Could 'The Brighton Model' Help the Seaside City Make Millions with Weed?
Instead of hiking up council tax, Green Party representatives want to raise local funds by making cannabis available to anyone over 18 with proof of Brighton residency.
Around this time last year, I wrote an article about how legalising weed could make Britain literally billions of pounds. Alas, the chancellor of the exchequer and his mates in the Home Office clearly paid me no notice, because they've continued to ignore all sensible, pragmatic advice in favour of wasting time, money and resources on writing up cautions for ten bags.
The problem, of course, is that the antiquated politics of the war on drugs seem so lodged into the collective rationale of the two major parties that reform remains practically impossible.
Legalisation in the US is happening faster because their federal system allows individual states to pass their own laws, meaning weed-friendly places like Colorado or Washington can more easily change the law to suit their will. Unfortunately, the power of local councils in the UK extends only about as far as deciding when our bins get emptied, so we don't really have the same kind of opportunities.
This seems especially counter-intuitive in cities like Brighton & Hove, the south coast's premier cannabis caliphate, which is maybe why, in 2012, Green Party councillor Ben Duncan suggested that cannabis cafes should be licensed in the city in a bid to boost tourism. Then, in 2014, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, petitioned the government to review the Misuse of Drugs Act, obtaining 134,811 signatures. But what's the party planning in 2015?
To find out, I met up with Steve Peake, convenor for the Brighton & Hove Green Party's working group on drugs policy. He's been working on what he calls the "Brighton Model" for cannabis legalisation, based on a similar policy reform that was first proposed in Copenhagen.
The "Copenhagen Model" legalises cannabis in the city and puts distribution into the hands of the local government, restricting purchase to Danish passport holders, of 18 years and over, with proof of Copenhagen residency. The idea behind this model is to starve criminal drug gangs out of the market, while going some way to prevent the kind of all-out drug tourism you see in cities like Amsterdam.
"The Copenhagen Model sees the sale of cannabis put in the hands of civil servants, on the premise that they are more likely to care about the welfare of a customer than the biker gangs that currently run the black market drugs trade in the city," Steve told me.
"Through licence fees, calculated as a percentage of turnover, the Brighton Model would generate substantial revenues for the local authorities and go some way towards addressing the crisis in local government finance brought about by the ever-reducing grant from central government."
Austerity has hit local governments exceptionally hard, with Brighton & Hove city council suffering more than most in the south-east. The council's finance lead, Ollie Sykes, says local services are under huge pressure, and the predicted combination of increased demand and reduced funding from government means savings of £102 million will be needed over the next five years. As a result, the council is currently proposing a referendum to increase council tax by a substantial 5.9 percent.
So how could the Brighton Model help to lessen that strain on residents?
Government statistics from 2013/14 revealed that 7 percent of UK citizens admitted to using cannabis within the last year. Brighton & Hove's population as of the 2011 UK census was 273,400, so we can estimate that there are 19,138 active users in the area. According to data from the Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit, mean consumption among users as a whole is 1.16g per day, and the typical price is £8 per gram. From this, we can estimate that Brighton & Hove users consume 8,103,029 grams a year, spending £64,824,233.
To put this in perspective, the council's proposed tax hike would bring in just £6 million extra a year. However, they could make this through the Brighton Model by taking just 9.25 percent of the turnover. Obviously this only goes some way to make up the £102 million needed over the next five years, but some would argue it's a far better alternative to forcing the money out of residents, which would hit the city's poor disproportionately hard.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees that this is the best course of action. I put the idea to Warren Morgan, the Labour leader in Brighton & Hove's city council. His response was less than enthusiastic:
"We would not support proposals to plug the council's funding gap by selling cannabis from council-run shops," he said. "A study posted recently by Kings College London highlights the potential health risks to regular cannabis use, and we are committed to reducing smoking in all its forms and the negative impact it has on public health. The solution to council funding lies with the government in Westminster, not through councils selling drugs."
It's no wonder that councillors are wary of encouraging drug use in the area, because drug harm is a huge problem in Brighton. It was infamously named the "drug death capital of the UK" in 2009, and the city had around 2,000 problem heroin and cocaine users according to a 2013 report by the Independent Drugs Commission for Brighton and Hove. Mind you, recreational – or medicinal – cannabis use is very different to injecting yourself with a whole load of nasty bulking agents.
It's also true that legalising cannabis in Brighton would probably increase use. However, what we repeatedly see when prohibition is ended is that, although use increases, harm is reduced. Take Portugal, where drug possession was decriminalised in 2001, resulting in a 70 percent decrease in HIV cases between 2001 and 2008.
Whitehall continues to ignore this evidence, with the previous Labour government sacking its chief drugs advisor in 2009, and David Cameron insisting in 2014 that the government's current policy is working, despite a Home Office report concluding that tough penalties do not cut drug abuse.
So, as it's General Election year, I contacted candidates in my constituency – Brighton Kemptown – to see if they plan to challenge the primitive, unproductive policies that have become status quo. Simon Kirby, current incumbent Conservative MP, said:
"The government considers cannabis to be a harmful drug. Our current laws draw on the best available evidence, and it is worth noting that official advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs confirms that cannabis is a significant public health issue. For these reasons I would not support the legalisation of cannabis."
In a polar opposite reply, Davy Jones – the Green Party candidate – said that he would take the Brighton Model a step further, and work towards eventually legalising all drugs. On his blog he writes:
"The illegality of drugs allows for hardened criminals to control the market and make huge profits from it. In fact, at a time when public services are having their budgets slashed, tax income from the regulation and sale of drugs could provide a major new source of funds.
"Drug-related crime would be reduced, leading to a significant reduction in criminal justice costs. There is absolutely no logical health rationale for tobacco and alcohol to be legal and other drugs (cannabis, ecstasy, LSD or even cocaine and heroin) to be illegal."
No matter your political allegiance, it's hard to argue against the case Jones makes. It's just a shame that our country's two largest parties repeatedly choose routine over common sense.
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