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Spliff Politics: High time to legalise & regulate

Are we on the long and winding road towards the full legalisation and regulation of cannabis for recreational use in the UK?

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Following the high-profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, cannabis is back in the news. Both sufferers of severe epilepsy, the children's frequent seizures were found to be controlled by the use of cannabis oil, which their parents then frantically tried to acquire overseas as a matter of medical emergency, at various points being blocked by Government and border police.

The justified outrage of the nation seems to have forced the hand of the Government, which last month reclassified cannabis as a schedule 2 drug. It's still Class B, punishable by up to five years in jail for recreational possession and up to 14 years for supply, but this change in the law opens the door for unrestricted research into its medicinal benefits. GPs can now make referrals to specialist doctors who can prescribe cannabis-based medicine, though clinical guidance is currently non-existent.

A long-time advocate of evidence-based drugs policy, Prof David Nutt has called this change 'a revolution', because it's the first acknowledgement by the UK Government that cannabis can have medicinal uses. Nutt, who has run successful trials of the therapeutic uses of other drugs like MDMA and psilocybin, told me that the change in cannabis scheduling "will make it much easier, as we should not need a special licence" for medical research, but that the Home Office was yet to confirm this.

Is this change in the law a minor concession or are we on the long and winding road towards the full legalisation and regulation of cannabis for recreational use in the UK?

In October, Canada became the second country to legalise cannabis, after Uruguay in 2013, following 17 years of legal medical cannabis. The legalisation of cannabis in ten US states and Washington DC, and its decriminalisation in a further 13 states, sprang from medicinal availability and this was a contributing factor in its normalisation.

In all those US states, laws on possession conflict with but ultimately supersede federal law. In theory, the centralised nature of government in the UK makes this more of a challenge. In practice, for several years now a number of UK police forces have had a famously lax policy on cannabis, in direct contravention of the letter of the law.

Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton has stated publicly on a number of occasions that his force will no longer pursue search warrants for people growing a small number of cannabis plants for personal consumption. After a two-year pilot, Barton launched a rehabilitation programme called Checkpoint, through which people caught in possession of drugs are funnelled instead of being convicted, effectively the equivalent of a Speed Awareness Course.

North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones is an outspoken advocate of treating cannabis in the same way we treat alcohol and has also appealed to MPs to consider legalising all drugs. In an amusing twist, presumably unintended by The Conservative Party, commissioners and chief constables are also citing severe budget cuts as a key reason for abandoning cannabis policing and shifting limited resources elsewhere.

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UKCSC website

In the spirit of peaceful civil disobedience, cannabis users across the country are banding together. UK Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC) is a network of over 80 'private membership clubs for adult medical and social use', inspired by similar groups in Spain. These clubs have very visible presences - both online and offline, as well as each being its own registered not-for-profit company - so it's hard to imagine that local police forces aren't aware of their regular meet-ups.

For several years we have been moving in the direction of decriminalisation in the UK, as reflected by shifts in policing but also in the British public's changing attitude to cannabis. Last month, a survey commissioned by Volteface and the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis indicated that 59% of people in the UK 'strongly support or tend to support' legalisation of cannabis, with 31% opposing. This support was strongest amongst 18 to 24-year-olds (68%), though also surprisingly high amongst over 65s (49%), a demographic historically opposed to reform. A YouGov poll released in May was less favourable, with 43% supporting legalisation and 41% opposing it. In both surveys, around three-quarters backed medical cannabis on prescription.

The most unlikely supporters of full legalisation and regulation of cannabis are also increasingly coming to the fore. Writing in The Telegraph in June, former Tory leader William Hague argued that the party should embrace legalisation because "any war has been comprehensively and irreversibly lost".

The problem is getting the ruling party to stick their heads above the parapet. David Cameron was famously supportive of the regulation of all drugs while a backbencher, but quickly denounced this position once in power. Perhaps more disappointingly, Jeremy Corbyn has been cagey when the subject has been broached, suggesting that he supports the decriminalisation of cannabis but not its legalisation, which is currently party policy for both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

There are many arguments for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. The damage that a criminal record for possession does to a young person's future - in terms of education, career prospects and the ability to travel, for example - often far outweighs the negative effects of actually using cannabis, and regardless there is no evidence that current laws put people off using it.

Likewise, a common sticking point is the potency of skunk in the UK. Strains containing high concentrations of THC, its main psychoactive ingredient, alongside critically low or non-existent levels of its sister cannabinoid CBD, have been linked to psychosis and mental health problems. CBD is not psychoactive but is thought to counter some of THC's negative effects. In any case, worries around potency can be addressed in large part through regulation, licensing and clear labelling, alongside appropriate health interventions. Imagine a situation where your only choice of alcohol was vodka. Many people would understandably have a much dimmer view of drinking and drinkers would be harming themselves more than they might like.

Policy as it stands is also underpinned by discrimination owing to the discretion police officers wield when enforcing, or choosing not to enforce, the law. A 2013 study into stop and search policing, conducted by Release and the London School of Economics, found that black people in London caught in possession of cannabis were charged at five times the rate of white people - a shocking disparity that is clearly due to the way drugs are policed, not rates of use. The links between cannabis cultivation, human trafficking and slavery - yes, slavery is not too strong a word - are also shocking, and can only be cut off by legalisation and regulation.

As for money - that age-old motivator of politicians of all stripes - this year Health Poverty Action estimated that a legal cannabis market could earn the Treasury between £1bn and £3.5bn a year in tax. Free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs also favours legalisation, estimating £690m in tax revenue and £300m in savings to government. The venture capitalists and investment bankers driving the North American market are no doubt eyeing the UK in anticipation.

Cannabis will not be legalised under the current administration, despite their absolute desperation to appeal to young voters. But as with all significant social change, it's a gradual process of erosion. In the end, as in Canada, the battle is likely to be won when the moral, economic and health arguments converge, backed up by brave politicians who are willing to say what they actually think. As Prof Nutt told me, "Once people see that cannabis is both useful and safe, then it will be easier to argue for full legalisation. This is what happened in the USA and Canada."

With changes happening apace in the US - the key political power that pushed draconian drug legislation out to the world in the first place - and recreational cannabis use increasingly becoming normalised this side of the pond, maybe we're closer to a turning point than we think.

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