Recent reform victories are reshaping the landscape of the oldest debate in drug policy.
As Uruguay passed historic legislation this week – becoming the first country in the world to make the production, sale and possession of cannabis legal – the debate around the regulation of the drug in the UK has been thrown back into the spotlight.
The debate over the legalisation of cannabis has been moving increasingly from the margins into the political mainstream, with multiple cities, states and countries considering, developing or implementing a range of regulated market models.
Many public figures, including some politicians, are in agreement that 50 years later, the war on drugs has failed – so has the time come for Britain to take the step from prohibition to legalised regulation?
At a time when Britain is facing brutal austerity measure, The Institute For Social And Economic Research recently estimated that a regulated market could reduce the government deficit by up to £1.25bn, whilst producing roughly £400m in "net benefit" for the country.
The Huffington Post UK spoke to one of the experts who advised the Uruguayan government on its landmark decision on whether Britain could benefit from a similar move.
Steve Rolles, the Senior Policy Analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, has argued for a regulated cannabis market under a strict and sensible framework, like the one implemented in Uruguay.
He acknowledged that, for the UK, "it's a long way away," but now that a country has successfully pursued government-led legalisation "it is going to be hard for other places to ignore it."
"It's one of those things where someone had to go first," he said.
Mr Rolles said the battle in the UK was now to try and change the more "old school" political attitude towards cannabis and the steadfast idea that "drugs are bad."
Nearly a century ago cannabis, along with other drugs, was identified as "evil, a threat to be fought in a winnable war that would completely eradicate the non-medical use of these substances," Transform said in their Practical Guide on how to regulate cannabis, which was released this week.
"The experience of the past 50 years demonstrates that prohibitionist policies have not, and cannot, achieve their stated aims."
Transform is not primarily interested in the discussion of the specific harms that cannabis causes – arguing instead that the negative outcomes of drug use are effectively reduced, whatever they are, by regulating the drug.
Cannabis needs to be legalised because of its risks, not because it is safe, the charity says.
As Diego Canepa, the president of the Uruguay's National Drug Board, said: “A regulated market that is visible has greater oversight than prohibition.”
Uruguayans who register on a national database can now buy up to 40g of cannabis from a pharmacy, and adults are allowed to grow up to eight marijuana plants each.
Everything is monitored by a government database and all forms of advertising, promotion and sponsorship are banned – effectively killing the black market.
Additionally, around 20 US states have now decriminalised cannabis possession for personal use, while Washington and Colorado, have passed ballot legislation to legalise and regulate non-medical cannabis production and supply – ̨the first jurisdictions ever to do so.
Mr Rolles said the point of legalising cannabis is to gain control of the substance and protect public health.
“Prohibition doesn’t improve public health, it actually endangers public health. It doesn’t protect children, it imperils children. It doesn’t reduce crime, it fuels crime. It’s very expensive and is delivering terrible outcomes," he said.
Legalisation, he said, would also effectively eradicate an underclass of people burdened with crippling criminal records and give police more time to "pursue real crime."
But whether legalisation will ever happen here is hard to say.
A former government adviser previously told the Huffington Post UK the Prime Minister is "posturing with tough policies" and that his stance has hardened since he became Tory leader.
Professor David Nutt, who used to chair the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said this was down to "pressure from the old men in the party who told him he could not get elected if he was not hard on drugs."
As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr Cameron voted in favour of the United Nations looking at whether the drugs trade could be legalised and regulated.
But last year he rejected calls for a royal commission to look at whether drugs could be legalised.
"It's a huge disappointment. Now he's just a traditional Tory," Prof Nutt said.
Should the drugs trade could be legalised and regulated?
But the recently appointed Crime Prevention Minister, Norman Baker, who is became responsible for drugs policy following the cabinet reshuffle in October, has said legal cannabis should be "considered", giving hope to those seeking reform.
He has previously said cannabis is "no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco" and has urged resources to be channelled into tackling hard drugs.
Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, Anthony Wells, associate director of YouGov, said that the public were relatively open to the idea of decriminalising cannabis – but, they did not care deeply enough about the issue.
According to recent polling, 47% would support decriminalisation or full legalisation of soft drugs, 45% would be opposed.
Regardless, Mr Rolles points out, society will always have drugs – "so we must choose the policy approach that delivers the best outcomes to minimise the harms."
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