Regulating Cannabis

In April 2016, I was in New York for an ISSDP meeting on cannabis policy in the Americas. At the end of the first day, I was due to meet up for dinner with Niamh Eastwood and Alex Stevens. I was a little early, so decided to have a drink in the bar of my hotel before setting off for the restaurant. I sat at a stool at the bar and after five minutes became aware of a man taking the stool next to me. He ordered a beer and asked me if I had been at the cannabis conference. I said yes and he inquired what my interest was. I explained I was an academic researcher and then asked him the same question, expecting that he was either an academic or a policy wonk. His reply took me completely by surprise: he was a businessman, attending the meeting to help him decide whether cannabis was an industry worth investing in or not.

This was a revelatory moment for me. I realised two things. First, that the pace and scale of change in the US was far greater than I had appreciated: cannabis was rapidly becoming big business. Second, that cannabis law reform was now as much about commerce and capitalism, as it was about the familiar ‘progressive’ tropes of civil rights and personal freedom. On the flight back to Manchester, I began to hatch an idea for a project, although it would take a couple of years to get off the ground.

One strand of the project was for an archival study of cannabis law reform within the counter-culture in the 1960s, which I worked on for most of 2019 and which eventually led to this paper published earlier this year. Historicising reform was an important foundation for the project. The other strand aimed to produce a global state-of-the-art review of the latest legal and policy developments in the field. This has resulted in a book, Regulating Cannabis, co-authored with Will Floodgate, which finally came out a few days ago. Will led on the preliminary work for the book in the summer of 2018. After a pause, we picked it up together in spring 2019, as we prepared to present our framework and approach at the annual ISSDP conference in Paris in May. The bulk of the book was then written in a fairly intense period between October 2019 and March 2020.

The central thesis of the book is that if we view the ‘cannabis challenge’ through the lens of business regulation, we can see that we have as much to learn from how we have regulated a range of agricultural products as we do from the usual go-to comparisons with alcohol or tobacco. This analytical approach not only provides new insights on familiar issues but also opens up less well explored areas for attention, including the vital question of how to ensure that a legal cannabis industry is based on a model of environmentally sustainable consumption.

Perhaps the book’s most controversial point concerns the politics of cannabis policy. It is usually argued that policy should be based more on science and evidence, rather than politics and ideology. But if we dig down far enough, many of the regulatory decisions about cannabis that policy-makers take have their roots in matters that are inescapably about values. They rest on choices about the type of society we wish to live in and the things that we want to prioritise. Pretending we can de-politicise cannabis law and policy is misguided. We must embrace the challenge of engaging more seriously and transparently with the politics of cannabis control. We hope that the book points to some ways forward for doing exactly that.

About Toby Seddon

Professor of Social Science at UCL. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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