Liberalism vs. authoritarianism in the debate over cannabis


In York, conference voted to create a regulatory framework for cannabis. This is a move that I wholeheartedly support and I’d like to draw on the example of Colorado to explain why.

On the 1st of January 2014, Colorado fully legalised cannabis for recreational purposes. Within four months they raised $10 million dollars in tax revenue which they invested in education and infrastructure.

Crime dropped by 10% and violent crime dropped by 5%. The marijuana industry also created thousands of jobs and by October unemployment was at its lowest since 2008.

Colorado also legalised marijuana for medicinal purposes meaning that people suffering from ailments such as chronic pain and cancer could effectively alleviate their pain without fear of prosecution or risking their freedom.

For the people of Colorado, cannabis has very much been a wonder drug and they quickly discovered that you don’t have to smoke weed to feel the benefits of legalisation.

Economic, societal and medicinal benefits aside, for me the case of legalisation boils down to one core issue: liberalism vs. authoritarianism.

Liberalism is about making decisions based on evidence and rational thinking, not misinformation and prejudice. Liberals believe that if you’re not hurting anyone, what you do in your spare time is your business and yours alone. Liberalism puts control of people’s lives in the hands of the people themselves and trusts them with it.

I’m proud that my party joined me in casting the liberal vote, voting to create a regulatory framework for legalising cannabis. In doing so they reaffirmed my strongly held belief that the Liberal Democrats are the part of evidence-based policy, the party of putting control back into the hands of the people, the party for liberals.

* Ben Lawrie is the youngest Liberal Democrat Councillor in Scotland, representing the Monifieth & Sidlaw Ward on Angus Council. He was the candidate for the Angus Constituency in the 2019 General Election.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Yup

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '16 - 8:18pm

    Hi Ben, passive smoking means the debate is not quite so simple, in my opinion. I’ve rarely understood why liberals get so passionate about recreational cannabis, but seeing my newborn nephew having to inhale cannabis from the passive smoking from other flats in my brother’s building strengthens my view on it. I’ve asked my brother if he can get them to stop, but he has asked the landlord and he won’t do anything.

    I believe cannabis should be legalised, but I want action on passive smoking.

    A society where the government steps back and mainly allows people to sort problems out for themselves could just leave to more violence. The government is there to enforce fairness.

  • Glad you agree Jennie!
    Eddie, I see the points you make about passive smoking and I totally agree that passive smoking must be taken into consideration.
    People should be allowed to smoke cannabis but there should be restrictions on doing so in public as there is with cigarettes.
    I’d prefer that it was smoked outside and not in the vicinity of children but I’m not sure how easy it would be to enforce this.

  • So violent crime dropped after cannabis was legalised – in what way did legislation cause this? Were users being violent, violently protesting, frequent victims? What was the trend before? I don’t know the answer but think statistics like this actually hinder the argument if they are not put into the proper context.

    A quick google tells me homelessness increased in Colorado after legislation (with the Salvation Army attributing this to homeless cannabis users). However I would expect better evidence before I would dare say cannabis legislation increases homelessness!

    Reportedly hospital admissions for children accidentally ingesting cannabis and police stops for drug driving also increased and so there are health/social dangers to this ‘wonder drug.’ There is also an anti-social element (described by Eddie S above) which matters in pavement politics!

    I’ll support the policy (and defend it) on liberal or compassionate grounds but (and this is a criticism across the other threads so apologies if I seem unduly harsh to the author) I can’t see any other arguments surviving even the most basic scrutiny on the doorstep.

  • Cannabis legalisation is an issue that’s time has come. I doubt 50% of people would vote for it in a referendum in the UK tomorrow but if a candidate wanted to legalise cannabis more people would vote for that candidate for that reason than would withdraw their support as a result of it. So cannabis legalisation is a net voter gainer just like gay rights was 15 years ago despite not being popular then.

    I think UKIP want to legalise cannabis. If the EU referendum resets people’s voting dials the way that the independence referendum did in Scotland perhaps UKIP will be the party to legalise, it’s very strange times we live in.

    And while a cannabis Prohibitionist old establishment power craving politician will probably be the next American president she will also be the last American president to be a Prohibitionist.

    Cannabis legalisation isn’t even radical anymore, the Canadian PM is going to do it and he’s about as sensible, mainstream and modern as it’s possible to get. Trudeu’s not radical, he’s just modern and not stuck in the past.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Mar '16 - 2:29am

    Thanks Ben, I just think that in flats it should only be allowed outside for recreational purposes. Or maybe smoking out of a window is fine, but the key is not to puff fumes into the communal areas.

    I don’t support vigilante violence by the way, at all, I’m just saying we need to do what we can to prevent it.

