10 Ways to do Cannabis Policy Reform Right

This is an edited version of the summary guidance in the Transform publication 'How to Regulate Cannabis a Practical Guide'. More detailed discussions of each of these points will follow over the coming weeks as we serialize key content from the book. 

Cannabis legalisation has finally been realized in various states and nations and it is expected that this trend should continue for quite some time. However, there is a balance to strike between the urgency of implementing reforms and the risks of moving too hastily. The steps forward that any jurisdiction takes will depend on the nature of the existing market, policy frameworks, and social and political environment. Early adopters will doubtless face different challenges to those that come later. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and no silver bullets.

1. Establish an independent commission of experts to work through the detail of policy development

Relevant authorities should establish an independent commission of domestic and international experts to identify key issues and make broad recommendations on reforming cannabis policy. Expertise should come from a broad range of fields, including: public health and service provision, market regulation, drug policy, international and domestic law, legal cannabis production, agriculture, environmental science, and monitoring and evaluation. This panel can then evolve into a dedicated task force to oversee and make recommendations on the detail of policy and its implementation.



2. Establish a comprehensive methodology to evaluate policy impacts and outcomes

Meaningful and measurable performance indicators should be established for all aspects of the market and its functioning. Impact monitoring and evaluation should be adequately resourced and built into the regulatory framework from the outset. Wider impacts, such as changes in prevalence or patterns of cannabis use (particularly among young people), levels of crime, expenditure and revenue, should also be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Such monitoring should be used to ensure policy, and in particular any policy changes, are subject to regular review, and that the flexibility and willingness exists to adapt approaches in light of emerging evidence.

3. Ensure structures and capacity are in place to enforce the new regulatory framework

There should be adequate institutional capacity to ensure compliance with regulatory frameworks, once they are established. This will require trained and experienced staff, management and oversight, and sufficient budgets for regulatory agencies. Given all the areas cannabis regulation will touch on, either an existing agency will need to co-ordinate between all relevant government departments, or a new umbrella body will need to be created.

4. Decriminalising personal possession and home growing can be useful transitional measures

There is a range of reforms that can be undertaken within the parameters of existing international law, including decriminalisation of personal possession and use with provisions for home growing and cannabis social clubs. Such measures can be implemented relatively easily, and even if their positive impacts are more modest, they demonstrate a political will to embrace reform, do not carry a significant regulatory burden, and are supported by a useful and growing evidence base.

5. Meet existing demand by ensuring new legal market supply at least roughly mirrors illegal market supply

When a jurisdiction is willing or able to negotiate the existing hurdles of international law, the priority at the outset should be to meet adult demand as it currently exists. That means a legal market that approximately mirrors the existing illegal market in terms of product range, price and availability. A level of government intervention and market control to ensure this is possible is a minimum requirement. Any major departures from this model are likely to have unpredictable, potentially negative impacts. Changes to the market, for whatever reason, should be introduced incrementally thereafter, and closely evaluated.

As a starting point, err on the side of more restrictive models, and a greater level of government control, then move forward on the basis of careful evaluation, aiming to move to less restrictive or interventionist models once new social norms and social controls around legal cannabis markets have been established. From a pragmatic and political perspective, this is preferable to the reverse scenario of needing to retroactively introduce more restrictive controls due to inadequate regulation.

6. Dont rush to diversify the market for cannabis products 

For jurisdictions where a more sophisticated illicit cannabis market does not exist, there is no urgency to introduce an extensive menu of cannabis products and services at the outset. Opt for functional retailing of a relatively limited range of quality controlled products that approximately mirror the current illicit market. Consider market diversification, for example into concentrates, edibles, and on-site consumption venues, once the core retail market has bedded in and been evaluated. Edibles are easy to prepare at home, and home growing and cannabis social clubs can cater for more specialised demand.


7. Effectively balance market access and appeal of products and outlets

A particular focus of restrictive controls should be at the retail end from the outset, with the key aim being to meet demand in a way that does not encourage use, but is not so off-putting it creates opportunities for a parallel illicit trade. Retail outlets should be functional but unintimidating, with pharmacies offering a useful model. On-site consumption venues need to provide a welcoming and pleasant environment, but controls can still focus on external signage and appearance, and on the point of sale within the venue.

8. Advertising, marketing and branding of cannabis products should be avoided as far as possible

Where it is politically and legally feasible, a ban on all cannabis marketing, advertising, branding and sponsorship should be the default starting point of any regulatory regime, and should be complemented by prevention and education measures aimed at curbing potential increases in use. Where a comprehensive ban is not viable, restrictions on such activities should be as stringent as possible.

9. Controls should seek to minimise or prevent commercial incentives to increase cannabis consumption 

More intensive government control, or even direct government control or ownership, where feasible, may be required at the retail level, to eliminate or restrict commercial incentives to increase or initiate cannabis use. Limiting the scale of individual businesses may help prevent the emergence of overly powerful commercial interests with the capacity to distort policy priorities.

10. Apply public health led regulatory thinking consistently across all drugs

Moves towards more effective cannabis regulation should be part of a wider process of reforming existing approaches to other drugs, both legal and illegal. This is likely to mean increased regulation of alcohol and tobacco markets as a greater consensus emerges on what constitutes optimal drug regulation. The rationale for regulating cannabis will necessarily also need to be applied to some other currently illegal drugs in the future, and wider debate should not be avoided.

For a more detailed look into cannabis legalisation and what it would look like, you can download the full free e-book: ‘How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide’

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