Prohibition is not drug control

At the end of March 2023 the killer of a little girl in Liverpool, Olivia Pratt-Korbel, was sentenced for her murder. This was an horrific case of a drug gang gun fight which ended in the death of this innocent little girl. Obviously our sympathies are with the family, that surely doesn’t need saying. Read the horrific story here or in any one of many such reports.

The killer was a big-time cannabis dealer. It should not have happened, we should not be in the position of having an unregulated trade worth billions, reaching into every city, town and probably village in the country being under the control of such evil people. That we are is entirely the fault of our government and its prohibitionist drugs policy

Free markets

We live in a country run by a Conservative government which bases its philosophy on a belief in capitalism and free markets. The main opposition parties follow much the same thinking. This implies an understanding that the laws of supply and demand rule. That is to say that if there is a demand for something and people are prepared to pay for it, someone will provide it. This law also states that if we try to restrict the supply the price that can be charged goes up and so the profits increase.

In no aspect of life do the government question this, apart from one; the drugs policy where they try to do precisely that – to restrict the supply.

Drug control?

The government calls the drugs policy “drug control”, what could possibly go wrong with that idea? All drugs are dangerous in one way or another. They all have dangers connected with addiction, mental health, overdose, antisocial behaviour and so on. Of course, not all drugs are the same. Some like alcohol and cocaine, tobacco or heroin are vastly more dangerous and damaging to society than cannabis. But cannabis is not totally harmless either, nothing on earth is. The vast majority of cannabis consumers experience no problems, but a few do.

The idea of the law is to protect people and society from these dangers. So what’s wrong with the idea of control?

The problem is the present drugs policy defines “control” as meaning “illegal to possess, trade in or produce” and that’s it, simplistic, blunt and unworkable. The law is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MoDA) which was actually introduced in 1973.

Because of the MoDA we’ve end up with a multi-billion pound industry firmly in the hands of organised crime. They supply a product with no quality control, no regulation of strengths (and in the case of cannabis THC/CBD ratio), no controls over the purity or even any checks to make sure what’s sold is really cannabis. We don’t know where it’s sold from or who sells it and there are no restrictions such as age limits. And of course, consumers have no recourse to the law if things go wrong and anyway the law would regard them as criminals.

That is a very strange use of the word “control”. Cannabis is not a controlled drug in any plain English use of the word. The present drugs policy is essentially a lie, it is not “drug control” in any way shape or form.

All drugs?

Not all drugs are treated the same way, two of the most dangerous drugs, alcohol and tobacco, aren’t even included in this “drug control” on the grounds that they were widely used and socially accepted when the law was introduced.

The irony is that alcohol – which is a recreational drug capable of great personal and social harm – is quite well regulated. What you get if you buy a can of 5% beer is pure 5% beer. This is what most people would call “drug control”. Most people might think that, but the government doesn’t. Alcohol is not a “controlled drug” under the law whereas cannabis, with non of this regulation, is considered “controlled”. This is such muddled dishonest logic, you couldn’t make it up.

This is why you see the phrase “drugs and alcohol” so often, the authorities just can’t bring themselves to accept that alcohol is a drug because to do that would expose the hypocrisy of the current situation.

The only way to really control a drug – in fact the only way to control any substance – is to control the trade in it. That means being in control of the trade, where it happens, who carries it out, what’s sold and so on. It means dominating the supply, being in charge of it, having the power close badly run sales outlets and to ban unfit people form selling. All these things can be done with alcohol, non of them can be done with cannabis, yet cannabis is called “controlled”, alcohol isn’t. Go figure.

People control

Laws can only control what people do, so the term”illegal drug” is technically wrong, the drug isn’t illegal, its what people do with it that is. That’s why controlling the trade is the logical step to take with potentially dangerous substances.

Instead of controlling the trade, the drugs policy attempts to control the millions of consumers, the very people the policy sets out to protect. It does this by telling them not to do something they enjoy doing and expecting them to obey. That approach never works well with adults.

In order to do this, police stop people in the street and search them, they raid places where people gather socially, they kick doors in, search peoples homes and they target “the sort of people” they think might be consumers. And of course, the enforcement gets used to target ethnic minorities by racists in uniform. The result of course is predictable, the very people the law is supposed to protect understandably regard the police as the enemy, they don’t like being treated as criminals.

