UK legalises medicinal cannabis: recreational use to follow suit?

6 Nov 2018


As of November 1, medicinal cannabis products can now be legally prescribed to select patients across the UK. Whilst these treatments are only eligible in certain cases, where other medicines have proven unsuccessful, the move marks a significant relaxation of drug laws. Prior to Thursday’s move, medicinal products containing cannabis were classified as schedule one drugs, whereby they were deemed to contain no treatment value to patients.


"There will be strict controls in place and this is in no way a step towards legalising the recreational use of cannabis," Home Secretary Sajid Javid has firmly stated. Yet, there is a growing feeling – particularly amongst the younger electorate – that the UK should follow the examples of countries such as Canada, which recently legalised possession of cannabis for recreational use.


The 2017/18 Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that 7.2 per cent of adults aged 16 to 59 have used cannabis in the last year, up from 6.6 per cent in 2016/17. Of course, this is only based on an estimation of people who admit to having used the substance, the real number is likely to be significantly higher.


Of course, polling on whether or not to legalise cannabis varies significantly depending on factors such as age, ethnicity and class. However, one thing that remains clear is the growing appetite for the UK to fall in line with fellow European nations that have decriminalised the drug, namely the Netherlands and Portugal.


One of the most significant cases for legalisation is that cannabis poses far less of a risk to users than other substances, including legal alcohol and tobacco products. Research by Professor David Nutt revealed that both of the aforementioned substances can result in greater harm than cannabis to the user and wider society, specifically through increased crime, economic costs, damaged health and drug dependency.


Furthermore, the number of hospital admissions relating to cannabis usage was around 27,000 in 2016/17. Contrast this with the number of admissions from alcohol misuse which stood at 337,000, and the difference in potential harm from these products suddenly becomes much more apparent. Most recreational users of cannabis would admit that they do so not due to addiction or to create social problems, but simply for the private benefit and enjoyment that they gain out of consuming the drug.


An additional reason for liberalising drug laws on cannabis is that current enforcement has become largely inconsistent in recent years. Short of possession with intent to supply, which remains a priority for police forces in tackling cannabis usage, the number of arrests for possession has fallen dramatically in recent years. Since 2010, arrests for possession in England and Wales have fallen by around 46 per cent with cautions having also fallen by 48 per cent.



This begs the question, if the law isn’t enforced, what is the point in having the law at all? Now, one might be inclined to argue that this is due to factors such as cuts in police spending, which have seen a 20 per cent decline since 2010. However, the simple fact is that cannabis usage simply is not a high priority for police forces due to the lack of social problems it creates. Outside of those using the drug, the impact on third parties is relatively low and fails to present a major problem.


In fact, by legalising cannabis, the government would most likely see an overall reduction in crime relating to the substance. Rather than revenues from cannabis sales funding subsequent illicit activities of criminals, the government could instead use the legalisation and regulation of the drug to generate much needed funding for public services. Estimates suggest that the UK government could expect to generate anywhere between £750m and £1.05bn in tax revenue from the regulation and sale of cannabis. There is also additional benefit of lowering criminal justice costs relating to cannabis, which would allow resources to be diverted towards more pressing areas of concern.



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