Yesterday was 4/20, the day when protests and celebrations are held to highlight the case for cannabis legalisation. In the UK, this usually involves people gathering in Hyde Park to smoke cannabis in an act of civil disobedience. Obviously, due to social distancing rules, 4/20 cannot and should not be celebrated in the usual way this year. However, the case for legalising cannabis can and should still be made.
Let’s start with the public safety argument. Those who want to keep the use of cannabis criminalised say that this ensures the public is protected. They argue that cannabis is dangerous and legalising it would cause harm, as more people would be encouraged to start smoking cannabis.
Although well-meaning, this argument does not hold much weight. First of all, there is scant evidence to suggest that cannabis legalisation leads to any significant long-term increase in cannabis consumption.
What’s more, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the current prohibition of cannabis is itself causing harm to people. This is because prohibition leads to the most potent forms of cannabis being most readily available. This leads to people, especially young people, developing dependency issues.
If we want to protect users, and stop them from developing mental health issues, then we need a legalised and regulated market, which would enable people to consume the drug in a much safer way. Rules could be set to limit the potency of the drug and ensure that the black market supply dries up so that people under 18 are unable to purchase it.
The next point is morality. Many people object to cannabis legalisation on moral grounds. They believe that it is immoral to take drugs and argue that the state should prevent people from doing so.
Again, this argument is flawed. As we have already seen, cannabis prohibition has led to many people developing mental health issues and having their life chances limited. Given that virtually every moral system emphasises maximising the welfare of other people, supporting a system such as cannabis prohibition which causes harm is, therefore, deeply immoral itself.
Moreover, individuals should be viewed as moral agents who have autonomy over their own bodies. Human beings do not belong to the state, and the government should have absolutely no right to dictate what a person can or cannot do with their own body.
If individuals want to take cannabis, that should be their right, and it would be wrong for the government to try to stop them. Indeed, it is deeply immoral for people to use the state’s monopoly on violence to impose their own morality on others. Nobody should face going to prison and having their life ruined simply for smoking cannabis.
There is also a strong economic argument for cannabis legalisation. The UK’s public finances are going to be in a very poor condition once Covid-19 is over. As such, the Treasury will need to look at ways in which to make savings and raise more revenue. Cannabis legalisation would undoubtedly help to achieve this.
For example, cannabis legalisation would lead to a decrease in expenditure for the criminal justice and healthcare systems. This could lead to annual savings of almost £900 million.
What’s more, cannabis legalisation would eliminate the black market, meaning that legal companies would be formed and jobs created. These businesses would pay corporation tax and employers’ national insurance contributions, and the workers would also pay income tax and employees’ national insurance.
Furthermore, it would also be appropriate to levy duty on cannabis as a Pigouvian tax to offset the negative externalities associated with consuming it. All of this would boost the Treasury’s coffers and help to get the government’s finances back under control.
The prohibition of cannabis has caused tremendous damage. It doesn’t work in practice and is morally wrong. It is high time to legalise it.