For a Rational Approach to the Cannabis Issue

There are arguments both for and against decriminalization and legalization, but we simply can’t just cross our fingers and wait while drug addiction continues to destroy lives…

When faced with a problem of national concern that has, in addition, the potential for lethal impact across all levels of society, we can either hide our heads in the sand like the ostrich, or we can decide to face it squarely and do ‘what is needed: politically neutral policy decisions based on the best evidence, integrated with other types of knowledge, and engaging all voices, including people who use drugs’.

That is how Alison Ritter, Professor & Specialist in Drug Policy, UNSW Australia, concludes her article titled ‘Our drugs policies have failed. It’s time to reinvent them based on what actually works’ published in The Conversation, December 8, 2016. She winds up by stating that ‘Few areas of policy-making are more emotionally charged than drugs policy. Yet if we resist knee-jerk calls to arms and engage in informed policy-setting that involves many stakeholders and types of knowledge, we can save many more lives, reduce needless suffering, and alleviate the financial burden of ineffective drugs policies’.

The ‘Our drugs policies have failed’ cry has been heard in several other countries too, and that is why there has been a shift to an alternative paradigm, the essence of which is to treat the drug issue as a public health rather than as a criminal problem. However, this does not eliminate altogether the criminal element in the new policies, but it is reserved for specific categories which are spelt out in the jurisdictions which have adopted such an approach.

Whether we like it or not, we have to acknowledge that drugs for medicinal and recreational use by human beings is not only a reality of contemporary society worldwide that is here to stay, but they have been present in all civilizations as well throughout the ages. Given this fact, at best what any society can do is to try and limit the potential damage by implementing ‘continuously evaluated, evidence-based policies and programs’.

It is sad to say, but some people choose their poison – what this means is that all addictive substances that are available have the potential to cause harm, some more some less, depending upon use or abuse. Tobacco and alcohol are legally available, but despite health warnings people continue to abuse and harm themselves. It boils down therefore to the individual’s responsibility about what he wants to do with his life.

Where the State comes in, however, is when the addiction becomes so widespread that it then has to, among other things, bear the cost of managing the physical harm done, namely treatment of diseases caused by these addictive practices. In the US, for example, not only is their opioid  crisis the worse in the world, having killed 64000 people in 2016 — more than the total killed during the several years of the Vietnam war! – but from the ‘epidemic of epidemics’ it has now become a ‘syndemic’: ‘multiple diseases (HIV-AIDS, infection of the heart valves, hepatitis-C among others) feeding off of one another’ as a result of the proliferation of intravenous drug use. And the treatment for hepatitis-C alone, which is not 100% successful, costs upwards of 20,000 US dollars per year, and can go up to 90,000 USD!

Is it fair that the law-abiding citizens of sound habits should foot the bill for those who knowingly go the wrong way, without any thought let alone concern for the consequences that befall their fellow citizens and society at large?

Either society caves in to their whims and let them take to the drugs that eventually kill them and ruin their families – and foot their treatment bill – or makes a choice to allow them the use of a less harmful drug and define the parameters and boundaries for such use. That is where cannabis or marijuana comes in. The naysayers will always cite studies that show the harmful effect of cannabis on the brain; but there are any number of studies that do not support that conclusion. This is the way of science, and it will always be so, that is, nothing is ever final, there is no absolute certainty. But we cannot wait till kingdom come to take the decisions required: it will always be a trade-off – the risk of possible harm to a few versus the devastation caused to larger numbers and their families along with, as mentioned above, all the huge accompanying costs (the medical ones being only part of the picture – see below).

And cannabis has another advantage: it does not trigger anti-social or violent behaviour, if anything it is the opposite that is true. This contrasts with the opioid drugs or their synthetic derivatives which can induce bizarre behaviours, which may even lead to death in some cases.

Given these realities, a number of countries have adopted the alternative approach of decriminalization and legalization of the softer drug cannabis. Portugal and Uruguay are given as examples of two countries which have done so with measurable success. Here, it is necessary to appreciate in some more detail the differences between and the respective implications of decriminalization and legalization.

‘Decriminalization is a loosening of criminal penalties now imposed for personal marijuana use even though the manufacturing and sale of the substance remain illegal. Essentially, under decriminalization, law enforcement is instructed to look the other way when it comes to the possession of small amounts of marijuana meant for personal use. Under decriminalization, the manufacture and sale of marijuana remains unregulated by the state. Those caught using the substance face civil fines instead of criminal charges.’

‘Legalization, on the other hand, is the lifting or abolishment of laws banning the possession and personal use of marijuana. More importantly, legalization allows the government to regulate and tax marijuana use and sales. Proponents also make the case that taxpayers can save millions of dollars by removing from the judicial system the hundreds of thousands of offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana.’

It goes without saying that there are arguments both for and against decriminalization and legalization, but it must be reiterated that we simply can’t just cross our fingers and wait while drug addiction continues to destroy lives, families, and society. Trade-off there must be, and therefore we must decide and make a choice, based on agreed best practices founded upon ‘continuously evaluated, evidence-based policies and programs’ as referred to above.

To quote from Alison Ritter’s article again, ‘Our governments spend a great deal of money responding to illicit drugs use. That includes prevention programs, healthcare, treatment programs and harm-reduction services; the humane face of drugs policies’. Instead of resorting to ‘policy quick-fixes (which) are mostly ineffective’, she suggests that ‘We can do much better. We have decades of research that tells us what works and why, and we are continuously building that evidence base. Smarter drugs policy-making would use that evidence, in conjunction with other policy drivers such as public opinion and personal experience’.

There is a lot out there that we can access and make good use of to frame a fresh approach to the drug problem and seriously consider methods that have passed the ‘test of reasonableness’ elsewhere. At least we could say that we have given it a try, for the sake of our future youth in particular.


* Published in print edition on 4 May 2018

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