The legalization of marijuana: right or crime?

Marijuana has become the last substance that leads a debate on a global scale as a result of its legalization for recreational purposes in Uruguay and Canada. This measure, in contrast to the coercive approach traditionally adopted by the United States at the federal level, highlights the different legal possibilities to regulate the production, consumption and trafficking of this drug, which is as popular as it is maligned.

In 2013, former President of Uruguay José Mujica became the first president of the world to sign a law that legalized “the production, sale and consumption of marijuana or cannabis” . With the adoption of the law by the Uruguayan Senate with 16 votes in favor and 13 against , the South American State was trying to combat the problems related to drug trafficking, in clear opposition to the traditional “war on drugs” defended by United States, with a highly punitive approach for sellers and consumers.

To expand : “The ‘war on drugs’ in the United States,” Álex Maroño in The World Order , 2018

The law, understood as a “sociopolitical experiment” and a pioneer in the world, has had an unequal reception. While in 2017 researchers from Monitor Cannabis , platform of the University of the Republic of the country, explained that the legal market for marijuana accounted for 20% of annual production , others criticized the state’s opacity , which prevented reaching representative conclusions. Despite the lack of conclusive data, the Uruguayan model has prompted other countries to take their example: Canada has legalized recreational use in 2018 and the new president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also advocates the end of illegality. Is marijuana the new tobacco or the new alcohol?

A controversial substance
The history of marijuana is almost as old as humanity itself. This substance is a specimen of a plant known as cannabis that is characterized by containing a large amount of THC, a compound that produces a psychoactive response of the organism. Due to its ability to alter the nervous system, marijuana differs from hemp, with low presence of THC and used in industry and nutrition ; Although both belong to the family of cannabis sativa , their applications and purposes diverge enormously.

To expand : “This plant is not marijuana” , Néstor Cenizo at eldiario.es, 2014

Both plants have been used by many cultures. Hemp, for example, was used for the naval industry due to its great resistance; it is said that without this material Christopher Columbus could not have reached the “New World” . Marijuana, on the other hand, was described by the Greek historian Herodotus when referring to the Scythians, who used it for recreational purposes , and it was also found in tombs of the shamans of China and Siberia around 500 BC. C .

The medicinal use of marijuana spread throughout Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century thanks to its positive effects on stomach problems. However, in 1937 the North American country adopted a federal code, called the Marijuana Tax Act , which prohibited recreational use, in line with other anti-drug regulations such as the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914.

The percentage of Americans who support legalization has reversed in the last decade. The worst years of the “war on drugs”, which coincide with those of the Reagan Administration (1981-1989), are also those in which the support for legalization is lower. Source: Pew Research
The punitive measure spread throughout the world and marijuana became an illegal substance: France banned it in 1916 with the Law of Toxic Substances and Mexico in 1920 with a law “on trade and cultivation of products that degenerate the race ” . Under the pretext of its supposed negative effects on society, such as the induction of crime, violence or madness , a feeling of repudiation towards marijuana was generalized despite its proven medical use, which favored perpetuating the stigma of consumers and increase your marginality.

In the 70s, the United States began a fierce fight at the federal level to end drug addiction and drug trafficking championed by the conservative President Richard Nixon, who had a great weight in the adoption of the Controlled Substances Act of 1971. The beginning of the so-called “war on drugs”, abandoned during the presidency of Obama and resumed by his republican successor , established a conservative vision of marijuana in American society that would last until the end of the century. However, the gradual legalization of marijuana for therapeutic purposes in states such as California – a pioneer in 1996 – has helped to lower social prejudices and encourage their support among the population

Towards the legalization of marijuana
In line with the American example, other countries have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Germany, for example, authorized its use in mid-2017 with the aim of reducing severe pain in patients with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis or cancer . Thanks to the concentration of THC in the plant, the sensation of pain is reduced by interacting with the cannabinoid receptors of the body. Other countries, such as the Czech Republic – where it has been legal since 2013 – or Norway – since 2016 – have also approved its use within its national health system.

To expand : “Cannabis legalization: How it has worked for other countries around the world,” Harry Cockburn in The Independent , 2018

However, the use of marijuana is not restricted only to the medical field; in many places it has been consumed for recreational purposes for decades. Perhaps the place with the greatest tradition is the Netherlands. Although its recreational use has only been decriminalized since 1976 with the Opium Law , the so-called coffeeshops -local that sell everything but coffee- constitute a true tourist attraction; It is estimated that in 2017 between 25 and 30% of Amsterdam visitors went to one of these famous places Portugal, meanwhile, became the second European country – the first was Spain– to decriminalize the use of all drugs in 2001 as a consequence of the increasing numbers of HIV infections, which led to it becoming the European Union country with the highest rate of infected . Thanks to this radical initiative, HIV infections were drastically reduced, from 104 new cases per million in 2000 to 4 in 2015 .

To expand “Why hardly anyone dies from a drug overdose in Portugal” , Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post , 2015

The precedents of States such as Portugal, the Netherlands or Colombia have promoted alternative measures to the punitive response of the United States with the objective of reducing the problems derived from drugs. One of the most groundbreaking was the law adopted by the Uruguayan Republic, which legalized all uses of marijuana. The decree, introduced in 2013, takes shape slowly in the Latin American nation – only as of July 2017 could marijuana be acquired in pharmacies, after registration – and the results are not yet definitive. Despite the lack of conclusive data, its political impact has been worldwide and other countries have followed its model. Canada, for example, has become the first member of the G20 to legalize the personal use of marijuana, measure that will begin in October 2018 .

