The legalisation debate

3 June 2019

April’s Hempstock Festival helped bring the debate surrounding cannabis legalisation into focus again

April’s 420 Hempstock Festival in Glasgow helped highlight the ongoing debate surrounding whether cannabis should be legalised across Scotland and the UK, especially in cases where it can be beneficial for medical purposes.

This year’s edition was the eighth time a 4/20 event – with the date commonly used to celebrate cannabis usage across the globe – had been held in Glasgow, the first edition being in Kelvingrove Park back in 2012. Peaceful protestors gathered in the dazzling sun at Glasgow Green with the aim of highlighting the positive aspects that can come from medicinal use of the class B drug. A variety of speakers from a range of organisations spoke at the event.

One included Craig Johnston, co-founder of Hope CBD which is a UK-based supplier of Cannabidiol. His company came into the spotlight when it was announced they were sponsoring the stadium of Scottish football club Hamilton Academical. And Johnston was positive about the potential impact of the event.

A whole host of speakers were at April’s event.

“From our perspective, the festival really shows what the community is,” he said. “It brings people together and it’s a show of defiance. The size of the crowd proves that. It not only helps break down years of prohibition but also leads to the softening and normalisation of cannabis in society. The stereotypical cannabis user is slowly disappearing, especially amongst older generations.”

“Funnily enough my own grandmother is a perfect example of that,” he added. “She keeps good but does get sore here and there. I told her to try CBD and as you’d expect she was having none of it. But then changed her mind after watching the show ‘Gone to Pot’. She asked me to bring her CBD since then. It’s things like this that’s slowly changing perceptions.”

The Scottish Multiple Sclerosis Society largely agrees with Johnston’s view.

A spokesperson from the organisation told me: “There is more research coming out about cannabis being beneficial for people living with conditions like MS.

“Over the last few months here at the MS Society we’ve been reviewing our stance on cannabis. We’ve spoken to a lot of people with the condition and gathered information through focus groups and medical professionals to come up with our position.

“Our key message would be that MS can be relentless and exhausting when dealing with pain and muscle spasms that make it impossible to deal with daily life. We know that evidence shows that cannabis for medicinal use can work for some people to relieve pain when they have MS.

“Countries like Canada and Germany have already legalised cannabis for medical use too. These countries are offering it on prescription, so people can be more confident about the safety, dosage and quality as well.”

“It’s simply wrong that some people with MS are being driven to break the law by using cannabis as a way of relieving their pain. We want to make sure that people are consulted widely about this.  We would say we want cannabis available for use with MS, so they’re not breaking the law.”

But going beyond the drug’s potential benefits for medicinal purposes, Craig Johnston was keen to highlight the potential economic benefits that can come from wider use, whether recreational or otherwise.

“There’s a booming cannabis industry in Scotland right now and we need to take advantage of it,” he said. “It’s growing at an incredibly fast rate with over 600 companies registering on companies house in the last six months. We welcome anyone in the industry and hats off to anyone who’s getting involved.  We just want to make CBD normal and then hopefully make a push for recreational use in the UK.”

There is perhaps an irony in Scotland and across the UK insofar as where cannabis use tends to be closely associated with stories of terror, widespread alcohol usage – and even abuse – is normalised, even when its impacts are detrimental. While cannabis has often been stereotyped as a gateway drug, some regard alcohol as being far worse in this regard. And Johnston largely expressed agreement with this view.

“A Thursday night out is becoming UFC in the streets because of our yobbish drinking culture,” he said. “Anything can be bad if you don’t use it in moderation – not just cannabis, but even things like shopping and food, and especially cigarettes and alcohol. Ultimately I’m quite liberal with my views and think when it’s all said and done people should be able to do what they want.”

Johnston is glad to see gradual shifts in opinion within society, and believes these changes towards acceptance of cannabis use will continue. And he believes a lot of misinformation has been peddled regarding the drug over the years.

“The only reason cannabis is illegal is because it’s better for the government, just like prohibition in the 1900s,” he says. “There’s an ignorance in our society when it comes to cannabis and it’s constantly labelled as a gateway drug,” he says. “They say it brings on psychosis but it’s not the case. Several researchers have found that the increased use in cannabis in the UK has not resulted in more psychosis. It’s a case of misinformation and there’s a clear conflict of interest in parliament.”

