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Public support for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK has been rising steadily for years and is now higher than it has ever been. Shradha Badiani has laid out some of the arguments for legalisation in Centre Write already. The UK’s main reasons for not legalising, apart from stigma, are fears of the harms to public health and safety. Rather than contribute more arguments for why the UK must legalise, this article seeks to demonstrate how the legalisation of cannabis can be done in a way that mitigates harms and maximise the benefits to public health.

First, the UK should combine the recreational and medicinal cannabis markets. As research clearly identifies medicinal uses for a cannabis product, it should become a part of the medical system as any other drug would. Only GPs should have the ability to prescribe medical cannabis products. All other products should be sold as recreational marijuana. This design helps avoid products being promoted and/or taken for medical purposes they have not been proven to possess. It also helps ensure that the public is not financing recreational drug use, and that youth aren’t seeking medical use to bypass age restrictions on recreational marijuana. 

But for this to work, the government needs to change which medical authorities it takes cannabis policy guidance from. This is the second key element of how the UK should go about legalisation. For example, in 2018, the government consulted the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) on whether cannabis can be used for chronic pain. The RCP said it could not despite the contrary conclusions of researchers and organisations from around the world, including the UK’s chief medical adviser. The result is an overly restrictive set of guidelines that forces thousands of people every year – including parents of children like Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, who were successfully treated with cannabis for severe epilepsy and then denied access to it by the government – to choose between living with the severity of their or their child’s condition, or and turning to the black market for unregulated and unproven treatment.

Third, a future UK recreational cannabis market should be modelled after Uruguay’s. The country has a central federal regulatory commission that controls the production, quality and pricing of cannabis. Importantly, the Commission has the flexibility to change prices based on supply and demand and thus prevent supply from outpacing demand, as it has in some US states. The Commission is funded by cannabis tax revenue, though products were originally sold tax-free to compete with the black market. The expert consensus is that Uruguay’s approach to cannabis is among the best in the world from a public health standpoint. 

Certainly, that is what the evidence suggests. In 2020, three years after Uruguay legalised cannabis, risk perception remained stable, the average age when youth were exposed to cannabis had risen, and the rate of consumption among adults remained close to pre-legalisation levels. 

An important note is that a similar regulatory commission in the UK would need to be careful not to give retail licenses to growers to ensure producers can only sell to the commission and retailers can only purchase from the commission. 

Finally, after initially selling recreational products tax-free to undercut the black market, the government should tax cannabis for consumers according to THC levels. THC is a method of measuring the potency of cannabis that is equivalent to ABV as a measure for the potency of an alcoholic drink. Coupled with a hard cap on potency, this measure would help to regulate consumption. A tax linked to THC levels also has the function  of distinguishing recreational marijuana from medical marijuana, incentivising consumers to seek a medical marijuana prescription from their GP if they plan to use cannabis medicinally.

If the government was really concerned with public health and safety, it would move towards legalising cannabis. The potential harms should not be reasons not to legalise–they should be reasons to do it right.

Hannah is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue. [Image: Elsa Olofsson]