NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A History of Debating Marijuana Legalization

January 11, 2002

The British medical community is debating legalization of cannabis, or marijuana, with proponents now claiming that the social and governmental cost of prohibition outweighs the increased health costs that might be expected after legalization.

They point to a number of commissions and politicians that have reached similar conclusions over the years:

  • In 1893 Britain's Indian Hemp Drugs Commission concluded that excessive use of cannabis was uncommon and that moderate use produced practically no ill effects.
  • In 1926, Sir Humphrey Rolleston, then president of the Royal College of Physicians, chaired a committee that recommended against criminalizing opiates.
  • Similarly, Dr W. C. Woodward, counsel to the American Medical Association, testified in Congress in 1937 to the lack of evidence justifying criminalization of cannabis, and several other commissions in Britain, Canada and the United States have come to similar conclusions.
  • In 1972, an American presidential commission concluded that marijuana "does not warrant" the harmful consequences of "criminal stigma and threat of incarceration."
  • In 1978, President Carter told Congress that "penalties against the use of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of a drug itself; and where they are they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana."
  • The U.K. Police Foundation's review of cannabis policy in 2000 reached the same verdict: "Our conclusion is that the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents."

However, the costs of either marijuana use or prohibition in the United Kingdom have not been quantified. And opponents of legalization point to adverse health effects for users, such as increased risk of cancer.

Source: Alex Wodak, Craig Reinarman and Peter D. A. Cohen, "Cannabis control: costs outweigh the benefits," For and Against, British Medical Journal, January 12, 2002.

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