Niall Neligan: Opponents of cannabis regulation should consider the evidence

Niall Neligan: Opponents of cannabis regulation should consider the evidence

Niall Neligan

Niall Neligan, lecturer in criminal law and drug policy regulation at the School of Law, Languages & Social Sciences at Technological University Dublin, contributes to the debate around cannabis and the law.

For those of us who approach the subject of cannabis from the regulatory perspective, we are acutely aware the current system of prohibition has failed from both a public health and criminal justice perspective and the only sensible solution is to regulate cannabis both for medical and adult use.

The current system of supply controls which emanate from international treaties (which have been transposed into domestic law by virtue of the Misuse of Drugs Acts and the accompanying regulations) has created an unregulated illicit market which affords no protection to those who wish to access cannabis for medical use and cannot under the existing licensing rules, and those who choose to use cannabis as a drug of choice.

It is accepted that no drug is made safer in the hands of criminal gangs or amateur growers, however nefarious the first are or indeed well-meaning the latter may or may not be. Prohibition affords no protection to public health in so far that there are no quality controls, no guidelines on use or indeed restrictions on THC potency. Moreover, prohibition affords no protection to minors, in so far that if a teenager wishes to purchase cannabis, all that is required is that child has the money and knows whom to buy it from. Consequently, there is no ID requirement and no responsibility on the part of the suppliers to this black market. Rather than safeguard public health, prohibition is contributing to the hard cases that anti-cannabis activists hold up as the reason for continuing the failed policies of supply control, which make no sense.

In other words, all prohibition has achieved is the abrogation by the state for the existing market for cannabis (whether you like it or not) to those who care nothing for the consequence. This has resulted in low potency cannabis being displaced, in the same manner that beer was displaced by high potency spirits during alcohol prohibition in the United States.

From a criminal justice perspective, prohibition has been an abject failure in so far that it has incentivised those who wish to supply while acting as no deterrent to those who wish to consume. Whereas decriminalisation is often held up as a means to remove sanctions from those who choose to consume, it is prohibition-light; namely, a person is entitled to possess what the market is by law prohibited from selling. Again, it does little to remove the aforementioned problems which exist under the illicit market.

From a public health and a criminal justice perspective therefore, the sensible solution is to regulate cannabis both for medical (something which is in the process of taking place) and adult use. At the very least, regulation enables Governments to control the types of cannabis products placed on the market in terms of who can sell them, and who can consume, thus providing greater protection for minors and indeed medical patients. Moreover, governments employing sensible policies and regulations can reduce consumption in the same way they have dampened and reduced the demand for tobacco among the general public.

Perhaps the group calling themselves the Cannabis Risk Alliance, in their call for an unbiased examination of the evidence, should look at the true effects of prohibition a little more carefully before they unilaterally dismiss regulation as an option.

  • A version of this article first appeared as a letter in The Irish Times.
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