With its manifesto pledge to legalise the use of recreational cannabis, the Liberal Democrats have put the contentious issue of drug use back on the political agenda.
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson admitted on Newsnight that she smoked cannabis while at university and “enjoyed it”, while the party says that a “sensible approach to drugs” would help “break the grip” of the criminal gangs and raise £1.5bn in tax, says The Telegraph.
However detractors of the policy say that the legalisation of any drugs sends the wrong message about their safety, while driving more people towards using drugs.
So what are the pros and cons of legalising drugs in the UK?
Pro: the war on drugs creates addicts
Russell Brand, Sir Richard Branson, Sting and Michael Mansfield QC were among the high profile signatories to an open letter asking the government to consider decriminalising possession of cannabis in 2014, The Independent reported.
Cannabis has been classified as a Class B drug in the UK since 2008 and carries a prison sentence of up to five years for possession.
Release, the drugs charity which organised the letter, says arresting users “creates more harm for individuals, their families and society”. It adds that if users are not “caught up in the criminal justice system” they have a better chance of escaping addiction and argues that evidence from other countries supports this view.
Con: legalising drugs would create addicts
According to the thinktank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), legalising cannabis could prompt an extra one million people to use the drug, with 100,000 becoming addicted.
Andy Cook, Chief Executive of the CSJ, said: “Advocates of cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation should think through the implications of their views.
“They would open the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of new users, many of whom will be young and vulnerable, and so more prone to damaging physical and mental damage.”
This view is shared by Kevin Sabet, a leading US academic and opponent of drug liberalisation, who told The Guardian: “Legal regulation has been a disaster for drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Both of those drugs are now sold by highly commercialised industries who thrive off addiction for profit.”
Pro: if you can’t beat them, regulate them
Commenting on the launch of the Lib Dems’ legal cannabis policy, Swinson said that the regulation of the drug would create a “legal, regulated market for cannabis” that would “help to break the grip of criminal gangs”.
Writing in The Guardian, chief executive officer of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, James Nicholls, argues that “legalisation of cannabis in the UK would help protect its users from harm” by allowing for the control of the drugs potency.
Sir William Patey, the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, ruffled feathers when he came out in favour of legalising the trade in opium poppies, from which heroin is derived.
Writing in The Guardian, Patey said it was impossible to stop Afghan farmers from growing and exporting opium illegally, and concluded that “if we cannot deal effectively with supply” the only alternative is to “limit the demand for illicit drugs by making a licit supply of them available from a legally regulated market”. This would create stability and peace in drug-producing nations.
Con: sending out the ‘wrong’ message
Prohibitionists argue that legalising drugs would suggest to the public that they are safe to take, flying in the face of evidence showing that even cannabis can damage people’s mental and physical health.
Alex Berenson, author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence”, writes that “scientists have found a link between cannabis use and severe mental illness”, with “people who use cannabis as teenagers [having a] much higher risk of developing schizophrenia, the most devastating mental illness”.
In May 2018, the Home Office said: “The legalisation of cannabis would send the wrong message to the vast majority of people who do not take drugs, especially young and vulnerable people, with the potential grave risk of increased misuse of drugs.”
Pro: regulated drugs are safer
One of the strongest arguments for legalisation and regulation is that it ensures the quality of drugs being consumed. Drugs sold by dealers are often cut with harmful substances, increasing the risk of suffering adverse effects.
Lord Falconer, who served as Tony Blair’s justice secretary and was Jeremy Corbyn’s justice spokesman until June 2016, said the ban on drugs such as heroin and cocaine was responsible for killing “tens of thousands”, he added that it is “better to sell mild and medically safe versions of drugs that give a high than ones sold by gangsters”.
Deaths from heroin more than doubled from 2012 to 2015 while in 2016, 63 people died from ecstasy-related incidents in England and Wales – “deaths that could have been prevented if they’d known better what they were taking” says the Adam Smith Institute’s Matt Kilcoyne on Conservative Home.
Pro: big savings for the taxpayer
Legalising cannabis could raise £1.5bn in tax according to the Lib Dems, while Health Poverty Action has previously estimated that legal recreational use of the drug could earn the Treasury up to £3.5bn a year in tax revenues.
“Prohibition has failed,” said Natasha Horsfield, the group’s advocacy officer. “From our perspective, it’s about regulating the market to improve public health outcomes and create a safer environment. But we can see the potential benefits from a taxation perspective if we were to regulate it.”
A report from the Institute for Social and Economic Research suggests that legalisation would save up to £300m in policing, criminal justice and drug treatment services in England and Wales. Health Poverty Action says it would free up the police and judicial systems to address more serious or violent crime and reduce the overall prison burden.
What countries have legalised drugs?
Portugal has led the way in decriminalising the possession of small quantities of any drug since 2001, in a radical experiment that has become the test case for many countries looking to reform their drug laws.
Across Europe, 14 countries have brought in various decriminalisation models for the medical or recreational sale of cannabis. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first nation to make it legal to grow, consume and sell cannabis.
Thirty-three US states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes, while a further 11 states have legalised the drug for recreational use. Canada has also made cannabis use legal, becoming the first G7 country to fully legalise cannabis in 2018.
What happens when drugs are decriminalised?
Multiple studies of what happened in Portugal show the hugely positive impact decriminalisation has had over the past 15 or so years.
The country has an extremely low rate of overdose deaths and has reduced the number of HIV-positive people addicted to drugs. It has also saved millions of euros in prison expenses while the level of drug use has not gone up.
The legalisation of cannabis in some US states has not led to a rise in adolescent use, a US study found. It revealed that while cannabis use was generally higher in the states that had passed medical marijuana legislation before 2014, the passage of such laws did not affect the rate of marijuana use in those states.
In the UK, the use of cannabis-based medicines has been approved by the government, but prescriptions of the drug are still fairly rare.