Europe, it’s time to regulate cannabis!

A couple of young people have launched “Weed like to talk”, a grassroots campaign calling on the European Union to make cannabis legal
Peter Sarosi (HCLU)

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a great innovation of the Treaty of Lisbon, enabling EU citizens to call directly on the European Commission to propose a legal act, if they can obtain the support of one million of their fellow citizens. The "Weed like to talk” campaign, launched by three French university students this year, aims to collect one million signatures from at least seven EU countries to call for a common cannabis policy based on a legally regulated market.

One of the students, Pierre Balas, a Parisian graduate student of European Affairs, says there is no commercial or political agenda behind the campaign. They are students who are simply fed up with ineffective policies and wish to explore innovative tools of direct democracy. The success of the campaign will not automatically lead to cannabis legalization but the EU Commission will be legally bound to undertake transparent action on cannabis policy.

This grassroots initiative has come just in time.

Cannabis is by far the most popular illegal drug in the European Union. According to official estimates, more than 23 million people smoked cannabis in 2012. Many of these 23 million people live in countries where cannabis use or cultivation for personal use is a criminal offence, punishable by incarceration or a fine. Significant law enforcement resources are devoted to the prosecution and imprisonment of non-violent cannabis offenders.

All this fuss is over the use of a plant which does not cause any life-threatening health problems comparable to those associated with alcohol or tobacco use. It has no known lethal dose. Cannabis smoking can lead to bronchitis but it does not cause lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. If the purpose of prohibition is to protect young people, then it has been a dismal failure - according to some researchers, teenagers find it easier to obtain marijuana, than tobacco.

The fact that cannabis is illegal generates a huge black market which is not regulated and taxed by governments. It is estimated that 2500 tonnes of cannabis were smoked in 2012; its street value can be measured in tens of billions of Euros. This represents a huge profit for criminals who pay no tax and do not ask for ID cards. The black market knows no consumer protection, no quality control and no labour rights. The alarming recent trend for many young people to use synthetic, legal cannabis substitutes (so called legal highs) is also driven by the prohibition of cannabis.

Cannabis prohibition is by any standards a failed policy. It doesn't deter young people from using cannabis. Despite increasing police seizures of cannabis, the street price has not changed significantly in the past decades, that is, availability has remained stable or increased. If the market were regulated, it would generate significant tax revenue to spend on public health and education. It would enable governments to control the market and limit availability, ensuring quality and regulating production. It would free up police resources to deal with organised crime.

Would legalisation lead to more cannabis use? Maybe more adults would experiment with cannabis – but that doesn't mean that the number of users would skyrocket. Cannabis use has not increased significantly in the Netherlands, the only EU country where adults are allowed to buy cannabis in coffee shops. In fact, rates of use are lower than in many countries where cannabis users are criminalised. The success of tobacco policies shows that there are more effective alternatives to criminalisation. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control provides a good example of how to contain and reduce the use of a legal substance through smart public health policies, without imprisoning anyone.

Unfortunately, EU governments have thus far chosen to ignore the evidence and waste taxpayer money on pursuing punitive policies. Some countries in the New World are now miles ahead of us in many ways. Now that the federal government has given the green light to legalisation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, many other states in the US will follow their example. Uruguay has become the first nation to create state-licenced shops to sell cannabis to adults. The international consensus around global drug prohibition is fading, and the 2016 UN General Assembly on drugs can bring a shift in paradigm. But change will not come if we always wait for another person or another time. It is time for citizens to push EU decision-makers to rethink drug policies and discuss the alternatives to prohibition.