The insanity of this whole process is mind blowing, it really is utterly brain dead stupid.

Preventing use

The big claim of people who support this insanity is it keeps drug use to a minimum. Does it really do that? The truth is no-one can know.

Because it’s all illegal there’s no real way of measuring anything to do with the trade, so there can be nothing like market research of consumers or the product they’re buying using any of the established standard data sampling techniques widely used for commercial products.

There are no reliable figures for the number of consumers, but what we do know is there are a lot of them. But the vast majority of cannabis consumers never come into contact with the law, they don’t tend to get into fights or steal to fund a habit. They live normal lives on the whole, have jobs, raise families and basically keep their heads down, so most never get counted.

All this is a way of pointing out that the big claim of prohibitionists can’t be proven and indeed is pretty much certain to be false – prohibition does not lead to the lowest level of use. Government estimates for the number of cannabis users are very likely to be gross underestimates.

Instead, efforts to enforce the law simply ensure anyone who is willing to be accountable is taken out, leaving those who are willing to protect their business with violence and intimidation to be rewarded with even bigger profits. The law is utterly counter productive.

Not learning from history

If this was the first time we had tried the idea of recreational drug prohibition the authorities could be excused by having an unexpected result, but it’s not. In 1920’s America they tried the same idea with alcohol and the result was mobs running cartels and all the same issue we’re seeing now with cannabis, up to and including gun violence and child exploitation.

When in a hole, stop digging

Are we finally about to get a sensible debate about this? No of course not. Experts are ignored, even to the extent of reports from the ACMD (the advisory body which is supposed to guide the government) being censured because it recommended law reform (Times, march 20th 2023). They dare not allow an informed debate because they know it would destroy support for this failed policy, so the charade continues.

And even the people we depend on to challenge the government – the opposition Labour party – come out with the same tired rhetoric. Frankly it’s beginning to smell a lot like corruption at the heart of the establishment.

Instead we’re hearing police and politicians blaming the millions of non-problematic consumers for supporting the illegal trade the law has created. Let’s be quite clear about this, the reason we have the illegal trade is because of the prohibitionist drugs policy prevents a legal one.

Cannabis, like alcohol, is now firmly established as a part of British culture and it has been for several decades. If for no other reason, it should be treated in a similar way and removed from the MoDA.

Protecting people

It’s important to remember all this is being done in the name of protecting the very people the law treats as criminals, it’s a strange way to go about things. If you really want to protect people from the claimed dangers of cannabis you should at least include these controls:

  • Ensure the supplies are of a high, consistent quality, not contaminated and not counterfeit
  • Ensure proper grading for strength and THC/CBD ratio
  • Ensure the producers/growers are accountable
  • Ensure the outlet is under the control of a fit and proper person
  • Ensure proper information is available to consumers in ways they can relate to
  • Ensure anyone who does have a problem is free to be open and encouraged to talk about it.
  • Ensure there are safeguards such as age limits for sale

In addition we should be constantly monitoring the social and health impacts of cannabis use, something which would be easy under a legal system easy because we would know how much of what is being consumed. If necessary we could target enforcement action on specific problem areas, should they arise.

One more important thing, this is not “liberalisation”, “going soft” or any of the other terms used by prohibition supporters, quite the reverse. Proper regulation means workable laws that have specific aims.

This is what “drug control” should mean, because it would be actual control and because it would work in the interests of the people it’s supposed to be protecting, they would support it. Non of this is possible under the current regime. At the moment we only see the problems when they inevitably arise and we can’t be sure of the cause.

How may more tragic deaths do we need to see, how many more lives ruined by this law, careers wrecked and families torn apart? How much more violence and exploitation of vulnerable people do we have to live with? How much longer do we have to live with the police regarded as the enemy?

The present drugs policy is creating problems very much worse than cannabis use itself could ever cause, it really is time to admit that.


UKCIA is a cannabis law reform site dedicated to ending the prohibition of cannabis. As an illegal drug, cannabis is not a controlled substance - it varies greatly in strength and purity, it's sold by unaccountable people from unknown venues with no over sight by the authorities. There is no recourse to the law for users and the most vulnerable are therefore placed at the greatest risk. There can be no measures such as age limits on sales and no way to properly monitor or study the trade, let alone introduce proper regulation. Cannabis must be legalised, as an illegal substance it is very dangerous to the users and society at large.