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Matters of Substance

Beyond the cannabis stalemate

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Despite cannabis being the most widely used illicit drug worldwide, it is rarely the focus of international drug policy control discussions. In light of this, The Beckley Foundation has released a report claiming prohibition is doing more harm than good and calling for urgent discussions on cannabis policy. If the ‘War on Drugs’ must continue, Rob Zorn asks, is it time we removed cannabis as one of its targets?


At the United Nations General Assembly Special Session held in New York in June 1998, the international community agreed on a 10-year programme towards eliminating or significantly reducing illicit manufacture, supply and demand for drugs. The optimistic slogan under which the programme was agreed was ‘A drug free world – we can do it!’

In March 2007, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna to decide on issues of global drug control, and one can only guess at the levels of subdued unease delegates must have felt. The 10-year deadline was approaching but, since 1998, drugs had only become cheaper, purer and more readily available.

At that Vienna meeting, it was agreed that a high-level political gathering would be held in the spring of 2009 to review progress and to agree the way forward for the next 10 years. It is difficult to think of an optimistic slogan that could underpin this meeting given there has been no significant progress in controlling illicit drugs pretty much anywhere.

Influenced largely by the United States’ ‘zero tolerance’ policies, the 10 years of drug control efforts worldwide have mostly amounted to a ‘War on Drugs’ approach, with drug policy options for governments limited to little more than varying the severity of penalties for drug offences.

Cannabis is the most widely used drug in the world by far, with an estimated 160 million people using cannabis in 2005. Despite this, cannabis has received little direct attention in international drug policy discussions.

This, then, is the context in which UK think tank The Beckley Foundation convened a team of international drug policy experts, the Global Cannabis Commission, to prepare an overview of scientific evidence around cannabis and the policies that attempt to control it. Its report, Cannabis Policy, Moving Beyond Stalemate, was published in 2008, with the aim of bringing cannabis issues to the attention of policy makers and informing discussion at the 2009 United Nations Strategic Drug Policy Review meeting.

While acknowledging that cannabis is not a safe substance, the main thrust of the report is that policies introduced to control cannabis have had little impact on its prevalence and that most of the harms associated with it result from prohibition itself – particularly the social harms arising from arrest and imprisonment.

These findings will not be a surprise to those who have long felt something is seriously out of whack with cannabis laws worldwide.

As the report acknowledges, cannabis can have a negative impact on both physical and mental health. In terms of relative harm, however, it is considerably less damaging than alcohol or tobacco, both of which are freely available and legal. While there have only ever been two deaths worldwide attributed to cannabis, alcohol and tobacco cause literally millions of deaths each year.

More than half the arrests for drugs worldwide are for minor cannabis offences and, suggests the Commission, the damage done by criminalising these minor offenders appears to far outweigh the damage cannabis causes to individuals or society.

In addition to the substantial government resources needed to enforce prohibition, very large secondary costs and suffering result at a personal level. For example, a criminal conviction for cannabis possession can exclude an individual from certain jobs and activities, and arrest can impose humiliation. Cannabis users can be drawn into the criminal world and, in countries where data are available, arrest rates are sharply higher for minority and socially disadvantaged groups.

The report makes several recommendations towards improved cannabis policy, ranging from the mild (police giving low priority to enforcing cannabis laws) through to decriminalisation and legalisation.

In a decriminalised system, offenders could be processed outside the justice system, fines would be low and counselling and education could be offered instead of imprisonment.

If cannabis was made legal, governments could use a variety of mechanisms to regulate it such as taxation, availability controls, minimum legal age for use and purchase, labelling and potency limits. This would greatly increase harm minimisation possibilities such as delaying onset of use until early adulthood and encouraging users to avoid driving after taking cannabis. However, as the report states: “That which is prohibited cannot be regulated.”

The report favours a decriminalised, regulated market in cannabis as the best option, but it acknowledges that those working for decriminalisation, legalisation or any significant reform face an uphill battle.

Firstly, the UN drug control conventions require cannabis use to be an offence (although there is debate over the interpretation of this and the flexibility allowed by the conventions). States that have begun relaxing cannabis laws can therefore expect to be pressured at the UN level. The Netherlands, for example, has been rebuked by the European Union, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the USA and other countries who say its relaxed cannabis policies undermine international collaborative efforts to reduce illicit drug use, production and trafficking.

A second problem will be in generating sufficient political will to bring about legislative change. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is vocal opposition in most jurisdictions to relaxing drug laws by those who say legalisation will encourage increased cannabis use and lead to experimentation with harder drugs. Secondly, popular opinion usually supports retention of prohibition, and in most democratic countries, the majority of politicians’ views will reflect the majority of the population’s.

Therefore the report’s call for a re-think on policy so that it becomes grounded on an evidence-based scale of harm may largely be falling on deaf ears. In the UK, for example, cannabis was downgraded from Class B to Class C when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, making police unlikely to arrest people carrying small amounts and moving Britain closer to the ‘relaxed nation’ category. However, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has pledged to reclassify the drug to Class B to avoid “risking the future health of young people”. This is despite having read the Commission’s report and accepting most of its other recommendations.

Nevertheless, the report outlines four possibilities for governments seeking to make cannabis available in a regulated market in the context of existing international conventions.

The first option is to follow the Dutch model, which technically meets the letter of the law while allowing de facto access to cannabis. Secondly, a nation may simply ignore the conventions, though any government following that route must be prepared to withstand substantial international pressure, the report warns.

A third option would be to denounce the 1961 and 1968 conventions and then re-accede with reservations respecting cannabis. Finally, along with other willing countries, a state could negotiate a new cannabis convention on a supranational basis.

“We wanted to facilitate an informed debate and then… present some options on what individual countries could do,” co-author Benedikt Fischer, a professor of health sciences at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, told the Edmonton Sun.

“I will say to [Canadian Prime Minister] Mr Harper that, even from a conservative policy point of view, there are many, many good reasons to not be content with the status quo of cannabis use control in this country.

“It costs a lot of money, it’s very ineffective and it’s counterproductive.”

We’re now more than 10 years on from the UN General Assembly’s declared intention to bring about a drug-free world, and they clearly haven’t done it. When it meets again this year, surely alternatives to prohibition will have to be considered. But current conventions have kept cannabis illegal in all countries, and these will not be reversed overnight.

The best we can probably hope for is that a process will be started to change the international drug control conventions to allow a state to implement its own cannabis control strategies within its own borders.

It will be interesting to see what happens, but somehow we’re unlikely to see the assembled delegates accepting the slogan: ‘A drug free world – we’re not even going to try’.

  • Rob Zorn is a Welington-based writer.

The Global Cannabis Commission report, Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate is avaliable at The Beckley Foundation website,