British Cannabis Policy Reform Essay


Cannabis in the UK: De-Penalisation, Decriminalisation, or Legalisation? In October of 2015, the Parliament of the United Kingdom was forced to debate whether the current prohibition on cannabis should end in some way. "Forced" is the correct word here, because Parliament seems otherwise unwilling to address the issue, but in this case it was obliged by its own policy, whereby any petition signed by at least one hundred thousand people must necessarily trigger a parliamentary debate. In the case of the issue of ending the prohibition on cannabis, the petition requesting that Parliament address the issue received well over the required number of signatures; it was, in the words of Smith (2015), "a petition signed by 220,000 people - the third most popular on Parliament's website." Therefore on 12 October 2015, Parliament was obliged to take up the matter for debate. Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb ultimately took up the central cause of the petitioners, and spoke directly in terms that reflected the basic premise of the petition that was made:

"The whole debate has shifted dramatically now... as we see state after state starting this debate, with many states in the U.S. deciding to establish legalised regulated markets. And of course the basic principle it seems to me is, do you put a potentially dangerous product into the hands of criminals who have no interest in your welfare at all or do you seek to regulate it? And I think in terms of public health protection of individuals and avoiding the ludicrous criminalisation of so many young people, a legalised regulated market makes a lot of sense." (quoted in Hopkins 2015)

Certain aspects of Norman Lamb's statement here require a slightly closer attention, so that the terms of the debate over ending the prohibition on cannabis can be properly understood. The first is Lamb's direct reference to shifting policies in certain of the United States, although perhaps not in that nation as a whole. Prohibitionist drug policies worldwide have, historically, on the whole been supported if not demanded by the government of the United States of America. Yet it is an undeniable fact that this American-driven international consensus has begun to fray in recent years, not only as various nations -- for example Uruguay, which had over the course of 2013 and 2014 decriminalized possession of cannabis for personal use (with no limit on the amount that could be possessed) and legalized the growing of marijuana plants by individuals -- began to back away from the American model of punitive prohibition, but also as individual jurisdictions within the United States, such as the individual states of Colorado and Washington, began to decriminalize and regulate the sale and consumption of cannabis within their own state borders.

However Lamb's claim that in the UK a "legalized regulated market makes a lot of sense" does not capture the sense of how astonishingly backward the position of the British government appears in 2016. A "legalized regulated market" like that adopted by Colorado in the United States is, of course, primarily one in which cannabis can be sold and consumed for recreational purposes. But recreation is -- historically and in the present moment -- not the only or primary reason to consume cannabis or to find some way of giving it some status as a commodity beyond unmitigated contraband. Although the issue has been subject to debate -- perhaps unfairly and tendentiously, as part of an effort to justify what in 2016 looks like a moribund regime of total prohibition -- cannabis is widely recognized to have medicinal value as well. Indeed, the vast majority of speakers in the 12 October 2015 Parliamentary debate on ending total prohibition on cannabis raised this issue with reference to anecdotes from constituents (if not from personal experience) in order to make the point that medicinal cannabis is currently unavailable due to the United Kingdom's policy of blanket prohibition, which makes the government's position seem even more indefensible. Reynolds (2015) notes that "medicinal cannabis is now available on prescription in Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and


The UK is notable for its failure to give any serious consideration to such reform since 1998, despite reasonable estimates of up to one million British people using cannabis for medicinal purposes" (4). As the petition that Parliament was obliged to debate did also make reference to the idea of cannabis as a medicinal substance, so was Parliament obliged to raise this matter -- although if the medical issue had been considered by itself, the United Kingdom's strange and antiquated policy of total prohibition might have been set into even more stark relief when compared to the rest of the developed world. The question of why the United Kingdom should be so stubborn in its adherence to a policy of total prohibition becomes even more glaring. One is tempted to wonder if it is a blind adherence to some kind of Victorian moralism, except that in the case of cannabis, to call the present British policy of total prohibition in 2016 "Victorian" is actually an insult to the Victorians: as Curran and Warburton (2015) among others have noted, in the nineteenth century cannabis was "widely available in the UK and cannabis tincture was prescribed to Queen Victoria for period pains and during childbirth" (3). It is somewhat amazing to think that, if Queen Victoria were to step out of a TARDIS into the London of 2016 and feel a twinge of royal mittelschmerz, she would risk prosecution for possession of a Class C drug for simply taking as medicine what the royal physicians had prescribed for her legally and in good faith.
In fact, it has become clear to most British citizens in 2016 -- if not to Parliament or to David Cameron and his cabinet -- that present regime of total prohibition of cannabis seems downright irrational. But it is probably useful to begin a survey of how best to revise the policy of prohibition by acknowledging that this irrationalism may be a consequence of the subject matter that is under consideration. Stevens (2011) notes that reasonable debate about the cannabis prohibition may prove elusive because

