High or Bye Mary Jane?

Adopted, used and venerated, weed is everywhere. The British debt doesn’t stop increasing, especially since Brexit. The government is then seriously considering legalising the drug to boost the British economy. But is this the best solution?

Once, a ‘stoner’ was described as a loser with greasy hair, lack of style and with only a plate of leftovers for company. But pop culture changed this image and toned down this practice that is becoming decriminalised more and more every day. Still, the UK hasn’t legalised it.

A report entitled The Tide Effect published in November 2016 revealed that the UK might need to legalise cannabis just to boost its economy in the aftermath of Brexit. Several MPs from each party are in favour of this idea, which every time it is floated causes controversy. “A legal cannabis market could be worth £6.8bn annually, providing up to £1bn to the Treasury,” says the report, which was carried out by economic think-tank the Adam Smith Institute.

Ben Southwood, the ASI head of research says: “There are two main reasons for why we conducted the report: one, we don’t want to be left behind by the world, and two we are in a kind of worst-of-all-worlds situation. We want to push in the direction of what we think is the best solution: legalising cannabis.”

High-ranking academics are also reconsidering softening drugs policy in the UK.

Dr John Collins is an expert in drug policy at the London School of Economics. “I think legalisation of cannabis is looking pretty inevitable in liberal democracies over the next decade,” he says.

He says that regulating the market makes far more sense than the current criminal situation. “Something that is very regulated and supplying markets would be far superior to prohibition and commercialisation,” he says. “I think the UK is far more capable of imposing those kinds of stronger regulations especially – as it would be a nascent industry – than the US would be.”

Colorado is now a $1bn industry and brings massive amounts of tax revenues. It is not the legalisation of cannabis that is going to solve a country’s fiscal problem, but it wouldn’t be unwanted

Following the Autumn Statement, the British population found out about how much the decision to leave the EU will cost. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), the UK’s net contribution to the EU per week was £199 million in 2015. But by 2020 the UK would have to borrow an extra £290 million per week to pay for the expected economic downturn caused by Brexit.

Legalising cannabis could be a way to lower costs in the criminal justice system. The ASI report says that nearly 1,400 people are currently in prison in England and Wales for cannabis-related crimes. They cost to the taxpayer £49m a year or £35,000 a year per person. The average salary in the UK is £27,600 per year.

If the UK had a softer approach to cannabis, it could raise extra money in tax revenues, thinks Dr Collins. “Colorado is now a $1bn industry and brings massive amounts of tax revenues. It is not the legalisation of cannabis that is going to solve a country’s fiscal problem, but it wouldn’t be unwanted,” he says.

Colorado has seen a massive economic boost since the state legalised the herb in 2013. According to Business Insider UK, taxing and selling weed in Colorado and Washington has been “overwhelmingly successful in generating revenue”. Colorado brought in $129m in the second year of legalisation and Washington raised $220m in taxes from marijuana.

But not everybody believes in Colorado’s success. Brendan Hughes, legal expert at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), thinks the headline figures are not the full story. He says: “Colorado might have raised $100m thanks to marijuana, but nobody tells you that the state budget is $27bn. So suddenly when you start to do the maths, they have raised less than one per cent of the state budget.”

Cannabis remains a Class B drug in the UK, carrying a prison sentence for possession of up to five years, one of the toughest penalties in Europe. There are three classes of drugs defined by law according to the potential harm they can cause: Class A (heroin, cocaine, mushrooms) causes more harm and penalty is higher, prison sentence for possession is up to seven years. Class C includes drugs such as benzodiazepines (tranquilisers), GHB or ketamine; prison sentence for possession is up to two years.

Hughes says that guidelines from the Association of Chiefs Police Officers seem to show that the UK already has effectively decriminalised cannabis. If caught in possession of marijuana, you’re first warned and the second time you’re fined. It’s only on the third offence that you can expect to be arrested. “All of this shows the complication of whether you are looking at the law, which is written and published, or whether you are looking at what happens every day on the street,” says Hughes.

