The Liberal Democrats have told BuzzFeed News they will pledge to legalise cannabis, allow it to be sold from high street shops, and spend the tax raised from sales on public health efforts in one of the most radical drugs policy manifesto commitments ever made by a British political party.
Tim Farron's party will campaign in the general election with a pledge to completely upend the existing system of selling weed, making it the first time a major political party has fought an election on a platform of legalising the drug.
Under the Lib Dem proposals the production and sale of marijuana would be fully legalised, with the quality strictly regulated to reduce harmful chemicals and sales restricted to over-18s. Purchases would be allowed only through licensed cannabis shops, similar to the system used in several US states.
The party predicts the decision could raise up to £1 billion a year in tax from cannabis sales while saving costs elsewhere by reducing the burden on the police, prisons, and the health service. The Lib Dems believe organised criminal gangs would suffer a hit to their income and dealers would be forced off the streets, while it would easy for people to access cannabis for medicinal purposes.
"What we currently do is bad for health and mental health," said Julian Huppert of the Liberal Democrats, confirming the manifesto commitment. "The market is run by criminal gangs and they have no interest in public health – the system is causing huge amounts of harm.
"The prohibitionist approach costs a huge amount of money, means we criminalise a large amount of people, and increases the harm. We spend a lot of money making people’s lives worse. That cannot be correct."
Huppert was MP for Cambridge from 2010 to 2015 and is now standing for the constituency again at this general election. He said the Liberal Democrats would appoint an independent regulator for the cannabis market and reduce the harm of the drug by requiring it to include lower levels of the active component THC and more of the harm-reducing CBD element.
“There are two components in cannabis," he explained. "One is the potent active form. And one is protective and prevents harm. Criminal gangs have bred strains which don’t have the protective element, so skunk causes much more harm than marijuana used to do. In the same way we regulate the alcohol content of a drink, you can regulate the strength."
During the coalition government years a Lib Dem junior minister at the Home Office commissioned research from civil servants on the potential financial benefits of taxing the cannabis industry. It concluded that existing drugs laws are not reducing drug usage.
However, the report was dismissed by the then Conservative home secretary, who was alleged to have removed several policy recommendations that suggested existing drug laws were failing. That home secretary is now prime minister Theresa May.
Other research, commissioned by the Cabinet Office for the Lib Dems in the final months of the coalition government, estimated that full legalisation of the UK cannabis market could produce between £500 million and £1 billion of revenue in tax.
The Lib Dem proposals would see local councils given control over the licensing of cannabis shops, with substantial extra funding made available in the future.
Liberal Democrat aides acknowledged that the policy could later develop into a pledge to legalise and regulate the use of recreational drugs such as MDMA but made clear that this would not be party policy at this election.
The party is also committed to repealing the recent Psychoactive Substances Act, which automatically criminalises all new drugs and banned the sale of most of the so-called "legal highs" such as the cannabis substitute spice. Previously available legally through shops, spice is now sold by criminals and has been blamed for a crisis of drug use in cities such as Manchester.
The approach is very different to other political parties'. The Conservatives have always strongly supported existing drug prohibition policy. A Labour spokesperson confirmed Jeremy Corbyn's party remains strongly opposed to legalisation of cannabis. Instead, Labour will focus on providing funds in an attempt to reduce drug usage and mitigate harm.
Leading Lib Dem figures will not be benefit from any change in the law. Tim Farron's spokesperson said his drug use was limited to smoking cannabis as a teenager.
When asked when he had last smoked a joint, Huppert replied: “I’m really boring. I’ve never had one. You can believe that or not. I am that dull. For me it’s a public health issue.”