The drugs which kill the most have been legalised for centuries, so how will legalising cannabis make much difference?

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It was good to hear Vince recently confirm his whole-hearted support for our policy of legalising cannabis. I also fully support the policy, which is actually quite a “baby step” when you consider the plethora of drugs readily available today – with more becoming available (including via the internet to one’s postbox) by the day.

I do think we need to be careful not to portray the cannabis policy as a black and white “cure all”. The whole area of drugs is extraordinarily complex. There are no quick fixes/easy answers. We must continue to listen to professionals who deal with drug abuse day in, day out. Some do indeed support the legalisation (I prefer to call it “regulation”) of cannabis. They include the panel of experts who wrote the report considered by conference last year. But I have also heard professionals who do not support the policy.

There is one point on which we need to have a ready answer. I would welcome views on this. That is, if legalisation of a drug such as cannabis is such a good idea then how come the drugs that are the biggest killers and the costliest for society – by a country mile – are actually legal and highly regulated, and have been for centuries?

I refer, of course, to alcohol and nicotine.

And I am very sorry, but it is no good our answer being – oh, that is alcohol, that is tobacco (nicotine) – they are different. Of course they are not. They are mind-altering drugs. They are (particularly alcohol) packaged up in the most seductive and socially “accepted” ways but they are our biggest drug killers.

So if both alcohol and nicotine have been legal and highly regulated for centuries, and yet cause far, far more damage (in terms of deaths and the costs to society) than all the other drugs put together, then how the heck is legalising cannabis going to make much difference? In fact, based on the track record of legal alcohol and nicotine, could it not well make things worse?

Discuss.

…And I apologise for being very devil’s advocatey at the end, there.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is a councillor and one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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35 Comments

  • Dazzled by the glare of the headlights?

    I think before we get to carried away with numbers it might be interesting to normalise them so that a more meaningful comparison can be done, so what are the costs per 100 (or so) users/addicts. I also think that simply going through this process (ie. attempting to get comparable metrics) will also inform the debate.

  • “So if both alcohol and nicotine have been legal and highly regulated for centuries, and yet cause far, far more damage”……..

    ………in the meantime the Liberal Democrats – and some former Lib Dem MP’s – actually received donations from the Scotch Whiskey Association. They were very tardy in supporting minimum pricing and actually spoke up for reducing the tax on spirits.

    Hey, ho, nonny, nonny no ………. Oh for the innocent days of the Band of Hope and the Nonconformist conscience.

    I’d go for legalisation….. but with a hefty tax (to help fund the NHS)……. and an education campaign.

  • Paul,

    I also support the principle of legalisation of cannabis, but I do think we need to have much more emphasis on the kind of safeguards to be put in place to restrict access by minors. There appears to be a significant body of evidence that cannabis use in adolescense is a major cause of psychosis in later years.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Sep '17 - 3:18pm

    Do not forget the link to illegal immigration. suppose an empty 3 bedroom semi-detached house in a nice suburb like yours has all the curtains drawn all the time and the electricity meter has been short-circuited. There may be a greenhouse effect being measured by a police helicopter overhead. On entering the house they find one occupant watering the plants who does not speak English (or Welsh). He does not have a passport and declines to say who his contacts are. He is the usual nationality and claims to be in fear of ruthless criminals.

  • And what usual nationality might that be, Richard ?

    Are you associating criminals with one particular ethnic group ?

  • I do think we need to have much more emphasis on the kind of safeguards to be put in place to restrict access by minors

    Well, that should be fine once it’s legalised and regulated, because as everyone knows regulation means that children never got hold of alcohol and tobacco.

  • Just as everyone knows that the man in the ice-cream van always checks ID!

    I too think we need to keep the emphasis on regulation, both in the actual policy and how we describe it. It’s too easy for ‘legalisation’ to be interpreted, accidentally or maliciously, as a free for all. But of course regulation requires legalisation, so that is technically correct.

