On Friday July 6th, a private members bill introduced by Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West – the Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill, will receive its second reading.
It is hoped that this will bring relief to thousands of sick people in the UK by legalising the use of cannabis for medical purposes. The recent high-profile case of Billy Caldwell, who was denied the drug until Home Secretary Sajid Javid intervened, revealed a public mood that was by a majority in favour of change.
At the moment, the UK seems to be lagging behind the rest of the world in relaxing the cannabis laws, despite being a major producer of cannabis products:
“The UK is in the embarrassing position of producing 44% of the world’s medicinal cannabis yet forbids its use here.” Paul Flynn.
First, some facts and definitions:
- Cannabis has been classified as a Class B drug in the UK since 2008 and carries a prison sentence of up to five years for possession.
- Countries throughout the world have differing attitudes to cannabis use but they all tend to consider it from three aspects: recreational, medicinal, and trafficking (including cultivation). Each aspect may need to be handled differently.
- Thus, for example, the Netherlands approach is as follows:
Recreational – illegal but tolerated in ‘coffee shops’. Decriminalised up to 5 grams.
Medicinal use is fully legal
Cultivating and trafficking – illegal and criminal if more than 5 plants grown.
- The Uk approach is:
Recreational – illegal, a criminal offence
Medicinal – illegal
Cultivating and trafficking – illegal, a criminal offence
- Cannabis itself is getting stronger. The weed that hippies puffed in the 1960s contained around 1% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. Today’s THC levels can run to over 30% for some cannabis strains. At this level, it is a seriously strong drug that can damage the brain and cause psychosis.
In the UK, there seems to be a mood for change in the law towards legislation and regulation of some aspects of use, and certainly we are a country with some of the strictest laws in this respect.
Some people seem to think that this reflects a world trend because of high profile decriminalisation that has happened or is due to happen, in some countries, notably Uruguay and Canada and some US states
In reality, only a few countries are seriously promoting full legalisation of all forms of cannabis use and not all countries that have relaxed their laws are happy with the results. Certainly, most countries of any standing feel the need to retain some form of regulation.
The caution displayed by so many countries is probably based on the lessons that recent history provides: prohibition and similarly Draconian bans do not work, but at the other end of the scale, the unregulated flow of cheap drugs such as alcohol and tobacco does considerable damage to health, law and order. The trend in recent years has been to work towards reducing consumption of these ‘soft’ drugs, but using appeals to reason and health rather than the big stick. It therefore seems to many, irrational to be debating a loosening of the cannabis laws:
“At a time when governments are uniting to stop people smoking, should they really be becoming more laissez-faire about drug use?” (Kevin Sabet, US Academic and campaigner against cannabis decriminalisation.)
Loud and well-known voices are evident on both sides in the current debate and there are certainly arguments worth considering on both sides. But underneath the usual protestations, that it is not harmful, that it helps some sick people, that illegal trafficking causes other crimes or that it does no harm to others, is the fact that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’, one that leads people into more dangerous and harmful drugs such as heroin, cocaine or crystal meth. A lot of governments fear decriminalisation for this reason.
Here are some of the arguments for and against decriminalisation and or legalisation:
- – Each individual should have the right to decide whether or not to use cannabis, which in itself does no harm to others. The user should have the right to take the risk if they wish. It goes against our human rights to tell people how they can, or cannot, enjoy themselves.
- – Legalising cannabis would stop trafficking by criminal gangs. Legalisation would result in proper regulation and we would have a better and safer product.
- – Cannabis is much less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. Banning cannabis is therefore sheer hypocrisy. In addition, there are proven health benefits in the use of the drug, such as the regulation of epilepsy to the point of control, and the palliative effect on symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Making this illegal is a throwback to the sixties, when not enough was known about the drug. There is no evidence that cannabis causes physiological addiction.
- – Estimates in the United States suggest legalising cannabis for recreational and medical use would make the country about $18 billion every year. This would come from tax revenues on legal sales and savings in the justice system.
- – Cannabis appears to have some valid medicinal uses in controlled settings. However, everyday recreational use is very different and can do considerable harm, either physically (heart and lungs) or mentally (psychosis) or both. Smoking dope removes inhibitions and makes people stupid and a danger to themselves.
- – Cannabis is highly addictive. Regular use leads to dependence. A great many drug users in or out of jails are said to be cannabis dependent. Legalisation will mean that more people will experiment with the drug and become addicted
- – Legalising cannabis will not stop the criminal traffickers and the gangs, they will still flourish.
- – Crime in general is likely to increase as the number of smokers increases, much of all crime is drug related.
How have countries that legalised cannabis fared?
Reports of what happened after Portugal decriminalised cannabis for recreational use show a largely positive impact. The rate of overdose deaths has decreased as have prison costs. It may take longer to know all consequences (such as eg has it led to more young people starting drug use?)
Legalisation of cannabis in some US states appears to have the result that cannabis use increased in the states that had passed legislation
Uruguay received a lot of publicity when it legalised cannabis for recreational use in 2017, but the experiment was by no means a free-for-all, it was in fact strictly regulated in terms of cultivation, point of sale and pricing. So far, it has received a cautious approval:
“Uruguay has done well to keep with a strict regulatory model, while expanding the space.” (John Walsh, co-director of drug policy for the Washington Office on Latin America.)
Now eyes are turned towards Canada, where the drug is to be legalised for recreational and medicinal use this summer. If it is judged to be a success by other major countries, we may see a much more widespread move towards relaxation of laws.
There would seem to be a good case for the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use, subject to controls. Opinion in most major countries is leaning that way.
There appears to be little appetite for wholesale relaxation and full legalisation of cannabis for recreational use. Governments are aware of the dangers of unrestrained supply. Provided there are controls in place so that supply meets demand within a reasonable pricing structure, then more countries may be tempted to move in this direction.
Decriminalisation however, of using but not trafficking, does offer benefits in that it would reduce prison populations, free up police time and possibly reduce gang violence.
At Castle Craig we see many patients whose primary addiction is cannabis; we also see many patients whose drug of choice is different, but who use cannabis too. Cannabis can be both a ‘gateway drug’ that leads the user to more dangerous substances and a ‘filler’ drug’ that people use when they’ve run out of coke or need to relax/sleep.
However, what is very clear from the evidence we now have, is that regular use of cannabis is harmful and regular heavy use, particularly of the stronger varieties on offer, is damaging to health, both physical and mental.
But then, they have been saying that about alcohol and tobacco too, for a long time now.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | July 27, 2021