By David Osland
Only once did I succeed in shattering the Militant Tendency’s democratic centralism in open debate.
The occasion was a meeting of Tower Hamlets Labour Party Young Socialists back in the early 1980s, at which the local Millie full-timer made the case that the LPYS should not back the legalisation of cannabis.
Although I only spoke briefly if somewhat passionately from the floor, cadre discipline crumbled as easily as a lump of pungent hash held over a lambent flame, and a majority of those present voted down the proposition.
Yes, reader, as may be surmised from this anecdote, I was a happy recreational drug user in my student years, and if the pastime was popular back then, it is even more popular now.
With alcohol less available to teens than it was to me in an era when pubs knowingly served underage drinkers, kids are turning to cannabis at an ever-younger age, precisely because it is easier to score skunk than to buy a pint.
But nearly four decades later, Labour’s thinking on this issue has scarcely moved on, with the Party’s stance now embarrassingly out of kilter with the under-30 demographic, one of its key support bases.
Legalisation is still seen as some sort of political third rail, even when it really, really isn’t anymore.
Only this weekend, Keir Starmer came out against decriminalisation on one of the Sunday political talkshows. I assume he thought the idea wouldn’t play well in the Red Wall, in which case I have news for him about the Red Wall.
Jeremy Corbyn took a more progressive stance in 2018, openly stating that “criminalising people for possession of small amounts of cannabis is not a particularly good idea.”
That is a huge understatement; it is a spectacularly daft idea. But even Corbyn stopped short of backing a change in the law, despite having signed an early day motion demanding decriminalisation as long ago as 2000.
There is little justification for the continued pearl-clutching. Many of the current generation of Labour politicians are hardly strangers to getting stoned.
During the 2015 leadership contest, the four contenders were asked at a hustings broadcast by LBC whether they had ever tried dope.
Only Jeremy said that he had never sullied his lungs. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Blairite goody-two-shoes Liz Kendall all sheepishly admitted to clandestine consumption.
From what we know of other Labour figures, John McDonnell has admitted he does know what to do with three Rizlas and a ripped-up fag packet, and Rebecca Long-Bailey has coyly admitted that she has “been to Amsterdam”, with the clear implication that the itinerary extended beyond eyeballing the Rembrandts.
Economic arguments in favour of legalisation are more often heard from libertarians and the free market right than the left. But just for once, that provenance doesn’t mean the arguments are wrong.
Prohibition patently hasn’t worked, any more than banning booze worked in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s America.
According to estimates from the Institute of Economic Affairs, admittedly a few years old now, Britain’s cannabis black market is worth £2.6 bn annually, with 255 tonnes of the stuff sold to more than three million people every year.
Legalisation could generate more than £1 bn in taxes and savings to public services, the IEA adds.
There is now widespread experience of decriminalisation and outright legalisation in many jurisdictions, including the majority of US states and numerous countries.
A regulated market in cannabis protects consumers, frees up police resources, raises revenues and put criminals out of business. There is no subsequent explosion in either consumption or drug-related crime.
The idea can also be justified as an extension of personal freedom, and one that will spare thousands of young people from the stigma of criminal records.
Laws that are widely perceived to be pointless – especially those sometimes enforced in a racist way – undermine adherence to laws in general.
It isn’t necessary to maintain that cannabis is harmless. However, it is close to medically impossible to die of cannabis overdose, and adverse health impacts are negligible in comparison to booze and fags.
Heavy use is associated with increased risk of mental illness, but direction of causality is not established. It may well be that a tendency to mental illness causes increased drug usage rather than the other way round.
Let me end on a confessional coda. A couple of years back, I attended a conference in Canada, which in 2019 opted for full legalisation.
The whiff of weed was unmistakeably omnipresent on the streets of Toronto, but the city was functioning pretty much normally.
On my last day, I purchased two space cakes over the counter in a friendly shop offering the full gamut of cannabis products, and consumed them at the airport, entirely in accord with the laws of our fine Commonwealth sister state.
In consequence, I was pleasantly baked by the time the Airbus was over the Atlantic. It was easily the least painful ten-hour long-haul economy flight I have ever sat through.
Meanwhile in Britain, a government dominated by self-professed former cokeheads continues to convict and even send people to prison for possession of a small bag of grass.
The sooner Labour stands up against this absurdity and commits to ending it, the better.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts