If we are to make progress and reduce the harm caused by drugs to our community, we must rethink current policy.
Even casual observers know that the damage caused by substance abuse extends far beyond the user and affects one's family and workplace, is responsible for numerous traffic accidents and exerts a considerable cost on society through treatment and prisons. The illicit drug trade has likely exceeded $200 million in sales and a large portion of this is marijuana.
Let us consider a more effective marijuana policy. I do not support either legalisation or decriminalisation and I am pleased the sensible voters in California rejected a proposition to legalise its use. My objection in this respect has little to do with moral outrage and everything to do with health: smoking anything is simply not good for you. No government that cares about its people should want to validate the use of something that is so clearly destructive.
I remain unimpressed with the argument that legalisation takes the profit out of the trade; and that it will generate money for government through taxes. It is far more important to think about the example being set for impressionable young people, some of whom already consider it normal to get high on ganja, influenced as they are by the power of parental practice.
Further, I am unmoved by the juvenile juxtaposition of alcohol's legality and marijuana's illegality. The research is clear: moderate amounts of alcohol consumption can actually enhance one's health, notwithstanding the conclusions just reached by the UK Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. There is no discernable health benefit in smoking weed, although it does ease the pain for some chronically ill patients. And let us be clear, the proponents of marijuana's legalisation do not want to get into the production of hemp shirts. A critical question here is whether or not any use constitutes abuse.
Efforts should continue on the interdiction side to reduce supply even though the challenges are great. Many jurisdictions estimate they seize less than ten percent of illegal drugs coming in. With new technology, however, there will likely be an increase in seizures and in turn we will see more traffickers brought before the courts.
However, it is also clear that more harm than good is done by giving people criminal records for possession of marijuana for personal use. Many lives of young people have been adversely affected by this and it has sent far too many on a downward spiral. We should move immediately to end the practice of giving people criminal records for possessing marijuana for personal use. The police could confiscate but not charge. Doing this would be consistent with a harm-reduction approach to drug policy.
Greater emphasis needs to be placed on demand reduction strategies. Relevant messages communicated to specific audiences – young people, in particular – have the potential of being more effective in the long run than the heavy hand of the law. Media campaigns based on scare tactics simply do not work. We have to first listen and better understand young people before we can begin communicating with them meaningfully on this issue. If we can lower demand we will have made progress. The use of cigarettes has declined steadily since aggressive campaigns were launched in the 1970s; it is no longer fashionable and smokers are increasingly marginalised. Regrettably, cigarette manufacturers are now focused on pushing cigarettes on poor children in poor countries.
Twenty years ago I had the pleasure of working with Cal Ming, then Executive Director of the National Alcohol and Drug Agency and David Archibald, the UN drug expert, Bermuda Royal Commissioner examining drugs and author of Bermuda's National Drug Strategy report. Concrete steps were taken within the framework of a harm-reduction model and a measure of success was attained. This was an era when the commitment to doing something about our drug problem was palpable. Today we are beset with a seeming inertia rooted in complacency. We need to overcome this. Let us recommence by addressing marijuana policy first and then move on to greater challenges.