Sunday, October 21, 2018 12.20PM / By Christopher
Snowdon of IEA
With Canada, Uruguay and a growing number of US states abandoning cannabis prohibition, there is a real chance of European countries following suit. In Britain, however, enthusiasm for reform has faded since the 1990s as a result of "skunk" taking over the market.
In 2004, when Tony Blair’s government reclassified cannabis as a Class C drug, it was still considered to be a relatively "soft" substance and there was significant political support for its legalisation. Yet by the time Gordon Brown returned it to Class B status in 2008, public perception of the drug had begun to change.
Cannabis is now synonymous with high potency skunk, which is associated with dependency and psychosis. Around 70 per cent of the cannabis seized by police in the 1990s was resin. Today, more than 90 per cent is skunk.
Skunk is typically high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is associated with psychosis, and low in the non-intoxicating antipsychotic drug cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the main psychoactive substance in cannabis that makes the user feel stoned, but it can also cause side effects such as paranoia which tend to be mitigated by CBD.
The dominance of hazardous, high strength cannabis in the illicit market makes the case for legalisation stronger, not weaker.
With high levels of THC and low levels of CBD, skunk poses a threat to the mental health of a small but significant minority of users. Although the number of cannabis users fell by a third between 2006 and 2014, demand for treatment of cannabis-related mental health problems increased by more than 50 per cent.
It is no wonder then; that the campaign for liberalisation has stalled. And yet the dominance of hazardous, high strength cannabis in the illicit market makes the case for legalisation stronger, not weaker.
Opposing legalisation on the grounds that skunk has taken over the market is akin to opposing the end of alcohol prohibition because moonshine had taken over the market. Moonshine virtually disappeared after alcohol was re-legalised in the USA in 1933 and the same would happen to the strongest strains of cannabis if the drug were re-legalised today.
Legalising cannabis would alleviate the mental health issues associated with cannabis in two ways.
First, it would allow safer, regulated cannabis with maximum THC levels and minimum CBD levels to displace the more dangerous strains that have taken over the market.
Secondly, it would generate tax revenue that could be spent on mental health services.
Instead of spending money on the lost cause of prohibition we could be saving money and generating taxable income.
In a on Friday (June 28), I estimate that 255 tonnes of cannabis were sold in the UK in 2016/17 at a cost to end users of £2.6 billion. This is not a trivial sum. Under legalisation, prices would fall, but the industry would still be worth around £2 billion per annum, making it twice the size of the cider industry and three times the size of the bingo industry. It would be a small but significant part of the economy.
With maximum THC levels, minimum CBD levels and strict age controls, tax on the product alone could realistically produce revenues of £690 million per annum. Additional streams of revenue from income tax, corporation tax and business rates paid by the industry and its suppliers could run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.
In 2015, the legal marijuana industry in Colorado – a state with a population that is less than a tenth of the UK’s – created 18,000 full-time jobs. Excise tax on marijuana is expected to reach $1 billion in California this year.
Not everything can be reduced to nickels and dimes but the public interest arguments for maintaining prohibition have collapsed. Cannabis has become more dangerous to its users’ mental health because of prohibition, not despite it. In many parts of the country, children find it easier to obtain cannabis than alcohol.
Done properly, cannabis legalisation is a win-win-win: criminals lose a lucrative industry, the burden on the general taxpayer is reduced and consumers get a better product at a lower price.
Governments around the world are waking up to this. As the world’s largest producer of cannabis, albeit for medical use, the UK is well placed to lead the way in Europe. It is high time to legalise.
Meanwhile, our Associate Director Kate Andrews has also been writing about cannabis legalisation, noting that policy changes in the USA and Canada around legalisation should encourage the UK to follow suit.
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