Cannabis users in the United States and Canada


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The United Nations suggests there are over 190 million cannabis users worldwide. With a large number of users reported from countries supporting cannabis prohibition such as the United States and Canada, [2] it is evident prohibition has not successfully eliminated cannabis production or its illegal use in those nations. [3] In Canada, cannabis remains a schedule II narcotic prohibited under S.4(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act (CDSA). [4] While the United States places cannabis as a schedule I narcotic and bans its use under S. 841(b)(1)(D) of the Controlled Substance Act (CSA). [5] Whereas those caught with larger quantities in the United States may be subject to 5-40 year prison terms. [6] Despite these penalties, cannabis prohibition has failed in its aims to eradicate marijuana cultivation and disproportionately targets people for possession of small amounts. [7] As such, this essay will argue for cannabis legalization by demonstrating how prohibition creates greater harm for society as it fails to deter users and increases criminal justice costs while creating an underground market for illicit gangs to violently operate in and profit from. Since American laws have dominated and influenced the global prohibition landscape, [8] this essay will focus on America's cannabis prohibition with references to other nations as examples.

Prohibition Failures and Dangers

In reference to the World Health Organization, alcohol consumption causes 2.5 million deaths worldwide [9] while tobacco claims 5 million lives annually at 1 life every 6 seconds. [10] The detrimental costs to the public are equally staggering amongst these statistics. In Canada, alcohol abuse accounts for $1.36 billion deficit in law enforcement with an additional $2.68 billion in annual healthcare costs. [11] With regard to the United States of America, tobacco use results in $96 billion in healthcare costs. [12] Regardless of the harm caused by these substances they remain legalized, regulated and taxed in Western countries. Although Cannabis can have detrimental health effects, the health and social costs of tobacco and alcohol markedly outweigh that of cannabis, [13] yet, billions of dollars are spent each year on efforts to enforce its prohibition. [14] 

With that said, the war on cannabis is predicated on the belief that control over the supply results in control over its use and ultimately control over addiction however, cannabis remains the most widely used illicit drug. [15] As a result, in an era dominated by heavy handed law enforcement measures, prohibition has been ineffective in creating a cannabis free society. [16] This is evidenced by the United Nations as 29 million cannabis users reside in Western Europe while North American consumers are estimated at 42 million. [17] Despite record levels of seizures, cannabis remains readily available throughout the US. [18] From a harm reduction standpoint, prohibition is counterproductive as it has inadvertently resulted in a lack of societal control over cannabis, by creating an entirely unregulated industry. [19] Moreover, it criminalizes an overwhelming majority of citizens who engage in recreational cannabis use [20] and creates an illicit market whereby drug cartels profit from supplying the demand; akin to Al Capone and associates' rise to power during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. [21] 

Much like their bootlegging predecessors from the 1920s, drug traffickers often find ways to smuggle contraband and boost their profitability by evading law enforcement officials through secret grow-ops and clandestine smuggling operations. [22] In relation to cannabis, the National Drug Threat Assessment Report shows a trend of cannabis growers moving to indoor operations in order to counterbalance law enforcement eradication practices that have threatened their business. [23] By cracking down on outdoor grow-ops, Police have pushed cartels to move indoor where they can grow all year around. [24] This report demonstrates how prohibition has benefited cartels by moving cannabis cultivation from a seasonal trade to ensuring its year round availability. [25] 

Not only has prohibition increased cannabis production and availability, it has also aided in exposing users to high potency doses. Supporting this point, in 2006 the active intoxicating ingredient Tetra-hydra-canibinol (THC) reached its highest recorded peak. [26] According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, one possible explanation could be growers have increased the THC content to compensate for prohibition measures destroying their crops. [27] This places a higher potency product on the streets and subsequently benefits organized crime as suppliers move toward small sized farms, making it easier for them to avoid detection and minimize lost profits from Police raids. [28] Moreover, suppliers compensate for less plants by charging more money for small amounts of high THC cannabis; allowing cartels an opportunity to make even more profits from cannabis cultivation. [29] Rather than limiting it, prohibition promotes cannabis cultivation.

