Could UK's Covid crisis lead to cannabis legalisation?

Could the UK's coronavirus crisis lead to a change in policy on cannabis? Credit: Unsplash/ PA
  • Words by ITV News multimedia producer Charlie Bayliss

As the economic cost of coronavirus deepens, questions of how the government plans to pay back the mounting debt continue to be asked.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak so far appear reluctant to raise taxes, fearful it could hamper the UK's economic fightback and push more people into hardship.

The UK's public debt currently exceeds 100% of its gross domestic product, according to the Office for National Statistics. The mounting crisis could force the Treasury to consider looking at alternative means by which to plug the £2tn hole in public finances.

Cannabis legalisation has been on the fringes of political discussion in the UK for several years, with a steady level of support at grassroots level.

As more countries across the world move to decriminalise marijuana, could Covid-19 provide the political wind of change needed for major legislation reform?

'Whole series' of arguments for legalisation

Previous reports produced on cannabis legalisation in the UK estimate the market could be worth anywhere between £1bn to £3.5bn.

Other associated benefits have been linked to the decriminalisation of cannabis, such as reducing pressure on police and the courts, which could also help save public funds.

Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at Transform Drugs and who authored the Liberal Democrat's report into cannabis decriminalisation in 2016, believes policy reform is long overdue.

Several countries have legalised cannabis in the past few years. Credit: Unsplash

"People have been advocating cannabis legalisation for years, but not for revenue generation, more for public health, crime reduction, stop-and-search reasons," he said.

"There's a whole series of arguments for cannabis legalisation and revenue generation. From my perspective, it's actually a bonus if it happens. It's not a reason to do it."

He added: "When the report was first published, cannabis legalisation was only just getting moving. There are now 15 US states [where cannabis is decriminalised]. Part of the wider political context is that its more normalised than it was even five years ago.

"Four US states voted to legalise cannabis in the US presidential election. Mexico is legalising cannabis, Canada has legalised cannabis. Many other European countries are moving the same way too.

"Crisis often allows for revolutionary change and we're in an unprecedented economic crisis, and it will demand radical new thinking. Increasingly, cannabis legalisation isn't that radical."

Martin Drury, CEO of Health Policy Action, an international NGO established by health professionals, said economic reasons are just one of many reasons the UK should look into decriminalising cannabis.

If cannabis was legalised, it would create new markets for other goods involving the substance, say some advocates. Credit: Unsplash

He said: "With illicit trades, you don't have that money in the formalised economy. There's no real money at the moment in cannabis-related drinks, cakes, sweets and so forth. All of that can happen. It can help become job creator. There will need to be a regulatory board, all of that creates jobs.

"In the hospitality industry, it opens the possibility of cannabis cafes. There's business opportunities everywhere which are being denied."

But Adrian Crossley, head of addiction and crime at the Centre for Social Justice, said estimates from other countries show cannabis legalisation may not be as economically fruitful as some predict.

"Cannabis, by being legalised, will create more problems than it solves," Mr Crossley said. "I don't think this is the right way forward to raise revenue which is clearly needed.

"It's very difficult to project what the revenue will be, and the figures which vary between £1bn to £3.5bn will tell you that.

"You can see the divergence and it's very difficult to predict what they will be. The international models tell us that too."

Rishi Sunak has so far been reluctant to raise taxes, which could mean the government need to look at alternative revenue streams. Credit: PA

In the US, advocates for cannabis legalisation envisaged the drug raising $1bn a year. However, the state failed to raise a third of that sum in 2018-19, the first full year since recreational sales began.

Massachusetts projected it would bring in $63 million in revenue for its first year of recreational cannabis, which ended in June, but failed to reach half that sum.

While some states exceeded their estimates, the figures show a "volatility" in the market, Mr Crossley said.

"The costs associated with legalisation are not nil and they are equally volatile. Monitoring the product, where it goes to, what the advertising is like. Alcohol and gambling have governing bodies which monitor what's put out and that will be no different with cannabis.

He added: "Then you have the added cost of addiction. While the vast majority of people will unlikely fall into addiction, it's a costly process."

"The more money it brings in, the more people are smoking cannabis. If you're an entrepreneur, you're going to be motivated commercially to not just go after the existing customer base, but to find new customers.

"Getting revenue shouldn't even be on the radar in my view. Public health and societal issues should be first and foremost."

What impact could legalisation have on public health?

For those on both sides of the legalisation debate, public health is often cited as the leading reason behind their argument.

There are an estimated two million regular cannabis users in the UK, and how best to ensure their safety is a top priority.

Mr Drury said: "Legalisation can open the door for more regulation. You can't regulate an illegal market. You can't really do proper public health education about harm reduction if the market is illegal.

"The public messaging is just 'don't take drugs'... We've been successful in messaging around tobacco and reducing its consumption, but there's no comparative public health messaging in the cannabis market.

California has legalised cannabis but their revenue has fallen short of initial predictions. Credit: AP

"You can regulate it for strength and they'll know it's pure. Customers would also know it's been ethically sourced and where it comes from."

However, a conflicting theory is decriminalisation could lead to a raft of new users, which potentially could increase strain on the NHS and mental health services.

