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Government & Private Commissions Supporting Marijuana Law Reform

"Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana in private for personal use."
-President Jimmy Carter: Message to Congress, August 2, 1977.

Introduction

Since the 1970s, more than a dozen government-appointed commissions have examined the effects of marijuana, and made public policy recommendations regarding its use. Overwhelmingly, the conclusions of these expert panels have been the same: marijuana prohibition causes more social damage than marijuana use, and the possession of marijuana for personal use should no longer be a criminal offense.

Disturbingly, these findings have typically fallen on deaf ears, often being dismissed by the very governments that appointed them. Taken together, however, they exemplify the consensus that exists among the scientific community in support of liberalizing the legal status of marijuana. Conversely, their omission in the present debate reflects the unfortunate reality that marijuana prohibition is perpetuated not by science, but rather by emotion and rhetoric. We do not let these factors dictate other public policies, nor should we let them dominate the debate over marijuana-law reform.

NORML encourages the role of science in this debate, and applauds the efforts of previous commissions that have examined this issue. In an effort to better publicize this work, NORML has compiled the findings from more than a dozen government-appointed drug advisory committees, and highlighted their recommendations regarding the legal status of marijuana. Their conclusions, as well as those of several prominent private commissions, are listed chronologically.
 

Government Commissioned Reports

“We believe … that the continued prohibition of cannabis jeopardizes the health and well-being of Canadians much more than does the substance itself or the regulated marketing of the substance.  In addition, we believe that the continued criminalization of cannabis undermines the fundamental values set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and confirmed in the history of a country based on diversity and tolerance.

… It is for this reason that the Committee recommends that the Government of Canada amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to create a criminal exemption scheme, under which the production and sale of cannabis would be licensed, [and] … to permit persons over the age of 16 to procure cannabis and its derivatives at duly licensed distribution centers.”

- Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs. 2002. Cannabis: Summary Report: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy.  Ottawa.

"We accept that cannabis can be harmful and that its use should be discouraged.  However, ... we do not believe there is anything to be gained by exaggerating its harmfulness.  On the contrary, exaggeration undermines the credibility of the messages that we wish to send regarding more harmful drugs.  We support, therefore, ... reclassify[ing] cannabis from Class B to Class C ... [so that] possession of cannabis would cease to be an 'arrestable offense.'"
- British House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. 2002. Home Affairs Third Report. British Home Office: London

“Cannabis ... is less harmful than other substances (amphetamines, barbiturates, codeine-like compounds) within Class B of Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.  The continuing juxtaposition of cannabis with these more harmful Class B drugs erroneously (and dangerously) suggests their harmful effects are equivalent.  This may lead to the belief, amongst cannabis users, that if they had no harmful effects from cannabis than other Class B substances will be equally safe.  The Council therefore recommends the reclassification of all cannabis preparations to class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.”
- British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. 2002.  The Classification of Cannabis Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  British Home Office: London.

"The Commission, after reviewing the most up-to-date body of medical and scientific research, is of the view that whatever health hazards the substance poses to the individual, ... these do not warrant the criminalization of thousands of Jamaicans for using it in ways and with beliefs that are deeply rooted in the culture of the people. ... Accordingly, the National Commission is recommending that the relevant laws be amended so that ganja be decriminalized for the private, personal use of small quantities by adults."
- Jamaican National Commission on Ganja. 2001. A Report of the National Commission on Ganja. Office of the Prime Minister: Kingston.

"The criminal sanction for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use by a person aged eighteen or over should be eliminated. ... Having reviewed carefully the information available on marijuana and its effects, and having heard from various representatives of law enforcement, corrections and the courts, we believe that taking this step will result in greater availability of resources to respond to more serious crimes without any increased risks to public safety."
- New Mexico Governor's Drug Policy Advisory Group. 2001. Report and Recommendations to the Governor's Office. State Capitol: Santa Fe.

