With dozens of countries having legalized medical marijuana and full legalization gaining speed across the globe, it’s easy to forget how the war on drugs drove so much foreign policy for so long — and how ravaging it was for mostly impoverished communities in countless countries.
That has been overwhelmingly positive — in some ways revolutionary, says Pien Metaal, a Senior Project Officer at the Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program.
“[Those changes] have made it possible for patients who are ill to access cannabis as a medicine,” Metaal said on The Cannabis Enigma podcast. “What we still have not seen is these benefits also going to the communities that have been so affected by its prohibition.”
Of course, that is not true across the board. Some Caribbean countries “have made a real effort to involve the traditional farmers — to give them licenses, to provide for amnesty that they can become legal producers for a medical market,” turning it into a development opportunity, Metaal explained.
In Uruguay, cannabis legalization was framed by the government as a human rights issue — or at least as a clash between international drug treaties and human rights obligations.
In Morocco, there are efforts to find ways for traditional growers and manufacturers of hash oil to gain access to medical marijuana or wellness markets in other countries.
“The treaties on drugs have forced them to criminalize their citizens because they use a certain substance,” Metaal said. “They have forced [the government] to put them in jail and take some rights away from them because of the fact that they use these drugs. So the balance between drug treaties and human rights is a very delicate one, and has not been taken into account up until now. This is something that is now starting to change.”
The problem with that is “there’s never been a real scientific evidence-based research on why cannabis should be a prohibited substance. It has been based on a series of assumptions that cannabis would lead to other drugs, but also that it would have effects on the morality of the people who use it” — often with explicit racist motivations and undertones.
What is the prospect of change in the international system’s approach to the prohibition of cannabis? As of now, it is still listed as a Schedule I drug, which is usually categorized as having a high level of abuse and no accepted medical use.
Even now that global attitudes toward marijuana are changing, “this whole system is [still] based on these assumptions,” Metaal said.
Edited, produced, and mixed by Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man with technical assistance from Elana Goldber. Music by Desca.
The following has been edited for length and flow.
Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man: Thank you so much for being with us. Obviously we’ve seen a lot of change in the last decade in particular in cannabis policy and drug policy, and the changing ways the categories it’s being put into. Even if legally it hasn’t changed on a broader scale, there is such a thing as medical cannabis today legitimate policy discussions. From your perspective, as somebody who’s been working on these issues for longer than that, how, did that come to be, and where does it stand? Where are we today?
Pien Metaal: Well, we’ve been working very hard [laughs] to get this far I mean, yeah. From the onset from the beginning of our work in drug policy, we’ve been highlighting the contradictions and the adversary effects of drug policy prohibition on societies generally and we have been working specifically with the farmers in the communities that have been affected to a really high degree by the drug policy, the repressive drug policies that have been implemented and inspired by prohibition. What we’ve seen is that there’s been changes going on that are positive, yeah, that are in some cases revolutionary, because they’ve made it possible for, for patients who are ill to access cannabis as a medicine. What we still have not seen is that these benefits are also going to the communities that have been so affected by its prohibition and this policy. So we are working mainly from that perspective — where cannabis has been part of the tradition for, for centuries, and where current, current changes are not inclusive of them. So there’s still a long way to go, I think.
Michael: The context of that that I’m familiar with is the American context where we’ve seen,with each new state that advances either decriminalization or full legalization or even a medical program, we’re seeing more and more, probably not enough, efforts and initiatives and programs to include communities that were negatively impacted by prohibition and the war on drugs. I’m assuming it’s a similar approach of trying to implement equitable or reparative programs.
Michael: How, how do they compare?
Pien: Well, I mean, we, we mainly look, I mean of course the United States is a relevant case internally but we are looking more at the global scale — let’s say countries from the global south where these policies have been implemented for the past decades, that have bared the brunt of the repression where poverty and exclusion is already a big factor and where socioeconomic development is a long distance, let’s say. So we tend to look at it from a perspective of a global scale. We also studied for example the reason why cannabis, how cannabis became included into the international treaties. And it’s become very clear that it’s been a bunch of countries, amongst whom, the United States,to advocate from the prohibition of cannabis based on a lot of racial and uh, other, uh prejudice, that-
Michael: Can you explain what that looks like?
