New Report: U.S. Government Data Demonstrates Failure of Cannabis Prohibition

Leading International Scientific Body Supports Call for Legalization and Regulation to Reduce Cannabis-Related Harms

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October 7, 2010 [Vancouver, Canada] – The International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) today released a new research report that demonstrates the clear failure of U.S. marijuana prohibition and supports calls for evidence-based models to legalize and regulate the use of cannabis. The British Medical Journal, one of the world’s most influential medical journals, published a supportive commentary to coincide with the report’s release today.

The new report, entitled Tools for debate: U.S. federal government data on cannabis prohibition, uses 20 years of data collected by surveillance systems funded by the U.S. government to highlight the failure of cannabis prohibition in America. The report has deep relevance for California as the state prepares to vote on the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis proposition and, potentially, legalize cannabis.

“Data, collected and paid for by the U.S. government, clearly shows that prohibition has not reduced cannabis consumption or supply. Since prohibition is not working, we need new approaches to better address the harms of cannabis use,” says Dr. Evan Wood, founder of the ICSDP. “Scientific evidence clearly shows that regulatory tools have the potential to effectively reduce rates of cannabis-related harm.”

Despite dramatically increased law enforcement funding, the U.S. government’s data demonstrates that cannabis prohibition has not resulted in a decrease in cannabis availability or accessibility. According to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, federal anti-drug expenditures in the U.S. increased 600% from $1.5 billion in 1981 to over $18 billion in 2002. However, during this period, the potency of cannabis increased by 145% and the price of cannabis decreased by a dramatic 58%.

According to U.S. government funded reports, in the face of increasing enforcement expenditures over the last 30 years, cannabis has remained almost “universally available” to young Americans. Cannabis use among U.S. grade 12 students increased from 27% in 1990 to 32% in 2008 and approximately 80-90% of grade 12 students say the drug is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain.

“From a public health and scientific perspective, the evidence demonstrates that cannabis prohibition has not achieved its intended objectives,” states Dr. Carl Hart, a co-author on the report and Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University. “The fact that cannabis prohibition has also enriched organized crime groups and fueled violence in the community creates an urgency to implement evidence-based alternatives that may be more effective at controlling cannabis supply and access.”

In addition to describing the failure of cannabis prohibition, the report notes that legalization combined with the implementation of strict regulatory tools could be more effective at controlling cannabis use and reducing cannabis-related harms. Research demonstrates that similar regulatory tools have been successful in controlling the harms of tobacco and alcohol when strictly enforced.

The report also discusses the regulatory tools available to governments, including conditional licensing systems; age restrictions; product taxation; retailer operating and location limitations; marketing prohibitions; and packaging guidelines.

While the report urges an evidence-based approach to cannabis regulation and notes the comparative successes several European countries have had in decriminalizing cannabis use, it also notes the limitations of models in place in Netherlands and Portugal. People who use marijuana in these two European countries do not face prosecution, but the production and distribution of cannabis remains illegal and largely controlled by organized crime.

“Legalization and strict regulation are more likely to be effective at eliminating the role of organized crime in marijuana production and distribution, because the profit motive is effectively removed,” said Dr. Wood.

In his commentary published in today’s British Medical Journal (bmj.com), Dr. Robin Room notes that regulatory tools developed at the end of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s can also be used today to successfully control cannabis.

“The evidence from Tools for Debate is not only that the prohibition system is not achieving its aims, but that more efforts in the same direction only worsen the results,” says Dr. Room, Professor of Social Research at the University of Melbourne. “The challenge for researchers and policy analysts is to now flesh out the details of effective regulatory regimes.”  

Dr. Wood is one of the six international illicit drug policy experts who authored the report, which has been endorsed by over 65MDs and PhDs in 30 countries who are members of the ICSDP Scientific Network.

The full report is available online at www.icsdp.org.

A related ICSDP report released in April 2010 demonstrates that the illegality of cannabis clearly enriches organized crime and drives violence, as street gangs and cartels compete for drug market profits. In Mexico, an estimated 28,000 people have died since the start of the drug war in 2006. U.S. government reports have previously estimated that approximately 60% of Mexican drug cartel revenue comes from the cannabis trade.

The full 26-page report, “Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review,” is available online at http://www.icsdp.org/research/publications.aspx.

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International Centre for Science in Drug Policy
ICSDP is an international network of scientists, academics, and health practitioners who have come together in an effort to ensure illicit drug policies are informed with the best available scientific evidence.  The ICSDP aims to be a primary source for rigorous scientific evidence on illicit drug policy in order to benefit policymakers, law enforcement, and affected communities. To this end, the ICSDP conducts original scientific research in the form of systematic reviews, evidence-based drug policy guidelines, and research collaborations with leading scientists and institutions across diverse continents and disciplines.