Image Credit: Cannabis Tours
The York Union recently hosted a talk by Peter Hitchens, one of the most vocal opponents of the legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis in the public eye. This comes as part of an ongoing public debate in the UK over the last couple of years following legalisation of varying kinds in the US and Canada for recreational use as well as medicinal use. In the UK, the debate has tended to focus more on medical than recreational usage, however numerous figures and groups have and continue to lobby for recreational legalisation. Personally, I would like to see full legalisation and decriminalisation for both forms of use.
Firstly, legalisation and decriminalisation are not the same thing. Decriminalisation refers to any degree of rescinding measures of criminal persecution people would normally face for an action. In the case of cannabis, this could mean anything from allowing people to carry a certain (probably quite small) amount of cannabis without facing any legal punishment, to allowing people to grow cannabis themselves and distribute it. So this is essentially quite a vague term. Legalisation is the structural process of setting a legal framework regarding an activity. Decriminalisation and legalisation together would mean lifting criminal punishments as well as integrating cannabis use into a system where the government could regulate and tax the economy around it, in which consumers and providers would be safer. It would liberate people in the UK from unhealthy and reactionary stigma, outdated laws, big pharma and the unpredictable nature of cannabis in its current, fugitive status.
Arguments for medical usage have gained traction after a series of cases in the public eye. For example, in June 2018 Billy Caldwell – a 12 year old boy suffering from epilepsy – was granted a special license by the Home Office to access cannabis oil as medication for his seizures. This was after his sixmonth supply of the drug had been seized on returning from Canada – where he and his family had obtained the cannabis oil. The oil had been deemed an illegal substance because of its high THC content. Subsequently Sajid Javid, home secretary at the time, announced that legal changes would be made from 1 November 2018 which would allow the prescription of a small range of cannabis-based medicines.
Recent reporting in the i shows that only 18 prescriptions for cannabis-based drugs have been made since November of last year, with a further 104 prescriptions for patients of private healthcare. This may be due in part to the fact that only clinicians listed on the Specialist Register of the General Medical Council are allowed to prescribe such drugs. Evidently, this will limit the ease of access to these products, and is a mark of how (despite the encouraging progress which has been made in recent times) the approach to the medicinal usage of cannabis is still somewhat conservative. Of course further in-depth studies must be conducted to create more consensus on the medical qualities of cannabis, but the status of medical use in the UK will not be satisfactory until those drugs which are shown to be effective are readily accessible for those who need them, for any and all conditions which can be treated in this way.
Regarding recreational use, public opinion has tilted towards liberalisation of laws around cannabis. YouGov data from 2018 suggests that 24 per cent of the general population supported decriminalisation, while 27 per cent supported legalisation. This is likely related to the increase in popularity of cannabidiol (CBD) products. As things stand, CBD is treated generally as an unscheduled substance in the UK. It can be sold in the form of oils, vapes, creams and food products, but cannot be sold on the premise of having any medical qualities. Campaigning by organisations such as Clear (a trade organisation representing vendors of CBD products) has helped to expose the inconsistency of current legislation around cannabis and created an environment where one can find cannabis products on virtually any high street in the country.
However, as with medical usage, there is still a way to go, as proponents of CBD ‘buds’ (essentially what one would think of as the illegal cannabis flower, but prepared to remove the THC content) have repeatedly found their products confiscated due to sheer ignorance and ongoing stigma around the cannabis flower. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of CBD suggests better recreational use. Ultimately, decriminalisation and legalisation should reach the point where licenses are granted for individuals to grow for personal use, as well as medical use for those with serious ongoing conditions. This is a long way off, but judging from recent legal developments and turns in public opinion, there is hope.