    In general I need to remember to emphasise liberalism over populism. There are some controversial activities that I support, such as boxing and fishing, and I wouldn’t want them banned, so I should have the same position on cannabis. Although I have refused to go fishing over the past few years because of ethical doubts about it.

  • Paul McConville 22nd Mar '16 - 6:08am

    It is a joke that cannabis is illegal.

  • Eddie S. Vaporizers would solve all your issues and be far healthier for the user. Any combusted material inhaled has a potential to cause harm though cannabis has been proven to actually offer some protection to users due to its anti cancer properties. The trouble is, in the UK at least, users mix of with the known massively harmful and addictive tobacco. If our government truly cared about our wellbeing firstly they’d endo prohibition which causes maximum harm and secondly they would honestly educate people on how to safely consume such substances. But we know this and previous governments actually care very little about protecting people from harm and God knows how deeply dishonest they are.

  • I’m not sure that framing this debate as one between authoritarianism and liberalism is very helpful. Most Liberal Democrats are not libertarians, and therefore do not believe in the abolition of all drug laws. We have, as a responsible political party, to consider what the possible consequences of legalisation of any particular substance might be to society, rather than just applying Mill’s dictum to the individual. By asking for the cannabis market to be regulated by the government we are acknowledging this, but we are also potentially opening the door for a future government to deregulate the market in the same way that alcohol has been deregulated (and you can just imagine the same arguments being used to justify it). Large companies have more persuasive power than the individuals who currently service the market for cannabis, and therefore have more potential to change society in ways that we might not like.

  • D McKay violent crime most likely associated with the criminal elements that used to control the supply and distribution of cannabis, possibly?

    Homeless people who in other states are persecuted for using such drugs openly, because they have little choice, migrated to a state that would apparently be somewhat more lenient. Cannabis users didn’t suddenly spend all their money on the demon weed and render themselves homeless. That’s some reefer madness logic.

    Yes, there initially were instances of irresponsible user leaving edibles, often in the form of sweets, cookies and cakes, around where children could accidentally get hold of them. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience for them but at least the harm done would be minimal. Now compare that to a child gaining access to their parents alcohol or pharmaceuticals or even chemicals under the sink. Most responsible adults would take precautions to make sure that didn’t happen and it should be no different with cannabis. You can’t blame a substance for the irresponsible behaviour of those using it.


  • Cont.
    We are one of the few remaining civilised countries in the world who continue to refuse to allow qualified doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis (apart from the government approved Sativex….which is actually too expensive to prescribe!!!) ignoring the wealth of evidence to proves its medicinal benefits claiming “it has no medicinal qualities” (err, see aforementioned Sativex…supposedly only containing “elements” of cannabis…elements such as the whole plant confirmed by the CEO of the company that makes it) and in doing so they cruelly and corruptly deny thousands of people the use of a proven medicine that has little side effects. There’s a compassionate reason to get behind this policy.

    Another is to end the now widely accepted failure that is prohibition. It didn’t work in the 1920s on America, where it gave rise to organised crime or the mobsters. It hasn’t faired much better in the proceeding decades where use has skyrocketed as has associated crime. We continually waste vast sums of precious resources trying, and failing, to prevent supply and use. Branding users as criminals that often has a detrimental effect on their whole loves which can and does cause a cycle of addiction and crime. At the very least drug users whose only “crime” is to ingest something that has been (illogically) banned should be treated as those with health issues and not as criminals. There is another good reason to get behind this policy.

    The only people who seem reluctant of progressive drug policies are those who have succumbed to the years of lies, mistruths, propaganda and sensationalism that our establishment and media have peddled for their own selfish ends. Just research why cannabis was originally banned. It wasn’t due to health reasons. It was because the cotton industry saw hemp as dangerous competition. Things haven’t changed all that much since then apart from the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries being the two most vocal opponents of legalisation. I wonder why?

  • Tonyhill alcohol has not been “deregulated”. It isn’t, in my opinion, regulated enough but it certainly is regulated and controlled. During alcohol prohibition organised crime made pretty much one type of alcohol, moonshine whiskey. This led to around half a million Americans deaths through alcohol poisoning alone. Then there were all the associated deaths due to criminal activities. Compare this to our situation now and the much lauded ‘skunk’ which is essentially very high THC and very low CBD cannabis aka moonshine weed. If this or any government have an issue with skunk (though once again there is no real issue as this is nothing but sensationalism and hyperbole from those supporting prohibition) then the only way to do anything about it is to responsibly control and regulate it. Substances are banned due to a false sense of morality often negating the massively negative consequences of doing so.

  • Medical users of cannabis find that making It into tea or using a vapourizer is much more effective and efficient than combusting cannabis and inhaling smoke. No first hand smoking means no second hand smoke.

