Research studies on cannabis use policies have revealed that easing up on the penalties for using cannabis does not influence the use of other drugs nor does it change people’s outlooks towards the use of drugs. The research studies go on to illustrate that removing the penalties for cannabis use do not sway overall drug use, instead it diminishes harm on cannabis users (Institute of Medicine 1999, p. 102). As a result more countries are liberalizing their cannabis use policies and controlling its supply by putting structures in place to monitor the drug use. Several states in the USA and Netherlands have adopted such policy changes in which marijuana use has been liberalized. Individuals who use marijuana in small no longer face criminal charges for possession and use of marijuana. Those in possession of large amounts are still liable to be prosecuted. They have, however, placed caps on the maximum amount of marijuana that an individual can possess at any given time.
Cannabis is a drug produced from the Cannabis sativa plant and can be used in either of three forms; flower tops; leaves; and herbs. The three forms can then be processed into forms that make them easier to use. It is the most widely used drug globally (Villatoro 2009, p. 287). Cannabis international control was discussed in the United Nations office of Drug and Crime 1961 single convention on Narcotics Drugs in which many governments signed the convention to make cannabis an illegal drug. It is important to note that despite cannabis possession and use being liberalized in some countries, no country has ever legalized cannabis use and possession. The only respite provided for cannabis users is that formal penalties for use of small amounts of cannabis, that are used personally, have been removed (Robin et al. 2010, p. 24; Spruit 2002, pp. 119-141).
This essay has therefore analysed the drug policies adopted by USA and Netherlands, compared and contrasted their applications, and proposed policy changes that the UK drug policy could adopt based on the analysis.
Cannabis use policy in USA
The USA has adopted a mixed cannabis use policy in which though in 1937 the central government outlawed cannabis use at the federal level using the Marijuana Tax Act. In the early 1970’s 13 American state legislatures (that included Oregon, Ohio, North Carolina, New York, Nevada, Nebraska, Mississippi, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado, California and Alaska) formally decriminalised cannabis use by enacting decriminalisation laws that allowed state residents to use and possess small amounts of cannabis, within the state boundaries, without the risk of being jailed. Those who violate these policies are subject to being fined or receiving a civil penalty as provided for in the law. The debate on legalisation of cannabis use in the USA has received a lot of attention. Even the states that have not decriminalised cannabis possession and use rarely jail offenders found in possession of small amounts of cannabis. A look at court and penitentiary records shows that less than 1 per cent of prison inmates were in jail due to cannabis use and possession (Kilmer et al. 2010a).
Most of them had pled down far serious charges and were handed lighter sentences on cannabis possession charges (Kilmer et al. 2010b). The current risk of arrest for possession of 3 grams of cannabis is 1 in every 12,000. The mixed cannabis use policy has made it statistically difficult to determine the relationship between cannabis use and its decriminalisation. Studies on this topic have produced conflicting results with some research studies reporting no increase of cannabis use in states that have decriminalised it while other reported reduced cannabis drug use in states that had decriminalised it (MacCoun et al. 2009, p. 347).
Cannabis use policy in Netherlands
The Netherlands cannabis use policy are the most cited examples of liberalized cannabis use policies. In 1976, Netherlands’ legislative assembly enacted legislation and set up cannabis use policy that allowed individuals to possess and use up to 30 grams of cannabis at any given time. Individuals were only subjected to arrest and prosecution if they exceeded the 30 grams limit set by the policy. A 1980 amendment to the policy allowed coffee shops to apply for licenses and sell cannabis. The amendments also allowed local authorities to control discretion of commercial cannabis related practices. Over time the number of coffee shops selling cannabis around the country increased exponentially from 9 in 1980 to 102 in 1988 (Jansen 1991, p. 8). A 2000 survey estimated the number of coffee shops selling cannabis at 1,500 shops. Though they have liberalized cannabis use, the Dutch are not in favour of legalizing cannabis use (MacCoun & Reuter 2001, p. 29).
