Once the polls close tomorrow, several states are expected to fully legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana. If the forecasts are correct, this would mean legal access for more than a quarter of the American population. And approval in California, a state that many deem as a bellwether, could tip the scales in favor of regulation on a national level. Does that mean that we are now on the verge of a much-needed overhaul of the draconian drug laws that have harmed families and communities for decades? Most Americans hope so. According to a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of American adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal. Despite this support, the Drug Enforcement Administration has just refused, once again, to reschedule cannabis. There is clearly still resistance on the federal level, but state level reforms are putting the necessary pressure for the United States government to reconsider its approach to drug policy.
As evidence grows in favor of the decriminalization and regulation of illicit substances, constituencies in the United States and abroad have recognized the need to revise existing policies and place health and human rights at the center of the conversation. In the United States, almost half (46.4 percent) of inmates in federal prison are serving time for drug offenses and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, since 2000, over half a million Americans have died from drug overdoses. For every incarceration or death, there are many more families and communities that are devastated by this loss. While President Obama has taken first steps to commute the sentences of non-violent prisoners convicted of drug offenses, the “law and order” approach of the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color. Serious measures need to be taken to repair this broken system.
Fortunately, the United States can take inspiration from several well-studied alternatives to the “law and order” approach.
In the 1990s, Catalonia introduced Cannabis Social Clubs, which offer a collective-based model for the legal growth, sale, and use of cannabis. The clubs reinforce civil society, protect public health, and shrink the black market while boosting the formal economy. This “Spanish Model” means that clubs collectively harvest cannabis in amounts proportionate to the number of members, limiting any excess that would otherwise be diverted to the black market. By working through local channels, limiting promotion and advertisement, and taking steps to limit cannabis tourism, the model has also avoided the pitfalls of creating a large for-profit industry that risks reinforcing some of the old paradigms. The clubs go beyond simply regulation, however, and, as the Open Society Foundations report Innovation Born of Necessity: Pioneering Drug Policy in Catalonia notes, they offer members the benefits of “group affiliation, individualized treatment, mutual trust, democratic functioning, peer training (which contributes to risk reduction),” and access to local, regulated products. These clubs sprang up momentarily in Colorado, before being shut down.
Research conducted in the Netherlands, well known for its coffee shops where one can purchase and consume cannabis, has shown that access to cannabis does not necessarily correlate with increased use—a concern shared by many prohibitionist-minded groups. The Dutch government tolerates smoking cannabis under certain terms and conditions applied to coffee shops. While it is otherwise still illegal to produce, possess, sell, import and export drugs, they practice non-enforcement and employ a tolerant policy that says people cannot be prosecuted for minor possession or cultivation. Dutch consumption patterns have remained on par with European averages and are far lower than rates in the United States. By creating a legal market for cannabis purchase and consumption also reduced people’s exposure to harder drugs. As outlined in the Open Society Foundations report Coffee Shops and Compromise this separation has helped in “averting a drug-linked HIV epidemic, the virtual disappearance of drug injection, and comprehensive health and social services” for aging or problematic users of hard drugs.
As the United States—gripped by an ongoing opioid crisis—looks to alternative legal models for addressing drug use, this fact could be of particular interest. The report notes, in particular, that the low number of overdoses among drug users in the Netherlands is the outcome of fewer and fewer people using hard drugs, plus extensive harm reduction and drug treatment services including safe injection rooms and housing services, which have been a bedrock of the country’s drug policy since the 1970s.
Finally, after observing the success efforts in places like the Netherlands and Catalonia, the Uruguayan parliament, in December 2013, voted to become the first country to legalize marijuana nationally, implementing legal commercial sales of recreational cannabis. The effort was initiated by then President José Mujica in an effort to curb drug violence, something countries throughout the continent have been grappling with. Citizens are allowed to grow up to six plants, or they can join cannabis social clubs, which have been permitted to grow more. The government is overseeing all sales through a registration system and recently set up a network of dispensaries and pharmacies, offering cannabis at a low price, competitive with street prices in the country, thus encouraging customers to buy in the legal market. While some resistance and delays in implementation have arisen, the country has course corrected throughout the process, and their progress now symbolizes the possibilities for countrywide reform elsewhere. It has also proved to be a necessary, albeit experimental step, toward curtailed drug-related crime and improved public health. Uruguay has demonstrated that reform can happen at the country level and, while it may not be perfect, it is positive change that will help create a safer, more inclusive, society.
There are lessons to be learned domestically as well. Washington D.C. began regulating cannabis in February 2015, with the caveat that use is prohibited in all public spaces including inside private clubs, bars, hotels, and restaurants. In July 2015, Oregon became the fourth state after Washington, Colorado, and Alaska to regulate the cannabis market for people 21 and older. The law allows individuals to carry up to an ounce of cannabis outside their homes and to possess eight ounces inside. Oregon is unique in that it permits people to grow up to four marijuana plants per residence.
It is estimated that world governments spend $100 billion a year combating drugs largely through punitive approaches. But, not only have they failed to decrease the size of the drug markets, they have led to a countless amount of harm being done to the world’s most vulnerable populations. This punitive approach has also created a black market three times the size of the amount spent to curtail it. Shadow economies that perpetuate violence and crime and poverty go unchecked. A legal market will create a framework for safe consumption, economic growth for legal businesses, reduced criminal activity associated with turf wars over trafficking routes, and improved public health for communities most affected.
The pursuit of a drug-free world is an unrealistic endeavor—very much inspired by the actions of previous U.S. administrations—and one that has been exported throughout the world.
The global counternarcotic efforts of the past 50 years have created a world where President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is able to condone and encourage the extrajudicial and vigilante killings of 4,700 supposed “drug users” and “drug dealers,” while another 750,000 people have surrendered to the government as drug users out of fear for their lives and for the lives of their families. As I write this, however, I sit with 30 young leaders and activists in Hong Kong who are participating in a human rights and drug policy workshop where they are trying to understand and identify more humane drug policies for the countries in which they work. Their commitment to this cause gives me hope that change is truly forthcoming.
A regulated market in the United States can reduce societal harms, divert funding from enforcement to other public safety and health concerns, encourage safe consumption patterns among people who use drugs, and reframe a global debate that has, for decades, sparked violence and destruction across the globe. By changing our focus from the creation of a drug-free world to that of a world where drug use is acknowledged as reality and managed accordingly, we can reduce the negative consequences of poorly designed drug policies worldwide. As we continue to work on global drug policy, I sincerely hope the United States will take positive steps to reform drug laws, to ensure that they reflect a human rights and public health perspective and assist other governments in finally dismantling the global prohibition regime.