What’s your poison? Britain’s drug laws go to pot

What’s your poison? Britain’s drug laws go to pot

Two recent media stories have featured prominently in relation to where Britain’s drug laws are heading. In isolation, the arguments supporting each of them make sense, but put together they demonstrate how contradictory our legal system and public health policy might become, should they both be realised simultaneously.

The first story concerned a government green paper relating to tobacco, a lethal drug which remains entirely legal. ‘Pledge to end smoking in England by 2030’ ran the BBC headline. In recent years, the government has aimed to create a smoke-free society – with smoking rates close to zero – by 2025. As the green paper points out, the ban on smoking within public places, which was implemented in 2007, combined with the introduction of plain packaging on cigarettes and tobacco have been steps on the way to achieving this objective. As a result, smoking rates have nearly halved over the past decade.  

Published in July 2017, an earlier policy paper, Smoke-free generation: tobacco control plan for England, outlined measures to reduce the prevalence of smoking without using any confrontational language. The new green paper confirms the success of previous government initiatives: ‘Thanks to our concerted efforts on smoking, we now have one of the lowest smoking rates in Europe with fewer than 1-in-6 adults smoking. Yet, for the 14 percent of adults who still smoke, it’s the main risk to health.’

But the language then becomes more overtly hostile. Further measures, it suggests, will culminate in ‘an ultimatum for industry to make smoked tobacco obsolete by 2030.’ What measures may be introduced to make the country smoke-free over the next decade will be outlined ‘at a later date’, but the inference is clear: legislation in some form to outlaw tobacco might be the ultimate sanction.

The second story travels in the opposite direction. After a fact-finding trip to Canada, which became the first G7 country to allow recreational use of cannabis in 2018, a trio of cross-party MPs predicted that the UK will fully legalise the drug within five to ten years. All three MPs – Labour’s David Lammy, Conservative Jonathan Djanogly and Liberal Democrat Sir Norman Lamb – believe that the UK will follow Canada’s lead and legalise cannabis for recreational use in the next decade.

‘I want the market legalised, regulated and taken away from crime gangs,’ said Lammy after returning from his visit. The Liberal Democrats already back legalising cannabis, which has been illegal in the UK since 1928 for recreational use.

That is not yet the Conservative government’s position, nor that of the Labour opposition. But the direction of travel towards a regulated legal cannabis market may soon receive a boost with a potential change in UK legislation concerning medicinal cannabis (CBD) which is currently unlicensed. Much confusion exists in relation to the legal position of CBD oil since the vast majority of cannabinoids are listed as controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Doctors can only prescribe it if a patient has a need that cannot be met by other licensed medicines.

The primary purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act is to prevent the misuse of controlled drugs. This is achieved by the imposition of a complete ban on possession, supply, manufacture, import and export except as allowed by regulations or by licence from the Secretary of State.

Should CBD be legalised, regulated and licensed, as seems likely, it may only be a matter of time before the same happens with its recreational counterpart. For the next generation, the net result might be that cannabis becomes legal, while tobacco becomes illegal, or its use becomes restricted to such an extent that it is, de facto, illegal.

Tobacco and cannabis are the second and third most widely used drugs in the UK. Top of the list comes alcohol. Like tobacco, it is a major killer, albeit a legal one. Deaths caused by smoking have fallen to around 25,000 a year, primarily from heart and circulatory disease. Meanwhile, up to 9000 people die each year in the UK from alcohol-specific causes with thousands more dying as a result of alcohol abuse in accidents, acts of violence and suicide. The social, economic and personal costs are, of course, immeasurably higher.

As tobacco seems destined to become even more socially unacceptable, cannabis may well become less so, particularly if it is legalised. The social drug of choice for millions, alcohol and the law have a complex relationship. For example, while it is illegal for someone under 18 to buy alcohol in licensed premises – the only exception being for 16 or 17 year-olds who are allowed to drink beer, wine or cider with food if with an adult – it is legal for anyone over five to drink alcohol at home, if permitted by their parents.

Beyond the protection of minors, most laws surrounding alcohol have been liberalised. Some notable exceptions exist: penalties for drink-driving, the longstanding blanket ban on football fans from drinking alcohol within view of the pitch, and the more recent ban by Transport for London which precludes passengers from drinking alcohol or carrying open containers of alcohol on public transport.

Those exceptions apart, the sale of alcohol has been significantly liberalised since The Licensing Act 2003, which introduced flexible opening hours for licensed premises, with the potential for up to 24-hour opening, seven days a week. This reflects how much drinking is ingrained in the nation’s social life – much as cigarettes were until public health campaigns led to a huge cultural shift. O tempora O mores – as Cicero devotees might proclaim.

The law at present is clear: alcohol and tobacco are legal, while cannabis is not. In Cannabis: the case against legalisation, a major report published by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) last December, new research shows that legalisation of cannabis would mean more than ‘a million new users under 25, a sharp uptick in the frequency of existing users, and hundreds of thousands of people gripped by addiction.’ The report further suggests that ‘legalisation would greatly increase use, that arguments around a regulated market are at best a hope, and that the idea of it ending criminal networks are a pipe dream.’

There is an irony in this debate: overall consumption of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis have fallen consistently year-on-year in the UK, most especially among young people. Notably, regular cannabis use has dropped by nearly a third since 2002. Consumer choice, as much as taxation and social policy, has its own dynamic. Collectively, people are gradually, almost glacially rejecting the use of drugs, even if the dramatic reduction in cigarette consumption arguably has more to do with punitive taxes (up by more than 200% in real terms over a generation) rather than any other single factor.

The law can be a blunt instrument, and sometimes slow to reflect changes in societal attitudes. Simple legal solutions to complex problems such as drugs are fraught with difficulty. And they can have disastrous consequences. Whatever the merits of making pot legal, smoking it is not risk-free and for some, the consequences can be devastating. ‘We must refocus the cannabis debate on educating about the harms and investing in treatment,’ concludes the CSJ report.  

We know from drugs which are already legal – alcohol and tobacco – that enormous attendant costs follow from their usage, both for individuals and for wider society. If either drug were discovered or synthesised for the first time today, arguments for legalising them would be hard to sustain.

But then again, in a free society, decisions about whether to drink or smoke should be a matter of personal choice, not prescriptive legislation. After all, freedom of choice is a fundamental human right. Ultimately, the law can only operate through the consent of the majority. And where majority opinion is headed over the coming decades in relation to our most popular drugs of choice is impossible to predict.


Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com