Cannabis was originally prohibited as a drug in the UK back in 1928. While many theories have been discussed over the years to discern as to why the drug was perceived so harshly by government, one of the most widely accepted ones argues that it was used – both in the UK and beyond – as a means through which to target ethnic minorities.

Usage now in the UK is commonplace, especially among younger generations. A 2017 drug report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that, as of 2015 11.3% of young adults aged between 15 and 34 had used cannabis in the past year. And it also found that 29.4% of those aged between 15 and 64 had used the drug at some point in their lives. This tally sits just above the European average of 26.3%, with France topping the list for consumption.

Many have suggested that these figures – both in the UK and beyond – indicate that cannabis legalisation could have widespread economic benefits if it is taxed. Indeed, a report by the Adam Smith Institute estimated that £1bn could be generated in taxes if the drug was regulated in the same manner as alcohol and tobacco. Criminal justice savings would also be substantial due to the number of people in prison for cannabis-related crimes.

One example of where legalising the drug has yielded significant economic benefits has been the US state of Colorado. As of April this year, marijuana tax revenue has reached a total of $993m since being made available for consumption in 2014. The industry there has grown steadily over time, and appears likely to continue to do so if current trends are maintained.

So, would a legal market be better than an illegal one?

“Overall, in the UK, drug use, including cannabis use, has been falling for several years, particularly in young people. A legal market wouldn’t necessarily lead to further reductions in use,” says Harry Sumnall, a Professor in Substance Use at the Public Health Institute. “In fact, in the first few years you might expect to see increased use as people have more legal opportunities for use, but after a few years this might settle down.”

“Studies in the USA suggest there hasn’t been an increase in levels of use after legalisation, but equally there hasn’t been falls either – so a legal market does not seem to be an effective strategy to reduce use in the adults or young people – if that is the aim of introducing such a policy,” he adds. “Overall, if someone uses cannabis once or twice, or even on a semi-regular basis, that’s not a great concern – that’s most cannabis users, by the way, although if they mix their cannabis with tobacco then it is concerning. My concern is for the minority of heavy and regular users, and how we ensure that removal of some of the restrictions on use and supply does not adversely affect them.”

And if cannabis was to be legalised, how would it be regulated? Alcohol and tobacco may be a legal, but both are being more heavily regulated than ever. Cigarettes are sold with extensive warnings on packaging, and the government has been cracking down on drink drivers with harsher punishments for those caught driving over the limit. Would cannabis be regulated in a likewise manner?

“There are different models proposed, everything from a free market driven ‘free for all’ with few regulations and restrictions – resembling the market for many current consumer goods, right up to tightly regulated state monopolies, where government agencies control production, distribution, supply and monitoring of the market, and where only certain types of cannabis can be sold and for specific prices,” says Sumnall. “If a legal market were to be introduced in the UK, then my preference would be to learn from the mistakes of alcohol and tobacco, and ensure that there were bans on marketing activities, strictly enforce age limits, and start with a restricted range of products. Once we gained more understanding and experience with such a system, then you could look to lift some of these restrictions.”

“It’s my view that if there’s sufficient public support then a legal market might be a way of reducing the involvement of criminal organisation in the cannabis market,” he adds. “If there is to be a legal market, then we must ensure that market is structured and regulated so that operators are not dependent upon generating profits through increasing sales to these high-level consumers.”

And it’s also worth considering how customers would respond to a regulated legal market.

“We also often hear discussions about high THC low – CBD products in the UK,” Sumnall says. “It’s been proposed that use of these types of products are linked to people experiencing psychotic symptoms after use and so a regulated market might remove them from sale. Interestingly though if you look to the legal markets in the USA, where consumers have a choice of materials, they tend to prefer these high potency products. So, if you were concerned about potential mental health harms of use then your market would have to be able to limit the range of cannabis products available, which might not be a popular move for some activists.”

The debate will likely rage on, and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. But Hope CBD’s Craig Johnston remains hopeful that attitudes will continue to soften as time goes on.

“We’re on a great journey, and we love checking our reviews and seeing how much we help people,” he says. “That’s all we want to do.”

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