Cannabis has been taking centre stage in recent weeks. Former attorneys-general and Vancouver mayors in British Columbia have called for regulation and taxation of the industry, in an attempt to stop the violence of the illegal trade. At the same time the Harper government continues to move to passage of legislation that will mandate a six month minimum term of imprisonment for anyone growing six plants or more.
Undeterred, activists and pundits are now squabbling over the future of cannabis. How is it to be regulated? Placed in the pharmacy and made available on prescription? Regulated like fine red wine, with a focus on the quality of the product, the metaphorical grapes, the vineyards, and the country of origin?
This talk all seems a little bizarre, reminding one of Woody Allen's response to Christopher Walken's character in "Annie Hall:" "I have to go now, Duane, because I'm due back on the planet earth".
We are having a conversation about how we should regulate the consumption of cannabis, at the same time that we have a government that not only seeks to retain criminalization and the possibility of imprisonment for adults who possess the drug, but is also bringing a new strategy to the table: imprisoning thousands of cultivators, irrespective of whether they are violent or have engaged in any form of predatory crime, beyond a relatively basic horticulture.
An understanding of how to approach cannabis should be helped by our experiences with tobacco and alcohol. Like cannabis, these are mind-active drugs that many of us can become dependent upon. But unlike cannabis, they appear to cause a great deal of harm and much premature death, even when current rates of use are taken into account. Cannabis is certainly not benign, but it simply cannot produce the rates of heart disease and cancer that tobacco can -- and it is clearly not as destructive of social life as alcohol. As a local police officer told me many years ago, "if it wasn't for alcohol, I'd only have a part-time job."
In the 1950s, Life magazine ran photos of doctors in lab coats, with stethoscopes dangling from their necks. The captions read, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette." At the bottom of the advertisement was a life expectancy table, apparently demonstrating that since the advent of the modern cigarette in the 1920s, life expectancy had increased by about 15 to 20 years.
In retrospect, we allowed corporate interests to make outrageous claims about a highly destructive and highly addictive drug. Tobacco companies could not make such idiotic claims about their product today. Public health and non-smokers' rights initiatives have made important contributions to massive declines in the per capita consumption of this drug. In the mid 1960s, more than half of all Canadian adults smoked; today, even in an era of greater availability of tobacco, less than 20 per cent of us continue to indulge in what must be acknowledged as a game of Russian roulette.
Alcohol presents us with something of a different story. There is compelling evidence that moderate drinking (up to two drinks per day, and preferably red wine) is consistent with good health (the recommended amounts differ between men and women). Difficulties arise with consumption beyond these levels, and, unhappily, that is not a rare event. We also have the not inevitable but clearly potential consequences of intoxication: impaired driving, interpersonal violence, and marriage breakdown.
What we've learned from alcohol and tobacco -- and what we should not forget when it comes to cannabis -- is that mind-active drugs can be abused, and that advertising and promotion of these products can cause significant harms, whether intended or not. At the same time, however, we can see that the extent of use of a drug is not simply a function of its availability. Tobacco is more available today that it was in the 1960s, but use has dropped significantly. And cannabis use in the Netherlands, where the drug can be purchased at any of more than 600 "coffee shops," is much less substantial than it is in Canada, the U.S., or the United Kingdom. Less than 7 per cent of Dutch adults reported use in the most recent survey year, while in Canada, the UK, and the U.S. the comparable figures all sit at 10 per cent or more.
Government policies regarding mind-active drugs should be dictated by the best available science and cast in the framework of public health, not a historically and culturally mediated morality. The line that separates cannabis from tobacco and alcohol today cannot be understood by public health, only by history, culture, and politics. Cannabis was the bad drug of Mexican migrants, those who played jazz and the blues (often blacks), and the beat and the hippie generations. In contrast, alcohol and tobacco are the so-called good drugs of established North American corporate interests.
But the response to this reality should not be one of extolling the virtues of cannabis; it remains sound social policy to discourage cannabis use, and to construct responses to its realities that are premised upon the protection of public health. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, however, there is no compelling evidence that criminal prohibition will be helpful in pursuing this objective.