Research shows 10% of regular cannabis users become dependent on the drug. As with other addictive substances, such as cocaine and heroin, you can develop a tolerance to cannabis. This means you need more to get the same effect.

Other health issues which can come for cannabis use include developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. It can also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and impact your fertility.

Mr Rolles, who has advised other countries on their decriminalisation programmes, said legalising cannabis the wrong way could have serious public health consequences.

"If it's about maximising public revenue, then you will want to sell as much cannabis as possible," said Mr Rolles.

"It needs to be managed carefully as it's not just about revenue."

One controversial argument is that cannabis use can lead to the use of other drugs.

But Mr Crossley said while for the vast majority of people this is not the case, the distinction between categorising different substances can be partly due to socio-economic factors.

Mr Crossley said: "Drawing a line between cannabis and heroin is often about class.

"Most cannabis users are under 30 and they go right across the social spectrum, from richest to poorest. Often with something like heroin users, it tends to be the more deprived in society."

He added: "Many people who use drugs will be poly-substance users. They won't just use one drug, they might use multiple.

"I'm not suggesting everyone who takes cannabis does this, but to draw strict lines between different drugs, for me, often becomes non-sensical. It's just the drug that you like, that you want legal."

How cannabis legalisation could impact the criminal justice system in the UK

Alongside public health, the burgeoning cost cannabis has on the court system and society has been cited as a key reason for decriminalisation.

Those in possession of cannabis can face up to five years in prison, while those involved in the supply or production of the drug face up to 14 years behind bars.

And in 2019/20, there were around 175,000 drug offences recorded by police in England and Wales - 13% higher than the previous year. Cannabis possession was the main drug offence recorded, accounting for 63% of arrests.

Max de Leon, right, a budtender at The Green Cross cannabis dispensary, smiles while handing a cleaning wipe to a customer in San Francisco. Credit: AP

"I'm not happy with people's first reaction being a criminal justice one," Mr Crossley said.

"I think that's disproportionate. Very often, behind drug use and addiction, there's often trauma and a coping mechanism.

"What I advocate is the use of diversion programmes, such as the one being used by West Midlands Police.

"It defers prosecution if you enrol on these courses. I've spoken to drug users who started in the '80s and they tell me they're angry that for most of their life, when they meet the right person, are given the chance to think again about their drug use."

A report by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) in 2013 estimated court proceeding for cannabis offences amount to around £100m per year, which is comparable to policing costs.

Mr Rolles said if cannabis was legalised, this "heavy burden" of "pointless cannabis cases" would allow police to focus on other priorities. "These are sources which have an economic value," he added. "Money that the Treasury would have to spend on policing wouldn't have to be spent, as capacity would be freed up." Is there support among MPs?

While neither the Conservative and Labour parties have no plans to legalise cannabis, there is cross-party support among some MPs.

Senior Conservative figures, including former party leader Lord William Hague and Crispin Blunt MP, are among a few Tories who have publicly advocated for cannabis decriminalisation.

Mr Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, called for an "evidence-based approach" to cannabis legalisation. He added: "It provides an opportunity for people to work, to be able to get fiscal income from taxes you might levy on products sold, but also income working people in the business and the businesses themselves, like corporate taxes.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt is in favour of legalising cannabis and believes the prime minister would consider decriminalising the drug. Credit: PA

"The economic case for making this legal is extremely strong, exactly how strong remains to be seen over time.

"But those aren't the reasons for making such a policy change. Change would need to carry the confidence of the country and be the right thing to do in its own terms to protect public health, protect children and reduce crime. Economic benefits are a welcome bonus."

Mr Blunt said he has raised the issue of decriminalisation with the prime minister and believes Mr Johnson would be willing to review the UK's existing policy on cannabis.

"I have every confidence that when the opportunity comes to assess the evidence, we will then have an evidence-based policy. I don't think the prime minister has an ideological view," he said.

"For some time, politicians have had the ideological view that drugs are bad, and then they have blinded themselves to the consequences of their prejudice. That prejudice has led to a global disaster."

Jeff Smith MP, a member of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, said the government should use the current environment created by coronavirus to "engage seriously" with "growing evidence" on recreational cannabis.

He said: "Emerging outcomes from north and south America suggest that implementing such a model can be effective in reducing the size of the illicit cannabis market, restricting access to underage use, and improving product safety and user health.

"But particularly now, when the Government says it must urgently raise revenue, and when there is an upcoming unemployment crisis, it would be a sensible thing to explore.

"It would also create savings for the police and criminal justice system, as well as creating jobs."

If cannabis were legalised, it could alievate pressure on the courts and police service, advocates argue. Credit: PA

Fellow Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy said: "We need an evidence-based strategy for dealing with substance abuse, which has harm reduction to users and communities at its heart.

"When it comes to cannabis, all the evidence nationally and internationally points to legalisation, taking revenue out of criminal hands and allowing the government to better regulate the substance and its use."

Despite a growing number of countries who have pushed or are pushing for cannabis legalisation, it seems unlikely the UK government could follow suit.

In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Given the harms cannabis can cause, the UK Government has no plans to legalise cannabis for recreational use.

"The penalties for unauthorised supply, possession and production are necessary to uphold the law.”