Many harms associated with cannabis use result from prohibition rather than the drug itself, an Australian academic has told a United Nations review of drug policy.
Professor Robin Room, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne’s School of Population Health has spent much of the past week telling meetings in Vienna that international conventions on cannabis are out of touch and do little to influence the number of users.
Prof Room said while penalties were generally low for cannabis use and possession globally, young people and minorities were more likely than other groups to become caught up in the legal system.
Arrests caused significant suffering, such as personal and family humiliation, as did convictions, which often excluded people from certain jobs and activities.
“A lot of young people’s lives get messed up because of arrests over something that is almost impossible to overdose with and where its possible harm is of medium seriousness,” Prof Room said.
“This is a system that doesn’t really make much sense in terms of the modern world.
“Minorities are more likely to get caught up in being arrested in comparison with the patterns of use. The patterns of use aren’t so different between kids from poor minorities and middle class kids.”
Substantial government resources are also spent on enforcing prohibition.
The findings are part of a report, commissioned by the UK-based Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust which advocates an evidence-based approach to minimising the harms associated with drug use.
Prof Room was one of five authors on the report, which brought together a range of experts to present an overview of scientific evidence on cannabis and policies controlling it.
The aim was to offer policy makers options for change and make recommendations for international law reform on the fringes of the UN’s review in Austria of its strategy on narcotics since 1988.
“We’re laying out the options for the political process to consider,” Prof Room said.
“If you were starting to build a system now with what current knowledge there is about different substances, you would be much more likely to have alcohol and tobacco included in the prohibition regime in terms of harm.”
Prof Room said the degree of control on cannabis was disproportionate to the harm associated with its use.
“If you compare it with other substances, both legal and illegal, it’s relatively low down the order of how much harm there is from the substance,” he said.
“Yes, there are health problems from cannabis and probably the ones most to worry about are, it’s not a good idea to drive a car when you’re high on cannabis, and to some extent the problems from people becoming dependent on it.”
Prof Room said changing cannabis laws globally would be “a hard slog”.
One of the reasons was that governments often saw using the drug as a passing phase, as illustrated when several UK cabinet ministers in 2007 admitted to smoking it in their youth.
“The reaction around cannabis depends on the country and the circumstances,” Prof Room said.
“There’s often a `ho-ho’ response, `we were all young once’.”
Politicians were often also concerned about sending out “the wrong message” if they called for decriminalisation or state regulation.
“What we’ve found is they don’t need to worry because the young people aren’t paying attention,” Prof Room said.
“There’s almost no relationship between what the policy is and how many people are using it.”
Any countries wanting to reform cannabis laws to the point of regulating the industry would have to break UN conventions which say they must prohibit production and supply.