“The case for legalisation really comes from the countries around the world that have legalised cannabis themselves“.Torrin Wilkins
In the UK possessing or supplying drugs is illegal and in theory this should stop people from getting hold of drugs to begin with. In reality this approach has failed with drug deaths per 100,000 people standing at 4.23. That makes the UK one of the highest countries both in Europe and in the world as a whole for deaths caused by drug disorders as a proportion of the population.
This is perhaps the best place to start looking at cannabis laws because its drug deaths is one of the main things we should seek to avoid. The UK has failed in this respect and yet we are still trying the same tactic. The reason for this failure comes from the war on drugs that lost.
Why the war on drugs failed
The war on drugs is a war against drugs themselves and the people who supply or use them. It involves criminalisation and trying to tackle groups transporting drugs in order to reduce or end their usage. This approach was taken on a large scale by the United States which was trying to stop the flow of drugs from South America.
The war itself failed completely and if anything it had the opposite effect. The Global Commission on Drug Policy said that “In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically over this period” and this is a very predictable outcome. If you cut the supply of drugs the demand wont decrease, the people who want drugs will still want them. Drugs will still be transported to them but instead of being sold legally gangs will take over suppling illegal substances. This created a system of drug transportation and distribution that is totally opposite to winning a war on drugs. It just drove it underground.
First the strength of cannabis increased in order to fit more into smaller packages. Smaller packages meant less chance of being discovered and made it easier to be transported. When this gets to the buyers it either means they end up with stronger drugs or drugs that contain other substances to increase the weight of drugs when they are being sold. These extra substances can be toxic in their own right.
Second there is the issue that these drugs are sold by gangs to begin with. Without another legal supplier these groups end up supplying drugs and making large amounts of money from doing so. In the UK this resulted in country lines where drugs are transported through rural areas and towns. These issues show that the war on drugs attempted to reduce drug consumption but instead it actually increased consumption and made drugs more dangerous.
The case for cannabis legalisation
The case for legalisation really comes from the countries around the world that have legalised cannabis themselves. It solves a lot of the problems that came from the war on drugs. It replaces gangs and county lines with legal suppliers who are regulated to ensure the drugs they sell are safe.
There are two routes that countries can go down, legalisation and decriminalisation. Portugal has decriminalised cannabis which means having small amounts for personal use isn’t illegal. Making cannabis legal as South Africa has means both the sale of cannabis and having it for personal use. Legalising the sale means the ability to regulate production and tax cannabis when it’s sold. For cannabis and other lower level drugs legalisation seems like a more proportional response than trying to criminalise them. For higher level drugs decriminalisation is a better alternative.
A change in the law isn’t enough however, we need to start “turning addicts from criminals into patients“, an aim of Norman Lamb. Instead of putting people in prison they should receive help in a form similar to the Dissuasion Commission in Portugal but focused instead purely on access to support and medical help.
However there is some real hope for this approach within the UK. The Nordic countries are similar to the UK in terms of deaths from drug use disorders per 100,000 with 4.55 deaths per 100,000 in Norway. Norway is moving towards decriminalisation of drugs and polling within the UK is showing that a similar shift may happen.
Its time the UK took a new approach to cannabis and learnt from the failures of the past. Legalisation and treatment is the way forwards, not thinking criminalisation will help people get away from drugs.
Written by Torrin Wilkins, the Director and Founder of Centre. He also has a degree in Political Studies from Aberystwyth University and has been interviewed on both the BBC and LBC.