On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the 1st international Cannabis Policy: Where to from here? workshop, hosted by the Microeconometrics Unit at the University of Melbourne.
According to the organisers, the aims of the workshop were
- to shine a light on Australian cannabis policy within the context of international moves towards cannabis law reform
- provide an opportunity for vigorous interdisciplinary discussion about some of the latest research findings
- facilitate debate about Australias current cannabis policy environment
As would be expected the workshop had an economics feel, which novel for me. My background is in sociology and psychology, although I did do economics to Year 12 level at school. That helped slightly 🙂
Economic analyses that were presented included: (1) cost benefit analyses (CBA) of cannabis regulation/legalisation, both in the UK and in the Australian state of NSW, and (2) the use of household survey data from Australia analysed as a pseudo-cohort to answer questions about what might happen if cannabis were regulated/legalised.
It was interesting to reflect upon the way economists use this method to determine the balance of costs/benefits of a policy change to society at large. So, what could be seen as a benefit from the government’s perspective, increased taxes from regulating cannabis, is not counted as a benefit. Rather it is seen as a transfer (of money from individuals to government): it benefits government but taxes individuals, benefits and costs cancel each other out.
Another intriguing feature of CBA is that the benefits of drug use to the individual drug users must be accounted for if using the method as intended. Stephen Pudney noted that most CBA in drug policy are conservative in that they only consider the external costs/benefits (ignoring the internal costs/benefits). In economic terms, drug use has ‘utility’ to the drug user and this has to be taken into account to assess the true C/B of a new drug policy. I would agree!
Interestingly, using these models with their various caveats, a regulated cannabis market was of only a slight benefit to society (both in the UK and the NSW models). The group was expecting the economic benefits to be larger.
It was interesting that many in the room assumed that it was a given that cannabis use would increase in a regulated/legalised environment. Information was presented at the workshop that pointed towards the likelihood of increased use. Data in the National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicate that a fair proportion of people who have never used cannabis would try it if it were legal. But when I thought this through, I imagine that many of these people would try it but are not necessarily going to go any further. The idea that prohibition is holding back a floodgate of people from using drugs doesn’t seem valid to me.
Another problem we had was the examination of how decriminalisation of cannabis affects its uptake in Australia. Anne Line Bretteville Jensen‘s analysis of NDSHS data using a pseudo-cohort design indicated that in states where cannabis was decriminalised, people who used cannabis were more likely to try it at a younger age compared with states where cannabis was depenalised (that is, prohibited with a cautioning system). There was no evidence of greater prevalence of cannabis use solely due to decriminalising when taking into account that the states that have decriminalised already had higher rates of use.
It is concerning that such policies to decriminalise have been associated with an earlier uptake of use because earlier uptake (especially in early teens or younger) is strongly associated with greater harms.
The second day of the workshop involved some interesting presentations, including one from my supervisor Simon Lenton on the state of cannabis law reform in Western Australia and from Canadian professor Benedikt Fischer on the Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines.
Of most interest to me was the 2 hour panel discussion and participant debate at the end of the workshop. Most of us seemed to agree that some kind of regulated model of cannabis control would be optimal. Of course the devil is in the details: how would that model operate, what would it look like? What are the impediments in Australia? We discussed the international conventions and the global and local politics.
A comment that struck me as pertinent was that the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the US happened at the same time as (or perhaps because of?) the Great Depression. It is likely that we are now the midst of another world depression. Perhaps this event will have a silver lining – it may make it political possible to consider the repeal of prohibition.
Before concluding this post, I want to comment on the involvement of cannabis users in cannabis policy. One academic at the workshop made the point that when law reforms were occurring, cannabis users were not organised in a way that enabled large protests: they were largely not part of the public policy struggle. The comment could be read as meaning that cannabis users don’t care about these issues or aren’t prepared to put in the effort to protest.
However, I think that would be a mistaken interpretation. Drug users are well aware of the stigma of use and the threat of arrest. I think this is why it is very difficult for people who want to protest against prohibition to stand up and be counted. Drug researchers are in a privileged position to be able to legitimately discuss these issues in public. As an example, when I posted this conference invite to the OzStoners forum, members of the forum were interested but would prefer to be able to participate in these kinds of discussions online, where they can remain anonymous and protected. The point was made at the workshop that social media is alive with discussions about drug policy. Social media may be the bridge we need to activate protest, yet protest is still hamstrung in a prohibition environment by the need to remain anonymous.
That said, it was fantastic to see representation of cannabis users at the workshop, including Chibo Mertineit from the Nimbin Hemp Embassy and Matt Riley from Cannabis Law Reform. It was fantastic to meet these two and to have their views represented in an otherwise heavily academic workshop.