The legalisation of cannabis is once again in the headlines. Following the death of his 21-year-old son Rupert Green, Lord Monson has called for a ‘war on skunk’ and the legalisation of less potent forms of cannabis. According to his father, Rupert became addicted to skunk, developed paranoia and psychosis, and took his own life.
His death is yet another reminder that young people remain at the sharp end of cannabis policy. Monson argues that legalisation would allow users to understand it better and help them avoid strains which are more likely to cause psychosis. ‘That is no different from our approach to alcohol. No one needs to drink moonshine whisky which makes them blind, they can buy legal whiskey,’ he said. But when he reputedly raised the issue of legalisation with a former cabinet minister, he was told that the Tories feared the ‘Daily Mail mindset’ too much to consider relaxing the laws.
Teenagers and young adults are the group with the easiest access to cannabis. They are also the most likely to use it and are at greatest risk of harming their developing brains by doing so. Dealers have no qualms about selling to young people, and producers have strong incentives to maximise the potency of their product. Unsurprisingly, they also have little concern for the long-term health of their customers. As a result, the market has been flooded with homogenous high-potency cannabis or ‘skunk’.
New legal markets in the US have tried to counter this by offering a range of lower-risk, legal products with clear health warnings. They offer significant opportunities to drive consumers towards safer, regulated products. By offering legal, lower-potency forms of cannabis, it reduces the demand for high-potency strains. It shows how the market can succeed where the state fails.
Heavy-handed enforcement and increased sentencing have demonstrably failed and are now being quietly abandoned. Rates of arrest for cannabis-related offences are declining. Yet the production and supply of the drug has been left in the hands of criminals, and little has been done to provide support to those suffering from the effects of high-potency cannabis use. Over a million people in the UK – many of them young people – show signs of cannabis dependency. Often they have little to no access to treatment. The treatment sector is, by its own admission, ‘fumbling around in the dark’.
Britain can either ignore the problem or look to America and Canada for possible answers. In Canada, Justin Trudeau is preparing a bill to tax and control cannabis for two reasons only: to protect young people from the easy access they have to cannabis and to deprive criminals of an enormous source of revenue. Protecting young people while fighting organised crime; could there be a more conservative framing of this issue? If the Canadian policy proves to be successful and teenage access to potent forms of cannabis is reduced, with crime dented and parental anxiety reduced, could even the Daily Mail deny that Lord Monson has a point?
George McBride is head of advocacy at VolteFace