Yesterday brought the news of yet another respected expert calling for a broader drug policy debate, this time with the specific suggestion of licensed cannabis sale: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11287130
I'm grateful to Prof. Pertwee for drawing attention to the cannabis legalisation debate, but would like to examine some of his proposals in more detail and consider what impact they might have relative to alternatives.
The issue of age restrictions is an important one and I would be interested in hearing the Professor's reasoning for settling on 21 as the age at which someone can legally purchase the drug. If taking the cannabis trade out of the hands of criminals is the Prof's goal as he states then I would suspect there would be a vast number of cannabis users between the age of 18 and 21 that could help prop up the illegal market. Setting such an age limit also limits the level of stigma that would be experienced by an illegal cannabis dealer. There is an extent to which dealing to under 21s might be tolerated by society as many would continue to think the law was unreasonable. Lowering the age requirement to 18 firmly casts remaining drug dealers as people who deal to children. There is a greater likelihood such behaviour will be deemed unacceptable to society. Fewer individuals would be able to profit from illegal dealing, tolerate the stigma associated with it, or escape prosecution whilst operating in communities hostile to their activities.
A further argument for a lower age of legality is the ability to deliver targeted education at individuals seeking to use the drug. Professor Pertwee's proposals mention the possibility of licensing, but seemingly only as a means to exclude individuals with mental illness. I would favour the issuing of a license being dependent on receipt of detailed education on the potential harms that may come about as a result of cannabis use, and with special focus on the potential implications for the mental health of the user. Rather than exclude the mentally ill from legal use (also would they not just seek out an illegal supply anyway?) it might be very useful indeed for scientists to use the newly legal cannabis use environment to study the relationship between cannabis and mental health in greater detail. Cannabis is a complex drug, and the effects on the user of the active ingredients THC and cannabidiol (and also nicotine from the commonly co-administered tobacco) are not close to being fully understood. A good scientific relationship between mentally ill users and well-trained pharmacists might allow patients to be guided towards cannabis strains that do not jeopardise their mental health, and indeed might even help them. If Professor Pertwee is as concerned about the mental health implications of cannabis use as I am, I hope he would welcome the massively increased public knowledge of the warning signs of mental ill-health that should come about associated with a licensing regime linked to education rather than to sanity.
Of additional concern are Professor Pertwee's comments about the marketing of cannabis: "We should consider licensing and marketing cannabis and cannabis products just as we do alcohol and tobacco." I am decidedly uncomfortable with this loose talk of marketing cannabis like alcohol and tobacco. Any reform which leads to greater consumption of cannabis will face criticism, and the more marketing and branding we allow, the greater the chances of a rise in consumption. Surely it would be better for the first step in reform to start from a point of zero sanctioned branding or marketing?
Professor Pertwee also makes some assumptions about the manufacture of the drug:
"It depends on a private company being willing to produce a branded product." Does it? Will the public stand for private companies profiting from the manufacture, distribution and sale of recreational drugs? Would they view more favourably a level of state intervention that sees all the profits from the trade being redirected instead into drug treatment services and education? Can the state efficiently run such an enterprise purely for the benefit of public services and society as a whole, or would co-operation between the state and regulated companies yield greater success?
Again, I salute Professor Pertwee for opening up the debate. I don't think he has all the answers just yet, but I do hope the debate progresses as it is vital for our society, public health and economy that we find them soon and can move on, leaving history to judge prohibition of cannabis as it has already judged the prohibition of alcohol.