First global ban on non-medicinal trade of drugs, including cannabis, cocaine and illicit opiates.
The idea of certain drugs as bad, dangerous and requiring prohibition by law it is a relatively recent social phenomenon, with the first international laws prohibiting drugs only appearing at the start of the twentieth century. Since then, the so-called War on Drugs has become a huge driver for the worlds ever-growing prison population, with more than 1 in 8 of all prisoners currently incarcerated in British prisons serving their sentences for drug offences.
The War on Drugs has also been shown to have a shocking bias regarding racial disproportionality. Black people are recorded as being so over-represented in cannabis prosecutions, making up a quarter of those convicted of cannabis possession, even though they comprise less than 4 percent of the UK’s total population. The picture is even worst in the United States, with black men having been admitted to prison on drugs charges at rates of 20 to 50 times that of white men, despite the fact that there is no discernible discrepancy regarding the use, supply or production of prohibited substances amongst different racialised groups.
Decades of prohibition’s failure to reduce the drug trade – combined with the increasingly negative impacts of growing incarceration, violence and addiction – has led to many finally breaking with the War on Drugs consensus and openly calling for, and eventually implementing, different approaches to the question of hitherto illegal drugs, with major developments in countries such as Uruguay, Canada, Luxembourg, and some states in the US.
However, if overly marketized, there is a real danger that a legal cannabis market could bring new processes of exclusion and inequality from the systems produced by the War on Drugs – a point of particular concern somewhere like Britain where a draconian approach to criminal justice and migration combined with sharp economic inequalities could result in a profit-driven legal cannabis market being accompanied by even more punitive controls.
Instead, should the UK Government draw on progressive innovations in social equity policies and co-operative forms of ownership, cannabis legalisation may end up offering a unique opportunity to rebalance some of the inequalities that have plagued society for too long.
The idea of certain drugs as bad, dangerous and requiring prohibition by law has often been taken to be simple, common sense, but it is actually a recent social phenomenon. The first international laws prohibiting drugs only appeared at the start of the twentieth century, and it wasn’t until the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 that banning the non-medicinal trade in drugs like cannabis, cocaine and opiates was accepted across the world. However, in the aftermath of this treaty, the second half of the twentieth century saw the explosion of what came to be called ‘the War on Drugs’. The aim of ‘the War on Drugs’ was made clear by the1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, which was held under the slogan: ‘A Drug Free World – We Can Do It’. Drug prohibition was supposed to reduce the production, trade and use of a particular set of substances that came to be collectively referred to as ‘drugs’ – dangerous and addictive substances that were placed in a completely different moral category to the medicines we receive in hospitals. Yet today, anyone with their eyes open could look around and see that half a century of the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has produced nothing like ‘a drug free world’. Even the main institutions of international law that governs the War on Drugs, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that in 2017, 271 million people, or 5,5 per cent of the global population aged 15-64, had used drugs in the previous year. This is all despite over $100 billion per annum being spent globally on enforcing the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs has become a huge driver for the worlds ever-growing prison population. In the UK, drugs policing is also the driving force of mass criminalisation and incarceration. More than 1 in 8 of all prisoners currently incarcerated in British prisons are serving their sentences for drug offences. Research has shown a clear racial disparity in the breakdown of who is affected by the criminalisation of drugs. Police stop and searches disproportionately target black people, who are recorded as being nine times more likely to be searched for drugs than white people.
This discrimination is reinforced when we look at cannabis, the most popular of the all the illegal drugs in the world according to the UN. In the UK, black people are recorded as being so over-represented in cannabis prosecutions. Further, research has shown that more black people are prosecuted for cannabis possession than supply of Class A or B substances combined, while this dynamic was reversed for white people. The overall impact is that black people made up a quarter of those convicted of cannabis possession, even though they comprise less than 4 percent of the UK’s total population. The picture is even worst in the United States – a country that has driven much of the global War on Drugs. For instance, the US has been shown to domestically imprison more than half of all federal prisoners because of drug offences. In addition, to shocking total numbers, drug convictions in the US have also been shown to have a shocking bias regarding racial disproportionality. As Michelle Alexander points out in her essential book, The New Jim Crow: ‘Black men have been admitted to prison on drugs charges at rates of 20 to 50 times that of White men’ in the US, despite the fact that there is no discernible discrepancy regarding the use, supply or production of prohibited substances amongst different racialised groups.
