The deregulation of cannabis gives the UK the opportunity to ‘Build Back Greener’ following the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a lawyer specialising in legal cannabis.
Lawyer from London law firm Bishop & Sewell, Eleanor Furlong, specialising in the legal cannabis sector, says the deregulation of cannabis in the UK is a case of ‘when, not if’, and that it provides the UK with the ideal opportunity to take advantage of lucrative new markets following Covid-19.
Creating jobs and saving costs
According to the International Narcotics Control Board’s (INCB) annual report, the UK is estimated to be the world’s largest producer and exporter of legal cannabis products – growing around 320 tonnes in 2019.
The UK’s medicinal cannabis industry could create around 100,000 new jobs and be worth £2bn if regulation around the sector is relaxed, and legalisation could save an estimated £890m a year in reduced spending by police, prisons, courts and the NHS, according to a recent report by Maple Tree.
Furlong said: “Despite medicinal cannabis use, as prescribed by a doctor, being made legal in the UK three years ago, only a handful of people have received NHS prescriptions for the treatment to date.
“However, stories such as that of Thomas Braun, the boy who hand-delivered a letter to the prime minister asking for help in getting a medical cannabis prescription for his severely epileptic brother, are throwing a national spotlight on the debates around relegislating on cannabis.
“Research shows that cannabis and cannabis-derived products have a huge range of medical uses, with treatments for chronic pain, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, depression, movement disorders, eating disorders, cancer and AIDs patients and the list goes on.
“Relegislating cannabis also offers potentially significant savings to the NHS in prescription costs, whilst simultaneously reducing demand on more expensive and limited NHS resources. In addition, cannabis has the potential to boost both NHS funding through raising billions in revenue for the treasury, and the wider economy through the establishment of new cannabis sub-sectors within our existing industries; from farming to sustainable fashion.”
Recreational use of cannabis is legal in 14 US States, with overall legal sales expected to triple over the next three years to more than US$30bn.
Furlong continued: “The economic benefit of deregulation is too compelling for the Government to ignore; the market is highly profitable and growing rapidly, presenting an ideal opportunity for the UK to capitalise on its role as a global leader in cannabis cultivation and export.
“In the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic, political opportunity arises as the treasury explores options for balancing the books and raising funds. Meanwhile, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has set up an independent commission to review the benefits of legalising cannabis.”
London’s listed cannabis sector has also doubled in size this year after the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) approved the admission of cannabis-related businesses to the London Stock Exchange.
“The deregulation of cannabis will likely be made in phases, following the first steps being taken in medicinal cannabis. Subsequently attention should turn to the relaxation of farming regulations around hemp and CBD, although a pilot in London to create a legal cannabis market seems more likely and could be a catalyst for deregulation at a much faster pace,” added Furlong.
“Cannabis has been legal in other countries for some time, so there is much data available for the Government to consider. The electorate’s view will also count, and recent surveys in London have shown support for deregulation running at around 60%.
“Key to this will be to move the consumption method away from smoking to healthier alternatives like edibles and vaping, and position cannabis products as an alternative to alcohol. CBD oils are already de-regulated and it’s only a matter of time before hemp and medical marijuana follow.
“The legalisation of recreational cannabis use may take more time due to the legal and ethical challenges posed, such as whether the benefits of deregulation outweigh potential health and social costs, the likely rate of addiction and its impact, and practical issues such as clarifying a safe THC blood levels for driving when considering both regular and irregular cannabis users.
“Nevertheless, the wave for reform is building, and social and cultural attitudes are also shifting into place. The financial benefits of legalising cannabis may be what tips the balance, if the Government decides to reap the rewards of this lucrative nascent market.”
What can Uruguay teach the UK about cannabis policy?
Recreational cannabis has been legal in the country since 2013 – one think tank says Uruguay could help inform how to improve criminal and health outcomes in the UK.
As the pressure mounts on the UK to assess its approach to cannabis policy – could policymakers look to Uruguay as an example of successful reform?
With news from Europe in 2021 of legalisation and cannabis reform, the UK’s current approach remains unaligned with citizen consensus.