... arguments over drug policy are not always carried out on rational grounds. The moral value of 'purity/sanctity', which is much more common amongst conservatives than liberals (Haidt & Graham, 2007), has long been influential in determining drug policy. Ambiguous people and substances are often categorised as dirty (Douglas, 1966), and so to be avoided and excluded. Douglas has shown how these types of value shape the moral choices of both pre-modern and modern societies. However, just because such quasi-religious judgements have been important in shaping drug and other policies, this does not mean that we should accept their continuing influence. (Stevens 2011, 237)

But if the policy of prohibition is being maintained in Great Britain in the face of common sense and rational thought, then that makes the present consequences of the policy all the more astonishing in the twenty-first century. As Orwell Prize-winning (and Orwell Prize-forfeiting) journalist Johann Hari (2015) has pointed out, "twenty-four thousand people in Britain are cautioned or charged every year for cannabis possession alone" (294). Meanwhile Van Den Brink (2008) notes that in "2001, £38 million [was] spent on the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of cannabis offenders; money that could have been spent on other, more relevant, activities" (125). Is this exaggerated lavish cost, both in terms of the public expenditure from the treasury and in terms of the lives altered by arrest or prosecution or incarceration for cannabis offences, even justifiable in terms of public safety? As Ostrowski (1990) has tartly and appositely observed, "although a number of persons have died as a result of marijuana enforcement, there are no confirmed deaths traceable to marijuana use" (697). And even the policy which exacts such a steep fiscal and human toll does not seem justifiable when it becomes apparent that even its most basic premises are not enforceable. As Stevenson (1997) argues, the American-devised international mandate that prohibition begin not merely with such draconian law enforcement in consumer nations (like Great Britain) but even earlier with a complete eradication of the cannabis supply in the largely poor and underdeveloped nations that grow and produce it, offers a premise which appears contradictory from the start; in his words, "perhaps the most withering indictment of supply-side policy is found in the U.S.A. which is one of the world's largest producers of cannabis. It seems unreasonable to expect Third World countries to control drug production when the U.S. government is incapable of achieving this end within its own territorial limits" (35). If cannabis policy is (like the 2003 invasion of Iraq) just another example of an issue where Great Britain strives valiantly to follow a dire and ill-advised…

Sources Used in Documents:


Abel, EA. (1980) Marihuana: The first twelve thousand years. New York: Springer.

Adda, J, McConnell, B, Rasul, I. (2014). Crime and the depenalisation of cannabis possession: Evidence from a policing experiment. Journal of Political Economy 122:5.

Aoyagi, MT. (2006). Beyond punitive prohibition: Liberalizing the dialogue on international drug policy. International Law and Politics 37:3.

Atuesta-Becerra, LH. (2014) Internally displaced populations in Columbia and Mexico. In Quah, D, Collins, J, et al. (2014) Ending the drug wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the economics of drug policy. London: London School of Economics.
Bealum, N. (2015, July 24) Durham has 'decriminalised' cannabis -- about time too. The Guardian.
Carlile, L, Clarke, S. (2014) The UN Drug Conventions: Room for flexibility? London: Bell Yard.
Diep, F. (2015, February 2) The science of decriminalizing drugs: What happens when states ease up on penalties for possession. Popular Science.
Easton, M. (2015, October 19) UN attempt to decriminalize drugs foiled. BBC News.
Hari, J. (2016, January 14) Yes, pot is stronger today, but not for the reasons you think. Los Angeles Times.
Home Secretary: I smoked cannabis. (2007, July 19). BBC News.
Hopkins, N. (2015, 13 October). Cannabis legalisation worth millions -- government report. BBC Newsnight.
Ingraham, C. (2015, December 16) Two charts that show why the case for legalising marijuana just got stronger. The Independent.
Paton, C. (2015, July 29) Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey will no longer seek to arrest pot growers and smokers. International Business Times.
Smith, M. (2015, October 13) Cannabis debate recap: MPs to discuss legalizing marijuana after petition draws 220,000 signatures. The Mirror.
Weiss, R. (2015, Sept 30) The opposite of addiction is connection: New addiction research brings surprising discoveries. Psychology Today.

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