Recreational cannabis is not without its potential harms – which is why the thoroughly negative influence drug prohibition has on our society stands as the most potent argument for its legalisation, by far.
In our last episode, we broke down the economic advantages of legalising recreational cannabis down under, making a case for tax and regulation. While that’s all well and fine, there are other nuanced variables at play with the recent push to legalise. Many folks, after years of relentless propaganda about the harms of illicit drugs, have various concerns about the effects weed may have on the population. Fears that legalisation will drastically increase usage, or that cannabis will act as a ‘gateway drug’ to harder substances, are still commonplace. Opponents maintain that once Australians begin taking a hit, public productivity, health and safety will soon follow. So, let’s explore how cannabis may impact our society if we were to legalise and normalise its distribution and use in a similar manner to tobacco and alcohol.
Let’s face it: most of us like to have a toke every once in a while, which is why recreational usage is already ubiquitous across the globe. Australia has comparatively high rates of cannabis consumption; about one-third of Australians aged 22 or older have smoked cannabis at least once in their lives, with over a million people using the drug in the past year. As of 2016, medicinal cannabis has been legalised in some states (even if it isn’t easy to get a prescription). So, if weed has a profound effect on the health of our society, we are already seeing that effect being played out today.
What is that effect? Well, findings indicate that about 10% of regular cannabis users will become dependent on the substance in some form – considering 14.4% of cannabis users smoke weed on a daily basis, this seems to ring somewhat true. Chronic usage can have a negative effect on your health, depending on who you are. Also, cannabis use can potentially function as a catalyst for psychosis and schizophrenia, particularly if you are genetically susceptible. Additionally, smoking weed has shown to be harmful to the baby’s development during pregnancy, and driving while under the influence of cannabis can double the potential risk of a car crash, on average. While all of this is undeniably true, it’s important to note that regardless of whether cannabis was legal or not, each of these impacts would remain present in society.
It is supposed by advocates of prohibition that the punitive approach will reduce cannabis consumption, whereas a lenient approach to drug policy increases usage. There is little evidence to support this, however. Punitive drug policy often has an unnoticeable effect on consumption, but it can inflict great harm on the user. In the first year that Colorado legalised cannabis, its rate of usage (miraculously) did not increase. In that same time, the State Department of Public Safety also reported that between 2012 and 2014, the number of marijuana arrests was down by 46%. Another study comparing liberal Amsterdam to punitive San Francisco found there was less illicit drug use across the board in Amsterdam; the San Fran residents were also more likely to be offered another drug while buying cannabis off the street, including heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.
Speaking of… the popular notion that cannabis acts as some sort of ‘gateway drug’ is an outmoded hypothesis that doesn’t stand up to basic evidence. Cannabis can (and often does) precede other forms of drug use; even so, the vast majority of people who use cannabis do not go on to use other substances. Additionally, tobacco and alcohol generally precede cannabis use. At first glance, there is a seeming correlation, but dig a little deeper and you will find that there is no causation.
Furthermore, even the early decision to ban cannabis was something of an accident of history. As a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, Australia was subject to a protocol which considered cannabis as dangerous as opium without formally reviewing any of the evidence. Those in attendance had not even been briefed about the effects of cannabis. Yet, the law stands, and any repeal or review has proven immensely difficult after its ratification in the late 1920’s.
History vindicates the stance that the blanket prohibition of substances results in rather undesirable, or at least unsatisfying, societal consequences. That the prohibition of alcohol led to disastrous fallout in 1920’s USA is common knowledge; what many fail to understand today is that the War on Drugs continues this old legacy under a new guise. In fact, the ‘War on Drugs’ is a misnomer, because the war has not been declared on drugs, but on drug users and suppliers. While political leaders craft drug policy in Canberra, regular people experience the everyday realities of those decisions; face to face, they are the ones to confront the absurdities and contradictions contained within the justice system, but they are left to feel mostly powerless in changing them.
