Cannabis Legalisation VS Decriminalisation

Originally published in Weed World Magazine issue 138 (February 2019)

It has become painfully clear over the last few years that global attempts to prohibit cannabis have been an unmitigated failure and disaster. It has severely detrimentally effected communities around the world, severed public relations with the police and eroded trust in the judicial system – breeding intergenerational distrust, suspicion and hared of authoritative institutions.

It has incarcerated tens of millions of non-violent consumers, predominantly and disproportionally from impoverished ethnic and cultural minority neighborhoods. The vast majority of these arrests being for simple possession alone. Cannabis prohibition has also arguably contributed more to climate change than any other single factor by its absence as a versatile renewable industrial resource. The scale of industrial and commercial technological applications this plant has is rather quite staggering.

Our oldest companion species is the perfect renewable alternative to highly polluting petroleum-based plastics, wasteful and destructive energy production and storage, It could provide pesticide-free textiles as well as replace many other environmentally destructive and wasteful industrial and commercial products that pump carcinogenic waste products into our environment at an alarming rate.

The prohibition of Cannabis has been used for over 90 years now as a racist, fascistic and classist apparatus to corral, control, and coerce citizens conformity through arbitrary legislation, harsh punitive measures, sustained campaigns of malicious misinformation, and the mainstreaming of media manipulation through the proliferation of propaganda, reefer madness rhetoric and ever-increasingly outrageous lies.

Legalization doesn’t necessarily always mean decriminalization!

The fatigue born of fighting the war on drugs on multiple fronts for nearly a century has weakened the prohibitionist’s ideological position on cannabis. This has allowed for the re-emergence and the rekindling of an undying debate, one as old as prohibition itself. What system would be the best alternative to this current antiquated, disastrous, and draconian prohibitive policy– legalization or decriminalization?

While both have their individual merits, there are obvious advantages and drawbacks to both systems as they currently stand. I personally feel that the most reasonable, rational and sensible approach would be an amalgamation of the two main alternatives to the all-out prohibition of cannabis.

Legalization doesn’t always necessarily mean decriminalization, in fact sometimes, as in the recent case of Canada it can actually mean increased criminalization through the implementation of arbitrary new legislation that confuses citizens while creating a climate conducive for the capitalization and commoditization of cannabis by the very same people that have spent decades demonetizing, persecuting and incarcerating its consumers.

So with the recent implementation of “legalization” in Canada, the total number of cannabis-related offences shot up from half a dozen to forty-five. Also by failing to fully decriminalize cannabis this system will continue to perpetuate the stigma and shame that society has spent decades casting on cannabis consumers. While continuing to mislead the public into believing that cannabis is far more dangerous than it actually is.

Canada hasn’t in my opinion legalized cannabis, it’s just introduced ‘prohibition-lite’. A system under which if you are caught in “over-possession” (that’s the possession of more than 30 grams) you could still face up to five years locked in a cage with violent and dangerous criminals for illegally possessing too much of a legal product. Does this sound like Cannabis has been legalized to you?

Canada now joins Uruguay as the only two countries to of “legalized” cannabis. Uruguay changed the law in 2014 to allow for domestic commercial cultivation and government-controlled distribution through the country’s network of pharmacies. It also granted permission to personal and collective cultivation but once you’ve signed up to a government register, a step many citizens are refusing to take leaving them to continue to be criminalized and classified as an illicit cannabis consumer. Again this isn’t what I imagine the average consumer envisions when they think about cannabis legalization.

Although this may be the best system introduced yet, it still perpetuates the idea that consuming cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol or caffeine (both of which currently enjoy minimal regulation in the South American nations).

Another country that is being celebrated for legalizing cannabis, or Dagga as it’s known in South Africa. This isn’t true under the definition of the word as I understand it. I mean, how can South Africa allow personal cannabis possession and cultivation yet provide no form of domestic supply, distribution, or public consumption and then continue to criminalize those that consume it in the wrong way and herald it as legalization? I’d say it’s far more accurate to describe dagga in South Africa as being decriminalized for personal cultivation, possession and consumption in private.

“The United States is an interesting case study. They’re currently trialing a variety of legalised and medical models in individual states. There are now ten states that have “legalised” adult-use Cannabis in some way with Michigan now joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont, and the district of Columbia (Washington D.C) North Dakota was the only state to vote down adult-use cannabis reform with Missouri and Utah passing medical bills.”

These systems of rigorous restrictions and over-regulation are not what the average cannabis consumer thinks of when they envision a world in which Cannabis has been re-legalized. Too often legalizing means gentrification, commoditization, and capitalization of our culture and community. It means those typically straight-laced white middle-class folks who were complacent and silent during prohibition because it wasn’t them or their kids being harassed daily by cops and actively targeted for “random” stop and searches. Now that public opinion and the law have shifted they’re emerging from the woodwork ready to invest, to capitalize, and turn a culture they’ve spent decades condemning into a commodity.

So with this in mind is legalization really the best alternative or would full decriminalization be better?

There are many countries that have already decriminalized Cannabis to varying degrees. Some of which may surprise you. Belize, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Georgia, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Slovenia, Columbia, and of course Portugal.

Although these countries have decriminalized cannabis they still have nevertheless failed to allow personal cultivation or provide any form of regulated and legalized commercial access to consistent quality products through a regulated domestic supply chain. This guarantees that these governments will continue to waste billions in vain attempts to police and control the consumption of cannabis by its citizens.