  • Handytrim and An

    My local party, Kingston, submitted an amendment to the motion at Conference and it was drafted in to the main motion. It read: “No promotion of cannabis products should be associated with the smoking of tobacco”

  • Mary Reid that’s great. Ultimately this is (and supposedly always has been) about harm reduction, and if that is truly the objective goal then most definitely do we have to do all we can to decrease potential harms.

    Tobacco is now widely accepted as massively harmful and addictive and we have managed to get the message across that consuming these things will most likely result in users deaths whilst also continually raising their price and offering help with quitting and ‘healthier’ substitutes like e-cigs. But thankfully we have had the good sense (though I’m sure money has had some influence) in not banning them outright as we know exactly what will happen. It’s just a shame that the Home Office is seemingly oblivious when it comes to banning other such substances such as khat. Not deemed a real issue by any police force or the medical community, but they still saw fit to ban it. Pushing its supply underground and potentially making criminals out of its users.

    There is a real lack of logical thinking over the drugs issue. Just look at the disgraceful psychoactive bill. Ridiculed by practically all and yet still managed to be passed into law, just to try (and once again fail) to get rid of legal highs. Substances that have largely found popularity due to the illegal nature of the substances, like cannabis, they often mimic with the added bonus of often being many times more harmful.

  • Not the most sensitive of timing to push for this this given two BBC news items in the last 24 hours :

    1. PC Phillips, 34, was struck in Birkenhead in October 2015 as he deployed a stinger device to stop the stolen Mitsubishi 4×4 driven by Williams. He sustained injuries that were “not survivable”.
    Williams said he had used cannabis since the age of six and was heavily under the influence of the class B drug when he crashed into the officer.

    2. A mother who smoked cannabis before killing her daughter and her son’s girlfriend in a car crash has been found guilty of causing their deaths.
    Anastasia James, 37, smoked the drug before the crash on the M1 in Leicestershire in January 2014.

  • David Raw so two irresponsible cannabis users represent the around two million other users? The sad reality is that many alcohol related deaths caused by irresponsible alcohol users largely go unreported as they are commonplace and one might even suspect that our media favour reporting on cannabis related instances because they have certain ulterior motives to do so. Anyone caught driving under the influence of any mind altering substances should be rightly punished. However, cannabis didn’t cause those deaths, it was the irresponsible users who did.

  • @John Marriott – “Use of cannabis can lead to the use of more harmful drugs”

    Do you have evidence to support that statement? I thought that theory had been largely discredited….

    @D McKay – I have no problem believing violent crime dropped after legalising cannabis. If people chose to get stoned rather than drunk, then they are less likely to get violent (in my experience).

  • D McKay, Handytrim has covered most of the points I’d like to make in response to your points. Criminal gangs receive a lot of their funding through selling drugs like cannabis and to legalise it takes a lot of their business away. Also in legalising cannabis people can buy it in safe shops rather than have to interact with dodgy criminal-type people so less people are getting involved in the criminal world.
    As for children accidentally ingesting cannabis products I believe that most states with legal cannabis are now introducing clear labelling on cannabis products which cuts down on incidences like this.

  • @Handytrim & Ben Lawrie

    So previously 5% of violent of crime in Colorado was cannabis related? That’s an astounding claim and one which I cannot see standing up to scrutiny.

    My understanding is that crime was on a downward trend and as such cannabis legislation had little to no affect – which is actually a victory of sorts against some conservative thinking!

    My point is that if you are going to pick and choose arguments you need to be consistent. So if the drop in crime is attributable to cannabis (which I don’t accept) then by the same logic a rise in homelessness is also attributable to legislation (I don’t accept this either). Economic benefits (i.e. taxation and ‘cannabis tourists’) must also be weighed against offset costs (i.e. hospital admissions, added homeless population). This is not ‘reefer madness’ but actually an assessment of available evidence.

    Like I said earlier I can support the policy on personal choice/compassionate grounds but I just think the so called societal benefits are i) grossly overstated, ii) selective and iii) without any provable causal link.

    @Nick Baird
    Yes I suppose that point makes sense if people switch from alcohol to cannabis. However all the information surrounding the policy is that it will not lead to either increased use or users! Struggling to reconcile these two statements!

  • @John Marriott

    Yes, I did read your comment carefully. It is obvious that not all cannabis users end up on harder drugs (based on my own experience for starters), so I did not interpret your comment as “will” rather than “can”.

    I fully accept that the majority of hard drug users will also have used cannabis. I also accept that there are “addictive personalities”, just like there are plenty of people who dabble in hard drugs without ever getting addicted.

    The point is to challenge the “cannabis is a gateway to harder drugs” argument that is sometimes deployed against cannabis legalisation.

    So, to re-phrase my question – is there evidence that there are users of hard drugs who would never, ever have tried them if they had not tried cannabis first? Or is it simply that a certain percentage of the population is pre-disposed towards hard drugs, and would always get around to trying them eventually anyway?