Pien: Yeah, well, the commission that was formed — there’s never been a real scientific evidence-based research on why cannabis should be a prohibited substance. It has been based on, uh, a series of assumptions that cannabis would lead to uh, as a, um, how do you call again, the, stepping, no-
Michael: The gateway drug.
Pien: -gateway drug to other drugs, but also that it would have, uh, effects on the morality of the people who use it, and, it literally says that people of black, uh, colored people and “mohebedians”, “bohemians”? It’s in the context of, let’s say a religious, moral kind of context,, and a threat to our, Christian or, societies — that was posed by using cannabis.
So, in that context, it was placed on the list. And now that these changes might, these, these… the situation may change, or there may be access, there may be some recognition of medical uses of cannabis which has not existed, this whole system is based on these assumptions. So what we are trying to do is not only highlight that, or, study it, or bring out documents that have been used, but also try to find a way out, because we think that medical cannabis is just a very tiny part of a far bigger problem.
Michael: Do you think it’s helpful or harmful that the questions of medical cannabis and drug reform and drug policy have been lumped together?
Pien: Yeah, it goes both ways. It has pros and cons. There’s no one single solution. Of course it’s basic. I mean, the conventions are there to guarantee access to medicine, and to protect people from harm. And everybody knows that cannabis has a huge medical potential that has not been recognized by the international treaty, so every step in that direction is a good one. At the same time, what we see is that there’s a corporate capture of this new emerging market that is not really beneficial to the ones — the people and the communities that have been involved in this industry during prohibition. So having cannabis still placed on the schedule number one of the 1961 convention means that there will be… that let’s say, governments that are now dealing with trying to regulate their internal markets will still have, uh… it won’t be very useful for them to… as a tool, let’s say, to continue to think about what their policy options are, so it’s a mixed bag.
Michael: Yeah. I’d like to hear from you, what you think are examples of countries that have at least gone in the right direction, both from a perspective of holistic policy, but also what you were talking about before
Pien: Yeah. Uruguay is a good example I think. It’s a small country, it’s not a huge… it doesn’t impact the lives of many people but still, it’s a very good example of how a government can try to find the balance between treaty obligations and respecting human rights, and finding a way to uh, creatively, um, uh, solve the problem, um-
Michael: Okay, can I just ask you to explain, uh, for our listeners who might not, necessarily understand the connection. What’s the connection between human rights and drug policy and drug reform?
Pien: Yeah. As the Uruguayan government argued when presenting their regulation for cannabis market that they have obligations as well in the human rights conventions, which are related to the fact that the treaties on drugs have forced them to criminalize their citizens because they use a certain substance. They have forced them to put them in jail, and take some rights away from them because of the fact that they use these drugs. So the balance between drug treaties and human rights is a very delicate one, and has not been taken into account up until now. This is something that is now starting to change and Uruguay has made an effort to try to harmonize these two obligations into this regulation of the cannabis market.
Michael: And the, the side of the question that’s about, um, you know, farmers that have been cultivating or involved in…
Pien: Yeah, well, we’ve been working in the Caribbean for example, there’s a few examples. Jamaica, Saint Vincent, increasingly more countries are trying to find a way to deal with the demand from civil society to regulate the market. Very often they opt for the medical cannabis option which is of course not entirely useful for the demands from the societies, but the first step most take is to decriminalize people who use cannabis. Jamaica was the first one to do it and now there’s uh, an increasing number of Caribbean countries doing it.
