Has cannabis legalisation reached the crucial tipping point? Whether you are a fanatical cannabis user, use cannabis for medicinal purposes only, or are staunchly opposed to every form of cannabis, it is clear that the global policy on cannabis is changing. Could a chain reaction of new legislation be triggered? Read on and judge for yourself.
In 1971, US president Nixon declared war on drugs. This is frequently seen as the official starting point of the impossible struggle against everything and anything to do with drugs, including cannabis.
The War on Drugs has failed
In fact, the drug war began far earlier. In 1914 the first federal US law forbidding the trade and use of specific drugs came into effect. 1928 saw the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1925 come in to force in most countries in the world. In 1930 the forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was founded, and in 1937 the infamous Marihuana Tax Act – the first US law forbidding cannabis use – was passed. In 1961 came the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This agreement, under the leadership of the US, aimed to fight drugs on a global scale. Nixon’s declaration of war in 1971 was an acceleration of hostilities, not their beginning.
Fortunately, more and more countries are reversing their opinion. The war has cost much and achieved little. In Mexico, the drug stronghold of South America, over 164,000 people died between 2007 and 2014 as a result of the drug war. This is despite – or because of – the $51 billion that the US spends annually on fighting it. Meanwhile, the 2015 World Drugs Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) states that worldwide drug use has stabilized. Despite all the money and ruined lives, the drug war has failed.
In regards to the fight against cannabis, could it be slowly but surely coming to an end? Is it possible that we are close to the tipping point? An increasing number of people recognise the healing properties of cannabis, and question the sanity of its classification in many lands as a Class A drug with no medicinal properties. According to this UNDOC report from 2012, cannabis is more widely used than heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and MDMA. It is remarkable that the most popular recreational drug is also a medicine with wide applications. In place of fighting its use, there is a significant, and growing, number of countries that are looking to cannabis as a raw material for health, nutritional, and bodycare products, medicines, and even as an accepted substance for enjoyment.
The theory of the tipping point
According to the Canadian journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell, the tipping point is a moment of critical mass, of transformation. In his book ‘The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference’ from 2000, Gladwell writes that ideas, products, messages and behaviour can spread like viruses. Information ‘goes viral’. The tipping point theory originated in the field of physics, where it refers to the moment when a small amount of weight added to a balanced object causes it to suddenly and completely fall or topple. It has also been seen in action in ecosystems both large and small, and in economics.
Information is replacing misinformation
In the last few years, much has happened to advance the normalisation and legalisation of cannabis. The truth about the many uses of both hemp and cannabis is coming to light in mainstream media. A frequently used weapon in the war on drugs is misinformation; lies about the plant have been used to influence the perception of it and to support resistance to its use. Now, the tide of information reaching both the public and the powers that be is turning. All kinds of ideas, messages, behaviours and experiences explaining the positive use of cannabis are travelling rapidly, and effecting practical change. There is a sum of these parts which begs the question: is the world nearing the cannabis legalisation tipping point?
In ecosystems approaching this decisive moment, a symptom known as ‘critical slowing down’ precedes the tipping point. This refers to the delay in the ability of a system to rebalance itself after a disturbance; to return to the state it was in initially. The closer the tipping point is, the longer this delay becomes, until finally it becomes impossible and the tipping point is reached – after which there is dramatic, irrevocable change.
If we look for evidence of this critical slowing down in regards to cannabis prohibition, we can see it on several continents, beginning with Europe. (This article focuses on the general status of cannabis. For a detailed overview of medicinal cannabis in Europe, see this article).
The cannabis tipping point in Europe
At the beginning of this century, cannabis was decriminalized only in the Netherlands – a move which was intended by its instigator, Dries van Agt, as a stepping stone to legalization. Five years later, Dutch pharmacies were selling medicinal cannabis on prescription. By 2005 Portugal had decriminalised all drugs, Belgium had decriminalised up to three grams of cannabis and one plant, and Finland had partially decriminalized small amounts for personal use (although still issued fines for possession). Spain, though still fighting for the legal status of its cannabis clubs, saw Catalonia launch an initiative in 2005 to provide Sativex for 600 patients. The UK reclassified cannabis from Class B to Class C, making possession a non-arrestable offence.
