I live in the Netherlands. I can easily pop down to the nearest coffee shop and buy whatever cannabis I want from a well-laid-out menu of options.

The Netherlands is one of the most successful countries in the world. It has sustained good economic performance, its health indicators are among the best anywhere, it is highly productive and has a strong sense of social cohesion. The Dutch world hasn’t fallen apart and fallen back into the sea because cannabis is legal and readily available.

I have, therefore, been amazed by the senseless hysteria that seems to be emerging from multiple quarters in Malta about the proposed cannabis bill. From employers to the medical profession, reports keep emerging of endless objections and spokes in the wheel, masquerading as concern with trying to improve the legislation. It would all be a welcome debate were it not so clearly ill-informed, driven by outdated and highly damaging prejudices.

The reality, in Malta as well as in many other countries, is that cannabis is widely and readily available and in widespread use. Yet, because of current legislation, distribution and use are essentially all within a criminal network. Being outside any legal framework means that there are no workable ways to control the type of cannabis in circulation or its potency, who can buy it, no opportunity for use to be accompanied by guidance on safe usage, and those who need health support of any sort will hesitate to seek it for fear of a criminal record.

Refusing to regulate the use of cannabis by keeping it outside the legal framework is the height of policy irresponsibility

The current approach to cannabis use is an utter and total failure. It encourages criminal activity, lines the pockets of criminal networks and has a significantly greater negative impact on public health than would a regulated market. Across the world, the evidence linking this criminal market and extreme violence, including gun and knife crime, is strong. It disproportionately affects disadvantaged teenagers.

Globally, this is a multi-billion dollar market controlled by, and benefitting, organised crime. The proceeds from illegal cannabis form the financial foundations on which trade in other, more harmful drugs can then be built.

Refusing to regulate the use of cannabis by keeping it outside the legal framework is the height of policy irresponsibility.

In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman quotes an unnamed historian’s comment about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” One would have thought that we might have moved on since the 16th century. Yet we continue to exhibit the same human frailties.

Resistance to the legal regulation of cannabis reflects a strand of the current Western cultural belief system. The only thing that many people ‘know’ about cannabis is that it’s ‘a drug’ and, therefore, dangerous. Those who use it are decadent and dissolute. Off with their heads!

That such an approach has manifestly failed; that it has done more harm than good; that it fuels the continued growth and enrichment of organised crime; that it draws people young and old into criminal networks; that it disproportionately damages the disadvantaged; that it harms the physical and mental health of millions of people, mainly the young; that it deprives the ill of a safe and effective therapeutic option; – none of this seems to enter the discussion or cut any ice even though it is supported by strong evidence.

Long-standing prejudices are hard to shift – particularly when they are presented in supposedly moralistic wrapping.

The known facts – that, in the US, studies point to reduced use of cannabis by high school teenagers in states where cannabis has been legalised; that violence is reduced; that the criminal market gets undermined; – are seemingly dismissed by the critics. Or they have chosen not to look for fear it might undermine their prejudices. A paper in The Lancet by the Global Commission on Drug Policy looked at cumulative short-term and long-term harms to individuals and to societies from the use of various substances. It concluded that alcohol is by far the most dangerous abuse substance (harm score = 72) – worse than heroin or crack cocaine. Yet it is legal, widely available and we all know just how successful was the policy of prohibition. The cannabis harm score was 20 – below tobacco (26). And that in an unregulated market. It is possible, maybe even probable, that the cannabis harm score would fall if its use were properly regulated.

The terms of the debate need to change. It should be up to objectors to put forward the case as to why they are lobbying to maintain an unregulated, criminal cannabis market and perpetuating the harms caused rather than moving forward with turning it into a well-regulated, controlled market − something that can only be achieved by bringing its use into the legal framework.

Those who would seek to delay and continue to argue for the perpetuation of the current Wild West approach need to examine their consciences and take responsibility for extending unnecessary harms to individuals and to society. It is highly irresponsible and morally shameful.

Joe Zammit Lucia, Qualified physician and a founder of the RADIX network of public policy think tanks

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