Is Cannabis About To Be Decriminalised In The UK?


Professor Alex Stevens presenting on Monday

I’ve just returned from a very promising conference. Earlier this week, the Home Affairs Select Committee held another leg of its year-long investigation into drug laws in the UK. We were greeted by a number of speakers, most of whom were relatively even-handed on the topic, and in favour of significant change. The only thing disagreed on was the precise nature of this change. During the sessions I attended I didn’t encounter a single voice which was interested in increasing penalties for users, which has given me huge cause for joy and inspired me to write about what happened the day drug law reform got real.

Progressivism is something I’d like to think represents a certain spirit within British society. For our sins, we’re generally a tolerant bunch who like to keep ourselves to ourselves, and dislike others getting involved in our business. One of the reasons we’ve remained so secular is thanks to the notion that it’s just not on to invade the private lives of others and insist they believe and act as we do. I’ve been raised on a diet of great thinkers and polemicists such as Christopher Hitchens (not to be confused with his rather authoritarian brother), Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, I even chose my postgraduate school due to respect for its record as the first UK university to accept students no matter their gender, race, or religious belief.

So it was with great pleasure that I witnessed a happening which made me feel somewhat proud of my nation. I’m not one for nationalist sentiment (we all happened to be born somewhere – we don’t deserve praise for that), but I am one for societal spirit and a feeling of helping those around you. I’m one for getting excited about revolutionary changes which help create a better future for ourselves and subsequent generations, even long after cannabis prohibition becomes something read about only in history books.

I’ve been inspired by great people who proved they could achieve even greater things, and it was intoxicating to be around others who were pushing for the same, selfless improvements for their fellow man. Perhaps it was the coffee served in Parliament, but my spirits were high and the morning seemed to fly-by. The irony of the government serving us a substance more addictive than cannabis, and with worse withdrawal symptoms was not lost on me. But I consumed their drug of choice and settled in for a day to remember.

The most interesting talk came from the University of Kent’s Professor in Criminal Justice, Alex Stevens. Professor Stevens’ speech was something I had my eye on from the moment I received the agenda, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. He very kindly sent me across a copy of the slideshow he presented at the conference, extracts of which are included in this article.

The thrust of Professor Stevens’ presentation centred on how the Portuguese method of decriminalisation saw overwhelming positives, taking into consideration all factors, and not cherry-picking data to suit a pre-conceived idea. To see what non-contextual cherry-picking looks like, check out this comparison with Spanish figures over the same period of time. Often prohibitionists will cite rises in drug use in Portugal as being evidence of their policies not working, but when you see that their trends match other European nations, suddenly that argument looks far less persuasive. A huge rise in preference for specific substances will see their use rise, irrespective of whether there are harsh sentences or even none. The real data with which we should concern ourselves comes in the form of lower HIV infection rates (with respect to heroin), the reduction and successful rehabilitation of problem/child users, and the increased career prospects available to somebody who avoids having a criminal record.

The most prominent relationship is between poverty and problematic drug use

Professor Stevens went on to illustrate how there’s no correlation between the severity of drug laws and drug abuse. The biggest indicator that people are likely to have drug issues is the amount a nation spends on state welfare. To extrapolate somewhat, people who live difficult and deprived lives are more likely to use a substance to the extreme, be it alcohol, cannabis, or even food. Once you come to appreciate this fact you’re left with no choice but to follow the trail and examine the root cause of their reckless behaviour. Problematic drug use is a symptom of poverty and depression, it is not the cause. 

The only remaining weapon left in the armoury of the prohibitionists seems to be the use of morals as a means of control. The danger of moralising is that it’s based on the premise that somebody can know what’s best for everybody else, and that they should force them to comply by using the full force of the law. The first part of this idea fails because we know that morals can wildly change over time. Those of us who’re used to living in secular societies understand that when making serious judgements which affect everybody we must rely on hard evidence and some semblance of reasoning.

For too long we’ve had to tolerate being treated like babies, as opponents belittle our actions and smear our reasons for use, but no more. Rather than aiming for the best net gain, moralists seek to have others conform no matter the collateral damage to the individual or society. How moral is it to ruin careers and create a society of unfulfilled potential, simply because you don’t like how others choose to spend their free time?

Cannabis use amongst children dropped during decriminalisation

Of course, changing the law is predicated on a political party being prepared to pick up the baton and run with it. They may face some public opposition, and indeed political counterparts who will be baying for their blood if purported worst-case scenarios come to fruition, but what price not being bold? That’s something we know for sure. A cursory glance at the incarceration statistics will tell you that. More so the billions spent policing non-violent users who pose no threat to anybody.

Dr Leal da Costa, Portuguese Health Minister, closed the conference by admitting that despite being a prohibitionist, “I am a medical doctor who believes that all drugs can be dangerous, but I don’t believe that a non-problematic user should face criminal charges.”

What politicians seem to have misjudged is the public mood. No longer should they fear the headlines of conservative newspapers if they ‘risk’ something like cannabis law reform. These days they have to embrace the idea that changing the drug laws in our country is going to be a vote-winner. This is something that the UK wants, if recent polls are to be believed. Although it’s reasonable to assume that the wishes of the electorate depends on their party association, at a time when they’re struggling to attract support, the Tories would be wise to join the Liberals and Labour in seeking to enact populist changes. More than that, where’s the sense of legacy? I want to see political leaders who’re aware of their place in history, and act accordingly.

Drug-induced (‘related’ isn’t causal) deaths in Portugal have plummeted 

When they set-out to become Members of Parliament, I have to believe that our representatives wanted to be a force for good, rather than self-preservation. The public has grown tired of being treated like we’re under instruction from the government, and MPs would be wise to remember that they’re employed to represent us; real humans, who have dreams and desires like everybody else, and who want to be part of a society which makes us proud and treats us with respect.

Whilst a move to decriminalisation may not be the full-on regulation and legalisation of sales that is our ultimate goal, very few viable revolutions happen overnight, and we should be mindful that carefully guided progression is the key to reaching our utopian idea of society. We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the better. I propose that the laws around cannabis are initially relaxed, with all other substances to follow. This seems like the logical step if a test case is required as proof of concept, as it would allay the fears of those who bundle all drugs together and worry about the prospects of crack and heroin addicts on every street.

Portuguese decriminalisation has massively reduced AIDS/HIV

Special mention must go to Dr Julian Huppert MP, who ran the session on alternatives to prohibition. The Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge oozes willingness to engage in evidence-based reform across all areas of society, and especially drug laws. He’s one of the rare science graduates who represent us in Parliament, and his way of thinking is streets ahead of the typical career politician we find making decisions on our behalf. I sincerely hope that we see more MPs of this calibre, who will not simply act out of hysteria or fear, but instead try to make their time in office as positive as possible. He and Professor Stevens are shining examples of what Britain can produce in our finest hour.


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