10 Changes That Would Occur if Cannabis Was Legalised in the UK
Cannabis legalisation is a hot topic right now across the world, including in the United Kingdom. A recent petition, signed by over 228,000 people, prompted a debate by MPs on the subject, and an ever growing number of current and former politicians, scientists, and public figures have called for an end to prohibition.
Among all the hyperbole and misinformation it can be difficult to get to the truth of just what would happen if the British government decided to legally regulate the production and sale of the Class B drug. With that in mind, here is a list of ten things that would occur as a consequence of full legalisation.
1. The End of ‘Needless Criminalisation’
It’s difficult to come up with an exact number for how many people have been criminalised by cannabis prohibition, but we can make some educated guesses. There are currently an estimated 2.2 million people in the UK aged between 16 and 59 who have used cannabis in the past year. In effect, that’s 2.2 million people who could at any moment find themselves with a criminal record.
Current cannabis laws have been around for 44 years, but as we’re looking at what would happen if cannabis were legalised NOW, rather than if it had never been prohibited, that’s a pretty handy number to start with.
In the eyes of the law, those 2.2 million people – plus anyone who has used cannabis prior to the last year, or who doesn’t fall into that age bracket – is a criminal, whether they’ve been caught or not. So the first thing legalising cannabis would do is get rid of at least 2.2 million ‘criminals’. Not bad.
2. Police and Court Costs Fall Dramatically
An enormous amount of money is spent arresting, processing, and imprisoning people for cannabis offences. A Treasury report, initiated earlier this year by the Liberal Democrats (then part of a coalition government), and leaked just last month, concluded that the legalisation of cannabis would save the state somewhere in the region of £200 million per year in court and police costs.
It is unclear whether this also took into account savings for the prison estate – keeping someone locked up costs an average of around £25,000 per year per inmate. FOIA requests have failed to determine the number of prisoners currently serving time for cannabis related offences, but it’s safe to assume there are a fair few, especially considering Devon and Cornwall Police convicted over 500 people in 2014 alone.
So that’s 2.2 million criminals gone, and £200 million saved per year. And that’s before we even get to change number 3.
3. An Increase in Tax Revenue
Perhaps the most obvious and immediate consequence of cannabis legalisation would be a massive increase in tax revenue. In Colorado, where cannabis was legalised by voter initiative in 2012 and went on sale in 2014, the amount of tax raised has been vast.
During the first year of sales the state collected $44 million. In 2015, that number is expected to be as high as $125 million – over £82 million.
The population of the UK is roughly thirteen times that of Colorado, so going by those figures and presuming a roughly similar rate of tax and use, the total tax raised by the nationwide legalisation of cannabis could be as high as £1,066,000,000 per year. Whilst this estimate is obviously on the high end of the scale, it does clearly indicate just how huge the potential economic benefit of legalisation could be.
This revenue could be ploughed into the NHS, schools, infrastructure, and any number of worthy causes. Quite frankly whatever it is used for it would be a vast improvement on the current system, which ensures that all of that money goes straight into the hands of organised criminals. Speaking of which, let’s move on to number four on the list.
4. Organised Crime to Lose Out
To point out the obvious – prohibition hasn’t made cannabis go away. In fact, it hasn’t even made it more difficult to get hold of. All it has done is create a black market which controls the production and supply of most of the cannabis in the UK. Naturally, whoever controls the market also reaps the financial benefits.
In this case, thanks to prohibition, those financial benefits detailed above are being reaped by the last people we want to be giving millions of pounds to – organised criminals.
A legal, regulated, and taxed cannabis market would vastly reduce the amount of people buying their cannabis on the black market, thereby reducing the profits of the criminals selling the drug.
Whilst there is little doubt that a black market would remain in some form (there are still black markets for alcohol and cigarettes remember), the impact of removing this cash cow from the gangs and giving it to the Treasury shouldn’t be dismissed. Legalisation of cannabis certainly wouldn’t cripple organised crime on its own, but it would free up the police to go after those organisations rather than targeting users.
5. Saving Police Time
As well as the huge amount of money the police would save (see number 2), they would also be saving an enormous amount of time and resources which could be better directed elsewhere.
Currently, the overwhelming majority of drug arrests are of non-violent users, rather than the actual criminals at the top of the supply chain. Over-stretched budgets and cuts to police numbers have meant greater pressure to keep arrest rates up, and cannabis users are often seen as low-hanging fruit by police forces around the country.
