Why a regulated cannabis market might be the way forward
Reform is inevitable and we need to get it right for people who use cannabis.
I recently visited a Canadian cannabis ‘dispensary’ with a cross party delegation of MPs and the think tank Volte Face. It was the sort of shop you’d expect if Apple sold cannabis — big screen displays, touch screen online ordering, a ‘deli’ bar filled with different strains. We were there to see first hand how legalising the drug has been handled and what the impact has been.
This is important because back in the UK cannabis reform is at a vital juncture. A recent YouGov survey found “twice as many British adults now support the legalisation of cannabis than oppose it”. These attitudes reflect a change in how people perceive cannabis across the world, and the prospect of legalisation in the UK is now a real possibility.
I’ve worked with people who use drugs for more than 20 years. The pragmatic part of me completely accepts the many good arguments for a regulated market. I have no doubt the current punitive system doesn’t work and needs urgent change. But if we’re on the road to reform we need to get it right for people who actually use cannabis.
First, we need to make sure that some of the revenue raised is ring fenced to help people who run into problems with cannabis. The NGO Health Poverty Action estimate taxing cannabis in the UK could raise as much as £3.5bn a year. A significant amount of this money must be used to fund education, prevention and treatment. I accept that cannabis is a lucrative market for business, and this is undoubtedly preferable to an unregulated black market organised by gangs and administered by dealers. But a regulated market needs a properly funded treatment system. The gambling industry provides a cautionary example. Despite multi billion pound profits there’s no mandatory levy to help fund treatment. Just one in 50 problem gamblers get support.
Second, we want to see a system of taxation to reduce people’s access to high strength cannabis, which a recent study by The Lancet linked to psychosis. Strains with higher levels of THC could be taxed more, in a similar vein to minimum unit pricing which sets the lowest price a unit of alcohol can be sold for. In Scotland minimum unit pricing has reduced harmful drinking through restricting access to low cost, high strength products that cause the greatest harm to health. However, it hasn’t yet been rolled out in England. The Portman Group, which regulates the marketing of alcohol and is funded by eight alcohol companies including Heineken, Carlsberg and Jagermeister, doesn’t approve of the policy.
Third, it’s vital that we get labelling right. At the moment, when people buy cannabis they know very little about what they’re actually getting. With a regulated market, people can know the strength, what’s in it and how to take it in the safest way possible. It should be sold with harm reduction advice about problematic use and where to get support and advice when things go wrong. Products should be sold in plain packages with public health warnings in a similar vein to tobacco.
Finally, we need to be very cautious about the marketing of cannabis as a lifestyle choice. In Canada, I was impressed by the strict adherence to plain packaging and health based messaging on all products. However, I also saw the big money ‘green rush’ in action. I was handed leaflets by big cannabis companies explaining how one strain was perfect to use just before going for a jog, while another could ignite passion in the bedroom. I listened to people talk of cannabis’ potential health benefits as if it were a wonder drug that can treat a near infinite array of conditions.
I have no problem with adults, who are aware of the potential harms, using cannabis recreationally to have a good time in a similar way to drinking alcohol. But seeing cannabis as a ‘wellness’ product when there’s very little evidence to support this claim is disingenuous at best. Allowing cannabis companies to market their product as a ‘lifestyle’ choice could lead to the paradox of more young people using the drug. Again, we only need to look at the gambling industry to see how this could happen. Studies have shown that children as young as 13 are regularly exposed to gambling adverts online. A large proportion of this is through social media with researchers finding that only 7% of gambling companies’ tweets contain a ‘responsible gambling message’. The end result is the number of problem gamblers aged 11–16 quadrupling between 2016 and 2018. A blanket ban on advertising can prevent the same thing happening with cannabis.
At Addaction, we argue for things that will improve the lives of the people who use our services now, or may do in the future. A regulated cannabis market could be a very positive step, but we mustn’t gamble with people’s health.