Cannabis legalization is coming to Europe: the governments of Luxembourg and Switzerland announced their plan to regulate the production and sale of cannabis products, other countries may follow their lead soon. What do drug policy professionals and activists think about this? We asked a couple of experts to comment, pro and con. We publish their views without editing.
Pavel Bem, Global Drug Policy Commission, former mayor of Prague, Czech Republic
“Legal regulation of cannabis production/sale is an inevitable step to address the disastrous negative unintended consequences of prohibition of these substances. Such a prohibition created black market economies undermining democracies and fulfilling organized crime.
The revenues of organized crime groups involved in the illicit drug markets are exceeding 300 billion USD per year and by the size are comparable with the legal markets with alcohol, tobacco and cereals all together. Illicit drug markets generate unprecedented harms to people and societies: violence, smuggling, money laundering, premature deaths, epidemics of blood born infections, and many, many others. Certainly, cannabis is only the tip of the iceberg.
In general, last decades showed us that the prohibition and war on drugs is a phenomenal political misunderstanding and failure, and drug free world is an ideological aspiration impossible to meet. There is a clear evidence that prohibition has a little or no impact on illicit drug use prevalence, with the number of consumers increasing every year in last two decades. Furthermore, punitive approach to drug control fundamentally undermines the relationship between the citizen and the government, thus undermining the democracy itself.
An increasing number of national or local authorities are experimenting with different ways of regulating the cannabis market, while many more are implementing alternatives to criminalizing those who use drugs. United Nations admitted last year that cannabis has important therapeutical potential. The World Health Organization confirmed that cannabinoids help treating many diagnoses and may deliver pain relief for many people suffering from pain. Certainly, such a conclusion refers to medical cannabis which is in hands of physicians as a treatment option. However, in many countries around the Globe (also in Europe), many people using cannabis for medical purposes are facing criminalization.
From all these perspectives I welcome attempts of some European governments and parliaments to explore the alternative options in order to mitigate all the negative unintended consequences described above. From the public health perspective I see as crucial in all attempts searching for more human, rational and cost-benefit drug policies, an evidence based approach respecting the up-to-date data and research findings. We should have in mind the principle of a “U-curve”(see here).”
Matej Kosir, director, UTRIP, Slovenia
“First of all, in my opinion we have to strictly separate a discussion on three very different dimensions of cannabis policy, which is between so-called ‘recreational’ (marijuana, hashish), medicinal (cannabinoids) and/or industrial use (hemp). Most of the time legalization groups and their supporters from the policy and business arena very likely intentionally mix those contexts to make a confusion amongst policy and decision makers and the general public. They most probably do this in order to make an impression that cannabis as a natural product (plant) is healthy and widely useful for everybody. But research clearly shows that cannabis (plant) could be beneficial from medicinal and industrial perspective, but more or less harmful from the perspective of ‘recreational’ use (depending on the quantity and frequency used, THC content, context of use, such as use related to the mental health conditions, addiction etc.).
Furthermore, our societies already have many problems with two legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) and to a great extent we are not successful in controlling them and limiting their consumption. It’s a bit better situation in the field of tobacco due to stricter international policy by WHO and European Commission, but still the situation is not optimal, which we know very well from our mystery shopping activities on a regular basis. So, in these circumstances legalization and/or commercialization of the third drug wouldn’t be a success at all. The opposite – it would be a total failure like in some US states. Why do I think like this? Despite having great legislation and regulation, there is not enough workforce capacity (e.g., police and inspectors) and financial support (budget) from the governments to control the implementation of the substance use related legislation. This is the fact in the vast majority of countries. Finally, due to constant interference, unethical tactics and strategies, and lobbying by the industry (alcohol, tobacco and cannabis), governments are not very interested in putting those policy issues higher on the political agenda. Such a situation creates a vicious circle of ineffective and harmful policies and adding a third substance to the list would create even larger confusion and lack of consistency in substance use policy implementation.”
Steve Rolles, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, UK
“EU Cannabis reform has been smoldering away for a number of years – with significant shifts in public and media debate, but relatively little actual legislative reform. Reforms in recent years North America do, however, seem to have catalysed the European reform debate – giving political actors the cover to move from simply talking about reform to actually developing and implementing it. In the past for example, the Netherlands took considerable diplomatic heat from the Us for its cannabis coffeeshop model; something that is obviously impossible now given the proliferation of state level reforms in the US. The change from the US being a prohibitionist bully on the international stage to being the crucible of global cannabis reforms has undoubtedly changed the international cannabis reform landscape.
It is clear that in the EU a pro-cannabis reform position has now moved from being a political liability to being a political asset with key target audiences; and in a relatively short space of time we have seen real reforms initiatives moving forward in multiple states. I suspect it will take one of the Major EU powers to implement formal legalisation and regulation – Germany now looking like it could assume this role – perhaps in conjunction with federal legalisation in the US, for a domino effect to really begin – not unlike the state level process in the US. We will probably see 5 or 10 EU states with legal cannabis markets in the next 5 or 10 years; something that will inevitably force a change in EU policy, and accelerate UN treaty reforms as well.”
