Advocates of cannabis prohibition, when confronted by statistics showing that it is much less harmful than, say, alcohol, have often countered with the argument that the recreational use of cannabis can lead to use of more harmful drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
This is known as the gateway hypothesis.
Ironically, it seems that this might be true, but not in the sense originally intended by prohibitionists.
All over the world we are starting to see countries and states, previously staunchly in favour of cannabis prohibition, moving to regulate its use - both for medicinal purposes and for recreation.
Is it true that cannabis is in fact a gateway drug, one that eventually leads governments to regulate other illicit substances?
In Uruguay, cannabis supply and consumption for recreational purposes is regulated and is a legal, taxable industry, completely under the responsibility of the state.
We could write a book on the life and times of that country’s extraordinary former president, Jose Mujica , but one of his primary motivations in moving to regulate, rather than prohibit cannabis use and supply, was seeing the havoc wreaked upon his neighbouring countries by the international war on drugs.
In doing so, he is violating three increasingly irrelevant United Nations treaties on drug control .
The president has openly stated that he hopes to see additional illicit drugs taken out of criminal hands and produced and sold in a legal, taxable framework, but that it needs to be done in phases .
At the time of writing, four states in the US have moved to regulate cannabis for recreational purposes: Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska .
Meanwhile, medicinal cannabis is legal in 28 states, including the above four that have legalised it recreationally . Some states, such as California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Maine, instituted medical cannabis a long time ago - 1996, 1998 and 1999 respectively - before discussions around cannabis regulation were seriously on the table in the US. Colorado, Hawaii and Nevada legalised medicinal cannabis in 2000. This was followed by Vermont and Montana in 2004, Rhode Island in 2006, New Mexico and Michigan in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and three more states in 2010: Arizona, New Jersey and the nation’s capital. Delaware followed suit in 2011, then Connecticut and Massachusetts in 2012, Illinois and New Hampshire in 2013, and Maryland, Minnesota and New York in 2014. Most recently, in 2016, five more states passed such legislation: Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The interesting thing is that, at a federal level, cannabis in all forms is just as illegal as ever.
So why have these states been able to regulate cannabis even though they live in a country that still prohibits its supply and consumption? I'm interested not from a legal standpoint, but from a political standpoint.
Where did the political will come from?
One of the main aspects driving the political will of states such as Colorado and Washington stemmed from the opportunity to generate much-needed state revenue through the regulation and taxation of recreational cannabis . And it has proved to be very lucrative, with Colorado generating $126 million from legal cannabis shops as of August last year .
An analysis of the political environment in the lead-up to regulation holds another clue. The momentum to get recreational cannabis made legal in Colorado and Washington was led by popular public campaigns, and eventually achieved via popular ballot. Several top state officials in Colorado have since said that their job is to carry out the will of the people, regardless of whether they agree with them .
The former Obama administration, which appeared to be softening its stance towards cannabis law, gave the states autonomy to proceed with this law reform. It will be interesting to see what occurs under Donald Trump, who has publicly stated he is in favour of regulated medical cannabis, though several of his closest advisors are known to be opposed to cannabis regulation of any form .
Generally speaking, people have a tremendous amount of experience with cannabis compared with other drugs. Last year, 43% of American adults reported having tried cannabis . Cannabis use has for decades been so widespread, and so tacitly accepted amongst various demographics, that if any government agency attempted to run a "reefer madness" [11 ALSO 12 AND 13] style scare campaign these days it would be laughable.
Since the majority of people cannot be convinced that cannabis is scarier than alcohol or nicotine or caffeine, they can surely be convinced that the state is wasting a tremendous amount of money on its prohibition.
Even though the campaigns to regulate cannabis in Washington and Colorado had their genesis in different philosophies (Colorado campaigners argued that cannabis is safer than alcohol, Washington campaigners argued that although cannabis is harmful, it's prohibition was more harmful) ultimately people were comfortable regulating cannabis for their own reasons.
I think it's unlikely that we could currently, for example, see any states move to regulate the use of methamphetamine because even if one were to argue that its prohibition does more harm than good, people are still too scared of it to vote to end that policy.
But do we need to wait for people to become comfortable with a given drug before our politicians move to regulate, rather than prohibit, their supply and consumption?
Maybe not. In the US alone, 87% of monthly illicit drug use is cannabis . If more states move towards regulation, and eventually regulatory laws are passed at a federal level, how would anyone be able to justify the gargantuan budget currently awarded to law enforcement agencies to fight the war on drugs?
There just wouldn't be enough arrests to go around.
From an economic standpoint, I think that once they see enough regulation of cannabis use, the US will have no choice but to move towards regulation of other illicit substances and end the war on drugs altogether.
Portugal’s dramatic shift to decriminalise all drugs has been cited by numerous politicians and advocates around the world as an example of a policy that has successfully reduced drug use, related crime and health issues. Whether or not that is a direct result of the policy , its apparent effectiveness has resulted in a reconsideration of prohibition by many countries that had closely scrutinised Portugal’s progress.
However, some argue that “legalisation” should not be done for all drugs at once, and that it is more likely that, following cannabis, substances will be regulated in phases .
The Czech Republic is an interesting case. While drug use is not technically legal, it is no longer considered a criminal offence . Instead, it is processed as a misdemeanour . As a result, a number of substances are able to be ‘legally’ possessed in certain amounts. This include cannabis (15g), magic mushrooms (40 pieces), LSD (five ‘papers’), heroin (1.5g), cocaine (1g) and methamphetamine (2g) . This watered-down approach to drug use may stem from the Czech Republic’s long-standing liberal cannabis laws, developed when it first achieved statehood in 1993 .
Canada has acknowledged that its opioid crisis has resulted in thousands of lost lives, with MPs calling for the regulation of drugs to address growing public health concerns . This follows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to regulate recreational cannabis by 2018, and if that policy is successful, it could see attitudes change and the dialogue open for regulation of other drugs.
We currently have trials of medicinal cannabis underway in Australia, but no moves yet to regulate any illicit substances for recreational use.
I have noticed personally that there has been a changing tide in public opinion about drug prohibition. Former Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay and former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer have acknowledged the futility of Australia’s current drug laws. The numbers reflect this too: 69% of Australians support legislating for legal medicinal cannabis, with only 5% supporting a custodial sentence for cannabis possession . Between 5 and 7% of Australians support “legalising” other drugs, and less than half support prison terms for possession of ecstasy, methamphetamine or heroin - 14%, 21% and 24% respectively.
I have published a number of articles, and been aired on public radio and television openly calling for an end to drug prohibition [23 ALSO 24 ALSO 25 AND 26 AND 27 ].
But until our legislators take notice, we will continue to fight an expensive and unwinnable war on drugs. My feeling is that Australia probably won't lead the way on this, and that we will end up following in the footsteps of our American allies as we do in so many other respects, but I would love to be proven wrong.
There is absolutely nothing to be gained from continuing along the path of prohibition, and everything to be gained by ending the war on drugs today.