Skip to main content

In the United Kingdom, if an individual wants to gamble on a football match, they can place a bet online in the comfort of their own home. After placing the bet, they can then venture over to the nearest corner shop for a fizzy drink and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. All three of those activities have possibly deleterious effects, from excessive gambling losses through diabetes to lung disease. In spite of this, the government has deemed said activities to be acceptable for public consumption. 

Conversely, if the hypothetical individual mentioned above decided to grow cannabis in their home and consume the substance in some form, or share it with a friend, they could be prosecuted for supplying or producing a Class B substance, with a maximum custodial term of 14 years

The United Kingdom, like many other countries, has been grappling with the issue of legalising the recreational use of marijuana. From frequent airport seizures, to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in west England pushing to reclassify marijuana as a Class A drug – with one stating that he believes the substance to be “as harmful as crack cocaine or heroin” – marijuana continues to hold a prominent place amongst daily headlines and the focus of law enforcement alike. 

However, that need not be the case. On the contrary, there is a multitude of reasons, both pragmatic and ideological, as to why the United Kingdom should legalise marijuana. For one, it would generate significant revenue for the government through taxes and the legalisation of a new sector. In fact, even if only the standard VAT rate of 20% was applied, the government has been projected to receive over £204 million in revenue. The market for marijuana is booming in the countries where it has been legalised, such as in Canada and several US states. The UK, too, could benefit from the creation of jobs and businesses related to the cultivation, processing, and sale of cannabis products. 

Legalising marijuana would also free up the law enforcement resources that are currently being used to enforce drug laws. According to a National Crime Agency report, the police spent over £150 million in 2019/20 on drug enforcement, with the majority of said resources being directed towards marijuana-related offences. By legalising marijuana, law enforcement could focus on non-victimless crimes, such as knife crime and sexual offences. This would, in turn, make communities safer and more secure. 

Additionally, legalising marijuana would enable the government to regulate the production, distribution, and sale of cannabis products. This would ensure that consumers have access to safe, high-quality products that are free from harmful contaminants. Indeed, legalisation would also allow the government to set and enforce standards for labelling and packaging, which would assist in the prevention of accidental consumption, along with minimising the risks associated with using cannabis. This would also enable the government to implement other harm-reduction strategies, such as providing educational and support services to help people use marijuana responsibly. Portugal has implemented a similar approach, and has, in turn, seen a significant reduction in drug-related harm.

In fact, the harms associated with the use of marijuana have often been overstated. While it is true that the excessive use of marijuana can indeed lead to negative health effects, such as impaired cognition and mental health problems, these risks are rather low for the majority of users, who are able to consume the substance responsibly without causing harm to themselves or others.  

Indeed, one of the key tenets of liberalism is, fittingly, liberty. In his On Liberty, J. S. Mill argues that the principle of liberty is, in part, that “(t)he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” The consumption of marijuana does not harm others. While there are many individuals who hold a staunch moral opposition to the practice, that, in and of itself, is, as Mill argues, “is not a sufficient warrant.” 

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, in 2017, best epitomises the pragmatism that ought to characterise the Conservative Party’s approach to marijuana. While he acknowledges the fact that “the product will never be safe, just like drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco,” he is also right to assert that the healthfulness of a product should not be the sole barometer for determining its legality. To avoid the pitfalls of the black markets that have filled the void created by the United Kingdom’s prohibition on marijuana, Blunt notes that “by permitting a legal market we can decouple thousands of consumers from funding and facilitating a world of criminality and suffering.” This is in addition to the fact that, if legalised and regulated, “risks can be highlighted [and] age limits can be introduced, so the consumer can be sure what they are buying and what its potency is.” 

Such an approach would all-but-certainly assist the Conservative Party in mitigating the extent of its projected defeat. Younger voters are overwhelmingly in favour of legalisation, and although the vast majority of such voters might not list it as their primary consideration when determining how they will vote, such a change in policy would help show that the Conservative Party, a party largely rooted in classical liberal principles, is willing to apply those principles to an ever-changing world. 

Drew Siegal is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Jeff W]