High time for change: Flemish academics make case for legal marijuana


With cannabis use on the rise in Belgium, a trio of academics argue that a regulated legalisation of marijuana is more beneficial than criminalising its use

Not if but how

An economist, a toxicologist and a criminologist put their heads together to come up with a plan. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but that unlikely get-together was the first in a series of steps that led to the development of a comprehensive blueprint to legalise marijuana in Belgium.

The trio, employed at the London School of Economics, the University of Leuven and Ghent University, respectively, make a coolly rational plea for the regulated legalisation of marijuana in their new book Cannabis onder controle, hoe? (Cannabis Under Control, How?).

The simple realisation that federal drug policies are failing is what motivated the three academics – Paul De Grauwe, Jan Tytgat and Tom Decorte, each of whom have studied drug use in their respective disciplines – to get together. “It wasn’t a particular incident or occasion, but we happened to find each other at a particular moment in time,” explains Decorte. 

Their book is the latest in a growing, but still timid movement that has argued for legalisation of marijuana, the most popular drug in Flanders. Its proponents include the youth wings of parties of SP.A and Open VLD, as well as aid workers and NGOs working around substance abuse.

On the rise

Decorte (the criminologist) made a similar plea for regulating recreational cannabis use 20 years ago and notes that the mood has since changed. Back then, “I received a full-on wave of hysterical and negative responses,” he says, noting that there is more interest in the arguments he is making this time around.

Under the 2003 federal drug law, possession and use of marijuana by adults is punishable by law, but it is rarely prosecuted in practice as police and prosecutors have been instructed by the prosecutor’s office not to prioritise possession or use of small amounts of the drug. Dealer activities such as import, production and transport of the drug carry fines of up to €600,000 and prison sentences of up to a year.

When you say legalisation, people think, ‘Oh, so like alcohol and tobacco,’ but we’re saying legalise it in a more stringent and non-commercial way than that

- Criminologist Tom Decorte

According to the researchers this criminalisation of cannabis use and possession is failing to achieve the stated aims of local drug policies, as outlined in the 2001 Federal Drug Policy Paper – to reduce the number of dependent users and to reduce the physical and psychosocial harm cannabis abuse can cause, as well as to decrease the negative consequences of cannabis use to society, in the form of crime, for instance.

According to figures from the Flemish centre of expertise on alcohol and drugs (VAD), the number of residents in the region who have experimented with cannabis at least once between 2001 and 2013 has increased from 10.6% to more than 14% of the population – a 33% increase.

Local and certified centres specialised in drug addiction, meanwhile, have reported a threefold increase in the number of new treatments launched for cannabis over the period between 2003 and 2012.

Hidden dangers

“That’s the biggest toll – that the number of people who experience serious health problems because of cannabis use is increasing,” Decorte says. This rise in cannabis-related health problems is partly explained by the illegal provenance of the drug, which is produced on a thriving black market that naturally operates with little oversight of the government. 

Cannabis now frequently includes dangerous substances such as heavy metals, glass particles, pesticides, bacteria and fungi. The amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, has also been steadily increasing over the last few decades.

“That’s not because of climate change or because the cannabis plant has naturally evolved,” Decorte says, “but because it is cultivated in an illegal market and because those producers make much more money on stronger weed.”

Els Cleemput, a spokesperson for federal health minister Maggie De Block, says that the minister opposes legalisation of cannabis because “it’s damaging to one’s health; it has harmful effects and is damaging to the brain”. 

Tightly regulated model

The minister, she notes, signed a royal decree with the effect of legalising sales of Sativex, a cannabis-based, prescription-only nose spray that can relieve symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis. “But these are two totally different things,” adds the spokesperson.

VAD, meanwhile, supports decriminalisation. “We think that the criminal atmosphere around cannabis use by adults should be eliminated,” says the centre’s director, Marijs Geirnaert, “but to do this as part of a global policy that in the first place aims at prevention, with non-use being the norm and early intervention when psychosocial or health problems arise.”

The centre’s position, Geirnaert adds, was informed by the experiences of the addiction care sector and existing academic expertise on the effects and risks of cannabis use. “We also argue for quality care for individuals who have problems due to the use of the drug,” she adds. 

We also argue for quality care for individuals who have problems due to the use of the drug

- Marijs Geirnaert of VAD

In Cannabis onder controle, hoe?, the academics set out a scenario for regulated small-scale cannabis cultivation for personal use, cultivation and use in cannabis social clubs and provision of medicinal cannabis to patients. This, the authors stress, would be part of drug policies that would remain centrally focused on medical assistance, prevention and raising awareness.

They also argue for a tightly regulated model that stands in contrast to the free-for-all marketplace model under which alcohol and tobacco are currently produced, consumed and promoted. “When you say legalisation, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, so like alcohol and tobacco,’“ explains Decorte, “but what we’re saying is legalise it in a more stringent and non-commercial way than tobacco.”

Rather than letting the free market play its way, with businesses inevitably focused on increasing sales of cannabis-containing products, Decorte, De Grauwe and Tytgat argue for the phased introduction of a regulated market. The government, they say, would fully control the production process and the availability of cannabis as well as selling points – complete with a yet-to-be founded regulatory agency. 

‘The right weapons’

Still, Decorte is cognisant that even their model of regulated legalisation won’t solve the cannabis problem. “There will always be people in our society who are interested in taking intoxicants,” he says, “and there will always be people interested in making them.”

Electoral promises to root out drugs, he adds, are populist because they’re simply impossible to achieve. “There’s not a society in the entire world and there’s not a single period in history where drugs did not exist.” 

The solution then, he says, is to limit the harm that drugs can do through careful policies. “What we’re saying is continue the fight against cannabis but with the right weapons that can actually achieve their aim and that can help you effectively accomplish something.” 

A spokesperson for justice minister Koen Geens says his administration would review the book and its proposals. “Our existing policies are already balanced policies – not tolerance policies,” says Sieghild Lacoere, noting that the federal government and the Drug Policy General Cell was in the process of discussing actualisation of current policies. 

The minister of justice, she adds, is pursuing a realistic policy in terms of penal investigations and prosecution to enforce drug laws. “For users, the emphasis will always be on assistance, especially in case of problematic use and in a criminal context.” 

Cannabis onder controle, hoe? (€19.99) is published by Lannoo

Photo: Ingimage