  • @D McKay

    If you take into account how and where alcohol or cannabis are consumed in two different scenarios – one where cannabis is legal, and one where it is illegal, then I don’t see there is a problem reconciling the two statements.

    Alcohol is legal, so people go out on the town, amongst other people, some get drunk and a few get punchy. When cannabis is illegal, it is consumed privately at home or at parties.

    When cannabis is legal, some alcohol consumption will switch to cannabis because it can more easily be done socially.

  • Cannabis should be legal. If the government has sativex as schedule 4 and cannabis as schedule 1 something is seriously wrong. Both are pharmalogicaly identical. I have seen the government’s pathetic responses to why sativex is scheduled, they say it has no physcoactive effect to try an justify the hypocrisy. A quick look at the side effects of sativex shows amongst other things, euphoric mood and drowsiness. Sounds very much like a physcoactive effect. How they get away with these lies is beyond me. Is it because they allow a big pharma company to sell it?

    To anyone scepticle about legalistation just know prohibition does more harm than cannabis itself. How would you feel knowing your children can buy cannabis from some shady dealer, who doesnt ask for ID. This is common and sadly there is no shortage of dealers willing to sell to kids, sadly a lot of these people sell harder drugs than cannabis. Cannabis is not a gateway drug however an unregulated market is THE gateway.

    Also think how you would feel if your child was perhaps arrested and charged with camnabis possesion? Your child would be criminalised for life, ruining any chance of gaining meaningful employment and leading them into a downwards spiral. All for using a plant that is 114 times safer than alcohol, has been used for thousands of years but only illegal for decades.

    Prohibition has also seen the birth of synthetic cannabinoids, ie legal highs. Designed to mimic the effects and get around prohibiton. Far more dangerous than natural cannabis and a direct product of prohibition.

  • Matt (Bristol) 22nd Mar '16 - 4:20pm

    Watching sceptically from the sidelines of the debate — this is not a ‘test’ issue that defines liberalism for me; I can imagine living in a world in which cannabis is available and regulated, but creating it is not a priority for me and I do not regard those who oppose regulation as ‘authoritarian’.

    If the party wants to campaign on this issue, I have no objection – I do hope, however, those who actively advocate it will tone down the rhetoric and stop telling everyone else who has concerns they’re not ‘proper’ liberals.

  • @ Handytrim You ignored my first sentence.

    “Not the most sensitive of timing to push for this this given two BBC news items in the last 24 hours”.

  • @John Marriott
    I absolutely agree!

  • Jonathan Liebling 24th Mar '16 - 1:35am

    Just a quick note on the “Increase in Homelessness” in Colorado. I understand that this is adequately covered by the sudden increase in population of the state, once legal access had been approved, driven significantly by it being the primary source of the Charlotte’s Web strain (High CBD, Trace THC) which can be used to treat children with severe forms of epilepsy, such as Dravet’s and some local migration of the homeless from neighbouring states coming for legal cannabis. The UK could not have the same problems. I don’t believe that the violent crime decrease can be confidentially attributed to anything, but I believe “trend” has been ruled out and as such it is linked. The most plausible reasons being less drug related violence (obviously?) and less alcohol issues. Interestingly Alcohol consumption increased a little, but with less abuse and poisoning. It seems the “stoners” came out from under their rock to consume alcohol sensibly. The facts on Hard Drug users and what their last drug of choice was: 54% from Alcohol, 32% Tobacco, 15% Cannabis. Gateway is a myth that wont die. No evidence whatsoever. Oh, and Mary Reid – stunning idea.

  • Jonathan Liebling 24th Mar '16 - 1:42am

    D Mkay and all – I am looking for the opportunity to help educate the whole party on doorstep responses to the most frequent challenges. I am a board member of the National Cannabis Coalition (Tom Lloyd from the Expert Panel is Chair) and Political Director of United Patients Alliance. We can provide the answers – need party help to turn them into Doorstep sound bites. We can bring people and knowledge to meetings. Get in touch if you’d like to engage!

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Chris Moore
    David, you say, "The people had spoken. Lib Dems need to listen and take note." The Lib Dems have taken note! Surely!...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Catherine Dawson, "Climate Income returns the carbon price to householders as a dividend to mitigate against rising fuel prices, thus enabling the car...
  • Peter Martin
    If anyone is going to drive Germany to economic suicide, my money will be on the FDP who will take a far too narrow view of the country's responsibility to the...
  • Fiona
    Apologies for the double post - I got distracted from what I intended to say. Which is that I have actually set my recorder for Question Time tonight and there'...
  • Fiona
    You make fair points Nigel. From what I've heard, the local party in North Shropshire were already building up, making progress at the local elections earlier t...