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Regulating and taxing cannabis is a healthier option than prohibition

7 November 2015 252 views One Comment

People were puffing away on cigarettes for hundreds of years before anyone twigged to the dangers. In the West, we initially weren’t smoking that much but, as the 20th century progressed, so our ­tobacco habit increased.

By the middle of the century most Australian men smoked but few women did.

Although it had been suspected cigarette smoking was harmful, the seriousness of this risk was ­unconfirmed until researcher Richard Doll in Britain conducted his landmark 1952 study.

The importance of Doll’s study into the risks of smoking was quickly recognised. Iain Macleod, then Britain’s minister for health, announced the findings at a press conference.

As it happens, Macleod chain-smoked throughout it.

Macleod, tipped at the time as a likely future prime minister, coined the term “nanny state while editor of ‘The Spectator.’

In 1970, Macleod, by then chancellor of the exchequer, died at the early age of 57 of a massive heart attack while preparing the national budget.

Heavy smokers are at a much higher risk of a heart attack. After Doll’s research set the ball rolling, the health problems attributable to cigarette smoking were shown to include a growing list of diseases. Across the following decades the quality of the evidence steadily increased.

Smoking was shown to be the most important preventable cause of premature death in industrialised countries and later also in developing countries (although in some places it has been overtaken recently by obesity).

Smoking is more than just a huge health problem. The estimated cost of smoking to the economy is enormous. Hence a highly reputable study estimated the cost of tobacco to the Australian economy was $31 billion for 2004-05.

Prestigious scientific and health organisations began to advocate prevention and treatment policies designed to reduce the number of young people taking up smoking and increase the number who quit. US investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett once said — and probably lived to regret it — that the tobacco industry was attractive because a cigarette “cost a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there is fantastic brand loyalty.

Governments are acutely aware of the revenue they gain from taxing cigarettes. Also, until relatively recently, the tobacco ­industry had formidable political influence. But despite this, ­governments eventually felt compelled to act.

Smoking began declining when these governments started to take tobacco control seriously.

They increased the price of cigarettes through taxation, reduced tobacco availability, expanded areas where smoking was banned, regulated the advertising, promotion and marketing of cigarettes (including introducing plain packaging), boosted the awareness of the risks of smoking and helped make it easier for smokers to quit.

Nicotine products were made increasingly available to assist smokers trying to quit. The range, attractiveness and effectiveness of nicotine replacement products steadily improved (including ­recently e-cigarettes).

Australia has made a substantial contribution to international tobacco control.

But attempts to reduce the health and economic costs of smoking to the community were still often criticised for reflecting nanny state thinking.

While many smokers enjoy it, especially initially, after a few years most want to stop but find it very difficult to do so.

In Australia, cigarette smoking is now much more common among the socially and economically disadvantaged and contributes greatly to their much poorer health.

Cannabis results in some physical and mental health problems but much less than tobacco. Deaths from cannabis in the scientific literature are virtually unknown. An international study published in 2013 in medical journal ‘The Lancet’ estimated that of the 20 million DALYs (disability adjusted life years) caused by illicit drugs, the roughly 150 million people globally who use cannabis account for only two million.

This is just 10 per cent of the DALYs caused by all illicit drugs. Only 7000 of the cannabis DALYS were estimated to be due to schizophrenia. Yet the nanny state was more than happy to impose severe penalties on cannabis smokers, and until recently this was rarely questioned.

While it is pleasing to report some progress has been made with the medical use of cannabis, the ­harmful effects of the drug have been wilfully exaggerated as part of the war on drugs.

Evidence that strict law enforcement reduces cannabis consumption, or that more relaxed policy increases cannabis consumption, is weak.

Cannabis use doesn’t seem to be influenced by the policy environment. However, cannabis prohibition is expensive and collateral damage can include loss of employment, alienation from the community and loss of rights to travel for those convicted of using or selling the drug,

In the West, cannabis prohibition is declining. Taxation and regulation of cannabis has started in three states in the US — Colorado, Washington and Oregon — while Alaska, Washington, DC, Uruguay, Jamaica and Geneva are also committed to it.

Colorado and Washington report generating significant tax revenue from cannabis and savings on law enforcement.

In seems a no-brainer Australia should also tax and regulate cannabis, enabling governments to impose proof of age requirements for purchase along the lines of alcohol. Packaging should provide help-seeking information, consumer product information and health warnings. Advertising and political donations should be banned. Hard-to-get and easy-to-lose licences should be required for cultivation, wholesale and retail.

While the benefits of encouraging citizens to cease smoking tobacco are unambiguous, excessive government intervention in preventing the use of cannabis, including a policy of policing users, has had largely deleterious effects.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, including his memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, November 7-8, 2015, Inquirer p 26.

One Comment »

  • Alex Wodak said:

    Healthier option on pot

    Hardly a week passes these days without some changes in recreational cannabis policy somewhere in the world (“Regulating and taxing cannabis is a healthier option than prohibition”, online”, 7/11). This week the Supreme Court of Mexico decided that the cultivation, possession and use of recreational cannabis should not be illegal. In Ohio, 65 per cent of voters rejected an initiative which would have created a recreational cannabis oligopoly despite 58 per cent of US voters supporting its legalisation. This suggests US voters don’t just want to see cannabis regulated, they want to see it well regulated. Last week, new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to start regulating recreational cannabis.

    Ross Fitzgerald is right that it took too long for tobacco control policies to emerge. It has also taken too long for rational policies on recreational cannabis to develop. But this slow development is accelerating. Inevitably this debate will increase in Australia.

    Those claiming that tobacco policy represent the nanny state are all too happy to support ineffective and expensive policies against recreational cannabis. As Fitzgerald points out, the nanny state is an unhelpful smear.

    Alex Wodak, president, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Darlinghurst, NSW

    The Australian, November 9, 2015 p 11.

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