Greater concerns arise from the fact that cannabis suppliers are not inspected and regulated for consumer protection purposes. [30] In my personal experiences as a Customs Officer in Canada, there have been incidents where cannabis has been enhanced with cleaning products for heightened potency without the user's knowledge. Similarly, the United States' alcohol prohibition during the 1920s led to bootleggers producing poisonous alcohol in an effort to increase potency and evade law enforcement. [31] The idea was the more potent the alcohol, the less amount bootleggers would have to produce to make a profit while simultaneously making the process less risky as it was easier to hide smaller batches from the Police. [32] If cannabis suppliers are resorting to similar methods, consumers are exposed to an unregulated product, potentially increasing health risks.

Furthermore, it appears users are almost forced to choose their poison. If consumers wish to avoid potential dangers of purchasing cannabis from dealers, they are subject to harsher penalties. In the United States, an individual in possession of 1-49 marijuana plants can be subject to a maximum 5 years imprisonment or a fine up to $250,000. [33] Whereas in Canada S.4 (4) (a) CDSA imposes a maximum 5 year prison sentence for amounts over 30 grams. [34] Even if an individual is not necessarily a trafficker, possession of one cannabis plant places them in the same category as potentially violent drug traffickers. Consequently, prohibition is detrimental to society as it removes the possibility of State regulation and criminalizes those who try to circumvent the dangers of obtaining a tainted product by growing their own supply.

Additionally, due to prohibition users are often forced to go through dangerous neighbourhoods and interact with dealers where they are at risk of violence and exposed to harder drugs despite only wanting to consume cannabis. [35] This is problematic as it has an impact on cannabis being labelled a gateway drug. Although there are misleading studies confusing correlation with causation (by failing to acknowledge a test subject's alcohol and tobacco use which often precedes their cannabis and heroin habits or impulsive personality characteristics) [36] , a more plausible explanation of hard drug use is exposed when considering the Netherlands. The Dutch Opium Act [37] restricts and regulates the sale of cannabis to designated coffee shops which subsequently limits citizen exposure to dangerous dealers and harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine. [38] Accordingly, one study found cannabis consumption in San Francisco and Netherlands to be similar whereas San Francisco displayed a higher rate of harder drug usage. [39] By creating a non-deviant environment for cannabis users to purchase and use marijuana, the Dutch have successfully limited the risk of cannabis users being attacked or exposed to harsher drugs. [40] Prohibition on the other hand has forced consumers into highly deviant environments where they are exposed to a wider array of drugs and possible victimization. Consequently, prohibition fails to minimize the dangers of surrounding cannabis.

Prohibition and the knock-on effect

In relation to the above, since the 1990s, marijuana arrest rates have exponentially increased. [41] In 2002, out of 700,000 arrests, 616,000 occurred for cannabis possession. [42] This suggests over 88% [43] of cannabis related arrests target cannabis users rather than hardened drug traffickers. This is problematic as one hallmark of a successful Criminal Justice System is its cost effectiveness. [44] If only 1 out of 18 of these arrests led to a felony conviction, [45] most charges were either dropped or plead out, costing approximately $4 billion in court and administration fees. [46] Not only does this overwhelm the courts, it also diverts Police resources from solving serious crimes such as homicides and rapes. [47] If the State is spending large sums of money on tossing out cases, the current practices are far from cost effective - it is grossly inefficient.

In addition, at first glance 1/18 felony convictions appears minimal however, it means approximately 34,200 people arrested in 2002 were convicted for cannabis possession. [48] According to the Office of National Drug Control, 12.4% of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for marijuana related offences. [49] This practice is Draconian when considering incarceration poses a greater danger than cannabis use alone as 1 in 5 male and 1 in 4 female inmates are raped in prison. [50] These users are not usually the ones engaged in violent acts however, once incarcerated, they are placed in overcrowded prisons with inmates who have physically harmed others; exposing them to victimization or even further criminality. [51] More often than not, former inmates are so traumatized they find it difficult to cope with their victimization upon release and often re-offend or abuse harder drugs as a result; exacerbating the social impact of drug use. [52] 

