Yellow Haze: Farron and the Lib Dems miss the point on cannabis


It’s no secret that cannabis legalisation is a policy area that I feel particularly passionate about, and one that I degenerately thrust myself behind whenever I have a chance. As such, you may be surprised that I am not over the moon at a major (ish) party in the country I live announcing commitment to legalising the sticky-icky. My disappointment stems mainly from the small print beneath the student-bait sound bite; the blueprint that the Lib Dems have set out would actually be a step backwards in terms of the problems created by the war on drugs, not a step forward. It would do nothing to further individual liberty or choice, and serves only to expand the role if the government in our personal lives. It just goes to show that the most outwardly progressive are often the most regressive.

So what’s the beef?

Well the vision behind the policy ‘A framework for a regulated market for cannabis in the UK’ worships state control more than it looks to solve any of the issues. It was headed by Steve Rolles, the famously confused senior policy analyst of Transform Drug Policy; a man who sees the bureaucratically burdened tobacco and alcohol industries as under-regulated, and would probably like plain packaging on Skittles. Legal Cannabis in the UK, under an at best fantastical Lib Dem premiership, would be plagued by direct price controls and fixed production quotas, and only be permitted for sale in medical containers from approved pharmacies. This is what they claim will be a ‘market’ in cannabis – only the Liberal Democrats could make a policy as liberal as cannabis legalisation illiberal.

Let’s not forget why cannabis should be legalised in the first place. As it stands, cannabis is controlled by a criminal black market, forcing regular people who innocently enjoy the occasional toke to be associated with and fund criminal organisations. In places like Colorado, where cannabis enjoys legality, one if the crowning achievements of legislators is attacking organised crime. Thanks to the miracle of consumer capitalism and it’s price mechanism, legal cannabis is cheaper than black market cannabis. Competition keeps prices low and quality high. This undercuts the black market, dealing a sucker punch to the funding of criminal cartels. Smart and nuanced regulations like requiring potency to be shown on packaging keeps consumers safe and lets them indulge their right to decide what they want to put into their adult bodies, without unnecessarily hindering growers and sellers.

What would happen in the Lib Dem vision? The short answer is a massive cock up that would vindicate all those people who prefer their markets free. The long answer? Well capping production in an effort to stop the current £7.2 billion cannabis market from expanding would do nothing but lead to shortages, as the ‘Cannabis Regulatory Authority’ would fail to set supply at the same level of demand – failing in the usual way government fails with forecasts. Price controls would then stop the ‘market’, if you can call it that as this point, from keeping prices lower than the black market.

Steve Rolles should know better, and should also know that this would only encourage the growth of the black market, as people go to the street to satisfy demand during shortages, and dealers selling unidentified bags of green in dingy pubs and dark parks undercut the prices of legal retailers. On top of that, retailers wouldn’t be able to compete on non-price factors such as quality or branding. All cannabis would pass through the government and then be prohibited from any form of advertising, only to be sold like prescription drugs in child-proofed plain containers over the counter at pharmacies.

Don’t be fooled by the nanny statists

‘Legalise Cannabis’, the yellow rossette wearing canvassers will tell their target audience of students and other young people, knowingly hiding the small print. These policies have been ripped straight from the playbooks of those who wish to nanny the people of Britain: those who wish to tax sugar, de-normalise tobacco through patronising and demonising consumers, and out-price those who enjoy a pint after work. The report doesn’t even attempt to hide its problem with tobacco, advising that only loose cannabis should be cleared for consumption, as pre rolled joints may complement the smoking of tobacco. God forbid.

Letting technocrats from the ‘public health’ cabal fiddle away with policy will not reduce the size of the black market or liberalise drug policy. At the risk of sounding zealous, only a free market can do that. The framework the Lib Dems set out seems to be more concerned with attempting to control or lower the amount of people using cannabis, which is more than a bit hypocritical, when you claim to be a ‘liberal’ party that fundamentally believes in choice and individual liberty.

Adults should be free to smoke cannabis. Not encouraged, just free to choose for themselves. The ‘Liberal’ Democrats, who seem to rate bureaucracy and state control over any semblance of liberty, are either suffering from a genuine lack of imagination, an inability to understand the most basic of economic theories, or are in dire need of a swift name change; or dare I say it, all three together.

If cannabis is legalised in a free market, we will see a ‘green economy’ flourish from the ashes of the war on drugs. We would see a boost to our economy and a dwindling black market as businesses endeavour to meet demand and compete on price and quality simultaneously.

Meanwhile, under the Lib Dem vision, the state would unsubtly creep further into the lives of innocent adults, whilst all the benefits from legalising cannabis are neutered at the hands of bureaucrats and public health alarmists. That friend-of-a-friend who goes by the name of ‘Big Dave’ and just got a shipment in off the docks at Newport that he is looking to offload ASAP sounds more appealing than the Lib Dems’ cynical and misleading vision; and that’s not an easy thing to ‘achieve’. ‘Big Dave’ doesn’t tell me how to live my life. ‘Big Dave’ understands how prices work. ‘Big Dave’ didn’t lie about tuition fees and respects the results of last year’s referendum.

The UK needs a frank and sober conversation on drug policy. As we stumble through a legal highs epidemic, struggle with prison overcrowding, and look to create new industries in the wake of Brexit, we cannot ignore the social and economic benefits of legalisation. We must not jump the gun, however, and back any policy for the sake of progress. As David Davies, MP for my home constituency Monmouth pointed out, these are the same people who voted to ban smoking in pubs. Now, desperate for votes, they tack on a largely awful policy to a manifesto full of further hypocrisies.

I never thought I’d say this, but when it comes to Farron’s hazy offer to legalise cannabis in the UK, it’s thanks, but no thanks. I’m going to ring ‘Big Dave’.

Nathan Friend is the Head of Conservatives for Liberty Wales

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty