Decriminalization of cannabis

Wim van den Brink
Current Opinion in Psychiatry 2008, 21:122–126
March 2008

This paper discusses the case for decriminalization of cannabis use, based on a careful weighting of the currently available evidence regarding advantages and risks of such a policy change. The issue of decriminalization is a response to the widespread use of cannabis in spite of its current illegal status; that is, as a consequence of the perceived ineffectiveness of the traditional prohibition of cannabis use.

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The paper gives an overview of relevant research and concludes that although cannabis use is not without risks, criminalization is an expensive strategy involving considerable policing, prosecution and a fair amount of incarceration, that decriminalization does not result in lower prices and higher consumption rates, nor in more severe patterns of cannabis use, that prohibition and criminalization are associated with social harms to the cannabis user, that decriminalization may reduce the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia and between cannabis use and the use of other illicit drugs, and that criminalization may reduce the legitimacy of the judicial system.

A further decriminalization combined with quality control, price measures including taxation, primary and secondary prevention of use and harm reduction through age restrictions and limitations of the number of cannabis retail outlets may postpone early onset of cannabis use and stabilize or even reduce cannabis consumption rates. Finally, low-threshold and free-of-charge treatment facilities are needed for those who – despite preventive actions – develop physical or mental health problems. Given the available scientific data, existing repressive, expensive and unsuccessful criminal justice policies should be replaced by humane, effective and more efficient health policies such as those currently implemented in many of the European countries, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and many others.