There is one topic on which there is, from our political leaders, an unlikely silence. Now the reality is that, as I type this and you read it, there will be literally hundreds of conversations taking place on this very topic; where to buy, how much to buy, how much to take, how one maybe shouldn’t have taken so much – or bought so little. It affects – whether indirectly or directly – the lives of much of the public, yet our politicians, regardless of hue, are universally mute. The topic is, as you have may guessed, drugs.
No, don’t stop reading at this point. Talking about drugs – whether one uses or abuses them – is indeed a conversational graveyard, haunted by the shades of improbable yet familiar meandering tales. However, a grown-up debate about “the war on drugs” that has been active for most of our lifetimes – the Misuse of Drugs Act is over 50 years old – is well overdue, yet not being addressed by either party likely to be the next government. It’s a big subject so this focus will be on cannabis.
Medicinal vs recreational cannabis
Older readers may remember, just before New Labour came to power, how Clare Short brought up the subject of cannabis and was swiftly made to retract her statement by Tony Blair. Strangely, not long afterwards, I found myself sharing a railway compartment with her, and at the end of the journey voiced my support for her views. Sadly, this was the last time, in my memory, that a politician so close to power (she was briefly a member of Blair’s cabinet months afterwards) stood up to be counted.
Since then, Canada and large swathes of the USA have made both medicinal and recreational use of cannabis legal, something which Germany is now on the cusp of doing. When polled on this subject, the electorate have shown majority support for following suit. The NHS is able to prescribe cannabis-based medicines, but in the four years since this was made legal, according to a recent BBC news article, fewer than five NHS patients have been given “whole cannabis” which is often essential to be efficacious.
Medicinal cannabis is, however, by demand, insignificant when compared to recreational usage. Other drugs such as “magic mushrooms” may also have medicinal benefits, but for the vast majority, drugs are there to make life either more pleasurable or more tolerable; and the demand for them is relatively static, with in 2022 about four million adults reporting use of illegal drugs, the same numbers as pre-pandemic. Overall, the figures are at the same level as when I had my conversation with Clare Short.
Cannabis isn’t the victim in this war
As wars go, this has achieved less than any other, a stalemate in which neither side wins but there are plenty of casualties. Whether it’s the young kids involved in “county lines” or forced to tend cannabis factories, or the tens of thousands residing at His Majesty’s pleasure for convictions relating to drugs – violence, theft, possession of weapons or dealing – the cost to you and me of this unwinnable war is estimated in a recent government publication at around £20bn per year, or £350 for every citizen. To quote, without irony, that same publication: “it’s clear that the old way of doing things isn’t working”.
However, there is no “new way”. Education isn’t going to stop people getting high who want to get high. Criminalisation affects those at the bottom of the supply chain, and rarely the user or the people making the serious money from the sale of drugs; and this we all know – we’ve had long enough to learn this lesson.
The political debate about cannabis
So, why the silence from those either leading us or with aspirations to do so? After all, YouGov polling shows that two-thirds of us think that the current policies aren’t working, and the majority are in favour of decriminalising cannabis.
The traditional argument of it being political suicide to stand up and be counted on this issue has to be losing ground. When octogenarians like Sir Paul McCartney, a long-time advocate for, and consumer of, cannabis are still amongst us, the dismissal of drug taking as being the prerogative of the young and feckless who should know better is demonstrably fallacious.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if, before the next election, a principled politician – and yes, I’m looking at you, Angela Rayner (who has admitted to inhaling, unlike her boss) – actually spoke to the British public on this subject, adult to adult? If she reminded us of that cost, just as I’m reminding you again: £350 each, every year, or nearly the same amount as we spend on the police.
The public realities about cannabis
You only have to walk through any town centre and inhale to know that it’s time we had this conversation. Other countries have had it, are having it, and chaos and anarchy have not ensued; yet the chance of hearing a politician raising this subject are about the same as them not having partaken, or known someone who has. Einstein is supposed to have said that the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results. If that’s the case, then MPs must be awaiting the men in the white coats.