Polling in the UK has outlined that the majority of the UK public supports legislation reform, and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for CBD has recently called on the UK Government to establish a legal industry – highlighting it could create the equivalent number of jobs and income for the economy as the Scotch Whisky industry.
Following London’s launch of a new pilot to divert young people away from the criminal justice system for possession of cannabis, last week also saw an announcement from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that he is establishing a London Drugs Commission which will assess the UK approach to drug laws.
Khan has taken a fact-finding visit to LA to see what lessons could be learned in responding to the challenges of drugs. However, whilst the US is one example of how different approaches to cannabis policy could work, cross-party think tank The Social Market Foundation has suggested that the UK could draw lessons from Uruguay, which legalised the plant in 2013 and began commercial sales in 2017.
According to the think tank, the UK’s “outdated” laws are “not fit for purpose” and “mean that we suffer higher crime and worse health outcomes than would be expected under a more liberal regime”.
Making cannabis illegal to cultivate, possess and sell results in a major loss of tax revenue for the government, with the money instead being funnelled into the black market which is controlled by “violent criminals” and can see consumers using products that may be unsafe for consumption.
Uruguay as an example of liberalisation
The Social Market Foundation (SMF) has conducted cross-country analysis which shows that Uruguay is a leader on cannabis policy. After initial legalisation, the country slowly rolled out its policies, adopting a “health over profit” model – which should be an inspiration for the UK, says the think tank.
SMF Researcher and report author, Jake Shepherd, commented: “Over the last 50 years, governments in the UK have hardly moved their anti-cannabis stance, even as evidence shows it to be less harmful than substances like alcohol, and public perception of the illicit substance has evolved. In contrast, countries across the world are reaping myriad benefits of progressive reforms.
“The need for cannabis policy reform is clear – public opinion on cannabis and demand for it is rapidly changing.
“By learning from international examples such as Uruguay’s, the UK can put in place the right policy framework to navigate the current system, the unregulated commercial market and balance key priorities of safeguarding public health, reducing criminal activity and delivering economic gain – to ultimately benefit society.”
The think tank highlights that in Uruguay, cannabis can be bought from regulated pharmacies at subsidised prices – which prevents corporate interests from capturing the market, and that the Uruguay Government controls cannabis production to ensure safety and quality of the products on the market, with only a few allowed to produce cannabis.
Bringing cannabis policy up to date could bring several benefits to the UK, such as legitimising the cannabis market, says the think tank, which is currently valued at £2bn.
A legitimate market could bring in higher tax revenues for the exchequer and improve criminal justice outcomes, as poorer and ethnic minority people are more likely to face criminal sanctions for cannabis-related offences.
Helping young people in the UK
Khan’s recent announcement and visit to LA has been met with some criticism – with Policing Minister Kit Malthouse describing the visit as “baffling”, stating Khan should focus on decreasing knife crime.
However, as Malthouse himself points out – more than 50 per cent of all murders in London are linked to drug use. The UK also has a major problem with young people being used as part of county lines operations to push drugs across the country.
One of the common arguments against the legalisation of cannabis is the dangers that they pose to young people, however, the Social Market Foundation points out that cannabis is the most used illicit drug “especially among people aged 30 and under, with 30 per cent of people having tried it at least once.”
Legalising the plant would end the use of the black market and would provide the market with the opportunity to restrict sales to those under the age of 18 – a policy that Uruguay has implemented in its recreational sales.
A recent study, published in the journal Addiction, assessing cannabis use in adolescents ages 12 to 21 found that Uruguay’s approach to cannabis has not further increased the use of cannabis in young people.
The authors state: “The legalisation of recreational cannabis in Uruguay was not associated with overall increases in either past-year/past-month cannabis use or with multi-year changes in any risky and frequent cannabis use among young people.”
The Social Market Foundation has also suggested international examples that could hold key lessons for the UK including: Oregon, which has seen the State reap high profits and make billions in tax revenue with the rapid expansion of a legal retail market; Portugal, which has saved money on court cases on minor offences, all of which is being reinvested in treatment services; Cannabis social clubs in Spain, which have undermined the black market, though it has failed to tackle organised crime; and, the fact that public safety in Uruguay has improved, as cannabis users interact less with drug dealers.
