High Time – Should We Be Legalising Marijuana In The UK?

Rebecca Shaw draws on her own experiences and speaks to the people who make a living selling cannabis, asking is it high time for us to follow the example of the USA and legalise the selling of the drug?

I smoke weed. I’m not alone in this. In fact, many men, women and adolescents, not only in the UK but around the world partoke (a word I thought up after having partoked) in cannabis. Like many other stoners I feel outraged by the misrepresentation of marijuana in the UK, so I decided to talk to cannabis sellers to discuss the benefits of legalising cannabis. After all, who better to talk to than the current retailers?

Jason is a 22 year old cannabis seller. He said ‘There is always going to be a demand for it. Whether that demand is supplied by good or bad people, whether that demand is created by the prohibition itself, none of it matters because good people should be trying to supply it instead of letting the gangs handle the trade. We have bars, why not coffee shops?’

Taking the marijuana trade out the hands of gangs, Jason points out, would ultimately make the streets, sellers and purchasers safer, and his reference to alcohol is an interesting one.

Alcohol is proven to be far more damaging than using marijuana. Over 8,000 people die from alcohol-related illnesses in the UK each year. None die from marijuana use. There was one guy who had 50kg of cannabis in his car during a police chase. He crashed his car into a tree and was crushed by the weight of the weed, a death that would have been avoided if marijuana was legal. Alcohol, by contrast, is proven to be a regular killer and we can give it to children. Why can’t consenting and aware adults enjoy a spliff, on which it’s impossible to overdose?

One of the most well-known objections to marijuana use is that it makes you paranoid. In reality, cannabis has been proven to work with cannabinoid receptors already found in our bodies to enhance whatever we are feeling. This is why people nervous or apprehensive about trying marijuana will have a bad experience after taking it, such as Jon Snow in the controversial Channel 4’s Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial. In other words, when you smoke weed thinking it will make you paranoid, chances are you’ll start to feel paranoid.

Another often-heard objection to cannabis is that it kills brain cells. To demonstrate this, in one experiment lab monkeys were forced to inhale 63 joints worth of smoke pumped through gasmasks, with no oxygen. These monkeys’ brain cells did die, but due to suffocation not cannabis. Other studies point to marijuana’s ability to protect brain cells, comparing the brain function of those who drink alcohol and smoke cannabis with that of people who only drink alcohol and those who only smoke cannabis. The study concluded that the cannabis users had higher brain functions than the drinkers and speculated that cannabis users have healthier brains than non-cannabis users.

While the media portrays drug dealers as scary and violent, the reality of dealers’ lives makes them more likely to be on the receiving end of violence than initiating it themselves. ‘Grow robbers’ break into houses where cannabis is grown to steal it and some even rob the dealers themselves. They get away with it because the victim cannot call the police. Both the dealers I spoke to have heard of instances where violence was used against a dealer, though neither has been a victim themselves.

Ace, an immensely tall, bearded 21 year old from South London told me ‘I know a guy who robbed a seller with a gun. I think he got about three eighths from it.’ That’s a street value of around £60. ‘He [the dealer] got bruised a little, but he was fine.’

Jason, a smaller, squatter 22 year old from Gosport told me that his ‘best friend, who helped me start up, got beat up in an alleyway behind some shops with a snooker ball in a sock during a deal. For like a Q.’ That’s 7g, worth £60-£70. These young men are getting beaten up and robbed for small amounts of money and can never get justice. Would there be less violence if we legalised and regulated the sale of cannabis?

Opponents of legalising cannabis frequently specultae that legalising the drug would bring more crime, however the case of Colorado in the USA has shown the opposite. Marijuana was legalised in Colorado in 2012 for medicinal and recreational purposes. Since then, crime in the state has dropped by 15%, and murders have been slashed by almost a half. Would the UK see the same results if cannabis were legal?

Ace knows a former dealer who was arrested for possessing a small amount of cannabis. As a result ‘he lost his job and had to pick up litter and that. I think it comes off his record eventually, but still.’  It’s not just violent crimes that would lessen if cannabis were legalised, but also minor criminal offences related to possession as less police time would go towards dealing with them.

There’s plenty of mythology around the dangers of cannabis, but one of the real and undisputed dangers for smokers is the complete absence of regulation. When we buy weed, we don’t necessarily know where it comes from, or what it could be laced with. Sometimes even dealers aren’t one hundred percent sure.

‘Sometimes I get it off a guy, sometimes off a guy who knows a guy,’ says Ace. ‘I don’t always know where it comes from,’ says Jason, ‘Sometimes I get it off a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend.’

Dan Tomaski, who runs a medical marijuana testing lab in Michigan, found ‘that some marijuana contains mold and pesticides at levels more than 60 times those allowed for store-bought spinach.’ Almost all pesticides are toxic, and as marijuana is generally inhaled, any toxins have a quicker and more direct route to the circulatory system. Growers can do this because there are no regulations as to what chemicals can be used safely, so they use whatever they can get cheaply. This often includes chemicals designed for use on lawns and other non-digestibles. If legalised and regulated, this risk would be eliminated, allowing consumers to acquire their marijuana from reputable sellers who grow it naturally, with no added toxins.

Legalising marijuana would also inject the economy with massive cash flow (if Colorado is anything to go by). Ace goes to twenty to twenty-five houses a day. If each of these customers bought a bag worth £20, he could make £500. When I asked him how many people he would consider to be his ‘regular’ customers, he looked at me seriously and replied: ‘too many to count.’

Let’s hypothesise. Approximately 5.3 million people have admitted to smoking marijuana in the UK. If it were legalised and taxed, if even half of these people (2,650,000) bought a £20 bag on the first day, the income would be £53,000,000. That’s speaking hypothetically, of course.  But this isn’t: in the first ten months of Colorado legalising marijuana, they saw $38 million in tax revenue. Recently the government held a referendum to see what to do with all that money. Around $8million has been put into education and the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in years.

Legalisation of cannabis is one of the most controversial topics of our time and perhaps there is no solution to please everyone. On one side of the debate, cannabis is held up as harmful, mind-altering: at best the cause of couch-potatoism and at worse, a gateway to other, harder and more dangerous drugs. On the other side is the fact that cannabis is far less harmful than alcohol (an unequivocally brain-damaging substance), and is in consistently high demand. Formalising the cannabis market by legalising, regulating and taxing cannabis would boost the economy and allow smokers to access a pure, untainted product and a safe way to obtain it.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.