T. N. D. Anderson argues that Wales could benefit by being a pioneer in the UK.
Since the first retail marijuana stores opened 18 months ago in Colorado, the state has benefited from a decrease in crime rates, a decrease in traffic fatalities, an increase in tax revenue and economic output from retail marijuana sales, and a 16,000 increase in jobs (www.drugpolicy.org). It is time for the Welsh Government to consider whether it should go down the same road.
Alaska, Oregon and Washington followed Colorado in legalising the sale and possession of marijuana (cannabis in UK officialese) for both medical and recreational use, while many other US states permit medical use or have decriminalised it. A few more, including California, are set to legalise sales in 2016. Uruguay, on the advice of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (www.tdpf.org.uk) has legalized marijuana, established regulations and will soon reap taxation revenues.
From being the world’s drug war policeman for half a century, the US government is now calling on the UN to allow countries to legalise whole categories of drugs if they choose to. If and when California legalises marijuana, a swathe of Latin and Caribbean countries will follow suit – Mexico has said it will, while Jamaica is already preparing the ground. In short, global marijuana prohibition is a dead man walking.
What’s not to like? And why not here? Why not in Wales? Well, we can be certain that the UK’s Home Office will continue to deny its own evidence. So don’t hold your breath. With the highhandedness characteristic of successive UK Governments, they have defied public opinion, which, among all age groups, has consistently supported decriminalisation and a smarter approach to drug management.
The prohibition of drugs, mandated by UN conventions, and termed the war on drugs, has been a complete failure, writ large. This ‘war’ has destabilised governments and societies, polluted environments, empowered gangsters and terrorists, increased both the potency of the product and the availability of ‘hard’ drugs and the 350 newly-created synthetic psychotropic substitutes. It has prevented the treatment of addicts, encouraged binge drinking and denied pain relief to 75% of the world’s population (though not Queen Victoria, in more enlightened times).
It has hampered the development of new treatments for a range of hitherto apparently intractable illnesses and the potential for releasing the creativity that once aided Coleridge, Huxley and Leary. It has wasted billions of funds that could have been expended to greater benefit – water for Africa, say, or poverty reduction everywhere.
Sadly, drug prohibition has brought an agency of the United Nations into serious disrepute. The UN Office of Drug Control (UNODC) has bullied governments worldwide on the basis of an unscientific and otherwise ill-founded case. Worse, we have strong historical evidence – from the USA, of all places – that the prohibition of alcohol did not work. That unleashed and empowered the Mafia and other crime syndicates, spawned a legacy of violence, and induced alcoholism as low-strength beers were replaced by high-strength hooch, moonshine – rough bootleg whiskey, often containing rather too much methyl alcohol than is good for one!
With 3.3m deaths worldwide in 2012 attributed to alcohol, one might expect that alcohol would be tightly regulated. Yet, in the UK, recent history is illustrated by looser controls, ready availability and widespread misuse. The scenes in our city centres late on Saturdays – not least in Cardiff – are not for the squeamish. Since restored to quasi-respectability and social pre-eminence from the dark days of Prohibition, the alcohol industry and its influential lobbyists have been advancing its own interests and acting to undermine a serious competitor.
Recently, Professor David Nutt, speaking at the British Neurological Association convention in Edinburgh (ow.ly/LGmTf), illustrated his presentation with a slide of a billboard sponsored by Budweiser. It reads, ‘Say no to drugs. That way, you’ll have more time to drink.’
Nutt went on to ask his audience for a show of hands in answer to the question, what killed Amy Winehouse?
1. Drug overdose
2. Alcohol overdose
3. Drug + alcohol overdose.
He summarised – you are all right. It was alcohol – and alcohol is a drug!
The parallel of hooch with the skunk of hysterical tabloid infamy is obvious. In a similarly vivid demonstration of Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good), the illegal market created and driven by prohibition has criminalised the most benign, bulkiest and easiest detectable forms of marijuana – the aromatic leaves of the plant – in favour of the concentrated high-THC low-volume form. That this form has often been genetically manipulated to produce a low cannabidiol (CBD) content places at risk people who may be susceptible to psychosis.
