Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where now for opponents of cannabis law reform?

This opinion piece appears in the Febuary edition of 'Matters of Substance', the magazine of the New Zealand Drug Policy Foundation.

As a new high-profile group is established in the US to fight legalisation, Steve Rolles, a long-time advocate for regulating drugs, considers how recent reform victories are reshaping the landscape of the oldest debate in drug policy.

The debate around the legalisation and regulation of cannabis has been with us since the 60s, but recent years have seen it move increasingly from the margins into the political mainstream. In the US, support for legalising cannabis has crossed the 50 percent threshold; even in the spiritual home of the War on Drugs, and despite bipartisan political hostility, a majority now support an end to cannabis prohibition.

Last November, the issue made the decisive move from theoretical debate to political reality as the states of Washington and Colorado passed ballot initiatives that not only legalised personal cannabis possession for adults but also set in motion the first regulated markets for non-medicinal cannabis anywhere in the world. If, as seems likely, the laws are implemented (the federal government is still considering its response at time of writing), this will represent the first real breach in the global prohibitionist regime.

While reform advocates have been understandably jubilant, for opponents, a strategic rethink has become necessary, perhaps best represented by a new group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana. This initiative is led by Kevin Sabet, a US Office of National Drug Control veteran under three administrations and probably the highest profile opponent of cannabis legalisation in the US with hundreds of print and broadcast credits to his name. Sabet is supported in the SAM leadership team by former congressman Patrick Kennedy, journalist David Frum and a group of academics and medical professionals.

The SAM project appears to represent a clear strategic repositioning for Sabet and, by inference, the wider coalition of cannabis law reform opponents. Most striking is the recommendation that cannabis possession should become a civil offence and that criminal records for possession be expunged. The additional requirement for a “mandatory health screening and marijuana-education program as appropriate” has met with indignation amongst some US reformers, but suggestions that SAM advocates mandatory rehab are not supported by the text on the site (referrals to treatment are specifically advocated only "if needed").

While the term ‘decriminalisation’ does not appear, it is precisely what is being advocated by most definitions used in drug policy (closely mirroring the Portuguese decriminalisation model, albeit only for cannabis). It is a significant shift for Sabet who, as recently as April 2012, was writing of decriminalisation that “such a policy may actually make us worse off” and flat out that it “won’t work”.

It would be gratifying to think his group has been convinced by reform arguments or evidence from 14 US states and 25 or so other countries around the world that have already adopted decriminalisation models. However, equally plausible is the dawning realisation that decriminalisation, at least of cannabis, is now a political inevitability and Canute-like defiance is futile. Obama’s recent statement that ‘we’ve got bigger fish to fry’ (than arresting cannabis users) suggests that SAM may also be echoing (or informing) shifting priorities at federal level. There is certainly considerable convergence between the SAM proposals and the US Office of National Drug Control Policy’s talk of a third way (between the extremes of legalisation and a War on Drugs) and retreat from more hawkish War on Drugs rhetoric.

Some hardline prohibitionist groups, however, seem determined to dig in. The World Federation Against Drugs for example, describes advocates of decriminalisation as “driven by greed, disrespect of human rights and lack of understanding of the harms of drugs and of addiction”. SAM by contrast, appears to be conceding on decriminalisation but drawing a line in the sand on legalisation regulation.

The arguments against legalisation are familiar, with, perhaps unsurprisingly, “cannabis use is harmful” front and centre, supported by extensive detail and references. For Transform, debating the risks of cannabis is a distraction from the more salient point that, however risky cannabis is, it is more risky when produced and supplied via an unregulated criminal market (and this is quite aside from the harms of that criminal market). Cannabis needs to be legally regulated because of its risks, not because it is safe.

More interestingly, SAM places great emphasis on the threat of the commercialisation of a legal cannabis market, dwelling on the spectre of Big Tobacco. This, certainly, is a legitimate concern but, in fairness, hardly one that has been ignored.*

Regulation is a blank slate; governments can establish any legal and policy framework they deem appropriate. As demonstrated by Uruguay’s proposals for a state monopoly on cannabis supply and the emerging non-profit cannabis cooperatives in Spain, a commercial model is far from a given, let alone one that “will act just as the tobacco industry acts” as SAM dramatically proclaims.

Indeed, the tobacco industry has seen increasingly strict regulation of dosage, price, packaging, public consumption, branding and marketing over past decades. In much of the West, even in the US, these smarter approaches to tobacco (regulatory tools are impossible under prohibition) have helped dramatically reduce tobacco use in a matter of decades at the same time as cannabis use has been rising.

