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Opinion & Analysis

Cannabis debate needs adult approach

by David Hughes

Cannabis should not be decriminalised for personal use.

It should be legalised.

Decriminalisation would not make the sale or use of cannabis lawful – it would merely remove any criminal penalty attaching to the use or sale (depending on the extent of the decriminalisation). What is the point of that? If cannabis use is not to be punished, it should be a product that would-be users can purchase in shops (possibly subject to a licensing regime)? Surely the government should be able to regulate the supply of cannabis, for example to ensure that it is not sold to children? And surely the government should be able to tax the sale of cannabis? How are these to be done if its sale and use are merely decriminalised?

I confess that, in one sense, my opinion is based on ignorance. Despite spending several years at university, and although I enjoyed Older as much as the next George Michael fan, I have never smoked cannabis. Most of the dope smokers I’ve known over the years haven’t been particularly interesting people, and those that were didn’t become more interesting after a joint. But over the years I have represented cannabis users in court, so there may be some gaps in my ignorance.

Danny Feetham has called for policy on this to be “motored or moved by experts”, appearing to criticise the decision to consult the whole community. Danny went on to say that he couldn’t say what the benefits of decriminalisation were, because he isn’t an expert.

I have no wish to join the current vogue to demonise experts, but as Danny and any other lawyer with courtroom experience well knows, experts are only experts within their fields. The expert who can tell us about the sociological of criminology consequences of Portugal’s drugs policy may know little about the health impact of cannabis use. The psychiatrist who worries about the mental health consequences of smoking dope may not be able to help us in assessing the economic cost of a conviction for cannabis possession on a young person’s career prospects. How are we to compare cannabis’ consequences with lung cancer or Korsakoff’s syndrome? And even if each expert gives the community answers within their field, no expert can tell the community how those answers should be weighed up against one another. That is what the democratic process is for.

My argument is not that cannabis is more or less harmful than other substances – I don’t pretend to be able to answer that one way or another. My argument is that adult Gibraltarians should be treated as adults.

People engage in all sorts of activities harmful to their health. Most of us can enjoy alcohol without becoming addicted, but a minority will become addicted, with horrific consequences for them and their families. Tobacco users generally do become addicted, and unlike alcohol there is no identifiable health benefit to consuming a moderate amount of tobacco. Gibraltarians can smoke, drink, eat poor diets and lead sedentary lifestyles. They can box – a sport whose very purpose is the infliction of serious brain injury. They can participate in other dangerous sports. Why should they not be free to smoke a joint if that is their vice of choice?

The libertarian approach to drug use would be (a) to prevent those too young to make a mature judgment from accessing such drugs, (b) to criminalise use likely to damage others (for example, laws against driving under the influence of alcohol) (c) to publish appropriate health warnings and (d) then to let adults make their own choices about how they live their lives.

Whether one likes it or not – and I do not – some people in Gibraltar do use cannabis. They shouldn’t, but the law hasn’t stopped them. To criminalise the use of cannabis is a waste of time, money, and human potential, and one that doesn’t even have the mitigation of working. I welcome the government’s consultation, and urge it to legalise and regulate the sale and use of cannabis to adults.

David Hughes is a barrister with Cardiff law firm 30 Park Place and previously practised in Gibraltar.

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