Cannabis is a consumer product – that's how it should be regulated

I spoke at an event, "Regulate: But How?" last night held by VolteFace, a new magazine that is working to bring a bit of sanity to the drugs debate and hopefully in doing so militate for drug reform. The theme of the event was what the key regulatory considerations ought to be if and when we do legalise cannabis. Here are my opening remarks:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Harm reduction is an important goal but it cannot be our only consideration if cannabis regulation is to be a success. 

Most cannabis users smoke not because they are addicted but to have fun. If our regulatory framework does not put this insight at the heart of its structure it will fail to deliver the benefits that legalisers promise, and further drug reforms will be hindered. 

It is crucial that cannabis is regulated according to what it is: a low-harm consumer product that most users enjoy without major problems.

Where this hasn’t been done legalization has had, at best, mixed success. Colorado has seen improvements but high taxes and regulations, and a fundamental aversion to anything that might actually increase the user base has held that back. 

So don’t just legalise it to better stamp it out in the long run, like many people wish to do with tobacco. Accept it as a normal part of the lives of the people who choose to use it, as we do with alcohol.

The lighter our regulation, the more scope there is for business to improve the quality and delivery of the product. Once we accept that using cannabis is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, our phobia of letting capitalism in should fade away.

Of course kind of approach would seem anathema to those people for whom even very limited legalization is a hard sell. But this largely misses why people object to cannabis.

Public use is most people’s biggest concern by far. A Pew poll last year found that while 62% of Americans said they’d object to people using marijuana in public if it was legal, only 15% would object to people using it in their own homes. Even among people who oppose legalization, a majority say they would not object to people using it in their own homes. 

This point, I think, militates against the model recently proposed by the Lib Dems for cooperatively-run high street shops to be the primary vendors for cannabis in the UK. 

We don’t want to be accused of turning the UK into a gigantic Amsterdam-style red light district; and we certainly don’t want to make it more convenient for people to smoke on the street than it is for them to smoke in their own homes.

Indeed this model does not appear to be particularly commercially viable either, and when we consider the power that local government planning committees wield over places like this it should be fairly obvious that this is a non-starter, at least as the dominant way for people to buy cannabis.

When I need to buy electronics, books, a takeaway, or indeed legal drugs, I go online. Just today I had a new phone battery delivered via Amazon Prime, less than 24 hours after I ordered it. 

Online shopping allows for greater competition and economies of scale, which reduce costs and offer greater accountability because reputation matters so much.

Indeed there is already a large and relatively healthy marketplace for illegal drugs, albeit one that suffers from unreliability and risks precisely because of government prohibition.    

I suggest that online sales and delivery seem to be the most viable way of making cannabis accessible to those who want it. 

And that is an accessibility that steers people towards using it in their own homes. Indeed it might be most politically saleable for us to continue to outlaw street consumption and, of course, sales, and presume that creating a safe legal alternative will drive most people into the privacy of their own homes, or their friend’s.

But apart from these restrictions on the hard issues of where people can buy and use cannabis we should favour as much free-wheeling capitalism as possible. Plain packaging, price controls, advertising bans, restrictions on preparations and dosage – all these things continue to treat cannabis and cannabis users as the enemy, and will dull the effectiveness of legalisation.

In many respects cannabis will be seen as the test case for further drug reform, so it’s crucial that we get this one right. Red lines where they matter and where people actually care, but not the medicalization in all but name that many well meaning campaigners want. The object isn’t harm elimination, it’s not even harm reduction alone, it’s utility maximization. 

This problem is too important not to leave to the market.