Let’s end the harms of cannabis prohibition

Andrew Boff AM

At heart, I’m a libertarian - I believe that people should be free to make their own choices. But drugs reform is more than this. It’s about safety and protecting people from harm - a harm of government making.

Cannabis is out there and people are using it - to say that criminalisation is working is borderline delusional. The government’s own data shows that 30 per cent of 16 to 59-year olds in England and Wales have smoked cannabis. This is slightly higher for 16 to 24-year olds, at 30.7 per cent, which suggests usage is rising. Much of this will be provided by the black market - drug dealers don’t have age restrictions or product standards.

According to a poll of more than 1,000 teenagers by Survation, children find it easier to access cannabis than alcohol. Some 44 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds who have used cannabis say it is easy to obtain. By comparison, 22 per cent of those who have drunk alcohol say it is easy to buy.

Without regulation, there is no way for buyers to know that the cannabis they have purchased is of a high standard. A study conducted by the Universidad Complutense in Madrid showed that cannabis purchased on the street contained dangerous amount of faecal matter, traces of E.coli bacteria and the Aspergillus fungus.

For those who believe it is the job of the government to keep us safe, even from our own decisions, the current system is not working. Children can get easily hold of cannabis that could be potentially be fatally contaminated.

I don’t believe that cannabis is safe; it can cause long-term mental health issues, especially if a user starts at a young age, but prohibition adds other dangers. The illegal market is also pushing up the strength. Cannabis potency has doubled in the last decade and there is no regulation of strength on the black market.

Data from US Youth Risk Behaviour Survey shows that states that have legalised cannabis have seen a slight reduction in teen use; the key age group for which we would want to reduce usage.

Another argument that I often hear from proponents of prohibition is that cannabis is a gateway drug to harder drugs and therefore legalisation will increase their use. This is entirely false - evidence shows that cannabis acts as a gateway to the illegal drugs market because it is, itself, illegal. The World Health Organisation stated that “exposure to other drugs when purchasing cannabis on the black-market increases the opportunity to use other illicit drugs”.

Another form of harm caused by cannabis prohibition is the social harm.

Young people caught with cannabis, who are otherwise law-abiding citizens, suddenly become criminals – this will reduce their life opportunities, preventing them from taking certain jobs or working abroad. They could have been valued members of society, contributing to the economy and making our country a better place – instead, they’re a criminal, just for smoking a bit of weed. In some cases, with limited opportunities, they may turn to crime for a means of living, creating real criminals who seek to harm others.  

There is also the social harm of opportunity cost in terms of resources. Police time is taken up dealing with minor cannabis offences, when it could be spent tackling violent offences. Prison spaces are taken up by cannabis dealers, which may mean a rapist gets released from prison early and goes onto reoffend.  

It was 33 years ago that I first proposed legalising cannabis at a Conservative Party Conference and I feel it is now within touching distance. The arguments are clear; if we want to reduce harm, we need to end prohibition. A prohibition that is giving teenagers access to highly potent cannabis and flooding the streets with tainted drugs. A prohibition that is criminalising otherwise law-abiding citizens and taking police resources and prison places away from serious criminals. A prohibition that is causing immeasurable harm.  


Andrew Boff is a London-wide elected Conservative Assembly Member at the Greater London Authority.