Towards the Regulation of the Cannabis Market: Where, When and How?

To leave the third largest industry in the world -- worth about $350 billion per annum -- in the control of criminal cartels,people with values opposite to those of civilized society -- is foolish to the point of insanity. Surely we must presume that the governments of the world, with the help of the necessary experts, can do a better job at minimizing the harms associated with drug production, marketing and use than will moral-free criminals.

The time has come for our leaders to recognize what has been obvious to many of us for a long time: that the prohibitionist approach of the War on Drugs has proved to be a failure. After 50 years of escalating expenditure, suffering and social devastation, it is time to rethink our basic approach to the control of psychoactive substances. It is time to consider policy options that have until now been too taboo even to discuss -- namely, control of these substances by a strictly regulated legal regime.

Psychoactive substances have been used by mankind since the earliest times and are deeply interwoven with the evolution of our cultural development. It was only in the 20th century that a system of control based on prohibition began to evolve, almost by accident. By the mid-20th century this tendency had gathered force, and finally got fixated in the three UN Drug Conventions of 1961, '71 and '88. Signed by almost every country in the world, these Conventions have achieved the status of holy writ -- unalterable and beyond reasoned debate.

Although around $100 billion a year is spent trying to enforce these conventions, the many United Nations meetings that I have attended are devoted to fulsome self-congratulation, with no consideration whatever of the actual data -- which would tell a story of costly failure and catastrophic collateral damage, particularly in the producer and transit countries. Before the 1961 Convention, which enacted the world-wide prohibition of the production, trade and possession of the three major plant-based drugs -- cannabis, cocaine and opium -- use around the world was minimal. Since then, drug-use has vastly proliferated, and has become a rite of passage for millions of young people. Prohibition has been a charter for criminals, creating profits unprecedented in history for those sufficiently ruthless and well-organized to take advantage of the system. So enormous are the sums of money available to the drug cartels that police forces, the military and politicians, especially in countries with fragile systems of government, are unable to resist. As a direct result, corruption in the 21st century is now more widespread and uncontrollable than it has ever been. And the horrific, moral-free violence and intimidation practiced along the Mexican border with the U.S. demonstrates that the power of drug-money can, in the last analysis, be greater than that of the modern state.

Prohibition has created a powerful coalition of police, drug enforcement agencies, prisons, legal systems, banks and criminal cartels -- all with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the current, prohibitionist policies. Those who suffer the most from these policies are the "little fish" -- personal drug-users and small-time dealers, who form the vast majority of the millions imprisoned on drugs offenses around the world. By contrast, the "big fish" go free, for instance, in 2010 $378 billion of laundered drug money was identified in the U.S. bank Wachovia, yet no individual was prosecuted, and it was not reported in the U.S. press except by Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, despite the vast cost to the world's taxpayers, and despite the terrible collateral damage from the War on Drugs, drug consumption continues to rise, particularly in those countries with relatively draconian policies, such as the U.S. and UK. Countries which have moved towards more liberal policies, such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain have, contrary to the predictions of the Drug Warriors, experienced not a surge but a reduction in problem use, drug-related deaths and crime.

There is no doubt that humans have always had an urge to alter their consciousness by a variety of techniques, from extreme sport and meditation to the ingestion of psychoactive substances. In different cultures and times, different substances have been dominant. In most of the world, alcohol and tobacco took early supremacy, and have remained legally and socially acceptable, although they cause more harms to health and costs to society than many of the illegal drugs.

There is no single, one-size-fits-all solution to the problems with which drugs and drug-use confront society. This very complex situation demands the development of subtle policy responses, adapted to local needs and conditions. However, I think one can say with certainty that the current, illegal and totally unregulated market is the worst possible solution. We need to move in the direction of a strictly-regulated market, based on the principles of health, harm-reduction, cost-effectiveness and human rights. Experimental new policies must be cautiously introduced and carefully, scientifically monitored. The different substances need different regulatory controls, especially tailored to their specific characteristics, and individual countries should be free to pursue policies conforming to their particular circumstances and needs. It will never be possible to eliminate problematic drug use but, in my opinion, more scientifically-based policies could greatly reduce these harms. Indeed, improving our drug policies is one of the key policy challenges of our time, because so much of the harm and suffering comes, not from the drugs themselves, but from the policies that seek to control them.