The story of the drug war over the last decades of the previous century was a bloody one. There was violence in traditional producer countries like Colombia and Mexico, where there were over 60,000 deaths between 2006-2012, in traditional consumer countries, prohibition also made drug use more dangerous. The US, the country with the biggest market, now sees more Americans dying every year from overdoses than died in the entire Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars. However, the 21st century seems to be showing signs of a change in direction, with multiple jurisdictions now moving away from the laws on drug prohibition and the punitive approach of the War on Drugs.
Decades of prohibition’s failure to reduce the drug trade – combined with the increasingly negative impacts of growing incarceration, violence and addiction – has led to many finally breaking with the War on Drugs consensus and openly calling for, and eventually implementing, different approaches to the question of drugs. An important starting point was the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy report in 2009, which openly declared the War on Drugs a failure. Then in 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico issued a formal statement calling for a review of all drug policies. The following year, the Organisation of American States published the first ever inter-governmental report entertaining the possibility of future legal regulation of drugs. This trend in Latin America, the region perhaps most impacted by the drug war, calling for a new approach reached its apotheosis in December 2013 when Uruguay became the first nation-state since the implementation of the UN treaties to legislate for the legal production, distribution and possession of cannabis. Uruguay was soon followed by Canada in 2018, with countries such as New Zealand and Mexico currently working on legislation to allow a recreational market to be implemented over the coming year. Luxembourg has passed reforms for recreational cannabis and Jamaica has also legalised Cannabis for sacramental use. Furthermore, in the USA, the country that drove the War on Drugs for most of the twentieth century, a host of states, from California and Alaska to Colorado, have also legalised recreational cannabis markets, creating growing pressure on the federal government to legalise the drug nationwide.
The dominos of legal cannabis appear to be falling with greater and greater speed across the USA, and the year of 2020 is likely to see a few more falls, including perhaps the biggest one of all, the state of New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for legalisation, almost succeeding in 2019, but fell at the last hurdle due to disagreements about how the tax revenue from cannabis sales would be spread throughout the state. However, it appears likely that those issues will be ironed out over this year. Moreover, a fresh round of US elections also brings up the prospect of a new round of ballot initiatives, which has been the main pathway through which legalisation has been achieved in other states to date. This year, other US states hosting votes on cannabis legalisation are likely to include New Jersey, Arkansas, Missouri, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota.
However, despite the significant developments happening around the world, Britain is still yet to have a serious national conversation about what today’s speculative capitalists are referring to as the ‘green rush’– the 21st century growth of a legal drugs trade. Despite talking about ‘Global Britain’ boldly venturing into new, cutting edge industries after Brexit, the UK is still slow to adapt to a changing world. This seems particularly true of the current Conservative Government, which appears to be pursuing a punitive, ‘tough on drugs’ approach, with Home Secretary Priti Patel making a public commitment to crack down on “county lines drugs gangs” – referring here to drug dealers who arranged supply networks from the main UK cities to the rural suburbs. In January 2020, she joined in with drug raids to show her personal commitment to the re-energising punitive drug policy, which includes a £20 million spending commitment to tackle county lines. According to Patel, there is “no such thing as dabbling in drugs”. This, despite the fact that almost all of the most recent contenders to lead her own party, and by extension the UK – including Michael Gove, Rory Stewart, Jeremy Hunt and the eventual Prime Minister Boris Johnson – having confessed to their own past drug use. The hypocrisy of leading government figures admitting their own past drug use whilst UK government policy doubles-down on draconian drug policing reveals a two-tier system when it comes to drug policing, where the elite of British society can freely experiment with drugs when they are young because drug policing is something that impacts other people.
