Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The long and winding road to cannabis legalisation

by Jan van Ours


December 6, 2011

In many Western countries, between one quarter and one third of the population admit to having used cannabis at least once in their lives – according to the official statistics. This column provides an in-depth review of existing economic, social, and media evidence for and against legalisation. It concludes that although there is of course uncertainty surrounding the long-term implications, prohibition is not working and it is time to legalise.

Although some countries have quasi-legalised cannabis use (the Netherlands), made cannabis available for medical purposes (California), or allowed the growing of a small number of cannabis plants for personal use (Australia), in most countries – the Netherlands included – cannabis supply, distribution, and use is prohibited (Reuter 2010). Nevertheless, in 2009, between 2.8% and 4.5% of the world population aged 15-64, corresponding to between 125 million and 203 million people had used cannabis at least once in the past year (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2011).

Table 1 presents cannabis use statistics for a number of countries, distinguishing between lifetime use (ever), recent use (last year) and current use (last month). The range in lifetime use is substantial from a low 21% in Sweden to a high 42% in the United States. The range in recent cannabis use is also substantial from a low 1% in Sweden to a high 14% in Italy. Finally, current use ranges from 1% in Sweden to 7% in Spain and the United States. What is also striking is the big difference between lifetime use and recent use. In the Netherlands for example 25% of the population aged 15 to 64 has ever used cannabis but only 7% has done so in the last year. Apparently, for a substantial part of the users, cannabis is not very addictive (see also Van Ours 2006 for details).