The Liberal Democrats have declared their support for a recent study that advocates the legalisation of cannabis to over-18s in Britain. The study calls for over the counter sale of cannabis from specialist, licensed stores, the opening of small ‘cannabis social clubs’ and would grant stoners the right to home-grow for personal use, all within a ‘regulated market’. Given the recent decriminalisation of cannabis in the American states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, as well as the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau’s, promise to legalise it within the next year, could the study’s proposals lead to the UK adopting a more liberal policy towards weed?

Sir David Nutt, Image: Wikimedia.org

The study, headed by Sir David Nutt, the government’s former chief drug advisor, and Mike Barton, the Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, states that the legalisation of cannabis could raise up to £1bn a year, while a separate report, conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research offers an even larger figure at £1.25bn. This money would be raised primarily through the implementation of taxes on the sale of cannabis, but £300million of the proposed figure would be acquired through the reduction of enforcement costs currently in place. These current enforcement costs include police attempts to fight the growing, selling and possession of weed, prison and court time for offenders and also those serving community service for lesser offences.

However, the issue of taxing pot is not as straightforward as it may appear at first glance as demonstrated by the experiences of governments across the pond. Colorado’s tax on cannabis is fairly low, at 28%, whereas Washington has a far higher tax rate of 44% and these differing tax rates have led to different issues for the respective state governments. Colorado has seen an increase in usage not just amongst existing users but also first time users. The increase in use is something governments surely want to avoid however tax level also plays a significant role in tackling black market cannabis produce and sale.

the issue of taxing pot is not as straightforward as it may appear

While Colorado has seen an increase in usage it has also all but eliminated the illegal sale of weed; the authorities reckon that 70% of weed smoked in Colorado is obtained from licensed sales, while the other 30% is made up of unlicensed sales. However, even the unlicensed sales are not conducted by gangs but instead by regular people who have legally home-grown pot. Meanwhile in Washington, due to the significantly higher prices of legal cannabis, only about 30% smoked by citizens of the state is legal. The legalisation of weed in Washington, due to the high tax rates has done little to challenge the demand for black market marijuana.

This raises a difficult question for the British government; does it implement low taxes to challenge the illegal sale of cannabis, or high taxes to discourage an increase in usage?

Image: Flickr.com
Image: Flickr.com

The study that has received the Lib Dems backing may have found a solution to this difficult conundrum. The study suggests different tax levels depending on the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In much the same was as drinks with a high alcohol content, such as whiskey and vodka, are taxed higher than those drinks with a lower alcohol content, such as beer, strains of weed could be treated in much the same way.

This would allow companies to sell low concentration cannabis at a price that can compete with the prices of illegal weed, yet the high price of the stronger pot is likely to deter new comers away as they are unlikely to spend big money on something they merely wish to try. While far from a perfect solution, the potential of different tax rates would allow legal weed to challenge the black market as well as encourage newcomers to try weaker, safer strands.

different tax rates would allow legal weed to challenge the black market

Furthermore, the study would see cannabis sold in plain packaging with health warnings, in much the same way as cigarettes and tobacco currently are in Australia. The evidence from Australia suggests that since the implementation of plain packaging for cigarettes, an increase has been found in the age at which people have their first cigarette, from 14.2 to 15.9 years old, as well as decreasing overall consumption. It is likely that plain packaging of cannabis in the UK, especially with the inclusion of health warnings, would act as a similar deterrent to the use of weed by both newcomers and regular stoners.

It seems as though the legalisation of cannabis in Britain is inevitable, with the question now turning to whether it happens sooner or later. If Britain’s major parties were to loosen the traditionally conservative shroud hindering their ability to witness the benefits of liberal drug laws, similar to those backed by the Liberal Democrats, we could see stoners rejoicing in the near future. Will the proverbial joint be passed from liberal minded Americans to the UK’s politicians and voters?

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