In spite of this, within the Conservative Party and the libertarian right-wing of British politics more generally, there appears to be a growing movement calling to drug policy reform, mainly to open up the commercial opportunities offered by a legal drug market. Conservative MP Crispin Blunt has pushed the movement for cannabis legalisation within the governing party as the chairman of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, a company limited by guarantee operating as a not-for-profit entity, but funded by North American cannabis companies that are seeking to open up and legalise the UK market.
Other Conservative Party figures have indicated their support for legal cannabis, including the MP Jonathan Djanogly, who argued cannabis factories could bring new jobs to Britain’s neglected post-industrial towns. Senior aides to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Blair Gibbs and Danny Kruger, both called for legislative changes, and the former leader of the Conservative Party William Hague said the War on Drug has been “comprehensively and irreversibly lost”. Wider institutions on the Right of the political spectrum have also thrown their weight behind the movement for cannabis legalisation, such as the Adam Smith Institute, which has consistently called for a legal cannabis market since 2017, going so far as to briefly rename themselves ‘the Adam Spliff Institute' in celebration of 2018’s 4/20. Similarly, the economic benefits of cannabis legalisation as well as the profits already being made by the UK’s medicinal cannabis cultivation industry have been a consistent source of news stories for the business-focused newspaper City AM.
It is not surprising that institutions committed to the spread of free-market ideas are excited by the prospect of cannabis legalisation. The creation of a legal regulated market for cannabis in North America has become big business in a very short time. According to marijuana business daily, the legal cannabis industry is estimated to generate between $8 billion to $10 billion in annual retail sales already and is projected to rise to $22 billion annually by 2022. In the American states that have legalised the drug, California has generated the largest profits with over $2.75 billion in cannabis sales. Smaller states such as Oregon and Washington have also produced large markets, with Oregon registering $500 million in recreational sales and Washington over $975 million through its recreational market. Some of the biggest cannabis corporations to emerge in this new marketplace include Canada based companies Aurora Cannabis (market cap of over $7billion) and Canopy Growth (market cap of over $12 billion). In addition to the potential profits from the trade of cannabis on offer, the commercial appeal of legalisation that it also opened up opportunities for speculative trading as this new commodities industry fluctuated on the market, with huge profits (and huge losses) available. This trend is only due to the growth and spread of medicinal and recreational cannabis likely to be coming across the Atlantic to Europe over the coming decade. However, based on the current direction, it appears that the emergence of a profitable cannabis market may not necessarily challenge economic and racial inequalities across society.
In North America, the evidence appears to suggest that those who have suffered most under the War of Drugs are also being excluded from the wealth that is being generated in its transition to a legal market. Buzzfeed estimated that about 1 percent cannabis dispensary store owners in the USA are black. There are multiple causes for this stark inequality in ownership. Firstly, across many of the states that have legalised cannabis, people with Federal convictions (which includes most drugs crimes) are excluded from gaining cannabis business licences. With the drug war criminalising racial minorities disproportionately, those communities are punished twice: once by prohibition and again by being banned from the legal market.
As well as the legal blocks for those with federal conviction, who as we already know happen to be overwhelmingly black, there are also significant financial barriers to entry that help reproduce the social and racial divisions of society within the legal cannabis industry. Cannabis licences have been recorded as requiring up to $710,000 in licence fees and seed cash, to be evidenced before the licence is issued. The major banks, still fearing federal prohibition and a backlash against the legal cannabis industry, are reluctant to lend for this new industry, meaning that many of the people able to enter this new industry are independently wealthy already. Furthermore, cannabis companies in North America have often been reliant on seed cash and private capital investment, not only bank loans. Therefore, individuals with the knowledge of how to raise private financing and who are already embedded in networks of wealthy individuals and institutions that could make finance-raising possible are often highly present within these cannabis companies. This helps to explain why companies and individuals from industries such as tech, pharmaceuticals and mining have been drawn to cannabis.
