Cannabis was, until recently, the elephant in the room of British politics.
While countries like Canada, Portugal and Thailand have either legalised or decriminalised the drug, debates about whether to adopt a similar approach in the UK are often shut down before they really begin, with Police commissioners just last month calling for cannabis to be reclassified as a Class A substance, like heroin or cocaine. Home Secretary Suella Braverman is reportedly open to the idea, despite cannabis being less toxic than alcohol and having health benefits in some situations.
Underpinning most arguments against legalisation is the idea that cannabis is a gateway drug. It’s true that if you ask a heroin addict whether they have ever smoked cannabis, the answer is likely to be yes. However, we all know the well-worn mantra that correlation does not always equal causation. Most people encounter cannabis before they encounter hard drugs; that doesn’t mean cannabis causes them to take those drugs. There are multiple external factors influencing not only the likelihood of an individual trying them but also of that person becoming addicted.
Let’s have an honest conversation about this: people have been experimenting with drugs since as far back as the ancient Sumerians in 5000 BCE. I bet you know at least a handful of people who have done so. I have friends who smoke cannabis but wouldn’t touch other substances – in fact, over 7.5 million people in the UK aged 16-59 have tried it at least once. This is an industry that the Government could be regulating and taxing, raising £3.5 billion a year for the Treasury, according to some estimates.
The problem is that the story we’ve been told about addiction is fundamentally wrong, and many of our politicians seem unwilling to accept this. When Sadiq Khan recently announced the creation of a London Drugs Commission, the decision was met with open animosity from the then Home Secretary Priti Patel, who commented, “the mayor has no powers to legalise drugs. They ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives”. Addiction is a terrible and destructive illness, but do drugs instantly cause users to become hooked, as is often portrayed?
Bruce K. Alexander’s Rat Park experiments in the 1970s suggest not. By this point, numerous studies had established that with a certain experimental set-up (an empty cage with two bottles: one containing morphine, the other water), rats in a deprived environment would self-administer the drug until they died. Contrastingly, Alexander showed that, in an enriched environment where the rats were free to eat, socialise and have sex, they did not become dependent on morphine. They used it 20 times less than their counterparts, elucidating the critical role that an individual’s environment and social situation can have on their susceptibility to addiction.
So what of the potentially harmful effects of cannabis? A study from the Addiction and Mental Health Group found that the strength of the THC concentration in cannabis has increased by 14% from 1970 to 2017. It has been proven that people who regularly smoke high-potency cannabis are at an increased risk of developing psychosis (although it’s important to stress that genetics is a significant contributing factor). If cannabis were legalised and controlled, it would minimise the potential harm to users. In Canada, where the drug was legalised in 2018, psychosis rates haven’t risen.
Some people look to America for an argument against legalisation since the black market still outstrips the controlled market in states where cannabis is legal. However, the US is a flawed example because making a legalised market work is nearly impossible when the law varies from state to state.
The UK is already the world’s largest exporter of medical-grade cannabis, and in 2018, its use was approved in this country to treat conditions like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. Full legalisation may still be a long way off, but the next step is surely decriminalisation. Portugal has one of the most progressive drug policies in the world, where the money that would have been used for combating drug possession and use is channelled into harm reduction and treatment provision instead. As a result of this compassionate strategy, the country has experienced a dramatic drop in overdoses and drug-related crime, and drug use has remained well below the EU average. It’s high time we recognised that our current approach, which demonises addicts and makes criminals out of those caught with cannabis, is outdated.
Wrirren By – Ellie Dyer-Brown