The debate over cannabis legalization is not just about consuming cannabis and enjoying its psychoactive effects.
The history of the cannabis plant has proven that its potential goes beyond its industrial, medical, and recreational uses. It has created a culture and a worldwide community, and it has also been used as a symbol of civil rights battles over the years.
The movement around cannabis laws and rights has grown significantly since the early 1960s. Several pro- and anti-cannabis consumption organizations have been created and merged over the past six decades.
The conversation about cannabis rights has shifted from the simple right to be free to consume cannabis to talking about the right to consume cannabis for medical purposes and wanting to end racial disproportionality in cannabis-related arrests.
In the United States, African American communities have historically suffered the most from cannabis prohibition. In other countries, the debate over cannabis as individual civil and human rights varies by jurisdiction.
People who consume cannabis may suffer from stigma surrounding the plant that can lead to several types of discrimination, including housing and employment discrimination.
However, the rights of people who consume cannabis are undermined even further when they suffer from violations of the right to health and racial disproportionality in cannabis-related arrests.
Although cannabis has been stigmatized and fought back, prohibition policies on cannabis have failed. Therefore, US states have started to legalize it for both medical and recreational use. In fact, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012.
The right to consume cannabis contains several civil rights widely recognized by the international community.
Cannabis is closely related to the right to health that guarantees a universal minimum standard of health to all individuals. Such a concept has been enumerated in international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In late 2020, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs recognized the medicinal and therapeutic potential of cannabis based on World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. The organization thus removed it from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where it had previously been listed alongside specific deadly, addictive opioids, including heroin, and recognized as having little to no therapeutic purposes.
However, many countries in the world continue to prohibit the use of cannabis for medical purposes at the expense of patients.
Cannabis offers treatment for a wide array of conditions and alleviates chronic pain. Nevertheless, many countries don't guarantee the right to use cannabis when other traditional treatments don't provide the same alleviating results, as they have strict policies on medical cannabis. As a result, the right to health of individuals is not guaranteed.
In the perspective of the right to health, the legalization of cannabis protects consumers from unsafe products and guarantees public health safety.
In the United States, people have bought cannabis from the illegal market for decades, unaware of whether the product was even safe to consume. But thanks to the legalization, which regulates the cannabis supply chain, people can now consume guaranteed safe products that adhere to public health best practices.
Cannabis as a human rights issue doesn't only pertain to the right to health. Cannabis prohibition has also caused the deterioration of social justice and the increase of racial disparities.
The international nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently urged the US Congress to end cannabis prohibition at the federal level through the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.
The MORE Act would end federal cannabis prohibition and aims to repair the harms caused by the War on Drugs.
The HRW and other organizations have documented racial disparities in arrests and imprisonment for drug offenses in the United States in the past several decades.
A 2021 analysis of cannabis-related arrests in 2020 in New York City reported that people of color comprised 94% of those arrested.
A 2020 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) analysis concluded that Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates. Authors reported that Black people were more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession in every state up to six, eight, or almost ten times more often than white people.
The increasing legalization regarding medical and recreational cannabis at the state level has resulted in significant reductions in cannabis arrests in legal cannabis states. However, racial disparities in cannabis arrests for both possession and sales remain acute, as the FBI's Uniform Crime Report showed that police made an estimated 350,150 arrests for cannabis-related violations in 2020.
Given the racial disproportionality in cannabis-related arrests, prohibition policies on cannabis have demonstrably harmed society, resulting in substantial consequences on millions of lives, and the stigma around cannabis has widened the existing social disparity.
For these reasons, the US states that have legalized cannabis have focused their legislation on the expungement of cannabis-related records and the launch of social equity programs to help the most disadvantaged communities harmed by the War on Drugs.
One bright example of how essential it is to recognize the right to consume cannabis as a human rights issue is the decision taken by Mexico's Supreme Court.
In 2015, the Supreme Court in Mexico ruled that prohibiting people from growing cannabis for personal consumption was unconstitutional, as it violated the human right to the free development of one's personality.
In 2018, the court reaffirmed this concept and said that prohibiting recreational cannabis use was unconstitutional, ordering Congress to pass reform legalizing recreational use within 90 days.
According to some experts, criminalizing the consumption and possession of drugs for personal use infringes on principles of autonomy that underlie all rights and is, per se, a disproportionate response to private conduct.
In Mexico and other South American countries, law enforcement officers frequently torture, abuse, and extort people they stop and detain, regardless of whether they have committed a crime. In other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malesia, China, and Iran, penalties over possession and sales can even lead to the death penalty. However, capital executions for these crimes are sporadic, and there are no sufficient data to understand how often they are carried out.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist with an interest in cannabis, providing in-depth analysis and feature stories to help readers understand the industry.
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