The Future of Cannabis in the UK

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. presidential election and Brexit deal negotiations have been stealing the headlines in recent months, journalists have had little time for other stories in the news. Stories which would have otherwise made the front pages in recent times. These include the ‘End SARS’ campaign in Nigeria and the Xianjiang re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims in China, which seem to be getting pushed into the shadows. One other story that has been side-lined by the press is the progress of cannabis legalisation (or some form of decriminalisation) in the U.K. This article will give a brief overview of what the mainstream news have missed.

Changes Globally

15 U.S. states have, so far, at least decriminalised cannabis in recent years, with Canada and Mexico also currently in the process of legalising the substance. Even here in the U.K., medicinal use of cannabis was legalised in 2018. With this push around the globe for the cannabis stigma to be seen as less of a criminal activity, and more of a recreational one, the U.K. could see changes to the law in the next few years surrounding the drug.

Potential Reward from U.K. Legalisation

With U.K. public debt rapidly increasing from around 85% of GDP in 2019 to 100% in July 2020 (equating to approximately £2 trillion), questions have been raised about how the country will pay this all back. Rishi Sunak has currently been reluctant to raise taxes in the pandemic crisis, however it is expected he will raise them in the Spring of 2021 in order to pay back the £200 billion Covid-19 crisis spending.

One option to raise tax revenue and pay off this debt is the legalisation of cannabis. It is thought that this could raise between £1 billion to £3.5 billion alone. In 2019, alcohol duty raised £12.1 billion in the UK, and has been bringing in billions worth of revenue year on year for decades. Whilst these two substances are not homogenous, it wouldn’t be imprudent to assume that these estimations for cannabis legalisation revenue are not far-off.

Even the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has set out its approach to cannabis-related companies interested in a U.K. listing on the U.K. stock market, and how it would navigate the laws. The New-York and NASDAQ stock markets have already welcomed cannabis-related companies, with 11 companies being listed, since May 2019 and with plenty more still expected to come. These so called “pot stocks” are becoming less known as outsider stocks in the market and increasingly becoming serious, high-growth, profitable companies that investors are happy to pour money into. This explains why the FCA is preparing for the potential entrance of U.K. cannabis firms.

Is Cannabis that Bad?

Cannabis is made up over 400 compounds, with THC being the compound that causes the psychotropic (mind-altering) effects of the drug. THC products are illegal in the U.K. currently, however, another compound in cannabis is CBD, which is legal in the U.K. and boasts a market to the value of roughly £300 million. The dichotomy in U.K. law is that legal CBD products contain 0.2% THC. Although this is a very small amount, it shows that the U.K. currently has some tolerance for the illegal compound, so could this tolerance become more lenient in the future alongside the global push for cannabis and THC legalisation?

In other countries around the world where cannabis has been legalised, the experience of buying the drug is similar to that of buying alcohol. Age restrictions are in place, between having to be a minimum of 18-21 years of age depending on whereabouts in the world you are buying the substance. Cannabis dispensaries are also obligated to have licenses for both the cultivation and retail of the products they are selling. In addition to this, there are limits as to how much cannabis any one person can buy or possess, with quantities differing for different areas. For example, Colorado Amendment 64 allows adults age 21 or older to possess up to 6 marijuana plants in their own private space and carry up to one ounce of cannabis whilst travelling within the state. Shops are also limited to selling products containing only up to 800mg of THC. It is also illegal to drive whilst being under the influence of cannabis in Colorado and all other areas.

It can be seen from these heavy regulations of cannabis markets around the globe, that the U.K. government would arguably have more control of the circulation of cannabis with legalisation and regulation than they currently do without. The legalisation of cannabis would be taking money out of the pockets of drug-dealing criminals, and into the wallets of the U.K. government. Within just two years of legalising the cannabis market, California surpassed $2 billion in tax revenue. Surely the U.K. should follow suit?

By regulating cannabis, products will be thoroughly tested in the interest of consumer safety, which is not the case presently. Cannabis bought off the streets is often contaminated with fungus, moulds, pesticides and other harmful substances. This means legalisation could be beneficial in the interest of public health, as 30% of 16 to 64-year-olds have tried cannabis in their lifetime according to a 2018 BBC survey. On the other hand, cannabis has always been seen as a ‘gateway drug’ and so with more ease of access to the substance, this could lead users to experiment with more dangerous substances, which could overall cause more harm than good for public health.

In conclusion, I think it is less of a question of ‘if’ cannabis will be legalised in the U.K., and more of a question of ‘when.’ Transform think-tank’s drug policy expert Steve Rolles also believes that “the U.K. will legalise recreational cannabis within five years.” With the global push for legalisation, some countries, like New Zealand have held a referendum on the matter, narrowly losing, with 51% in favour of no to recreational cannabis legalisation. There is evidence from the many U.S. states that the regulation of the drug can bring user safety and tax revenue however, the long-term effects of cannabis are still disputed. As with tobacco, the detriment it can have to human health can take years, perhaps decades to manifest, so by legalising and somewhat promoting cannabis use, the health of the nation could be put at risk.