We had a chat with Nick Clegg about why weed should be legal
‘You can’t just banish it from existence, so the logical thing is to regulate it’
From Between the Lines: what you really need to know about drugs, a special report by The Tab.
Bob Marley. Snoop Dogg. Nick Clegg? Of all the people you’d expect to be a public face of marijuana, the ex-Lib Dem leader is a surprising one – yet Nick’s been in the news a lot in recent weeks, calling for the legalisation of cannabis.
Along with a cabal of other high-ranking MPs, Clegg has come out in favour of legalisation, saying the UK’s domestic drug policy is an “embarrassment” in a medical legalisation bid called “End Our Pain.” He’s not without opposition, though – not least from the Daily Mail’s Anne Atkins, who said in a recent column that cannabis “wrecks lives” and should be “as unacceptable as hard drugs.”
With so many different viewpoints on the matter, we decided to cut through the smoke and talk to the man himself about the legalisation of weed. Here’s what he had to say.
Hi Nick. So, why do you think weed should be legalised in the UK?
We’ve learnt as a society in the past to regulate the sale of drugs like tobacco and alcohol – why on earth can’t we do the same with cannabis? There’s no first principle reason why you would set apart the way you regulate and sell and make available one drug, which can be harmful but can also be taken safely, rather than applying the same approach.
I’ve never understood why putting these substances in the hands of criminals is a sensible thing to do. It’s the height of stubbornness that government after government, terrorised as they always are by tabloid demands that things should be banned, don’t see that by talking tough they actually only exacerbate some of the damaging effects.
You talk about tabloid demands – in her recent Daily Mail column, Anne Atkins blamed cannabis for her daughter’s mental health problems. What would be your response to that be?
I haven’t seen it, to be honest – I refuse to read the Mail. I’m reluctant to engage with someone whose article I’ve not seen, and clearly by the sounds of it her daughter’s had an awful time, but let’s just remember the facts.
The risks of cannabis – dependence, psychosis, memory impairment – are increased by cannabis that contains high levels of THC and low levels of CBD. That’s exactly the kind of thing you can fix if you legalise cannabis – you can force, through a legal and regulated market, rules such that the THC content is lower and the CBD content is higher.
Of course my heart goes out to any mum or dad who’s seen their child damaged by skunk and dangerous forms of cannabis, but where I very respectfully differ from them is the idea that the solution to that is to continue to allow criminals to sell those strains.
I don’t know Anne, but I know of her reputation and she’s obviously a highly intelligent, thoughtful person – I like to think I’d be able to convince her that at the moment we have no levers to stop people selling damaging and dangerous cannabis to people like her daughter.
So what proof is there that legalisation in the UK would be a good idea?
We can learn from the increasing number of countries coming round to it. There’s the very well-known examples of countries like Portugal, but also the votes from a number of states in America to move towards regulation of the sale of cannabis.
In 11 European countries they now allow for the regulated use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. We’re very much an outlier, as far as international trends are concerned. There must be a reason why one mature democracy after the next has decided it’s best we take the sale of these substances out of the hands of criminals.
Sure, some journalist might jump on a plane and go to Denver, Colorado and say they’ve seen a youngster smoking cannabis, but there are lots of different kinds of way in which you can regulate a substance.
The idea is not to point an accusatory finger of blame at places which haven’t got the balance right. The question we need to ask ourselves is: do we think our present arrangement is reducing harm and empowering people in the way they can make responsible decisions for themselves?
So what would a UK with legalised cannabis look like?
Before we even get onto regulating cannabis for professional and personal use, there’s the issue that we’re not even allowing people who’d clearly get some relief from using it for medicinal use to do so legally either. To use a well-worn phrase, I think we have to learn to walk before we can run.
Therefore my own view is that we should start, not least in order to satisfy the skeptics, with a heavily regulated approach. ID requirements like you have with drinking and tobacco, vendors being required to ask customers if they’ve used cannabis before and if they’d like information about the health impacts.
I think we should have some licensing conditions for the vendors, and train them so that they can recognise people who are vulnerable. After all, there is a link between the use of some forms of cannabis and psychosis and memory impairment – my point is not does that or does that not exist, it’s what do you do about it.
If you’re a parent or a grandparent, the chances are your kids or your grandkids will use cannabis at some point. Would you rather have the knowledge that it’s being sold to them by someone who cares about their welfare and knows what they’re talking about, or by a bunch of crooks who have carte blanche on the market?
My kids are too young for all of this yet, but as a dad of three I accept that you don’t micromanage every minute of your child’s life, and neither should you aspire to do that – it’s all about letting them find their own feet. But I’d much rather, as a parent, feel they’re going to do that when they’re not going to have some kind of dangerous concoction sold to them by some really nasty people.
Have you smoked it yourself?
I’m not going to go into that! There’s a good reason: it’s not because I’m prissy, it’s just that the moment you do that the whole thing becomes about politicians and what they’re doing, and that’s not the story here.
I do find it extraordinary, though, when you have other politicians who say “oh yeah, I smoked lots of pot when I was a student” as if it was all sort of youthful hijinks, but then don’t do anything several years later to recognise that it’s a readily available drug and you can’t sweep it under the carpet.
You can’t just banish it from existence, so you might as well do the most logical thing which is try and regulate it.
Why have you become so heavily involved in the debate around it, then?
I’ve been at this for years – there was no great eureka moment. It’s not something I’ve espoused because I’m no longer weighed down by the responsibilities of government.
I tried, obviously, to persuade the Tories to take an imaginative approach. The best we could manage was getting the first ever Whitehall-commissioned document to compare and contrast levels of prohibition in different European countries, and the conclusion was very clear – there is absolutely no relationship between the level of criminal prohibition of a substance and it’s use. None.
That’s why the tougher-than-tough approach to drugs gets me angry. What we’re doing, whether we like to admit it or not, is trying to shove these people out of sight and out of mind. It’s self-defeating – if you lock them up without trying to take remedial action, don’t be surprised if they come out as more hardened criminals after their stint behind bars.
It’s a dumb thing to do because not only does it generate more crime, it also leaves a lot of people with serious problems untreated. I think that’s inhumane. That’s the outcome of the Daily Mail worldview: it’s not tough on crime, it’s soft on crime and it’s a stupid outlook on the reality of drugs on our streets.
And what about the other drugs on our streets? How do you feel about legalising, say, MDMA?
I’d say we should take this step by step. If you can show that regulating cannabis is a better way of reducing the harm it can cause, I think we’ll have made a massive step forward because we’ll have broken the spell that prohibition is the best way to reduce harm. Then we can, as a society and as a parliament and as politicians, have a wider discussion.
I know it’s a slightly evasive answer, but I focus on the cannabis issue because that would break the spell that somehow prohibition is always the right way forward. You can’t just say “let’s legalise everything under the sun” – it’s already proving difficult enough to make the obvious case for cannabis, so imagine how difficult it is if you go up the scale.
I just take the very basic, intuitive view that letting criminals run a trade in damaging substance which can be taken safely with care is just a really self-defeating view. The best way to show that is with cannabis.