Laws that are designed to protect people can sometimes do more harm than good. Drug laws are a good example. The human and economic cost of criminalising drugs far outweighs the harms we know they cause. We need only look to the US’s war on drugs, which has failed to stop drug use, financed violent cartels, and torn families apart with the incarceration of millions for non-violent drug offences.
The situation is far from this bleak in Denmark, but we are still suffering from outdated laws, especially when it comes to cannabis. It’s a drug that 42 percent of 16-24 year olds have used, and which is readily available, despite the criminalisation of its cultivation sale and consumption.
In rare circumstances, cannabis can cause psychosis resulting in long-lasting psychological illness. This shouldn’t be understated in the debate about legalisation. I know people who have suffered, and it’s been painful to watch them struggle.
But there is little evidence to suggest that legalising cannabis will create more users. Far from it. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that “no simple association can be observed between legal changes and cannabis use prevalence”.
There is strong evidence, however, that criminalising cannabis has given unscrupulous criminal networks an easy source of income. These groups are a burden on our police force and disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens, who are kept awake by circling police helicopters and feelings of insecurity after the shooting of five innocent people by gang members this summer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Copenhagen City Council has repeatedly tried to introduce a trial legalisation of cannabis that would make the state the dealer instead of the gangs. I believe that Copenhageners should have the right to purchase cannabis safely without having to go to the dealers in Christiania or on their street corners – the same street corners that sell alcohol at all hours of day.
The state has no moral high ground in the matter. The money it makes from tobacco and alcohol finances the very welfare state that treats alcoholics and lung disease.
Controlled sale and easy access to health services is the answer, and establishing state-run cannabis dispensaries could serve both by providing high-quality products as well as information on how to seek treatment. Taxes on the sale of the drug – whose market is valued at one billion kroner in Copenhagen alone – could be put toward a range of social services.
But the government is afraid. Legalising cannabis would mean that Denmark would be violating its obligations under the UN drug control treaties that formed the basis for Denmark’s narcotics laws decades ago. The fear is that it could signal the start of a slippery slope when countries realise there are no repercussions for unilaterally neglecting their international obligations.
The UN is a slow-moving machine, however, and by taking a stance on cannabis, Denmark would join a number of forward-thinking countries, cities and regions around the world that have realised that prohibition has failed. Adding momentum to this movement may ultimately result in fairer resolutions that finally take the cultivation and sale of cannabis away from criminal gangs around the world.
If that doesn’t convince you, maybe the promise of a good night’s sleep once that police helicopter is finally grounded, will. M