Why South Africa should decriminalise cannabis completely

A new in-depth research report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy suggests that global drug control policies and scheduling by the UN is completely broken – and some drastic changes need to be made to bring it in line with modern science.

In its report, the commission – which is made up of former heads of state and intellectuals across the political, cultural and economic spheres – has pointed to several glaring issues with the way narcotics are scheduled.

Most notably, the scheduling of psychoactive substances appears to be completely arbitrary, based on historical biases and political considerations, without taking into account any scientific evidence or analysing a rational scale of harms and benefits.

This has subsequently added to to the global “drug problem”, boosting criminal networks and black markets, while also robbing many countries of access to the medical benefits of substances in a controlled way.

“The current distinction between legal and illegal substances is not unequivocally based on pharmacological research but in large part on historical and cultural precedents,” the commission said.

“It is also distorted by and feeds into morally charged perceptions about a presumed ‘good and evil’ distinction between legal and illegal drugs.”

This has led to an incredibly imbalanced drug scheduling system, where some harmful substances (such as alcohol) are held up as culturally significant, while others (like cannabis or opium – which held cultural significance in Africa and Asia) are completely banned.

The commission said that a new system needs to be developed – based on scientific evidence – that addresses these biases, views substances on a harm/benefit scale, and factors in the negative consequences of the current scheduling process.

“The international community must recognise the incoherence and inconsistencies in the international scheduling system, and must trigger a critical review of the current models of classification of drugs,” it said.

“The negative consequences of the current international schedules for drug control can no longer be ignored. They range from the scarcity of essential medicines in low- and middle-income countries to the spread of infectious diseases and injuries, higher mortality and the global prison overcrowding crisis.

“The international community must face these challenges, and measure and correct the negative consequences of current schedules.”

South Africa is catching up

The findings of the GCDP’s research is particularly important in light of recent court rulings and social changes around cannabis in the country.

According to the commission, some of the earliest drugs scheduled in terms of the UN’s 1961 convention – including widely-used substances such as cannabis, cannabis resin, heroin and cocaine – have never received expert evaluation, or their evaluations are decades out of date.

Many countries, including South Africa, are waking up to the benefits of de-scheduling or decriminalising substances such as cannabis and its by-products, and seeing the opportunities inherent in the markets surrounding it.

South African courts have ruled that private use of cannabis is protected by the country’s constitution – and local governments in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape are preparing to launch full-blown cannabis farming projects.

While the drug has not been completely decriminalised – and the state’s official position and policies surrounding cannabis laws and regulations are yet to be tabled – the moves made so far have been largely welcomed, and are in line with international trends.

Medical use of cannabis has been legal for more than two decades in several US states, and in some European countries and Israel. More countries join this group every month, the commission said, with the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovenia, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay seeing similar moves.

The Netherlands, Uruguay and Canada have approved national cannabis laws, which regulate the whole cannabis market, including non-medical or recreational use. This is sparking debate, and setting off new bids for these types of laws in other countries, including the US.

“The original classification of cannabis was made without the benefit of scientific research and data. Given the key finding that now establishes that cannabis/marijuana has several beneficial effects, cannabis/marijuana can no longer be accurately classified in law as a ‘dangerous drug” with ‘no medicinal or other value’,” it said.

The commission is unanimous in its view that the current legal classification appears obsolete and idiosyncratic and can no longer be supported as a justification for law-making and should be rejected, as it undermines the legitimacy of the law itself.

It said there is strong evidence that comprehensive tobacco control programs are effective in reducing tobacco use among adults and young people, and would have a similar impact on the use of cannabis.

By contrast, there is a notable “lack of evidence of any effectiveness of criminalisation approaches towards cannabis,” the commission said.

Read: South Africa is on the cusp of its own booming – and legal – cannabis industry

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Why South Africa should decriminalise cannabis completely