Cannabis decriminalisation should not be considered an alternative to legalisation

10th February 2022

London mayor Sadiq Khan has been making headlines over the last few months, thanks to the confirmation of a cannabis decriminalisation scheme backed by the politician. The scheme is set to trial the decriminalisation of cannabis in three London boroughs, though it remains unclear what could come of the project.

During his re-election campaign last Spring, Mayor Khan announced that he would launch a review into the feasibility of cannabis decriminalisation. While the Mayor has demonstrated that this was not just another trick to get re-elected, the question remains whether he would even have the power to initiate such a policy change – even if only in the capital.

Furthermore, should we even be considering decriminalisation? For many, this is considered a either a compromise or, in the more progressive cases, a first step on the ladder to legalisation. However, decriminalisation should not be considered an alternative to legalisation.

First of all – and perhaps most importantly – decriminalisation doesn’t tackle the issue of the black market…

It is true that decriminalisation can bring about a lot of good. Just look at Portugal, where the possession and use of all drugs were decriminalised way back in 2001. Since then, crime rates and drug-related deaths have declined and harm reduction strategies have taken precedent over criminal prosecution.

While these policies can undoubtedly help to protect cannabis and other drug users from being cursed with a criminal record, it is important to also recognise the flaws in decriminalisation.

First of all – and most importantly – decriminalisation doesn’t tackle the issue of the black market. Under this policy, criminal drug gangs are allowed to maintain their monopoly on the market – a monopoly that has seen the potency of cannabis double across Europe in the past decade!

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According to reports, the UK’s illicit cannabis market is now dominated by “high potency skunk”. These products are a world away from the cannabis that was common a few decades ago and can present much higher risks – particularly to young users.

What decriminalisation is likely to do, whether intended or not, is send a message to users that these products are now okay. However, this is not the case. While the recreational use of cannabis doesn’t represent a major risk to many people, it is still important to note that high levels of THC intake have long been associated with a risk of mental health conditions, including the development of psychosis.

If decriminalisation would suggest that cannabis use is now acceptable, wouldn’t legalisation do just the same thing? The simple answer is ‘yes’.

This brings us nicely to the pros of taking cannabis legislation reforms to the next level – legalisation. Understandably, for those who oppose the use of drugs, including cannabis, ‘legalisation’ is a scary word. If decriminalisation would suggest that cannabis use is now acceptable, wouldn’t legalisation do the same thing? The simple answer is ‘yes’.

But, importantly, legalisation would also allow the government to regulate the market. This means introducing an age limit as we see with alcohol and tobacco, and setting rules on the potency of legal products – limiting exposure to THC. If introduced and managed correctly, this could eventually lead to the breakdown of the black market, as we are now seeing in Canada, where recreational cannabis was legalised over three years ago.

Yes, it is true that age restrictions are not a concrete solution – most young people in the UK have undoubtedly tried alcohol before their 18th birthday. But, would you use this reason to now start criminalising the use of alcohol or cigarettes for everyone?

There are still a lot of uncertainties surrounding the best way to reform our drug policies. Cannabis has been illegal in the UK for decades, and introducing a new approach is unlikely to change the industry overnight. However the fact remains that thingsĀ do need to change.

For many people, the decriminalisation of cannabis can only be a good thing; but, it is important to not become complacent and accept such reform as an alternative to a legal, regulated market. We can do so much better than that.

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