that drugs laws are in place in the UK is to dissuade people from taking drugs. The punishment that comes with being caught with that substance is enough to put people off, or so that is the theory. Edward however, made a very interesting point that the class system on drugs in the UK, and in particular cannabis’ class B rating, is actually increasing drug use, rather than lowering it. Edward stated that “a drug as mild as cannabis being illegal sends a bad message to people”. He then presented me with a fictional example whereby “a fifteen year old smokes cannabis and thinks to themselves ‘this is a class B and doesn’t seem that bad to me, why don’t I try other class B’s'”. Other class B substances, such as Ketamine, are more potentially damaging and dangerous and so the old conservative prediction of cannabis being a gateway drug is actually fulfilled. If the concern is that cannabis is a gateway drug, then the most sensible thing to do would be to reclassify cannabis. If it is no longer a drug, then it cannot be a gateway.
Edward believes that decriminalisation is a step in the right direction, “but full legalisation with strict controls are more appropriate”. If cannabis were to be legalised he thinks that society would improve, less money would be spent on street level enforcement and more money can be moved to education, this would also free up police resources to “tackle high level traffickers and focus on crimes where people, property and/or liberty are actually harmed”. Once again a very valid argument, and one that many have made in the past. The infamous War On Drugs has in fact been a complete failure for many years and the vast sums of money spent attempting to win this un-winnable war could have been spent on much worthier ventures.
If cannabis is to face a change in legislation and it became de-criminalised, or even legal, few in the UK would be surprised if the city of Brighton led the movement. Having already pioneered new methods of drug policy, with their Green MP Caroline Lucas already supporting a change in drug laws, with their left-wing liberal and alternative culture, and with Green councillors calling for Amsterdam-style coffee shops in the past, Brighton would have to be seen as the ideal place for a UK cannabis capital.
With that in mind I got in contact with Brighton Cannabis Club, just one of many clubs across the UK that have been established lately to “get people active” and begin a movement that looks to “reform the law”. I was able to speak to one of their members though he declines to use his name, for the sake of this article, we shall call him Bob. At the time of writing Brighton Cannabis Club has over one thousand likes on its Facebook page and is attracting more members all the time, its “main goal is to end the prohibition of cannabis”.
I spoke with Bob for a short time about cannabis and the movement to change its legislation, and from the start it was clear Bob was very passionate about it. The philosophical freedoms I spoke of earlier were mentioned, there are laws in the UK currently preventing people from taking their own lives and if you do not have control over your own life, it is unlikely that you are going to be allowed control over much else. Bob said that “people should be allowed to make their own choices [and] not have them made for them by the government”.
Portugal was mentioned a number of times during our conversation with Bob believing that the way they have conducted their policies on drugs is something to be admired and copied. He thought “countries like Portugal have a better stance on drug policies and it’s working for them so why wouldn’t it work for the whole world”. The Portuguese drug policies are a matter for another time, but since its introduction in 2001 it has produced remarkable achievements with experts around the world hailing it a success.
Together Bob and I spoke of the effect that policing the drug has, the money spent, the time consumed and the criminals created. Bob believes that a better policy for the UK is to “regulate drugs rather than criminalise people”, and I have to say I agree with him. Once again I was presented with a fictional scenario, this time comparing the illegal class B cannabis, and the legally accepted alcohol. The situation was a town split in two halves, “drinking on one side and coffee shops in the other half” and after a month I had to “ask the police what half they would rather work in and what half is most trouble”. I was also told to “ask the hospitals which half use their services the most”. The fictional scenario produced a very valid argument. Alcohol is not only more harmful to the individual but it is also more harmful to society.
Despite the passion and the desire to change legislation, I find it slightly strange that those who are involved in the cannabis movement are so reluctant or hesitant to act upon it. Meetings, petitions and clubs are all well and good, and they will provide the groundwork needed for future campaigns, but what I believe is really needed is action. When you feel so strongly about something, and you are so dedicated to a cause you must fight for it. I don’t recall any instances where a fight was won thanks to an online petition and a debate by MP’s in the Houses of Parliament. In order for any movement to succeed you need action, and pressure from the bottom up. There needs to be a demand and not a request, as the government does not operate via handouts. Even the little things, such as not giving a name when being interviewed, can be interpreted as a lack of commitment. Surely if one feels that strongly about something they would be willing to say “yes, my name is Joe Bloggs and I support this”.
I believe that the UK will see a change in legislation on the issue of cannabis, undoubtedly in my lifetime, but I hope that it comes sooner rather than later. As Bob from Brighton Cannabis Society said, “it will happen” and with the right pressure, support and action I truly believe that to be the case. The movement will continue, as will the debates surrounding the issue, and I will follow it every step of the way. Right up until Brighton’s debut coffee shop opens its doors and welcomes in its first excited customers.
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