Government Agrees To Debate Cannabis Legalisation: Good News or No News?

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When we last signed off on the petition to ‘make the production, sale, and use of cannabis legal’, back in July, we left it on a still-rising total of 116,893 signatures. Well, we’re stumbling our way through September and the petition currently stands at 215,308 signatures and rising. The number of signatures required on a petition for it to be considered for a government debate is 100,000. As you’ll note, that’s a total that had already been surpassed when we previously discussed it(alongside the legalisation debate as a whole). In fact, that total had been cleared in the petition’s first five days of going live.

With over two months under its belt, and over two times the amount of votes required, where does this petition stand? Well, it has both received an official government response, and now finally been scheduled in for a debate; one month from now on October 12th. Good news, right? No, not really. Its response to the petition’s subject matter, in agreeing to debate the topic, roughly translates as ‘nooooooooooooooooo.’

The finer details of that elongated, and somewhat condescending, ‘O’ can be attributed to the view that cannabis is an ‘unquestionable harm to individuals and society’, the notion that legalisation will not ‘eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade’, and that despite the potential for revenue through taxation ‘there would be costs in relation to administrative, compliance and law enforcement activities, as well as the wider costs of drug prevention and health services.’ There is also a little touch of ‘won’t someone think of the children?’ by way of concern over the message that legalisation would convey to the ‘young and vulnerable’.

However, the main harbinger of how things will inevitably go down comes via the closing two paragraphs;

The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear: we must prevent drug use in our communities; help dependent individuals through treatment and wider recovery support; while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade. The Government will build on the Drugs Strategy by continuing to take a balanced and coherent approach to address the evolving challenges posed.

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There are positive signs that the Government’s approach is working: there has been a long term downward trend in drug use over the last decade, and more people are recovering from their dependency now than in 2009/10. The number of adults aged 16-59 using cannabis in the last year in England and Wales has declined over the last decade from 9.6% to 6.7%, with cannabis use amongst young adults aged 16-24 and young people aged 11-15 following a similar pattern.

Essentially, whilst this may seem like a little victory, or at the very least a step in the right direction, for cannabis legalisation (and perhaps wider drug reform), it isn’t. I mean, as encouraging as it might seem that the government have actually agreed to debate this – having previously declined to do so in relation to a petition for the government to take on more refugees that received more than 430,000 signatures – their stance is already quite clear on this one, and a parliamentary debate is highly unlikely to change that.

There is already speculation that government whips will pressure Conservative MPs to not even attend, and Labour will highly likely still be dealing with (see: infighting over) the results of their leadership election. Plus, they have bad form when it comes to drug reform, having sacked former Misuse of Drugs advisor Professor David Nutt for giving them evidence-based advice they didn’t agree with. Then there’s the fact that parties who support such reform seem to register so little with the government that David Cameron recently referred to former leader of the Green Party and current MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, as the ‘right honourable gentleman’.

In short, the government feel that the war on drugs is working just fine, as well as sincerely believing that, when it comes to users, their main endgame is to ‘help dependent individuals through treatment and wider recovery support’, and there isn’t a strong enough presence of voice in parliament, advocating legalisation, to counter that government position for this debate to go any other way. This is not the point in history where Britain legalises cannabis and makes steps towards a wider drug reform. However, come October 12th, that isn’t going to stop Labour MP for Newport West Paul Flynn, who will be leading the debate, from trying – Flynn has been advocating for Cannabis reform for over 25 years at this point.

This debate won’t result in any change of policy or legislation, let alone legalisation of cannabis. If anything, this debate may result in further political disillusionment, especially for those who have approached making change through the proper avenues, as set forward by the government, because what’s the point? If gathering enough traction for a cause, on the promise that achieving a magic number of signatures will result in parliamentary debate, is met with a ‘debate’ that essentially comprises of little more than an acknowledgement that you had a point to make. If it even achieves that, of course, seeing as the aforementioned refugee petition was straight up declined, and another to debate a vote of no confidence in health secretary Jeremy Hunt, was accepted but on completely different terms; instead taken to debate as ‘the e-petition relating to contracts and conditions in the NHS’.

Are these parliamentary petitions and promises of ‘debate’ little more than a way of keeping the public at bay, by way of letting us feel like our voices are being heard, and creating the illusion of the possibility of us being able to make a difference, to make change happen? Short answer: Yes.

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