By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
Countries which move towards legalising the recreational use of cannabis invariably face the conservative outcry that such a move will result in an upsurge in demand.
However, there is a growing body of research to suggest that not only is the link between cannabis legalisation and increased use a myth, but legalising the drug may result in less young people being attracted to its mystique or using it to rebel.
A recent study of 216,000 adolescents in the US over a 12 year period suggests that less teenagers are using cannabis in states where its possession and use have been legalised, than when these activities were a crime.
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis also found that the number of adolescents with “cannabis-related problems” — such as dependency coupled with trouble in school and relationships — declined by up to 24 percent in jurisdictions that legalised the drug.
The study found that up to 10 percent fewer teenagers in those states had reported using marijuana.
The researchers further found reductions in behavioural problems, including fighting, property crimes and selling drugs.
This study looked at adolescent behaviour between 2002 and 2013, with this period being shortly after medical cannabis was first legalised in 1996, with greater liberalisation following in the years thereafter.
“We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and abuse,” said lead researcher Richard A. Grucza. He qualified this by pointing out that the research suggested a correlation and not necessarily a causation relationship.
“We don’t know how legalisation is affecting young marijuana users, but it could be that many kids with behavioural problems are more likely to get treatment earlier in childhood, making them less likely to turn to pot during adolescence,” he added. “Whatever is happening with these behavioural issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of marijuana decriminalisation.”
Benefits of decriminalisation
Twenty percent of Americans now live in states where the use and possession of small quantities of cannabis are no longer a crime.
State surveys of young people in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska suggest that after decriminalisation, the number of students who had tried the drug remained stable, rather than increased as predicted by conservatives.
Meanwhile, these states have benefited from tens of millions in extra tax revenue. Colorado, for example, brought in $129 million in its second year of legalisation and Washington welcomed $220 million extra into its coffers.
But perhaps the greatest financial benefit is the fall in expenditure upon enforcement – from policing, to prosecution through the court system, to prison expenditure. And there are flow on social benefits, with less drug users being drawn into the crime cycle and all the harm that flows from it.
Portugal stands as the worldwide model for drug decriminalisation. In 2001 the Portuguese government took the unprecedented step of decriminalising all illicit substances, from marijuana to crystal methamphetamine to heroin.
In 1999, around one percent of the population in Portugal was addicted to heroin. The nation also reportedly had the highest number of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union. The government had been waging the usual war on drugs since the 1980s, but it wasn’t working.
But since decriminalisation, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has fallen top three per million residents, which is five times lower than the European average. By 2014, the number of new drug-related HIV infections had plummeted to 40, compared with 1,016 thirteen years prior.
And drug use among teenagers in grades 10 through 12 has dropped by over third since decriminalisation.
The Portuguese drug policy has been so successful that the ultra-conservative and quasi-judicial body, the International Narcotics Control Board, lauded it as exemplary in December 2015.