There have been some exciting new initiatives launched that are seeking to combat the racist dynamics appearing in the legal cannabis industry in North America. This includes proposals such as Real Action for Cannabis Equity, or RACE, launched in Boston in September 2019. RACE is a coalition of actors that seeks to promote the interests of entrepreneurs and workers of colour as they try to gain entry into the legal cannabis marketplace. Another organisation aiming at similar changes is the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA). Founded in late 2015, MCBA understands itself as aiming to ‘serve the specific needs of minority cannabis entrepreneurs, workers, and patients / consumers.’
The work of these organisation and other advocates, lawyers and politicians has resulted in more innovative and exciting plans for greater economic equity being included in some cannabis legalisation laws over more recent years. For instance, in 2017, the city of Oakland launched its equity programme, through which cannabis business permits would give as a priority to ‘equity applicants’, a category that was defined as either someone whose annual income is less than 80 percent of the city’s average income, someone who from 1 of the 21 areas where drug arrests were most prevalent or someone who had been convicted for a cannabis-related crime, after November 5, 1996. In addition, even ‘non-equity’ applicants that did not fit within this criteria could improve their own chances of gaining permits if they committed to helping equity applicants with free rent or real estate. In 2018, the neighbouring city of San Francisco followed suit with a similar equity programme established through a city ordinance, which included amnesty for weed-related crimes, wiping out or reducing the sentencings for all cannabis-related crime convictions, dating back to 1975. This can offer a clean slate to individuals who were convicted decades ago but who might still be barred from certain jobs or housing due to their old convictions. Most recently, California’s biggest city Los Angles has also adopted a social equity program which offers priority application processing and business support to individuals who can show they were disproportionately impacted by the previous laws prohibiting cannabis during the ‘War on Drugs.’
In addition to legal and policy initiatives to try and diversify ownership in the cannabis industry, there are also moves towards exploring cooperative forms of ownership of cannabis dispensaries. Massachusetts, the state with perhaps the most progressive cannabis laws on its statute books, has considered co-op models where people in the city can pool resources and enter into a competitive market. Currently the law allows co-ops to cultivate and deliver cannabis to high-street dispensers but not to own or operate them. In terms of consumption, the co-op’s have a collection of members who are able to use cannabis together and pool resources in terms of cultivation. In Washington State, it is only legal to set up a co-op for medical marijuana, with each co-op allowed a total of four members. Members must be over 21 and not to give away or sell any of cannabis it grows to non-members. However, in the US, there has been a backlash against cannabis co-operatives. Colorado, for instance, recently pushed back against the co-op form. Until 2017, recreational cannabis users could group their maximum personal allowance of six cannabis plants into large co-ops, but in April 2017 the state criminalised the practice of individuals growing cannabis for other people as these large co-ops could not be adequately supervised. In California, a similar situation arose. In January 2019, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) scrapped the laws that allowed for co-operative cannabis cultivation.
Spain provides an illustration of a country that has run with the experiment with co-operative forms of cannabis ownership, with cannabis social clubs growing in numbers within a grey area of their laws. While the open commercial trade of cannabis has not been legalised in Spain – such as in Canada, Uruguay and the US – the country does allow individuals to consume and cultivate a small amount of cannabis for personal use. However, the notion of private use of cannabis has been expanded in practice to include cannabis clubs where users collectivise their cultivation in a (supposedly) non-commercial model.
Cannabis clubs in Spain, the first of which was founded in 2001, are an outgrowth of the legal right of individuals to consume cannabis and to gain relevant information with regard to the quality and strength of the cannabis they take. The laws, which date back to the 1990’s, differ across the country but the most comprehensive are probably to be found in Catalonia, which, in 2017, formalised the legal right for members of designated cannabis clubs to cultivate, consume and distribute cannabis amongst themselves. Advertising, however, is not allowed, and membership is restricted to adults who describe themselves as already being cannabis consumers, with new members requiring the referral of an already established member in order to join. Further requirements designed to ensure checks and balances include the need for cannabis clubs to maintain a register of their members to try and limit drug tourism. If members of cannabis clubs are caught in possession of cannabis in public spaces, they can be punished by large fines. Moreover, it is also still a crime to supply cannabis in the street or to people that are not a member of the club.
