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What a Legal Recreational Drug Market Would Look Like in the UK

We spoke to a load of experts to understand how legalizing weed, psychedelics, cocaine, pills, and ketamine would actually work.
November 28, 2016, 4:15pm

Photos by Jake Lewis

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's been an eventful month for British drug policy. A couple of weeks ago, the British Medical Journal came out in support of the legalization of all narcotics, saying that "the war on drugs had failed" and that "there is an imperative to investigate more effective alternatives to criminalization of drug use and supply."

Last week, a policy report entitled "The Tide Effect" was released by two UK-based think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute and Volte Face. It called for the regulation of cannabis in the UK, claiming that "cannabis policy reform is not a daring step forwards so much as a righting of historical wrongs."


News like this—next to this summer's much-praised, first-time-ever festival drug testing, cross-party support for the legalization of medical cannabis, and multiple police chiefs admitting that weed just isn't that big of a deal—might suggest that the wheels are turning toward a regulated UK drugs market, a move that—campaigners argue—would benefit public health, reduce crime, and help protect vulnerable people.

Sadly, this becoming a reality remains many moons away. But what would life in a post-prohibition, fully regulated drugs market look like? Pill dispensers in Oceana? Half empty jails? Billions of pounds of cannabis tax propping up the NHS?

Obviously it's a massively complex issue, not least when it comes to designing a model that has both a focus on improving public health and avoids the kind of profit-driven, commercial racketeering we've seen from the alcohol and tobacco industries.

Still, I spoke to some experts to get an understanding of what the five big recreational drugs might look like in a regulated market.


Henry Fisher, policy director and editor at Volte Face, helped write "The Tide Effect." Regarding any potential UK cannabis regulation, he says: "The first thing that needs to happen is the Department of Health get involved, so that [regulation] has a public health focus." In essence, this means changing cannabis from a criminal justice issue—with all its associated pitfalls, like criminal records, stigmatization, and imprisonment—into one that addresses how the estimated 2 million UK weed smokers can get high as safely as possible.


If we were to eventually embrace full legalization—recreational use included—we'd likely see a similar model to that in the Netherlands, with licensed vendors and premises. Public health benefits would run from the obvious—pain alleviation for cancer and Crohn's disease sufferers—to the not-so obvious: A legal market should lead to determined research into the purported links between mental health and skunk. No small fry when you consider Robin Murray, professor of psychiatric research at King's College London, once suggested that "we could prevent almost one quarter of cases of psychosis if no one smoked high potency cannabis."

Britain's jails would also feel a knock-on effect. "The Tide Effect" says: "Every year, ten to 15 percent of all indictable offenses brought before the courts are for drug possession. According to the latest figures available, there are 1,363 offenders in prison for cannabis-related offenses in England and Wales[…] costing the taxpayer more than £50 million [$62 million] a year."

Aside from what it's costing us, there's also money to be made: according to The Institute for Social and Economic Research, the government could expect to net between about $500 million to $1 billion a year from regulating and taxing cannabis.


"The regulation model has to be responsive to the risks associated with the particular drug," says Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at drugs policy reform charity Transform, and co-author of "After the War on drugs: Blueprint for Regulation," which predicts and details the minutiae of a regulated drugs market. "So the more risky the drugs are, the more justification you have for intervention in the market to try and restrict and control them."

This is why psychedelics are deemed closest to cannabis in the model, because while there's a chance you may have a bad trip, you're much less likely to have a heart attack than with a stimulant, or develop a dependance like you might with opiates. (Heroin and other injectable drugs are at the far end of the "Blueprint" model, thus only available through prescription.)


"The Blueprint" suggests a methodology "that would combine elements of a licensed venue and vendor models with a licensed user/membership system." So, crudely, you sign up for a private club where you can go and trip balls, all under the watchful eye of a guide who's there to make sure your feet are permanently on the ground.

Mark AR Kleinman, professor of public policy at the NYU Marron Institute on Urban Management, advocates a similar system, though he says: "I would not like to see it go down the same path as cannabis. Some people have good experiences just by taking one or another hallucinogen. But there's plenty of evidence that, on average, it's both safe and more beneficial to have a 'guide.' A regulated system could focus on licensing and supervising guides, rather than merely designating some number of chemicals as 'safe and effective' and allowing them to be sold.

"But, in any case, the first step is careful research."


"A public health–orientated model could take the form of state control of manufacture, supply and retail, a ban on marketing activities over and above the provision of product information, and age restrictions on sales," says Harry Sumnall, a professor of substance use at the Public Health Institute.

So i n real terms, you'd be be getting your pingers from licensed vendors in regulated doses in unmarked packets with warnings, and only if you were over 18 (or 21). You'd know exactly how strong the drugs were, and you'd be buying them in specialized outlets from licensed individuals who would give you advice on how to take them and stay safe. Bearing in mind the recent spate of deaths due to young people overdosing on high-strength ecstasy, the effects on public health would be stark.


"Dealers advertise their pills by making sure they're big or have large crystals of MDMA in them, which users don't look out for. In a legal market, there'd be no need for that," says Volte Face policy editor Henry Fisher. "Dosages in pills vary widely, and pills are often hard to break in half, so people end up just taking a whole. These things that create danger, uncertainty, would not exist."

So would you be able to get a fistful over the bar at your local Vodka Revs? "I wouldn't have thought so," says Fisher. "Simply because there wouldn't be an easy way of controlling how many people have taken."

Related: Watch 'High Society—How Weed Laws Are Failing the UK'


"Cocaine is a difficult one," says Steve Rolles. "You need to be clear whether you're talking about cocaine powder, coca leaf—which is a mild stimulant used by traditional Andean communities—or crack cocaine."

For those who want powder, says Rolles, "You make it available, but you make it, relatively, much more restricted. So you would sell it from pharmacy-type retailers, and we'd implement a licensed-user model. So if you wanted to buy cocaine, you could, but you'd have to go and do a half day course, get a swipe card, and then you could use that to buy a rationed amount of powder."

An upside for non-problematic users would potentially be an increase in quality. Fisher says: "Once you start making drugs legal, there's a requirement that they'd be pharmaceutical standard, so you cut out the people making it in their bathtub. It will be the responsibility of government to make sure they're regulating the right people to manufacture it."


Of course, given its addictive nature, this could potentially make cocaine a public health risk, and the drug—along with ketamine—poses more questions than we currently have answers for, at least in comparison to other recreational drugs. "It's a drug that people might start to take more regularly if it was more available and more affordable," says Sumnall. "I think the [high] price limits use somewhat."


"I would put that into a similar category as cocaine in terms of the levels of restrictiveness you'd want to put around it," says Rolles. "At least if you have licensed sales, it provides you with the opportunity to have some sort of interaction with users, through packaging and the vendor. You could get them relevant safety info about dosage, frequency of use—about the risk of bladder damage, about not mixing it with other drugs."

"I can barely even perceive what a regulated ketamine market would be like," admits Fisher. "Ketamine has been shown to have certain antidepressant effects in certain situations, but for a general population of healthy people, it's not perceived as a healthy drug. If you had a legal market, you could maybe create a drug that has some of the enjoyable effects of ketamine without any of the negative effects."

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