Could legalising pot clean up the rot?
Christiana’s open marijuana trade has been a massive draw for both tourists and Copenhagen residents looking to indulge in the illicit drug in a permissive environment. Despite a tough crackdown by police in 2004 to clear the area, the dealers are now back on the streets.
The return of the open market is an indicator of the continued viability of the marijuana trade, a market which is entirely controlled by criminal gangs who share an estimated 1.5 billion kroner in earnings. A gang war in Nørrebro that broke out in 2008 between immigrant groups and the Hells Angels is thought to be related to the control of this lucrative trade after it was forced out of Christiania.
Perhaps in response to this, the City Council has been pushing to legalise the sale of marijuana in the city. The council’s vote last week on Thursday, which would pave the way to establishing up to 40 state-owned dispensaries, is the second attempt in two years to experiment with state-sanctioned marijuana shops.
The experiment is far from becoming a reality, however, and Thursday’s vote simply sent an application to the Justice Ministry requesting the city proceed. A similar request was proposed in 2009, but despite broad support in the city council, it was shot down by parliament.
At the time, it was the ruling Venstre and Konservative parties who refused to support the measure, fearing that legalising marijuana products would encourage more young people to use a drug that has associated mental health risks.
“I’ll say it plainly: Venstre is against legal hash,” Kim Andersen from Venstre told Information newspaper in 2009. “It’s a slippery slope that will bring young people into danger because we know that those who smoking hash have a high risk of developing mental illness, and that it often leads to hard drug abuse.”
The link between mental health issues and the frequent use of marijuana is well documented. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK states that regular marijuana users are twice as likely to develop a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia than non-users.
One question being asked is whether state-sanctioned marijuana dispensaries would cause more people to start using and thereby lead to large numbers of people suffering mental health issues.
A 2004 article entitled ‘Legalisation of Marijuana: Potential Impact on Youth’, published in the American journal ‘Pediatrics’, seems to indicate that this would be the case. After comparing the risk of punishment in the US against drug use in the population, the article showed that users were less likely to take a drug when it was more high risk, suggesting that removing the risk of punishment by legalising marijuana would lead to more people trying it.
This is the scare scenario that Denmark’s national politicians are keen to avoid. And yet there is evidence from countries that have decriminalised marijuana that points in another direction. Portugal famously decriminalised the possession of all drugs in 2001, a move praised as being highly successful in a study by American thinktank the Cato Institute in 2009.
“While drug addiction, use and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems – in virtually every relevant category – have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001,” the study concluded, adding that Portugal has witnessed a decrease in drug use while use in the rest of Europe has skyrocketed.
Statistics from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction support the Cato Institute’s findings. Their latest statistics show that Portugal has one of the lowest lifetime prevalence of marijuana usage in Europe, (11.7 percent), while Denmark has the highest, (32.5 percent).
The Netherlands has had a slightly different experience. Marijuana use did increase after its initial decriminalisation in 1976, though a paper published in the British Journal of Psychology, argued this was less to do with decriminalising marijuana and more to do with its commercialisation
This, they explain, is because “legal commercial interests are likely to weaken regulatory efforts”. Though ultimately the study finds that “the primary harms of marijuana use […] come from criminalisation”.
Despite this, increased consumption of marijuana by Danes would probably lead to more people being put at risk of mental health issues. And according to Inger Chercka, the project manager at the addiction treatment organisation Blå Kors, the effects of marijuana addiction can be severe; especially on young people.
“Hash is a very big problem, tens of thousands of young people smoke it,” Chercka told The Copenhagen Post. “Most of them just think it’s fun and that they can’t get addicted. Most do manage to stop on their own, but there is a small group who stay addicted because they are self-medicating their own mental illness.”
Chercka added that the decision to legalise marijuana in Copenhagen would make the drug more readily available to vulnerable young people.
“I’m worried that legalising hash might send the signal that it’s not as dangerous as it really is. People need to know that it’s really dangerous and affects the brains of growing adults. We need to have fewer hash smokers so I’m nervous about the plan.”
With this in mind, the unwillingness of MPs to support Copenhagen’s plan is understandable – no-one wants to be responsible for legalising a drug that ends up harming people.
Statistically, however, individuals are far more likely to face problems with alcohol than with marijuana. The Danish board of health, Sundhedsstyrelsen, calculates that there are approximately 7,500 marijuana addicts in Denmark. And with an estimated 32.5 percent of Danes having smoked marijuana at least once, that means 0.4 percent of the population who have ever tried it become addicts. This compares to the 400,000 Danes considered to have a problem with alcohol – almost 10 percent of Danes over 15 years old.
Voters seem to back the Copenhagen experiment. In a recent Ekstra Bladet poll, 86.6 percent of respondents answered that they supported the proposal. While that poll did not ask people’s reasoning, a 2009 editorial in newspaper Politiken gives some good reasons to proceed, most importantly that legalising marijuana would give the state a cut of the 1.5 billion kroner generated on the black market from its sale.
“Politicians should quickly legalise hash so that the police and social workers can concentrate their efforts on helping maladjusted youths. The ban has become more dangerous to society than hash itself.”
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