Legalisation would potentially change this overnight. Rather than wasting their time rounding up cannabis users, the police would be able to focus on more serious crime. Combined with the aforementioned increase in tax revenue (at least some of which would presumably go to the police), this could well lead to a more effective, more efficient, and more trusted constabulary.
When we’re talking about economic benefit, it seems obvious that a country with a lower crime rate and greater trust in its police force is likely to experience an increase in productivity, something which is often overlooked when we talk about the benefits of legalisation.
6. Criminal Records Expunged
Should cannabis legalisation occur in the UK, there would presumably be huge pressure on the government to expunge the criminal records of anyone who had previously been criminalised by prohibition.
Whilst being the obvious moral thing to do, this would also have a positive impact elsewhere. Firstly, any individual currently serving time for a cannabis offence alone would have to be released, freeing up space in prisons and saving the government a whole lot of money.
Not only that, but those people whose career prospects and aspirations have been destroyed by a conviction would no longer be dragged down by the criminal record hanging from their necks.
They would be free to work, to travel, and to contribute to the economy and society as a whole in ways which had previously been blocked to them.
7. A Whole New Industry Arises
Naturally, when you release a large number of prisoners, and remove the criminal records of millions of people, there could be concern over whether there are enough jobs out there for them.
Speaking strictly financially, it wouldn’t be much of a benefit if most of those people ended up having to claim Job Seekers Allowance.
However, when it comes to cannabis legalisation, this shouldn’t be a worry. Bringing this market out into the open would create an entire new industry with millions of jobs. Growers, breeders, trimmers, testers, hash makers, edible makers, dispensary owners, dispensary staff; the list of potential job opportunities within a legal cannabis market is endless.
And every one of those new jobs would provide yet more tax and an added boost to the economy.
8. The Return of Hemp
Legalising psychoactive strains of cannabis without also loosening the restrictions on non-psychoactive hemp strains wouldn’t make much sense. Should this happen, one of the most versatile cash crops in history could finally make a comeback.
It is often said that the British Empire was built on hemp; such is the quality of the rope produced from it. Since those days the amount of things we can do with this plant has grown at an incredible rate, even if our ability to actually make use of the plant hasn’t.
Paper, plastic, biofuels, clothes, makeup, houses, cars and even supercapacitors that work better than graphene – all of these and many thousands more products can be made from hemp.
Legalising cannabis would allow this market to flourish, creating yet more jobs and bringing in yet more money. The UK used to be one of the biggest producers of hemp in the world, and could be again.
9. Alcohol Use Could Decrease
According to Professor David Nutt, the man famously fired from his position on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for pointing out that ecstasy is statistically less harmful than horse riding, a legal cannabis market would greatly reduce the use of alcohol in this country.
Reduced alcohol consumption can never be considered a bad thing. The cost to the NHS of alcohol-related harm is estimated at £3.5 billion. The cost to society as a whole is a staggering £21 billion.
In economic terms alone, reducing the amount of alcohol being consumed should be of huge importance to any government. When you add to that the fact that in 2012, 6,490 people died as a result of alcohol abuse, the need for a policy that would go some way to solving the problem becomes overwhelming. Professor Nutt has estimated that legalising cannabis could reduce alcohol consumption by as much as 25%.
10. Keeping the Younger Generation Safe and Educated
Finally, a legal cannabis market would allow us to better protect young people. Unlike now, where the only ID required to buy cannabis is a ten pound note, a regulated market would obviously be age restricted. Anyone under the age of, say, 18, would not be permitted to purchase cannabis, in much the same way that restrictions apply to alcohol and tobacco products currently.
In addition, some of the tax revenue raised from the sale of cannabis could be put into better education programmes for young people about the risks involved in taking any drugs. Rather than the current approach of simply telling kids that drugs are bad and must be avoided, providing them with real information and keeping them out of the hands of unscrupulous dealers would be an investment in the future.
Better educated kids unburdened by criminal records, growing up in a country with an effective and trusted police force, millions of job opportunities and a properly funded NHS. It may sound far-fetched, but in theory at least, this could be the reality should cannabis be legalised in the UK.
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, Politics.co.uk and his own blog, www.thedomesticextremist.co.uk