The Cannabis Science and Policy Summit 2016 was a welcome step forward in the normalisation of cannabis use and sensible regulation, but worryingly many experts are still using tenuous arguments to spread fear of reform. The mood was generally positive, informative and progressive but you wouldn't have garnered that if you only attended the opening morning's dreary, poorly-received plenary session.
The stage at the Cannabis Science & Policy Summit was filled with old white men, despite the clear and crying need for voices from throughout society in order to build policies that work for everyone. Those on the stage were predominantly policy experts with public health and economics backgrounds. The level of economic analysis at the Summit demonstrates how, despite major agricultural, tobacco and alcohol companies being yet to move into the cannabis industry, the money is flooding in and the involvement of these industries is not far off. They will rapidly reform the market, making cannabis cheaper, more available and aligning the interests of increased sales with those with exorbitant marketing budgets. Whilst fears regarding commercialisation of drugs run high not without some element of good reason, what I fear more is the lack of progress being made when we know there are better alternatives.
The arguments against "legalisation" are simple arguments that could be made against any products; if you legalise markets, prices will go down, availability up and a small portion of customers will form the majority of players in the market's revenue. That 20% of a customer base form 80% of a company's revenue is a well-known economic rule of thumb, it is not a viable argument for prohibiting cannabis sale and use. However, it is something we need to understand when regulating any products with health risks. There will be people who abuse risky products, and companies will be disproportionately incentivised to market to them, but that must not be used as a rationalisation for trampling on the rights of the 80+% who use cannabis responsibly.
The debate at the Cannabis Policy and Science Summit, even at the more conservative end, couldn't be further from the discussion at the UN Special Session on Drugs on 19-21 April. The world's leading experts on cannabis science and policy from around the world are all fiercely debating each other, but hardly anyone is asking whether cannabis will be legalised. Everyone is talking about how. Meanwhile, even the progressive among those in the UN Headquarters, continue to endorse the Outcome Document which purports to be a consensus commitment of the international community to continue criminalising the market and focusing on ineffective supply reduction measures.
The cannabis debate is in a strange place at the moment: the evidence available is better than ever, debate is more mainstream, money (still not much) is available for people to study drug policy, and yet the international debate is stifled and the old school of the policy world is still promulgating evidence based on fear, not reason.