In analysing the implications of the liberalized cannabis use policy on overall cannabis use we find that between 1976 and 1984m cannabis use remained the same among all age groups in Netherlands. Given that the liberalized policies were enacted in 1976, we can infer that between 1976 and 1984 the policy had no effect on overall cannabis use trends. Between 1985 and 1996 the country reported a constant and sharp increase in use of cannabis across all age groups in the country. There was a 300 per cent increase in cannabis use reported among the age bracket of 18 to 20 year olds for the same period. This spike was attributed to glamorisation, marketing activities, and the presence of the coffee shops that could now engage in the commercial sale of cannabis (MacCoun & Reuter 2001, p. 34). Earleywine (2006, p. 325) further added that the reported increasing cannabis use trends were resultant of greater normalization of cannabis use, as anti-drug use attitudes were eroded among the young and impressionable youth, and use of the drug gradually become more acceptable.
Dutch legislators have proposed and amended the cannabis use policy. The amendments have allowed the government to reduce the number of coffee shops selling cannabis. According to 2010 estimates, approximately 700 coffee shops selling cannabis were in operation across the country. In calculating the concentration of coffee shops selling cannabis against the country’s residents we find that every coffee shop serves 30,000 Dutch residents. In Amsterdam, where the concentration of coffee shops selling cannabis is high the figures stand at 3,000 city inhabitants for every 1 coffee shop selling cannabis. Current statistics on cannabis use show that the figures for Netherlands are similar to those of other European countries, though hospital admission for cannabis related medical condition are higher in Netherlands than other European countries. The policies have undergone revisions such that only Dutch citizens are now allowed to purchase cannabis drugs from coffee shops. Coffee shops are also being zoned to reduce their numbers and restrict them to specific areas (MacCoun 2011, p. 1899-1910).
Comparing and contrasting cannabis use policy in USA and Netherlands
From the discussions on both the USA and Dutch cannabis, drugs use policies it is clear that despite the tow policies being fundamentally similar, they have approached cannabis use policy differently. Their similarities and differences have been discussed in tables 1 and 2.
Table 1. Comparing cannabis use policy in Netherlands and USA
Comparing cannabis use policy in Netherlands and USA
They have both decriminalised cannabis use though in the USA on 13 states have done this.
They both have similar approaches to the prosecution of cannabis related cases. Offenders are mostly fined instead of being incarcerated.
They have both set limits for the amount of cannabis that an individual can use.
Table 2. Contrasting cannabis use policy in Netherlands and USA
Contrasting cannabis use policy in Netherlands and USA
USA (the 13 decriminalised states)
Presence of coffee shops that openly sell cannabis
Sale of cannabis is illegal.
Cannabis traders pay taxes on its sale.
No taxes are collected on cannabis trade
Foreigners are not allowed to trade in or use cannabis in the country.
No distinction between foreigners and Americans.
Implications for cannabis use policy in UK
While the decriminalised cannabis uses policies, adopted by Netherlands and the 13 states in USA, they have however not had any effect on regulating the drug use. In fact, these countries have reported the highest numbers of health related complications resultant of cannabis use. The implication is that decriminalising cannabis use does not have an effect on its overall use. These countries have also reported a decrease in illegal drug trade as legalising cannabis use has made it cheaper and easier to obtain. Given that the decriminalisation policies adopted by Netherlands and USA have failed in reducing cannabis drug use, the UK must develop policies that build on the strengths of the decriminalisation cannabis use policies and avoid their shortcomings.
This paper, therefore, recommends that the UK cannabis use policy be revised to impose tougher penalties for cannabis possession. The current policies allow for the arrest of those in possession of cannabis though most of them are let off with warnings and light fines. The maximum prison term for repeat offenders is 5 years. In 1999, UK spent £350 million in policing cannabis. This scenario is worrying as the monies spent in policing would have been used elsewhere (Corkery 2002, pp. 6-7).
Though the UK cannabis use policy has had some shortfalls that necessitated change, it is still a better policy than the decriminalization policy. Despite costing more in policing cannabis use and possession, we could argue that the cost is easily offset by; the health benefits that reduce stress on health facilities as UK reports lower numbers of cannabis drug use complications; the fines imposed on those found in possession of the drug; and sale of assets seized on cannabis drug raids.
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MacCoun, R et al. 2009, ‘Do citizens know whether they live in a decriminalization state?’ Review of Law and Economics, vol. 5. No. 1, 347-371.
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