    Some of the advantages of regulation, for which I envision licensing to be trickier than for alcohol and/or tobacco, is we’ll have a better understanding of just how many people are using, and in what form etc. At present it’s guesswork to correlate health effects to users, because people lie about use, even to their own GP. If people do have cannabis related health problems, regulation will make it easier to get the necessary information from the patient.

    It’s very fair to remind us that such a policy won’t be solving all of the drug problems, and there needs to be an honest discussion of what they actually are, but without the hyperbole that usually comes with the drugs debate. Nevertheless, I think that sensible regulation (lets do some pilot studies to start with) will have a substantial net benefit for society, and fixating on the problems of regulation, neglecting the known problems of prohibition, results in a lost opportunity to protect vulnerable people.

  • Jonathan Linin 4th Sep '17 - 10:08pm

    But do we want another drug. Smoking is declining. I suspect drinking has become more of a private vice than a social one but the rapid closure of pubs in my area suggests drinking behaviours are changing… so let’s introduce something else damaging.

    JoeB points out rightly the risks of psychosis, and unlike alcoholism you can’t give up the drug and resume a normal life. Schizoid disorders are for life. OK you can do an age check to prevent kids getting their hands on it but that doesn’t work very well with cigarettes and alcohol does it.

  • David Pocock 4th Sep '17 - 11:53pm

    Legalise it regardless of Any of this. If it is a substance that we know the dangers of and can inform the users then surely we treat people like adults and let them get on with it.

    That goes for tobacco and alcohol IMHO. Where does it stop otherwise. Getting chocolate with nasty pictures? Anti caffeine adverts between TV programmes.

    I think there is a well established principle that liberals should respect peoples right to choose what they do with their bodies. Perhaps if we treat people like adults they will use these substances like adults.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Sep '17 - 7:32am

    @Paul Walter
    ¨Apparently GPs tend use a multiplier of two or three when people tell them how many units of alcohol they drink each week….¨

    I´ve often wondered about the basis for telling us the number of units/week to which we should limit ourselves – perhaps the guidance is all fabrication….?

  • Andrew Tampion 5th Sep '17 - 9:02am

    Since the policy of regulating and subsequently criminilisation of recreation drugs only dates to the First World War in the UK then you could argue that it is re-legalisation rather than legalisation.
    Consider the 19th and 20th Century’s when opium and other drugs were legal and widely available. Apart from the agricultural and industrial revolutions, Parliamentary Reform, abolition of the Slave Trade, creating the greatest empire the world has ever seen what did our country achieve? Just think how much more we could have done if only we had had the foresight to ban drugs in 1700?
    Irony apart as a liberal I would support the legalisation of all non prescription drugs now.

  • @ Andrew Tampion, “Since the policy of regulating and subsequently criminilisation of recreation drugs only dates to the First World War in the UK then you could argue that it is re-legalisation rather than legalisation.”

    Yes, by a Liberal Government that didn’t want people walking round in a self indulgent daze at a time of emergency. They also took a pretty strict view on alcohol and legislated restrictions on that.

    The traditional liberal notion of exalting the individual is of an autonomous well educated citizen participating fully in society and capable of making intelligent rational decisions. How far consuming cannabis measures up to that ideal I leave it to others to consider.

  • Phil Beesley 5th Sep '17 - 10:38am

    Legalising cannabis takes away an illegal business from Group A and places it with new businesses, Group B. Some of Group B will be illegal sellers going legal, as well as new enterprises. I’m not convinced that tobacco companies would enter the market owing to the reputation problems they already have.

    How might illegal sellers from Group A respond, if they choose not to go legal, when their business is removed? On the whole, I believe in legalisation of cannabis but we have to understand how change might affect the market for psychoactive substances.

  • I’m not convinced that tobacco companies would enter the market owing to the reputation problems they already have

    Other way round, surely: their reputations already can’t get much lower, so what’s to stop them?

    How might illegal sellers from Group A respond, if they choose not to go legal, when their business is removed?

    Well, the traditional way is to throw boxes of tea into bodies of water.