Legal use of marijuana in the world: in green, countries where it is legal only with a prescription; in blue, those where marijuana is legal for any use, including recreational. The warm tones correspond to countries where it is illegal – red -, it is usually tolerated –rosa – or decriminalized – orange -. Canada has been the last country to fully legalize it, so it should appear in blue. Source: Jamesy0627144 (Wikimedia)

This important measure, the Canadian Prime Minister’s personal project , aims to restrict consumption among minors, as well as reduce crimes related to drug trafficking and organized crime . The initiative, along with the support of the new Mexican president and the legalization of recreational use in different regions of the United States, such as California, Colorado or Alaska, is a setback to the traditional “war on drugs”, whose disciplinary measures have turned out to be a failure.

To expand “Colorado, the gentrification of the Wild West” , Alfonso Pisabarro in The World Order , 2018

On the other hand, the legalization of marijuana can have a profound economic impact on countries that are committed to its regulation. The growing boom of companies associated with the production of cannabis is proof of this, with examples such as Canopy Growth – currently the most important cannabis producer – or Aurora Cannabis, both established in Canada. The upward trend in marijuana sales after their legalization, as well as the increase in the market value of cannabis companies, can be a great business opportunity for many companies and the ” cannabis lobby ” is already being used to refer to the pressure groups that try to advance the political agenda in favor of this substance.

Current and future sales of recreational marijuana – dark green – and medicinal – green clear – in the United States. Source: Statista

Whether restricted to medicinal uses or extended to recreational use, the legalization of marijuana seems to be an increasingly widespread reality. Other countries, such as Georgia or South Africa , where the highest constitutional bodies have spoken in favor of legalization, demonstrate the change of political paradigm. The announcement a few weeks ago that Coca-Cola is considering introducing cannabidiol – a non-psychoactive component of cannabis – into its beverages is only increasing support for a substance once associated with marginality and, although there are no conclusive data on the social impact of recreational legalization, every day more voices defend its use and its positive effects.

Dissenting voices

The Uruguayan experience has proved to be an important example for other states in marijuana management, but numerous voices have been raised against what they consider a measure that compromises public health. One of the clearest direct consequences of the measure could be increased consumption , but the Latin American republic could suffer another setback: the increase in violence. The irruption of the State in the marijuana market reduces the margin of action of drug traffickers, which favors the disputes and raises the violence: “When so much money passes in so little time to the legal market, someone must have accused the coup. […] Strangulation is taking place in the illegal market “. The different groups of drug traffickers strive to maintain a predominant position in the illicit market, which is increasingly depleted, which causes an increase in friction, which translates into a higher degree of criminality.

On the other hand, the country suffers a production deficit because of the increase in recreational consumption ; This increases the frustration of consumers and pushes them into the illegal market. In addition, due to the neurotoxic components of cannabis , with a greater impact on children and young people, it increases the risk of suffering from serious mental illnesses – panic attacks, depression or schizophrenia – in genetically predisposed people . The risk is greatly increased by the increase in psychoactive potency of marijuana – higher THC content in each plant – due to the entry into the market of new species with large capacity .

The medical risks associated with an unlimited consumption of marijuana have led most countries in the world to adopt an intermediate position between recreational legalization – favored by Uruguay and Canada – and the punitive penalty – traditionally defended at the federal level by the United States – : decriminalization. This practice, adopted in countries such as Spain, Argentina, Russia, Italy or the US territories of Illinois or Kentucky, aims to reduce the violence associated with drug trafficking, as well as addiction to marijuana, avoiding a coercive approach towards consumers.

The base that forms the policies based on decriminalization are the rehabilitation and reinsertion of those arrested, so the penalties are usually of an economic and social nature -for example, services to the community-. It is, therefore, an alternative to the deprivation of liberty for crimes related to marijuana, which helps to alleviate the penitentiary system and reduce crime rates – between 2001 and 2010 there were seven million detainees for possession of marijuana in United States, the annual equivalent of a raid every 37 seconds in 2010 -.

The coercive approach only achieves a greater number of arrests, which also tend to affect unequally depending on ethnicity. Source: New York Marijuana
To this we must add the pernicious effects in the economy. Due to the growing financial interest of cannabis companies, companies such as the US Constellation Brands have opted to invest in this business, to the enthusiasm of investors . This situation of collective hysteria has caused the alarm to spread among analysts, who speak of the business of marijuana as an economic bubble similar to that of dotcom companies.at the beginning of the millennium, which led to the bankruptcy of many internet-based companies. A disproportionate bet for a recent market niche such as that of marijuana that overvalues ​​the real possibilities of growth can lead to the bankruptcy of companies associated with this substance or even an economic recession.

To expand : “Medical Marijuana Is The New Bubble” , Clem Chambers in Forbes , 2018

It is still early to say that marijuana is the new tobacco or alcohol. The lack of international consensus on their legal status – only two countries, Canada and Uruguay, out of a total of 193 recognized by the UN have fully legalized recreational use – and the proven harmful effects on health of their continuous uselimit their implementation worldwide. It seems that, at least in the medium term, most of the countries will move towards a decriminalizing model, in which the possession of marijuana for their own consumption will be punished as a minor offense and not prosecuted by criminal law. The fight against drug addiction and drug trafficking are the biggest challenges; only a model that tries to stop these blunders without marginalizing consumers may be considered appropriate. A model that treats marijuana regulars as citizens and not as soldiers of a war that does not seem possible to overcome with more weapons than an efficient reintegration system.