Canada has legalised the possession and use of recreational cannabis, and it once again drags the question of legalisation in the UK back into the spotlight.
One of the big problems with cannabis use in the UK is the effect it is believed to have on young people’s health, particularly their mental health.
In Canada, measures have been taken to specifically address concerns in this area – products that are “appealing to youth” have been prohibited, cannabis will not be available to buy in vending machines, and promotion of the drug is not allowed “except in narrow circumstances where young people could not see the promotion”.
There is no reason the same couldn’t be done here in the UK. The framework is already in place, following recent rule changes for cigarette packaging and the introduction of the sugar tax. And in those cases, the task was arguably more difficult, because it involved changing practices that have been in place for decades, and dealing with powerful industry lobby groups.
If cannabis were legalised, it would herald a whole new sector, which could be made to follow certain rules and regulations from the very beginning.
Of course, this is another argument in favour of legalisation. The commercial benefits of creating a legal cannabis market are potentially huge. Canopy Growth, the first Canadian marijuana grower to list on the New York Stock Exchange, is valued at more than $10bn, having launched just four years ago.
However, to discuss effective restrictions on cannabis use and the new business opportunities it could bring to the UK is to assume there could be a rational domestic discourse on the topic. And at the moment, we don't have that.
The hysteria surrounding legalising cannabis was thrown into sharp relief earlier this year when the government confiscated cannabis oil that was being used to treat 12-year-old Billy Caldwell, who suffers from severe epilepsy.
Caldwell became a poster child for the use of medicinal marijuana in treating epilepsy, after the drug stopped his seizures – he previously had up to 100 seizures a day.
However, the doctor in Northern Ireland who was helping the Caldwell family to get the medication was ordered by the Home Office to stop writing the prescriptions or risk losing his licence, and when the Caldwell family went to Canada to get a supply of cannabis oil, the products were seized at customs.
It took prolonged public outcry over a child with a life-threatening condition being denied useful and effective medication to make the government climb down from what was a ludicrous position in the first place. Even then, the Home Office was at pains to stress that the drug would only be administered under an exceptional licence granted after doctors said it was needed for a “medical emergency”.
How is it possible that in one developed country, the government has found a way to legislate for recreational use of cannabis while in another an extremely sick child must be made to produce evidence of life-threatening symptoms before it can be prescribed for medicinal purposes?
Meanwhile, the government did its best to shut down even the opportunity of debating possible legalisation after the Billy Caldwell debacle. Former Conservative leader William Hague used an article in the Telegraph to call on Theresa May to reform the UK’s “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date” drug policy.
In response, the Home Office said it had “no intention of reviewing the classification of cannabis”.
And yet cannabis remains the most commonly used drug in the UK, with the rate of use basically unchanged over the last 10 years, according to the government’s latest data.
If the government is so committed to its stance, it has to be asked why it is failing so hard at coming up with an effective plan to reduce cannabis use.
Clearly, there is little to no effort being made in this regard – proof, if it were needed, that the government’s position on drug policy is solely a moral one.
Based on the handling of Billy Caldwell’s situation, and its refusal to even discuss legalisation, the government falls on the wrong side of this argument morally.
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