The continuation of prohibition on production prevents these governments from utilizing a legal marketplace to create economic stimulation and the generation of much-needed tax funds through a robust regulated domestic cannabis market. Instead of leaving hundreds of millions/ billions in profits to the international smugglers and criminal gangs.

In the absence of a legally regulated market criminal enterprises are left vying for a share of the illicit market. Often using intimidation and violent tactics to bully and strong-arm their way to the top of the supply chain. While employing underhanded, dubious, and dangerous cultivation practices to ensure the continuation of their excessive profiteering from the prohibition of cannabis. This leaves the average consumer at the mercy of these criminals who have controlled the domestic and international cultivation, transport, and trade of cannabis for decades.

Portugal best exemplifies the shortcomings and failings of only introducing a decriminalization model without also creating a legal domestic commercial cultivation and distribution marketplace. In 2001, Portugal decided to decriminalize all drugs to help combat what was at the time one of the worst rates of drug overdoses in Europe.

The leading politicians of the major parties commissioned a review of the country’s current drug policy – promising to implement the recommendations of the committee without politicizing its conclusions. The committee convened some months later and recommended that personal possession and consumption of all drugs from Heroin to Cannabis and Cocaine to Ketamine be decriminalized.

So instead of levying ineffective fines and incarcerating consumers, those caught with less than 10 days worth of their substance would be summoned before the Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependênciadissuasion (the commission for the dissuasion of drug addiction) A committee made up of an attorney, a psychiatrist and a social worker. It is their job to attempt to decrease the consumption of drugs rather than seeking to understand the underlying reasons why these individuals are continuing to utilize their substance in the face of such staunch social stigma.

Although this is a welcomed volte-face in the country’s drug policy. Portugal’s decriminalization efforts do nothing to help reduce the continued cultural condemnation and vilification of drug consumers or provide meaningful harm reduction techniques, education, or support. It also fails to ensure consistent access to clean, quality, unadulterated substances produced under strict regulation through standardized production practices and supplied through an accountable system.

Interestingly after seventeen years of decriminalisation, it appears that the country is ready to look at fully legalizing cannabis. The opposition parties are hopeful that they will be able to introduce a bill to legalize cannabis in the country following the passing of a bill in July to allow pharmaceutically produced cannabis-based medications to be prescribed. I hope that they’ll keep their current decriminalized system too, effectively making them the first country to truly re-legalize cannabis.

We shouldn’t just be discussing re-legalizing cannabis for medicinal applications or adult consumption we should be making the case for the industrialization of cannabis, we need all three pillars if we are to ever have a true cannabis revolution.

The ubiquitous reimplementation of Cannabis as a renewable resource would usher in a third industrial revolution. Utilizing cannabis technologies such as Hempcrete, Cannabis-derived Graphene, and biodegradable cannabis-based plastics. The cultivation of Cannabis with no arbitrary cannabinoid cap or other trivial restrictions could result in hundreds of, if not thousands of tons of resin-rich flowers for use in pharmaceutical medications and other preparations. It would also easily provide more than enough material to fortify cereals, grains, and other food sources in the same way we already do with vitamins. This would go a long way to supplementing the endocannabinoid system of every single man, woman, and child in the country. It would also make pharmaceutical maintenance drugs and weak pharmaceutical-based cannabinoid derived medications obsolete in the vast majority of cases.

The grey-area created by the overly ambiguous language used in this debate is deliberately divisive. It is intended to promote distrust and cultivate disharmony and suspicion amongst advocates and activists. In reality there is no legalize vs. decriminalize, medical vs. recreational, grow your own vs. pharmaceutical medications.

In truth, these are arbitrary definitions and distinctions designed to dissuade debate, to derail any discussion, and demolish any attempts at opposing the current control paradigm. In reality, there is only the re-legalizing argument. Which to me is the reintroduction of cannabis as a resource with no arbitrary restrictions or ideological limitations.

They like to say “legalizing cannabis” as if it will be the first time cannabis has been legal, when in reality prohibition is the blip. Cannabis was legal for the entirety of human history until some racist and fascist policy makers and industrialists colluded and conspired on a campaign of propaganda, misinformation and reefer madness.

There are unfortunately those that profess to back the ubiquitous re-legalization of Cannabis but whose actions betray their intentions and show that their true loyalties are with the corporate vultures that are circling and just waiting to pick the carcass of reform clean and not with the community and culture that they claim to represent.

This is why we must always be aware of the intricacies and implications of the reforms we offer our support to and read the fine print of any campaigns that we rally behind. Whenever an alternative policy is put forward by any political party, NGO, or other body it must be intricately inspected to ensure that at the very least it decriminalizes all personal and social consumption and cultivation to guarantee that no one is ever again locked in a cage for the utilizing a plant that is less harmful than sugar.

Ultimately, any form of legalization without full decriminalization will only ever amount to a Prohibition-Lite policy. The way to finally deal with this mess is to re-legalize Cannabis as an industrial resource, as the oldest medicine and as a far safer alternative intoxicant to alcohol.

By Simpa

Simpa Carter
Simpa Carter

Simpa is a passionate drug law reform activist, mental health advocate, blogger, freelance writer, and host of The Simpa Life podcast.