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The Public Health and Safety Benefits of Cannabis Reform

Posted by on Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cannabis Reform: The Public Health Benefits Case

When California introduced Proposition 19 in 2010, one of the key arguments put forward by proponents was that legalizing cannabis would provide a much-needed financial boost to the cash-strapped state. Indeed, Washington State and Colorado, which have picked off where California stalled when it rejected pot legalization, are predicting million and billion dollar revenue windfalls thanks to their reform plans. Washington State alone is expecting to reap as much as $1.9 billion over five years in revenue from its incoming legalized marijuana market. Colorado is estimating it could make a more modest $33.5 million from legalized cannabis in the first year, but this figure is expected to grow in subsequent years. However, there is a serious public health benefit case to be made for legalizing cannabis – a drug almost half of Americans are estimated to have tried. For one, it could lead to a safer, more regulated product that is better for users. There are also cases that reform of the cannabis laws could help reduce crime and remove the stigma from a drug that more Americans have tried then currently smoke cigarettes.

Regulation Could Create a Healthier Product

A study by researchers at Essex University's Institute for Social & Economic Research unit in September found that regulating cannabis could actually help reduce its health impact on users. This is because, it argued, research suggested harm from smoking cannabis was related to the chemical composition of the drug and legalization meant regulation. Regulation in turn meant control and oversight of the potency of any marijuana being grown and sold. This would be stark departure from the black market model, where users (and even sellers) are largely ignorant of the source, growing techniques and potency of what they are buying and smoking. If the UK market is anything to go by, where the proportion of cannabis being sold with high THC levels shot from 15 per cent in 2002 to 80 per cent in 2008, then controlling and perhaps reducing marijuana potency could be a vital public health step forward. Essentially THC is the active ingredient of cannabis behind the high users feel, but it is also linked to side effects such as memory loss and psychosis. Therefore by controlling and reigning in the potency of cannabis – namely its THC levels – legalization could help reduce the negative health impacts smoking it has on users.

Legalization Means a More Informed Public Understanding

The Essex University study also found that legalization in the UK would cut the cost of treating drug users. For a start use of it would then be in the open and more widely talked about, including how to br safe when smoking cannabis. North of the border in Canada, one of the biggest pot smoking countries in the world according to the UN, the left wing Liberal Party argues that regulating cannabis' sale, distribution, promotion and price will have a positive impact on public health. Reasons cited include making it easier to keep it away from youth (as has been done with tobacco), controlling growth and labeling, raising revenue that can be spent on public health, encouraging more research on cannabis' health impact and reducing disincentives for those who have problems so they can access treatment earlier. Some of these points are mentioned above and we all know the benefit of treating diseases early. However removing the stigma from cannabis use also importantly means more sophisticated public health messages can be broadcast, beyond the tired, old “stay away from drugs kids” message that seems to have been played ad nauseum since the 1950s. For example, it opens the prospect of more government health campaigns on issues such as the risk of catching hepatitis A from shared bongs and joints, and raising awareness of other health issues such as STD risk and treatment associated with smoking cannabis. Important messages like this could quickly replace those tired messages that many seem to simply tune out – resulting in a more sophisticated approach to dealing with cannabis use and ultimately net public health benefit.

Better Health Key Argument for Law Reform

There is plenty of evidence out there that legalizing marijuana could benefit governments financially, both in lower regulation costs and increased tax revenue, and benefit society by removing the lucrative market of drug distribution from the hands of criminals. However equally important are the public health benefits that could spring from a legalized cannabis trade. As Washington State and Colorado move towards implementing their respective legalized marijuana systems, it could pay supporters of pot legalization dividends to watch for public health benefits. They could provide a key argument in future reform debates. After all, a platform of increased government revenue (and thus spending), lower crime and better public health is a tried and true vote winner in any democracy.

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