Charlie Lyons’ Coffee House blog (The Spectator, 26 February 2015) describes the differences between the traditional strain and modern skunk. His headline cites Jon Snow – skunk is dangerous, but it’s impossible to buy anything else. Well, it is possible but often difficult. Amsterdam attracts many Britons seeking those milder strains as well as skunk.
Despite the black market availability of just about anything one wants in Wales – unfortunately including many unhealthy and adulterated products – action against drugs by the police is not a priority, tends to be more reactive than proactive and largely ineffectual. Seizure of even 10 per cent of the volume of marijuana, cocaine or MDMA (ecstasy) traded in the UK would be remarkable, but still little more than an inconvenience to those profiting from the criminal drugs market. Studies by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair state that we would need to seize 60% of a drug consistently over a period of years to put illicit dealers out of business.
The legal market for alcohol – a very hard drug, and an acknowledged killer – has lessons. While high-alcohol products (spirits), are available, it is the lower-strength wines, beers and ciders that are preferred. A legal market for marijuana is likely to result in declining sales of high-THC (~15%), low-CBD skunk. Good dope (~5%) is strong enough.
There is a precedent for this. In post-prohibition America the market shifted away from moonshine and other spirits towards beer and wines after alcohol sales were legalised. It is reasonable to assume something similar would happen to the market for marijuana. In any case, regulation would also offer the opportunity to cap the strength of products sold, and to use price mechanisms to steer consumers towards safer products if needed.
The market for many of the synthetic drugs is similarly likely to decline, if not disappear entirely. As a public safety measure alone, the legalisation of marijuana has much to support it. Ask the Dutch, who have successfully separated the markets there for hard and soft drugs.
Legalisation, in my view, is inevitable. Rationality will eventually prevail. Already in the UK, a process of decriminalisation and depenalisation has begun (cue vehement denial!). Once we agree that it is no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’, the key questions that arise are to whom, where, and under what conditions would the licences for the cultivation and sale of marijuana be issued? How might marijuana be managed to best public advantage?
What should happen in Wales?
It is at least arguable that Wales might take a more progressive stance than England, and reflect the rapid changes that are taking place in the US and Latin America.
Professor Nutt challenged the scientific establishment in Scotland to push for the end of constraints on research on psychotropic substances to the benefit of all. Among others, the Beckley Foundation (www.beckleyfoundation.org/) has been undertaking pioneering research on MDMA and LSD, the latter with prospective benefits in the treatment of depression and alcoholism – a rich irony indeed.
Why shouldn’t Wales have a slice of this action, and participate in an exciting new field for medical science? Why not a research facility located in the Valleys investigating downstream exploitation of the 100+ psychoactive components of marijuana for therapeutic applications? This field is led internationally by Professor Roger Pertwee of the University of Glasgow, though most work is now being performed abroad because of the UK drug regulations.
We know that much dope is already grown in the Valleys, West Wales and in the suburbs of Cardiff and Swansea. But it is unregulated and untaxed. There is no quality control or product standardisation.
Nutt cited other benefits from legalisation and the introduction of the Dutch coffee-shop culture – medical tourism, recreational tourism, less weekend violence in town centres, reduced use of prescription opioids, more pharmaceutical investment, and fewer alcohol road deaths. One might expect the larger cities to take prompt advantage of marijuana legalisation. There are entrepreneurs in Swansea and Cardiff who have already signalled their interest.
However, a more encompassing opportunity awaits Wales. As we know, the mean GVA here is 72% of the UK’s, with Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen lower still. Residents of the latter consume large quantities of prescription and OTC medicines. My proposal therefore is, that the first licences for cultivation and sale of marijuana in coffee shops be granted in the most deprived areas of Wales, where wholesale prices could prevail.
This would be the equivalent of quantitative easing (QE) at the bottom. What is now an untaxed black market would be replaced by legal, tax-liable enterprises. It would create formal employment in locations where efforts to do so previously have largely failed. It would generate new interest in horticulture, and improve the viability of both agricultural enterprises and suppliers. Where there are few prospects for young people and significant out-migration of talent, new enterprises could retain important skillsets.
Most of all, in the Valleys, West Wales and elsewhere, the legalisation of the cultivation and sale of marijuana would generate hope.