How to stamp out street cannabis
Hosted jointly by Volteface & The Adam Smith Institute at Conservative Party conference, Manchester
2nd October 2017
“Super strong American Gorilla Glue skunk weed is selling fast on UK streets.” This was a headline in The Metro just two weeks ago. It went on to say: “The skunk is named after the best-selling US superglue because it is so strong smokers are ‘stuck to their sofas for hours’ after smoking a spliff. Demand for the mind-bending weed is rocketing in the UK after it surfaced in Birmingham earlier this summer, quickly becoming one of the most sought-after and profitable drugs in Britain.”
Skunk is just one of 100 or so varieties of cannabis plant which have high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), making it more potent.
There’s clearly a market for this. 6.5% of 16-59 year olds, around 2.1 million people, report having used cannabis in the past year. Among younger adults aged 16 to 24, 15.8%, that’s around 975,000, have used cannabis in the last year. The market is there. It functions. The product is imported or home-grown. Supply meets demand. The problem is that, as a society, we have decided to leave the market to flourish - uncontrolled and unregulated - on the street - as an illegal market controlled by criminals. We hope it will go away; that prohibition and criminalisation will do the trick.
All the while, the uncomfortable truth is that respect for our laws is diminished when large swathes of the population can see no difference between their recreational drugs of choice and their recreational use of alcohol and tobacco.
My contention is that only by legalising cannabis supply and decriminalising possession, can we stamp out street cannabis, destroy the criminal’s business model, and ensure consumers have the information and access to a regulated product.
For sure, the product will never be safe, just as smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol above the chief medical officer’s tiny ‘safe limit’ will never be safe. However, the risks can be highlighted, age checks can be introduced, the consumer can be sure to know what they are buying and what its potency is.
The report, ‘Black Sheep’, published by Volteface in February made a considered, evidence-based case for a legal, regulated cannabis market in the UK as the way to pursue a public health, harm reduction approach. The report explains how the current illegal and unregulated market means that cannabis users are hidden from health practitioners, leaving them “fumbling around in the dark trying to find them”. The report shows how a regulated market would provide “opportunities for more public guidance, packaging controls, products which vary in potency, research into cannabis culture and consumption to improve interventions, and reduced stigma to enable access to services.”
Indeed, proceeds from cannabis sales or taxation of sales would pay for treatment and public health education.
As with ‘Gorilla Glue’ which I mentioned at the start of my remarks, street cannabis is often highly potent, but consumers often have little else to choose from. They cannot be sure of the quality or strength of product. They are unable to make informed choices. Regulating supply would allow consumers to access less harmful forms of cannabis with lower levels of THC and higher levels of CBD, but still giving the desired ‘high’.
Above all, by permitting a legal market, we can decouple thousands of consumers from funding and facilitating a world of criminality and suffering.
The Government’s Drugs Strategy, published in July, tells us what this entails: “A significant number of organised crime groups in the UK are engaged in commercial cultivation [of cannabis], using it as a means to fund other criminal activity, including money laundering, human trafficking, modern slavery and illegal immigration. Coercion and increasing levels of violence have also been attributed to cannabis cultivation”.
The Strategy also informs us that, each year in the United Kingdom, drugs cost society £10.7 billion in policing, healthcare and crime, with drug-fuelled theft alone costing £6 billion a year. In fact, violence, murder and corruption are more likely to come from the gang warfare over control of the drugs trade than from anyone taking drugs, extremely harmful though many obviously are.
The failure of our drugs policy is all too apparent. That is why we need a Royal Commission which could take the heat, the party politics and the knee-jerk reactions out of this matter.
A Royal Commission could to examine all the evidence, look dispassionately at all the arguments, and consider other countries’ approaches. It could test my thesis that if the state or its licensed agents became a benign, regulated monopoly supplier, that would smash the drug dealer’s business model and help us to reduce harms. We would protect people because they would know what they were buying and could seek help more easily.
Successive governments have ceded total control of a significant public health issue to organised crime. To coin a phrase, it is time to take back control!