London Drugs Commission launched by Mayor to assess cannabis laws
The Mayor of London is visiting LA to see what lessons could be learned in the UK in responding to the challenges of drugs.
The first-ever London Drugs Commission is to be established by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to examine the effectiveness of drug laws in relation to cannabis.
The new Commission will gather evidence from around the world on different approaches to cannabis policy. This will include the best methods of prevention, the most effective criminal justice responses and the public health benefits of these different approaches.
It will be comprised of independent experts and leading figures from criminal justice, public health, politics, community relations and academia, and former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Lord Charlie Falconer QC will act as chair.
London is currently plagued with drug-related crime, with an approximate 56,000 reported drug offences in 2020/21. Most of these drug crimes consisted of possession offences.
The city is already considering a diversion pilot scheme to help reduce drug-related crime that will see the temporary suspension of arrests of 18 to 24-year-olds for the possession of small amounts of cannabis.
To help inform understanding of different approaches, Khan is now on a fact finding mission to LA to understand more about an international evidence-based approach to reducing drug related harm in the capital.
Ina statement, Khan commented: “The illegal drugs trade causes huge damage to our society and we need to do more to tackle this epidemic and further the debate around our drugs laws. That’s why I am here today in LA to see first-hand the approach they have taken to cannabis.
“We must learn from others when considering our approach, and by examining the latest evidence from around the world and the world-class research from UCL, Lord Falconer and the will make recommendations to improve our approach to cannabis to help tackle drug related crime, protect Londoners’ health and reduce the huge damage that illegal drugs cause to our communities.”
Since legalising cannabis in 2016, LA has seen a drastic reduction in drug-related crime – with cannabis arrests falling by 56 per cent. Felony arrests for cannabis fell by 74 per cent to 2,086 in 2017 from 7,949 in 2016.
On his trip, the Mayor is visiting a cannabis dispensary and cultivation facility and meeting a representative from the LAPD, policy and health experts, cannabis growers and senior government officials, to find out more about the city’s approach.
“The decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis offers historically marginalised communities opportunities for healing, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation in this growing industry,” said Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti. “Cities have so much to learn from one another, and I applaud Mayor Khan’s thoughtful approach as London moves forward.”
Khan’s progressive approach to exploring cannabis policy is in keeping with public opinion, as recent YouGov surveys revealed that 52 per cent of UK citizens say they would support the legalisation of cannabis in the country, and six in ten (63 per cent) Londoners expressed support for the proposed diversion pilot.
Katya Kowalski, head of operation at Volteface, which produced the consultancy report into the negative impacts of low-level drug offences for the pilot, commented: “It’s really positive to see such an evidence based approach taking place by the Mayor of London. Khan has already come out in favour of reform, seeing a proactive, structured approach to assessing policy reform is fantastic. It is very clear that our current cannabis laws are not fit for purpose. I think the set up of this Commission demonstrates and highlights this realisation.
“The desire for drug reform is being increasingly more apparent. The majority of the UK is in support of cannabis legalisation, with even higher figures in the capital. Public and popular opinion is already there. I see this Commission as a starting point to examine how we go about legalising cannabis, taking an evidence base approach.
“I think going forward, it is essential we follow the evidence and learn from jurisdictions which have already legalised around what is working and what is not. It is no longer about whether we change our cannabis laws but how we go about doing it. I hope the Commission brings a multifaceted approach and model to the table, encompassing public health considerations and the protection of young people.”
The London Cannabis Commission, chaired by Hamish Stewart, has already recommended that London pilots a legal cannabis industry to dampen violence and provide resources to reinvest into youth services and training, arguing that keeping cannabis illegal for retail users entrenches racial inequalities.
In a previous statement to Cannabis Wealth, Stewart commented: “There is nowhere to go but up, and London and other UK cities can really build on the international experience of Canada, the US, New York State and a whole number of other jurisdictions which already have decriminalised for the legal cannabis market. And so, this is really about the start of a very rapid catching-up process.”
