CONTACT Research: England's relaxed laws a mistake? - Dr. Christian Thurstone

When it comes to marijuana decriminalization, much of Europe is way ahead of us — and their policies have failed. Miserably. And yes, that goes for The Netherlands, where they’re working diligently to lower use rates and reverse liberal policies.

Today, the results of two studies made big headlines in England — while here in the United States, headlines were about a Pew survey showing more Americans favor marijuana legalization.

When describing the problems her country has created — and now must address — Mary Brett, who works with a drug-prevention group in England, managed to nail the ignorance abounding here in the U.S.:

“There is no surprise about these findings. We know there are direct links between cannabis and psychosis. Now we have powerful evidence that decriminalisation had disastrous effects. People who push for liberalisation are just not bothered to read the literature.”

Researchers and economists Nils Braakmann and Simon Jones of Newcastle University and Elaine Kelly and Imran Rasul at the Institute for Fiscal Studies examined the effects of England’s decision to downgrade cannabis in 2004. The change in the drug’s scheduling also meant users of marijuana and those possessing it were warned instead of prosecuted. England reversed the policy in 2009 (the year of the rise of medical dispensaries in the United States).

Worth noting from the Daily Mail’s report:

“The four-year study of more than 2,500 young people found: ‘Declassification of cannabis increased consumption by 25 percent, and regular consumption by 8 percent for previous non-consumers.'”

“An experiment in relaxing cannabis laws on the streets of South London led to a rise of 40 percent to 100 percent in the numbers of men admitted to hospital due to their use of harder drugs.

‘We find the depenalisation of cannabis had significant longer-term impacts on hospital admissions related to the use of hard drugs,’” stated the report released by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Worth noting from The Telegraph:

“People from poor and troubled backgrounds were most affected by the temporary change in the law, which saw the maximum penalty for possessing the substance reduced from five to two years. “Both violent and non-violent crime rose as a result of the move, with particular spikes in cases of assault, stealing and vehicle theft.

“There were also surges in anti-social behaviour and the likelihood of users themselves becoming victims of crime.”

This story, also in The Telegraph, underscores that the United States is falling for many of the same bogus arguments now widely debunked in England.

“In keeping with other experiences of depenalization, the primary motivation behind the policy was to free up police time and resources to tackle other crimes, and there was little or no discussion of the depenalization policy’s potential impact on public health,” according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The institute’s researchers added: “Our results provide a note of caution to moves to adopt more liberal approaches to the regulation of illicit drug markets, as typically embodied in policies such as the depenalization of cannabis.

“While such policies may well have numerous benefits, such as preventing many young people from being criminalised, allowing the police to reallocate their effort towards other crime types and indeed reduce total crime overall, there remain potentially large, offsetting costs related to public health that also need to be factored into any cost benefit analysis of such approaches.”

Update: Newcastle University researcher Nils Braakmann issued a quick statement about his team’s preliminary findings. It’s common when studies such as this are still in early stages and aren’t yet peer-reviewed and published. He reasonably notes there’s a difference between causation and correlation — and that he has found relative increase in marijuana use, rather than absolute increase in use.

In fact, the increase presented is a relative increase between previous consumers and previous non-consumers, pre and post declassification, of between 18-26 percent depending on a number of social and demographic variables. This does not, therefore, represent an absolute increase in consumption, and it is misleading to represent this research in this way.

“This situation does, however, raise some interesting questions for educators. The difference between absolute and relative difference is significant in this case, and shows how important it is to understand these terms before we interpret them in any meaningful way.

“I look forward to sharing the findings when the research is complete, at which point it would be appropriate to interpret the research in a social context.


About Christine Tatum

Christine Tatum is a veteran journalist whose communications and market intel firm, Media Salad, Inc., helps companies and nonprofit organizations win business and stay ahead of their competitors. Her professional stops include the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, the (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald and the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record. Her work also has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.

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