  • Peter Reynolds 5th Sep '17 - 11:14am

    It’s interesting to see the caution expressed by commenters here. That’s far better than the rabid hysteria in other politcial parties but it is still based on a flawed understanding of cannabis and its risks.

    Similarly, although I have great admiration for the party’s courage in adopting this policy, Clegg, Farron, Lamb and Cable all respond to the cannabis issue as if they were talking about heroin.

    The fact is that cannabis is largely benign for 99% of people. Of course children can be harmed by any psychoactive substance and age limits is one of the most important benefits of legalisation.

    We have all been systematically misinformed and misled about the risks of cannabis. Successive governments have been engaged in this for nearly 50 years and it’s been supported by speculative, observational studies which use the most esoteric, statistical techniques to come up with quite frightening predictions about cannabis and mental health. However, we now have more than enough FACTS of actual diagnoses and treatment to dispel the myths that this propaganda campaign has created.

    1. In the past five years there has been an average of just 28 finished admission episodes per year of cannabis induced psychosis in under 18s https://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2015-03-17.227980.h&s=drug

    2. Of all those under-18s in GP/community health treatment for cannabis use disorder, Public Health England’s own data shows that 89% were coerced into treatment by the courts or educational institutions. Only 11% went into treatment voluntarily believing they needed it. Table 2.4.1 http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/young-peoples-statistics-from-the-ndtms-1-april-2015-to-31-march-2016.pdf

    The net of this propaganda, speculative ‘evidence’ and hard facts is that there is massively more harm caused by enforcement of the laws against cannabis and those few harms that are caused could be greatly reduced within a legally regulated market.

    This policy is a no brainer that will produce massive improvements in public health and savings in expedicture.

  • Peter Watson 5th Sep '17 - 12:38pm

    @Peter Reynolds “In the past five years there has been an average of just 28 finished admission episodes per year of cannabis induced psychosis in under 18s ”
    Picking up Roland’s point about normalising the data, how does this look as a proportion of the number of 18 year olds who used cannabis in that period, and how might the total then look if cannabis use increases to the levels of alcohol and cigarette use in young people?

  • Peter Watson 5th Sep '17 - 12:58pm

    I think the biggest challenge for this policy, regardless of its merits or otherwise, is that the thought of legalising cannabis makes people (myself included) uncomfortable: it just doesn’t feel right. Even if the evidence supports it unambiguously, it will need a really hard sell.

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '17 - 1:16pm

    Peter Watson 5th Sep ’17 – 12:38pm
    @Peter Reynolds ‘In the past five years there has been an average of just 28 finished admission episodes per year of cannabis induced psychosis in under 18s’
    Picking up Roland’s point about normalising the data, how does this look as a proportion of the number of 18 year olds who used cannabis in that period, and how might the total then look if cannabis use increases to the levels of alcohol and cigarette use in young people?

    Hard to get at useful figures. However, looking at survey data for “young adults” (16-24 years old), which is probably a decent proxy, it appears that:

    15.8% used cannabis in 2015/16, of whom 37% were classed as “frequent users”, suggesting about 6% of all young adults (9.1% reported having used “in the last month”). (<a href="https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/564760/drug-misuse-1516.pdf"Data here)

    In an ONS survey in 2014, 48% of those aged 16 to 24 reported drinking alcohol in the previous week, which is probably roughly comparable with “frequent users” of cannabis.

    So if cannabis use post-legalisation simply scaled up amongst young adults to equate to use of alcohol currently (a mighty big assumption itself, of course) and if that resulted in a straightforward scaling up of cannabis-induced psychosis (another huge assumption there) then you’d maybe be looking at 200 cases a year. Maybe.

  • paul barker 5th Sep '17 - 2:50pm

    @ Peter Watson.
    In London at least, Cannabis use is already “Legal” in the sense that The Police make no attempt to stop it. The laws against Cannabis are used mostly as an extra weapon against people being arrested for something else. Its a very unhealthy situation, tempting Police Officers into throwing their weight around & undermining respect for The “Rule of Law”.
    It doesnt help in fighting Racism that Dealers, who are generally prosecuted are often BAME while recreational users (who arent) are often White British & prosperous. How does that look to people at the recieving end of The Law ?