A recent report produced by national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law in the UK, Release, has also laid out cannabis social equity principles for a legal UK industry, which builds on the organisation’s national research that highlights the disproportionate policing relating to cannabis of ethnic minority and other disadvantaged groups.
The report outlines 14 principles for reform, including removing criminal or civil sanctions for use or possession of cannabis, automatic release from prison for cannabis-related prisoners and expungement of past cannabis-related convictions, personal cultivation of cannabis and co-operative cannabis distribution models such as social clubs.
University College London (UCL) has been appointed to the Commission in order to provide world-class evidence-based research and assessment on the criminal justice, health and economic implications for any potential change in policy.
Ben Bradford, Institute for Global City Policing at UCL, commented: “This opportunity to work in partnership with the London Drugs Commission to review and develop evidence regarding the implications of drug laws both here and around the world is hugely welcome.
“I look forward to working with Lord Falconer and the Commission to inform debate across the range of issues it will consider, ensuring that high quality evidence lies at the heart of its conclusions and recommendations.”
Lord Charlie Falconer QC said: “I’m honoured to have been appointed chair of the London Drugs Commission. It is a real opportunity for there to be a thorough look at the effectiveness of our drugs laws and policy on cannabis.
“We need rigorously to identify what is the best approach to reduce harm to our communities. A national debate is long overdue. We aim to make recommendations to bring about effective and lasting change.”
Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, added: “It’s vital that we do everything we can to reduce the harm and misery caused by the illegal drugs industry in London.
“That’s why the London Drugs Commission will examine the effectiveness of our drug laws on cannabis, and under Lord Charlie Falconer QC will make recommendations that will help criminal justice and health bodies consider how best to improve the situation for Londoners.”
Following its work, the London Drugs Commission will make a series of policy recommendations for City Hall, the Government, the police, the criminal justice system and public health services. Further members of the London Drugs Commission will be announced this summer.
“Positive shock waves”: Germany accelerates process for cannabis legalisation
Germany’s health minister Karl Lauterbach – who until last year was opposed to cannabis legalisation – said Germany’s coalition government will begin the legal process for cannabis legalisation sooner than planned.
Speaking to the German newspaper Handelsblatt, Karl Lauterbach said the government plans to accelerate a number of projects that have been stalled due to the pandemic, including the legalisation of cannabis which formed part of the government’s political agenda announced in 2021.
“I’ve changed my mind on [cannabis reform] over the past two years,” Lauterbach told the newspaper. “I’ve always been opposed to cannabis legalisation, but I revised my position about a year ago.”
Christian Linder, Germany’s Finance Minister, echoed Lauterbach’s statements with a Tweet reading: “A question that many people keep asking me: ‘When will Bubatz [slang term for cannabis] be legal?’ I would say soon.”
The German federal government announced it would be putting plans in motion to legalise cannabis in November 2021. The process has since been delayed due, in part, to the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Up until now, it has been rumoured that plans for cannabis reform would be pushed back to Autumn, but Karl Lauterbach said he wants it to be included in the government’s summer agenda along with several other health policy reforms including the digitisation of the health system and hospital structure reform.
The process of legalisation will begin with the drug commissioner discussing the technicalities with experts, Handelsblatt reported.
“The time over the summer must be used to vigorously push reforms that could no longer be pushed to the autumn,” said Lauterbach.
Michael Sassano, CEO & Founder of European cannabis manufacturer Somai Pharmaceutical, said the health minister’s change of position has “sent positive shock waves” to every health minister in Europe.”
“[Lauterbach’s] position brings more credibility than any politician’s words. His participation now indicates that cannabis will be treated as a narcotic. The cultivation and manufacturing will likely stay at the same high level of EU GMP pharmaceutical grade, creating a significant entry barrier compared to novel food products,” Sassano told Cannabis Wealth.
“Distribution is expected to continue through pharmacies, but additional cannabis-only dispensaries and social clubs have a high probability of expanding the availability and footprint of sales outlets to increase adoption. Germany clearly sees that the risk of non-regulated and non-taxed cannabis products consumed by Germans that cannot get a prescription from their doctor is much more significant than reducing the burden and indications to purchase cannabis.”
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