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A man smokes cannabis at a pro-cannabis rally beside the Houses of Parliament in London (1)
Image: A man smokes cannabis at a pro-cannabis rally beside the Houses of Parliament in London. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Will The UK Follow California in Legalising Cannabis?

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Image: A man smokes cannabis at a pro-cannabis rally beside the Houses of Parliament in London. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

With cannabis now available to buy legally in California since the New Year, campaigners are wondering if the UK will follow suit and legalise the drug.

In Britain cannabis is ranked as a Class B drug, with softer penalties for possession and supply than Class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin. However, anyone found in possession of even a small amount of marijuana could still find themselves facing up to five years in prison, a fine or both.

Offenders who grow and/or supply the drug risk a 14 year jail sentence. In practice, however, the police exercise discretion and the maximum sentence for possession is rarely enforced.

Supporters say legalising the drug in Britain and creating a regulated cannabis market like California’s would reduce crime by quashing the black market in it and providing entry into an industry already estimated to be worth $20bn in the US and forecast to hit $100bn by 2020.

Market consultants Prohibition Partners think the UK medical marijuana market could be worth £5.3bn.

High profile support for legalisation

British celebrities, such as Sir Richard Branson, Paloma Faith and Sting, support legalisation but so do some mainstream UK politicians.

At last year’s General Election, the UK’s Liberal Democrat Party campaigned to legalise the drug, claiming it would raise valuable tax revenues as well as improving public health and young people’s safety.

The party claimed that one million police hours were wasted in 2015 enforcing the cannabis ban at a cost of £31m to British taxpayers, while leader Vince Cable believes regulating the drug is “common sense”.

“There are serious side effects from driving it underground,” Cable told the BBC’s Newsbeat.

“You get toxic varieties like skunk that have the effect of creating psychotic disorders among their users.

“Common sense would suggest that you should regulate and control the market rather than have free market anarchy.”

Cultivating tax revenues

The Adam Smith Institute, a right-wing think-tank, estimates that sales of regulated cannabis could generate £750m to £1bn in tax revenues for the UK Treasury. The institute now supports legalisation, along with Conservative MPs Peter Lilley, Michael Fabricant and Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the UK’s Green Party.

While the Labour Party is against legalising cannabis, leader Jeremy Corbyn says he supports the decriminalisation of “medical use” of the drug.

In fact, he sponsored a failed bill in 2000 to do so, which argued that “this House recognises…that cannabis is neither more damaging than tobacco, nor more addictive than alcohol, and that it is no more the portal to harder drugs than a half of bitter to rampant alcoholism…”

Made in Britain: legal weed

Ironically, the world’s only prescription cannabinoid drug, Sativex, used to treat uncontrollable muscle tightening (spasticity) in multiple sclerosis patients, is actually made by British company GW Pharma from home-grown cannabis plants.

Listed on Nasdaq, the firm is the only legally-approved cannabis grower in the UK where it produces specially genetically-modified plants at a 44-acre greenhouse in Norfolk.

Sativex, a spray, is approved in 30 countries – but notably not in the US where it failed to gain approval – and GW is also developing cannabinoid drug Epidiolex as a treatment for epilepsy.

GW was previously listed on the UK’s junior market, Aim, but switched its listing to Nasdaq as the majority of its shareholders are now US-based.

Europe “lights up”

Attitudes to cannabis vary across Britain’s European neighbours. Despite reforms promised by Macron’s Government to decriminalise the drug, in France marijuana consumption still remains illegal although it can be prescribed medically. However, Spain, Norway, Holland and Portugal take a more lenient view.

With its coffee shops, Amsterdam has long been a popular draw for cannabis aficionados. However, lawyer Nadja Vietz, writing on US law firm Harris Bricken’s Canna Law’s Blog in 2015, also calls Spain, where it is now decriminalised, one of the “most cannabis-friendly countries in Europe”.

Catalonia alone boasted over 200 cannabis clubs – with 800 across Spain as a whole.
While public consumption remains illegal, cracking down on the offence is a low priority for the Spanish police.

Cannabis storage bags are displayed at Triparte shop in downtown Lisbon
Image: Cannabis storage bags are displayed at Triparte shop in downtown Lisbon. Portugal has less “synthetic” marijuana usage (which can be dangerous) than any other country in the world due to it’s drug policy. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

The experience of Portugal, meanwhile, suggests that decriminalisation could dramatically reduce deaths from overdose. In 2001 it became the world’s first country to decriminalise illegal drug use and treat it as a public health rather than a criminal issue.

Those caught with small amounts of drugs are now fined and encouraged to enter treatment programmes rather than sent to prison.

Data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction from 2015 shows that there are were three deaths from overdose per one million people in Portugal, compared with 44.6 per one million people in the UK. HIV infections have also fallen since 2001.

The smoking gun for UK cannabis legalisation…

On the face of it, the British establishment looks to be softening its line on cannabis. In 2016 an investigation by a cross-party group of British MPs and members of the House of Lords concluded that the drug should be legalised for medical use.

Supporters claim that the drug provides relief from numerous conditions including chronic pain, Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy.

What’s more, as journalist Iain Withers points out in the Telegraph, the notes to a Home Office blog entry by junior Home Office minister Sarah Newton, make it clear that, “The MHRA [the UK medicines approval body] is open to considering marketing approval applications for medicinal cannabis products”.

In reality, however, Theresa May’s Conservative Government remains staunchly anti-drug and is unlikely to be open to any changes to the legal status of marijuana. As Home Secretary, Mrs May maintained a hard line on illegal drugs.

Anti-drug campaigners argue that long-term cannabis use can lead to mental health problems, hypertension and encourage users to try harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

In theory, things could change if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party gains power – Mrs May’s majority remains weak – but decriminalising cannabis is unlikely to be a priority for the fractured Labour party either.

Businesses roll up to London’s Cannatech

However, the success of Israeli-based cannabis conference Cannatech’s first medical marijuana event in London last autumn suggests the business community is more open to the opportunities the industry could present. This in time could lead to a change in Government policy.

“In my honest opinion all countries within 10 years will have some form of legalisation,” Saul Kaye, founder of Cannatech, told Alvexo. “10 years is an incredibly long time in todays digital and social age where information can be disseminated faster than ever before.

“Patients are suffering now and can use cannabis to alleviate many symptoms. “We should focus firstly on getting medication into the hands of patients that need it and legalisation and broader adoption will happen as a consequence.”

Kaye, who also runs Israeli cannabis-focused private equity group iCan, predicts that the UK will have a regulated cannabis industry within the next two years.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alvexo on the matter.