It’s hard to escape the observation that SAM may be making a case against free-market legalisation while actually supporting a strictly regulated market model. Maybe having seen the light on decriminalisation, they will soon join principled reformers in helping design the optimal regulatory frameworks for legal cannabis that can deliver the shared goals we all seek

*see for example see p.105 of Transform's 2009 'Blueprint for Regulation',  p37, p.51 of Transform's 2006 'Tools for the Debate', or Transform's submission to the UK Govt 2008 consultation on tobacco policy


Anonymous said...

Interestingly you don't touch on the very strong arguments that Sabet makes about the medical use of cannabis or those about the tiny role that cannabis plays in US mass incarceration.

A huge number of drug policy reformers conflate the issues of cannabis regulation and access to medical cannabis. Foolishly, smoking bongs is hard to message as medicine.

Secondly campaigns like the Marijuana Majority continue to message that those opposed to mass incarceration are pro cannabis law reform. I believe the inclusion of some African American figures in their 'hall of fame' to verge on racism. In the context of US politics this seems extremely short sighted and lazy.

If Sabet signals a toughening up and an improvement of the quality of those opposing an end to prohibition then drug policy reformers need to sharpen up their act.

Steve Rolles said...

Thanks for your comment anon - yes there are a number of topics raised by the SAM project that the space available (1000 words) for this piece didnt allow me to explore.

On the issues you raise - they are right that there are not large numbers in prison for cananbis possession, although the numbers arenot insignificant. There are however very large numbers in prison for non violent drug offenses more broadly, including small-time cannabis production and dealing - many/most of which can be traced directly to prohitbition, and the criminal markets it fuels. Also with cannabis comes huge costs associated with the 800k possession arrests each year - both the financial costs of the enforcemetn and the human costs of the criminal records interms of impacts on employment, personal finance, welfare and so on. the fact that these impacts fall disproportionately heavily on African Americans is why many from that community now advocate cannabsi and wider drug law refrom. I dont see any issue with reform advocates, many whom are African Americans, highlighting that fact - the recism call is way off the mark IMHO.

Im sympathetic to your point on medicalc cannabis - and we have always held a position that conflating maedica and non medical cannabis reform arguments/movements is a risky one. It may have delivered some positive outcomes in the US, but it also creates vulnerabilities that Sabet et al are now exploiting. We have argued that the two issues are, for the most part, best kept seperate as far as possible - in a way that reflects their importance but obvious diffeences. Conflating them can potentially undermine both in the long run. Just to note: I write this as a UK based analyst where the medical cannabis issue has a very different prtofile to the US. Its also an issue I dont claim specific expertise in (Im not a doctor) and one that Transform is not active in - as we focus on recreational drug policy.

On your final point, I agree Sabet and his organisation are the most coherent voices in the opposition; Thats why I'm writing about them - I think we need to adress the point they make clearly, and show why regulation is a better way of achieving the goals groups such as his seek (in terms of reduced social and health harms, and protection of young people and effectiove expenditure).

peterreynolds said...

The last resort of the British government in its opposition to cannabis law reform is its unlawful conspiracy with GW Pharmaceuticals.

The deception as to what Sativex is, that the licence GW uses to grow cannabis is unlawful and the cruel and discriminatory denial of access to medicine to millions is a scandal. It should shake the very foundations of anyone's belief in government. Successive administrations have perpetuated this policy. Multiple FOI requests to the HO and the MHRA reveal the depths of dishonesty and corruption.

This privately owned company has effectively become a drug cartel under the armed protection of the British police. £500 million each year is frittered away on the criminal justice system for cannabis alone. The only result of which is higher prices, more violence and more unscrupulous dealers targeting children and young people.

British cannabis policy is designed to cause maximum harm. Cameron, May and now Jeremy Browne, in opposition to LibDem cannabis policy, have blood, misery and destruction on their hands.

Freeman said...

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. U.S. alcohol Prohibition was almost identical to marijuana "decriminalization"; possession wasn't criminal -- production and distribution were. As criminal gangs filled the supply vacuum and fought their turf wars openly on the public streets, the criminal black market was recognized as a far larger problem than alcohol abuse, which we learned fairly quickly and responded to appropriately in that case, but seem unable to fully grasp with respect to drug policy reform. Forty years of "war on drugs" have shown conclusively that adding possession to the list of criminalized activities fails to curb the criminal black market and it's attendant social ills. Simply removing it from the list only leaves us where we started with alcohol Prohibition.

As before, the largest drug policy reform issue that currently needs to be addressed is the criminal black market caused by prohibition of a regulated supply. Sabet and the "third-way" advocates are completely failing in that regard. Choosing to ignore the elephant in the room as we attempt to clean up the dung it leaves on the floor is clearly futile.

Steve Rolles said...

Peter: medical cannabis in the UK is an important issue - but this piece is about non-medical cannabis in the US. Transform's work focuses on non- medical cannabis (and nonn medica use of other drugs)- and we generally try to avoid conflating or confusing the two issues - even though there is obviously some cross over.