02 Nov Where do we go from here?

derek williams

Derek Williams, CLEAR Website Editor

A personal take on the events of last week and what it means for the cannabis law reform movement.

I’ve been around the cannabis law reform debate for over 20 years now and I don’t think I’ve seen a week quite like the last one in all that time.

Specifically, we might have just had one of those watershed moments for the cannabis law reform debate which sets out the route ahead in a direction which is perhaps not what most people involved in this whole debate had in mind – people on both sides of the argument.

The event of course was the debate in Parliament on October 30th, coupled with the report Drugs: international comparators compiled for the Home Office

What now seems to be accepted even by readers of The Sun is that prohibition doesn’t work. Draconian laws have little or no impact on the level of drug use and so the whole rational for prohibition has been undermined. Now of course this is something that most if not all of us who have ever used cannabis know to be true, but it’s come as a bolt out of the blue for politicians and – perhaps more importantly – the drug support ‘industry’ as it likes to call itself. Of course politicians will be the last group of people to admit the policy they have regarded as sacrosanct for the past 40 years is at best a damp squib, let alone highly destructive and damaging, but there is now without doubt a growing public understanding that things have to change because what we have now doesn’t work.

What that means is what we have now doesn’t achieve the results they want to achieve, it’s important to emphasis that.

As far as cannabis is concerned it does not mean that suddenly there has been a mass conversion to the idea of all out legalisation and that everyone now thinks it’s something to encourage. Far from it, the debate is now focusing on how to reduce use to a minimum whilst also reducing harm. Those who wish to encourage widespread cannabis use are still a tiny number of enthusiasts, but the wind of change is blowing like never before. So where could this lead and how does it affect us, the cannabis law reform campaign?

The regime most often discussed right now is derciminalisation of use and possession of small amounts; often confused with legalisation it is in fact something very different. Under a decrim regime cannabis would still be illegal, but there would be no criminal sanction for the possession of small amounts or its use. That doesn’t mean there would be no sanctions; it would become a civil offence which could carry a fine or some other sanction and indeed it could escalate to a criminal offence by some process. It would be a better regime than we have now because the law wouldn’t be doing so much damage to people, but it would do noting to solve the underlying problems caused by prohibition connected with the supply side.

Decrim offers us a strange choice, a choice between a nasty, infective and brutal form of prohibition and a less brutal, not so nasty but still ineffective regime that at least causes less harm. It’s maybe worth half a luke warm cheer.

So perhaps it’s worth looking at what the role of drug policy is and asking what does society actually want to achieve through its policy? Actually, that’s quite easy to answer: The lowest level of use coupled with the lowest level of harm.

How could legalisation bring this about?

The big claim of prohibition supporters is that strong law enforcement deters use, thus bringing about the lowest level of use, ergo the lowest level of harm.

We now know officially that the first part of this claim is bogus, strong laws don’t deter use. So does prohibition bring about the lowest level of use? That isn’t so easy to answer for the simple reason there is no way to find out; being illegal it isn’t possible to directly sample the consumers or the trade, which means you can’t directly measure what’s going on. But when there are dealers in every village, town and city in the country it would seem unlikely. It didn’t work for me anyway and if it didn’t work for me I wouldn’t expect it to work for anyone else.

Secondly, does the lowest level of use equate to the lowest level of harm? That is an assumption which completely ignores issues concerned with the nature of the patterns of use, such issues as knowledge of doses, the role of social norms in regulating behaviours and so on. In short the lowest level of use probably doesn’t necessarily correspond to the lowest level of harm.

The case to be made is that the cannabis trade has survived and to a large extent flourished despite the huge amount of money poured into trying to prevent it. In short, the cannabis trade is highly resilient and isn’t going away. Likewise there is a section of the population that are so motivated to use cannabis they cannot be prevented from doing so. All that should be blindingly obvious even to politicians. A commercial cannabis trade is therefore inevitable, better it’s a legal, regulated trade paying taxes than an illegal one funding organised crime. What we need to address is the one remaining issue being raised by the prohibition supporters, that of the specter of “Big cannabis”, an exploitative industry akin to “Big Tobacco”.

Paul Hayes, the ex-CEO of the now defunct National Treatment Agency is no fan of legalisation. He wrote recently:

“On the one hand, is it morally justifiable to lock people up for possession to protect them from themselves? On the other, under a more liberal regime, how would we stop a free market driving up both use and harm?”

In support of this, Paul Hayes and people like him point to the developments in Colorado where the cannabis trade is indeed developing into a fully fledged commercial industry. However, in the UK we can do something they can’t do in the USA where advertising is regarded as a matter of free speech. Here, we can ban advertising.

Cannabis in Clorado

Given the inevitability of a commercial cannabis trade and given the desire to achieve the goals of preventing “Big Cannabis” and of achieving the lowest level of use, what is the best way forward?

I would argue that the only way to bring this about is to allow a legal commercial trade, through licensed shops staffed by licensed dealers selling to adults but allowing no commercialisation of the trade; no branding and no advertising other than at the point of sale. Cannabis should be identified for sale by the strain and not by branding.

This would allow those of us who want to used cannabis to do so and to be confident that what we are buying is what we think it is. It would allow a controlled and regulated commercial trade with safeguards for vulnerable people such as children. It would minimise new recruits, attracting only those who seek it out and it would prevent such products as “Marlborough Green” or “Players number infinity”.

Of course, there would still be promotion of sorts, indeed the most effective and genuine form: Word of mouth. Shops offering bad deals would go out of business, those offering a good product would gain a good reputation.

Allowing a full blown commercialisation of the trade which allowed branding and advertising would increase use, that of course is the aim of advertising. Whether this increased use would result in greater harm is an interesting question, but it isn’t going to happen anyway given the direction of policy toward tobacco and increasingly alcohol, what I’m suggesting would bring the cannabis trade into line with these drugs.

There is one other aspect which experience from Colorado has thrown up however and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It may well be, indeed I would expect that it would indeed be the case, that a legal regime for cannabis would see a change in the way it’s consumed. In Colorado now edibles form a large part of the trade and smoking is perhaps dropping out of favour. If this is going to happen then we will need to think about how the edibles trade works, how to standardise doses and indeed what sort of doses are desirable. Of course, this is only possible with a legal trade.

So what does this mean for us – people who want to see cannabis law reform? Do we push as I see it on this open door to legalisaition? What I want to see more than anything is the law reform movement being at the centre of the debate and to do that, we need to be talking about how to achieve the goals everyone else wants. Only by doing that will they listen to us.