Is now the time for cannabis to be legalised in Britain?

Stock image.
Stock image.

In this week’s Telegraph Voices spread, we look at the controversy over the legalisation of cannabis.

The issue has shot to the top of the political agenda in recent years, as first several American states and now Canada have legalised the drug for recreational and not just medicinal purposes.

Stock image.

Stock image.

On pages eight and nine, five contributors debate cannabis’ legal status, with all favouring a relaxation of the current rules to a greater or lesser extent.

The new chair of the South Yorkshire Police Federation says his organisation would be open to looking again at the issue, while three academics from Sheffield’s universities agree that our current laws are no longer fit for purpose.

Perhaps most movingly, Sheffield woman Lisa Andrews talks about her experience of being arrested for growing cannabis she says she needs to alleviate her multiple disabilities.

A simple walk around Sheffield shows that the ‘war on drugs’ – certainly where cannabis is concerned – has been comprehensively lost.

Lisa Andrews, Sheffield resident arrested for cannabis offences.

Lisa Andrews, Sheffield resident arrested for cannabis offences.

Cannabis is smoked openly on streets and in parks the length and breadth of the city by people who by and large cause few problems to law enforcement.

In an environment where most people – including police officers – seem to do little more than shrug when they are confronted by it, surely it makes sense to acknowledge this in law.

The argument that more serious criminality often occurs in the cannabis ‘supply chain’ seems to me to be an argument for legalisation rather than continued prohibition.

The greatest drug problems seen in Sheffield in recent years have been from the former legal high Spice, which has caused devastation on the streets of the city.

Steve Kent, chair, South Yorkshire Police Federation.

Steve Kent, chair, South Yorkshire Police Federation.

This year, the so-called ‘zombie drug’ has at time looked like a genuine public health emergency.

Surely the police have got better things to do with their time than going after people smoking weed?

Lisa Andrews, Sheffield resident arrested for growing cannabis for medicinal use

I am a severely disabled 41-year-old lady with no criminal record, no fines or speeding tickets.

Jamie Irving, lecturer in criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.

Jamie Irving, lecturer in criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.

Yet I was arrested on Wednesday, April 25 this year and kept in custody for six hours for suspected cultivation of cannabis.

I use cannabis in order to ease, alleviate and control the symptoms of my illnesses and keep me sane and I feel like I have no other option than to exercise my human right to my chosen long-term medication.

A new report from the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board has revealed the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of legal cannabis for medical and scientific uses yet proper access to medical cannabis is still denied to UK patients.

It is scandalous and untenable for the UK government to maintain that cannabis has no medical uses, while at the same time licensing the world’s biggest government approved medical cannabis production and export market.

UK patients are either denied access and suffering unnecessarily, or are forced to buy cannabis from the criminal market while countries with proper access to medical cannabis do not have this problem, as standardised cannabis products are in the hands of doctors and pharmacists.

It is profoundly unethical, and a violation of the fundamental right to health, to deny people access to suitable medicines and treatment.

Andy Irving, researcher, Addiction Recovery Research Group, University of Sheffield

Andy Irving, researcher, Addiction Recovery Research Group, University of Sheffield

I am exercising my basic human rights as a UK citizen to access natural medication, the choice of my preferred long-term treatment and the choice of how and what treatment I accept and choose for my own body.

I will take control of my own health and the remaining time I have left to live whether it is illegal or not.

I’m not ashamed whatsoever and will continue to exercise my human right until my last breath.

Steve Kent, chair, South Yorkshire Police Federation

I note with interest the recent legal changes in Canada and parts of the United States.

It will be interesting, especially in regards to Canada, to see the effect the change has on society and crime.

Our view as the Police Federation is that the current legislation in relation to cannabis is out of date, there needs to be a wide ranging public debate about the legislation and cannabis in society, its impact on health and also about the effect on enforcement agencies.

The question needs to be asked, is the current law proportionate and effective?

I do want to make it clear that as the police we will always enforce the law.

