The United Nations’ World Drug Report 2020, released this week, provides a glimpse into how the legalization of cannabis is playing out in jurisdictions across North and South America, and how COVID-19 is affecting the cannabis trade.
As the coronavirus pandemic led to social distancing measures across the globe, the report finds that there are “indications the lockdown is increasing demand for cannabis,” in Europe in particular. The report also notes that “lockdown restrictions seem to have resulted in increasing cannabis sales over the darknet.” Specifically, the lack of “access to street dealers by end users, may have led to an increase in drug trafficking activities over the darknet and drug shipments by mail in some places.”
Zooming out, cannabis remains the most commonly consumed drug in the world, with an estimated 192 million consumers in 2018. The report finds that cannabis consumption “has risen” in most jurisdictions where cannabis is legal, which includes Canada, Uruguay, and parts of the US. But, that does not mean that use has risen because of legalization, as “the same trend was observed in other jurisdictions where non-medical use of cannabis was not legalized.”
(A stark detail: the next most commonly consumed drug is opioids, with 58 million users in 2018. But opioids were responsible for 66% of drug-related deaths in 2017.)
When it comes to criminal justice, cannabis “is the drug that most brings people into contact with the criminal justice system,” the report finds. Looking at data from 69 countries between 2014 and 2018, cannabis accounted for “more than half of all drug law offences cases.”
Cannabis seizures are on the decline, and the report suggests that legalization could be a factor. While seizures nearly doubled in much of the world over the last decade, “global seizures of cannabis herb fell to their lowest level in two decades in 2018 – a slump driven by declines in North America, where seizures have fallen by 84 per cent in the last 10 years.” This suggests, according to the report, that “policies aimed at liberalizing cannabis markets have played a key role in the decline.”
Seizures are taking place most often, by far, in Mexico, United States, and Colombia, in that order.
The report suggests better “monitoring of public health, safety and criminal justice indicators” in order to understand how legalization is playing out. Early concerns focus on “vapes, concentrates and edibles with a high THC content.”
On the medical side, the report notes that “current public discourse around cannabis tends to conflate” non-medical use with medical use, and various types of products. It warns: “Personal testimonies on the use of cannabis products to self-medicate and alleviate health conditions cannot be heeded in lieu of rigorous clinical trials on the effectiveness of cannabis products in treating certain health conditions.”
And finally, the report flags the “growing influence of and investment by large corporations, especially the alcohol and tobacco industry, which is investing in the cannabis industry in North America.”
As a result, it concludes, “revenue and profits are likely to dictate the course of the nonmedical cannabis industry rather than public health considerations.”