In November 2012, voters in the US states of Washington and Colorado approved initiatives to legalize and regulate the commercialization and recreational use of cannabis or marihuana. The passing of these bills marks a milestone for drug policy, since both states become the first political jurisdictions in the world to lift the general prohibition on cannabis production for recreational use. Other states of the federation –Maine, Maryland, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire- have also taken first steps in this direction, promulgating similar laws at the beginning of this year. This tendency is not limited to the US. In June of 2012, the Uruguayan government announced a bill to strictly legalize and regulate cannabis trade. If approved, it would make Uruguay the first country to establish a regulation of cannabis for recreational use at a national level.
These initiatives are framed in a cautious but undeniable global tendency to challenge the drug prohibitionist regime. A tendency which has been gaining momentum in the last few decades, especially in Europe and Latin America. It is based on the belief that drug prohibition has resulted counterproductive, so much for failing in its goal to eradicate illicit drug markets and reduce the prevalence of consumption, as for generating an accumulation of unexpected and negative consequences. Although efforts to regulate drug markets are still exceptional, the tendency points to conceiving drug consumption as a matter which essentially concerns public health and not security. Normative objectives are gradually moving away from the utopic goal of a drug free society, in benefit of more accessible goals like harm reduction and minimization of drug related violence. Intermediate regulations that decriminalize and/or depenalize drug possession and consumption, as well as policies that put the emphasis on harm reduction, are being increasingly implemented on both sides of the Atlantic. This context of legislative reforms and ever more frequent calls for a change of strategy permits the forecast of a significant change in the direction of international drug policies in a near future.
Nevertheless, in spite of the support that such initiatives enjoy by international media, experts and members of specialized think tanks, the scientific community has not reached a conclusion about their convenience. This derives from a fundamental lack of information, analysis and evidence regarding the effects and results of current prohibitionist policies, as well as of those expected from alternative policies. In effect, illegal drugs inhabit an area of policy-making exceptional for its shortage of intellectual engagement. A deficit that derives from the application of the current prohibitionist regime: the resistance of governments to try out any alternative policy entails an enormous difficulty to obtain evidence and data from other experiences. In addition, the necessity to justify a very costly and ineffective approach has stimulated a certain research distortion to defend and support punitive actions, avoiding the unbiased analysis of drug policies, in favor of studies that essentially demonstrate the harms caused by illegal drugs.
In consequence, prohibitionist drug policies did not evolve in function of evaluations, but as a result of historical, moral and political factors. But this shortfall also applies to policies that challenge the prohibitionist regime, which neither stand on a consistent scientific basis, nor result from a political consensus on a national or international scale. In fact, the analysis of dominant positions reveals an important difficulty for finding satisfactory evidence of rationality. The political debate is characterized by general disinformation and predominance of clearly adverse and polarized positions, frequently lacking a theoretical or empirical basis. It is even common for opposing voices to interpret the same scientific evidence differently, according to their own position on the matter.
Hence, when comparing existing prohibitionist regimes with any other possible regimes, including regulated markets, it is important to remember that the unintended consequences of these alternatives are pretty much unknown. In view of the influence that drug policies have on important social issues such as drug trafficking, criminality, public health or marginalization, among others, this reminder should serve as a call for caution. The implementation of policies that have not been studied in depth could end up having devastating impacts on society and individuals.
Most scientific studies seem to agree on, at least, one crucial point. In spite of the many unintended harms it causes, the prohibition of cannabis produces an accumulation of effects that prevent a higher consumption of the substance. Accordingly, abandoning the prohibitory regime would imply a basic tradeoff: the reduction of some of the damaging harms associated with its consumption and trade (criminalization, social stigmatization, partial benefits of illegal markets), in exchange for an important increase in the prevalence and intensity of consumption. Considering the relatively mild health risks associated with cannabis use (low in comparison to alcohol, for example), then we have to accept that, if legalized, a gradual social naturalization of its consumption would occur. Although not necessarily a bad thing, it could easily entail many harmful effects that go beyond the sanitary dimension. For example, cannabis consumption is likely to play an even more significant role in the relational rituals of many teenagers, as well as in their identity construction, whether at individual or group level. An increase could have serious repercussions on education, social or labor integration, among others. Problems such as these are part of a wide variety of unintended consequences that come attached to any public policy.
These considerations are not meant to persuade reformists into maintaining the status quo. Far from it, their purpose is to encourage policy-makers who are experimenting with regulation policies to remember that the application of new drug policies entails considerable risks. Any course of action must be defined by caution and good judgment. Reforms in the USA and Uruguay should be implemented in a progressive and gradual manner and include comprehensive and continuous evaluations that permit the obtaining of empirical data, as well as the possibility of applying corrections, changing course and even capitulating, if necessary. The correct implementation of such policies could be a first step towards fairer drug policies that have as their main measure of success the reduction of health risks, along with the security and wellbeing of both individuals and society as a whole.