Steve Moore is Director of VolteFaceHub and a former Chief Executive of the Big Society Network.
At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, if you could successfully move your conversation beyond the leadership question and Brexit, it was all anyone wanted to talk about. The fringe events were teeming with talk of little else, George Freeman’s Big Ideas Festival was virtually a hymn to it (I helped to curate it) and op-eds from John Major and William Hague in the past week have urged the Prime Minister to embrace it with urgency.
Tory renewal is – almost – all the rage now, fuelled by a genuine fear about Jeremy Corbyn’s proximity to power and an enduring lament for the elegantly written, but ultimately policy-bereft, Conservative general election manifesto.
This 2017 version of Tory renewal has three distinctive hallmarks: to demonstrate that the party is not intellectually torpid; to win back the 25 to 40-year-olds lost to Labour’s improbable insurgence in June, and to once more remake the intellectual case for capitalism and free markets.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the revivification of the Conservative message and vitality of its ideas will ultimately determine the outcome of the next election, whoever then leads the party.
In this spirit of renewal, let me then offer up an idea - one that is certainly not without risk, but is clearly radical, will appeal to many more younger people than the older, and harnesses the affordances of a properly regulated market economy to tackle myriad social ills.
Cannabis effectively arrived in the UK 60 years ago. Migrants arriving from our former colonies brought with them the habit of consuming it for recreational and therapeutic purposes. They were often greeted by the heavy-handed enforcement of the drugs branch of the Home Office and zealous policing. As the cultural influence of the 1960s spread to wider society, so the use of cannabis grew.
Over the course of the next half century - with the exception of a brief hiatus between 2004 and 2009 - cannabis has remained a Class B drug, carrying sentences of up to 14 years imprisonment for production and supply, and five years for possession. As in nearly all other countries, production, supply and possession of cannabis is illegal in the UK.
But the UK government’s approach to enforcing the law against cannabis users and growers throughout has been capricious - effectively leaving the law to stand, whilst largely advising the police and courts to apply it less stringently. The culture of public policy relating to cannabis that prevails to this day is largely one formed in the 1980s when, with the rise of HIV/AIDS and its association with heroin, the British government tacitly decided to no longer treat cannabis as a public health or criminal justice priority.
Faced with a choice between fully enforcing or liberalising the law, successive governments have maintained a fudged approach to the issue, seemingly oblivious to its pernicious consequences.
Last year, around two million British adults consumed cannabis — about eight per cent of the male population and six per cent of the female population. Arrests for cannabis possession have halved in the past ten years, as presentations for mental health conditions linked to cannabis use have trebled. Not a single penny of tax revenues generated by cannabis sales was shared with the Exchequer.
As public health authorities’ insouciance about the harms caused by cannabis misuse endures – last year only eight per cent of those suffering from cannabis abuse sought treatment – and police in some jurisdictions (Durham, Derbyshire, Avon and Somerset and North Wales) declare de facto decriminalisation, the product available on the street market has become much more dangerous.
A new report published by drug policy think tank Volteface this week sets out how the current ‘black hole’ relating to cannabis policy has given rise to a wholly unregulated, illegal but largely unenforced multi-billion pound black market for an exceptionally potent product that drives serious problematic use, high levels of addiction and exasperates an array of existing mental health conditions. In a recent focus group undertaken by Volteface, teenagers said that they found accessing cannabis easier than alcohol, cigarettes and even fast food!
The Government’s long awaited new Drugs Strategy, published this summer, makes no reference to any of these issues.
Such wilful blindness might be justifiable if we weren’t making such a big deal about mental health or if viable policy alternatives existed. But, we do and there are.
Canada is in the final stages of a painstaking two-and-a-half year process to create a legally regulated market for cannabis, led by Bill Blair who served 12 years as Chief of Police in Toronto. Engaging with public health bodies, mental health campaigners, parents groups and educators, Blair has produced a framework that will permit Canadian adults to purchase cannabis in licensed stores from 1 July next year. Sentencing guidelines have increased in line with the new regime, with up to 14 years imprisonment facing those who sell to minors. Trudeau has never deviated from a focus on eradicating the criminality associated with the illicit market and preventing teenagers from accessing weed goals no Tory could surely disagree with.
The policies that underpin any Tory renewal will be multifarious, but is hard to think of one that is so pro-market, has youth appeal or is as radical as this long overdue social reform. That its successful implementation will reduce gangsterism, raise much needed tax revenue from the profits of legitimate free market interactions, and protect young people should only add to its appeal.
But, more than this, it would represent something else. As the Grenfell Tower inquiry will doubtless reveal, and as the Harvey Weinstein scandal has exposed, we live in a age when wilful blindness still flourishes. What have we, as a society, been willing to accept out of fear and a sense that things can’t be changed? What else are we turning a blind eye to, in all aspects of our lives?
Creating a legal, regulated market for cannabis would not just be an emblem for Tory policy renewal, it would be a bold and honest signal that the Government is not turning a blind eye to an issue that will - if trends continue - soon effect every family in this country.