By 2010, not much had changed and progress was still very slow. Finland had a total of twelve licensed medicinal users and Germany, seven. Spain had some success with members of cannabis clubs being acquitted of possession and sale; Austria relaxed its laws for the amount classed as for personal use, both product and plants. However, Austria also increased the penalties for distribution. Italian laws were made harsher, bringing cannabis alongside hard drugs, and the UK re-classed cannabis back up to Class B. These latter events could be seen as signs of the ‘ecosystem’ of cannabis illegality attempting to rebalance itself.
But the ‘virus’ of cannabis tolerance was spreading. The last half-decade has brought great progress for medicinal patients, with the Czech Republic, Germany, Macedonia, and Romania now allowing for prescription use of medicinal cannabis, and cannabinoid medicines (mostly Sativex) being legal in Spain, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Austria, Poland, Sweden and the UK (although this does not mean that it is easily obtainable in all these countries). Finnish medicinal users now number around 200. Spain makes no differentiation between recreational and medicinal cannabis use. The Netherlands, although still stuck on its ‘stepping stone’ rather than having advanced to full legalisation, has recently seen the mayor of Tilburg declare that medicinal users can grow plants to supply their needs, and it is expected that this will create a domino effect as other municipalities follow suit. In the UK, there has been a cross-party call for medicinal cannabis to be made legal which brought in the United Patients Alliance for advice, an unprecedented move and one that is very encouraging.
The cannabis tipping point in the Americas
In much the same way as the Netherlands was a lone island of cannabis tolerance in Europe, California was, for many years, the only US state with legal medicinal cannabis. Sixteen years later, a cascade of places have defied federal law (with the tacit blessing of President Obama) to make medicinal use possible in twenty three states and the District of Colombia. Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon have legalized both sale and possession for medicinal and recreational use. As the presidential election approaches, seven states are voting on cannabis reform. California, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona will decide on full legalisation of possession and cultivation of limited quantities, with taxes and regulation. Florida, where a previous vote on medicinal use was lost by only 2% in 2014, will make another attempt to allow for prescription cannabis. Arkansas has two proposals, both of which would permit medicinal use but differ on how and where it could be grown.
Mexico, which has suffered horribly as a result of the illegal status of cannabis especially along its border with the US, decriminalised small amounts (up to five grams) in 2009 and last year ruled that growing and consumption was permitted for four members of the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use on the grounds that denying them would violate their right to personal development. Huge amounts of cannabis produced in Mexico are smuggled into the US at the cost of many thousands of lives each year. Given that the US, which demanded the war on drugs in the first place, is now reversing that decision state by state, it would only make sense for Mexico to transition to full legalisation.
In South America, change has been even more dramatic. In the last few years, Uruguay has completely legalised and cannabis is being sold through government outlets. Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia have decriminalised small amounts for personal use, as has Chile, which has also made cultivation fully legal. Colombia has had a legal personal use allowance of 22 grams and 20 plants since 1994, and recently decided that anyone caught with over that amount could not be prosecuted if it could be shown that it was for their own needs.
Canada famously announced its intention to legalise and regulate cannabis beginning in 2017 on the 20th of April this year, making the traditional ‘weed-lover’s holiday’ extra special. The Antipodes have not been far behind. In Australia, personal use is decriminalised in the Northern Territory, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. Australia has also legalised growing on a federal level, albeit only for medicinal and scientific purposes thus far. Victoria and New South Wales, however, legalised medicinal use earlier this year. Next month, this will extend to the rest of the country.
What conclusions can we draw from the global state of cannabis legislation?
Returning to the example of the ecosystem, we can see that the rate of impacts to the system has speeded up and seems to be increasing exponentially. As more and more ‘disturbances’ to the status quo occur, the system fails to rebalance – in other words, the areas that have introduced decriminalisation and legalisation have not reversed these decisions. In fact, the success of regulation, taxation and reduction in crime has served as an example and encouragement to other areas, and so it becomes more likely that they too will seriously consider changing to more tolerant policies.
If the theory of the tipping point holds true when applied to cannabis prohibition, we may not just hope, but actually expect, that the end of a senselessly repressive period of history may be upon us before its centennial. Optimism, or science? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.