The British Medical Association met at the end of June to discuss the use of marijuana as a health issue and to debate whether the doctors’ union should back legalisation. The US war on drugs has taught the world a lot about how a government should deal with public substance use.
Consultant Geoffrey Lewis, who presented the motion to the BMA, said “cannabis use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.” He said that the current system “seeks to criminalise drug users rather than treat their condition.” With debates like this sparking up across the UK, is it time to decriminalise cannabis?
Rocky Mountain High
This week President Obama, declined to ‘partake’ when boldly offered a joint by an over-eager patron at a Denver bar, laughing it off. While the President had used the drug in his younger days, this time he decided to avoid controversy. Wise, perhaps, but taking a hit wouldn't be unlawful. The state of Colorado legalised the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana in November 2012, followed by the state of Washington.
Across other parts of the US many lawmakers are now pursuing decriminalisation, which would end the arrest of those in possession of small amounts of cannabis, exchanging prison time for fines or confiscation. What was previously a serious crime (that could land you between 15 and 20 years in prison) is now a mere civil misdemeanour.
Statistics in the US show that despite fears that decriminalisation would massively increase general usage, the change in those consuming marijuana has only increased slightly. Despite the joy to cannabis users, it’s actually government departments that are feeling the greatest benefit of the legislation. Decriminalisation has resulted in a dramatic fall in court cases and police enforcement, time and money has been saved that can be invested elsewhere. Here in the UK, activists argue that the same trends could be projected at home.
What the Cannabis Reformers Are Saying
The UK debate, for the moment, centres around the health issues that surround marijuana use. Decriminalisation would help users deal with any addiction without stigma and fear of prosecution. As far as criminality goes, activists point to the prohibition of alcohol in the US as a parallel case. When illegal, bootlegging alcohol was a major activity that funded the criminal empires of the 30’s - like that of Al Capone. Today, marijuana is a gateway drug, not necessarily to another drug but to a criminal market. Even the most recreational user here in Britain cannot be sure of the potency or safety, as they purchase from unregulated criminal growers. Legalisation, it’s argued, would allow government regulation of the potency of the drug sold - just like alcohol and tobacco - protecting users.
On decriminalisation marijuana would also be taxable and a large part of cannabis law reform is weighted in the economic benefits that are possible. Figures emerged that the £511 million that the UK taxpayer currently spends on processing marijuana cases would be replaced with a £6.7 billion net gain.
Peter Reynolds, leader of UK-based cannabis law reform party CLEAR, says that the reason the debate is so problematic is due to the misinformation peddled during the US war on drugs. “There is no… evidence-based policy on drugs in Britain”.
Speaking to a local paper in Dorset, he shared hopes of a sensible discussion on the topic, “…we do not claim that cannabis is harmless but the evidence is that it is about as addictive and as harmful as coffee. The psychosis scare story [Reefer Madness] remains unproven despite hundreds of studies attempting to prove it. The facts are that despite a massive increase in cannabis use in the 1960s/70s, the rate and prevalence of psychosis has remained stable or even declined slightly. Also, official statistics on hospital admissions and drug treatment, adjusted for the number of regular users, show that alcohol use is six times more likely to lead to mental and behavioural problems.”
“We would benefit from bringing this multi-billion pound market out of the black economy with increased funds for schools, hospitals and infrastructure.”
Despite what the UK’s activists have to say however, British politicians have a reputation of flirting with reform only to completely turn their back on it. The intense legal posturing of the US against marijuana, across most of the past century, may well be finally shifting. In the spirit of that liberalisation the UK is following suit. We are far from the days of Reefer Madness and in an age of information, it should be fact based discussion and research, not propaganda from abroad that directs the UK conversation. Whatever the outcome, the British Medical Association’s drug debate is a step forward, not only has the discussion matured but it is becoming more empathetic to users.