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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

 Chapter 21 - Public policy options

Criteria for a legal policy on cannabis

Some studies have explored the question of the comparative effectiveness of public policy systems in cost/benefit terms, others in terms of social costs. The first type of analysis is impossible simply because no two strategies are different enough for purposes of comparison: there is no cannabis regulation model that can be compared to a prohibition model. The other approach is to consider the social costs incurred by drugs based on a “cost of illness” model in a “counter-factual” scenario: what would happen if there were no consumption of this drug? However, as we saw in Chapter 18, it is difficult to establish the real costs related to cannabis and the response of public policy to it, and impossible to determine real social costs.


The question is whether or not society would be better off if the use of one or more currently illegal drugs was authorized. The answer is only if public well-being is enhanced (or the social cost of drugs is reduced). No one knows the impact on social costs of legalization of illicit drugs. It is impossible to predict the impact of increased consumption, substitution of tobacco and alcohol for currently illegal drugs, the lower current negative impact attributable to drug illegality and, moreover, the combined impact of all these factors. The superiority of neither prohibition nor legalization is provable. [Translation][1][32]


The counter-factual scenario used in studies of the social costs of drugs is itself a formidable challenge, as it rests on the unproven concept of eradicating consumption of a drug. The model is drawn from the field of health, in which a counter-factual model may be legitimate because, in some cases, a disease can be completely or almost completely eradicated (e.g., childhood diseases). It does not apply to drugs, as the process is necessarily so hypothetical that one wonders if it is worth the effort. It is one thing to try and identify as accurately as possible the diversity of social and economic costs incurred by drugs and then reflect on public policy options; it is another to claim they can actually be measured.

MacCoun, Reuter, and Schelling propose two series of criteria, the first considering different applications to different substances, the second based on acceptable costs and consequences. Using a four-axis matrix, they distinguish:

··     scope of consequences: community and user health; community and individual performance; public order and security;

··     potential damage to each of the above;

··     those affected by the damage (users, traffickers, family members, employers, neighbours, society); and

··     primary source of the damage (substance, legal status, legal intervention).


How do we make a choice? At the outset, it must be understood that, at the end of the line, the decision is necessarily apolitical one. Epidemiological data on levels of use and empirical data on effects and consequences are clear: cannabis is not as dangerous a substance as interdiction policies would like us to believe. Comparative data on public policies, although more limited, also make it clear that measures undertaken under prohibitionist regimes have not been effective. This much said, no one can predict what will happen under an alternative regime, such as the regulated access model we are proposing. This is why we insist that any comprehensive strategy on cannabis must be based on a public health model and involve tools toevaluate its implementation and effects.


Application to cannabis

We do not have all the empirical data required to make a decision with respect to all the potential consequences of different control systems. To produce such data, one would have to have experienced the different regimes of cannabis control. Since the early twentieth century, various degrees of prohibition are all there has been, however.

Be that as it may, we would hazard a guess that, even if we did have empirical data, in the final analysis the decisions would still be political in nature because they are basically public policy decisions which, as discussed in our chapter on guiding principles, are not defined on the basis of scientific knowledge alone.

Nonetheless, if we attempt to apply these criteria to cannabis, we believe that a system of regulated access is most likely to reduce the negative consequences for both users and society.






Consequences on:

















Conduct of individuals and society












Public order and safety





-         Use denied therefore no possible distinction between forms of use (use, at-risk use, abuse)

-         Difficulties adapting prevention to reality due to predominance of abstinence

-         Health costs due to lack of knowledge of forms of use

-         Absence of quality control may bring about problems

-         Difficult for users to recognize at-risk use and acknowledge possible dependency



-         Enhanced individual performance (e.g., school, professional) if prohibition totally successful and no substitute exists

-         Users potentially dealing with criminal networks

-         Human rights infringements

-         Theoretical decrease in availability of substance

-         Theoretical increase in price of substance




-         Increased organized crime

-         Significant illegal trafficking

-         Decreased respect for the law

-         Violence in criminal organizations



-         Possible increase in number of users

-         Enhanced recognition of use and ability to distinguish between forms of use

-         Ability to promote prevention not based on abstinence

-         Possible increase in health care for abusive users resulting from increase in number of users

-         Opportunity to control quality and THC content

-         Monitoring of at-risk behaviour and forms of non-penal treatment


-         Possibility of increased negative impact on users and their families if consumption increases

-         Legal access leading to normalizing and demystifying

-         Control over price and availability

-         Elimination of the negative consequences of criminalization and marginalization of users

-         Need to control impaired driving

-         Need to maintain restrictions regarding sale to minors



-         Decrease in —not elimination of—organized crime

-         Increased control over illegal trafficking

-         Possible increase in the insecurity of people residing near points of sale



