The rush to sense: UK cannabis paranoia exposed

Should we follow the rest of the world in legalising cannabis?

Medical marijuana is now legal in a majority of US states, including conservative bastions such as Arkansas and Montana. Common sense is prevailing in Canada and Australia, too. Public support for cannabis legalisation has grown significantly in these countries. But the political establishment in Britain refuse to promote such sensible and courageous action.

February last year marked a watershed moment for many thousands of Australian citizens struggling to manage chronic conditions. It was the month the Turnbull Government introduced amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act legalising access to safe supplies of medicinal cannabis. This law passed without fuss and established, in the words of then health minister Sussan Ley, a “pathway of legally-grown cannabis for the manufacture of suitable medicinal cannabis products in Australia”.

Brave politicians like Ley, in presenting overwhelming evidence to support these changes, have managed to lead public opinion. However, the new federal law has one fatal flaw – it does not decriminalise unregulated cannabis remains a law enforcement issue for individual states. In a recent poll in South Australia’s Advertiser, 83 percent of readers backed a further law which would allow the home growing of medicinal cannabis for strict medicinal purposes.

Elsewhere, the legalisation of cannabis was a flagship manifesto commitment of Justin Trudeau in 2015. He successfully led the Liberal Party into government with a stomping majority. The law will change this spring. However, like the Turnbull Government, Trudeau’s reluctance to decriminalise means many citizens have and will suffer in the meantime.

Demand for pain relief is not yet meeting the supply of; it is absurd that expensive and harmful pharmaceutical painkillers are liberally prescribed, while use of cannabis is harshly punished.

Where legalisation for medicinal purposes and decriminalisation go hand in hand, public attitudes have been proven to shift substantially. In the US, now polls suggest over half of American people support the legalisation of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use. No wonder this is the case when states such as Colorado, which legalised cannabis for recreational use, have seen a drop in cannabis sales among locals despite a rise in stores selling the drug. Colorado high schools have seen cannabis usage drop below the national average, a welcome statistic given the dangers of cannabis for the young.

In Britain both public opinion, and political will, lag behind. Brave British parliamentarians haven’t quite been in the right place at the right time. Ex-Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, Drugs Minister in the coalition government, broke ranks from his Tory colleagues and released a report calling for cannabis-based medicines to be legalised in the UK. But he resigned to defend his seat amidst dwindling popularity for his party, lost his seat the following May, and his report went unendorsed by his boss. Her name was Theresa May, and she is now prime minister. I got in touch with Norman Baker, one of parliament’s greatest campaigners on the issue, about the prospects of any loosening on prohibition for cannabis use or legalisation for medicinal use. He responded, swiftly and soberly: “Given Theresa’s views, I think it most unlikely anything will change under her regime.”

While the evidence grows ever more compelling, the government stands silently still as people continue to needlessly suffer. The Adam Smith Institute and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Reform have produced persuasive reports to lobby government. What will it take for them to see sense?

This post originally appeared on Paul Flynn’s blog.