UK policymakers, across Europe and around the world are watching cannabis reforms in Malta with great interest. Malta will soon join a growing number of countries implementing reforms to apparent failures to ban cannabis. Canada, Mexico, and 18 US states have already taken this step, and with the competing bills of Democrats and Republicans debated in the Senate, US federal legalization approaches every day.
You can actually travel from the Arctic Circle down the west coast of the Americas almost to the equator without leaving legal jurisdiction for cannabis.
In Europe, Germany recently announced a move to create a legally regulated market for non-medical cannabis use, joining Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. When the US federal legislation takes place, including South Africa, Uruguay and the Australian reform countries, more than half a billion people will soon live in legal cannabis jurisdictions.
So, Malta is not alone and does not indulge in a radical unproven experience.
The arguments for change that have been circulated in all of these countries are well put forward but are worth repeating. The cannabis ban failed on its own terms; did not significantly prevent use or restrict availability; Cannabis is more widely available and used than ever before.
However, criminalization has come at a heavy cost: to taxpayers, who fund failed enforcement efforts, to the millions around the world who bear the stigma of a criminal record. The only beneficiaries – other than politicians who want to display their “tough drug” credentials – are organized crime groups and street dealers who take advantage of high demand in the absence of a legally regulated availability.
There are, of course, legitimate concerns about the health effects of cannabis, particularly about the more frequent use of cannabis among teens. But such challenges have clearly worsened under the ban and have not improved. The economic dynamics of the illegal market has led to its tendency toward more efficient but profitable varieties, which now often contain adulterants and dangerous pollutants.
And the unregulated criminal offer makes cannabis more easily available to young people, not less. Drug dealers don’t ask for ID. Ironically, for a policy designed to keep people safe, the health risks associated with cannabis are actively increased by prohibition.
But a policy approach that takes control of production and supply away from criminal entrepreneurs and back into the hands of legal actors overseen by responsible government regulators can mitigate these risks and serve the common good, not criminal profits.
A structured model may include age controls, potency index, health warnings, licensed accountable suppliers etc. The use of young people in cases of rationing did not falter, as many feared. Instead, it has generally flattened out or, in many cases, has trended lower.
There are also concerns that the legal market for cannabis could become overly commercialized, like alcohol and tobacco historically, huge for-profit multinational corporations could distort policy-making processes and aggressively market their dangerous products, increasing their use and negative health costs. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
More than half a billion people will soon live in legal cannabis jurisdictions– Steve Rolls
Better regulation of marketing, pricing, and general tobacco use, along with effective health education campaigns, has seen use steadily decline across Europe over the past three decades, just as illegal, unregulated cannabis use has been on the rise. We have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to make sure the lessons learned from the historical failures of alcohol and tobacco policy are not repeated.
No policy will be perfect. There will always be some negative outcomes, and at times, the priorities of different stakeholders will be conflicting. Flexibility will be required to respond to changing priorities and demonstrate efficacy as they arise, from Malta and around the world. But the cautious first steps that Malta is taking towards allowing locally grown, not-for-profit associations, and avoiding the risks of a full-blown rush into an over-traded retail market, suggest a responsible approach and that lessons are being learned.
These policies have been successfully tested in a number of jurisdictions – in Spain, Uruguay, Australia and North America. And if Malta moves to a more formally regulated retail market in the future, it is reassuring to know the same cautious public health pragmatism that will guide it.
International observers also welcomed Malta’s assertion to decriminalize people who use cannabis – a policy now advocated by all 31 UN agencies as an essential part of any meaningful public health response – and to remove the toxic legacy of the drug war by erasing past criminal records. For minor cannabis offenses.
You don’t need to use, approve, or even like cannabis to understand the costs of ban and the benefits of reform. But everyone in this debate must begin by accepting one truth; Cannabis abuse and cannabis markets are already here. This is not an option between Malta with or without cannabis. It is a choice between a cannabis market controlled by criminal exploiters or a market regulated by responsible government agencies.
There is no third option by which to magically get rid of cannabis. No drug policy reform or drug policy is completely risk-free. While Malta is reforming its cannabis laws, they need to make sure they get it right; An international perspective suggests they do just that.
Steve Rolls Senior Policy Analyst, Transform DrugsPolitics Foundation, UK. He is also the author of How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide and has advised the governments of Uruguay, Canada and Luxembourg on cannabis regulation.
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