Should the use of gandia be decriminalized?

The police charge on a group of rastas at the Jardin de la Compagnie in Port Louis last week as they were consuming gandia – which according to current law is illegal – has brought up afresh the issue of its decriminalization for recreational use.

In some jurisdictions it is already allowed legally for medicinal use, but under strictly regulated conditions. Could this model be extended for its recreational use as well? Other names for gandia are marijuana, cannabis and weed. The active ingredient that is pleasure-producing and becomes addictive is Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Some strains of the plant have a lesser content of THC.

It is generally agreed by several stakeholders across the world, including governments and enforcement bodies, that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed. Its strategy of prohibition and criminalisation has not delivered the desirable outcome of ridding societies of the scourge of drugs. Stakeholders have been agitating for drug control through regulation rather than prohibition and criminalization which involve repression and violent methods that have not been successful over so many years.

In the drugs landscape and the struggle to fight drug addiction, a few relevant facts must be kept in mind:

1.     The international market for drugs is worth hundreds of billions of dollars every year;

2.     There is a demand side: these are users who will go to any length to seek pleasure by consumption of certain substances — alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cannabis and derivatives/analogues of the latter two. Only heroin is administered by means of injection. People will always seek escape, and if there is no legal route of procurement, they will resort to clandestine, illegal ones: drug mafias.

3.     Hence the supply side: the drug dealer warlords and drug-traffickers who are after their own source of pleasure: money; they want a share of the international market.

4.     The government straddles these interlocking groups, and is expected to solve the social burden and meet the economic costs generated by the supply and consumption of drugs, and which to date has attempted to do so through legislation essentially inspired by a prohibitionist and criminal approach, a punitive policy favoured by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) despite failings.

5.     Some drugs are considered socially acceptable and legal, such as tobacco and alcohol, which are both known to be also addictive and to have harmful effects. But their sale is regulated.

6.     Similarly, the advocates of decriminalization of cannabis take a ‘legalise, regulate and tax’ approach. This has been done in Uruguay since 2014, and in the US in the states of Colorado and Washington for a few years now. Preliminary evaluations have shown overall promising results, with diminution in rates of criminality associated with drug use, driving offences among others. But we have to give some more time before coming to any definitive conclusions.

Online sources have compiled a list of pros and cons of the use of cannabis as follows:

Pros – 1) Boost in revenue, 2) More effective criminal justice and law enforcement, 3) Less money to support organized crime, 4) Safety controls, 5) Wider access for medicinal use, 6) Medical benefits for cancer patients, 7) Personal freedom, 8) Reduced street justice related to drug disputes 9) Loss of business for drug dealers (including terrorists).

Cons – 1) Addictive nature, 2) Altered perception, 3) Gateway drug status, 4) Increase in stoned driving and related cases, 5) Increased chances of the drug falling into the hands of children, 6) Danger of second-hand smoke to bystanders, 7) Damage to the brain, 8) Poor lung health, 9) Risk of Getting Heart Disease, 10) Poor mental health.

Several of these cons need further in-depth study to quantify risks more accurately.

Given the pros and cons, the conclusion is that the important thing here is for local governments, judicial systems, law enforcement officials and addiction treatment specialists in each country to work together to create communities that will be free from marijuana addiction and its other unfavourable effects.

Locally, either through a new legislation, or perhaps an amendment of the Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA), the appropriate structures and systems can be put in place to give effect to a new strategy if the policy decision is made. Basically what is required is similar to other regulatory agencies, namely, licensing producers, registering authorized dealers at specified supply points, creating a database of authorized drug users, and making provision for penalties – because as with other areas of human activity, there will always be some defaulters, and the sanctions must be such as to act as a strong deterrent. With the legal and other luminaries we have in this country, surely this is possible if there is the political will and necessary realism based on the probability of evidence? And this must be, at the political level, a bipartisan affair.

It is understandable that the Prime Minister took a firm stand that the law must apply. At the same time, though, why not kickstart a thinking process based on the experience of those who have engaged in the alternative strategy, and rope in all stakeholders in a formal structure that will be tasked to come up with cogent recommendations based on more updated data? As a country we are mature enough now to think out of the box.

* Published in print edition on 13 May 2016

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