by Henry Hill
Wednesday, 7
April 2021
Explainer
07:00

Sadiq Khan’s cannabis promise only helps the privileged

The impact would be extremely regressive — and he can't even do it
by Henry Hill
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan walks a beat in Bethnal Green.

It says nothing good about either Sadiq Khan, his opponents, or indeed London’s devolution that he has felt able to put at the centre of his re-election pitch two policies — rent control and decriminalising cannabis — that are not in his power to bring about.

While rent controls are obviously crazy to anyone who looks into their record (“the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city — except for bombing”, as Assar Lindbeck put it), the latter policy appears superficially sensible.

But far from being a moderate compromise between libertarian legalisation and the pointless waste of the ‘war on drugs’, decriminalisation may actually offer policymakers the worst of all words.

Why? Because it basically legalises demand for a drug whilst leaving supply entirely in criminal hands. The result: rich criminals.

According to last year’s Black Review, the value of the illegal cannabis market in the UK is around £2.4 billion. Now nobody is pretending that weed is difficult to get hold of, at least not in cities and towns, but it is very difficult to see how the visible non-enforcement of criminal penalties is going to do anything other than lift it higher still.

But if it were still illegal to supply it, then legitimate pharmaceutical companies won’t be able to bring products to market and legitimate retailers won’t be able to sell it. That immediately strikes out two potential advantages of legalisation: state oversight of safe products, and tax revenues.

In fact, the overall impact of such a move could be extremely regressive. Cannabis consumers, many comfortably off, would benefit from losing any threat of criminal penalties while low-level dealers and transporters would still face all the dangers associated with the criminal supply chain.

Decriminalisation may in fact be the best of both worlds — for consumers. Experience in Canada suggests that when a government does legalise weed, the result can be an expensive product in an onerously regulated market. Recent proposals for the legal sale of cocaine and ecstasy likewise follow a template of small, expensive doses sold via a state monopoly.

How different it is for the savvy buyer on the criminal market. Dealers offer a broad range of tax-free products for home delivery, and you can shop around between them for who has the best stuff. If none of it is up to scratch, it doesn’t take much study to get onto the dark web and buy direct from peer-reviewed wholesalers on whatever the latest black-market narcotics Amazon is.

Prices are falling, quality is rising, reliability improving. What’s not to like?

Unless you’re the State, collecting no revenue and picking up the direct and indirect costs of drugs to government and society (estimated by Black at £3.8bn and £20bn respectively); or anyone brutalised by the international criminal gangs manufacturing, importing, and distributing them.

Throughout the pandemic, progressives have attacked a system which saw white-collar workers stay safe at home, living lifestyles facilitated by an army of blue-collar delivery workers who had to take their chances. Strange for a Labour mayor, of all people, to suggest applying this logic to cannabis.

Join the discussion


  • The motorcyclist was a sad case, but the law is already reasonably clear on drug driving. Police (in my area at least!) are proactive about stopping suspected drug-drivers and a roadside drug swipe test will give an indication of whether someone has cannabis (or other drugs) in their system (and traces can linger for several days after smoking a spliff). A positive result means blood samples are taken, and if the analysis shows that cannabis is over the legal limit, ie the supposed ‘safe amount’, the person goes through the usual prosecution, fine, loss of licence etc – just like drink driving. Obviously, not every drug driver is caught, or that Welsh motorcyclist might still be alive and simply mourning the loss of his licence, but not all drink drivers are caught in time either. Would legalising cannabis make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Right now, the UK is so awash with illegal cannabis farms that supply is enormous, and usage is rife. Cannabis factories are hidden away in quiet houses, remote farm buildings, spare rooms and so on, and finding even a fraction of them is challenging. The UK cannabis trade isn’t even close to being controlled by police/courts, and stamping it out would be both extraordinarily difficult and horrifically expensive… so maybe legalisation is the only practical way forward, whether we like the idea of legalising another drug or not. However, legalisation must shift control of production from organised crime to sources that can be taxed and quality controlled, rather than just decriminalising possession/usage of the end result.
    As for cannabis oil, there is a difference between the illegally produced ones and the legal (low THC) oils sold in the likes of Holland & Barrett or from reputable online sites, which do come with vaguely recommended dosages and which seem to be relatively harmless. Whether they are beneficial or not appears to be fairly subjective.

  • I can tell you that from my experience there is no more useless person than a pot head, a pot head being someone who is stoned during the course of their day rather than just during recreation.

    Pot de-incentivizes people, it is fine as a youth rebellion, or occasional experience, but I think having marijuana about usually is a negative, that it is prone to be a personal vice rather than an asset. If it is currently illegal, and is not going to benefit society other than by giving up and surrendering to the criminals, I do not see the legalization argument.

    Try reading on China and Opium. No one would argue that its legalization was a good thing. It caused HUGS social costs. The small business owner just wanted to get his affairs into order for his family to take over the business so he could spend his life on the pipe. People ruined their lives on it, the money it cost destroyed so many people and their dependents. I know marijuana is not opium, but it is not beer either – that is if you know the drug world, which is not pretty.

    Then there is the fact of a brain forming on drugs. It has been said a single time on Ecstasy causes such a change in the pleasure receptors one can never again, in all your life, experience pleasure fully again without it.

    The thing of drugs is you get the first rush, and all the rest of your drug use it trying to get that again, yet in real addiction one realizes you never will, and each time it is less and less euphoria, and more just avoiding the dreariness of being unstimulated. Normal existence is no longer a pleasure.

    Marijuana, no matter what anyone says is 100% the gateway drug. It is not a good drug, and does weird things to some minds, often not reversible. Almost 100% cocaine, meth, heroin users will say they did marijuana first – it trains the brain to want the chemical stimulation and raises your tolerance to wishing to get high, you lose your fear of handing your brain and reality over to a drug high..

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up