Tuesday, February 23, 2010

UN Office on Drugs and Crime makes the case for cannabis decriminalisation

UPDATE:  25.02.10 - Dissapointingly The UNODC YouthNet page discussed below has apparently now been updated with the section on cannabis decriminalisation removed - read more in this follow-up blog

It was interesting to stumble over this page titled 'Cannabis - a few issues' on the UN Office and Drug and Crime website, nestling within the on 'Youth and Drugs' pages of the the UNODC 'Youthnet' micro-site, making a clear and convincing case for decriminalisation of cannabis possession.

The page open with this introduction:

Cannabis (including marijuana, hash, hash oil) continues to be a controversial drug in many countries as people try to figure out the place that the drug has in their society. In the Western world, marijuana smoking by young people has become a very common activity - in some countries even more common than tobacco smoking. The UN's international conventions require countries to treat cannabis and other drug offences as criminal offences. However, these conventions leave the door open for countries to establish alternative measures as a substitute for criminal prosecution. Consequently, much of the debate about cannabis is around the legal status of the drug.
These questions are not simple. For that reason through the month of November, the Global Youth Network is going to review what is known about cannabis use and young people in a four- part series dealing with:
(i) the level of use worldwide;
(ii) why some young people use cannabis/why some have problems;
(iii) the harms associated with cannabis use; and
(iv) the effect of cannabis laws.

What follows is a refreshingly sensible and balanced review of the issues highlighted. Most interestingly is the final section on the cannabis laws, copied in full below,  making a strong case for cannabis decriminalisation:

Cannabis Series - Part 4
The effect of cannabis laws

A number of countries are debating their marijuana laws, in most cases, trying to decide whether the penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis should be reduced. Some advocate legalization of cannabis, that is, making it available through controlled, legal sources, as are tobacco and alcohol. However, most policymakers see that option as a huge social experiment, with outcomes that are difficult to predict. Others advocate that possessing personal amounts of cannabis should no longer be viewed as a criminal offence and penalties should be reduced. This is because, even though marijuana is not a harmless drug, an increasing number of health officials, researchers and politicians in these countries view the penalty to be out of proportion to the potential harm of using cannabis. The following are some of the arguments being made for reducing the penalties so that possession of small amounts of cannabis is no longer a criminal offence:

A criminal record is a serious matter
A criminal record labels a person caught with possessing small amounts of cannabis as a criminal and severely limits their ability to find employment, professional certification and to travel to other countries. Criminalizing a behaviour has a number of effects: it may make it more attractive to some youth, and it may result in the further marginalization of some youth, making it more difficult to help them.

Reducing the severity of the penalty doesn't seem to lead to increased use
Cannabis use (particularly heavy use in combination with other substances) poses risks, so it is important that any change not result in increased use. Based on the experiences of those countries or states that have reduced their penalties, various reviews agree that there is no indication that this will happen. For example, the 11 US states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s did not see increases in use beyond that experienced by other states; neither did the Australian states that have introduced a civil offence model over the past decade.

Laws don't seem to matter one way or another to young people
Over the past 10 years in most Western countries, the use of cannabis by young people has increased and attitudes have generally grown more tolerant toward the drug, with no difference between countries that had stiff or reduced penalties. For example in the Netherlands, where cannabis use is not a criminal offence, usage rates are lower than in the US, which has some of the toughest cannabis laws in the Western world. Young people who do not use cannabis generally say that their decision is based on health concerns or that they are just not interested. They aren't as likely to mention the laws as being a factor in their decision. In fact, research with teenage students suggests that the criminalization of cannabis and the stigmatization of cannabis use as a dangerous and forbidden activity makes it even more attractive to some.

