Chloe Schendel-Wilson is Parliamentary Officer at Volteface, the drugs policy think tank, and Campaigns Officer at Tory Workers.
For decades, drug policy has been a subject of taboo in British politics. Even David Cameron, who in Opposition became an impressively vocal advocate for liberalising our drug laws, when in office chose instead to focus on the easier option of reducing alcohol consumption.
We were not alone in our reluctance to confront the manifest failure of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Real policy reforms, anywhere in the world, remained thin on the ground. But now things have changed. In the past five years, groundbreaking reforms have emerged – particularly with regard to cannabis, by far the most popular illicit drug in the world. For a political party that stands for freedom, family, free markets and dutiful respect for law and order, there are salient lessons to be learned as other countries take back control of the criminal market for cannabis, particularly Canada.
Four years ago, Justin Trudeau approached Bill Blair, the former Chief of Police in Toronto and the most respected law enforcement officer in the history of Canada, and asked his advice about how best to respond to popular clamour to legalise weed. Blair, now a Liberal MP, offered him two pieces of advice.
First, to focus on creating a legal market for responsible adult use, which both prohibits access for teenagers and removes the criminality associated with the black market. Second, to make it clear that he has no intention of considering any further reforms relating to any other drugs.
In the years since, Trudeau has never deviated from these two frames. In September this year, Canadian provinces and territories will licence hundreds of dispensaries across the country to sell cannabis to adult users. On the same date, sentences for those who sell cannabis to children will double to up to 14 years imprisonment, and a $45 million investment in drugs education will commence. Early estimates suggest that Canada will generate $5 billion in new tax revenues. My colleague Blair Gibbs, a former adviser to Michael Gove, continues to cover this topic in depth.
Here in the UK, cannabis has been illegal since 1928 when, with some reluctance, we supported US exhortations on drug prohibition. Cannabis only became popular in the early 1960s as the cultural influence of new migrants from our former colonies began to spread. Initially, enforcement was punitive and disproportionately targeted at ethnic minority groups. Since the mid-1980s, policing has become more capricious as law enforcement has prioritised possession and dealing of Class A drugs. Last year more than two million people, one in 15 adults, used cannabis, about half of whom are 16-24 year olds.
But here in the UK, even without any formal legal changes, or indeed much of a public debate, changes are afoot.
The first significant one is with regard to policing. Three factors have led to such an outcome; the changing nature of enforcement resources, how cannabis is cultivated and the devolution of police powers. The reduction in the number of police officers by 19,000 since 2010 has inevitably led to a re-focusing of priorities, and arrests for the possession of cannabis fell by over 50 per cent from 2009 to 2018.
Much of this change is happening without fanfare, but for some jurisdictions, notably Durham, the Police and Crime Commissioner has publicly declared de facto decriminalisation of cannabis possession without rebuke from the Home Office. Just last year, Sara Thornton, the Director of the National Police Chief’s Council, told the Daily Mail that even those growing cannabis in their homes are unlikely to elicit so much as a visit by the police.
A largely unacknowledged but significant factor in the changing nature of law enforcement is the growth of hydroponically home-grown cannabis, and the reduction in consumption of imported herb. Police have traditionally eschewed entering people’s homes, except as a last resort.
Perhaps more troubling is the rise in drugpotency. As a devastating new report covered on Newsnight yesterday reveals, ‘street cannabis ‘ (AKA skunk) contains incredibly high rates of THC – the main psychoactive component of cannabis – but next to no cannabidiol, a compound which may moderate some of the effects of THC. This imbalance is driving higher rates of dependency, addiction and mental health presentations linked to cannabis use. Last year’s Volteface report Street Lottery examines this issue in detail.
Thirdly, an estimated one million people access cannabis for medical reasons – people with cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s use it to ease their pain, but instead of getting it safely prescribed by their doctor (as one can in many EU member and US states) they instead are having to break the law, accessing strains of unknown provenance from the hands of dealers.
Despite all the evidence pointing to a monumental failure of policy, the Prime Minister remains wedded to ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric.
Such rhetoric is, however, empty. Teenagers have near ubiquitous access to cannabis, police can make no commitment to prosecute people who grow their own cannabis, we provide almost no drugs education, and hospital admissions for mental health conditions linked to cannabis are on the rise.
The compound negligence of Government policy relating to cannabis is profoundly damaging for families and communities, and is devastating the life chances of too many young people.
Trudeau can easily be caricatured as a liberal sweetheart, but his policy on cannabis is one that chimes with many Conservative values. At a time when we need to assert the importance of both individual freedom and making the case for markets, his is a policy that talks to both.
Based on the evidence when it comes to cannabis, Trudeau can justifiably proclaim that he is safeguarding young people. Theresa May, however, can now make no such claim.