Addiction in Context
We as a society must distinguish addiction not as a crime, but as a pressing mental health problem. Our efforts to conceal the symptom by sweeping casualties under the rug cannot be expected to adequately address the root cause of addiction. This is true even with existing harm minimisation strategies, which in recent decades have gained significant ground, gradually moving drug policy in the right direction. Still, when it comes to good ol’ Mary Jane, the Australian public remains well ahead of its political leaders. According to a 2016 poll by Essential Media, 55 per cent of Australians supported the legalisation, taxation and regulation of cannabis.
The brutal realities of criminalisation have inevitably led to severe negative impacts in the lives of users. For one, the deeply ingrained social stigma that surrounds cannabis and other illicit drugs affects all users to one degree or another. Yet criminalisation has more adverse consequences. By definition, illicit drug users must defy the law to consume their drug of choice; through possession, they are under risk of receiving a criminal record, which could seriously limit their opportunities as they move through life.
What’s worse is that often the most vulnerable, precarious and estranged from society are the ones who use illicit substances the most to cope with their life circumstances. Such people find themselves lost in this world; they are marginalised by our justice system and denied the care they need. It is revealing that the Indigenous population ends up disproportionately incarcerated in this fashion. US President Jimmy Carter’s words resonate here: “Penalties against the use of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of a drug itself; and where they are they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana.”
Arrest 10% of the Population?
Illicit drug offences take up a considerable proportion of our justice system’s resources. Assuming cannabis were legal, those resources could be dedicated to addressing more pressing matters, such as violent crimes. Cannabis arrests account for the largest proportion of illicit drug arrests in Australia; of the two million Australians who use cannabis every year, there were almost 80,000 cannabis arrests in 2015-16. Of these arrests, 90 per cent were consumers and the remaining 10 per cent were providers. Yet enforcement of drug laws has made a negligible effect on the Australian drug market.
Legalisation of recreational cannabis would definitely save police resources. In providing a safe, regulated market, drug policy reform could prove more effective in combatting unregulated black markets than police crackdowns. Further, the revenue raised from the cannabis excise could potentially go directly into expanding drug prevention and the treatment of addiction. Regulation would enable the Australian government to mandate plain packaging and enforce proof of age laws . As with cigarettes, weed could be plastered with relevant health warnings and consumer information. These efforts would increase the chances that the product does not fall into the wrong hands.
Ultimately, the question of whether to legalise cannabis for recreational use is one of ethics; central to this question is whether the state should ever intervene in the everyday affairs of citizens, and if so, to what degree. The question of recreational cannabis is thus one of civil liberties. Should we as individuals be able to make our own decisions when it comes to what we do with our lives, or do institutions of public health get a say, too? Smoking cannabis is a risk, much like drinking alcohol or driving a car is a risk (and doing both simultaneously is stupidity). Governments continue to have a highly paternalistic stance towards cannabis – they claim to know what your best interests are when it comes to the plant. This stance does not translate to drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, which are both proven to be of far greater detriment to public health than weed.
In conclusion, illicit drugs (including cannabis) have evolved over the years to become cultural mainstays (for better or for worse); it is naïve to assume they are going away. Ultimately, these drugs cover up vast insecurities and vulnerabilities that existed long before the drug problem. Any social policy intent on ruthlessly suppressing a given drug and its users through criminalisation produces unintended and highly negative consequences. If the intent is to promote public wellbeing, we must manage and regulate these substances, rather than outlaw their existence.
 ABC: Australia should tax and regulate cannabis, not prohibit it –
 Parliament of Australia Budget Office: Tax and Regulate Cannabis, April 2018 –
 Brisbane Times: The Economic and Social Benefits and Costs of Legalising Recreational Cannabis in Queensland –
 ZeroHedge: Legal Marijuana’s Social Impact On Colorado –
 ADF: Cannabis legalisation: what model for regulation? –
 Randy E. Barnett: Bad Trip: Drug Prohibition and the Weakness of Public Policy, 1993 –
America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. By Steven B. Duke & Albert C. Gross. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993.
 The Conversation: Legal highs: arguments for and against –
 AIHW: National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 –