Given the importance which is assigned to setting clear goals for any major social policy, it is surprising how infrequently discussion of drug policy is preceded by a precise specification of what the policy is intended to achieve. Too often, goals are either global (to reduce drug use) or unattainable (to eliminate drug use) and allow many interpretations. Similarly, goals are often stated in such a way that they could be achieved through a number of quite contradictory strategies and at vastly different costs (economic, social, and personal). Only infrequently does the discussion address the issue of the costs we are willing to tolerate in order to achieve stated goals. Rarely is detailed consideration given to how we might go about measuring the costs, both of drug use itself and of attempts to control it.
In examining the range of potential regimes for the control of cannabis use, it is important to have a clear idea of the criteria against which we might evaluate their effects. Yet unambiguous and meaningful statements of the objectives of cannabis policies are difficult to find anywhere. Most official statements about drug policy generally, and most discussions about drug control strategies, suffer from one or more of a number of limitations. They may fail to proffer specific goals. They may state goals which are known to be unattainable. They may fail to recognise the existence of multiple goals or, if they do, they may fail to acknowledge contradictions between them or to provide a means for assigning priorities when the goals clash. All of these failings contribute to a policy debate which lacks precision and intellectual rigour, and whose outcomes depend more on rhetoric and emotion than on logical argument and empirical data.
This report starts from the proposition that it is important to know what are the requirements for rational drug policy in general and what are the objectives of cannabis policy specifically. Only when these issues are articulated clearly and can be subjected to full public scrutiny can it be said that the cannabis policy debate has become a comprehensive and rational one. The issues discussed in this chapter can be applied, with suitable modifications as to specifics, to any area of drug policy. In this chapter we do not take any position on particular policy options. Our intention is to provide a comprehensive framework within which any option can be evaluated.
We intend in this chapter, too, to address the issue of drug policy, rather than drug legislation. As our discussion of legislative options will show, similar-looking laws may have quite different implications for cost and effectiveness depending on the way in which they are administered. In other words, the policy context may be more important than the legislation in understanding the impact of a particular approach to cannabis control. For example, in both the United States and The Netherlands it is illegal to possess and sell personal-use quantities of cannabis. The way in which the legislation is interpreted and enforced, however, puts these two countries at different ends of the cannabis policy spectrum (Wardlaw 1992). In its turn, the policy framework adopted in any particular country can only be understood fully if the observer is aware of the social and political context within which social problems are viewed, and with a knowledge of the nature and dimensions of the drug problem in that country.
Kleiman and Saiger (1992) suggest that discussion of options for drug control policy should be preceded by agreement on some basic conceptual clarifications. These clarifications are intended to define the nature of a satisfactory debate about drug control options. The following list is a modification and extension of Kleiman and Saiger's suggestions.
This approach overlooks at least one important consideration. That is that there are a number of approaches to the notion of consistency. Consistency does not necessarily imply that we have to have a monolithic approach to drug problems. We can, for example, have the goal of reducing the harm caused by illicit drug use, but can achieve that goal by a number of avenues. There is no logical reason why these avenues have to be the same for all drugs, as long as we can justify why we are treating different drugs differently, and as long as we can articulate these reasons to the public. The belief that we must maintain a rigid adherence to one set of strategies for all illicit drugs ignores the reality that we already quite successfully accept inconsistencies and contradictions in drug policy across the board.
The most obvious example is the fact that we allow a number of drugs, foremost amongst which are tobacco and alcohol, to be used legally despite their causing the same types of damage against which we try to protect individuals and society by banning the use of other drugs. There is general agreement that it is the goal of policy on licit drugs to reduce the harm caused by their use. We seek to achieve this by attempting to persuade people not to take up drug use, to decrease their consumption of these drugs, or to alter their manner or pattern of use. Although the simplest way to reduce harm would be to reduce the number of people using the drugs (assuming for the argument here that remaining users continued their existing consumption levels and patterns), we do not see attempts to get others to move to less dangerous patterns of use (rather than giving up use) as undermining the message that use of drugs is not socially desirable. Rather, we recognise that the overall goal of reducing harm can be achieved by persuading some people not to take up drugs, others to discontinue their use, and yet others to moderate their use or to change to less dangerous drugs or methods of administration. Strategies aimed at moderation are not seen as undermining strategies aimed at abstinence. We simply accept that different strategies are appropriate for different groups in the community and that they can all contribute to the overall goal of harm minimisation. There is no logical reason why we cannot adopt the same approach with illicit drugs.
