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Cannabis: Britain should learn from liberal Uruguay, think tank says

Cannabis policy in Britain should be reformed and draw on lessons from liberalising countries such as Uruguay to improve criminal and health outcomes, according to research published today.

The Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think-tank, said that the UK’s cannabis laws are ‘not fit for purpose’ and mean that we suffer higher crime and worse health outcomes than would be expected under a more liberal regime.

The SMF said that the current system in the UK – where it’s illegal to possess, grow, distribute, or sell cannabis – has several drawbacks. Being sold on the black market means that people consume stronger and more dangerous products; the market can be controlled by violent criminal gangs; and it is a potential loss of tax revenue for government.

In a report out today, the SMF notes that there is growing international momentum for reform to cannabis laws. In the last decade, several countries have legalised or decriminalised cannabis – including Uruguay, Spain and the Netherlands. In 2018, the Canadian government fully legalised cannabis, and the government elected in Germany has last year has promised to follow suit.

By contrast, the UK’s anti-cannabis approach has hardly shifted in over 50 years – despite the fact cannabis is the most used illicit drug, especially among people aged 30 and under, with 30% of people having tried it at least once.

Cross-country analysis by the SMF (See Notes) found that Uruguay is a leader on cannabis policy. Since 2013, Uruguay has legalised cannabis, and slowly rolled out policies. Cannabis can be bought from regulated pharmacies at heavily subsidised prices. This is done to prevent corporate interests from capturing the market. The state also controls production to ensure safety and quality of product, with only a few allowed to produce cannabis. The Uruguayan ‘health over profit’ model should be inspiration for Britain, the SMF said.

Modernising cannabis policies could bring several benefits to the UK. For instance, legitimising the cannabis market – valued at £2bn – could bring benefits to the economy, as well as to the exchequer in terms of higher tax revenues. It could also improve criminal justice outcomes, as poorer and ethnic minority people are more likely to face criminal sanctions for cannabis-related offences.

Other international examples the report suggests may hold “key lessons” for the UK, including:

  • The US state of Oregon’s legal retail market has grown rapidly, making it highly profitable and bringing in billions of dollars in tax revenue.
  • In Portugal, money saved on court cases on minor offences is being reinvested in treatment services.
  • Cannabis social clubs in Spain have undermined the black market, though it has failed to tackle organised crime.
  • Public safety in Uruguay has improved, as cannabis users’ interact less with drug dealers.


Jake Shepherd, SMF Researcher and report author, said:

“Over the last 50 years, governments in the UK have hardly moved their anti-cannabis stance, even as evidence shows it to be less harmful than substances like alcohol, and public perception of the illicit substance has evolved. In contrast, countries across the world are reaping myriad benefits of progressive reforms.

“The need for cannabis policy reform is clear – public opinion on cannabis and demand for it is rapidly changing.

By learning from international examples such as Uruguay’s, the UK can put in place the right policy framework to navigate the current system, the unregulated commercial market and balance key priorities of safeguarding public health, reducing criminal activity and delivering economic gain – to ultimately benefit society.”