Since the turn of the century, multiple jurisdictions have reviewed their position on the legal status of both recreational and medicinal cannabis. Uruguay and Canada have legalised recreational cannabis on a national level. These countries are far from alone in their new approach. While in the US the possession of recreational cannabis remains unlawful at a federal level, many states, including California, Alaska and Colorado, have legalised recreational possession.
Those advocating legalisation point to the benefits of undermining and disrupting the criminal market by bringing the product under state regulation and imposing taxation. The resulting reduction in the harmful effects of the product, through responsible production, is advanced as a benefit to public health. Quite aside from these arguments, many in the UK now feel that criminalisation of cannabis possession is inherently disproportionate. There is some evidence to suggest that the majority of the British public would support a ‘softer stance’, meaning either legalisation or de-criminalisation of cannabis.
Whatever one’s position, an essential starting point is to acknowledge that the question over the current laws continued legitimacy is rightly asked and must be answered to the public’s satisfaction. Putting aside for a moment our international treaty obligations, which are consistent with our current prohibitive approach, it should be acknowledged that society has changed since recreational cannabis was first made unlawful some 90 years ago. This position was then affirmed and medicinal cannabis was prohibited in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It is reasonable to accept that good law can, over time, become bad law as societal values change and scientific understanding develops.
This issue has at least some complexity. To many people, this is a question of law and order to others a matter of economic sense or public health. The CSJ acknowledges that while some of these issues are likely to be more influential than others, the central question is how this proposed change in the law might affect our community’s most vulnerable people.