If the Daily Mail is to be believed, then Ital Simpson, aka north London rapper Black the Ripper, is a ‘hooligan’. His pro-cannabis YouTube stunts have included hotboxing the London Eye, the tube, a polling station and even an EasyJet plane. ‘They banned me for life, but I prefer Ryanair anyway!’ he tells me, lighting up a fat one as we sit in some woods near Enfield.
Simpson, founder of the Dank of England clothing line, is fast becoming one of the UK’s most prominent cannabis advocates. He believes that legalising weed would be a positive step for London’s most vulnerable citizens.
‘I’ve got friends in jail right now because they grew a plant,’ Simpson says. ‘They didn’t hurt anybody. If this was Colorado [where cannabis use is not criminal], they could be entrepreneurs. There are poor people who are being poisoned because the weed sold on their street is dangerous skunk filled with pesticides. If weed was legal, the supply chain would be regulated and pure, and people’s health would be protected.’
We’ve heard these arguments plenty of times over the decades. But in 2017, it’s not just people who actually smoke weed making them. The new Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, recently renewed the call for legalisation that featured in his party’s latest election manifesto. The Adam Smith Institute think tank believes a legal cannabis market could be worth £6.8bn to the UK economy annually, and several MPs have backed its claim. In fact, ideas about legalisation and decriminalisation are trending so hard that there’s a pop-up Museum of Drug Policy in Bermondsey this weekend.
Cannabis is the most popular illegal drug in the UK, despite NHS warnings that regular use increases your risk of developing psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, and affects your ability to learn and concentrate. But in the US, although cannabis remains illegal at a federal level, there are now 29 US states that have legalised it – some (including California) allowing it to be purchased by adults for medical purposes only, others (such as Washington) for recreational use. Could it happen here? And how would legalising cannabis change the way people live in London?
‘You would save billions on criminal justice and policing budgets’
Dr Henry Fisher, policy director at think tank Volteface, says that if cannabis were made legal, crime in London would fall drastically. ‘If it was supplied legally through shops then street dealing would fade and the associated violence around knife crime and gang feuds would drastically fall as well,’ he explains. ‘You would save millions, if not billions, on both the criminal justice and policing budgets.’
Like Simpson, Fisher believes that the criminal status of cannabis contributes to social inequality in London. Skunk, a damaging variety of cannabis with high levels of the addictive THC compound, currently dominates the illegal market. ‘Ultimately, it’s more likely to be people with less money or fewer options that are smoking these strains,’ Fisher explains. ‘In a legal market you can put in place better controls on products and deliver more effective public health messaging.’
‘There’s a concern that addiction centres would be put under even more pressure’
Dr Lindsey Hines, a research associate at the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London, says wherever decriminalisation has been introduced, there’s been a positive social impact. But she also understands why some people are against legalisation: ‘There’s a concern that by legalising it, the UK’s addiction centres would be put under even more pressure – that once it becomes an industry built for profit, big business will try to encourage more people to use and we’ll suddenly be unable to cope.’
When we put this to Danielle Davis, who runs The Pot Shop in Seattle, she says legalisation in her state has actually helped local health services. ‘It’s created a situation where someone can know where their weed was grown and harvested, whether pesticides were used, whether it’s a strain that will help with social anxiety,’ she says. ‘It’s causing less of a strain on our hospitals because people are now only smoking safe weed.’
‘The calls for legalisation are only going to get louder’
Davis, who has 12 staff on her books, says the cannabis industry is creating thousands of jobs across America – and that the tourism revenues that legalisation could bring to places like London could transform society. ‘It’s bringing new people into Seattle on a daily basis, and the taxes are transforming the state.’
So could it happen here? Simpson is pessimistic. In the past he has been arrested for possession and had his Dank of England clothing pop-ups shut down by the police. ‘The people in charge right now are old and crusty,’ he complains. ‘To them, weed is like heroin.’
But Henry Fisher is more hopeful. With Berlin and Spain already experimenting with semi-legalisation pilot programmes, he anticipates change will arrive here in five to ten years. ‘The calls for legalisation are only going to get louder,’ he says. ‘The idea of weed cafés in Shoreditch or dispensaries in Mayfair is no longer fantasy.’
Find out more about London’s pop-up Museum of Drug Policy.