The United Nations released its 2022 World Drug Report on Monday and, for the first time, it looks at cannabis legalization outcomes as well as the environmental impacts of cultivation.
However, as the UN aims to keep up with global cannabis trends, one thing is clear: the data are lacking and inconsistent. While the number of jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for medical or adult use continues to climb around the world, regulations vary – often widely, which hinders efforts to contextualize and compare data points. Even here in the United States, there is little agreement among states when it comes to things like regulation of pesticides and packaging, or even terminology.
So, while the report paints a clearer picture of the global cannabis landscape than ever before, it is more instructive at times about cannabis data collection gaps and needs than about what the data show. The report, which is published annually, draws on both existing and newly collected data.
In the sections on cannabis and environmental impacts, the report notes that studies on the carbon footprint of cannabis are “scarce.” The report emphasizes that this is especially true when it comes to outdoor cultivation.
“Substantial data gaps hinder accurate estimates of the global carbon footprint of outdoor cannabis cultivation for dry flower and/or resin. In order to enable such estimates, one would need production data that allow the quantification of yields, fertilizer inputs, processing energy and the effects of land management on, for example, soil and water systems,” the report reads.
Still, a few findings are noteworthy. The report notes that the “carbon footprint of indoor cannabis cultivation” is anywhere from 16 to 100 times the footprint of outdoor cultivation. And, 80% of this footprint comes from “climate control measures” like “HVAC equipment to maintain temperature and humidity and for growing lights.”
Significantly, the report points to research that shows that legal frameworks “provide authorities with opportunities for environmental protection.” That is, only if there is compliance, which, as the report notes, has been a problem in places like California, where significant cannabis cultivation takes place.
The language around data gaps in the section on legalization outcomes is noteworthy in light of how data is used in legalization debates.
“Importantly,” the report notes, “the full effects of legalization on public health, safety and criminal justice will take decades to become apparent. In most jurisdictions, cannabis production and supply chains are being developed and have not yet stabilized. A few years after the legalization of non-medical use of cannabis may not be long enough to provide an adequate indication of the impact of cannabis use on public health as cannabis markets are still developing.” (Bolding theirs.)
It continues: “Assessing cannabis legalization is a complex undertaking and existing literature should be read with a critical approach. Cannabis legalization can potentially affect areas of interest such as public health or public safety, differently, with some favourable effects in some areas and unfavourable effects in others. Given the polarization of views on cannabis legalization, advocates are often selective in how they aggregate or combine different indicators to focus exclusively on outcomes whose trends favour their pre-existing conclusions.”
From there, the report looks at what the data do show, so far, with regard to the areas it has identified as the six “desired outcomes” of legalization, including: allowing adult use while preventing youth use; creating a regulated market with quality control measures; eliminating the illegal market; reducing and/or redirecting law enforcement costs; generating tax revenue and investing it in public health and safety efforts; and criminal justice reforms.
When it comes to youth use, for example, it is “either decreasing or stable” in the U.S. and Canada, but up in Uruguay. (Canada and Uruguay are the only two countries to have legalized and regulated cannabis for adult use, while more than a dozen states in the U.S. have done so.) However, daily use and vaping are up among youth. Arrests are down. Product potency is up. Use among pregnant people is up, though it was increasing before legalization.
The proposed responses to these findings include investing in research, putting out messaging to “address misperceptions of the risks” of consumption, and looking at the “lessons learned from the tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed food industries as well as the pharmaceutical industry and documented cases where the pursuit of commercial interests has targeted vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, and competed with public health concerns.”
The remaining information around cannabis in the report is well-established. This includes the fact that cannabis is the most consumed illegal drug in the world “by far,” and the number of consumers is on the rise globally. This “high prevalence” is behind the fact that “40 percent of countries reported cannabis as the drug associated with the greatest number of drug use disorders.”
The report explains: “The ranking of which drug is reported to have caused the greatest number of drug use disorders in each country is determined mainly by two factors: prevalence of use and abuse liability. This can explain the high ranking of cannabis in drug use disorders and drug treatment. A recent study estimates that the chances of becoming dependent on cannabis after any lifetime exposure was 8.9 per cent for recreational users. However, as cannabis is the most prevalent substance in most countries, it can cause a relatively high number of drug use disorders and related treatment requests, even though it has a relatively lower potential to create dependency.”
And finally, the report devotes a two-page spread to the resurgence of interest in cannabis as medicine, noting that 34 countries now allow “cannabis herb for medical conditions.” In 2020, countries reported 1,700 tons of medical cannabis stock, up from just over 200 tons in 2019.