As the economic cost of coronavirus deepens, questions of how the government plans to pay back the mounting debt continue to be asked.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak so far appear reluctant to raise taxes, fearful it could hamper the UK’s economic fightback and push more people into hardship.
The UK’s public debt currently exceeds 100% of its gross domestic product, according to the Office for National Statistics. The mounting crisis could force the Treasury to consider looking at alternative means by which to plug the £2tn hole in public finances.
Cannabis legalisation has been on the fringes of political discussion in the UK for several years, with a steady level of support at grassroots level.
As more countries across the world move to decriminalise marijuana, could Covid-19 provide the political wind of change needed for major legislation reform?
‘Whole series’ of arguments for legalisation
Other associated benefits have been linked to the decriminalisation of cannabis, such as reducing pressure on police and the courts, which could also help save public funds.
Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at Transform Drugs and who authored the Liberal Democrat’s report into cannabis decriminalisation in 2016, believes policy reform is long overdue.
“People have been advocating cannabis legalisation for years, but not for revenue generation, more for public health, crime reduction, stop-and-search reasons,” he said.
“There’s a whole series of arguments for cannabis legalisation and revenue generation. From my perspective, it’s actually a bonus if it happens. It’s not a reason to do it.”
He added: “When the report was first published, cannabis legalisation was only just getting moving. There are now 15 US states [where cannabis is decriminalised]. Part of the wider political context is that its more normalised than it was even five years ago.
“Four US states voted to legalise cannabis in the US presidential election. Mexico is legalising cannabis, Canada has legalised cannabis. Many other European countries are moving the same way too.
“Crisis often allows for revolutionary change and we’re in an unprecedented economic crisis, and it will demand radical new thinking. Increasingly, cannabis legalisation isn’t that radical.”
Martin Drury, CEO of Health Policy Action, an international NGO established by health professionals, said economic reasons are just one of many reasons the UK should look into decriminalising cannabis.
He said: “With illicit trades, you don’t have that money in the formalised economy. There’s no real money at the moment in cannabis-related drinks, cakes, sweets and so forth. All of that can happen. It can help become job creator. There will need to be a regulatory board, all of that creates jobs.
“In the hospitality industry, it opens the possibility of cannabis cafes. There’s business opportunities everywhere which are being denied.”
But Adrian Crossley, head of addiction and crime at the Centre for Social Justice, said estimates from other countries show cannabis legalisation may not be as economically fruitful as some predict.
“Cannabis, by being legalised, will create more problems than it solves,” Mr Crossley said. “I don’t think this is the right way forward to raise revenue which is clearly needed.
“It’s very difficult to project what the revenue will be, and the figures which vary between £1bn to £3.5bn will tell you that.
“You can see the divergence and it’s very difficult to predict what they will be. The international models tell us that too.”
In the US, advocates for cannabis legalisation envisaged the drug raising $1bn a year. However, the state failed to raise a third of that sum in 2018-19, the first full year since recreational sales began.
Massachusetts projected it would bring in $63 million in revenue for its first year of recreational cannabis, which ended in June, but failed to reach half that sum.
While some states exceeded their estimates, the figures show a “volatility” in the market, Mr Crossley said.
“The costs associated with legalisation are not nil and they are equally volatile. Monitoring the product, where it goes to, what the advertising is like. Alcohol and gambling have governing bodies which monitor what’s put out and that will be no different with cannabis.
He added: “Then you have the added cost of addiction. While the vast majority of people will unlikely fall into addiction, it’s a costly process.”
“The more money it brings in, the more people are smoking cannabis. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re going to be motivated commercially to not just go after the existing customer base, but to find new customers.
“Getting revenue shouldn’t even be on the radar in my view. Public health and societal issues should be first and foremost.”
What impact could legalisation have on public health?
For those on both sides of the legalisation debate, public health is often cited as the leading reason behind their argument.
There are an estimated two million regular cannabis users in the UK, and how best to ensure their safety is a top priority.
Mr Drury said: “Legalisation can open the door for more regulation. You can’t regulate an illegal market. You can’t really do proper public health education about harm reduction if the market is illegal.
“The public messaging is just ‘don’t take drugs’… We’ve been successful in messaging around tobacco and reducing its consumption, but there’s no comparative public health messaging in the cannabis market.
“You can regulate it for strength and they’ll know it’s pure. Customers would also know it’s been ethically sourced and where it comes from.”
However, a conflicting theory is decriminalisation could lead to a raft of new users, which potentially could increase strain on the NHS and mental health services.
Research shows 10% of regular cannabis users become dependent on the drug. As with other addictive substances, such as cocaine and heroin, you can develop a tolerance to cannabis. This means you need more to get the same effect.
Other health issues which can come for cannabis use include developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. It can also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and impact your fertility.
Mr Rolles, who has advised other countries on their decriminalisation programmes, said legalising cannabis the wrong way could have serious public health consequences.
“If it’s about maximising public revenue, then you will want to sell as much cannabis as possible,” said Mr Rolles.
“It needs to be managed carefully as it’s not just about revenue.”
One controversial argument is that cannabis use can lead to the use of other drugs.
But Mr Crossley said while for the vast majority of people this is not the case, the distinction between categorising different substances can be partly due to socio-economic factors.
Mr Crossley said: “Drawing a line between cannabis and heroin is often about class.
“Most cannabis users are under 30 and they go right across the social spectrum, from richest to poorest. Often with something like heroin users, it tends to be the more deprived in society.”
He added: “Many people who use drugs will be poly-substance users. They won’t just use one drug, they might use multiple.
“I’m not suggesting everyone who takes cannabis does this, but to draw strict lines between different drugs, for me, often becomes non-sensical. It’s just the drug that you like, that you want legal.”