08 Mar LibDem Cannabis Policy – A Different Argument For Cannabis Law Reform

There are and always have been two incompatible extremes of opinion amongst people who support cannabis law reform. On the one hand there are those who view cannabis as something best handled by the free market, sold with branding and advertising like any commodity and on the other those who view it as essentially undesirable, something which out of necessity has to be tolerated but which should be discouraged as much as possible. Both extremes want cannabis legalised, but for polar opposite reasons.

A good example of the latter view is shown by the LibDem policy calling for cannabis law reform. Their view is simple: cannabis is a danger to society for health and social reasons and so its use should be firmly controlled and discouraged as much as possible. In order to do this they support the sale of cannabis through licenced outlets, subject to controls over strength and so on, age limits and probably other controls. They view cannabis as at least potentially harmful in terms of the alleged impact on mental health, the development of young minds and the well being of society in general. This sort of talk doesn’t sit well with many cannabis law reform activists and that is also possibly one of the reasons they’re doing it.

The LibDems still hope to be thought of as a serious political party again following their virtual wipe out at the last election. Well, maybe. A part of that strategy is no doubt to ensure they are not seen as “loony liberals” promoting irresponsible ideas favoured by fringe groups. Drug law reform is a minefield for the majority of politicians, the mantra of strong anti drug laws is deeply embedded in political thinking and the essential justification for harsh drug laws – to reduce use – is one that is still commonly supported. The chink in the prohibition armour has come with the growing acceptance that prohibition hasn’t worked, it failed to prevent drugs use and is now increasingly seen as creating crime and not really being “drug control”. So this is cannabis law reform under the guise of stronger law and order, perhaps even of better and more effective repression of cannabis use.

The LibDems are really keen to carve out a niche for themselves with distinctive – but above all – popular policies and they’ve come to understand that drug law reform could be a vote winner with “Mondeo man”, the great suburban washed who believe in the mantra of law and order. Hence the new LibDem policy which although supporting cannabis legalisation, isn’t about “freeing the weed”, or personal liberty or anything like that, it’s all about ‘protecting the individual and society from danger’.

So what dangers might cannabis pose? Well, if like politicians you frame your values around those of the Daily mail, you’re not going to dispute the cannabis makes you mad claims. So how can any ‘sensible’, ‘responsible’ politician deal with this sort of thing? The answer of course is to agree with it; to join the hype and spread the fear that cannabis really does make you mad while at the same time arguing that the only way to do something about that danger is to properly regulate the trade because to do that requires legalisation. Thing is, although the reefer madness may be hype, it is true that the only way to control dangerous drugs is through a proper regulated legal trade and that can be done by imposing the sort of controls mentioned above – strengths, age limits and so on. In a way it makes sense, why get bogged down arguing with scientists and newspaper editors when all you have to do is to agree with them by basing your case for reform on the very issues they promote?

That said, I would do cringe when I hear politicians stating as a fact that cannabis causes mental illness. It’s one thing for people like Tim Farron of the LibDems to take the potential for harm seriously, it’s quite another to promote the claims as hard fact which he did recently when announcing the new policy.

In the US now what anti cannabis law reform effort there is focuses on “Big Cannabis”, the threat of big corporations growing fat on encouraging cannabis use, promoting ever more consumption by ever more people and so, as they would have it, inevitably increasing harm. This is a vulnerability politicians are keen to address from the outset and the easy way to stop “Big Cannabis” is to close off the commercial opportunities. In practice this would mean banning advertising, trade marks, promotions and so on, the very life blood of the free market. Does it matter?

Police cannabis raid

It can easily be argued that the demand for cannabis has survived prohibition pretty much intact, so would a legal market with cannabis openly sold in shops really suffer if advertising and promotion were banned? Anyway, do we really need or even want Marely or Snoop Dogg cannabis? Maybe this is a debate we should be having.

There is a counter to this position though and that is dependent on whether there is a desire to fundamentally change the cannabis consumption culture and there may well be. The change of course relates to smoking. Certainly the idea of discouraging the use of tobacco is pretty much understood these days, but what about a fundamental move away from smoking to the use of concentrates, either in edibles or in vape products similar to electronic cigarettes? Edibles and vape liquids would need to be made to consistent doses and if this were to happen then we would need to encourage a new industry to grow the cannabis and to turn it into concentrates of uniform potency, with accurately known THC and CBD levels. This could become a lively debate.

Cannabis law reform will change everything when it happens, including a lot of things that no-one has yet considered; the growth in the popularity of edibles in Colorado wasn’t foreseen for example. Cannabis after prohibition will become something very different to what we know today, as different as fine wines are to moonshine. So we shouldn’t restrict it in such a way as to prevent change.  Anyway over time social norms will grow to regulate the way people use cannabis as society gains widespread experience of it.

In the short term the important goal is to end the madness of criminalisation, to fight for access to cannabis for adults to use. If we get this, even in a highly over restricted way, the floodgates open for all the other uses this remarkable plant has to offer, not least for the many people who get medicinal benefit from it.

So am I saying we should support something we don’t really agree with just because it’s working for a similar goal but for all the wrong reasons? Yes I am, or at least we shouldn’t do anything to undermine it. Why? Because  I want this prohibition injustice ended, that really is my only aim.

After prohibition ends we can tweek things, relax some restrictions, maybe add new ones. Until then we can’t do anything except suffer.

Derek Williams