July 16, 2001

By Gwynne Dyer

The dam burst last weekend. There had been cracks in the concrete of consensus and growing trickles of dissent for some time, but suddenly the issue of legalizing the use of marijuana is on the table in a major country — and an English-speaking one, at that.

 In Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland it is already practically impossible to get arrested for buying or using “soft drugs.” In the Netherlands, users may buy up to 5 grams of marijuana or hashish for private use at 1,500 licensed “coffee shops,” and they are opening two drive-through outlets in the border town of Venlo to cater to German purchasers.

 Even in Canada, Conservative leader and former prime minister Joe Clark is openly calling for the decriminalization of cannabis.

 But that is still far short of what Sir David Ramsbotham, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, suggested last Sunday in Britain.

 “The more I look at what’s happening, the more I can see the logic of legalizing drugs, because the misery that is caused by the people who are making criminal profit is so appalling and the sums are so great that are being made illegally. I think there is merit in legalizing and prescribing, so people don’t have to go and find an illegal way of doing it,” he said.

You will note that he said “drugs,” not just cannabis, and that he talked of “legalizing and prescribing,” not just “decriminalizing.” Most British politicians are afraid to go that far in public yet, but over the past week former Home Secretaries Lord Jenkins and Lord Baker and outgoing British “drugs czar” Keith Hellawell have all called for a debate on decriminalizing so-called “soft drugs.” And the new Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has given his support to a local experiment in the south London district of Brixton where police will simply caution people found with pot. No trial, no criminal record.

Others, like Mo Mowlam, until recently the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the Labor government’s drug policy, and Peter Lilley, former minister for social security and Conservative deputy leader, are now going further. “It strikes me as totally irrational to decriminalize cannabis without looking at the sale of it,” said Ms. Mowlam. “It would be an absurdity to have criminals controlling the market of a substance people can use legally.”

 Peter Lilley began by quoting a recent study in the respected medical journal The Lancet, which concluded that “moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and decisions to ban or to legalize cannabis should be based on other considerations.” For Lilley, banning cannabis is indefensible and unenforceable in a country where far more harmful drugs like alcohol and tobacco are legal, and he went the distance in accepting the implications of legalization.

 Magistrates should issue licenses to local shops for the sale of limited amounts of cannabis to people over 18, Lilley said. Like tobacco, it would be taxed and carry a health warning — and the tax yield on an estimated annual British consumption of 1,500 tons of cannabis a year has been calculated at about $23 billion if the cannabis were produced and marketed in exactly the same way as tobacco, enough to cut the standard rate of British taxes by 5 percent.

 That is a pipe-dream, of course. Many people would grow their own, and given the pre-existing black market, too high a rate of taxation on cannabis would simply push consumers back into the hands of the private dealers. Most experts think the highest practical rate of taxation would be around $3 to $4 per gram (against a production cost of around $0.75), which would yield a mere $7 billion to $8 billion a year in extra tax revenue. But it would also cut law enforcement costs — and it would keep ordinary cannabis users out of contact with “hard drug” dealers.

 As Lilley pointed out, “By making cannabis illegal, it is only available through illegal sources, which are the same channels that handle hard drugs. So we are forcing cannabis users into the arms of hard-drug pushers.” When senior Conservative politicians start talking like that, you know the wind has changed, and British opinion polls support it.

 Opposition to legalizing cannabis has dropped from 66 percent to only 51 percent in the past five years, and the nay-sayers are overwhelmingly in the older age groups.

 It is a welcome outbreak of sanity, and even mere decriminalization in a major English-speaking country would have a profound effect on the debate in the United States, the heart and soul of the prohibitionist movement. But actual legalization of cannabis in Britain is unlikely because the U.S. government strong-armed all its allies into signing three international conventions in the 1970s and 1980s that define cannabis as a dangerous drug.

 To break out of those treaties would involve a larger effort of political will than any government with many other items on its agenda (like persuading the United States to ratify the Kyoto accord on climate change and to honor the ABM treaty) would be willing to undertake. So millions of individual Britons may benefit from the decriminalization of cannabis and an end to harassment, but the potentially large social and tax benefits of outright legalization are likely to be lost.