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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 15th September 2013

Another Sunday, another report about drug policy. Unlike the one from The Centre for Social Justice that I wrote about two weeks ago, this one comes, not from a pseudo-independent group pursuing a fixed agenda, but from a group of academics based at the University of Essex.

The Institute for Social & Economic Research (ISER) calls itself a ‘world-class team of survey and research experts’ and its list of publications runs to twenty-one pages and goes back to 1991. The lead author of today’s report, Professor Stephen Pudney, has an impressive collection of publications covering a wide range of subjects. 

Today’s report, ‘A cost benefit analysis of cannabis legalisation’ was, according to the Observer produced on behalf of The Beckley Foundation though its website news page says nothing about it, at the time of writing. The press release, see link above, also provides unfettered access to the 163 page full report. I don’t claim to have read the report, so far, but the press release is pretty extensive.

I will read the report and, in order to try and be even-handed, I will try and dig into its references as I did with the CSJ report to see if its arguments stand up to scrutiny. But, today, I want to consider the lead point that was made by those few media outlets that reported on the publication. (As with the Release document this report hasn’t attracted the sort of attention given to the CSJ.)

The Independent headlined its coverage;

‘Legalising and taxing cannabis could 'help cut the deficit by £1.25bn', claims study’

The Observer had

‘Legal cannabis market 'would be worth £1.25bn a year to government'’

And ITV favoured;

'Taxing cannabis 'could help cut deficit'

Before giving the £1.25bn figure in the opening paragraph.

Just briefly, because regular readers would expect me to foam at the mouth about the media, what the ISER press release says is;

‘Overall, the contribution of cannabis licensing in England and Wales to reduction of the government deficit is expected to lie in the range £0.5- £1.25bn.’

That’s a large range and gives an idea of how difficult it is to see the future but, of course, the top of that range is the only figure the media is interested in.

So, once again, drama is more important than truth to the media. Nothing new there.

What set me writing was I wondered if there is a trap in that figure.

You might think that offering ways to generate tax revenue for the government at the same time as reducing policing and imprisonment costs would be a big plus for the reform lobby. But I’m not sure that it is. We know, for example, that, in the USA, Kevin Sabet and his prohibitionist organisation, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, make a central plank of their argument against legalisation the notion that it would create corporate giants exploiting the market and creating what he calls ‘Big Marijuana’ (to resonate with public antipathy toward ‘Big Tobacco’).

The argument against Sabet, of course, is that a civilised country should be able to create regulation to limit the promotion of products it does not want to be completely freely available but, given the question mark over how civilised is a country that doesn’t offer healthcare to a large number of its citizens and puts the profits of health insurers above the needs of the poor, there may well be problems for the USA.

Such a situation should not exist in the UK, though backpedalling on minimum alcohol prices and standard packaging for tobacco are worrying signs that corporate interests can trump the public good, because it should be possible to produce regulation that takes control of a large part of the market for Cannabis sativa, marijuana, and minimises the problems arising from that substance.

It concerns me that promoting the notion that there is benefit to the public finances in legalising cannabis could bring out the ‘think of the children’ argument from prohibitionists. Reformers can be characterised as only interested in the money to be made regardless of the effect on society and young people, in particular, from a ‘free market’ for cannabis. I fear it makes reformers look to be immoral.

The ISER press release points out that changes in taxation simply move money to a different part of the economy rather than actually creating or destroying resources. In terms of the net external effect on the economy it sees;

‘…a net benefit of £100-415m for the most plausible moderate demand response’

Personally, I’m going to take that lower figure and say that, for an economy, £100m is near enough to zero to be of no consequence. In my book, reform of the regime for cannabis is not about financial benefit it is ‘thinking of the children’. Because the one question you never get prohibitionists to answer is ‘Do you think it is acceptable to leave the distribution of cannabis in the hands of criminals who will sell to anyone regardless of age?’

Taking the utilitarian viewpoint there is no doubt that the greatest good for the greatest number will come from a carefully regulated and controlled market for cannabis.

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