Note: an edited version of this comment piece appeared in the Guardian online Comment is Free section on Saturday September 22, under the title 'The relaxation of cannabis laws shows the failure of the war on drugs'*. This version includes all the original links to relevant sources and discussion documents.
When the Uruguayan president José Mujica was asked about his proposal to make a historic break with global prohibition and put in place a legal state controlled market for cannabis he replied ‘Someone has to be first’.
In fact, recent years have seen reforms to cannabis policy and law proceeding apace around the world. The trend for decriminalisation of possession for personal use (with civil or administrative penalties replacing criminal ones) has spread across much of Europe, Latin America, and beyond. Some countries have gone further, finding various ways around the strictures of international prohibition (under the three UN drug conventions) to have de-facto legal supply as well. The famous Netherlands cannabis ‘coffee shops’ operate under a legal fudge in which their activities are technically illegal, but in practice are tolerated and licensed. The Spanish decriminalisation policy tolerates the personal possession of two plants, has allowed the creation of over 300 cannabis cooperatives. These pool the allowances of all their members, then farm and supply the resulting grass on a non-profit basis to these members, from premises managed by the cooperative.
Most surprising have been reforms in the US, the spiritual home of the ‘war on drugs’ ethos and still its primary cheerleader internationally, despite over 50% of Americans now supporting cannabis legalisation. Fourteen US states have decriminalised cannabis possession, and seventeen now allow medical cannabis – in some case with the distinction between medical and non medical use becoming increasingly blurred. Most significant are the three state ballot initiatives, in Washington, Oregon and Colorado being voted on in November, which will legalise and regulate cannabis markets for non medical use.
Whilst the US initiatives are groundbreaking and, if current polling holds up, may well be the first real cracks in the edifice of global prohibition they are, like most reforms, being led by (excusing the pun) grass roots campaigns. One of the unique aspects of the Uruguayan legalisation proposal is that it is Government led. Indeed, the Mujica proposal for a state monopoly on cannabis production and supply has, ironically, run into conflict with another well progressed Uruguayan bill promoted by cannabis activists that seeks to decriminalise personal consumption of up to eight plants and establish cooperatives along the lines of the Spanish model.
Whilst unlikely to prove popular in the US, the idea of Government monopoly is appealing in many ways, certainly for a pioneering initiative such as this. It is vitally important to learn from the mistakes made with alcohol and tobacco regulation. That means avoiding over-commercialisation, and while allowing legal availability to adult consumers, putting in place a regulatory framework to minimise health and social harms, rather than maximise profits. What this means in practice has been explored in some detail in Transform’s ‘Blueprint for Regulation’ which outlines potential controls over products (potency, price, information on packaging etc), vendors (licensing, vetting, training requirements), venues for sale and consumption (location, appearance, opening hours), and availability (age access controls, membership clubs). A responsible government is a far better entity to develop such a model than the free market.
The regional context of the Mujica proposal is also critical. The debate on drug law reform in Latin America has accelerated, with multiple heads of state now openly tabling the possibility wider reforms including legalisation, and the Organization of American States currently reviewing all the options, as frustrations have grown with the deteriorating security situation and violence related to the drug trade. The perception is that Latin America carries an unacceptably heavy burden for drug consumption in the US and Europe, and that the externally imposed solution, a military and police led war on drugs, is costly and counterproductive – as Mexico in particular has found out to its cost in recent years.
The Mujica proposal is, perhaps unsurprisingly, couched within in a bill of security measures and is being primarily promoted on that basis, and as is often the case with drug reform legislation, it includes provisions for increased penalties for traffickers. It also faces a number of other hurdles; it needs to be reconciled with the decriminalisation bill, it does not enjoy majority public support (60% remain opposed). Then are the objections from the guardians of the prohibitionist status quo, the US and the UN drug agencies.
If or when the Uruguayan initiative will be realised remains impossible to say – they may be first, they may not. But it is now clear that someone will be, and soon. After decades of counterproductive failure, the era of blanket global prohibitions on drugs is finally coming to an end.
Lisa Sanchez, Latin American Programme Manager, Transform Drug Policy Foundation Mexico and Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia
Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst, Transform Drug Policy Foundation UK
* just to note that this title was written by the Guardian editorial team, not us. We don't generally use the term 'relaxation' in trelation to drug law reform as it doesnt usefully describe what is in reality, a rolling out of potentially quite strict government regulation and control into an arena where currently there is none.