The idea behind Spanish cannabis is that they are supposed to be not-for-profit social clubs with no individual members of the club making financial gain from the use or cultivation of the drug. The money is meant to go back into club. However, there have been reports that in practice some clubs are exploiting the states limited attention on these associations to turn a healthy profit from their members business. Cannabis clubs in Spain are estimated to now be handling millions of euros each year and there is reason to suspect that not every penny is being reinvested into the clubs.
However, the idea of cannabis clubs being, at least ostensibly, non-profit associations does have some knock-on benefits. Unlike the growing cannabis corporations benefiting from reform in North America, for whom the main goal is ever-increasing profits, cannabis clubs do not need to be constantly targeting and attracting new cannabis users. In fact, it could even be in their interests to keep members numbers small. This could free-up clubs to place greater focus on the health and well-being of its members, mitigating against any physical or mental health issues that may follow sustained use of cannabis. There is no need for them to target new markets or advertise opportunities in the way that alcohol or tobacco companies were known to have done over the course of the twentieth century. To do so may attract the unwelcome attention of authorities, possibly exacerbating a significant tension that exists within the cannabis club community, where some clubs are very critical of others indulging in over-commercialisation, with some even calling for greater oversight of their operations.
The question of how the drugs trade will interact with the growing crisis regarding how the global economy functions will only become more urgent with each passing year, as the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has shown us. Even under prohibition, where drugs were supposed to be expelled from the legal global marketplace, the drugs trade both mirrored and underpinned the capitalist system of commodity exchange. Former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, has even suggested that the increased liquidity provided to banks by money laundering the profits of the international drug trade was one of the reasons the international banking system survived the 2008 crash.
It is not by coincidence that Juarez, in Mexico, the epicentre of the War on Drugs in the 21st century, was also a textbook example of a city’s economy being restricted along the lines of globalised neoliberalism, following, in this case, NAFTA opening up the US-Mexican border for goods and services. Recruits for the drug cartels came from the vast, sprawling maquiladora – bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill America's supermarket shelves or become America's automobiles, imported duty-free. When the corporations could produce those products cheaper in Asia, driving down wages and casually shedding Mexican workers, Juarez became a recruitment pool for the cartels and drug gangs. Rather than being in opposition to global capitalism, Juarez’ drug war is the apotheosis of a city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market. Narco-cartels were not pastiches of global corporations, nor are they errant outgrowths of the global economy – they are pioneers of it.
If overly marketised, there is a real danger now of a legal cannabis market could bring new processes of exclusion and inequality from the systems produced by the War on Drugs but ones, that in the long term, are also greatly harmful. Furthermore, especially in a country like Britain where a deeply ingrained historical commitment to free-trade, dating back at least as far as the corn laws, has been combined with a draconian approach to criminal justice and migration before, a profit-driven legal cannabis market could easily be accompanied by even more punitive controls on the black market. High financial and regulatory barriers to entry into the market are likely, perhaps even more than in the US. where pharmaceutical standards are not traditional as high as in the UK and the EU. This could lead to the worsening of the social and racial inequalities in wealth, economic opportunities and criminal justice that emerged during the twentieth century drug war.
In the near future, it seems increasingly possible that a British government will look to map out the framework for a regulated, legal cannabis market. It would be a waste should any reform not draw on progressive innovations in social equity policies and co-operative forms of ownership tried out in different countries around the world. Cannabis legalisation may offer a rare opportunity to introduce policies that could rebalance some of those inequalities that have plagued society for too long. This opportunity should not be overlooked.
Dr. Kojo Koram is a lecturer in law at Birbeck, University of London