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Cannabis and the UK: A Thawing Relationship?


The legalisation of marijuana for both a recreational and medicinal use started with California in 1996. It is undoubtedly the biggest drug policy shift of modern history so far. Yet, despite the fact that many European countries such as Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have led the way by decriminalising possession and consumption of cannabis in recent years, the UK seems to be far behind the curve. A petition calling for the British people to be allowed to vote on the legalisation of cannabis, for both medicinal and recreational use was met by this clear message by UK policymakers in September 2020 – “the government has no plans to change cannabis policy”. Is this is for the best?

Although it may sound like a dreamland for some, the undertaking of a task so large and unparalleled such as legalising cannabis was bound to be fraught with serious issues and consequences. The case in Colorado was the prime example of these issues coming to fruition. Since the state decided to legalise recreational marijuana use in 2012, marijuana-related motor traffic fatalities increased by 151% whilst traffic deaths including a driver who had tested positive for cannabis more than doubled, from 55 in 2013 to 138 in 2017. This is hardly a surprising statistic, and with the UK currently boasting the lowest level of on-the-road casualties in 50 years, there does not seem to be any incentive to jeopardise these figures by legalising cannabis recreationally. 

It’s not all bad, though. There is little doubt that legalising cannabis, would be highly lucrative for the government. There are some serious taxation opportunities for the government, which would certainly help ease the massive debts the Coronavirus pandemic has caused. Since the state-wide legalisation of cannabis took place in California in 2018, the state has recorded tax revenues totalling almost $2 billion, and these revenues have risen substantially throughout the pandemic. The lesson is clear to see – weed makes states money. The greatest part is that it is not just the government that reaps the benefits from the cultivation and sale of cannabis. Take the ‘Marijuana Millionaires’ of Colorado for example, a whole new emergence of entrepreneurs who are becoming rich from the lucrative cannabis industry and its exponentially increasing popularity in the state. Critics argue that this new class of millionaires are simply glorified drug dealers and exploiting addictive substances for profit. The UK government, in light of the devastating effects of the pandemic on the economy, should open up an industry which is projected to make the UK £3 billion by 2024 and employs 300,000 people in the USA. The United Kingdom needs to ‘balance the books’ according to Rishi Sunak, an innovative and highly profitable new industry may just be that silver bullet. 

So, where does all of this leave the UK with regard to marijuana legalisation? In 2018, the UK took a huge leap forwards by legalising medical cannabis to patients, when prescribed by a specialist consultant. What’s more, CBD, the non-psychoactive chemical found in cannabis plants has been legal for sale and consumption in the UK since 2015 and the surge in on-the-high street CBD stores, selling products derived from this chemical, such as oils and capsules, across the UK is reminiscent of the dispensaries in the US. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that the UK produced 44% of global cannabis for scientific research in 2016. This could be an indication that the government may be joining the wave of people who are starting to see the potential health benefits of cannabis, namely in the treatment for chronic pains and neurological disorders such as epilepsy. We clearly have the infrastructure for large scale cannabis production and the government are not blind to the potential health benefits of the drug.

The road to legalised cannabis in the UK remains long and arduous, and it seems unlikely that it is a path that the government will decide to pursue in the near future. Research into cannabis’ effects, both on a micro and macro scale is still in its early stages and rushing into a decision could polarise the nation, and without stringent regulation on production or imports could lead to damaging effects on public health. For the time being, it seems as though for those living in the UK the quickest option for a haven of legal weed is a Eurostar to Amsterdam.

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