A key element of Britain’s self-identity is that we are a nation of innovation. As far back as the early 17th century, the philosopher and poet John Milton declared: “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live”. Since then, the image of Britain as a world leader – always at the cutting-edge of history, always providing the legal, economic and cultural templates for others to follow – has become a sacred national truism, repeatedly reiterated by politicians from Tony Blair to Theresa May.
But when one considers Britain’s regressive drug policy, this self-assessment couldn’t be further from the truth – a fact that Germany’s recent announcement about its new drug policy reforms has made even clearer.
Last week, Germany’s incoming government – a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the centre-right Free Democrat party – confirmed it plans to legalise the sale of recreational cannabis. The country is following the likes of Uruguay, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and a plethora of states in the US, which have made similar reforms since 2012.
The announcement comes just a few weeks after Luxembourg became the first country in Europe to legalise the production and consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes, and provides a further nail in the coffin of the so-called war on drugs.
This global phenomenon appears to have escaped the attention and imagination of huge swathes of the British establishment. Despite having one of the highest drug-related death rates in all of Europe, the UK continues to persevere with a failed and archaic policy – and all while the rest of the world experiments with new models that might actually work.
The British establishment is stuck in the past.
Just a few years ago, legalising drugs was a fantasy topic of conversation, like “what if money did not exist?” Now, however, the legalisation of one drug, cannabis, is very much a real-world event. The fact that the politically disparate members of Germany’s coalition government were able to reach a consensus so easily speaks to the appeal this idea has to people across the traditional left-right ideological axis.
Cannabis reform is not inherently progressive, drawing support from conservative figures such as William Hague, Andrew Mitchell and even Nigel Farage. This is unsurprising given how easily the drugs trade can fit into traditional notions of free-capitalist exchange, once all the propaganda and paranoia that took root during the 20th century war on drugs has been stripped away.
Whilst the war on drugs popularised the idea that anyone involved in the drugs trade is ‘evil’, during British capitalism’s 19th-century heyday, it was the people trying to stop the drugs trade who were considered ‘evil’. The great liberal theorist of political economy, John Stuart Mill, argued that the Chinese attempt to ban British imperial opium companies at that time was just further proof of their backwardness and savagery.
It was only around the turn of the 20th century, that drugs – in Europe and North America – began to be associated with uncivilised racial groups and social deviants. By the middle of the century, a full-blown war on drugs was launched, leading to the growth of mass incarceration, extrajudicial state violence, environmental devastation and racial inequality across the globe. This so-called war proved to be an abject failure.
Despite this, mainstream British politics is still stuck in that era, even as the rest of the world moves on. Since becoming the home secretary in 2019, Priti Patel has gone to great lengths to present herself as a Reagan-era drug warrior; ramping up high profile campaigns against ‘county lines‘ drug dealing and proudly declaring her desire to “make an example” out of middle-class drug users, whilst consistently attacking Labour leader Keir Starmer for being “weak on drugs” and “weak on crime”.
The latter is a strange line of attack since Starmer has also been falling over himself to insist he will be sticking to the status quo on drug policy, reiterating as recently as October that “there is not a case for changing the drugs laws across the United Kingdom, and I wouldn’t go down that route.”
This wilful disregard of the plethora of evidence that the country’s drug policy is not working – and of the changing global landscape of drug legislation – by Britain’s two main political parties is outright embarrassing, especially considering the impact drug policy has on the country’s most vulnerable communities.
In the UK, drug offences continue to be the most common reason given for police stop-and-searches, as well as being among the leading causes of imprisonment and school exclusions – all of which are racially disproportionate in their impact.
Reforming the cannabis laws in the UK would help pull a brake cord on the conveyor belt of criminalisation that has been swelling the prison population for the past few decades, particularly impacting people from poor Black communities.
This change wouldn’t just make a difference to the people still serving sentences for drug convictions; even for those who completed their sentence years ago, it would be life-changing. Many people who have served time for drug-related offences find that their conviction stops them from travelling abroad or getting jobs, housing, and even custody of their own children.
The US is leading the way.
This story became a common one over the past century in the epicentre of the war on drugs, the US. This is why the reforms that are now being implemented in places like California are so interesting. The state has not only legalised cannabis but expunged all criminal convictions related to the drug, giving people a fresh slate and a chance to rebuild their lives.
Crucially, California is a pioneer of auto-expungement, a system that sees the state automatically erase criminal records without people having to apply. This means that vulnerable people do not have to navigate a complicated or expensive bureaucratic system in order to no longer have their lives impeded by ‘crimes’ that are no longer illegal.
