We should establish a government-run medical cannabis programme so that this drug can be prescribed to, and used by, patients in need.
Not many politicians would endorse a potentially controversial demand for legalising cannabis, and many well-meaning friends have asked why I took this issue on. I have never hesitated to support a good cause when it goes in the direction of expanding the freedoms of the people of India. My positions on Section 377, on the sedition law, on domestic workers’ rights and other issues have also been “potentially controversial”. If we shirk from confronting hard questions in the interests of avoiding controversy, we do our democracy a disservice.
First, a couple of clarifications that need to be made about my original piece, co-authored with my nephew Avinash, who works in the field of drug policy. It is important to distinguish between medical and non-medical uses of the substance. There is vast evidence that medical cannabis and its derivatives can alleviate various ailments and symptoms, including those of multiple sclerosis and chronic pain, and for treating side-effects of chemotherapy.
It is vital that this drug be made available to patients who need it as easily, affordably, and soon as possible. We should establish a government-run medical cannabis programme, as many countries already have, so that this drug can be prescribed to, and used by, patients in need. While I support a legalised market for non-medical cannabis, because an illegal market already exists, a medical cannabis programme does not require a legal “recreational” market to exist, and should be established regardless.
Ravi Mantha, in his article criticising my proposal, begins by explaining that since cannabis is an agricultural commodity, it can easily be grown in vast quantities and would result in a “glut”. I am a bit puzzled by this because his point is not an argument against legalisation; at best, it could be an argument for why legalisation might not raise as much money as some may expect. But my argument for legalisation is not purely financial – the government will gain tax revenue, but the benefits of regulation go well beyond revenue.
As the article cited by Mantha states, the glut (in Oregon state) was partly a consequence of insufficient regulations: “Lawmakers decided not to cap licenses; to allow businesses to apply for multiple licenses; and to implement relatively inexpensive licensing fees”. The article goes on, “In contrast, [the state of Washington, which also legalised cannabis] knew oversupply could draw federal attention and was more conservative about licensing. As the market matured, its regulators eased growing limits, but the state never experienced an oversupply crisis.”
As with alcohol and tobacco, cannabis is a potentially dangerous drug that needs to be treated with caution – handing out licenses willy-nilly is not what we suggest. Nonetheless, the state of Oregon being in possession of a glut of legally produced cannabis is lot better than the people of any state buying their cannabis from illegal dealers, unintentionally filling the pockets of cartels.
It is important to be aware that, just like an unregulated illegal market, an insufficiently regulated legal market can present risks and challenges. This is about striking the right balance.
Mantha argues that “the only innovation possible in this drug business is higher yield and a more potent crop, which would cause even more damage to the population at large”. As we explained in our article, some people like to drink a beer, some like a whiskey. Producing high-potency cannabis isn’t exactly an innovation because many people would prefer low-potency cannabis just as some prefer beer to whiskey. But in fact, it is under cannabis prohibition that dealers are producing high-potency cannabis because this allows them to produce smaller quantities at higher strength – minimising the total weight of the drug they are transporting, and thereby minimising their risk of getting caught by police. Again, this is a problem with prohibition, not with legalisation.
I am glad that Mantha agrees that ending the criminalisation of personal cannabis possession, as we proposed, is wise. But the problem with his expansive suggestion of “going after the dealers and growers” is that this is the current approach, which has failed in every jurisdiction on Earth. Prohibition fuels criminality, bribery and violence. Regulation does “reduce crime” because much of the cannabis being grown will be done legally and not criminally. Legalisation absolutely reduces crime, and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. Again, one can refer to any one of the US states that has legalised the production and sale of the drug to see the proof of this proposition.
Some have asked me whether, given the levels of corruption within our enforcement agencies, especially the local police, and the vast network of traffickers, legalising cannabis might not come as a boost to drug cartels. The sad truth is that currently everyone involved in the illegal cannabis trade – from its cultivation, to its processing, to its transportation, to its distribution – relies on either corrupting or avoiding authorities.
By prohibiting cannabis, we are gifting the drug’s trade to cartels, and thereby unintentionally fuelling corruption. (Of course, there are many other drivers of corruption in India, so I do not claim that legalising cannabis will put an end to all of it).
Establishing a regulated market will create a cohort of people working legitimately with or in the cannabis industry, who do not need to corrupt the authorities, or be corrupted themselves. While we may not be able to fully eradicate the illegal trade, legalisation will help legitimate groups and the state capture some of the revenue that is currently going into the pockets of organised crime. With effective regulation, it can also help empower rural farmers.
Legal regulation would not boost drug cartels’ profits; it would take revenue away from them. Drug cartels do not want cannabis to be legalised because they rely on prohibition to sustain their business model.
Legalisation must be accompanied with coordinated law enforcement to ensure that restrictions and regulations are being adhered to. As in the US, revenue from taxation on cannabis can be partly allocated to the enforcement of these regulations.
As we wrote in the article, legalisation of cannabis is absolutely not about condoning its use. We acknowledged the risks of regular use: this is why it should be produced and sold by reputable licensed growers/vendors and labelled with health warnings, rather than sold by unreliable sources to people who have no knowledge of the contents of their purchase. Our government, and previous governments, rightly warn of the harmfulness of tobacco use – but we don’t prohibit cigarettes because we know that the best way to control tobacco use is by ensuring the state can regulate its production and supply. As takes place in the US states, I would support part of the tax revenue earned from the cannabis trade to be allocated to education programmes that ensure that young people are aware of the risks associated with drug use.
When someone buys cigarettes today in India, the packet comes with a warning label of what harm the tobacco can do to you. A bag of cannabis comes with no such warning because illegal suppliers have no incentive to provide such information. And just as India already bans tobacco and alcohol advertising, so also we should ban advertising cannabis. The intention is not to widen the pool of users, but to protect those who seek the drug from illegal sources.
Mantha confuses the issue by painting a lurid picture of drug-dependent people, stoned beyond caring, and comparing cannabis to opium. Opiate-based drugs, which contribute to tens of thousands of deaths around the world every year and can lead to physical dependence, should not be compared to cannabis, which has never killed anyone.
This is why Mantha’s suggestion that we should wait a generation to see how legalisation plays out in the West, before adopting it in India, is dangerous. We already know that prohibition hasn’t worked. Why would we want to continue with a policy that has failed and hope for a miracle, when an alternative policy exists that would end many of the failings – and dangers – of the present?
Shashi Tharoor is MP for Thiruvananthapuram. His nephew Avinash Tharoor is Policy and Communications Officer at the UK drugs charity Release.