THE war on cannabis seems to be slowly burning out. On June 12th Jamaica announced that it plans to decriminalise possession of small amounts of the drug. Several countries, including Mexico and Portugal, have already taken this step, and many others are considering it: last week the West Africa Commission on Drugs, appointed by the Kofi Annan Foundation, published a report arguing that minor drug offences should be decriminalised. Meanwhile, a handful of other jurisdictions—so far only Uruguay and the states of Colorado and Washington—have taken a different approach, not decriminalising but instead legalising cannabis. Many people mistakenly use the terms “legalisation” and “decriminalisation” interchangeably. What is the difference?
The illegal drug business causes damage on two fronts. Firstly, the drugs themselves do physical harm to at least some of the people who take them, mainly in the rich world but increasingly in new markets (Brazil is now the world’s biggest consumer of crack cocaine, for instance). Secondly, the trade enriches criminal gangs, which spread corruption and murder from Sydney to São Paulo. For a long time nearly every government thought that the best way to reduce both types of harm was to mete out harsh penalties to those who bought and sold drugs. But after several decades of that approach, with little to show for it, some are turning to alternative tactics.
Decriminalisation does not mean that people can use drugs with impunity. Instead it means that possessing small amounts no longer lands the perpetrator with a criminal record or a jail sentence. Jamaica has proposed that people caught with up to two ounces (57 grams) of cannabis should be fined, but not arrested or taken to court. Drug users in Portugal can be forced to attend classes aimed at getting them back on the straight and narrow. People found with cannabis in Italy may have their driving licences confiscated. By contrast, legalisation means that consumers face no penalty at all (unless, for instance, they smoke in public places). More importantly, it means that the supply side of the business—cultivation, transportation and retailing—is also legal. In Jamaica, selling cannabis will remain a crime; in Colorado it is a legitimate, taxable occupation.
Decriminalisation may be a useful first step towards a saner approach to drugs. Battling a fearsome murder rate, Jamaica’s police surely have better things to do than arrest people for getting high. In any case, sending drug users to jail is usually an expensive waste of time. But decriminalisation’s flaw is that it does nothing to undermine the criminal monopoly on the multi-billion-dollar drugs industry. The decriminalised cocaine consumed without criminal consequences in Portugal is still supplied by the gangs who cut off heads in Colombia. Only legalisation takes the business out of the hands of the mafia. Jamaica’s plan to decriminalise ganja is good news for the people who harmlessly smoke it. But unless it is followed up eventually by legalisation, there is a danger that it is also good news for the violent crooks who sell it.
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