Economist Debates: Should cannabis be legal everywhere?

By October 8, 2013Uncategorized

Kevin Sabet’s featured guest piece on the Economist debate:

The argument in favour of legalisation has been incredibly oversimplified by its proponents, presented as a silver bullet to failed, heavy-handed law enforcement efforts. As I argue in my new book, “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana“, neither incarceration only nor legalisation stands up to the best evidence. That is why Neil McKeganey’s piece is highly convincing: we can reform the worst parts of current policy without exposing our society to myriad new problems that would inevitably arise from legalisation.

My primary concern with legalisation is that it will come with the large-scale commercialisation, normalisation and reckless promotion that characterise the global approach to our other legal intoxicants, alcohol and tobacco. In America under the (joke) of smoked cannabis as medicine, new, large “cannabusinesses” have already ushered in mass advertising and vending machines. Now with legal cannabis barely in place, they have resorted to product giveaways (really) and they are aggressively embarking on rounds of multimillion-dollar investor fundraising.

Globally, normalisation and commercialisation would drastically cut the price of cannabis, making it cheap, more widely available and, consequently, more prevalent. And we should care about an increase in demand. Cannabis is not the benign drug many readers might fondly remember from the 1960s and 1970s. Its potency has quintupled in the past few decades, and new methods of ingestion—like butane hash oil vaporisation, or “dabbing”—are responsible for a growing number of hospital visits and overdoses. Indeed, the increased harmfulness of cannabis is not the subject of scientific debate—most major medical associations and scientific institutes have acknowledged cannabis’s potential for harm and do not support its legalisation. But since most people who try cannabis do not become addicted or exhibit serious harm to society, the perception of it as a harmless plant persists. The fact that a minority of users suffer the majority of the harm—in the form of a reduction in IQ, mental illness, poor learning outcomes, lung damage, car crashes, addiction and emergency room mentions related to acute panic attacks and psychotic episodes—should not cause us to overlook the seriousness of cannabis. This is the case for most of our legal, addictive drugs today: the use by a small number of users causes most of the harm.

America is about to become the first country in the world to implement large-scale retail and commercial sales of cannabis. Already, cannabis food and candy are being marketed to children (and linked to hospital visits) by an industry dedicated to fighting (quite successfully) any sensible regulation state lawmakers try to impose. To make matters worse, a former Microsoft executive is teaming up with an ex-Mexican president with the intention to “mint more marijuana millionaires than Microsoft” in his goal to create the “Starbucks of Marijuana”.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The tobacco and alcohol industries follow similar patterns while hawking their legal, addictive substances. And we know how that story ends: money-hungry industries, targeting the vulnerable, will stop at nothing to increase addiction and profit. Why on earth would we want to repeat that debacle with cannabis?

And it must be stated: the legalisation movement (the part with the money, anyway) is not only about cannabis. Although I think cannabis legalisation would be bad for society, the legalisation of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin carries massively different implications. Unfortunately, though, many of the same advocates who call for cannabis legalisation are “gearing up” to extend their crusade to cocaine, heroin and the whole lot. In this very publication a short decade or so ago, such proponents called for the idea to “move on to hard drugs, sold through licensed outlets’ perhaps sold through “pharmacies … or mail distribution”.

Not all advocates share these machinations. Many well-intended people, frustrated with current efforts, think we can legalise responsibly by taxing cannabis to pay for public treatment or education. We could even ban advertising and promotion, enforce age limits, and restrict the potency and kinds of products sold. But experience shows all of that to be no more than a pipe dream. First, for every $1 made on alcohol and tobacco tax revenue, society loses $10 in public health and other social costs. Second, the experience of medical cannabis in America, de facto legalisation in the Netherlands (where use trebled among young adults), and alcohol and tobacco legalisation elsewhere around the world have taught us that normalisation is a necessary legal, financial and/or cultural staple that comes with such policies. And any reasonable restrictions on the strength or type of products will be quickly outdone by an underground market eager to provide the harder stuff (or the same stuff, for kids) at a cheaper price (witness the underground market for tobacco today in Britain).

Global cannabis legalisation would only enrich big business, increase addiction and mental illness and hurt the next generation—all the while making us pawns in another game of corporate chess. Can’t we do better?

Kevin Sabet

Author Kevin Sabet

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