  • A Social Liberal 5th Sep '17 - 3:34pm

    Now that tobacco is taxed heavily there is a huge upsurge in counterfeit and smuggled (and therefore cheaper) products. If legal cannabis is going to be priced higher than street prices or if it is so weak that it is not in competition with the illegal stuff then many drug users are going to carry on buying from dealers.

    And this is the rub – why are we legalising the drug? Is it to correct a wrong – why just grass and not crack, angel dust or chrystal meths. After all, tobacco killed many more than all those drugs put together. Is it because it’s costing too much to police, if the scenario in my first paragraph becomes reality then there will be no savings. Then you have those who will want to get freebies by growing their own, will they be prosecuted in the same way as those running stills?

    I didn’t like the policy when it was passed, I don’t like it now – it is ill conceived and not thoroughly thought through.

  • I’ve never understood the inclusion of the damaging aspect of drugs in the legalisation conversation, after all, it shouldn’t matter. What should matter is trusting individuals to make their own decisions and affording them the right to bodily autonomy.

  • Andrew Tampion 5th Sep '17 - 5:26pm

    @ David Raw. There we’ll be a case for regulation in times of genuine emergency but it seems to have escaped your notice that the emergency ended in 1918 but the policy of ever stricter regulation of drugs continued. I am not sure that I recognise your definition of the liberal view of exalting the individual or even what it means but taking it on your terms I would much rather let people live their lives as they choose and trust them to make their own decisions than have people dictated to by a Government or anybody else. I drink alcohol but I don’t smoke or use drugs. I don’t wish to stop people smoking or using drugs any more than I wish to compel them to drink alcohol. In any case one thing that I have learnt in life is that if people want to do anything however harmful it may be then they will find a way. The whole farce of “legal highs” is proof of this proposition.

  • Sorry to disappoint you, Andrew, but ‘it may have escaped your notice’ that technically we were in a state of War until 28 June, 1919.

    I’m not too surprised you don’t understand the rational autonomous citizen as the Liberal ideal. You say, “In any case one thing that I have learnt in life is that if people want to do anything however harmful it may be then they will find a way.” So that’s OK then. If you feel like driving on the right hand side of the road it’s just a matter of self expression. Anything goes. I’m afraid that’s anarchism not liberalism.

  • Peter Watson 5th Sep '17 - 8:10pm

    The last three posts from Ibrahim, Andrew Tampion and David Raw about the freedom of an individual to make bad choices go to the heart of the issue for liberalism, and the degree to which cannabis should be regulated is more of a technicality.

  • I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth a read by anyone interested in the subject:

    https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/dose-reality-effect-state-marijuana-legalizations#full

    This report is a very thorough study of the effect of legalising cannabis in the US. The conclusion is that very little changes, apart from the tax income earned by the State governments that legalised it. In particular, there was no significant increase in cannabis use following legalisation – people inclined to use it already were, and they simply changed from criminal to legal suppliers.

  • Andrew Tampion 6th Sep '17 - 7:33am

    @ David Raw. Whilst the war may have formally ended in 1919 the emergency clearly ended with the armistice in 1918.
    As far as your regulation point is concerned I refer you to the final paragraph of my post of 09.02 yesterday. You will see that I destinguished between access to recreational drugs and access to prescribed drugs. Clearly there are good reasons for restricting access to some drugs such as antibiotics. For me the test is are any restrictions necessary at all and if they are what is the minimum necessary to achieve the legitimate goal.
    Consider the recent spate of acid attacks which have left several,people horribly injured: do you say that access to bleach and other domestic substances that happen to be corrosive should be prohibited because some people misuse them?
    Another benefit of a general re-legalisation of recreational drugs would be a drastic reduction in the prison population.
    Suggest you re-read John Stuart Mills famous essay On Liberty and reflect on it.