In 2006, I realized that although cannabis accounted for 80 percent of the world-wide use of illegal substances, it was, amazingly, never mentioned at international meetings such as the U.N. General Assembly. It was the elephant in the room: no one wanted attention brought to the fact that this relatively harmless substance was the mainstay of the massive and costly War on Drugs. I therefore convened the Global Commission on Cannabis, consisting of the world's most respected drug-policy analysts, to give an overview of the potential harms of cannabis and the effectiveness of current prohibitionist policies, and to provide alternative policy recommendations both inside and outside the current conventions. The Commission also provided a new Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control, a blue-print of how a country might control a regulated market. The Commission's Report, co-published with Oxford University Press, has been very influential among policy-makers around the world. A subsequent report commissioned by the Beckley Foundation, entitled Roadmap to Reform the UN Drug Conventions, sets out methods by which an individual country, or a group of countries, might adapt the conventions to better suit their individual needs, e.g. by clear decriminalization of personal drug possession, and by the legal regulation of one or more controlled substances.

Cannabis is the obvious first candidate for experiments in regulation, as it is most widely used, creates minimal harms and is the most socially accepted of currently controlled drugs. As the production and sale of recreational cannabis is prohibited by the U.N. Conventions, they would need to be amended to permit such an experiment. Until that happens, any partial experiment with regulation must be carried out in the legal grey area of latitude within the Conventions, as is now happening with the Cannabis Social Clubs in Spain, where cannabis is sold on a not-for-profit basis to club members.

There are various possible forms of regulation, from the medical marijuana model favored in the USA, to a loose model of regulation similar to that used for alcohol, to a strict regulation, as is currently being applied to tobacco. I and many experts favor the last option, because it offers maximum protection to the user while recognizing the individual's freedom of choice and human rights.

In this model, the state would license private producers and vendors. There could be three forms of producer: i) cannabis social clubs, already tried and proved to be successful in Spain; ii) smaller farmers; and iii) larger producers -- maybe run along the lines of GW Pharmaceuticals in the UK -- where cannabis is grown organically from cloned plants, and so the ratio of the main constituents (THC and CBD) can be controlled and labelled. Licensed vendors would be required to undertake harm-reduction measures, including the provision of information and education, and enforcement of minimum age restrictions. Advertising would be banned, and the product would be subject to a sales tax, among other regulatory controls.

Legal regulation would bring about many advantages such as:

  1. The product's purity and potency, including the ratio of the main ingredients -- THC and CBD -- could be controlled and clearly labelled.
  2. Users would not be criminalized, so they would be able to access advice and treatment without fear of prosecution. Also, lives would not be unnecessarily stigmatized with a criminal record.
  3. Police and court time, and prison space, would be freed up for more serious crimes, thereby bringing about substantial savings in government expenditure.
  4. Substantial tax revenues would be collected, which could be spent on the provision of improved education and treatment.

Creating a legal, strictly-regulated market in cannabis has great economic benefits, particularly important in these times of economic hardship. Recent findings from a Beckley Foundation-commissioned Report on a Cost-Benefit Analysis of a Regulated and Taxed Cannabis Market in England and Wales indicate that a minimum of over U.S. $1.6 billion could be generated per year if such a market for cannabis was set up in the UK. I expect that this figure would be similar, if not greater, in an equivalent Spanish market.

This revenue would come from a variety of sources: firstly, roughly $170 million would be saved on law enforcement costs, due to police not needing to waste time on arresting citizens for cannabis possession. The judicial system would save $155 million by not having to sentence users, and without the need to imprison them, $135 million would be saved. With these people not being incarcerated, they can remain a productive part of society, generating an additional $16 million. Finally, taxation of the cannabis product itself would produce around $1.2 billion for the government's pocket. All of this revenue could be invested into facilities for treatment of problem drug users and education, or used to reduce the national debt. As to the where? when? and how?, in the past year or two there has finally been a shift in attitudes to global drug policy. About 30 countries have now undertaken some form of decriminalization of drug use. Former presidents, especially in Latin America, and other distinguished public figures have declared that current prohibitionist policies are no longer fit for purpose, and have called for an end to the taboo on consideration of alternative options. The Beckley Foundation's Public Letter calling for such a debate has been signed by 7 former presidents, including Jimmy Carter, 12 Nobel Prize winners, and by prominent intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky. Earlier this year, the letter was, for the first time, signed by a president in office, namely President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, who has asked the Beckley Foundation to provide him with reports outlining alternative policy options, including regulation, to tackle the violence and corruption in Central America created by the illegal drug trade. Other Latin American presidents, such as President Santos of Colombia, have also expressed the need to explore policy alternatives. The President of Uruguay has recently proposed the introduction of a regulated market for cannabis.

Momentum and critical mass are gathering behind the calls for fresh approaches. The producer and transit countries of Latin America have suffered enough from the policies developed by consumer countries and maintained by the greatest consumer of them all, the United States. There is hope at last of escape from the folly of the present, failing prohibitionist regime, and of the implementation of subtler policies based on science and pragmatism rather than ideology.

This post was adapted from a talk given for the Rototom Social Forum.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

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