The Cannabis Conundrum

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Coffeeshop Smokey is a cannabis coffee shop located on the biggest square in Amsterdam, Rembrandt Square. Photo: Shutterstock

How has the US – ridden with culture wars and deeply divided on so many issues – managed to largely legalise weed with so little fuss and furore, while supposedly liberal Europe lags behind?

If any issue should be the ultimate fodder of the culture wars, it is surely the use and legalisation of weed. It’s a recreational drug, it’s used mostly by younger people, it has connections with smoking, and it’s had a long countercultural history.

Every sign indicates it should be part of the partisan divide, and part of the internecine generational conflict played out between boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z.

And yet… it isn’t. The US – often an exporter of culture war issues, as well as a country bitterly divided by them – has legalised or decriminalised marijuana use in an overwhelming majority of states, and public opinion is broadly behind the decision.

Two-thirds of US adults support fully legalising weed, according to Pew Research – with almost no gender gap in support, no difference in support across different racial groups, or different education levels. While support for legalisation is slightly lower among Republicans than Democrats, even a majority of Republicans support it.

There is even largely generational agreement: boomers, Gen X, and millennials all support legalisation at about the same level – perhaps the only thing on which these three generations do agree – with only the silent generation (people born between 1928 and 1945) against legal weed.

The lack of controversy around weed is something of a mystery. The evidence on its harms hasn’t changed in the last decade. The evidence on whether legalisation increases usage hasn’t changed much either – in fact, if anything, it’s become stronger, with most studies showing decriminalisation and legalisation do mean more people will try and regularly use weed.

But public opinion in America swung drastically in favour of legalisation over the last ten years, and where weed has been fully legalised the decision has generally been fairly uncontentious. Despite barriers to operation (such as getting access to banking, loans, and even credit card processing) there are many large-scale, legitimate weed companies in the US, and it is a hot sector for investment.

Meanwhile, Europe lags drastically behind. The Netherlands is perhaps the most notoriously liberal EU country when it comes to cannabis, but even there – where cannabis can be bought via coffeeshops – weed is officially illegal, if decriminalised.

Cultivation of cannabis remains illegal, leaving the bizarre situation where the country relies on a grey market. Weed has been on sale in regular high-street outlets since 1976, and yet has not been legalised. Portugal has an extremely liberal stance on drugs, having effectively decriminalised all recreational drugs – and yet even it has not actually legalised weed. The only European country in which weed is actually legal is the tiny nation of Luxembourg, although Macedonia has recently been attempting to become a cannabis pioneer, with the prospect of future legalisation.

The UK position is – predictably – similarly confused. The official stance is that cannabis is a class B drug, meaning simple possession of a small amount of it can technically lead to a prison sentence of up to five years. Growing or selling cannabis can result in a sentence of up to 14 years.

The drug was for a time reduced to category C under the New Labour government, meaning possession would carry a maximum sentence of two years and supply could lead to up to five years of jail time, but was returned to class B under Gordon Brown’s premiership, where it has remained ever since.

However, the UK also has an unofficial policy of not prosecuting anyone for possession of cannabis, though this has never been voted on or enshrined in law at any stage – we have, in effect, a semi-official policy of looking the other way. It’s an appropriately British compromise, even if it’s a somewhat senseless one – and one that empowers often violent gangs operating growing sites, and even robbing those of rivals with weaponry.

Support for legalisation isn’t as strong in the UK as it is in the US, but it is still substantial: a recent YouGov poll found 52% of the British public support legalisation, against 32% opposing. This is usually a level of support that leads political parties to adopt a policy as a vote-winner in their manifestos – but neither of the two dominant Westminster parties have shown any sign of doing so.

What explains the gap between the USA’s rapid decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis against the inertia of the UK and Europe? A large part of the explanation likely lies in the USA’s federal structure, which grants states a great deal of autonomy (more even than most federal European states).

Tellingly, the federal government has taken very little action on the USA’s punitive and often racist drug laws, which contribute to the country’s astronomical prison population. But at a state level, more liberal states are free to move at their own pace – especially because many US states have more ability to hold referenda on particular political issues than most Europeans (and certainly anyone in the UK).

That has allowed some states to have fully legal weed, others to have legalised only medical marijuana, still others to have decriminalised but not legalised weed, and left just five states in which cannabis remains entirely illegal.

The ability to have the debate at a local level – and often to delegate the decision directly to voters themselves – has meant the debate doesn’t have to happen in Congress, which tends to rapidly lead to the USA’s notorious polarisation. Perhaps the secret to successful legalisation of cannabis is to do it quietly.

The USA’s approach is not, though, without its problems. Foremost among them is the obvious and wicked injustice that in some states people are making millions selling cannabis legally and openly on the high street, while across the nation more than 40,000 people are still in prison for cannabis-related offences.

America’s piecemeal approach has absolutely left those people behind, and there seems to be little political effort or motivation in trying to rescue them. Somehow, the nation has reconciled itself to that obvious injustice – if it’s not actually fully okay with it, it’s certainly happy to more-or-less ignore it.

The UK is an incredibly centralised country, even by European standards. There is no prospect of a metro mayor or local council being able to change cannabis laws for its area – they simply do not have that power.

Even where we have major devolved institutions like the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, drugs policy remains the responsibility of Westminster. This causes bigger problems than just stymying a potential Scottish weed legalisation movement – Scotland has one of the biggest drug problems in Europe, with an accompanying high death rate, but does not have the power to tailor its laws to its unique situation.

Because legalisation in the UK would have to happen on a national scale, it would be impossible to do quietly. The UK’s two-party system also favours inaction – without a major liberal voting base in the country (the Liberal Democrats are a very distant third place, after all) both major parties like appealing to older, socially conservative voters.

If either tried to shift towards supporting legalisation, the other would surely try to make that exert a political price for them – especially given the political significance of the Red Wall battleground.

The result is that weed legalisation is a popular policy, a policy that would likely reduce organised crime, and one that might create new legitimate businesses and jobs – and yet one that almost certainly won’t happen despite that. That really blows.