In the case of Morocco we’re working with peasant communities there to see if they could start producing some kind of oil, their local variety, and land, that they have been growing for decades and centuries to provide… to give them a chance for development so they could supply one of the opening markets, emerging markets with an oil that they could themselves produce, so instead of being a mere resource,plant producer, they could have a value added and use it as a tool to develop their, their communities and have additional socioeconomic benefits from it. So this is quite difficult because of these demands that the markets pose for European markets and particularly the GMP and the GAP and all the certificates and all the standards that have to be implemented. When we’re talking about very poor communities, they don’t have all these access, so having a straightforward pharmaceutical model is not really helpful in this context. What we try to do to promote also is that there is a possibility that there are phyto-therapeutic products that do not have such a high demand on, on, on, on, on quality, um, that they could have access to markets as well. So that’s, yeah. Still a long shot, but we’re trying to help them to access these markets as well, yeah.
Michael: Is decriminalization a helpful half-way point?
Pien: Well, it’s a first step, yeah. In a very extreme way you could say somebody’s a patient or criminal, and it’s probably neither of them. Most people who use cannabis do it for enjoyment and relaxation. They’re not sick, and they’re not criminals either. So the biggest chunk of people who use cannabis around the world are simply trying to enjoy their lives, or to relax, and they have no other motivation than that. Decriminalizing is a helpful tool because it brings down the costs for a state to implement their laws, and it also is more just and gives you more legitimate… gives more legitimacy to the state to implement their laws, so it is of, of course, just one step. I mean finally, um, markets should be regulated in a manner that is, yeah, there’s not one model that should be used for a regulation because every culture is different, every political and and socioeconomic situation is different, but what we have seen around the world is that there’s a few countries and few governments trying to attempt, within the margins of treaties, to give some benefits to those people who have been excluded and are marginalized because of the prohibition.
For example, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have legalized the medical cannabis, and they have made a real effort to involve the traditional farmers — to give them licenses, to provide for an amnesty that they can become legal producers for a medical market. Which is a very interesting example of how governments could use these reforms and these openings to make it into a developmental issue, to make it into an interesting um, beneficial for their populations, yeah.
Michael: If every parliamentarian, every leader in the world were listening to this right now, what’s one message that you think could universally advance cannabis regulation or deregulation in a way that people aren’t, or most people aren’t looking at in the right way from your perspective?
Pien: Well, maybe, maybe one, one of the things that helped understanding of, let’s say what happens to farmers or to communities that grow cannabis is to compare them to a French wine, to French grape growers.
Pien: And to make the comparison that if at some point in history alcohol would be prohibited, or, or the, the world community would say “well, alcohol is really bad for us, we should really get rid of it,” then we would start spraying wine farmers in France because the grapes that they grow are used to make wine, and wine is something that we don’t want people to drink.
Pien: So it may be helpful for people to realize that if you eradicate communities and take away their income, what is actually happening? What… is that legitimate? Does it make any sense, why would you blame a farmer for a problem that a person could have with cannabis? And maybe yeah, apart from the fact that it’s just a plant, I mean it has been here with humankind, most of its use is not problematic, most of the people use it are actually enjoying it and so it’s… I find it difficult to always talk about cannabis and drugs as if they’re a problem because they’re often a solution to people, they, they offer solutions. They offer relaxation and joy which are very fundamental ingredients of the human kind, and of life on Earth. So, yeah, I don’t know, I mean, it’s about beliefs, right? It’s about what people believe in and how they feel about enjoyment and how this could be a danger to the moral standards in a society, um.
Michael: You know, I… it’s very hard to have discussions about morals because they’re very entrenched and they’re culturally relative, and you know, even very much so within cultures. Have you, have you found the formula for breaking through that? For penetrating those sort of moral arguments?
Pien: No, because as you say, these are hard things to… I mean it’s not our, we do not pretend to remove moral, or to change moral beliefs about things — it’s just that it should not be the most important ingredient of any policy. You know? It’s should be about the harms or the risks that it involves and the benefits that it brings. It should be a balanced, more balanced approach, and it is not now. Maybe that’s the best message: drug policy should be balanced, it should not be based on moral beliefs and it should be — cannabis in particular but also other drugs, we should respect the wisdom of the peoples who have been using it for ages and see how we can use their knowledge and their insights for our benefit..
Michael: Thank you very much for being with us.
Pien: You’re welcome. Thank you.
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