William Hague has stated in the Independent that the war on cannabis has been ‘comprehensively and irreversibly lost’. He is right to acknowledge that the government has failed to deter people from using cannabis for both recreational and medicinal use. But his calls to legalise the drug are the views of a middle-class politician whose experience of drugs comes from the dormitories of Oxford, not from witnessing the long-term addiction and suffering caused by drugs in poorer communities.
Drugs destroy lives, families and communities. That is especially true when you look at the costs of the two most common and legal drugs—tobacco and alcohol—which combined account for around 5% of the annual NHS budget and cost the UK many billions per year in lost productivity. Smokers and drinkers arguably contribute more to the government through taxes than they cost. But from a social perspective, smoking and alcohol related illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease devastate families and cut lives short, particularly in the most deprived areas of England.
The use of drugs is largely tied into socioeconomic circumstances; people in routine and manual jobs are three times more likely to be smokers than those in managerial and professional occupations, and mortality rates for illnesses related to smoking and alcohol consumption are significantly higher in England’s most deprived areas. There are strong links between poverty, social exclusion and drug-use, particularly for people suffering from mental health problems and from those experiencing cycles of homelessness or debt. There are a range of cognitive, behavioural and emotional risks associated with having an alcoholic parent, and children of drug addicted parents are far more likely to abuse drugs themselves.
This is particularly important considering that cannabis is an addictive substance whose long-term use is linked to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as increased risk of psychosis. While the evidence shows cannabis to be less harmful than alcohol on the whole, this is partly because alcohol is so cheap and easily accessible; an affordable, legal and socially acceptable high for people living on the poverty line. Some argue that legally available cannabis might provide a healthier alternative to alcohol consumption, and this is true if cannabis is taken alone, but evidence shows to the contrary that a majority of cannabis users consume cannabis alongside alcohol and tobacco. And little research has been done into the way the cannabis and alcohol react with one another, despite the fact that people frequently mix the two recreationally.
The picture often painted by pro-legalisation activists such as Vince Cable is one of personal choice for ordinary people. But the reality is that it is Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable who turn to drugs in order to escape from their social circumstances, and it is they who would be most impacted by a policy change regarding the consumption of cannabis. Legalising cannabis would likely increase its uptake among those most susceptible to its negative effects and would increase the coincidence of its use with alcohol, as both substances would be sold in the same places. A fully licensed legalisation of the drug would mean corner shops selling cannabis alongside cheap alcohol and cigarettes in Britain’s most deprived towns and cities—contributing to a cycle of poor health, poverty and social exclusion in deprived areas.
The argument for legalising the medicinal use of cannabis based on need is a far different one to legalising the drug entirely. Many people experience benefits from being able to access cannabis and cannabinoid substances, and there is a strong and credible argument to make cannabis available via prescription to those who need it. But even decriminalising use of the drug runs the risk of yet another harmful and uncontrolled substance becoming more accessible to vulnerable adults and young people. In Canada, where legalisation has just become a reality, many teens use cannabis to self-medicate and to cope with mental health issues like stress, depression and anxiety. Allowing these teens and other adults to self-medicate instead of seeking professional help for their mental health conditions is extremely dangerous. Being able to regulate and control dosages is crucial for any drug, but this is especially true for a drug which is being used to address mental health issues, and has serious potential side-effects including psychosis.
As unpopular and exhaustive as it is, the ‘war’ against cannabis must continue. And it needs to smarten up. The use of WhatsApp, Gumtree and Craigslist as drug-dealing platforms has gone largely unchecked and is a problem which has spiralled out of control. It is no surprise, considering that the government under the Conservatives has reduced police numbers to an all time historic low, that police are short of the resources to deal with small-time drug dealing on the streets of Britain. But legalising cannabis is no easy fix to reducing criminal activity or improving the lives and welfare of people, particularly society’s worst-off, who resort to using drugs. Instead, the government should give the police the resources they need to reduce the number of drugs being traded and consumed on our streets.