WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 Mar 2016 | Publication | News

Evaluating Cannabis Legalization

Download the Rapporteur's Report

For drug policy analysts, these are extraordinary times. Across the globe, a public consensus is forming around the notion that the dominant drug policy paradigm is broken, particularly with regard to cannabis. In response, governments and civil society actors are increasingly advocating the abandonment of prohibition in favor of an approach that prioritizes public health, public safety, and regulating markets in the public interest.

Appropriately, this paradigm shift is most apparent in the countries of the Americas, which has for more than 40 years been the main theater in the “war on drugs.” In the United States, which has led the charge on this front for decades, public opinion has shifted dramatically against federal law and toward support for the legalization of cannabis.[1]Since Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives legalizing recreational cannabis in November 2012, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Similar ballot measures are moving forward for 2016 in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Nevada and elsewhere.

Read the Rapporteur’s Report on the Conference

This trend is also playing out across the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. In December 2013, the South American nation of Uruguay became the first country to pass legislation regulating every level of the market for cannabis, and is implementing the law in deliberate, calculated steps. In Colombia, possession of small amounts of cannabis and other drugs has been officially decriminalized since 2012, lawmakers are debating proposals to legalize medicinal marijuana, and the national government has issued a decree under current statutes that regulates production, commercialization, and prescription of cannabis for medical purposes.The push for alternative marijuana policies has also made important gains in Mexico and Chile, where decriminalization bills have been presented at the national and local levels, and the latter country has begun to authorize limited medical use. In the Caribbean, Jamaica implemented reforms in early 2015 that allow possession and decriminalize the drug for medicinal purposes. Governments in nearby Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Puerto Rico are also debating the issue.

As the governments of the hemisphere continue to pursue cannabis policy reform, the experience of those countries and localities that have legalized the substance will inform the future of similar initiatives. Indeed, while the approaches of Colorado, Washington, Uruguay, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia differ on issues like medicinal use, home cultivation, distribution, and restrictions on cannabis-infused products, their successes or failures hold the key to crafting smarter, more effective legalization measures. Because of their experimental nature, these policies are destined to face high-level public scrutiny and criticism. For drug policy researchers and analysts, the goal is to ensure that this scrutiny is based on a careful evaluation of the facts, and not politicized rhetoric or hyperbole.

With this goal in mind, from June 8-11 the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) and the Washington, D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) sponsored a joint workshop in Seattle designed to bring together the leading scholars, analysts, and government officials working on implementing and monitoring cannabis policies across the hemisphere. Participants came from the U.S. states of Alaska, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, California, and District of Columbia, as well as the countries of Canada, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Uruguay. Over three days, the workshop was marked by rich policy discussions, and resulted in a rigorous exchange outlining the current state of cannabis policy in the United States and abroad. This report is intended to help synthesize the debate during the workshop itself, as well as to inform future discussions as international momentum continues to build around cannabis legalization.

After a brief introduction of the global cannabis policy landscape, the workshop was comprised of four structured sessions and a final open session meant to summarize key conclusions that emerged from each preceding session. In order to create a confidential setting and to encourage candid discussion, the workshop was conducted under the Chatham House Rule,[2] under which participants may use the information received but may not reveal the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker or the participants at the meeting. Annexed to this report is a list of participants, excluding the names of those who, under Chatham House Rule, requested to remain anonymous. Also annexed is a collection of suggested readings provided to participants prior to the seminar.

The first session looked at the state of cannabis laws and regulatory systems; the second discussed cannabis policy from a public health perspective; the third explored the intersection of cannabis policy and public security; the fourth focused on regulating cannabis markets in the public interest; and the final session—meant to identify challenges, lessons learned, and recommendations coming out of the previous sessions—led to a diverse discussion of the necessary “next steps” in laying out a research and regulatory agenda on effective and informed cannabis policy.

Read the full Rapporteur’s Report.

[1]Washington Post, “A majority favors marijuana legalization for first time, according to nation’s most authoritative survey,” March 4, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/03/04/majority-of-americans-favor-marijuana-legalization-for-first-time-according-to-the-nations-most-authoritative-survey/

[2]“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1927). http://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule.