The ranks of former ministers who publicly support drug reform are both full and varied.
There’s Bob Ainsworth, Tony Blair’s health minister, who called for all illicit drugs to be regulated and legally available back in 2010. There’s Jacqui Smith, who admitted in 2012 that her decision as Labour home secretary to upgrade cannabis to a Class B drug was wrong. There’s the Liberal Democrat ex-health minister Norman Lamb, who backed the legalisation of possession and consumption of cannabis in 2018.
And most recently, there’s Conservative grandee and former leader of the party Lord Hague, who wrote a comment article earlier this month arguing that “decriminalising drugs is the only way forward”.
What this diverse bunch have in common is that they only found the courage to speak out after they had left office, and were therefore no longer in a position to do anything about it. Convenient for them, as they didn’t have to face the political pressure of a public that has been terrified into submission by the US-led “war on drugs” for the past 50 years – a policy that has caused untold misery and cost many lives.
But over the last two decades, at least, the US has been changing course. Marijuana for medicinal use is legal in 36 states, for recreational use in 18, while trailblazing Oregon has decriminalised personal possession of all drugs. In the UK, in contrast, drug laws have been stuck in a time warp – in defiance of not only the science but the economics and global politics.
The moral case for drug reform is inarguable. Fifty years of prohibition have not led to a decline in addiction and deaths – on the contrary, drug-related deaths in England and Wales hit a record high this year and have been rising for the past eight, while in Scotland they are higher than anywhere in Europe.
A sixth of inmates are in prison for drug offences, to say nothing of those whose crimes are linked to their addiction. The hypocrisy, when multiple members of the Cabinet – including the Prime Minister – have admitted to their own drug use is staggering.
At the same time, while UK law technically changed in 2018 to allow medicinal cannabis in some very specific circumstances, the regulations imposed by an establishment petrified of being considered “soft” on drugs are so strict that the vast majority of desperate patients – from epileptic children to people battling cancer – cannot access it.
Even politicians who are unsure about fully decriminalising all drugs know our cannabis laws are a disaster. They know it is wrong to condemn someone to a criminal record for possession of a drug that is less harmful (to the user and to society) than alcohol or tobacco, just like they know sending people to prison, where they are more likely to become dependent on far more harmful drugs than they are on the outside, is fuelling the UK’s spiralling addiction crisis. That’s why they keep changing their minds once they are no longer in power.
If we are to “follow the science” and “save lives”, to use our Prime Minister’s favoured terms, we need a different way to make the case to the public. And as the party of business, sound finance and entrepreneurship, the Conservatives are the ones to do it.
The first issue is simply one of cost – something any government struggling with the finances of a pandemic should have front of mind.
In 2018 the TaxPayers’ Alliance found that legalising cannabis “could save at least £891.7m a year in reduced spending by police, prisons, courts and the NHS through pain relief treatments”. For context, that’s the amount the March 2020 budget pledged to invest to help British businesses lead the way in high-potential technologies.
Speaking of those high-potential technologies, cannabis could be the new gold rush. The UK is already a world leader in growing medicinal cannabis, which is then exported in the absence of a legal market here. As our European neighbours press ahead with reform Britain risks being left behind on a multibillion-pound industry.
A few years ago the Adam Smith Institute estimated a regulated UK market could be worth £6.8bn a year, increasing tax revenue by £1.05bn. In fact, back in 2015 a report by the Treasury itself found similar. That’s a much more appealing prospect than the post-pandemic tax rises Rishi Sunak seems fixated on.
The kind of jobs a legal market would bring – in bioscience, agritech, marketing and retail – are either areas where the UK already excels, or where the pandemic destroyed job opportunities. As the furlough scheme winds down next month, imagine if the Conservatives could turn to the hundreds of thousands who have lost their jobs, and offer them a career in a cutting-edge new sector.
You won’t hear Labour making these arguments. It is up to the Tories to change the terms of the argument, to talk both about ending the cruelty of the current anti-science approach and of inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs, saving taxpayers money at the same time.
The late campaigner for drugs reform, and former smuggler, Howard Marks, was fond of pointing out that legal or illegal, cannabis sellers would always make billions – the only madness was gifting all that money solely to organised crime.
Hague’s intervention shows it is not un-Conservative to imagine another way forward. It’s time for the self-appointed party of both business and law and order to see sense.