Resources could be better placed elsewhere
Cannabis offences can take one or two officers off the street for up to several hours + their time for court appearances + tying up other court resources. These $$ could have more impact put into apprehending producers and traffickers, or directed at prevention, education and treatment. Although the law is an important means of controlling behaviour, accurate and balanced information and education should be seen as the primary means to enable young people to make informed choices about their drug use. For example, laws cannot distinguish between levels of use, whereas educators can help young people by providing clearer messages (for example, all drug use contains some risk - heavy use can result in serious problems for young people, while light, infrequent cannabis use poses fewer risks).

A case example
In Canada police are often reluctant to apply the penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis, not only because of the work involved, but also because they do not want to saddle a young person with a criminal record. When a young person is found in possession of small amounts of cannabis in Canada, the typical police response is some combination of taking the drug, detaining the person in the police car or station, giving them a warning and letting them go. As a result, young people feel that the police do not take the laws very seriously; some also feel that they are applied unevenly depending on a person's ethnicity, the clothing they are wearing, etc.

One of the options being considered is to give the person a ticket, like a traffic ticket. Even though this would seem like a softer approach, it would in fact represent a greater penalty than many young people currently experience. And if the police "widen the net" (that is, become more active in apprehending youth) as apparently occurred in Australia when penalties were reduced, it would actually mean that young people would be more likely to be penalized.

Another possible outcome is that parents are more likely to be involved when their child is fined than if they are just "slapped on the wrist" and let go, providing an opportunity for parent/child discussion on the issue.

Also, creating a reduced penalty option reduces the deviance attached to the behaviour, which does lead to a climate more open to actual health promotion messages (e.g., that using around driving and sexual situations, or using to the point of intoxication, or using in combination with other substances or medications, or while involved in physical or cognitive activity can be harmful).

This section, that could have been written by any number of drug law reform NGOs that leading figures in the UNODC have been happy to make disparaging comments about in the past, has, it would seem, been sitting unbothered on the UNODC site for some years (the Youth and Drugs pages don't appear to have been updated since 2007).

There are clearly a range of views on this issue within the UN drug agencies, but the arguments put forward above are strikingly at odds with those traditionally expounded by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), for example, that has been vocally opposed to any moves towards increased tolerance, decriminlaisation, or decreased penalties suggesting that such moves would increase use and undermine international drug control (famously attacking the UK s decision to reclassify cannabis in 2001).

The current Director of the UNODC, whilst sticking to his rather unpleasant mantra that countries 'get the drug problems they deserve' and generally lambasting what he sees as the 'liberalisation' of drug policy, has actually been open to, even supportive of, reducing cannabis penalties, for example suggesting  that administrative penalties, such as fines and treatment referrals would be appropriate for personal possession offenses (slipped into this otherwise ridiculous 2007 op-ed/rant). The UNODC's 2009 World Drugs Report also begrudgingly acknowledges that the decriminlisation of personal possession (of all drugs) in Portugal in 2001 helps "keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users" noting further that "It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased". 

It is notable then, that at the same time as UK politicians are making a song and dance about 'sending out the right message' by is increasing cannabis possession penalties (upping prison sentences from 2 to 5 years),  a real, active and public debate around cannabis decriminalisation is opening up, even within the most conservative bastions of the UN. More importantly this debate is being driven not by politics, but primarily by the reality of the policy's increasingly widespread adoption and the growing evidence that it has not unleashed the pandora's box of addiction, crime and depravity anticipated by some of its more vocal opponents.

And, ironically enough, I found the UNODC Youthnet drug site in the links page of one such opponent's website.


Sven said...

Section 4 seems to have been taken down, but the rest of the article is still there, and seems very balanced and moderate.

Steve Rolles said...

how pathetic

Steve Rolles said...

i have posted a follow up blog

kaptinemo said...

A positively Orwellian attempt at revising history via editing. Just like the old Soviet commissars did when an apparatchik fell out of favor and his image would be airbrushed from official photographs.

UNODC's stock in trade requires a vehement denial of reality. That they'd try to pull a stunt like this should surprise no one...

Tim Scully said...

Obviously, there's something you are doing very, very well, as the eye of Mordor is currently watching every breath you take. Well done.