29 October 2021

Canada shows how to legalise cannabis – and then reap the rewards

By Blair Gibbs

Despite the worst drug death rates on record and the prospect of a new drugs strategy, the UK’s drugs debate remains totally moribund. We are stuck between the casual consensus of a metropolitan elite who say they would legalise all drugs tomorrow, and the views of the broader public – still represented by most MPs – who care about drug misuse and helping the addicted, but who still worry about being ‘soft’ on recreational drugs.

As a campaigning Prime Minister who is adept at discerning the public mood and can sense when opinion has shifted, Boris Johnson needs to sell a smart, modern drugs strategy that includes some practical policy choices, without going beyond what the public or his MPs will tolerate. Reforming the law on cannabis is an obvious place to start. 

The public are not relaxed about class A drugs and never have been. They understand that the poor suffer most of the consequences of chronic addiction. They see heroine and crack cocaine as dangerous (they usually are), and a risk to young people (they always are), and they rightly associate their consumption with the criminal gangs who run supply chains and ruin the safety of housing estates across the country. But in the last 20 years, this attitude towards drugs has begun to narrow, and it now increasingly excludes cannabis.  

In Britain, as in Canada, Australia and the United States, we have seen a gradual but decisive generational shift in the public’s tolerance of cannabis – a class B drug that has less addiction potential than nicotine and lower health risks to adults than alcohol. This year’s landmark review of the drugs market by Dame Carol Black showed how widespread cannabis consumption now is, and how police enforcement of casual use has dramatically declined. This is what happened in Canada after 2012 and it set the stage for the legalisation of cannabis for adults that followed in 2018.

In a new report for Stanford University, we show that three years after Justin Trudeau’s government legalised cannabis in Canada, the sky has not fallen in. A diverse but strictly regulated legal market now operates, with federally inspected producers, hundreds of licensed retail stores, and thousands of products, all sold in child-safe packages with plain labels bearing Health Canada’s THC warning logo, a tobacco-style health warning and, of course, an excise tax stamp. You pay an extra environmental levy if you buy a disposable vape pen product. There are no billboard adverts. No celebrity influencers. No festivals sponsored by pot producers. Canada made legal weed very hum-drum. 

The gains so far are not insignificant: the illicit market has been hugely degraded, freeing cops to focus on class A traffickers and underground production, and free choice has been enhanced, within a tight public health regimen. The legal share of the total cannabis market has grown as retail store roll-out has developed. The jury is still out on access to cannabis by youth, or impact on educational attainment, and we still do not know how the sums raised in taxes are being spent.

But so far, neither the critics nor the proponents have seen their predictions borne out. There has not been a surge in use, or a sudden rise in impaired driving, the criminal market has not simply evaporated and neither has legalisation single-handedly plugged all budget deficits.  

However, compared to prohibition, the Public First poll commissioned for this project is clear on where the public stand: 46% of Canadians supported legalisation just before it happened in 2018 with 30% opposing it, and now our survey found that 53% of respondents now approve, with only 18% opposed it. In fact, legalisation probably helped Justin Trudeau scrape a narrow victory in the election last month, not least because it was often cited in focus groups as the one policy that voters recalled Trudeau actually delivering as he had promised.

Legalisation is both an event and a process, and the full gains do not arrive overnight. But Canada shows how you can legalise cannabis differently from how it has been done in much of the United States, with a stronger emphasis on public health and less overt marketing, in a way that should be more appealing to British politicians on both the more paternalist right and the market-sceptical left. 

Then there are the jobs and the investment that would accrue to the UK from being the first nation in Europe to legalise – as well as billions in extra tax revenue. A new Treasury estimate of this scenario is long-overdue and would open some eyes within government to the wider economic potential. It is being actively considered in Switzerland and Italy, and is suddenly a factor in the coalition deal-making in Germany. A Brexit Britain that struck out first would reap enormous foreign-direct investment, even if it adopted a model where the minimum age was 21 and products were highly taxed.

Taken together, a new government strategy of supporting and diverting young drug users, combined with redoubling enforcement against dangerous Class A traffickers and violent drug gangs and simultaneously regulating cannabis tightly as an adult consumer product, would be fresh and coherent. It would not just be a way through Britain’s stale drugs policy debate, it would also be evidence-led and a domestic ‘Big Idea’ beyond levelling up.

It would also be politically smart. Younger voters are significantly more supportive of legalisation and also more likely to have consumed cannabis. And, frankly, the Conservatives need something – anything – to get voters under 40 to vote for them next time. This Prime Minister understands how essential that is, and he could use a new policy on drugs to help him rediscover some of the urban appeal that he enjoyed as Mayor of London.

The tide of prohibitionist sentiment on cannabis is receding and the debate is only going to go one way. Boris Johnson shouldn’t allow tabloid dogma or outdated stigma around cannabis to cloud his political judgment. Bold retail policies that prepare the ground for another majority government in 2023 need adopting soon. It is usually bad advice to suggest emulating Justin Trudeau but, on this issue, he got it right – and Canada has reaped the rewards.

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Blair Gibbs is a former No10 advisor (2019-20) and co-founded the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis in 2018. He is now an Associate with Public First, based in Vancouver, Canada.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.