Bearing Out the Social Effects from European Cannabis Legalisation

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Amid European debates over whether to legalise cannabis, some intense controversies surround policy proposals for harm reduction. While advocates note that pro-legalisation outcomes will drive out organised crime, free up police resources for other priorities, and mitigate personal harms from problematic consumption patterns, opponents argue that legalisation will lead to increased use, particularly among young people, and result in greater harms.

As a tool to objectively gauge such outcomes, New Frontier Data’s cannabis business intelligence platform Equio now features a legality index (subscription required) as part of its Global Dashboard – providing an at-a-glance overview of legalization by country.

Debunking Fears of Increased Use Among Youths 

Every European country sees similar arguments being had between politicians and lobbyists, a recent Swedish report suggests that evidence does not support such fears about increased consumption by the young.

Using data gathered from each the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and conducted among 18-to-34-year-olds between 1994 and 2017, the findings revealed that while cannabis use varied widely within the long study period and between countries, cannabis use overall proved to be stable or “weakly increasing” in countries where legislation was not changed, while average use in those countries actively decreased following enacted measures, whether stricter or more lenient.

In the United States, too, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health examined state-level cannabis prohibition laws between 1999-2017, and likewise found evidence lacking that legalisation spurred cannabis use by younger consumers.

Such findings reflected a 2018 BMJ study drawn from studies across the U.K., Netherlands, and Czech Republic – along with the U.S. and Australia – which concluded that “cannabis policy liberalisation does not appear to result in significant changes in youths’ use, with the possible exception of legalisation for recreational purposes that requires monitoring.”

It has long been reported in the U.S. that teenage cannabis use has not been seen to increase in adult-use states. Furthermore, legal cannabis consumption has compared well against the use of alcohol by adults aged 21-25, posing an either/or choice between intoxicants: “If younger adults are allowed to make their own decisions about this far more dangerous substance, they should also be allowed to decide whether to use cannabis.” After the states of Colorado and Washington respectively legalized cannabis in 2012, both conducted surveys about it with high-school students who showed modest decreases in their rates of using it.

Echoes of ‘Reefer Madness’ Paranoia

While research is helping to erode calcified attitudes about cannabis, politics and policy can nevertheless lean on old saws and the status quo supporting prohibition.

In the Australian state of Victoria, a legalisation effort proposed by Reason Party MP Fiona Patten and based around harm reduction was voted down due to the major parties’ commitment to outlawing drug use as posited by a claim that “decriminalising dangerous drugs sends the wrong message and won’t help Victoria recover and rebuild.”

Similarly, alarmist messages about heightened cannabis potency levels and an increased potential for mental illness rates among users have found currency among opponents in Europe. Mental health concerns are among the most powerful anti-legalisation tools, and in the U.K. a recent report cited a professor of psychiatric research at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, who said that nearly a third of the psychosis patients seen at his London practice in south London were impacted by the use of high-potency, hydroponically grown “skunk” cannabis.

Conversely, in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., publicized stories about sick kids being denied life-changing cannabis medicine have helped promote acceptance of medical cannabis, as has consumer access to CBD products to promote wellness applications. In the U.S., states with legal cannabis have had a few more years to test assertions made by anti-legalisation forces,  and several popular prohibitionist arguments have been debunked, whether relating to crime rates or higher rates of traffic accidents and fatalities.

Post-Pandemic Optimism

Ultimately, in a post-pandemic environment welcoming socioeconomic buoyancy from creation of an estimated 77,000 U.S. jobs created during 2020, and some unexpected windfalls from unanticipated tax revenues, increasingly positive risk-benefit analyses centred on adult-use cannabis are helping to push public acceptance ever closer to adult-use legalisation.

However quickly that politicians will decide to lead, follow, or get out of the way is another matter yet to be determined.