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Mark Wadsworth: A case for legalising cannabis

Mark Wadsworth is a Chartered Tax Advisor.  He blogs here.

Having spent a couple of hours reading and understanding the ACMD's report, it surprises me that cannabis was made illegal in the first place.

The public's concerns about cannabis are “real” in that they exist (see section 11) but the question must be, are those concerns justified? Or are they merely fuelled by misleading headlines such as 'Cannabis use linked to 40% rise in risk of schizophrenia'?

Mental health

The report confirms that the risk of 'psychotic outcomes' appears to be 41% higher in those who have used cannabis (8.7.1), even though... there are very considerable difficulties in establishing a 'cause and effect' relationship between the use of cannabis and the subsequent development of a psychotic illness.' (8.3).

Even assuming that the risk of a 'psychotic outcome' is doubled for frequent users (8.7.2), what are the overall risks? '€œSchizophrenia is a serious mental illness affecting about 0.5% of the UK population over the course of their lives.'€ (8.1.2). So, frequent use increases the risk from a negligible 1-in-200 to a still negligible 1-in-100.

Physical health

The report also confirms that smoking cannabis is not good for your health, but no worse than smoking tobacco (4.3.2), in any event there are plenty of other perfectly legal activities that are bad for the respiratory system, such as being a coal miner. Eating a lot of junk food and adopting a sedentary lifestyle are also bad for your health - if a main aim of the War On Drugs is improving the UK's physical health, why not reclassify hamburgers as a Class C substance and punish failure to attend the gym' daily with five years in prison?


Those who talk about the link between cannabis and crime conveniently overlook that there are quite distinct categories of crime associated with drugs:

  1. Criminal penalties for selling or possessing drugs.
  2. Crimes that inevitably follow from the fact the trade in cannabis is illegal -€“ violent 'turf wars'; stealing electricity and using illegal immigrants to run dope farms and the use of the proceeds to finance more serious crimes, in particular terrorism (9.6 to 9.6.4).
  3. The average weekly amount spent on cannabis by regular users is in the order of £20, which is no more than the average weekly spend of regular users of alcohol or tobacco and in itself triggers relatively little crime (9.3.2).

If cannabis were legalised, these types of crimes would disappear overnight. There are two types of crime which would persist and which deserve special consideration:

  • Crimes carried out while 'under the influence'. It appears that cannabis, pro rata to the number of users, causes as many road death as alcohol (5.3.3) although the correlation may be overstated (5.3.2). Driving while under the influence of cannabis is, and rightfully should be, punished every bit as severely as drink-driving, no dispute there!  Surveys carried out confirm that smoking cannabis is far less likely to lead to risk-taking and aggression than alcohol (9.1, which is borne out by personal experience).
  • There is also a vague association in people's minds between cannabis and anti-social behaviour. Most people find the smell of cannabis smoke unpleasant, but a ban on smoking cannabis in public places would be easily enforceable. This is far from saying that it should be illegal in the privacy of people's homes (the analogy with public and private sex acts springs to mind!)

Cannabis as a gateway drug

It is also often said that while moderate cannabis use might not in itself be that harmful, it is highly addictive and a 'gateway drug'. It appears that only 5.8% of those who try cannabis are dependent a year later. Further, the proportion of people who use cannabis regularly falls steadily with increasing age, from 12% among 16 to 24 year olds down to 0.6% among 55 to 59 year olds (Table 1).  That cannabis is not a 'gateway drug' is confirmed at 9.3.1.

The counter-argument is that legalising cannabis would completely break the link between it and the supply of hard drugs. It is worth remembering that the number regular users among 16 to 24 years olds has fallen quite rapidly since (from 16% to 12%, Table 2) since cannabis was downgraded from a Class B to a Class C substance in 2004 (1.5).

The consequences of legalisation

Besides freeing up police to concentrate on real crimes - violent crimes and theft -€“ legalisation (as opposed to a mere de-criminalisation) would enable us to bring the sale of cannabis within the tax net. Assuming it were taxed at similar rates to tobacco or alcohol, the potential revenues are in the order of £1.5 billion per annum, more than enough to pay for;

  • Educating young people about the effects of the drug;
  • Enforcing a ban on the sale to minors, who are most likely to suffer adverse affects from cannabis use (9.2);
  • Regulating the strength, quantity and quality of what is sold, in the same way as pubs, off-licences and pharmacies are currently regulated;
  • Combating unlicensed sales; provided the tax levied on legally available cannabis is not too high, there will be little problem with smuggling (for comparison it is estimated that even though the tax on cigarettes in the UK is the highest in Europe, only 20% of cigarettes are smuggled in).
  • Paying for the treatment and rehabilitation of the small minority of users who really need it.


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