Sunday, June 17

Featured Article: Has UK cannabis legislation gone to pot?


Our US neighbours whose constitution contained greater libertarian emphasis has seen eight federal states move to fully legalise the consumption of medical and recreational use, with a further twenty-five jurisdictions decriminalising usage. In this article I will consider two social arguments and one medical argument assessing whether they have any traction vis-a-vís the drugs legal status in this country.  

1. Collateral restrictions

The argument from collateral restrictions in layman’s terms is the argument that a criminal conviction due to cannabis carried with it several other negative consequences. Currently, Cannabis is a class B drug, with possession considered an indictable offence. The maximum penalty of a criminal conviction for possession carries an unlimited fine and five years in prison, with those who are found guilty of involvement in supply or production facing an unlimited fine and up to fourteen years in prison. Recently in light of the Court of Appeal case of R v Auton harsher guidelines have been formulated for small yields.

In addition, the conviction ‘cost’ carries civic ramifications too. The legal obligation to disclose a record and the subsequent discrimination ‘punishes’ those individuals through affecting access to insurance, housing, jobs to travel. It seems ex hypothesi, that an argument from regress is easily imaginable – if you are being passed over for the building blocks of self-determination, a return to recreational consumption, or, indeed, distributing cannabis may seem a highly attractive option.

2. Health Impacts

In stark contrast, perhaps the sturdiest argument in favour of cannabis remaining illegal can be found on the impact the drug can have upon a user. The NHS article labelled assuredly ‘Cannabis: the facts’ provides an exhaustive if controversial list of the drugs phenomenological effects. Within this list I will focus on two of the more pertinent harms: the risk to the user’s lungs (1) and to the user’s mental health (2). Analogously to cigarettes, ‘funny fags’ are thought to contain cancer-causing chemicals, although the NHS adds ‘it’s not clear whether this raises your risks of cancer.’ For the sake of brevity, I will grant smoking cannabis in any form (w/wo tobacco) increases chances of respiratory problems and lung cancer. Further, the guidelines warn that regular cannabis use increases risk of developing psychosis. However, once again perhaps due to poor previous scientific research or political divergence any attempt to objectively state medical advantages or disadvantages are maligned by a lack of scientific consensus.

Although there is research that scientific research that cannabinoids – chemical components of cannabis are thought to be useful in the treatment of cancer and found in commercial drugs Dronabinol and Nabilone, in the interests of fairness, I will grant the objective truth of a contemporary meta-study that there is “substantial evidence” for long-term smokers  does indeed present an increased risk of cancer which provides an obvious reason to keep the drug illegal. However, in the case of mental health there is a fundamental problem of over-determination in any attempt to draw a finding.

It is highly plausible that those who have a genetic vulnerability to the drug may be tempted to use it, and perhaps use a different dose relationship than an average consumer. As such it is difficult to adjudicate the precise effects the drug has upon mental health.

3. Cannabis as a ‘gateway’ drug.

The final argument I shall consider posits that cannabis is a ‘soft’ drug which after usage leads users down a slippery slope into ‘harder’ drugs. Limited support for this type of argument can be found in studies which have shown that adults who use marijuana were more likely to develop an alcohol disorder within 3 years, with those who already had an alcohol disorder at the outset being at greater risk of their disorder worsening. I do not take arguments of this type to be convincing. They hark back to the 70’s and 80’s when the war on drugs political rhetoric was in full swing, conjuring imagery of concerned uneducated parents fearing that little Albert would take a puff and be inexorably led down down the black markets A-Z guide culminating in irrevocable ruin at the end of the garden path. The hyperbole present in the last few sentences is as rational I believe as the validity of the trope. There are countless humans who experience cannabis without being motivated to progress to harder narcotics. Further, ironically the de facto reason the argument has any force at all is due to cannabis prohibition. Take away access to the illegal market and the connection to harder drugs is severed.


In this article, I have considered three arguments. Two against and one for legalisation which I have taken to provide reasons for and against legalisation. The most persuasive I believe is the argument from collateral restrictions. Irrespective of your political leaning, I take the arguments derivable from secondary punishment to be especially detrimental to convicted users or suppliers and in fact do more to harm than help societal progression.

There are medical harms to consuming cannabis and this should not be understated.  However, there are to consuming alcohol and tobacco too, but, these harms can be minimised through state regulation and consumer advice – advising consumers to inhale through a vaporisation device or risk harms to the respiratory system. Finally, as a corollary of accepting this argument, I believe the best way to minimise potential harms is for the state to control production. This would avoid the problems of collateral restrictions (1), reducing risks to citizens who would otherwise purchase the drug from the unregulated black market (2) avoiding any residual issues surrounding cannabis as a gateway drug (3), whilst also providing a welcome cash injection that could be spent on another aspect of public policy.

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