Mark Wadsworth is a Chartered Tax Advisor. He blogs here.
Having spent a couple of hours reading and understanding the ACMD’s report, it surprises me that cannabis was made illegal in the first place.
The public’s concerns about cannabis are ârealâ in that they exist (see section 11) but the question must be, are those concerns justified? Or are they merely fuelled by misleading headlines such as ‘Cannabis use linked to 40% rise in risk of schizophrenia’?
The report confirms that the risk of ‘psychotic outcomes’ appears to be 41% higher in those who have used cannabis (8.7.1), even though… there are very considerable difficulties in establishing a ’cause and effect’ relationship between the use of cannabis and the subsequent development of a psychotic illness.’ (8.3).
Even assuming that the risk of a ‘psychotic outcome’ is doubled for frequent users (8.7.2), what are the overall risks? ‘Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness affecting about 0.5% of the UK population over the course of their lives.’ (8.1.2). So, frequent use increases the risk from a negligible 1-in-200 to a still negligible 1-in-100.
The report also confirms that smoking cannabis is not good for your
health, but no worse than smoking tobacco (4.3.2), in any event there
are plenty of other perfectly legal activities that are bad for the
respiratory system, such as being a coal miner. Eating a lot of junk
food and adopting a sedentary lifestyle are also bad for your health –
if a main aim of the War On Drugs is improving the UK’s physical
health, why not reclassify hamburgers as a Class C substance and punish
failure to attend the gym’ daily with five years in prison?
Those who talk about the link between cannabis and crime conveniently
overlook that there are quite distinct categories of crime associated
- Criminal penalties for selling or possessing drugs.
Crimes that inevitably follow from the fact the trade in cannabis is
illegal - violent ‘turf wars’; stealing electricity and using illegal
immigrants to run dope farms and the use of the proceeds to finance
more serious crimes, in particular terrorism (9.6 to 9.6.4).
The average weekly amount spent on cannabis by regular users is in
the order of £20, which is no more than the average weekly spend of
regular users of alcohol or tobacco and in itself triggers relatively
little crime (9.3.2).
If cannabis were legalised, these types of crimes would disappear
overnight. There are two types of crime which would persist and which
deserve special consideration:
Crimes carried out while ‘under the influence’. It appears that
cannabis, pro rata to the number of users, causes as many road death as
alcohol (5.3.3) although the correlation may be overstated (5.3.2).
Driving while under the influence of cannabis is, and rightfully should
be, punished every bit as severely as drink-driving, no dispute there! Surveys carried out confirm that smoking cannabis is far less likely
to lead to risk-taking and aggression than alcohol (9.1, which is
borne out by personal experience).
There is also a vague association in people’s minds between cannabis
and anti-social behaviour. Most people find the smell of cannabis smoke
unpleasant, but a ban on smoking cannabis in public places would be
easily enforceable. This is far from saying that it should be illegal
in the privacy of people’s homes (the analogy with public and private
sex acts springs to mind!)
Cannabis as a gateway drug
It is also often said that while moderate cannabis use might not in
itself be that harmful, it is highly addictive and a ‘gateway drug’. It
appears that only 5.8% of those who try cannabis are dependent a year
later. Further, the proportion of people who use cannabis regularly
falls steadily with increasing age, from 12% among 16 to 24 year olds
down to 0.6% among 55 to 59 year olds (Table 1). That cannabis is not
a ‘gateway drug’ is confirmed at 9.3.1.
The counter-argument is that legalising cannabis would completely break
the link between it and the supply of hard drugs. It is worth
remembering that the number regular users among 16 to 24 years olds has
fallen quite rapidly since (from 16% to 12%, Table 2) since cannabis
was downgraded from a Class B to a Class C substance in 2004 (1.5).
The consequences of legalisation
Besides freeing up police to concentrate on real crimes – violent
crimes and theft - legalisation (as opposed to a mere
de-criminalisation) would enable us to bring the sale of cannabis
within the tax net. Assuming it were taxed at similar rates to tobacco
or alcohol, the potential revenues are in the order of £1.5 billion per
annum, more than enough to pay for;
- Educating young people about the effects of the drug;
- Enforcing a ban on the sale to minors, who are most likely to suffer adverse affects from cannabis use (9.2);
Regulating the strength, quantity and quality of what is sold, in the
same way as pubs, off-licences and pharmacies are currently regulated;
Combating unlicensed sales; provided the tax levied on legally
available cannabis is not too high, there will be little problem with
smuggling (for comparison it is estimated that even though the tax on
cigarettes in the UK is the highest in Europe, only 20% of cigarettes
are smuggled in).
- Paying for the treatment and rehabilitation of the small minority of users who really need it.