The word 'decriminalisation' sounds as though it refers to the removal of cannabis control from the criminal law. In practice, however, it usually refers to changes to the law which either allow possession of specified amounts of cannabis for personal consumption or reduce the penalties for such possession to minor fines or administrative sanctions involving no criminal record. As such, decriminalisation refers to reducing penalties, rather than removing them altogether (Single 1989). Under most so-called decriminalisation proposals, dealing in cannabis would remain a serious criminal offence.
The term 'legalisation' presents similar difficulties. It covers proposals which would literally remove the drug from the criminal law, to those which would limit availability to adults (much as alcohol and tobacco are now regulated), to more specific proposals which would allow access through clinics or other health services only to those with established habits. Discussing 'decriminalisation' or 'legalisation' without specifying the details of the particular model being proposed is not likely to be very productive (Kleiman & Saiger 1990).
No sensible discussion of any of the options can take place without specification of such details as to whom proposed changes would apply and under what circumstances, rules about advertising, place and time of consumption, whether or not the changes would apply to all preparations and forms of cannabis (or, for example, be restricted to those falling below a certain potency), and the type of regulatory arrangements which would replace the current law enforcement ones, together with details of their methods of operation and costs. 'Such details should not be dismissed as easily determined or postponed as a problem requiring future thought' (Kleiman & Saiger 1992, p225).
This report will discuss policy options under the broad headings suggested by the South Australian Royal Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, i.e. the total prohibition model; the prohibition/'civil penalty' model; the partial prohibition model; the regulatory model; and the free availability model (South Australia 1978).
Any analysis of control regimes should attempt to estimate their effects on both consumption levels and patterns of use. A major concern about any lessening of the current controls on cannabis is that it might lead to increases in consumption. While this is a serious concern, it is not the only dimension which needs to be monitored. It is also important to estimate how patterns of consumption might change under different control options. For example, if numbers of users rose slightly, but consumption per person fell, or less dangerous forms of the drug were used, or less harmful methods of use were employed, the overall amount of harm occasioned might be reduced and the policy might be judged more successful than the status quo. Similarly, if under one option, it seemed that numbers of users might fall, but that heavier use patterns would emerge, or more potent forms of the drug would become more popular, the option might be judged less desirable, even though a decrease in numbers of users had been achieved.
In deciding upon the appropriate model to adopt to control cannabis use, it is necessary to specify the goals of the policy, as they will constitute the criteria against which selection will be made (and against which eventual evaluation of performance will be made). The following list comprises possible goals which have been mentioned in the literature on cannabis policy. It is intended as illustrative of the range of goals which might be considered and is not a set of goals proposed by this report:
Laying out goals in this fashion also alerts us to the need for high quality data for decision-making, and to the need for sound evaluation methodologies to be able to measure the impact of our policies and their resulting implementation strategies. Examination of the list above makes it immediately apparent that extensive empirical data are required to be able to assign priorities and measure impacts. The list also provides a practical example of the sorts of considerations which policy makers should include in their deliberations as they attempt to apply the conceptual tools discussed earlier in this chapter.
Haaga, J. & Reuter, P. 1990, 'The limits of the Czar's ukase: drug policy at the local level', Yale Law and Policy Review, vol. 8, no. 1, pp36-74.
Kleiman, M. & Saiger, A. 1992, 'Taxes, regulations and prohibitions: Reformulating the legalization debate', in Drug Policy in the Americas, ed. P. Smith, Westview Press, Boulder.
Kleiman, M. & Saiger, A. 1990, 'Drug legalization: the importance of asking the right question', Hofstra Law Review, vol. 18, pp527-565.
Single, E. 1989, 'The impact of marijuana decriminalization: an update', Journal of Public Health Policy, vol. 10, no. 4, pp456-466.
South Australia. Royal Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs 1978, Cannabis: A Discussion Paper, South Australian Government, Adelaide.
Wardlaw, G. 1992, 'Discussion', in M. Bull, D. McDowell, J. Norberry, H. Strang & G. Wardlaw, Comparative Analysis of Drug Strategy, NCADA Monograph Series No. 18, AGPS, Canberra.
Wilson, J.Q. 1990, 'Drugs and crime', in Drugs and Crime: Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, vol. 13, eds M. Tonry & J.Q. Wilson, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.