Cannabis Prohibition And Its Alternatives What A Policymaker Needs To Know

This study was commissioned by the Beckley Foundation to inform the debate about cannabis policy that is being undertaken in connection with the review of the resolutions taken at the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS). UNGASS 98 committed governments to taking action to substantially reduce drug production and demand, including that of cannabis, within the next ten years. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs will host an international meeting in 2009 to evaluate what has happened in the decade since. This will allow for a full discussion of possible changes in international conventions and will inform national policy decisions.

This study summarizes what is known about the extent and patterns of cannabis use across nations and over time. It reviews the research literature on the health effects of marijuana use, as well as the little that is known about the other harms associated with cannabis use, production and distribution under current policies. We describe those policies, distinguishing carefully between law on the books and policy as implemented. We emphasize evaluations of the effects on cannabis use and, more broadly, of various kinds of policy innovations aimed at reducing the penalties for personal use.

Because of the opportunity offered by UNGASS, we give particular attention to the potential for changes in the international treaties that would give nations more flexibility in their policy responses to cannabis. In the final chapter we offer a framework for making cannabis policy decisions and offer some recommendations for policy at the national level.

Our aim is to bring together the present state of knowledge which would be relevant for discussions and decisions about cannabis policy at diverse levels. At the local, state or provincial levels, the problems arising from global policies must be picked up and managed - and much of the action on policy is here because of the stalemate at national and international levels. The national level is the locus not only of decisions about national policy, but also of decisions on national positions on issues in the international treaty system. At the international level, leadership in global efforts and initiatives is needed. We have structured the book as an effort to answer the following empirical questions that need to be answered for informed policymaking.

• What is the state of knowledge about the existence and extent of various potential harms from cannabis use? How does its profile of risk or dangerousness compare to the profiles of other psychoactive substances, licit and illicit?

• How can the present situation and trends be summarized, after half a century of a full global cannabis prohibition regime? How big is the market? How many use, and with what patterns and problems? How many users are caught and punished, and how many receive treatment? What is the evidence on the effectiveness of the prohibition regime in discouraging use and reducing problems? What role does cannabis play in the international drug control regime?

• What are the alternative ways in which the prohibition regime can be ameliorated, to reduce adverse secondary effects? What are the ways which governments have actually used, particularly in terms of reducing or eliminating punishments for possession or use?

• What is the evidence of the effects of these different cannabis policy reform initiatives, on levels and patterns of use, on problems from use, and in reducing the adverse effects of full prohibition?

• What alternatives are there under international law for a country or a group of countries wishing to move away from the full prohibition of the present international regime? What is the feasibility and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different options?

• Lastly, we consider what conclusions and recommendations for cannabis control policy we can draw from our analysis.

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