MPs briefing for cannabis legalisation debate on 12 October


On Monday 12 October, at 4.30pm, MPs will debate the legalisation of cannabis in Westminster Hall. The debate results from an e-petition that garnered more than 220,000 signatures. Below is a briefing for MPs, to support the call for the government to take control of the cannabis trade by legalising and regulating its production and supply.


International context

In October 2014 US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield told a press conference:  “the international community should ...accept flexible interpretation of [the] conventions. We must...tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries...will legalize entire categories of drugs.”
“How could I, a representative of the Government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?”
Global cannabis prohibition is ending. Four US states and Washington D.C. have legalised and regulated non-medical cannabis. It is likely several more states, including California, the eighth largest economy in the world, will vote to legalise and regulate cannabis next year. Mexico has said it will have to follow suit if California legalises. As well as the Dutch coffee shops, and several hundred registered cannabis social clubs in Spain, Uruguay has just issued the first licenses for legal production and cultivation, and Jamaica and others are poised to follow.


In 2002 the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into drugs policy concluded:
24. We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma (paragraph 267).
David Cameron and Tom Watson were both members.

UK public support

Polling carried out by Ipsos-MORI in 2013 showed that 53% of the UK public support the legal regulation or decriminalisation of cannabis.

Government, not gangsters should control the drugs trade

  • Prohibition gifts the drugs trade to organised crime. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has said: “Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions.”
  • Legal regulation allows governments to reclaim the trade from organised criminals, and manage it in a way that will reduce health and social harms
  • Through legal regulation, governments can, for example, enforce age-access controls, limits on the volume of cannabis that can be purchased per transaction, and a ban on sales of any other drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) via cannabis outlets. These are the kinds of responsible regulatory measures that simply cannot be applied while criminals control the trade

Medical cannabis

For those who are ill, having the best available medicine is a key part of the universal right to health – and that includes access to medical cannabis products where deemed appropriate or prescribed by doctors.  However, discussion around medical and non medical cannabis should be separated: they are very different issues from both legal and policy perspectives.

Legalise and regulate cannabis because it’s dangerous, not because it’s safe

  • All drugs carry risks, but these risks are dramatically increased when drugs are produced and supplied by criminal profiteers
  • Although some people can experience problems with cannabis, criminalising and stigmatising users and their families only exacerbates these problems. A criminal record can severely limit employment opportunities, education prospects and life chances, leading to further marginalisation and misery
  • A change in the law needs to be accompanied by a reallocation of resources away from harm maximising enforcement, toward health and social responses appropriate to dealing with dependence

The government says drug use is falling

  • Over the past decade cannabis use in the UK has declined. However, there is no evidence that this decline has been brought about through harsh drug law enforcement. In fact, this downward trend coincided with cannabis being downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug
  • The disconnect between intensity of enforcement and levels of use has been highlighted by the Home Office itself. Its International Comparators report published last year said: “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country.”
  • Moreover, there have recently been sharp rises in MDMA (ecstasy) and cocaine use, and drug deaths have risen dramatically in the past couple of years, reaching the highest number on record – with, on average, 50 illegal drug-related deaths every week
  • The Netherlands, which has legalised retail sales of cannabis for over 40 years, has lower levels of use than the UK, comparable with those in neighbouring countries  

Sending the right message

  • Government claims that legalising drugs "sends the wrong message" to young people.  It is not the job of the criminal justice system to send messages on public health, and when it has tried to, it hasn’t worked.
  • A punitive response to those who use drugs recreationally, or who use them to deal with pain, is both arbitrary and disproportionate, inappropriate and cruel
  • Responsible legal regulation of cannabis markets in fact sends out this message: "That we are rational, that we should base policy on evidence, and that we want to care for young people, rather than universally criminalise them.”
  • Legal regulation, and the control it gives us over packaging, vendors and outlets, provides far better opportunities to send messages about the risks of drug use.  And these are the right messages to send to young people

Cost benefit analysis conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

In the absence of government research, the most comprehensive cost benefit analysis of cannabis legalisation in the UK has suggested that the legalisation and regulation of cannabis (in England and Wales) would:

  • Save £200-300 million annually across the criminal justice system
  • Generate between £400 million and £900 million in tax revenue
  • Contribute to a reduction in the government deficit of between £0.5 billion to £1.25 billion per year
  • Incur net costs ranging from zero to around £85 million, due to impacts on physical and mental health. Even in the worst case scenario, these costs are modest in relation to projected savings on policing and criminal justice costs

Cannabis regulation in Colorado: early evidence defies the critics

Along with Uruguay, four US states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – and the capital, Washington DC, have legalised cannabis for non-medical adult use.
These are new developments, with retail stores opening in Colorado and Washington last year, and Oregon last week (Uruguay's legal cannabis market will be operational in the new year).  Early evidence from Colorado indicates that it is far from the disaster predicted by critics of the reform, and has had the following outcomes:

  • No spike in cannabis use among young people
  • No increase in road fatalities
  • A large reduction in the criminal market, as the state now controls 60% of supply
  • A $125 million predicted tax take for 2015, with $40 million allocated for school building programmes
  • Thousands no longer receiving criminal records
  • A regulatory system able to adapt quickly to emerging concerns about cannabis edibles

Further reading

Debating Drugs: how to make the case for legal regulation

Cannabis regulation in Colorado: early evidence defies the critics

Cannabis Policy in the Netherlands : moving forwards not backwards

Cannabis social clubs in Spain: legalisation without commercialisation

How to regulate Cannabis: a practical guide

Home Office (2014) Drugs: International Comparators


Danny Kushlick, Head of External Affairs 07970 174 747