Cannabis should be legalised and sold over the counter in specially-licenced shops, a radical review of Britain’s drug laws has recommended.
The independent study, staffed by a sitting police chief and former Government drugs adviser, also calls for decriminalisation of home-cultivation of the drug for personal use and claims upto £1bn could be raised in taxes.
The ground-breaking review, set up by the Liberal Democrats, sets out the most comprehensive framework to date on how a regulated cannabis market could work in the UK.
Set up by former health minister Norman Lamb, the expert panel was chaired by Steve Rolles, of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
Its members included Mike Barton, Chief Constable of Durham Police, and Professor David Nutt, the former Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs that advised the Home Office.
Cannabis is currently classified as a Class B drug, with possession carrying a maximum sentence of five years in jail or an unlimited fine. Those supplying or producing cannabis face tougher penalties, with up to a maximum of 14 years in jail.
But the new report proposes:
* allowing the sale of cannabis to over 18s from specialist, licensed retail stores
* allowing home-cultivation for personal use and small scale licensed cannabis social clubs
* a new regulator to oversee the market
* laws on the price, potency and packaging of cannabis available from retailers, in line with tobacco and alcohol regulation
* single purpose outlets to sell cannabis modelled on pharmacies
* over-the-counter sales of cannabis in plain packs with clear health warnings, by trained and licensed vendors
The report states there is potential for significant government revenue from taxation,with credible estimates suggesting up to £1 billion per year could be raised. The panel recommends cannabis should be taxed in line with its potency.
The review found that health risks associated with the use of cannabis are more effectively managed and minimised through a responsibly regulated market and public health interventions rather than an unregulated criminal market and punitive criminal justice response.
The Lib Dems are the only major political party in the UK to back drug decriminalisation.
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “Prohibition of cannabis has failed. We need a new, smarter approach and I welcome this report ahead of the Liberal Democrats’ debate at spring conference.
"It is waste of police time to go after young people using cannabis and ludicrous to saddle them with criminal convictions that can damage their future careers. A legal market would allow us to have more control over what is sold, and raise a considerable amount in taxation.
“I have always said that we must have an evidence led approach to drugs law reform, and this report should be taken seriously. Britain has to end our failed war on drugs. The status quo causes huge damage and we urgently need reform.”
Chief Constable Barton sparked controversy in 2013 when he called for an end to 'the war on drugs', saying prohibition had put billions into the pockets of criminals while failing to help addicts in need.
And Professor Nutt was sacked by then Home Secretary Alan Johnson for claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Norman Lamb said: “Politicians must stop making excuses for ignoring the evidence - and accept a new approach is needed.”
“This is a groundbreaking report that is a huge contribution to the debate on introducing a regulated cannabis market in the UK.
"Every year, billions of pounds are put into the pockets of organised criminals selling cannabis, and vast amounts of police time and resources are wasted, going after those using the drug.
“We have to be ambitious. It is not good enough to continue pretending that everything is ok, or that the current system is working. Millions of British citizens are using cannabis with no idea of the potency of what they are taking.
“The current system is doing untold harm: on health grounds and on justice grounds. Leaving the cannabis market in the hands of criminals puts people's health at risk, and criminalises people, blighting their careers. Meanwhile, how many members of the government have taken cannabis and got away with it?
Chair of the expert panel, Steve Rolles, added that the reality was that millions of people use cannabis in the UK and there is a pressing need for government to take control of the trade from gangsters and unregulated dealers.
“Legal regulation is now working well, despite the fearmongering, in Colorado and Washington and will roll out across the US over the coming years," he said
"A regulatory framework is in place in Uruguay and the Canadian Government will legally regulate cannabis soon. This is no longer a theoretical debate - and the emerging evidence is only pointing in one direction
“Over the decades politicians have done great work in cross party settings to explore alternatives to criminalisation and we hope that our report will further assist in taking some of the heat out of the debate.
"Those of us who sat on the panel are keen to see our work used by parliamentarians of all hues to shift to a policy that will make the cannabis trade and its use healthier and safer for all of us.
The Home Office has said it has no plans to change the law, insisting there is "clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people's mental and physical health, and harms individuals and communities".