Advocates for cannabis legalization and decriminalization frequently frame their case as a social justice issue. Ending racially disparate mass incarceration, for example, has become a refrain among pro-cannabis progressives in the United States. But across the pond, some British doctors are adopting a different tact. Instead of drawing attention to the criminal injustice of the UK’s drug laws, they’re framing decriminalization as a public health concern, publishing their arguments in one of Britain’s leading medical journals.
British Doctors Say Drug Laws Are Harming Public Health
The British Medical Journal is one of the oldest, oft-cited, and reputable research publications in both the US and UK. And in a new issue dedicated to studies on drug laws and public health, British physicians present a compelling case for comprehensive decriminalization.
This isn’t just a call for decriminalizing cannabis. Physicians and researchers with BMJ are calling for all drugs to be legal, taxed, and regulated for medical and recreational use.
In her brief preface to the May 10th publication, BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee lays out the indisputable facts. Numbers, Godlee says, that “bear reflection.”
Estimates say each UK taxpayer dumps £400 ($545) annually into the war on drugs. And to combat a rising tide of violent crime, the UK’s newly minted Serious Violence Strategy proposes to spend £40 million ($54.5 million) on prohibitionist drug enforcement policies.
The Strategy recognizes the link between violence and drug prohibition. But BMJ researchers say the proposed measures will “do nothing to tackle drug-related crime”. In fact, one article links the UK’s gun and knife crime epidemic to fentanyl and crack cocaine flooding the illicit market.
Furthermore, the UK has become the world’s leading exporter of legal cannabis. Yet the UK government continues to criminalize its own citizens’ medical and recreational use of the drug.
In sum, Godlee argues, there remains no rational justification for criminalizing drugs. It doesn’t work to stop violence or keep dangerous substances out of people’s hands. In fact, it fuels an illicit trade that endangers everyone involved, and therein lies the harm to public health.
British Medical Journal Advocates For Decriminalizing All Drugs
A long-standing and high-impact medical research journal, BMJ is unlikely to publish anything that would threaten its editorial reputation. And that means it didn’t rush its decision to officially support drug decriminalization.
Prior to the BMJ’s call for an end to punitive drug policy, several prominent UK health organizations had issued statements supporting decriminalization. Most recently, the Royal College of Physicians, which represents 34,000 doctors worldwide, published an editorial favoring decriminalization.
Prior to that, the British Medical Association, the Faculty of Public Health, and the Royal Society of Public Health all come out in support of sweeping drug policy reform. The British Medical Journal is just the latest to join the growing medical consensus.
“The BMJ is firmly behind efforts to legalise, regulate, and tax the sale of drugs for recreational and medicinal use,” Godlee writes. “This is an issue on which doctors can and should make their voices heard.”
Will US Physicians Echo Their UK Counterparts?
It’s important, however, to understand what BMJ‘s call for decriminalization as a public health is and isn’t. Researchers aren’t making any claims about the medical applications of cannabis or its effectiveness as a medicine. They’re simply arguing that it’s prohibition itself that’s harmful to public health.
It’s an approach that doctors in the United States might consider. So far, US physicians groups have been hesitant to make the case for drug reform. Rather, those appeals usually come from politicians who approach legalization or decriminalization from the criminal justice perspective.
The most prominent medical associations in the US have mustered is a call for the end to restrictions that prevent the study of medical cannabis. The largest such group, the American Medical Association, only modified its opposition to legalization in 2016.
Yet the AMA still holds the view that cannabis is dangerous and a public health concern. And opponents of legalization, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have made a habit of pointing to the AMA’s statements on cannabis to justify their radical prohibitionist policies.
But the BMJ shows how doctors who are hesitant to endorse cannabis as a medicine can still advocate effectively for decriminalization as a public health issue.
As Godlee writes, “This is not about whether you think drugs are good or bad. It is an evidence-based position entirely in line with the public health approach to violent crime.”
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