"Following detailed consideration of the different options, the Federal Commission unanimously recommends the elaboration of a model which not only removes the prohibition of consumption and possession, but also makes it possible for cannabis to be purchased lawfully. The model should not be one of free availability, but instead should include clear provisions for the protection of the young and the prevention of all potential adverse consequences of legalization."
- Swiss Federal Commission for Drug Issues. 1999. Cannabis Report of the Swiss Federal Commission for Drug Issues. Swiss Federal Office of Public Health: Bern.

"It is acknowledged that cannabis prohibition enforced by traditional crime control methods has not been successful in reducing the apparent number of cannabis users in New Zealand. ... If cannabis does cause harm to a small proportion of users then it is preferable that those people have access to treatment without fear of stigmatization or criminalization. ... We recommend that based on the evidence received, the government review the appropriateness of existing policy on cannabis and its use and reconsider the legal status of cannabis."
- New Zealand Parliamentary Health Select Committee. 1998. Inquiry into the Mental Health Effects of Cannabis. Parliament House: Wellington.

"The Law Revision Commission has examined laws from other states that have reduced penalties for small amounts of marijuana and the impact of those laws in those states. ... Studies of [those] states found (1) expenses for arrest and prosecution of marijuana possession offenses were significantly reduced, (2) any increase in the use of marijuana in those states was less than increased use in those states that did not decrease their penalties and the largest proportionate increase occurred in those states with the most severe penalties, and (3) reducing the penalties for marijuana has virtually no effect on either choice or frequency of the use of alcohol or illegal 'harder' drugs such as cocaine. ... Based on [our] review, the [Connecticut] legislature should review and further consider as a strategy option establishing the offense of infraction for adults twenty-one years of age or older who possess one ounce or less of marijuana."
- Connecticut Law Review Commission. 1997. Drug Policy in Connecticut and Strategy Options: Report to the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly. State Capitol: Hartford.

"The Council is not of the view that we should lessen efforts to control [illicit drug] trafficking, but rather that we should look afresh at strategies that might curb demand and reduce the harm caused in society by the use of illicit drugs. These entail ...[the] elimination, as an offense, of personal possession and use of marijuana. ... Growing up to five plants per household for personal use would also no longer be an offense. This would apply to a normal residence, but should not apply to schools, colleges or public institutions.
- Premiere's (Victoria, Australia) Drug Advisory Council. 1996. Drugs and Our Community: Report of the Premiere's Drug Advisory Council. Melbourne.

"Australia experiences more harm, we conclude, from maintaining the cannabis prohibition policy than it experiences from use of the drug. ... We conclude that cannabis law reform is required in this country."
- Australian Department of Health and Aged Care. 1994. Legislative Options for Cannabis in Australia: Report commissioned for the Commonwealth/State Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy. Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra, Australia.

"An objective consideration of marijuana shows that it is responsible for less damage to the individual and society than are alcohol and cigarettes. ... A further consideration in forming a reaction to the wide use of marijuana is that it is a source of conflict between generations and of disrespect for the law. ... The Panel therefore suggests that the law be changed to permit cultivation [of marijuana] for personal use."
- California Research Advisory Panel. 1989. Twentieth Annual Report of the Research Advisory Panel. State Capitol: Sacramento.

"The existing evidence on policies of partial prohibition (marijuana decriminalization) indicates that partial prohibition has been as effective in controlling [marijuana] consumption as complete prohibition and has entailed considerably smaller social, legal, and economic costs. On balance, therefore, we believe that a policy of partial prohibition is clearly preferable to a policy of complete prohibition of supply and use."
- National Research Council of the National Academy of Science. 1982. An Analysis of Marijuana Policy. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.

"Our primary concern is to minimize the health and safety risks associated with the use of cannabis. The pursuit of this objective has required careful consideration of the gravity of the harms attributed to cannabis and the countervailing costs of any control measures. Given our empirical understanding of both the effects of cannabis and the adverse consequences that flow from applying a counterproductive possessory sanction, it appears, on balance, that essentially the same measure of public health protection can be attained through a less comprehensive and injurious use of the criminal law. ... A legislative reform which best achieves this balancing of interests would probably bear a close resemblance to ... semi-prohibition."
- Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare. 1979. Cannabis Control Policy: A discussion paper commissioned for the Minister of Health and Cabinet members. Ottawa.

