Unplanned consequences of legalising cannabis
The war on drugs is not going well. 50 years after the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, when Britain moved from treating drug abuse as a medical problem to treating it as a criminal problem, the country has no shortage of supply of illegal drugs or of criminals willing to deal in them.
Indeed, the entire west is awash with nominally controlled drugs. Fashions change, so cocaine seems in Britain to be losing some popularity to opioids and crystal meth (though that is only tentatively showing up in official statistics). That seems to be a question of lifestyle rather than law enforcement success.
This seems to be the usual result when countries declare war on non-reasoning things: see terror and emus for further examples. Many are concluding that in the war on drugs it’s time to surrender.
For all that, drug use is very much a minority activity in England and Wales. Only 1 in 11 adults of working age in Britain have taken drugs in the last year (rising to just over 1 in 5 for 16–24 year olds). These figures are pretty stable, up only marginally in a decade. In any fair assessment, the war on drugs is currently a stalemate rather than a defeat.
As a point of comparison, 1 in 7 adults smoked in the last year. This figure is in continuing decline, thanks to a multi-generation campaign against tobacco consumption. The war on cigarettes is going better than the war on drugs. Even so, cigarette consumption remains much more common than illegal drug-taking of any kind.
(We should be looking much more closely at alcohol consumption, which dwarfs that of either drugs or cigarettes. More than half the population drink alcohol at least weekly. The harmful effects of alcohol consumption are not discussed anywhere near as much as smoking or drug use, certainly not relative to the size of the problem.)
Why do we discourage smoking and why do governments around the world outlaw drug-taking? The answer: they are bad for you and their bad effects have wider consequences. You might regard this as paternalistic and profoundly illiberal, and certainly that is the consensus of the chattering classes. The purpose behind the policy is, however, understandable. It’s all very well to say that people should be allowed to make their own choices on such matters, but the choices of individuals have an impact on all of us.
Smoking, for example, leads to diseases that require costly medical treatment, the requirement to provide that medical treatment leads to strain on health institutions and it produces smoke that is both harmful to others and generally unpleasant for non-smokers. The external effects of some other drugs are far worse.
Of course, each drug needs to be considered individually. The problems caused by anabolic steroids are very different from those caused by fentanyl. English law already partially recognises this, with three classes of illegal drugs: A, B and C.
Right, Alastair, you might well say, but we aren’t winning the war on drugs, are we? We need to try something different. This, I’m afraid, leads to a classic example of the politician’s syllogism: something must be done; “this” is something; we must do “this”. “This” needs to be considered on its own terms.
The current favourite “this” is legalising cannabis. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced his support for this idea this week. It seems to have majority support in opinion polls, so it’s an idea whose time may be coming. I note that the generation that has historically been the heaviest users of drugs is the generation born in the 1970s, so it is no coincidence that this idea is gaining momentum at a time when that generation is grasping the levers of power. But leaving aside the question of its popularity, however, what would actually be the results of such a policy?
We can learn a lot from those places that have legalised cannabis. The most relevant for Britain are probably Canada and those US states have taken this step.
Canada legalised the commercial sale of cannabis in October 2018. Since then, cannabis use is up 65% among 18–24 year olds and use among the population as a whole has increased, though less dramatically. The unsurprising consequence of legalisation has been to increase use of cannabis.
There has been a significant increase in arrests for cannabis-impaired driving since legalisation (though it has been suggested that this is down to improved police detection rates).
It is too soon to assess the health impacts of this increased use of cannabis. However, since cannabis is in general bad for you and for some people it has very adverse effects indeed, we can reasonably assume that these will materialise soon enough.
So much for dry data. What, I think, most British people have yet to appreciate is just how visible legalised cannabis is. Let’s take a look at one medium-sized Canadian town. Kamloops is in British Columbia. You probably haven’t heard of it, but it’s a town of over 100,000 people. It’s a successful and growing town, a transport hub and nexus for Rocky Mountains tourism.
Just opposite the Delta Marriott right in the heart of downtown, there’s the Shades Of Green cannabis shop. Round the corner, there’s Greenloops Cannabis Store. One block off the main drag the other way, there’s BC Cannabis store and the Dazed Cannabis store. There aren’t as many coffee shops or off licences.
Why are they so common? Well, Canadian high streets are suffering just as much as British high streets. Would-be cannabis shop owners spotted the opportunity and moved in. Unless the government legislated to control this, it would happen here too. If you think you’ve heard too many complaints about the high street being full of coffee shops, charity shops and Turkish barbers, wait till you hear what people have to say about ubiquitous dope pedlars.
Cannabis is a lot more obvious on the streets too. The sweet smell is hard to avoid at any time of day. You can spot builders having a toke at lunchtime and heading back onto the building site. This isn’t something people are doing in the privacy of their own homes. Cannabis has become public in Canada.
Canadians seem entirely comfortable with these consequences, with public support of continued legalisation running at roughly 2:1. So far as harmful drugs are concerned, they have more pressing concerns: opioid-related deaths nearly doubled during the pandemic, mostly because of fentanyl.
There are some big positives too. Duty from legalised cannabis has been a nice little earner for the Canadian treasury, while illegal supply is on the wane, having been outcompeted by its legal rival. By not giving criminal records for matters relating to cannabis, a generation is not having its life prospects blighted by a criminal record. In Britain as well as Canada, this operates on racial lines — 70 per cent of Londoners arrested for cannabis possession in 2018 were BAME and 30 per cent were white, meaning that the chances of a BAME Londoner being arrested for possession were 3.4 times that of a white person.
Still, those touting those positives ignore the question — what are we supposed to do to reduce the damage done by this harmful drug? Legalisation would increase the use of it, just as it has in Canada, just at a time when we are trying to reduce the use of tobacco and alcohol. The messaging would be completely incoherent.
And on a simple physical level, society has benefited enormously by having cigarette smoke progressively eliminated from public life. We won’t benefit from it being replaced by the odour of cannabis.
Right Alastair, you might well say again, this time a bit more exasperated, but if we aren’t winning the war on drugs and you don’t think legalisation is a good idea, what do you think we should do? As it happens, I do have an answer for that. I suggest that for now the best next step is not legalisation but decriminalisation. Stop arresting young men and women who are enjoying the herb in private. You immediately eliminate the main vice caused by the current policy.
In the meantime, the government could put a lot more effort into looking at how Britain has effectively reduced tobacco consumption over generations and seek to apply some of those lessons to reducing the consumption of other harmful drugs too. A key part of retaining support for any war is to explain the war aims to the public.
Finally, we should readjust our time horizons and expectations. Hogarth drew Gin Lane and Beer Street in 1750. Gladstone reckoned he was swept away in a torrent of gin and beer in 1874. A desire to be intoxicated is, it seems, a part of human existence. All we can do is hope to reduce consumption and guide people away from the most dangerous intoxicants to safer ones.