  • @ Andrew Tampion “Suggest you re-read John Stuart Mills famous essay On Liberty and reflect on it.” It never leaves my bedside, Andrew, but to save time could you point me to the page you consider most appropriate ?

    As to the state of emergency ending on 11 November, 1918, I gather that before the war there were nearly 200,000 convictions a year for drunkeness. By 1918 this had fallen to 29,000. Again. out of interest. it would be helpful if you could tell me when and why the Lloyd George Coalition considered it safe to repeal that part the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) dealing with alcohol ?

  • Hugh Robertson 6th Sep '17 - 11:42am

    Cannabis cannot possibly “make things worse”. Tobacco causes cancer, heart disease; alcohol causes numerous conditions and is also responsible for most assaults in this country. And they are both physically addictive.

    Cannabis is not physically addictive, does not cause disease, and the facts are that it effectively combats many diseases, and can even send most cancers into remission.
    Stress relief saves lives and reduces disease – cannabis reduces stress.

    Alcohol and tobacco kill thousands of people daily – cannabis is non-lethal with an LD50 so high you cannot consume enough to kill you.

    Legalising cannabis will reduce alcohol and tobacco use – facts in US prove this.

    Every way you look at it, legalising cannabis will only improve the health of the nation….

  • John Littler 7th Sep '17 - 7:36pm

    Criminalising cannabis has not stopped people using it as it is incredibly easy to get hold of illegally and has made the dangers far, far worse. About 90% of what is out there now is Skunk, which is ridiculously strong and maybe ought to be classified differently.

    The hash or resin out there is always mixed with rubbish, usually cancer causing candle wax and anything to bulk it out, whatever the consequences, such as cleaning products to give the impression that it might be doing something.

    I would not touch any of the stuff that is available, but if it were legalised and treated as a health issue, it could be regulated according to age of user, according to strength desired, very high strength Skunk could receive tighter controls and warnings or perhaps trial banned and the nasty additives on which extra illegal profits are made, could be kept out.

    Richard Branson is “ready to roll” with the brands and designs trade mark registered. Much tax revenue would follow. The criminal Justice system would save many billions and there would be no need to disadvantage young people with a criminal record which would not help them, their families or society, where they had been unlucky and been one of the few caught out, from the many using it.

    The arguments about it being a gateway drug cannot be correct if people are buying it from a tobacconist who obviously does not sell Cocaine or Heroine and in the meantime, it’s availability legally through efficient modern business distribution would undercut illegal suppliers and put those out of business, making gateways into other more damaging areas even less likely.

    There are arguments about the drug causing psychosis, but that is happening now when it is illegal as a Class “b” drug and is mainly down to super strength skunk and the impurities. It would be lessened if controlled and legalised and treated as an open, medical issue with official warnings. But you are not going to stop people smoking it and the past century and a bit proves that.

    Skunk has had the THC content expanded massively by selective growing, at the expense of other active compounds in most other forms of cannabis, with differing and to some extent countering effects to the heavier, depressive effect of the THC.

  • John Littler 7th Sep '17 - 7:36pm

    2.
    By putting illegal pushers out of business, criminal gangs will not have their regular cash flow to finance other criminal activities, such as people trafficking.

    The original source of the general ban on the drug came from an Indian doctor attending an International medical conference over 100 years ago, who spun a tale of transparent myths about the drug which still cling on today. Other more liberal countries now finding their models of de-criminalisation and legalisation are out there, include various USA federal states, Canada, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and several South American countries.

    Controlled legalisation would be a win win and all credit to the LibDems, my party, for consistently coming out against the illiberal right wing and tabloid voices attacking the move, spreading lies and creating a dangerous health issue that need not be happening to this extent as well as misery for the poor sods who happen to get caught. .

  • The reason would be people driving. Road deaths are quite a big killer and though alcohol is a big contributing factor, at least we have mechanisms to measure this.

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