Oct 06, 2008
"If something is not legal, you can't regulate it very effectively."
-- Prof. Robin Room, School of Population Health, University of Melbourne
On October 2, the Global Cannabis Commission, a group of top scientists commissioned by the Beckley Foundation, issued its groundbreaking report, "Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate." Your faithful correspondent was able to attend the daylong seminar in which the report was discussed, held in the distinctly imposing Moses Room of the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster.
The report was written by five leading marijuana and drug policy researchers: Benedikt Fischer of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, and three Australians: Wayne Hall of the University of Queensland, Simon Lenton of the National Drug Research Institute at the Curtin University of Technology, and Robin Room of the University of Melbourne. A number of other important researchers joined the discussion (and contributed advice and research to the report).
RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH MARIJUANA USE:
Marijuana is not harmless. Intoxication "increases the risk of motor vehicle crashes 2-3 times" -- not trivial, but "far more modest than that of alcohol." There is clearly an increased risk of bronchitis among heavy marijuana smokers, but no evidence of increased rates of emphysema, while the evidence regarding lung cancer is mixed, the report states.
Marijuana almost certainly exacerbates symptoms of schizophrenia in vulnerable individuals, but epidemiologic evidence argues against it causing psychosis in healthy people. As for worries about increased potency, more research is needed. If users adjust their intake in relation to potency, dangers are minimal. Perhaps most important, "All of these trends [toward increased potency] have been encouraged by prohibition, which favors the production of more concentrated forms."
Overall, the report finds the risks of marijuana use are "modest" compared with those of legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
POLICY AND REFORM:
While causing obvious harm to those arrested and convicted, criminalization of marijuana possession has not succeeded in preventing marijuana from being widely available. Contrary to wild claims being made in Massachusetts right now, decriminalization measures have not increased use rates. "If a nation chooses to use the criminal law for controlling cannabis use, there is no justification for incarcerating an individual for a cannabis possession or use offense, nor for creating a criminal conviction," the report concludes.
While not firmly advocating one policy alternative, the report lays out many advantages to a system of legal regulation like that used for alcohol. As report co-author Prof. Robin Room noted succinctly, "If something is not legal, you can't regulate it very effectively."