In a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, authors Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees reviewed the outcomes of the increasing number of reports associated with public health consequences as a result of legalising cannabis.
Since 2013 there has been an ever-increasing number of publications on the topic of the legalisation of cannabis and its effect on public health. In the paper, the outcomes considered the impact on youth marijuana use, alcohol consumption, abuse of prescription opioids, traffic fatalities, and crime.
Between 2010-2020, 23 US states legalised the use of medical cannabis and 12 states legalised recreational adult cannabis use and in October 2020, Joe Biden published a video on Youtube that stated that the Biden-Harris plan would “decriminalise marijuana and automatically expunge prior marijuana convictions.”
In the UK however, the political opinion on cannabis legalisation remains fragmented. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer recently stated in an interview that he was not in favour of decriminalising cannabis. The current London Mayor Sadiq Khan however has stated that he will establish a commission to look at the use of drugs in London if he is re-elected next month. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously stated that he saw no reason people should be criminalised for cannabis, but recently stated he has “absolutely no intention of legalising cannabis”.
Despite the political fence sitting and flip flopping, public support for cannabis remains incredibly positive. A recent YouGov survey showed that 52% of Brits support legal cannabis, and reports have predicted that a legal cannabis market in the UK could be worth £2 billion. When the following public health benefits are added to the argument, it becomes harder to argue for continued criminalisation and prohibition.
Cannabis use increased life-saving reductions in tobacco consumption
Tobacco consumption does not have a good track record. In a 2019 study, the UK Office for National Statistics estimated that 6.9 million people in the UK smoke tobacco. Around 78,000 people dying from smoking-related illnesses every year, with more living with debilitating smoking-related illnesses. Smoking tobacco also increases the risk of developing more than 50 serious related health conditions. The paper’s research showed that not only is there “little evidence that [cannabis] legalization has encouraged the smoking of tobacco,” but “if anything it discourages cigarette smoking.” One study cited in the paper stated that medical marijuana laws are associated with a 6 per cent decrease in cigarette use among teenagers and a 12 per cent drop in frequent teen smoking.
There is a correlation between legalising cannabis consumption and an associated reduction in alcohol use resulting in reduced traffic deaths
The paper’s second key outcome was the link between legalising cannabis and a reduction in alcohol use and traffic deaths. The research stated that cannabis often serves as a substitute for alcohol, the use of which contributed to 5,460 alcohol-specific deaths registered in England and Wales last year. This represents a 16.4% increase in the number of registered deaths compared to 2019. The paper’s authors observe that “there is convincing evidence that young adults consume less alcohol when medical marijuana is legalized,” and cites studies that found the legalisation of recreational cannabis is associated with a five per cent drop in demand for alcohol and a 20 per cent decrease in binge drinking. In the UK last year 666 people were killed due to drinking and driving-related incidents, along with an average of 3,551 people that were seriously injured. In one of the studies reviewed in the paper, medical marijuana laws were associated with a 13 to 15 per cent decrease in alcohol-related traffic deaths.
The legalisation of cannabis helps promote a decline in the level of violent crime
The third key outcome of the paper concluded that the legalisation of cannabis leads to declining levels of violent crime.
The paper cites research showing that the opening of legal cannabis dispensaries is associated with a 19 per cent drop in overall crime. Another study found recreational cannabis legalisation corresponded with a 15 to 30 per cent drop in rapes and a 10 to 20 per cent drop in theft.
In the UK, and in London in particular, there is a substantial knife crime issue that is closely associated with gang warfare and the drugs trade. Establishing a legal and regulated market for cannabis in the UK would remove power from these gangs, creating fewer problems. It would also free up police time and the criminal justice system from the burden of dealing with possession of cannabis offences whilst reducing the amount of damage from people’s lives that have been gained from cannabis convictions.
The paper also references citings from different researchers that have produced little credible evidence to suggest that legalisation promotes cannabis use among teenagers. For example, using data from the YRBS for the period 1999-2015, Coley et al. (2019) found that MML adoption was associated with a 9 per cent decrease in the odds of past-month cannabis use among teens.
Overall, the public health effects of legalising cannabis are positive. Although the figureheads of UK politics are divided when it comes to opinions on cannabis legalisation, we now have results to prove that it might be time for a rethink.