"Legal controls [should] not [be] of such a nature as to ... cause more social damage than the use of the drug. ... Cannabis legislation should be enacted that recognizes the significant differences between ... narcotics and cannabis in their health effects. ... Possession of marijuana for personal use should no longer be a criminal offense."
- Australian Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare. 1977. Drug Problems in Australia: An Intoxicated Society. Australia Government Publishing Service: Canberra, Australia.

"Even assuming marijuana has some undesirable or harmful properties, prohibition through criminal law is not a proper approach in controlling these properties and effects. ... The [California] Legislature should adopt a program of decriminalization making simple possession of marijuana for private adult use an infraction, if anything."
- California Legislature Senate Select Committee on Control of Marijuana. 1974. Final Report: Marijuana: Beyond Misunderstanding. State Capitol: Sacramento.

"The costs to a significant number of individuals, the majority of whom are young people, and to society generally, of a policy of prohibition of simple possession are not justified by the potential for harm of cannabis and the additional influence which such a policy is likely to have upon perception of harm, demand, and availability. We, therefore recommend the repeal of the prohibition against the simple possession of cannabis."
- Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry (The Le Dain Commission). 1973. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Non- Medical Use of Drugs. Queens Printer: Ottawa.

"The Commission recommends only the following changes in federal law: Possession of marihuana for personal use would no longer be an offense. ... Casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would no longer be an offense."
- United States National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. 1972. Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding (The Shafer Report). U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.

"In considering the scale of penalties our main aim, having regard to our view of the known effects of cannabis, is to remove for practical purposes, the prospect of imprisonment for possession of a small amount and to demonstrate that taking the drug in moderation is a relatively minor offense."
- British Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence. 1968. Cannabis: Report by the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence (The Wooten Report). Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London.
 

Independently Commissioned Reports

“A number of studies have found experiencing contact with the police for a cannabis offense is likely to have a negative influence on young people’s confidence in the police ... Reclassification [of marijuana so it is no longer a criminal offense] is likely to remove some of the friction between the police and communities that currently prevent more cooperative relationships.”
- The Joseph Roundtree Foundation. 2002. The Policing of Cannabis as a Class B Drug.  London.

"The [criminal] law's implementation damages individuals in terms of criminal records and risks to jobs and relationships to a degree that far outweighs any harm that cannabis may be doing to a society. ... [Therefore,] prison should no longer be a penalty for possession [of cannabis.]"
- The Police Foundation (United Kingdom). 2000. Drugs and the Law: Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. London.

"The current law prohibiting cannabis possession and trafficking appears to have a very limited deterrent effect, yet entails high social costs and diverts limited police resources from other pressing needs. ... The severity of punishment for a cannabis possession charge should be reduced. Specifically, cannabis possession should be converted to a civil violation. ... The available evidence indicates that removal of jail as a sentencing option would lead to considerable cost savings without leading to increases in the rates of cannabis use."
- Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse National Working Group on Addictions. 1998. Cannabis Control in Canada: Options Regarding Possession. CCSA, Ottawa.

"New Zealand politicians and the public should accept that cannabis has become part of our culture. Whatever harms are associated with cannabis are magnified by driving its use underground. A Tobacco, Alcohol, and Cannabis Authority should be created and charged with responsibility for developing and enforcing regulations concerning the production, distribution, sale, and use of these three substances."
- New Zealand Drug Policy Forum Trust. 1998. New Zealand Should Regulate and Tax Cannabis Commerce. Wellington.

"It appears clear that ... a move toward more lenient laws for small scale cannabis offenses ... will not lead to increased cannabis use. Thus, we can limit cannabis use without harsh penalties. ... It may be that other governments, on reviewing the findings presented here and in other reports, will see fit to consider a similar approach for dealing with small scale cannabis offenses to the Cannabis Expiation System [decriminalization] of South Australia."
- Drug and Alcohol Services Council of South Australia, Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Unit. 1991. The Effects of Cannabis Legislation in South Australia on Levels of Cannabis Use. DASC Press: Parkside, South Australia.






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