A shift is under way in Britain in the arguments about legalising cannabis: momentum is with the legalisers. Advocates for change used to be found in the back rooms of pubs; now they are in corporate boardrooms. A “green rush” of money into legal cannabis is in full spate and pushing for reform, but before the UK goes with the flow it needs to be sure about how fast it wants to go. The problem with surfing this particular wave is not the direction of travel. It is controlling the speed.
The debate about legalisation should begin with a general rule: prohibitions do not work. Whether it is alcohol or prostitution, tobacco or drugs, it is better to legalise and licence than prohibit and criminalise. Banned substances and services tend to profit criminal gangs and cost the public dear. The war on drugs is a losing one.
Two countries – Canada and Uruguay – have made the leap to full legalisation, as have ten US states (33 now allow the medical use of cannabis). But some pushers of legalisation have mixed motives, while others know that huge corporate investment in the cannabis industry and the high public dependency on the taxes that flow from it can create new facts on the ground. Recriminalisation could be practically impossible.
Already, the sums pouring into cannabis production are enormous. Constellation Brands, which owns Corona beer and a host of other alcoholic drink labels, invested $4bn last year in the Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. (Beer sales in North America, western Europe and Australasia are flat or falling.)
Altria, the parent company of the Marlboro cigarette maker Philip Morris, has pumped $1.85bn into Canopy Growth’s rival, Cronos. (Volumes of cigarette sales globally are expected to fall 3.5 per cent this year.)
The belief that cannabis is the Next Big Thing is fuelled by predictions of eye-watering money to be made. One analyst values the global market at $150bn by 2025.
Legalisation produces taxes; the US state of Colorado alone took more than a quarter of a billion dollars in taxes and fees from cannabis last year. In straitened times, new sources of revenue can move from nice-to-have to indispensable in the blink of an eye. But there is good reason to be wary about a surge of money pushing the law ahead of the evidence – because the evidence on high-volume, high-frequency use of high-potency cannabis is thin. Its effects on public health – mental and physical – are simply not known.
As it conceded defeat in its fight to stop recreational cannabis being legalised, the Canadian Medical Association issued a warning: the country was about to embark on “a national, uncontrolled experiment”; an experiment that will have failed if it results in any increase in cannabis use. By that measure, it may well flop.
In the UK, the moment for a decision about legalising cannabis for recreational use is not close, but the bandwagon is rolling. The country should not rush to judgement. It should wait as long as it takes for proper research to emerge on the long-term effects of changing the law. If there is pressure to conform with legalisation elsewhere, the UK may have one advantage. Nearly everywhere that cannabis has been legalised, the decision has been taken by public vote. Perhaps in Britain, more than anywhere else, people will wonder if a referendum is the best way to decide complex, finely-balanced arguments in which hard evidence is thin to vanishing.
Tortoise held a ThinkIn last night on the subject of legalising cannabis. Some of the views expressed are reflected here.