It is also not our place to support the legalisation of cannabis or any illegal drugs for that matter, however we feel that as a society we need to debate and re-explore alternative ways in dealing with its use.

Should we be moving away from criminalising the individual persons using cannabis or persons using it in the treatment of medical conditions.

Would a fresh approach in fact actually help in the fight to combat organised crime?

There are often links at some level between more serious and organised crime and the production and distribution of cannabis.

These are questions that need to be asked and considered and therefore we support a review of the current legislation and its effectiveness.

Jamie Irving, lecturer in criminology Sheffield Hallam University

Andy Irving, researcher with the Addiction Recovery Research Group, University of Sheffield

The arguments for and against the legal sale of cannabis have been raging now for decades, but recently pressure to change the present legality of cannabis has gained more and more traction.

Witness the high-profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingle; two boys for whom cannabis oil had provided lifesaving relief from epileptic seizures.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid fearing the political fallout and ensuing public backlash, should Alfie have suffered a fatal epileptic seizure, granted Alfie access to the cannabis oil that had initially been confiscated.

In terms of changing the law we have had multiple high-level police officers, MPs’ pressure groups and scientists calling for a change.

But added to this we have now another important element, an infused moral dimension that the general public can all too readily identify with; surely to withhold vital medicine is tantamount to state-sanctioned murder?

It is when harm to the wider, unwitting and largely innocent members of society becomes easily recognised that changes in the law occur.

Think back to the Roy Castle clean air campaign, a precursor to the smoking ban, old arguments about personal choice were trotted out, until the effects of second-hand smoke began to be more clearly understood by the general public.

If the law is going to change in this country I think it will be gradual.

Our political class and general population may well legislate for and accept cannabis for medicinal purposes.

But I cannot see the authorities countenancing an outright overhaul of drugs policy – heroin, and cocaine for example will remain illegal for years to come.

I’m not sure either that the British public and/or lawmakers would want to see our cafes become Amsterdam-style hubs of cannabis smoking and experimentation with higher-strength products.

Where medicinal use is concerned, however, the law is not only an ass but a potentially life-shortening ass.

Dr Matthew Bacon, lecturer in criminology, University of Sheffield

While drug policy remains a divisive and hotly contested issue across the globe there is a growing consensus that the status quo is untenable.

Advocates of reform draw attention to the mounting evidence that the drug war is ineffective, counterproductive, and pursues deterrence at the price of injustice.

Drug policy reform is becoming a reality. This is most apparent in relation to cannabis, where extraordinary strides have been taken in recent years.

As of October 17, Canadians can legally purchase cannabis for recreational use – ie non-medical purposes – from licensed shops supplied by government-regulated companies. Canada follows in the footsteps of Uruguay and numerous US states. The key motivations behind these reforms were the desire to end prohibition and better manage the production, supply and use of cannabis.

There are limits to what legal regulation can achieve. To be sure, it must be acknowledged and accepted that legalisation will not magically cure all of the harms associated with cannabis. People will still experience social, psychological, physical and legal problems related to their use of the drug.

What legalisation and the establishment of new laws and regulations can solve, however, are the problems caused by prohibition. It does this in three main ways.

First, a regulated cannabis market will reduce the size of the black market and opportunities for criminal profiteering.

Second, it will stop the blanket criminalisation of people who use cannabis and reduce the burden of cannabis laws on the criminal justice system.

Third, in terms of availability and use, legal regulation allows controls to be put in place over products, vendors, marketing, outlets, who has access, and where and when drugs can be consumed.

Bringing about these changes will create a far better environment in which to protect public health and address the range of issues related to cannabis misuse.

There are still many uncertainties about the impact of legalisation. Be that as it may, the reasons outlined above provide a compelling argument for the UK government to look into the available policy options, learn lessons from other countries, and seriously consider reforming their approach to recreational cannabis markets.

We need our drug policy to be debated and guided by the evidence of what works rather than conservative moral principles.

Dr Matthew Bacon, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Sheffield.

Dr Matthew Bacon, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Sheffield.