Read with great interest a new Cannabis Study by Professor Wayne Hall of King's College London. Frankly, I feel the media reaction has turned a serious piece of academic research into a bit of a red herring. None of us calling for an end to the so-called War on Drugs are suggesting that cannabis (or any other drug) be made available to adolescents. And we are all aware of the health risks associated with drug use during pregnancy.
What we are saying is that current drug policies have been a colossal failure, as they have neither curbed demand for illicit drugs, nor in any way reduced supply. These policies certainly haven’t done anything to eliminate the risks Professor Hall identified in his study.
In fact, I couldn’t think of greater obstacles to harm reduction than prohibition and the continued criminalisation of drug users.
Let’s be clear, we are all concerned about the potential harms caused by drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. But the appropriate responses are evidence-based public health interventions and sensible regulation, not dramatic headlines. As NHS Choices pointed out, this particular study was carried out by a single researcher and was a narrative rather than a systematic review. "As this review was not systematic, it is impossible to tell if all relevant studies have been included. And all these conclusions were based on the results of observational studies, which means we can't tell if cannabis caused all the effects."
The main lesson to be learned from alcohol prohibition in the 1920s is that it didn’t work. It created a vast illegal market that fuelled organised crime and did absolutely nothing to limit alcohol consumption or addiction. As policy makers came to understand the vast health risks linked to alcohol and tobacco, they also understood that the most effective strategy is to legalise and tightly regulate them. Why not apply the same approach to cannabis?
No drug is made safer left in the hands of criminals and unregulated dealers. On the other hand, legally regulated systems, like the ones recently introduced for cannabis in Uruguay or in Washington and Colorado, allow governments to put in place strict age controls, licensing regulations, purity guides, and safer use warnings. Both producers and distributors can be held accountable for violations – something that cannot be done where organised crime controls the trade.
It’s been 43 years since Parliament passed the Misuse of Drugs Act. That’s more than four decades of untold suffering, lives needlessly ruined and public funds wasted. It’s time we try a new approach and give decriminalisation and regulation a chance.