The Global Cannabis Commission Report supports this argument as individuals convicted of cannabis possession demonstrated a 32% likelihood of further involvement with the Criminal Justice System compared to 0% of those who received a civil penalty for the same offence in Australia. [53] Moreover, in 1972 president Nixon's Shafer Commission found the harms caused by arrests were greater than the harm produced by cannabis use. [54] If prohibition targets addicts and casual cannabis users rather than violent drug traffickers, the spirit behind trafficking laws are largely undermined as politicians often insist resources are used to prosecute dangerous drug dealers rather than bottom users. [55] These findings are more controversial when looking at barriers to drug use. In reference to Heymann and Brownsberger, drug users are more likely to abstain from abuse when they remain in a community setting where employment and non-guilt-provoking intimate relationships are available. [56] Incarceration eliminates these barriers altogether. As a result, these laws ultimately inflict a greater burden upon society as cannabis users who receive a jail term may embark upon more dangerous forms of criminality or continue to abuse drugs to cope with the abuse they faced in prison. [57] 

Prohibition and Violence

Historically, the US has had a history of gang violence resulting from cannabis trafficking. Accordingly, cannabis prohibition has led to a culture of violence, similar to how Alcohol prohibition led to inter-gang violence and homicides in the 1920s. [58] This in part, is due to its wide scale criminalization, [59] whereby in an effort to boost profits, protect their crops, discourage competition and evade thieves and Police raids, suppliers and traffickers have armed themselves and engaged in violence. [60] The impact of this is shown in Britain where there have been incidents of Vietnamese children trafficked into the country for forced labour in cannabis cultivation factories. [61] Some Vietnamese nationals have been physically abused or murdered in the United Kingdom by organized crime syndicates for failing to account for losses. [62] In relation to North America, Vietnamese drug cartels have shown an increasing trend in cannabis cultivation. [63] This could lead to similar human trafficking patterns emerging in the United States. During the late 1990's however, Columbia supplied an estimated 40% of US marijuana through the use of Mexican drug cartels, both of whom expanded in the US and engaged in violent practices to intimidate competition. [64] If cannabis were legalized, competitors would be subject to zoning laws and permits, vendors and employees would have the assistance of the judicial system in dealing with disputes or negotiations, and have the assistance of law enforcement in protection from thefts. [65] 

In order to promote the remedy of the law, cannabis must be legalized rather than decriminalized as people would shy away from the assistance of the law for fear of self-incrimination. [66] While decriminalization would effectively protect users from the harshness of the law, organized crime syndicates would remain in a financially secure position as suppliers still subject to harsh penalties. [67] This is problematic as it fails to alleviate the financial burdens of prohibition. For example, in 1995 despite decriminalization, the Dutch spent a considerable amount of resources on aggressive enforcement practices against large-scale suppliers as they confiscated approximately 44% of the European Union's total cannabis seizures. [68] As a result, legalization would produce a better outcome by reducing State spending on law enforcement, freeing up resources, and providing greater control through the promotion of legal remedies. It would also erode the financial incentive of cultivation and trafficking as drug cartels would face difficulty in competing with legitimate enterprises who would supply cannabis to smaller retailers. [69] Alternatively, it could provide current cannabis cartels with the means to leave behind their criminality and make use of the legitimacy behind a legal, certified, and regulated cannabis farm. As such, laws may be better off focussing on how to cope with suppliers and users instead of criminalizing either; in an effort of harm reduction.


People often advocate for harsher sentences against drug offenders in order to deter individuals from engaging in deviant behaviour. [70] This is demonstrated by the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations that put-forth a moral crusade to prevent youth from drug abuse by treating it as a criminal justice issue rather than a health policy problem; [71] resulting in adults facing years of incarceration for possession offences. [72] In contrast, numerous reports such as the Shafer Commission argue the criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply on personal cannabis use and the criminal justice system is wasting resources as it is incapable of preventing cannabis cultivation or its use. [73] Supporting this position, one study found 90% of convicted first time offenders for marijuana possession continued using one year after their arrests. [74] This demonstrates how penalizing cannabis users fail to lower recidivism rates. Unfortunately, the debate over cannabis legislation has, since the 1970's, been plagued by political rhetoric rather than substantial evidence supporting decriminalization or legalization. [75] 

For example, deterrence is often based on the presumption that people engage in a cost-benefit-analysis before embarking upon crime, but this assumption ignores the impulsive nature of many crime prone individuals that bars their ability to do such an analysis prior to offending. [76] This is problematic when considering impulsiveness is a dominant predictor amongst youth substance abuse. [77] According to one report, males aged 15-24 account for over 50% of marijuana arrests while being overrepresented in possession charges in comparison to the national standard. [78] As a result, there appears to be a gap in advocating for harsher penalties and actually minimizing cannabis use. More importantly though, reducing cannabis use amongst youth should be at the forefront of any legal policy as studies have shown cannabis has a greater impact upon the developing mind of children and teenagers than adults. [79] However, pragmatic drug policies dealing with this problem are seldom given credit in today's political climate. [80] 

