The Lib Dems have unveiled their plans for a regulated cannabis market, using a relatively conservative approach to try to alleviate concerns from critics. It's daring stuff – but also very pragmatic. Here's how it would work:
The party put together a panel of credible experts, including Transform's Steve Rolles and Release's Niamh Eastwood, to look at various models being implemented around the world – such as in some US states or Uruguay – and outline one which would best work in the UK.
Their goal was "protecting and enhancing public health and community safety". They found an economic bonus to the model, which was that the state would draw in somewhere between £500 million to £1 billion annually in tax revenue, but they mostly put that to one side.
There's a strong practical undercurrent to all this. As the panel said, there are some health harms associated with cannabis use, particularly for young people, but "a rational policy must pragmatically manage the reality of use as it currently exists, rather than attempt to eradicate it using punitive enforcement that, however well intentioned, has historically proved to be ineffective and counterproductive".
British drug policy for the last half century has been characterised by "untested policies with inadequate and unstructured evaluation", the panel found. Instead, the new system should have a properly resourced monitoring and evaluation framework with an annual review and reporting mechanism.
Conservative (with a small 'c')
The most interesting thing about the panel's approach is how conservative it is. They call it a "restrictive regulatory model in the first instance, with a careful and phased policy development and implementation process". As the panel says, we're still in the world of unknowns here, even with various regulatory models being experimented with overseas. But you also get the sense of political antennas working away – of people trying to placate the fears of reasonable opponents of drug reforms. That includes, of course, the British public, who are not foaming-at-the-mouth prohibitionists by any means, but do need to be convinced that legalisation isn't dangerous.
The panel tries to avoid repeating the mistakes of the alcohol industry
State vs private
That being the case, the panel opts for a more state-controlled model, more like the type used in Uruguay than the more commercial market-orientated approaches in places like Colorado. Firstly that's because private firms tend to want people to purchase more of their product, so they'd have an incentive to initiate new users and encourage problem ones. But the panel makes a further interesting point. The cannabis market would start from scratch. There's an opportunity here to design-out the kind of powerful lobbying you get from established industries. "We have a responsibility to make sure the mistakes of the past with alcohol and tobacco are not repeated," the report says. "One of our key considerations in developing this framework was therefore to avoid or minimise the risks of over-commercialisation."
How it works
Meet the Cannabis Regulation Agency (CRA). It would sit jointly under the Department of Health (DoH) and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (Bis), with one minister taking overall responsibility for the industry and local authorities making decisions on location and density of outlets.
There would be three kinds of allowed production: small home growing for personal use, small licensed 'cannabis social clubs' and larger licensed production for retail use, which would have to be based in the UK. As a matter of fact, there is no international dimension to the system at all. Unlike drugs such as heroin or cocaine, most cannabis consumed in the UK is produced in the UK, so there's no need to get bogged down in all that.
The retail units would not be 'experience' or 'destination' shops. They'd be like pharmacies: boring, clinical, unattractive. In the panel's words, they should be "simple and functional". The packaging the cannabis came in would be plain with health warnings all over it.
The Cannabis Regulatory Authority would license the production of a fixed volume of specified produce from each licensee. This is herbal cannabis only. The panel pretty much turn their back on edible cannabis or the new 'vaping' technology which would allow users to consume the drug as if it were an e-cigarette. They even turn their back on hash, the crumbly black resin which many prefer to herbal cannabis. They don't even allow pre-rolled joints, because it might be seen as encouraging tobacco use. They're obviously open to expanding the definition of what's allowed later on, but for this early regulatory phase it's a highly restrictive range of legal products.
There are many edible forms of cannabis, for instance cookies, but they would not be available under the system
Cannabis potency is on the rise. It stood at around five per cent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the mid nineties and around 14% now. But while the level of THC - which produces the high - increases, the level of cannabidiol (CBD) - which moderates many of the harmful effects - has declined. This is standard for prohibited products: they almost always adapt into high-yield, high-strength alternatives, like crack-cocaine. They're easier to smuggle and easier to sell.
The key is to offer milder and stronger forms of the drug and up the level of CBD in it, to manage some of the harmful effects. So the panel suggests a minimum of three strengths: five per cent THC, ten per cent THC and 15% THC. But crucially, they must all contain a minimum CBD 'buffer' of four per cent.
The panel is in the business of minimising surprises, so they suggest prices be set at around current market levels. Price should be tagged to potency, as again they typically are in the black market. In a very rough way, they suggest a gram of 15% THC cannabis should cost three times the five per cent variety. Their aim, of course, is to wean people off the stronger stuff and onto the milder forms.
Cannabis would be priced according to potency
Are we about to see this system implemented in the UK? Unfortunately not. Unlike the rest of the planet, we're looking the other way.
The world is moving slowly towards drug reform. Wherever you look, there are governments recognising the need for a new approach. And the UK has as its prime minister a man who seems always to have understood the need for reform and in all likelihood still does. But since the Lib Dems left government, the Tories have doubled-down on prohibition. The psychoactive substances bill is one of the most draconian pieces of drug legislation currently available in the western world. It even bans fictional drugs. So there is little prospect of a sudden change of heart from the home secretary.
But the proposed system does accomplish a few other things. It shows that cannabis reformers are the ones thinking hard about safe and responsible ways to minimise the damage of drugs. It shows that a future government, one with a little more courage than this one, could undertake the radical job of cannabis legalisation in a cautious and conservative way. And it suggests a certain level of confidence in drug reformers too.
Last month the Economist published a lead article on cannabis regulation called: "The right way to do drugs". It was not interested in rehashing (sorry) the arguments for reform all over again. They have already been won. The number of non-government figures prepared to support the current drug laws is dwindling. Reformers are now confident enough that they have moved on from arguing about whether it should be done to arguing about how it should be done. And that is a major change. The government may have stuck its head in the sand, but the debate has moved on without it.