Should we legalise cannabis?

The issue of legalising cannabis has been in the news in recent weeks.

It began with a heart-rending story about a small boy who was having up to 50 epileptic seizures a day and his mother’s wish for him to receive medicinal cannabis oil, which relieved his symptoms. The Home Secretary then obliged with a temporary licence, but made it clear there were no intentions to legalise cannabis for recreational use.

 So, what are the arguments? Research indicates that around 3 million UK adults regularly smoke cannabis – 7% of the adult population. The reputation of cannabis as a ‘soft drug’ has been somewhat tarnished in recent years because the nature of cannabis itself has changed. Let me explain: cannabis contains two chemical compounds – Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). It’s the THC that gets you stoned! But THC can also cause mental health problems in a small, but significant number of users – particularly people with a history of mental illness. High doses of THC can cause psychotic episodes and paranoia. CBD, on the other hand, acts as a natural anti-psychotic medication and so mitigates the chances of the mental health problems that can arise from THC use.

 

‘Traditional cannabis’ contained a balanced mix of THC and CBD, but in the first decade of this century it was pushed out of the black market by sinsemilla – ‘skunk’ – which has a high level of THC and very little CBD. Mental health referrals began to climb. Between 2006 and 2014 it is estimated that use of skunk declined by 25%, but THC-induced mental health referrals rose by 50%. Those advocating legalisation, argue that we’ve failed to suppress the mass market for cannabis and that a licensed, legal market would be a better way of managing use and reducing harm.

So, how might this work? Firstly, government would have to mandate a maximum level of THC, and a minimum level of CBD – to create a safer product. But this ‘safer cannabis’ would also have to be cheaper than black market skunk. So, there is plenty of margin here - for producers, retailers and government which would introduce a cannabis duty and levy VAT. It would also be necessary to ensure the product was easily available – convenience stores and a network of cannabis cafes.

 

But THC-induced mental health problems didn’t start with skunk – they just got worse. So, if consumption of legal cannabis was to remain the same, the incidence of mental health referrals would fall. If consumption significantly increased, the incidence of mental health referrals would still fall, but the absolute number of them might rise.

Hopefully, you can now see why this is a difficult issue for politicians. On the face of it, if we accept that we can’t suppress a mass market in an open society, and that a failed policy of prohibition just lines the pockets of criminals, then licensing sales of a quality-controlled product where we can control strength and ingredients, and deliver a revenue stream for government seems like a win-win situation. But who would grow and produce cannabis products? Well, the tobacco industry is best placed to do so. And who would retail them – c-store chains, bar chains or coffee chains? You can imagine the narrative of those opposed to change – that Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol are behind this.

My own view is that, on balance, a licensing system offers a better chance of public protection and harm reduction than the status quo. But politically, in the UK, I just don’t think this kite will fly.

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