Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate

Drug Policy — POSTED BY Cosmo on February 4, 2010 at 6:12 pm

New Study Calls for a More Rational Approach to Cannabis Control

‘That which is prohibited cannot easily be regulated’

A new book published by the Beckley Foundation and Oxford University Press has concluded that cannabis prohibition policies have comprehensively failed and that a new approach to cannabis policy is urgently needed.  The book entitled Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate, published on the 25th of January, was researched and written by a group of the world’s leading drug policy analysts[1]. It gives an overview of the latest scientific evidence surrounding cannabis and calls for an evidence-based approach to policy that seeks to minimize the harms associated with use of that drug.

The book highlights current scientific evidence on the health consequences of cannabis use; it shows that while cannabis use does cause harms to some of those who use it, those harms at the population level are modest in comparison with alcohol or cocaine.  It demonstrates that the vast numbers of arrests for possession of cannabis in countries such as the UK, the US and Switzerland have had minimal deterrent effect.  The authors propose a less punitive approach by governments and international agencies. Policy has changed hardly at all since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was ratified, with present international treaties inhibiting decriminalisation or legalisation and preventing any thoroughgoing reforms of national cannabis regimes.

The UN estimates that up to 190 million people use cannabis[2], representing 4% of the global adult population, compared with 1% of the population, which uses all other illegal drugs together.  Thus cannabis is by far the most used controlled drug in the world, making it the mainstay of the War on Drugs. In the United States alone there were an estimated 829,625 arrests for cannabis violations in 2006[3].  Despite these figures, cannabis continues to be largely ignored in international drug policy debates.  This is what prompted Amanda Feilding, Director of the Beckley Foundation to convene the Global Cannabis Commission, which resulted in this book.

The book concludes that since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was ratified, patterns of cannabis consumption have altered fundamentally: in many nations in the developed world smoking cannabis is now almost a rite of passage among young people. A crucial conclusion of the book is that there appears to be no apparent link between cannabis policy – whether draconian or liberal – and prevalence of use. Thus liberal approaches would appear to be preferable, as they minimise the adverse consequences arising from the law and its enforcement.

Current control regimes are regarded as being intrusive on privacy, socially divisive and expensive to maintain, helping to create illegal markets for cannabis. New research has identified the significance of the strength and chemical composition of cannabis in relation to psychological health.  It has also demonstrated the importance of the balance found in natural cannabis between THC[4],[5] (which gets you high), and CBD[6] (which acts as an anti-psychotic agent). Recently genetically modified strains such as ‘skunk’, which dominate the street markets in the UK, have been found to have increasingly high THC and extremely low amounts of CBD[7]. Illegal markets always tend towards the production of stronger strains of drugs.

The book outlines alternative methods of minimising harms from cannabis use. Four possible routes of change are described, from depenalisation to decriminalisation to the possibility of partial legality and finally to a regulated market.

The book also lays out ways in which a country can legally overcome the restrictions of the current international conventions, and provides a new Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control. This book is an invaluable guide in helping form future cannabis policy.

Amanda Feilding, Director of the Beckley Foundation commented:

“Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate clearly shows that prohibitionist policies not only fail to meet their objectives but have inflicted significant social harms in the process.

Criminalisation has not acted as a deterrent, whereas with a regulated market the product could be labelled for strength and chemical composition, thereby making it safer. Government could also control and tax its sale which would provide extra funding for education and treatment.”

Peter Reuter, a Professor of public policy and one of the book’s five co-authors commented:

“It is time for governments around the world to readdress cannabis policy and consider trying approaches that build on growing evidence that criminalisation of use is a minor deterrent and that it is necessary to develop responsible ways of managing supply rather than creating large illegal markets”.

From the Back-Cover:

Cannabis, marijuana, pot, ganja – it goes by many names – is by far the most widely used illegal substance, and accounts for more arrests than any other drug. Politicians the world over have tied themselves in knots trying to decide how to deal with it.

Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate is unique in providing the materials needed for deciding on policy about cannabis, and will be of interest to a wide range of readers interested in drugs and drug policy. It reviews the state of knowledge on the health and psychological effects of cannabis, and its dangerousness relative to other drugs, legal and illegal. It considers patterns of use, the size of illicit markets and the effects of attempts to enforce a global prohibition. It examines countries that have tried reforming their regimes and softening prohibition and evaluates the effects of such changes on cannabis usage, drug markets, and in mitigating the adverse consequences of prohibition. For policymakers willing to look outside the box of the global prohibition regime, the book examines the options and possibilities for a country or group of countries to bring about change in, or opt out of, the global control system.

The book “is based on solid research and it is argued in an imaginative yet realistic fashion…. We need to change our way of thinking and acting on this matter. New policies must be based on empirical data, not on ideological assumptions and dogmas.”
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil.

“Now it is time for change…. The outstanding scientists who composed this report point the way ahead.”
Jan Wiarda, former chairman, European Police Chiefs.

The Beckley Foundation

Beckley Park – Oxford –


1 Peter Reuter, Robin Room, Wayne Hall, Benedikt Fischer, Simon Lenton.

2 UNDCP: Facing the challenge, UNDCP, Vienna World Drug Report, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997

3 Annual Uniform Crime Report, Federal Bureau of Investigation’s, 2006.

4 Delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol

5 Di Forti, M. Morgan, C. Dazzan, P. Pariante, C.  High-potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 195: 488-491 (2009).

6 Cannabidiol

7 Potter DJ, Clark P, Brown, MB. Potency of D9-THC and Other Cannabinoids in Cannabis in England in 2005: Implications for Psychoactivity and Pharmacology. Journal of Forensic Sciences. Vol. 53:1 (2008).

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