This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Thanks to a young economics student, it looks like Parliament is going to be debating the legalization of cannabis in the UK before the end of the year. An online petition started by James Owen, a 25-year-old on his final year at Aberystwyth University, urging MPs to make the "production, sale and use of cannabis legal" picked up way over the 100,000 signatures (183,868 at the time of writing) it needed for MPs to consider debating the issue.
Politicians will be cursing pesky James, because they notoriously hate having to talk about drugs. Taking a more lenient approach towards narcotics is not a vote winner, and discussion around the topic is a minefield in which anyone who dares suggest anything other than the status quo is usually shot down in flames by the media, the opposition and their own party.
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Whatever they may think privately, breaching the unofficial parliamentary law of omerta on the thorny issue of drugs is a gamble few politicians (with anything to lose) are willing to take. And anyway, why bother devoting valuable parliamentary time on a little issue linked to nearly 3,000 deaths a year, huge swathes of taxpayers' money, physical addiction, mental health and incarceration when you can instead resurrect the debate about man's inalienable right to chase and kill foxes for sport, and then spend hours arguing about that?
When I spoke to Owen—a member of the youth wing of the Tories, as it turns out—he told me he lodged his petition last Tuesday for three reasons, all of which neatly sum up the various motivations of Britain's diverse bag of cannabis legalization enthusiasts.
First, he says, Britain is backward. Why is it that cannabis legalization is gaining credence across America, a land that started the war on drugs, yet in Britain the mere notion of someone buying and smoking weed in the privacy of their own home—an act that affects no one but them—is still illegal?
Second, on purely economic grounds, Owen says that government intervention into the market (the act of prohibition) has caused it to fail—so consumers are getting ripped off and exposed to huge risks.
Finally, it's a human rights issue. It is crazy, he says, that some of his friends who had promising careers now have black marks on their name just because they have convictions for cannabis possession. He also thinks people should be free to grow their own weed.
Objectively, this all makes a lot of sense. But if it the parliamentary debate is given the go ahead at a Petitions Committee meeting in September, will it even touch the sides?
The last time our MPs were railroaded into talking about drugs was in October of 2014, when Green MP Caroline Lucas secured over 130,000 signatures on a petition calling for MPs to support an impact assessment and cost benefit analysis of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
Hardly any MPs turned up. The debating chamber was deserted. On the same day, the doomed government drug minister, Lib Dem Norman Baker, revealed an international fact-finding trip undertaken by his party had found no evidence that making drugs illegal actually deterred drug use. "The Lib Dems have blown £40,000 [$63,000] of taxpayers' money on a magical mystery tour around the world looking at countries with soft drugs laws," a Home Office minister snarled to the Daily Mail.
And that was that. The biggest chance MPs had to discuss drugs openly, armed with evidence from around the world, was a false dawn, a damp squib, hyped by the left wing media, which changed virtually nothing.
So has anything happened from last October to now that will make Owen's debate any less of a let down? Will a meaningful democratic debate involving more than ten MPs actually occur?
Because the general election in May was mainly about immigration, the NHS and Ed Miliband being a pillock, drugs didn't get a look in. The only time they did was an attempt by the Labour party to curry favor with curtain twitchers by sending out postcards accusing the Lib Dems of being SOFT ON CRIME for suggesting low-level drug possession should be decriminalized.
The upshot of the election was that parliament's already half-assed ability to debate drugs was curtailed even further.
The only parties with any detailed, ground breaking stuff about drugs in their manifestos either got obliterated to just eight MPs (the Lib Dems) or continued to bumble along with just the one MP (the Greens). Despite their nation's serious drug problem, the Scottish National Party were the only political party to have nothing at all about drugs in their manifesto, so any contribution from them is likely to be based around political bitching rather than informed debate.
Next up was the Psychoactive Substances Bill, the government's attempt at tackling legal highs. While it was based on sound advice from drug experts—to clamp down on the sale of powerful synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones to vulnerable kids—its fine print was labelled a shambles in the Lords because it effectively banned everything. What this glitch exposed was not that the government was actually trying to ban every mood altering substance, but that its whole approach to drug policy is amateurish and lazy.
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It was money, in the form of taxed cannabis, that proved so influential in the rise of America's revolution in weed laws (a VICE investigation last year found that legalizing cannabis would save the UK billions). Money, or the lack of it, could prove influential in Britain. In July, four police forces, initiated by Durham constabulary, declared that, because they needed to focus dwindling resources on more pressing problems, they would be turning a blind eye to small-scale cannabis possession and cultivation.
There may well be rising, de facto cannabis decriminalization on the ground, yet government policy is a different matter. So I asked Harry Shapiro, of the drug charity DrugScope, what the prospects are for cannabis legalization in the short to medium term.
"Highly unlikely," he said. "There may well be enough signatures to trigger a debate, but I see no signs of any serious political 'drivers' for reform. Not from campaign groups who obviously want reform, nor the occasional comment by a Police and Crime Commissioner or Chief Constable, but, for instance, a consensus across the media, or the National Police Chiefs' Council, or the British Medical Association. Certainly this won't past muster in parliament: drug use is still a toxic area—ask a certain peer."
To pretend that government drug policy has been a total disaster would be fraudulent. But while huge leaps have been made in drug treatment over the last 30 years, the status quo—namely the day-in, day-out criminalization of the addicted, the poor, and of young people, accompanied by the increasing and inevitable risks of an unregulated market—is scandalous. Politicians don't care because the people most likely to be trampled by our drug laws are neither a large part of the electorate nor buy the Daily Mail. They can be safely ignored.
However, there is a growing movement for reform, reflected in opinion polls and by a cluster of very well organized NGOs, such as Transform, LEAP and Release, which are pushing for debate. They are doing so alongside a rapidly expanding network of cannabis clubs and a lengthening queue of former ministers and police chiefs who, jettisoned from the constraints of power, feel able to say what they really think on drugs.
What is required in this upcoming debate is a sea change from within, the "political driver" that Shapiro talks about. Maybe the ticking time bomb underneath prohibition is the man at the center of power.
Before he was leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron was a member of a home affairs select committee inquiry into drug policy in 2002. It recommended that the government initiated a discussion of "alternative ways—including the possibility of legalization and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma." At the time, he told the drug users pamphlet, User's Voice: "We found some of the arguments of the legalizers quite persuasive; we are acknowledging that there may be a day when the balance may tip in favor of legalization..."
The political metaphor "only Nixon goes to China" refers to when the US president met with Chairman Mao in 1972. It was seen as an act that, in fiercely anti-Communist America, only a staunch Republican could pull off without getting hammered by the media and fellow politicians. It may be the case that, even with the drug war-savvy Jeremy Corbyn waiting in the wings, the most likely cannabis legaliser, if it happens at all, could be the Prime Minister himself.
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