Do you prefer telescopes or microscopes?
Whether you choose the minutiae of acute observation or the splendour of distant phenomena all scientists agree that you can spend too much time with your eye to a lens; eventually you have to look at the world.
Humans have spent thousands of years learning from it and it’s impossible to imagine how civilisation could have survived past the stone age without cannabis being a part of it.
Strangely, the 20th century, saw western society outlawing cannabis and criminalising users, but after 100 years of prohibition the arcane flora is experiencing a cultural and scientific renaissance.
During Covid, we’ve become accustomed to the phrase ‘following the science’ and keep those mathematical muscles moving...here are a few statistics about cannabis - numbers that give me hope.
The first is 360,000; roughly how many regular cannabis users there are in Scotland, under 10% of the adult population, although 50% of Scots admit trying cannabis on at least one occasion.
Of those 360,000 approximately 3,000, a meagre 1%, consume medical cannabis legally on private prescription.
Thus 99% of cannabis consumed in Scotland is provided by the illicit market. This figure is problematic, the first step in correcting a problem is to acknowledge it exists. The prohibition of cannabis hands control of a valuable commodity to criminals.
The next number I’d like to introduce is 1,686. Public Health Scotland tell us this is the number of people hospitalised by ‘cannabinoids’ in the year 2018/2019: anecdotal evidence suggests the man-made chemicals are responsible for a growing proportion of those cases.
Three quarters of those cases are treated in general hospital, leaving 321 patients in psychiatric care. The next time anyone mentions ‘cannabis psychosis’ remind them that figure constitutes one tenth of one percent of that 360,000 group.
By comparison, in the same year, 2,727 Scots were admitted to a psychiatric hospital due to alcohol. What we learn from these numbers is cannabis is not harmless, but keeping it illegal hasn’t prevented harm, indeed the rates of cannabinoid related hospitalisations have increased steadily since the nineties, and the rate of growth is more extreme during periods of stricter controls.
All drugs do harm but prohibition makes it worse by imposing legal and social consequences disproportionate to the pharmacology of the banned substance. Those people in hospital would be better protected in a regulated cannabis market; we have identified the problem; a solution is in sight.
The third number on my list is twenty. Before explaining, why I need to set the scene. In December 2021, Malta became the first EU country to officially legalise cannabis. Not the half-measure of decriminalisation nor even a state-monopoly but a set of rules that allow individuals to grow and consume their own cannabis.
Not-for-profit cannabis businesses will be allowed to apply for a license to produce and supply cannabis to their customers, with revenues reinvested for community benefit. During the policy consultations, it was suggested that the law incorporate a nominal limit to the potency of cannabis permitted for cultivation.
The initial draft of the Maltese legislation set a cap on cannabis potency of 20%, although the law in its final form has no limit. The decision-makers consulted cannabis users and recognised that arbitrary restrictions create space for the black market to manoeuvre.
In American states where cannabis is legal we see the same pattern; many thousands of varieties of cannabis, and the vast majority of them are roughly 20% THC. The reason this number gives me hope is that we can recognise its significance and in the same breath acknowledge that it’s not as important as we first thought. Sometimes a number is just a number
We can’t discuss the numerical case in support of cannabis reform without mentioning the economic argument...I’d like to introduce you to the number 8 billion.
That’s the amount in dollars spent in California’s illegal cannabis market last year. Despite being available as a medicine for almost 30 years and legal for non-prescribed adult use for 5 years.2021 saw record revenue for California’s “Legacy Market”.
The legal industry in the Sunshine state is dominated by corporate brands competing for dwindling tourist-driven revenue. Meanwhile the number of unlicensed growers increased exponentially to satisfy the demand from local consumers who want to buy better weed for less money.
Small businesses who can’t afford a license can still make a living by catering to the locals, which gives me hope, because it shows that the future of the industry requires global cooperation between the big players and small fish, and the little guys may have the advantage.
The final number is 6.29%, and it represents a reduction in suicides attributable to the legalisation of “recreational” cannabis.
A study from the US analysed data from 50 states over 20 years and found that the liberalisation of cannabis law was associated with a reduction in the number of suicides in men age 40-49, who are normally a high-risk group.
Which is to say, there are people alive today who would not have been were it not for the fact that they can visit a cannabis dispensary and safely access products that give their lives meaning.
As jurisdictions worldwide legalise cannabis and scientists are freed from the culturally imposed restrictions on their research, we will see evidence in support of legalisation. Regulations from a bygone era continue, but the writing is on the wall: Numbers don’t lie. ■
Malta is first European country to legalise cannabis