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HARM REDUCTION

EXPLAINED

Legalisation of cannabis would help protect its users from harm. It is a holistic approach to the ‘war on drugs’,  which has not decreased drug use at all.

 

For evidence of harm reduction, these two articles by experts from various countries provide a great overview on the topic.

 

New research was published this week highlighting the associations between teenage cannabis use and a range of mental health problems. The results suggest that use of the drug was associated with an increased risk of depression and a significantly higher risk of suicide attempts.

 

In a study based on survey data, the authors noted that a clear line of causation from cannabis use to the reported effects cannot be drawn. There are always other potential mechanisms in action. Young people who use cannabis regularly may already be experiencing mental health issues that make drug use more likely; or be facing adverse life experiences that influence both their mental health and drug consumption.
 

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore evidence of a relationship between cannabis use among young people and mental health harms, especially as the strains of cannabis on the market are becoming more potent. The question is how we can best address this challenge in ways that reduce harm.

 

The temptation is to call for more stringent enforcement of the law. The idea that we can deter use and restrict supply with tough policing has instinctive appeal. However, in reality, this approach has exacerbated and added to the harms we see. Prohibition has instead contributed to the market dominance of riskier high-THC, low-CBD products, and the continued linking of cannabis use to a wider illegal drug market that draws young people into criminalised environments. These both increase the risk of arrest, of exposure to other drugs, as well as exploitation, including the more violent world of “county lines”.

 

Legal regulation may appear to be a soft response to the challenges we face, but it is not. Right now, people buying cannabis have no idea of the potency or even the contents of what they are purchasing. They do not receive health warnings or advice and there are no age-access controls in place. Furthermore, profits from the trade go into organised crime, while billions more are spent on policing. Under legal regulation, cannabis would only be sold to adults, the market could be taxed, policing costs would fall and there would be more money to spend on proven prevention, treatment and harm reduction interventions. This is a public health issue and it requires a public health response. It only becomes a criminal justice problem when we treat it as one.

 

We need to take seriously the truth: cannabis use is already incredibly widespread but is dominated by the most potent products, sold in the riskiest environments. This is why it’s important to legally regulate cannabis production and supply. There is a need to see the trade taken out of the hands of organised crime and regulated by the appropriate authorities.

 

We should not be naive about the possible risks. There are legitimate concerns about how this might affect the numbers using cannabis, but there is no strong evidence that use necessarily increases under legal regulation, particularly if it is done responsibly. With lessons learned from both alcohol and tobacco policy, and appropriate controls on advertising and marketing. Policymakers have a responsibility to ensure regulation is done properly – although we now have an increasing range of real-world evidence from which to learn as more and more US states, Canada and Mexico take the route of legalisation. Legal regulation should not be understood as a money-making opportunity or commercial free-for-all, but as the pragmatic way to reduce criminality and protect health, particularly of young people. This has been the approach taken in Canada, and it is time our government looked at it seriously.

 

Legally regulating supply provides us with the tools to protect young people, reduce criminality and make all cannabis use safer.

Written by James Nicholls, chief executive officer of Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Cannabis /Dagga is currently one of the most widely used substances within Namibia after alcohol and tobacco .

 

Criminalisation of illicit cannabis use ignores the many ills that a criminal record brings, the effect it has on social, economic, physical and mental wellbeing of the person.

 

A history of any drug offence, even one as minor as the consumption of cannabis can have considerable bearing on sentencing in a subsequent offence, employment opportunities, securing custody of a child, getting visa etc. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has drawn attention to the effect in which criminalisation of drug use can have on families, job opportunities, welfare assistance, voting etc. More importantly, it underscores the discrimination and stigma that accompanies a criminal record. Criminalisation of cannabis use subjects thousands of individuals every year to these hardships.

 

Strain on the criminal justice system

Criminalisation of illicit cannabis use intensifies the strain on the criminal justice system. The impact is particularly felt by an already overburdened and understaffed police force, where the police-to-population ratio and vacancies have constantly remained a critical governance issue, and the judicial system, already crumbling under high pendency.

 

In order to arrest, prosecute and sentence a cannabis consumer, the state machinery exhausts substantial human and economic resources. The police, judiciary and correctional institutions are systematically made party to a futile exercise, the cost of which is enormous.

 

Although there is no current research on the cost of enforcing cannabis prohibition in Namibia , studies conducted abroad find that on an average, incarceration costs are 2-6 times higher than money spent on health and social services. A study of budgetary implications of cannabis prohibition in the US indicated that legalisation of cannabis would save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure.
 

These drug offenders are sentenced to minor imprisonment and/or large fines. This demonstrates how the law, though meant to be applied uniformly across social and economic strata, disproportionately targets the poor and further marginalises the already vulnerable. 

 

This finding also mirrors a trend in the US, which witnesses a clear racial disparity in its cannabis arresting pattern. Human Rights Watch has reported that black adults were more than four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white adults which is a trend we also see in Namibia . Similarly, low income neighbourhoods have been shown to be more prone to drug related arrests. This impact of bias in drug law enforcement has historically been intergenerational and socially and economically devastating to whole populations.

 

Criminalisation of drug use is in direct conflict with the principles of harm reduction. The stigma associated with criminalisation results in social exclusion and isolation, which then inhibit access to healthcare and harm reduction services. Criminalisation also drives users to unsafe practices, making them prone to disease and overdose.

Criminalisation of drug use creates a parallel market of prohibited substances, taking them out of the regulatory apparatus. This leads to unrestricted access and unsupervised use of substances. In these illegal markets the quality of substances remains unchecked, leading to adulteration and sale of toxic substances. Studies across the world have identified adulteration in various substances, mainly intended to increase quantity or enhance potency. This aggravates the risk of an overdose or addiction to substances unknowingly consumed. In Namibia , cannabis is adulterated with doom and chemicals and Mandrax and battery acid. Cannabis is also often adulterated with benzodiazepine, a prescription sedative, which can lead to addiction to sedatives without the person’s knowledge or consent.

As the countries across the world begin to now relax norms for personal consumption of cannabis, it is time Namibia also shuns an archaic perception towards drug use in general and cannabis use specifically.

Envisioning alternatives to criminalisation is an important first step and countries across the world have paved a path in this direction. There is a promising indigenous decriminalisation model that Namibia could consider following. The Sikkim Anti-Drugs Act, 2006 (“SADA”) does not utilise deterrence to curb drug use and relies on a public health approach to protect the best interests of a drug user.

 

Written by Neha Singhal is a Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Naveed Ahmad is a Project Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

This article is an edited excerpt from the authors’ study A Case for De-Criminalization of Cannabis Use in India first published by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

 

Edited by CHAN.

AN ARGUMENT FOR WHY CANNABIS LEGALIZATION IN ITSELF IS A HARM REDUCTION STRATEGY.