We are fully aware that our statements with respect to a regulatory system are wholly theoretical. We do think, however, that all the data we have collected on cannabis and its derivatives provide sufficient ground for our general conclusion that the regulation of the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis, as part of an integrated and adaptable public policy, best responds to the principles of autonomy and governance that foster human responsibility and of the limitation of penal law to situations where there is demonstrable harm to others. A regulatory system for cannabis should permit, in particular, :

··       more effective targeting of illegal traffic and a reduction in the role played by organized crime;

··       prevention programs better adapted to the real world and better able to prevent and detect at-risk behaviour;

··       enhanced monitoring of products, quality and properties;

··       better user information and education;

··       respect for individual and collective freedoms, and legislation more in tune with the behaviour of Canadians.


In our opinion, Canadian society is ready for a responsible policy of cannabis regulation that honours these basic principles.




[1][1] Please refer to the recent CCSA study: Permanen, K., et. al.,op.cit.


[2] See Jackson, A.Y. (2002)op.cit.,and our discussion in Chapter 18.


[3] Reuband, K., (1995) “Drug use and drug policy in Western Europe.”European Addiction Research, vol. 1,32-41.


[4] Cesoni, L.L. (1999)Usage et actes préparatoires de l’usage des drogues illicites :les choix en matière d’ncrimination. Analyse comparative de l’usage de drogues illicites de sept législationseuropéennes. In Conseil fédéralsuisse,op.cit., page 3560.


[5] Conseil fédéral Suisse(2001)Message concernant la révisionde la loi sur lesstupéfiants, page 3560.


[6] Kilmer, B., (2002) “Do cannabis possession laws influence cannabisuse?” in Pelc, I. (dir.) International Scientific Conference on Cannabis.Brussels.


[7] Table reproduced from Kilmer, B.,op.cit,page 108.


[8] See Kopp, P. and Fenoglio (2000)Lecoûts social des drogues licites (alcool et tabac) et illicites en France. Paris: OFDT.


[9] Source: Rehm, J., (2001)TheCosts of public policies to fight illegal drugs.Brief presented to theSpecial Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, page 13.


[10] Source: Rehm, J., (2001)TheCosts of public policies to fight illegal drugs.Brief presented to theSpecial Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, page 13.


[11]Single, E., et. al.,op. cit.


[12]Source: Kopp, P. and C. Palle (1999)²Économistescherchent politique publique efficace.²in Faugeron, C., (ed.)Lesdrogues en France. Paris: Georg, page261.


[13]Source: Kopp, P. and C. Palle (1999)²Économistescherchent politique publique efficace.²in Faugeron, C., (ed.)Lesdrogues en France. Paris: Georg, page261.


[14]Source: Kopp, P. and C. Palle (1999)²Économistescherchent politique publique efficace.²in Faugeron, C., (ed.)Lesdrogues en France. Paris: Georg, page261.


[15] See above, in the United States, one of the most complete studies onthe question: Abt Associates (2001)Theprice of illicit drugs: 1981 through the second quarter of 2000.Washington,DC: Office of National Drug Control Policy.


[16] For example, economist Milton Friedman.


[17] For example, critical assessment in Caballero and Bisiou, pages114-115.


[18] Ibid.,page116.


[19] Ibid., page 120


[20] UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (2000) Demand Reduction. AGlossary of Terms.Vienna: author, page 18.


[21] Caballero and Bisiou,op.cit,page 117.


[22] See EMCDDA (2001)Decriminalisationin Europe? Recent Developments in Legal Approaches to Drug Use.Lisbon:author, available on line atwww.emcdda.org


[23]Fischer et al., (1998) “Cannabis Use in Canada: Policy Options ForControl.’Policy Options.October.


[24] Comité permanent de lutte à la toxicomanie(1999)Avissur la déjudiciarisation de la possession simple de cannabis. Montreal:CPLT.




[26] Dr. Perry Kendall, Medical Health Officer for the Government ofBritish Columbia, testimony before the Special Senate Committee on IllegalDrugs, Senate of Canada, First session, Thirty-seventh Parliament, September17, 2001, Issue 6, page: 40.


[27] MacCoun, R., Reuter, P. and T. Schelling (1996) “Assessingalternative drug control regimes.”Journalof Policy Analysis and Management.Vol 15, no 3, page 332.


[28]UNDCP (2000)op.cit,page 41.


[29] Caballero and Bisiou,op.cit,page 132.


[30] UNDCP (2000)op.cit,page63


[31] MacCoun and coll.,op. cit,page333. [1996 issue vol.15 not available]


[32] Kopp, P., and P. Fenoglio (2000)op.cit, page 12.

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