How legalising cannabis could save the NHS

The National Health Service is desperately in need of funding, but legislators are ignoring a crucial revenue stream - the cannabis tax. Martin Drewry writes.

Our National Health Service (NHS) is facing an unprecedented crisis. Starved of cash, with devastating results.

It needs an extra £24 billion by 2022 in order to keep up with demand for services. Even with the extra £1.9 billion funding already given for 2018-19, there is still a shortfall of at least £2 billion for the same year.

No one is clear on where this extra NHS funding will come from, yet a potential source of tax revenue – a cannabis tax – is being ignored.

By legalising and regulating cannabis we’d be able raise at least £1 billion in tax revenue to help fund the NHS.

As our latest report shows, that’s about half the deficit for 2018/19 or enough to pay for every full time midwife in England, with money left over to fund mental health, harm reduction and drug education programmes. And if you compare a potential cannabis market to other markets such as tobacco, the figure could be much higher.

It’s not just about the money. Regulating cannabis will be good for public health. It will restrict young people’s access to the drug and protect them from the risks of high strength skunk which currently dominates the market. It will enable us to create safer products by regulating potency and removing harmful chemicals, and provide clear information so that people who take cannabis have the knowledge, skills and ability to make healthier choices.

Cannabis regulation would also help to reduce crime by taking the trade away from criminal markets, making people and communities safer.

There could be other spill over effects that would benefit the NHS funding crisis too.

Early studies in the US suggest that where medicinal cannabis is legal, alcohol sales have gone down 15%, and Medicaid has seen savings on prescription drugs.

Both of these factors could save the NHS substantial amounts of money. This is on top of the savings to policing, court and prison services estimated at £281 million.

This explains why cannabis reform is firmly championed by a range of public health bodies. Last month The British Medical Journal called for cannabis to be legalised and regulated. Its editorial making the point ‘This is not about whether you think drugs are good or bad. It is an evidence based position entirely in line with the public health approach to violent crime.’

The British Medical Association, the Royal Society of Public Health the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Colleague of Nurses have all argued for moving away from prohibition on the grounds of public health.

The public increasingly understand the benefits too. In recent polls 47% of people support selling cannabis in licensed shops and 53% support decriminalisation or legal regulation.

It’s time for the UK to step up and join the global wave of drug policy reform that is sweeping the globe.

Uruguay became the first country to legalise in 2011. Nine US states have legalised cannabis for both recreational and medicinal uses. Others such as the Netherlands and Spain have also ditched prohibition, opting for decriminalisation for personal possession. In the next few days Canada will become the first G7 country to vote legally regulate cannabis, with New Zealand due to follow suit soon.

The writing is on the wall – cannabis reform is a matter of when, rather than if.

With our NHS in crisis, we can no longer wait. That’s why we’re calling on the government to stop ignoring the evidence, catch up with this global shift and recognise this is  a win-win situation for our NHS and our health.

The first steps are to move responsibility for drug policy to the Departments of Heath and International Development, establish a group of experts to develop a regulatory model in the best interests of public health, and a Regulatory Authority to implement it.

It’s time we changed our tune on cannabis and legalise, regulate and tax, it to promote public health and support the NHS.

Martin Drewry is the director of Health Poverty Action. He tweets here.

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