Legalising cannabis has also been used as a vehicle to secure greater state investment in historically underfunded communities. For example, in Illinois, 25% of the tax revenue raised through cannabis sales has to be given to the ‘Restoring Our Communities Program Board to address the impact of economic disinvestment, concentrated poverty, violence, the historical overuse of criminal justice responses in certain communities’. In New York state, that figure is even higher, with the state bracketing 40% of tax revenue for disadvantaged communities.
New York provides an interesting template for the way in which pressure from racial and economic justice activists can impact the content of the legislation that is ultimately passed. In 2019, the attempt to legalise recreational cannabis use throughout New York state was blocked, not by religious or conservative opposition, but by Black politicians and community groups who argued that the new law was too weak on the issue of repairing the harm wrought by the drug war in their neighbourhoods.
The legalisation of cannabis in New York was delayed a further two years in order to address this failing. In March 2021, a set of laws finally passed, which ensured that the minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition benefited from the creation of this new lucrative industry.
Provisions include automatic expungement, protections for cannabis users if they faced discrimination from housing, education or parental custody authorities. The state also aims to award 50% of the new legal cannabis licenses to applicants from disadvantaged communities and has committed to providing them with further support coming in the way of state-funded grants, low-interest loans, and business education programmes.
Currently, New York’s cannabis laws are the gold standard of what is known as the ‘social equity’ model, whereby cannabis legalisation is used to transfer wealth and opportunities to historically disenfranchised communities, especially those who suffered the most during the drug war.
This model stands in stark contrast with the legislation that is typically rolled out in places where lawmakers have not received the same kind of pressure to include reparations alongside their reforms.
In Alaska, cannabis legalisation punishes those who were targeted in the drug war all over again, as it doesn’t allow anyone who has had a felony conviction in the last five years (which includes most drug offences) to have a licence to sell cannabis in the new legal market. Similarly, in Nevada, people with drug convictions are barred from gaining a license to sell cannabis or even from working as an employee or volunteer in a legal dispensary. Here, the real winners from this legalisation are the corporate juggernauts that have gobbled up much of the market.
The cannabis industry is lucrative as hell.
The financial benefits on offer in the legal cannabis industry make it very attractive to corporations across the world. Global cannabis legalisation is seen by transnational capital as one of the few areas that could deliver large profits in the future where industries like oil, food supplies and luxury goods are stagnating. Covid-19 has only accelerated the growth of a lucrative legal cannabis market, as users bought their supplies in bulk to see them through lockdown, making the industry one of the few big winners of the pandemic. In the US, the legal cannabis industry is due to register $26bn worth of sales in 2021 and is projected to take over craft beer sales by 2025.
This success is attracting tech, pharmaceutical and even tobacco companies to enter the space and try and frame the industry in their interests. In 2016, the tobacco giant Philip Morris international invested $20m into a cannabis company. Meanwhile, British American Tobacco PLC took a 20% stake in another Canadian cannabis company, Organigram in early 2021. Most recently, the digital platform titan Uber declared its intention to enter the cannabis market.
This is why both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left in the UK must be energised and organised in calling for drug policy reform. The consequences of cannabis legalisation are going to look very different if we leave it in the hands of giant corporations.
The left needs to step up.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act being passed in Britain, the law that criminalises cannabis amongst other drugs. However, the public can see that the country’s drug policy is not working and is in desperate need of a rehaul. Only 34% of German citizens were supportive of the legalisation of cannabis before the new government agreed to implement it. In the UK, that figure is already considerably higher, with 48% supporting legalisation, and only 24% opposing, according to YouGov.
The call for reform is getting louder from all sides. In addition to a handful of Conservatives, Labour and Liberal MPs, the Green Party and Scottish National Party have started to become more vocal in calling for drug policy reform. This trend, combined with the pressure of seeing other western countries introduce legislation, means it is difficult to imagine the UK maintaining its prohibitionist stance indefinitely. Indeed, when it comes to legalising cannabis in the UK, it appears to be a question not of if, but when.
Will the left be prepared to take advantage of this rare opportunity to introduce policies that could rebalance some of the racial, geographic and economic injustices of the country? Or will this just be another industry that helps the already wealthy get even richer? The dominoes are falling. It is time for us to start advocating for a progressive system of drug policy reform before big capital beats us to the punch.
Kojo Koram is a writer and an academic, teaching at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London.