Truss left a conservative legacy on cannabis

  • Market Insight 11 January 2023 11 January 2023
  • Asia Pacific, North America, UK & Europe

  • Regulatory risk

The former foreign secretary dealt a blow to a Bermudian statute legalising recreational use.

A range of missteps have been blamed on Liz Truss, but one of the less well known is the future of the Bermudian cannabis market.

At the former prime minister’s behest, British ministers committed to a cautious and conservative approach to the interpretation of international drug conventions and cannabis legalisation, while others are reinterpreting the conventions to allow for change.

One of Truss’s lesser-reported decisions as foreign secretary was to refuse to provide consent to a Bermudian statute legalising recreational cannabis.

The Bermudian Progressive Labour Party (PLP) won a majority of 30 of the Bermudian assembly’s 36 seats at the 2020 general election — and the party pledged to legalise the recreational use of cannabis, having already decriminalised possession of small amounts three years earlier.

But the day after Truss was appointed prime minister in September 2022, the UK government refused to allow Bermuda to pass the law. Bermuda is classified as a British Overseas Territory and therefore the governor must reserve for the UK secretary of state any bill that might be inconsistent with London’s international obligations.

The Bermudian governor, Rena Lalgie, said the UK foreign secretary had concluded that the bill was not consistent with obligations held by the UK and Bermuda under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

Crucially, the UK’s interpretation and justification for its colonial-style intervention in preventing the creation of a legal recreational cannabis market in Bermuda is contrary to most sovereign states’ interpretation of the international conventions.

It is clear that other countries are adopting more liberal approaches to reform. Indeed, Canada and Uruguay chose to simply ignore the conventions. Bolivia withdrew and re-joined with a reservation on chewing cocoa leaf, with very few international convention members objecting.

The US is racing ahead with its attitude to the decriminalisation of narcotics. Some states have already decriminalised the recreational use of psilocybin and cannabis, arguing that the conventions are sufficiently flexible to allow for such a change.

President Biden has recently called for a federal-level review of the decriminalisation of cannabis, which sets the US ahead of countries such as the Netherlands, where it remains a criminal offence to possess, sell or produce cannabis, except within limited parameters.

In Germany, ministers intend to reinterpret the international conventions in line with the government’s public policy aims of health and harm reduction.

Therefore, the Bermuda decision leaves the UK on the other side of the fence regarding the interpretation of the international conventions. It also clarifies the Conservative Party’s opposition to legalising cannabis, deciding to forgo potentially billions in revenue and the potential for significant cost savings in the criminal justice system and NHS.

This article was first published in The Times on Thursday 15 December 2022.


Additional authors:

Gabriella Bligh, Associate

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