Poptical’s survey Thoughts on Cannabis reveals that for 77 per cent of people the fact weed is illegal doesn’t stop them using it. But it also showed that for almost a quarter of people it did.

Consuming cannabis does not seem to be a big deal in the UK. Each year on the 20th of April, is held in Hyde Park London the 420 picnic, where hundreds of people gather to smoke. This event proves civil disobedience, protesting against criminalisation of marijuana. But last year, there were 20 arrests and a dozen warnings, for 5,000 participants. The Met said they prefered to give warnings but if cases of high level of criminality, such as dealing and smoking bongs, they would start arresting people.

Hughes thinks Europe and the United States are very different in terms of dealing with drugs. He says: “It’s really the American stereotype: it’s all about private enterprise and making money, but social support is a very low priority there. Whereas usually in Europe, our objective is to protect public health, therefore we want to limit access of cannabis.”

It seems no country in the world can agree what the law on cannabis should be.

For instance, the herb is illegal in India but limited allowances of cannabis are made for traditional preparations and customs. Indians believe the plant has medicinal uses, such as curing fever or helping digestion.

In Europe, our objective is to protect public health, therefore we want to limit access of cannabis

There is an on-going debate whether cannabis is harmful or not. According to the 2016 European drug report a third of adults in the UK have smoked cannabis compared to the EU average of 25 per cent.

Roger Morgan is the founder of the Take Back America Campaign, which was created to prevent drug abuse in California, where cannabis has been legal since last November. He believes marijuana is dangerous for society: “The drug journey almost always begins with marijuana. It doesn’t kill by overdose, but it is a gateway to hard drugs like heroin.”

According to a government report on substance misuse among young people in 2015, the number of young people in treatment for cannabis has been increasing and it is the most common drug, even before alcohol, that young people need help with.

The report outlines that 16,000 of the young people that are in treatment cite cannabis as the substance used, while less than 10,000 young people cite alcohol.

Filipe, 22, is an ex-cannabis smoker. He used to smoke for four years before quitting last year after a bad experience.

One evening, Filipe smoked cannabis with some friends. On the tube home, he began feeling ill. “As soon as I entered the station, a wave of paranoia spread through my mind,” he says. “It felt like everyone around me was staring and judging me.”

“I began sweating profusely and my mind started thinking uncontrollably. Shortly after, I fainted. This feeling of impotence scared the hell out of me.” Filipe hasn’t smoked since.

But some argue that alcohol is more dangerous to your health than cannabis. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2015 said that smoking marijuana is 114 times safer than drinking alcohol.

Poptical’s Thoughts on Cannabis reveals almost 80 per cent believed alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis to people’s health.

The whole topic of the legalisation of marijuana is highly controversial. “You would have to stop about 2,000 people smoking to prevent one person from getting psychosis,” Ben Southwood says.

“Alcohol is water soluble, one ounce of alcohol is excreted from the body within 12hours,” Morgan says. “Whereas marijuana is fat soluble, even fat loving, half of which remains in the body and brain for one month, compounding with each additional use.”

Deciding to legalise cannabis in a country is no easy feat and sometimes there is no perfect answer.

Pope Francis, head of the world’s 1bn Catholics remains sceptical about legalising the green substance – which is actually legal in his home country of Argentina – and more recently, Italy was debating cannabis decriminalisation. “A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalisation of drug use,” he said during a speech at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro.

Today, pop culture symbols do not hesitate to publicly announce their love of pot. Marijuana advocate Snoop Dogg is the most famous stoner on the planet, singing “smoke weed everyday” and smoking on stage. Rihanna or Miley Cyrus post pictures on their Instagram wearing t-shirts with illustrations of the cannabis leaf on them.

There are no right answers regarding cannabis, and it is certainly not a decision to take lightly. But what is sure is that the UK’s drug laws may not be keeping up with public opinion. Thoughts on Cannabis reveals 75 per cent would be in favour of legalising cannabis in the UK.

Legalising cannabis would undeniably boost the economy. But people are concerned over its health effects. Although, according to the ASI report, cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol, which is a commercialised drug.

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