The absence of evidence based policy is further demonstrated when considering Canada's and the United States' separate legal system for prosecuting youth. [81] This is due to the idea youth minds are not developed enough to appreciate the consequences of their actions; making it unjust to impose the same degree of moral blameworthiness as placed on adults. [82] In creating an alternative system for youth justice, both Countries' Government's acknowledge the lower culpability of youth offenders however, at the same time harsher sentencing for cannabis related offences assume these youth will have the capacity to appreciate the consequences of their behaviour; which questions the justification of having a separate justice system for youth.

Assuming the threat of facing a harsh penalty for possession of large quantities of cannabis works, it can alternatively favour dealers by guaranteeing a constant customer base as users make repeat purchases of small amounts; to avoid harsh penalties. [83] This process ultimately provides cannabis traffickers with an additional incentive as users do not benefit from cost effective bulk purchases; making trafficking more lucrative on a long term basis. [84] Analyzing this from a different perspective, the law subsequently punishes people for providing less money to drug dealers, while possibly enticing traffickers to supply youth whose economic capacity coincides with the sale of minimum amounts of cannabis. [85] 

Simply put the threat and use of harsh penalties has not deterred youth cannabis use. [86] In reference to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 87% of high school seniors report marijuana is easy to access. [87] This is problematic as the US imposes double the maximum penalty for selling to minors [88] or within 1000 feet of school zones [89] in order to deter dealers from exposing youth to cannabis. Despite these policies' efforts, one study states 13.5 % of eighth graders in the United States have used cannabis. [90] If cannabis is easily available to youth, harsher sentences are not preventing drug dealers from supplying youth, nor is it successful at preventing youth consumption of cannabis.

Now look at what has worked. Perhaps Cannabis legalization poses the greatest deterrent than penal sanctions. *now bring in youth in Amsterdam and Portugal studies below* then advocate that is when it has been decriminalized. * Lynn Zimmer, John P. Morgan Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts a Review of the Scientific Evidence at P.48 (1997) suggest cannabis use amongst adolescents in Netherlands is lower because of the normalization! At P. 51, USA youth used drugs at 13.5% in comparison to Netherlands at 7.2%

E. Single, et al., wrote the following in a Summer 2000 article titled "The Impact of Cannabis Decriminalization in Australia and the United States," published in the Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP): "Citizens who live under decriminalization laws consume marijuana at rates less than or comparable to those who live in regions where the possession of marijuana remains a criminal offense."

Also mention portugal's decriminalization…Tie in rebellion aspect of strain theory here…if cannabis is socially acceptable perhaps youth may not rebel by using it! But if it were legalized it takes away even more from the forbidden fruit mystique behind cannabis use. This is why it shouldn't be decriminalized but rather legalized! Moreover, decriminalization means society would still have to spend money on enforcing civil penalties and hiring police to ticket individuals. I.e. Netherlands still using resources to prosecute cannabis suppliers. But more importantly, illegal activities are not taxable! So if it is decriminalized, it is still illegal and the benefits of taxation cannot be received.-at p.146 Harry G Levine. 'Global Drug Prohibition: its Uses and Crises' in the International Journal of Drug Policy Vol 14 (2003) If the threat of incarceration has not deterred people from using cannabis, it is doubtful the threat of civil penalties would. Thus, it would take away from police resources and hinder the cost effectiveness of the criminal justice system if cannabis is only decriminalized.


*also when raising argument that prohibition actually causes dangerous chemicals to be added...mention how in the 1920's bad alcohol was often made due to the market being driven underground which resulted in more people getting sick and dying!*


Cannabis has been recognized as less dangerous than legalized substances like alcohol and tobacco. *Mayor Laguardia quote* democracy and freedom issue. *TALK ABOUT JUDGE'S FINDING IN THAT ONE CASE AND USE THE QUOTE…THEN GO ON TO SAY THAT WAS 30 YEARS AGO AND LITTLE HAS CHANGED SINCE THEN. IT IS TIME TO RETHINK CANNABIS. IT IS TIME TO RETHINK PROHIBITION!

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