In 2018 Norman Lamb questioned the government’s approach to cannabis regulation. He criticised the 19% fall in prosecution levels since 2015, and the 34% fall in cautions since 2017, while it was patently obvious that usage was on the increase. Lamb correctly highlighted that laws which are inconsistent in their application are dangerous to society and ought to be overhauled. I have always been in support of such arguments and strongly agree that the current cannabis regulation can be described as nothing but a set of racist and underhand policies which allow the police to charge people of colour twice as often as non-BME individuals when found in possession of the drug. However, it was Lamb’s conclusion that the UK is in need of a ‘regulated cannabis market’ which I find deeply unconvincing. The promise of a regulated cannabis market appeared again in the 2019 Liberal Democrat manifesto, as Jo Swinson highlighted a potential 1.5-billion-pound increase in tax revenue were we to embark on a policy of legalisation. The manifesto omits the numerous ways in which this policy would actually be a drain to the economy, and a detriment to society. To me, the policy seemed a poorly formulated attempt at securing (or, perhaps, regaining) the youth vote. Frustratingly, it is for this reason that I expect that other parties will move towards the same stance over the next few years. However, reconciling legalisation with the liberal values of evidenced-based policy, and our long-term commitment to mental health resources, seems impossible.
One of the things that first drew me towards the Liberal Democrats was their unwavering commitment, as a party, to evidence-based policy. It’s a campaign slogan trotted out time and time again, and a set of principles needed more than ever to fight through today’s ‘quick fix’ politics. Further, a rash and uncalculated move to legalise cannabis would undermine the decades of work that the Liberal Democrats have put into mental health. Alongside her promise of a ‘regulated cannabis market’, Jo Swinson also committed the Lib Dems to 11 billion pounds of funding for mental health services. The promotion of a drug for which we have an incredibly limited understanding of its links with schizophrenia seems to, therefore, defy two clear keystones of party policy. It is ultimately very difficult to view the liberal stance on legalisation as anything but a desperate and ill-conceived attempt to win over the youth vote.
Very often, the case for cannabis legalisation is promoted through analogies with cigarettes. Professor David Nutt, who advised the department of health on drug classification, made a case for the negligibility of cannabis’ impact on mental health, in comparison with tobacco. He contrasted the apparent 2.6 fold increase in psychosis among marijuana smokers with the 20 fold increase in the risk of lung cancer among cigarette smokers. This comparison, sadly, is incredibly dangerous. To begin, the psychosis risk applies for one-time smokers of cannabis. Cigarette smokers expose themselves to such a high risk of lung cancer typically by smoking habitually, for a long period. Further, while cigarettes are undeniably dangerous, the decision to smoke might at least be an informed one. Due to its current illegal status, our information about the dangers of cannabis use is woefully incomplete. Professor Nutt’s 2.6 figure is nothing much more than a stab in the dark. Nutt therefore seems to be advocating for a blasé legalisation of an incredibly dangerous substance with little to no evidence of how one might reap a blighted future of psychotic episodes from smoking just once.
While knowledge of the impact of cannabis use is limited, there have been several incredibly concerning studies recently conducted which position the dangers as far higher than Professor Nutt suggested. The most notable research chartered the lives of 45,470 Swedish conscripts. Here, it seemed that smoking cannabis on just one single occasion doubled the risk of developing schizophrenia. Further, the use of cannabis over a sustained period (here defined as 50 times) resulted in a six-fold increase in the risk of schizophrenic symptoms in later life. Cannabis here presents as worlds apart from tobacco. Someone who smokes one poorly informed joint at a party could reap lifelong consequences. Further, quitting after regular use of the drug seems to have little impact, meaning that a one-time smoker of cannabis may, in a single uninformed action, have condemned him or herself irreversibly to a life punctuated by psychotic episodes.
Rebuttals of such studies argue that science has demonstrated little more than an association between the drug and future incidents of psychosis. While this might be true, it is this fact which demonstrates just how much of a betrayal of liberal values the 2019 promise to introduce a ‘regulated cannabis market’ was. Our current knowledge of the impact of cannabis use seems alarmingly similar to early research into the harms of tobacco. Studies on smoking and its links to lung cancer were dismissed in the 1950s as merely associational. It seems obvious that full-blown legalisation of cannabis would open a similar can of worms, allowing people to use the drug completely impervious to the risks associated with it. It is therefore very difficult to make a case for liberal legalisation. Instead, it seems to me that before the general election the Liberal Democrats were desperately searching for a means to win back the support of those who felt betrayed by the coalition’s increase in tuition fees. They hit on cannabis legalisation and, without much thought for the party’s proud history of evidence-based policy and our commitment to mental health, it was written into the manifesto.