What happens when it becomes legal to smoke weed?
Would crime decrease if it became legal to sell cannabis? And how would public health be affected? We talked to prominent researchers - and visited Vancouver, where it is now allowed to consume cannabis in public.
It's about scientists wanting to study the effects of cannabinoids having to go through complicated and many times unprofitable processes to buy approved cannabis, grown under federal auspices by a center at Mississippi University. The only allowed way to get cannabis for research studies, at least for researchers with grants from government and government institutes, which is a big deal!
The state of Colorado in the United States soon has a billion reasons to consider the legalization of cannabis a success. Since the drug began selling legally on January 1, 2014, the state has received nearly $ 1 billion in taxes, licenses and other fees. Increased tax revenue was also an argument before the referendum. The ballot was promised that at least $ 40 million annually would be used to equip public schools. The argument was also used in commercials with the message that cannabis money should go to schools and not to villains in Mexico.
Washington and Oregon also voted for legalization in connection with the November 2012 presidential election. In Oregon, where the ballot box lacked information on tax money for schools, the proposal was voted down, while Washington residents said yes. Thus, Colorado and Washington became the first experimental rabbits in the social experimentation that legalization entails. The experiment is both sociological and medical since legalization is expected to affect crime as well as public health. The question is in what way.
Both states had already legalized medical cannabis, but now it became legal to own marijuana for their own use and sell the drug under license. It was also allowed to grow a limited number of plants. The age limit was set at 21 years.
So how did the experiments go? Has crime decreased? Has legalization removed the carpet for the criminal leagues promised by the commercials?
It turned out that residents of Colorado and Washington had greatly underestimated the initiative of the Mexican villains.
Cannabis is a plant with a variety of uses. It can be used for biofuel, paper and clothing. This so-called industrial hemp must not contain more than 0.2 per cent of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC. On the contrary, the group of cannabis used to produce cannabis produced from the resin and marijuana, which consists of dried leaves, has been refined to obtain as high a THC content as possible. Marijuana smoked in the 1980s had a THC level of around 5 per cent, while today’s marijuana often has more than 20 per cent THC. Some products, such as the increasingly popular inhalation extract used in Washington, may reach 65 per cent THC.
The fact that cannabis can be harmful has long been known. In India, the British-governed government in 1871 commissioned an inquiry into the effects of hemp. A central issue was whether ganja and bangh, as the psychoactive products were called, gave rise to increased violent crime. Above all, it was Indian, local administrators who pushed for a regulation when they felt that cannabis was destroying the country. The investigation found that although the drug did not appear to cause more crime, there was no doubt that regular use could give rise to mental ill-health. But the British authorities were not interested in a ban. Then it was better to influence the mill by raising the tax, which would also increase the Kingdom’s income.
However, in Egypt, also a country in which England had significant interests, the British passed the laws enacted to prevent the use of, above all, hashish. In the 19th century, 10,000 kilos of cannabis were seized, and 500 stores were forced to close because they allowed cannabis use in their premises. Unlike in India, the British did not receive any tax revenue from Egyptian hashish consumption.
Several countries followed the example of Egypt. In Canada, cannabis was criminalized in 1923, along with opium and other drugs. The US authorities first regulated cannabis in The Marijuana Tax Act 1937, where the practice was taxed, to later tighten up legislation until the final ban in 1970. The laws also made it more difficult for researchers who wanted to investigate the effects of cannabis use, for example, on the psych. The fact that cannabis can cause mental health problems close to the practice was known, but it was unclear if there could also be long-term psychological effects.
Research on cannabis’s health effects would receive unexpected help from Swedish conscripts. At the same time as the United States tightened its laws, nearly 50,000 Swedish men had to answer questions related to the design, including the use of cannabis and other drugs. In the mid-1980s, four researchers from the Karolinska Institute found that the survey could be used to find out if there were any differences between those who used cannabis and those who did not. Identifiable numbers for the respondents were found, which meant that the researchers could see if the latter were present in the psychiatric care registry.
In December 1987, the researchers published their findings in the journal Lancet. The results showed that those who have used cannabis on more than 50 occasions were at six times as likely to suffer from schizophrenia as compared to low consumers. When the researchers had cleared away those who received a psychiatric diagnosis at the time of the design, a threefold risk remained.
“We were the first to show that cannabis addiction in early years could increase the risk of schizophrenia, not just psychosis close to intake,” says Peter Allebeck, professor of social medicine at the Karolinska Institute and one of the researchers behind the study.
But the conclusions cast doubt. The sceptics thought that either it wasn’t about schizophrenia or other factors were behind it. In the following years, researchers were able to refine their methods, while other researchers conducted similar studies – and 20 years after the first study came the breakthrough. The Lancet magazine, in a 1995 editorial had stated that smoking cannabis was not dangerous, now changed its attitude. In July 2007, the newspaper’s editor wrote that marijuana could increase the risk of suffering from chronic psychosis. The background was a large meta-study published by the magazine, which included the Swedish study from 1987.
Peter Allebeck now considers the relationship between the use of cannabis and psychosis as determined, even in the long term. His conclusion is supported by a review of research conducted by the WHO in 2016, where the World Health Organization thought that there is a causal link between cannabis use and schizophrenia. What is more unclear, is what this relationship looks like.
– Cannabis affects the signalling system. Probably it goes via dopamine, but how this happens you don’t know much about it, says Peter Allebeck. The young brain is perhaps more influential.
Fred Nyberg, professor emeritus in biological dependency research at Uppsala University, points out that the connection is not as strong for everyone.
