The Great Reprioritisation
Liberalisation, legalisation and tolerance in Europe
A slightly different post today, to mark a special piece of work my team at Hanway published. I usually wouldn’t post this kind of thing here, but when asked to write the executive summary I touched on some points that I’d like to explore further in future blogs.
Themes of legalisation, liberalisation and tolerance are of particular interest to me. A decade of working on social change campaigns, as a drug policy advocate, and as a founder in heavily regulated sectors has shattered any idea of a ‘perfect policy’ I may have once held. What I like about legalisation is that, rather than being the end destination, it can be used as a tool to improve wider policy areas.
A Great Reprioritisation has happened in liberal democracies over the last decade.
We’ve seen the ‘liberalisation’ of issues once deemed to be questions of morality become questions of evidence and equality.
With a brutal war currently waging within the borders of Europe, it feels strange to be writing about liberalisations and freedoms - but part of the shock of the war in Ukraine is the feeling that it bucks the progressive trend of the last 20 years.
Issues of right-to-die, abortion and gay marriage have won referendums, found a place in legislation, and changed the cultural landscape from Portugal and Ireland to Germany and the Netherlands, and previously stigmatised issues like sex and mental health have found a place in mainstream conversation. A theme of agency and bodily autonomy runs through these causes.
Policymakers and the public are now also edging towards a more progressive view on drugs, particularly when it comes to cannabis.
We produced ‘Recreational Europe’ to cut through the noise surrounding cannabis legalisation. The topic, once characterised by polarised viewpoints, is quickly becoming a more tame, bureaucratic conversation around civic priorities.
This once-hypothetical scenario is fast becoming a reality. Between 2017 and 2022 there were a number of notable reforms or pledges to reform across European nations. The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Malta are some we explore in detail in this report. European cannabis reform has become a question of ‘how’, not ‘if’.
Now is the time to pay attention.
To explore the dynamics of European attitudes towards cannabis we’ve launched The European Cannabis Legalisation Tracker: The first-ever nationally representative, pan-European public opinion poll.
We discovered that more than half of Europeans (55%) support legal cannabis sales to over 18s, and almost 30% of Europeans are interested in trying it. We aim to repeat this poll annually to track public opinion against policy developments.
To understand the potential of this sector, from a social and entrepreneurial perspective, we analysed how legalisation has played out in the US and Canada. From small and imperfect first markets, multi-billion dollar industries have emerged.
What was once a conversation dominated by discussions about product diversion and youth access has become one of branding, data-driven insights, and the empowerment of those harmed by prohibition. Just as Colorado and Washington ushered in the first wave of US legalisation in 2012, New York is now setting the standard – putting minority business owners and entrepreneurs with cannabis-related criminal records at the front of the queue for licences.
It took 10 years to get there. Hopefully, Europe can get to that point faster.
At Hanway, our mission is to mainstream the cannabis sector. We’re proud of the balanced work we publish and the debates we inspire. We believe that these conversations are best had in the open and backed by evidence, rather than in the dark or polarised by partisanship.
Some of what we uncovered requires further investigation. Social justice (righting the wrongs of aggressively criminalising cannabis use) polled low on the priorities of Europeans when it comes to legalisation. We have to ask ourselves why, and what we can do to change this.
Not a single person we spoke to during the production of the report was blasé about cannabis use, even when championing its positive personal and policy outcomes. Yes, excitement abounds, but the people leading this charge are by-and-large responsible and thoughtful people.
I conclude with an idea echoed throughout the report: Tolerance is the most important virtue one can tap into when approaching legalisation. Whether you support or oppose further reform, we all have to live alongside each other. A system that is too punitive or too lax only serves to hurt or isolate your neighbours.
Legalisation is a tool, not an end goal. It should look to create a society that is tolerable for those who love cannabis and those who despise it. We hope this report provides a framework for thinking about some of those elements less discussed in Europe.