The reform of laws on the recreational use of cannabis is not a moral issue. Neither is it too relevant whether one is liberal or conservative. This is an issue of civil liberties and public health combined.

In this respect, the reform needs to find a balance between these two imperatives.

It needs to satisfy both the need for individual freedom to consume cannabis responsibly without facing punishment, and the need to protect the young from the ill-effects of the drug.

The bill will allow cannabis users to carry up to seven grams in public without fear of prosecution, grow up to four plants at home in concealed conditions and buy cannabis bud from authorised associations.

Anyone with a cannabis possession-related conviction will have their criminal record expunged.

It is positive that the reform will not allow for the commercialisation and marketing of cannabis. As studies of foreign jurisdictions show, the increase in cannabis use spiked in countries where advertising of the substance was allowed, putting it on the same level as tobacco and alcohol.

While some aspects of the legislation have come in for harsh criticism, there is some consensus among proponents and opponents that it was high time to stop sending cannabis users to jail and to destigmatise them. And that is a good thing.

The government says its main aim is not to normalise cannabis use, as critics have stated, but to regulate a market of thousands of users who will have no need to obtain the substance via illicit sources.

This will disincentivise the black market for cannabis, add safety by regulating cannabis quality and take the pressure of legal action off users who buy cannabis from regulated sources.

It also paves the way for a new revenue stream for the government, through the eventual introduction of taxation.

Opponents argue, however, that the reform is being rushed through without sufficient public health safeguards. Organisations have jointly petitioned parliament to delay the bill.

They would also like to see cannabis associations be sited further away from schools and youth centres than laid down in the bill and for heavier fines to be imposed for smoking in front of children. There is certainly merit to such proposals.

The dearth of local academic studies into cannabis is also somewhat concerning, and makes critics’ calls for a social impact assessment before the bill is introduced entirely justified.

Some of the arguments being made against the reform are somewhat more questionable.

Calls to introduce workplace cannabis testing should set off personal liberty alarm bells, given the fact that tests can detect cannabis traces several days after the substance has been consumed.

Similarly, a push by petitioners to eliminate education provisions from the bill is perplexing: we need more, rather than less, fact-based public health education.

To fulfil its ‘harm reduction’ objective, the government will need to do more than pass this bill into law.

It must ensure that the new regulatory authority has a clear mission and decent staffing, that rigorous and ongoing research into the reform’s effects is carried out, and that law enforcement comes down hard on any abusers.

The latter issue – enforcement – is arguably the bill’s biggest stumbling block.

The reform needs to work not just on paper but also in practice.

Like many other rights, consuming cannabis comes with responsibilities which need to be respected by the individual; the state remains ultimately responsible for the enforcement of the laws.

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