This is an edited version of the speech I gave to the fringe event "Legal regulation of the cannabis market: How, why and when" yesterday:
I said in my speech proposing the drug motion on Sunday that the documentary Killer in a Small Town was a major inspiration for me in my drug policy campaigning, but I do also have another personal motivation for my work that stems from my family's experience of insanity. I have a brother with schizophrenia and the effect of that upon my family is a major motivation in my wish that the government control and regulate cannabis. The science suggests that those who smoke cannabis have around a doubled risk of psychosis. There is a lot of debate about whether this link is causal or just correlation. Psychiatrists will tell you it is causal. Users will tell me that it is correlation often combined with some degree of personal abuse in my direction.
My position on the matter is that it is much better to be safe than to be sorry. I have a Masters degree in Neuroscience. I have read the evidence and find the causation explanation both biologically plausible and the best fit to the epidemiological data. If we sold cannabis from pharmacists then, even if it the relationship was mere correlation, an individual with a doubled risk of psychosis would be armed with the knowledge to identify the early warning signs in both themselves and their friends. If customers experienced problems with their use it is my hope they could go back to the pharmacist and be diverted onto other strains or encouraged to abstain if necessary.
I have settled on pharmacists and not coffee shops. The Dutch coffee shop model is absolutely not one we should follow. The continued illegality of the supply chain to these coffee shops means that they are generally controlled by organised crime groups. This is obviously not a satisfactory endpoint for regulation. But even if we regulated all aspects of the trade, if I am slightly offended by the sight of a cannabis outlet in an otherwise charming street in Utrecht, how would the genuinely conservative members of our society respond to it?
Why should cannabis be the first drug for which full legal regulation is proposed? It is pure political expediency. Myself and colleagues commissioned a poll last year which asked 2000 people whether they would prefer a variety of drugs were lightly regulated like alcohol and tobacco, were prohibited as they are now or were strictly controlled and regulated by the government.
The strict control and regulation measures described included things like pharmacy sale, age restrictions and bans on branding and marketing, prices set by an independent panel in order to maximally undermine criminals and yet deter use. Full education on harms given before people are permitted to use for the first time, and manufacturers, distributors and retailers competing for government contracts with profits directed into drugs treatment and education programs.
Cannabis came out very clearly as the currently illegal drug that people wish to be regulated by the government. 33% wanted it lightly regulated. 37% wanted it strictly regulated, making 70% in favour of legal regulation in total. The next most favourable result was Magic Mushrooms with 52%, while ecstasy had only 39% in favour of regulation. A much higher proportion for legal regulation than ever found in traditional polls, but not ready for the next step. The most striking thing in the cannabis figures however was the fact that regulation was appealing to many of the people you would presume would bristle at the thought of legal cannabis. Totals for legal regulation for conservatives were 67%. Daily Mail and Express readers 66%. When you break it down to examine those in favour of strict regulation, it becomes very interesting indeed. 42% of women favoured strict regulation, to only 32% of men.
The newspaper readership group most in favour of strict regulation. Any guesses?... The Daily Mail and Express at 41% support.
The single demographic group most favouring strict regulation... 35-54 year old women. Presumably the group containing the most mothers of teenage children. They understand that prohibition isn't working and strict regulation presents the best opportunity to restrict children's access to the drug. And we should be absolutely determined to do so. While adult risk is doubled if they use cannabis, under 15s who smoke regularly are thought to increase their risk of subsequent psychosis by 5-fold. The benefits of strict regulation don't need to be explained to these women. They can just look at a policy proposal and recognise its potential.
I'd like to pan out slightly at this point and look at the international picture.
The Americans look like they are going to be the first to legalise cannabis, and I really hope they are not. Looking at the Proposition 19 ballot that was narrowly rejected in California, there was nothing in it that suggested health harms should be taken seriously at all. I think this is a grave mistake.
I was talking to some researchers from the American RAND corporation at a conference in the Netherlands this summer, and they were saying that if they legalised cannabis the price would reduce by 80%. This creates some real problems. If they want to tax the drug sufficiently so that the price of it doesn't plummet, creating a presumed increase in use rates, then they risk retaining a massive black market in cannabis. Americans culturally just instinctively don't like strict regulations getting in the way of the market.
In the UK though, I'd hope that we could recognise that this experiment with legal regulation necessitates really strict control. I would be happy to see the state growing the plants, distributing them to pharmacists and using the proceeds for education and drug treatment. I am uncomfortable with there being anyone in the business who has a financial incentive for people to use more cannabis or for young people to start using. If there is that 80% gap in the UK market too, then we could spend an awful lot of money on regulating the market and still raise a fair bit of tax on top before we came close to failing to undercut the criminal dealers.
On the issue of the drug conventions. The more careful we are, the less the UN would be able to object to our measures. If we say that our state is going to grow all these different strains of cannabis securely for restricted sale to only those who are fully educated on health harms, then they might find it hard to say no. We have to go up to the UN and say these conventions are restricting our ability to protect our citizens from harm. As I said last year, the argument “the people of Britain would like to get high” isn't quite so persuasive. There are of course important medical issues to consider, and I would certainly welcome the day when people with serious medical conditions can use cannabis for those reasons.
The control and regulation process could work to get cannabis farms out of suburban houses, stops Chinese and Vietnamese gangs smuggling in child slaves to tend plants, reduce the proceeds for organised crime, and vastly increases public knowledge of the early warning signs of psychosis. If evaluation indicates a relaxation of the strict regulations would better reduce harm then those steps should be taken.
I think the new legal market could compete on price, quality, predictability of dose, choice and ethical considerations. We may have to seriously consider issues of convenience (a pharmacist is often going to be further away than a dealing neighbour or the plants you are growing in your basement), and stigma (do we need to give cannabis users pads of things that look like prescription sheets so that they can hand them over like everyone else does in a pharmacist and receive the drug in a closed bag)?
To finish, I just want to emphasise again that cannabis regulation has to be about reducing harm as far as is practically possible. It would be pure folly to start at the level of regulation we have for tobacco just to see how it goes. How we deal with all of our drugs from alcohol to heroin, to energy drinks that are attractive to children needs to be looked at.
But if the UK could demonstrate it is possible to strictly control and regulate cannabis effectively I think the world could breathe a sigh of relief and reap massive benefits from following our example.