Òscar Parés, ICEERS, Barcelona, Spain
“Cannabis (and all drug) legalization is test to mesure the quality of a democracy. The type of discussion and its outcome will reveal a critical perspective. How far are politicians to reality. Legalization is not about inventing something new. It’s more related to create the incentives for all the players that are already involved in this market to shift to the new paradigm. Also, about recognizing the damages that the prohibitionist policy has created and pursuing measures to repair them. There’s a big risk to create legalizations that smell to prohibition 2.0. Drug policy has created more damage than drug’s by themselves.
Monica Barzanti, San Patrignano, Italy
“In Italy, in reference to the use of medical cannabis, the legislation says that physicians, including general practitioners, are allowed to prescribe, and patients to receive, cannabis for certain types of pathologies. Cannabis is imported in the form of cannabis-based medicines, purchased in the form of galenic preparations, and since 2016 produced in an ad-hoc facility operated by the Italian Army. Cannabis produced for pharmaceutical use, in accordance with the European directives on medicinal products (EU – GMP), differs from the illegal one for the different composition of CBD and THC and is to be taken in the form of decoction or by inhalation with a special vaporizer. The law is certainly perfectible, and the major criticality is currently constituted by the insufficient quantity of supplies. For this reason, the Ministry of Health has recently announced the issuance of a call to entrust the production to authorized private companies, in order to ensure the quality requirements and percentages of active ingredients required, and the quantities needed by patients to whom it is prescribed. At present, studies, even at a global level, on therapeutic efficacy are contradictory and inconclusive, and most of them are based on patients’ self-evaluation. For this reason, and also to understand any extension of its application to other pathologies, which someone requests, we are in favor of in-depth studies on the subject, which can shed light on the real benefits and any adverse effects, evaluating the relationship between them.
As for the non-medical use and possession for personal use of cannabis – as well as any other psychoactive substance – according to the Italian law 309/90 and subsequent amendments – they are not considered criminal offenses, however in some cases administrative santions may be imposed. However, there have been and there are numerous legislative proposals to legalize not only the use of cannabis but also its domestic cultivation, partly to overcome the lack of cannabis for medical use, but also in an attempt to broaden the range of those who can access it. This proposal leaves many question marks, particularly in relation to control over the quality of the product and its active ingredient content as well as its destination and possible diversion. Also in this case, before proceeding towards legislation that would expand the availability and use of cannabis, we believe that many studies and further investigations are needed, that can offer conclusive indications on the effects of cannabis, particularly in the case of adolescents and young adults whose brain is still developing: it has in fact been ascertained that in this case cannabis can have very serious and long-lasting consequences. The drafting of a law regulating the use of cannabis, even more so if it is used for non-medical purposes, should in fact be guided by such scientific studies which can help establish the limits in terms of age, quantity and percentage of active ingredients. On the contrary, in many countries where this has happened, regulation and distribution has followed purely commercial and profit-oriented logics, with negative consequences especially for the most vulnerable groups, whom this initiative was intended to protect. Drug policies must be dictated by respect for human rights and protection of the most vulnerable groups, adolescents, the most fragile, people in economic and social difficulties, who are more likely to suffer from the negative aspects of substance use and, because of their life experiences, may more easily develop problematic use trajectories. All of us should direct our greatest efforts to these vulnerable groups, in terms of prevention and advocacy, and also to stimulate the creation of more affordable and accessible services able to support, offer treatment and facilitate social reintegration.”
Tom Blickman, Transnational Institute, The Netherlands
“The common denominator is that the prohibition of cannabis has failed and the current initiatives of legal or tolerated regulation are attempts to ‘take back control’ of a criminal market that, in fact, is out of control in terms of protecting public health and safety, respect age limits, quality controls on products, etc. In Europe the process of cannabis policy reform looks a lot like the religious procession of Echternach, a small town in Luxembourg: three steps forward, to steps back. In other words progress is slow, but we are progressing. I would say that by now the reform of cannabis policies in the form of broad decriminalization (broad in the sense of including forms of regulated cultivation and distribution) or outright legal regulations has passed the point of no return.
The 2004 Framework Decision 2004/757/JHA obliges EU Member States to make ‘cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush or cannabis plant’ a punishable offence. The only exception is specified under paragraph 2, namely ‘when it is committed by its perpetrators exclusively for their own personal consumption as defined by national law’. That was an escape clause negotiated by the Dutch to preserve the coffee-shop model, and the current reform proposals of Luxembourg and Malta seem to fit within the framework.
Luxembourg, sandwiched between France, Germany and Belgium, was bullied back into that framework by its neighbours and/or the European Commission, and abandoned its initial more far reaching proposals – part of their 2018 re-election promises to legally regulate recreational cannabis for adult use – including a chain of licensed cultivation, distribution and sale at dispensaries. One can imagine it is waiting to see what the most probable new German coalition government will propose regarding their intention to regulate cannabis. Or will the upcoming experiments in Switzerland and the Netherlands that allow regulated supply of recreational cannabis at the local level be the next bone of contention … You can see the problems already arising on the horizon, and a debate in the Council of Ministers and European Parliament on what to do with the diverging trends in Europe is urgently necessary.”