– Some people are more sensitive to developing psychotic behaviour in response to cannabis use, says Fred Nyberg.
In addition to being more sensitive than others, the risk of developing psychosis or schizophrenia also depends on how often cannabis is used and in how large doses. That connection was made clear in a recent study, published in the Lancet in March 2019, that compared cannabis users to non-users. The researchers examined a total of 901 cannabis users with non-users in eleven locations in Europe and Brazil and found that those who use cannabis with a THC content exceeding 10 per cent are five times more likely to suffer from psychosis. It means that, if cannabis were not available, the number of psychosis cases would decrease by 12 per cent. In London and Amsterdam, where the prevalence of high-potency marijuana is higher, the number of cases would decrease by 30 per cent.
Each year, 6000-8000 people have a psychosis in the EU. Depending on the THC content, a few hundred people would avoid psychosis if no one smoked cannabis. But cannabis is smoked – despite Sweden’s strict legislation – and so it is likely to be in the future as well. This is the starting point for most debaters who want to introduce some kind of legalization.
Henrik Tham, professor emeritus at Stockholm University, is one of them. He believes that the Swedish drug policy is unsuccessful.
– If it is the case that the police with different control measures can reduce the use of drugs, then it would be useful, but it has not succeeded, says Henrik Tham.
But the argument most commonly used, and which Henrik Tham also puts forward, is the role cannabis plays for all shootings and blasts that frighten several suburbs. In January, Brå published the report Shooting in criminal environments. Illegal trafficking in marijuana is described as a factor driving the violence. An example: A buyer settles with his long and goes to the suburb to complete the purchase. Once there, they get noticed by someone else and buy from him instead. The conflict is a fact. The report describes the cannabis market as relatively easy to get into, and when the trade takes place in the neighbourhoods of the county, where they have emotional bonds, the risk of conflict increases.
– You have to seriously think about whether this can be reduced if you sell cannabis in a regulated form, says Henrik Tham.
How to deal with the risk of more people suffering from psychosis?
– The question is whether it can be handled with information. Of course, it is better if people do not smoke, but they do. The parallel to alcohol is, of course, that one must regulate it in some way.
Henrik Tham cites Canada as an example. In October, the country became the second in the world to legalize marijuana. As in the state of Colorado, Canadians are now allowed to own a few plants, possess marijuana for their own use, and buy it in licensed stores, which in some states are privately owned and in others owned by the government. The legalization was an election promise from the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, who then ran for office as prime minister. Behind the election promise lay a perception that “the war on drugs” had not worked. Trudeau argued that legalization would soon eliminate virtually the black market, something that so far, a little over six months later, has not happened. The legal stores have not been able to meet demand, had poorer quality products, so cannabis smokers have continued to buy in the black market. According to official figures from January, the illegal market was still more than twice the legal market.
Uruguay, the first country in the world to legalize cannabis, also has trouble getting residents to buy legally. There, marijuana is sold at licensed pharmacies where customers are registered with fingerprints to get the right to buy a maximum of 40 grams a month. There are about 1,200 pharmacies in Uruguay, but three years after legalization, only 16 had licensed cannabis. A year later, four of them had dropped out, partly because two US banks refused to have them as customers, citing the Patriot Act, which prohibits them from having customers involved in drug dealing. The number of regular cannabis users has increased from 120,000 in 2011 to 147,000 six years later, but only 35,000 were registered at any of the pharmacies.
In Colorado, the legal market for cannabis grew rapidly. There were 562 licensed stores and 702 licensed farms in the state. Since its inception in 2014, Colorado has bought legal marijuana for over $ 6 billion.
But instead of shutting down the legs of organized crime, legalization has given “the Mexican villains” new opportunities. When cultivation became legal, both on licensed farms and in homes, organized crime took the chance and moved some of the production to Colorado. In a fall 2018 assessment, the state found that in 2017, the authorities seized 80,926 plants, an increase of 73 per cent since 2012. Legal cases involving organized crime increased during the same period from 31 to 119.
DEA, the US federal drug police, now spend 15 per cent of its time fighting the cannabis trade in Colorado. This is three times as many increase compared to the time before legalization. In Teller county alone, police discovered illegal cultivations in eight buildings in the first half of 2018 and arrested more than 20 cartel members with links to Cuba and Miami. In an interview with Canadian CBC News, the sheriff says he knows there are another 60-70 houses with farms that they haven’t been able to control.
The development got Bob Troyer, a federal prosecutor in Colorado, to go to the ceiling. In a column in The Denver Post, he listed all the disadvantages that legalization has brought, including that the state has become an arena for drug trafficking and money laundering. He went so far as to threaten to resort to legal cultivation and sales. Although several states have legalized cannabis, the drug is still banned under federal law, but so far, federal prosecutors have chosen not to apply the law.
In the near future, there will be a fight between Bob Troyer and others who want to use federal laws to fight cannabis producers, and those who want to see national legalization. Two Democrats, along with lobbyists, have drafted a bill that would make it impossible for the federal police to appoint someone who complies with state laws. Politicians have changed their views on the issue, as has the opinion that a majority is now for legalization. At the same time, large companies such as Altria, which owns Marlboro, have made millions of investments in the cannabis industry. In Oregon, which first voted no, a new referendum was held in which a majority voted yes to legalization. In several cities in the state, however, residents have voted against allowing cannabis sales.
So far, it is unclear exactly how legalization has affected the health of residents in the ten US states that have legalized cannabis. However, what seems clear is that once the spirit has been released from the bottle, it is challenging to force it back.