Legalising the sale of cannabis in specialist shops would generate £1bn a year in tax revenue and reduce the harm done to users and society, according to the most detailed plans ever drawn up for the liberalisation of UK drug laws.
The study, which was carried out by a panel of experts including scientists, academics and police chiefs, calls for the UK to follow the lead of some US states and allow the sale of cannabis to over-18s in licensed retail stores.
The report’s conclusions will form the basis of a new drugs policy being drawn up by the Liberal Democrat Party, which is expected to debate the issue at its spring conference later this week.
Under the plans proposed by the expert panel:
The experts behind the study say legalisation would reduce drug-related crime and mitigate the harmful effects of the drug on users.
The panel was set up last year by the former Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb and has been chaired by Steve Rolles, from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
Other panel members include Mike Barton, the Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, Professor David Nutt, the former chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, and Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the drugs charity Release. In the report, the authors say that while they do not dispute that taking cannabis is harmful – legalisation and regulation is a better way to mitigate the risks.
“Drug policy to date has (almost) always been driven by political and ideological agendas that have ignored scientific, public health and social policy norms,” they write.
“We are fully aware of the health harms associated with cannabis use, but contend that a rational policy must pragmatically manage the reality of use as it currently exists, rather than attempt to eradicate it using punitive enforcement.”
This, they said, was an approach that, “however well intentioned, has historically proved to be ineffective and counterproductive”.
Mr Rolles said the reality was that millions of people used cannabis anyway, and there was “a pressing need for Government to take control of the trade from gangsters and unregulated dealers”.
“Legal regulation is now working well, despite the fear-mongering, in Colorado and Washington, and will roll out across the US over the coming years,” he said.
But other drug experts were less enthusiastic. Harry Shapiro of the charity DrugWise, said that while there was a case to decriminalise cannabis and make possession of small quantities of the drug a civil offence like a parking fine, any further moves should only go ahead with caution.
“There is a strong case to be prudent and see what happens elsewhere before making decisions in this country,” he said.
However, the paper is likely to prompt the Liberal Democrats to become the first British political party to come out in favour of legalisation.
At the last election, the Green Party advocated setting up a Royal Commission to review currently controlled drug classifications, within a legalised environment of drug use.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said he was now convinced that the prohibition of cannabis had “failed”. “We need a new, smarter approach and I welcome this report ahead of the debate at spring conference,” he said.
“It is waste of police time to go after young people using cannabis and ludicrous to saddle them with criminal convictions that can damage their future careers.
“A legal market would allow us to have more control over what is sold, and raise a considerable amount in taxation.
“I have always said that we must have an evidence-led approach to drugs law reform, and this report should be taken seriously. Britain has to end our failed war on drugs. The status quo causes huge damage and we urgently need reform.”
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