A group of police commissioners at the Conservative party conference will argue that the UK government should reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class A drug, which would place it on the same legal level as heroin or cocaine, and greatly increase the penalties for anyone caught using or selling marijuana. It’s an outrageous suggestion, and totally out of step with the rest of the world, where the war on weed seems to be coming to an end.
In the US, state-by-state, pot prohibition is falling; several of our neighbours in Europe have made plans to legalise it; South Africa’s supreme court ruled the dagga ban unconstitutional; and Canada and Uruguay were the first in decades to recognise cannabis as a legitimate commodity. Even the famously strict government of Thailand decided to lighten up and lift its ban on cannabis in June, releasing thousands of non-violent drug offenders and handing out a million seedlings to boost the nation’s nascent marijuana industry.
An on-off military dictatorship, liberating mary jane before supposedly liberal Britain was not what I had on my bingo card. So why are we still so backwards?
In the swinging 60s, dope became another frontline in the culture wars, peaking with the 1967 arrest of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Although Britain’s “war on drugs” wasn’t as racially charged as in the US, the stereotyping of young black men as pushers or reefer addicts crossed the pond, stoking racial tensions that exploded into riots in Bristol, Brixton and elsewhere in the 1980s.
In the late 2000s there was the “skunk” debate and the influence of the tabloids. They pushed the idea that modern weed wasn’t like your grandpa’s, and could have violent or psychotic effects. It’s true that by this point indoor growing operations with hydroponic set-ups dominated the market, yielding harvests generally higher in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) than weed “naturally” grown in tropical climes and smuggled into the country.
Studies consistently find a small association between heavy cannabis use and mental illness, but no widespread effects in larger society. Although the number of tokers (and the strength of what they’re smoking) has risen dramatically since the 60s, the rates of schizophrenia in Britain have stayed roughly the same over that time period. And psychosis rates haven’t risen in Washington, Colorado or Canada since legalisation. In any case, the vast majority of smokers live sane, productive lives, as evidenced by legalised states not collapsing into the stoned-out dystopia that fills Peter Hitchens’ nightmares.
Politicians, ever mindful of press attention, play it safe, not wanting to appear “soft on crime”. Ironically, keeping this business in the shadows is what drives criminality. Growhouses are magnets for shootings, stabbings and armed rip-offs, and are often staffed by victims of modern-day slavery. Meanwhile, police use the “smell of cannabis” to stop and search young black men, breeding the same kind of resentment that broke into riots in the 1980s and 2011.
Even among relatively conservative countries, the UK is an outlier. Rightwing politicians back legalisation in Israel. And in the US, once the world leader in the “war on drugs”, lawmakers are now discussing social equity: a plan to right the wrongs of the drug war and give those convicted during it the best chance to succeed in this new, legitimate venture. Marijuana has become so normalised that in June last year, Washington state announced it would give away free joints in a “joints for jabs” programme as part of a Covid vaccination drive.
The US is by no means a perfect model. It still hasn’t legalised on a federal level, so growing in one state and selling in another is still enticing to the criminal element, and since dispensaries can’t hold their money in banks, they are a tempting target for robbers. There’s a similar situation in the Netherlands, where the famous coffee shops’ wares aren’t actually legal, merely tolerated, and their underworld suppliers’ antics have earned the country a reputation as a “narco-state”. Meanwhile, Canada went too far in the liberalising direction, handing the entire market over to corporate monopolies.
But there are signs here that feelings towards the smelly green stuff are changing. More than half of Britons now support legalisation; the UK is one of the leading exporters of medicinal cannabis (while bizarrely denying it to its own citizens); and even Norman “Nobby” Pilcher, the police officer who busted the Rolling Stones, admitted what he did was wrong before passing away. Yet at the same time, the rapper Nines was recently jailed in the UK for 28 months for importing weed through Poland. The judge described the sentence as a “waste”.
As the world changes around us, our political and media establishment will look more like out-of-touch dinosaurs. Perhaps that’s why the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a London drugs commission to look into the UK’s drug laws. He’ll face an uphill battle from people such as the former home secretary, Priti Patel, who tweeted: “The mayor has no powers to legalise drugs. They ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives,” presumably confusing Khan’s fact-finding mission with what she was doing in Rwanda.
For now though, spare a thought for the hundreds in this country locked away from their families for a plant millions of people across the globe now safely enjoy.
• Niko Vorobyov is the author of Dopeworld, Adventures in Druglands. From 2013 to 2014 he served a 2.5-year sentence for possession with intent to supply