8 March 2016
Cannabis could be sold in plain packaging over the counter in specialist, licensed shops to over-18s only, according to an expert panel set up by the Liberal Democrats to examine what a regulated cannabis market in Britain should look like.
The panel suggests cannabis be sold in three different strengths – lower, medium and higher – and come in prescription medicine-style resealable childproof containers with their own health warning.
The most comprehensive framework of how cannabis legalisation could work in Britain also suggests that small-scale licensed “cannabis social clubs” should be set up and that homegrown cultivation of up to four plants for personal use should be allowed.
The Liberal Democrats are set to debate a motion at their spring conference this weekend that could lead to them becoming the first major British political party to support the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.
Tim Farron, the party leader, said: “Prohibition of cannabis has failed. We need a new, smarter approach and I welcome this report. It is a waste of police time to go after young people using cannabis and ludicrous to saddle them with criminal convictions that can damage their future careers. A legal market would allow us to have more control over what is sold, and raise a considerable amount in taxation.”
The report, which partly draws on Cabinet Office work done when Nick Clegg was deputy prime minister, says credible estimates suggest £500m to £1bn could be raised in taxation from regulated cannabis sales.
The experts suggest that the pricing of cannabis products should be directly linked to potency and weight. They say a gram of the lower-strength 5% THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) should cost a third of the price of a gram of higher-strength 15% THC.
The panel included Mike Barton, the chief constable of Durham, Prof David Nutt, a former chair of the government’s advisory committee on the misuse of drugs, and Tom Lloyd, a former Cambridgeshire chief constable and now chair of the National Cannabis Coalition.
The experts argue that a closely regulated legal market in herbal cannabis could displace both the new synthetic “legal highs” with their unknown effects and the high-potency “skunk” and other forms that have increasingly dominated the illicit market in recent years and have been linked to higher risk of dependency and psychosis.
“We recommend that plain packaging should be mandatory for all retail cannabis, with standardised non-branded designs along the lines of prescription pharmaceuticals … We therefore recommend that product labels, as well as providing basic information about the product and potency, should have mandated information and warnings about key health risks and how to minimise or avoid them,” says the report.
Cannabis “off-licences” – separate from retail chemists, “who may feel it is in conflict with their duty of medical care” – and online retail sites would be supplied by UK-based producers licensed by a regulatory authority, with a “seed to sale” tracking of each plant grown. Imports and exports would be banned.
The panel rejects the development of Dutch-style cannabis cafes in Britain, preferring to restrict shops sales so that there are not “destination” retailers. They anticipate that people will smoke cannabis in pub gardens and that “cannabis social clubs” could meet the demand for Dutch-style dope cafes.
The social clubs would be modelled on an existing 400-strong Spanish network of clubs. Under Spain’s decriminalisation laws, members can allocate their homegrown allowance to the club, which grows the pooled allocation and supplies members at a designated venue. They would be limited to 100 adult members.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: “This is a groundbreaking report that is a huge contribution to the debate on introducing a regulated cannabis market in the UK. Every year, billions of pounds are put into the pockets of organised criminals selling cannabis, and vast amounts of police time and resources are wasted going after those using the drug.
“We have to be ambitious. It is not good enough to continue pretending that everything is OK or that the current system is working. Millions of British citizens are using cannabis with no idea of the potency of what they are taking.”