It would appear the stage has been set. Pieces are shifting into place and a ‘window of opportunity’ seems to be creeping open. Over the past few years there has been growing critique globally of the prohibition of cannabis. Significantly, and for the first time, a country has fully legalised the whole spectrum of cannabis ‘offences’, from production to consumption.
Uruguay’s bold step into the unknown has been heralded by liberal commentators as brave and rational, a country willing to stand-up to organised crime through regulated control. Even in the United States, traditionally one of the staunchest opponents of legalisation, individual states are rebelling through legalisation with the Feds being told to back off. In the coming years it is expected that more states will join Colorado and Washington, which will seemingly create the bizarre and hypocritical situation between national and local levels of drug policy whereby the ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric is both advocated and rejected. Surely then, it is only a matter of time before other countries follow suit.
With Uruguay having ‘broken the taboo’, her neighbours are now considering alternatives; in Europe, advocates in the Netherlands have been waiting for some time for their opportunity to regulate the ‘back door’ with a majority of local mayors of large cities and citizens in the general population now favouring regulation, Berlin Council has voted to open its first cannabis cafe, cannabis clubs have allowed for the de facto legalisation in Spain and elsewhere across Europe; in Africa, Morocco is considering legalisation, and Swaziland campaigners are pushing for reform.
These are only a few examples of the changing landscape of global cannabis control, with many more countries looking at alternative approaches, both as producers and consumers. Perhaps the time has come that we have to give up trying to prohibit ‘weed’, a natural plant so-called because of its ease of growing virtually anywhere in the world.
So what does this mean for the UK? Are we imminently going to change our longstanding approach to the nation’s favourite illicit substance? Most probably not. But if our approach to cannabis policy is to change, then I believe it requires movement at three different levels: a global shift which alters the UN Conventions; strong political direction at a national level; and grassroots cannabis activism and popular support.
Turning briefly to look at these three levels, and arguably the largest barrier to drug policy reform has been the stringent international conventions which dictate a prohibitive approach to cannabis and other substances deemed to be dangerous. However, following the 6th Summit of the Americas, where South American leaders joined together to critique the failed ‘war on drugs’, there is to be a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, a potential point where momentum for alternatives to prohibition can be aired and advocated. Most probably this won’t result in dramatic changes in illicit drugs control there and then, but perhaps will open up the possibility for change over a longer period, with alterations to international conventions being a realistic objective for drug policy reform advocates. I severely doubt that the UK will be the forerunner of these developments and debates, but without international obligations, and with enough of other countries jumping ship, then there is less chance of the UK standing alone.
Of course the UN Conventions are not enough in themselves to block policy reform – clearly the Netherlands for decades has found a way past to forge its own awkward set-up, and other countries are now taking advantage of the same arguments to allow for decriminalisation and other arrangements. So the national level is obviously a key tier in the game of drugs control.
So where are we at politically in the UK? Well, with the Liberal Democrat Minister Norman Baker overlooking an international review of drug policy, advocates of reform have high hopes that the government may actually admit that current law-enforcement approaches are not the most effective. Indeed recently, the Home Office quietly slipped into their drug strategy evaluation report that they had no idea if their approach was working. This international review has followed other fairly high profile reports, notably produced by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Home Affairs Select Committee on drugs, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, all suggesting we need to consider alternative approaches to the current one.
Other important, but perhaps less noted developments at the national level include a Ministry of Justice review on cautions which concludes with a need to examine all out-of-court disposals, including cannabis warnings. As fellow Judicalis blogger Andrew Jenkins notes, the intention is to have a stricter use of cautioning, but reviewing the effectiveness of cannabis warnings in combination with other factors could potentially see room for its complete removal and an official endorsement of decriminalisation.
Moreover, as my own research is beginning to show, the media has, and continues to be, a constant thorn in the side of politicians being able to speak about drug policy in ways other than the accepted norm of being ‘tough on drugs’. Post-Leveson Inquiry, we may consider the declining power of the traditional press, which is simultaneously competing with a vast array of electronic and social media – no longer do newspapers have a stranglehold on people’s consciousness, but the information people receive comes thick and fast from everywhere, generating alternative discourses and ways of imagining drug policy.
But even so, there are signs that the newspapers are at least considering the alternatives to current approaches, with even some of the more right-leaning papers highlighting the economic benefits that can be gleaned in a time of fiscal gloom. The Independent appears to have yet again U-turned its views towards cannabis, having fought for decriminalisation in 1997, apologised for its ‘mistake’ in 2007, and is now all for reform.
And to top things off, what every campaign seemingly needs and craves to get the attention of the public and politicians alike, is celebrity endorsement. Cue, Russell Brand and Sir Richard Branson. As a researcher, I disagree with the idea of giving a mouth piece to individuals who are not experts on issues requiring expertise, but it is sadly true that they are sometimes needed to grab the attention of policy-makers, to give ‘evidence’ to committees and raise the profile of campaigns. It would seem that cannabis is having a bit of a bounce back with celebrities at the moment, with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Rhianna, to name but a few, blazing away in the public eye.
And so finally, we get down to the local, grassroots level. As mentioned earlier, the growth of so-called cannabis clubs across Europe has facilitated the de facto legalisation of cannabis in parts, with members growing, sharing, and consuming within private spaces. In the UK, we too have an abundance of cannabis clubs, with one virtually in every big town and city. The nature of these clubs is unsurprisingly not clear-cut to the gazing eye, with obvious repercussions if one was to openly suggest these operated as they do in mainland Europe, but they do serve as a point of activism, to bring people together to fight for a common cause, and at certain points in the year, cannabis supporters gather in their numbers to protest for change. However, despite the best intentions of the cannabis clubs, there is always going to be a problem in gaining traction for something which is illegal – those who consume cannabis but do not wish to be known to, or especially risk being caught, will not engage in such movements. It seems that there is the perennial problem of people wanting change, but not wanting to be engaged in the change, perhaps indicative of a broader political disengagement and apathy. But still, the grassroots level is immensely important for policy change, and the cannabis clubs have laid out a foundation whose role and significance will undoubtedly grow in the coming years if alternative approaches became favourable.
So what can we conclude? For advocates of cannabis policy reform, which seems to be the most likely of all illicit substances to be reformed, there are signs that the tectonic plates are shifting and creating a plausible ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change. However, the tendency of British politicians to play the precautionary card, to not engage in the debate for fear of media belittlement, is all too common. It would appear that once a politician assumes a position of power they undergo some magical process which transforms their ability to speak openly about cannabis and illicit drugs, with even Lib Dem Norman Baker being quoted as saying “…our current drug laws are based on the best available evidence”, a position absurdly different from his prior one.
Perhaps one of the problems with cannabis is that it lacks being a policy problem worthy of attention – we don’t have tens of thousands killed in a messy drug war with cartels, we don’t really lock up users for simple possession, and current rates of use have been declining over the past decade – so the immediacy to challenge an approach which is already relatively relaxed is not there for the public and politicians to resonate with. There are many arguments which are still applicable in the UK, such as human rights, health, and social aspects which could feasibly be improved, but I’m not sure if advocates of change are united around a single cause or if all are fighting for their own visions of a drugs utopia.
Certainly, cannabis policy will not be touched by this coalition government; it makes no sense for them to do so. But perhaps post-2016 UN meeting with a new government – and if legalisation elsewhere hasn’t been a catastrophic failure – then options for reform may be more politically appealing and acceptable for the UK.