A pot of cash?

Dieter Janecek, Member of the German Bundestag, Alliance 90/The Greens

It could cost us nothing to curb violence, corruption and crime, with a legal policy that not only focuses on the needs of citizens but also makes a financial contribution to public welfare for once. No, we haven’t all been smoking too much pot. Adopting this approach would show that we had finally grasped what a sensible drug policy might look like.

This April, I’m not drinking alcohol. And just to make it clear – because everyone asks me – it has nothing to do with Lent. I stopped drinking too late for that. I’ve simply decided to do without alcohol. I’ve decided to exercise a measure of self-determination and have made a choice not to use this particular drug. Because responsible drug consumption is possible – and not only where alcohol is concerned. Examples of the successful legalization of cannabis currently refute the traditional ideological concerns about narcotics and their consumers. There’s a very good example of this here in Seattle in Washington State, which I am currently visiting on behalf of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy.

Yes We Cannabis”

Although the cultivation and use of marijuana are still prohibited under US federal law, the US administration announced last year that it would allow states to pass legislation to decriminalize it if they wished to. This is the Obama administration’s response to the referenda in Colorado and Washington in late 2012, when a majority in both states voted in favour of legalizing possession of small quantities of cannabis for recreational use. The “Yes We Cannabis” campaign gave an often enthusiastic welcome to the devolution, to the individual US states, of decision-making powers on the cultivation, possession and sale of cannabis. Colorado and Washington have now legalized the sale and private consumption of cannabis. There are now an estimated 300 marijuana shops in Seattle alone.

Advocates of a more liberal drug policy are making headway, not only in North America: attitudes are changing all over the world. The South American country of Uruguay is the latest example of successful legalization. Back in 2011, the high-level Global Commission on Drug Policy called for an end to the failed “war on drugs” at last and for narcotics to be legalized, at least on a trial basis. The call for a new approach in global drug policies comes from some very eminent figures, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and seven ex-heads of state and government. The policy of intimidation against producers and consumers – including the regular destruction of hemp plantations and criminal prosecution for possession of even small quantities of cannabis – has had no effect. According to the German Federal Foreign Office (AA), the annual turnover in the global narcotics industry is an estimated 320 billion US dollars – clearly demonstrating that the illegal drug trade is still an excellent way of earning money. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the success of the drug criminalization strategies pursued to date.

Most countries fail to curb drug use even in their own prisons. Countries at the start of the illegal supply chains will only have a chance of breaking out of the spiral of repression and violence once it is finally recognised that cannabis use cannot be eradicated with repressive measures. As an article in the German newspaper die tageszeitung (taz) – entitled “Pot for Peace” (Kiffen für den Frieden)1 – explains, it’s not about handing round joints in the interests of world harmony. It’s about recognising that a more liberal drug policy is the only way to end the brutal conflicts surrounding the illegal drug trade. Estimated figures indicate that the war on drugs, prosecuted since 2006 primarily by Mexico with support from the US, has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, incarcerated several million people, and cost billions of dollars to support an infrastructure of repression comprising the military, the police, criminal justice and prisons. The equally repressive policies pursued in key markets, including Germany, all along the illegal supply chain – from the plant to the product – are partly to blame for this.

A rethink in Germany

In late 2013, more than 100 German professors of criminal law published an open letter (Appell)2 in which they urged the Bundestag to set up a study commission to review current drug policy. The professors described the policy as “failed, socially harmful and uneconomic”.

It has failed because cannabis users are not deterred by the threat of prosecution. This is not news, but even now, no lessons are being learned from this insight. The recent tightening of regulations in the Netherlands, for example, has merely resulted in more illegal hemp plantations being set up in Belgium and Germany. Current drug policy is socially harmful because it facilitates the emergence of a large and profitable illegal economy which, by definition, cannot be controlled – leaving the numerous producers, suppliers and consumers along the value chain exposed to the arbitrary unwritten rules of criminal organizations. Ultimately, it makes no economic sense.

Stop the economic madness!

If we look at the financial impacts of current drug policy on the public budgets alone, we see that it burdens the taxpayer in two ways. According to even the most conservative estimates, it costs the German government between 3.7 and 4.6 billion euros a year to enforce the ban on drugs via the police, the courts and the prison system. It’s a vast amount of money – roughly equivalent to Germany’s annual revenue from inheritance tax – and we are spending it on something which clearly has little or no effect.

Liberalization of cannabis use could do much to reduce this figure. A sensible and well-crafted policy to decriminalize private cannabis use could bring this sector out of the shadow economy and into legality. It would enable the government to control the trade – and to exploit new income-generating opportunities.

In Washington State, the government levies a 25 per cent turnover tax on purchases of cannabis for non-medicinal use. With an estimated total turnover of 400-600 million US dollars (equivalent to 294-440 million euros) in 2014 in Colorado’s economy alone, this is expected to generate around 70 million US dollars in additional tax revenue – not bad for a state with just 5 million inhabitants.

The figures give us an indication of the economic potential of a more liberal drug policy. Legalizing cannabis use makes sense, not only from a social, law and order, and legal policy perspective. It is very much in our economic interests as well. It would give us the chance to measure our drug policy against the benchmarks of efficiency and social welfare at long last. At the same time, we could use the revenue to fund drug prevention and addiction programmes with integrity and engage in effective drug awareness. Because banning drugs does not work.

2 Resolution deutscher Strafrechtsprofessorinnen und -professoren an die Abgeordneten des Deutschen Bundestages / Resolution, signed by German Professors of Criminal Law, to the Members of the German Bundestag

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