commercial recreational cannabis and harm reduction

At the heart of the new commercial clause in the latest version of the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, lies harm reduction. This topic has been discussed at previous sittings of the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services, as well as throughout submissions made by the public in answer to the call for public comment.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction means exactly what it says – it is activities or services provided to reduce the harms associated with using a particular substance. It is based in the principle of respecting the rights of individuals who choose to use a substance and from that point of acceptance, try to improve the conditions under which the substance use takes place. Examples of harm reduction programmes include providing drug consumption rooms, needle and syringe programmes, overdose prevention and reversal, psychosocial support, etc. These types of approaches have been tested internationally and found to be based on real evidence, cost-effective and positively impacting individual and community health.

If one looks at the newest draft of the commercialisation clause in the Bill, all of the suggested factors to be considered relate to harm reduction:

Subclause 3:

Without limiting the scope of national legislation contemplated in subsection 2, to authorise and regulate commercial activities in regards of recreational Cannabis, due consideration should be given to –

  • harm reduction;
  • demand reduction;
  • public education and awareness campaigns in respect of the harms associated with recreational Cannabis;
  • prevention of persons under 18 to access recreational Cannabis;
  • prohibition of advertising or promotion of recreational Cannabis; and
  • population level monitoring of use and associated harms of recreational Cannabis.

Demand Reduction

Reducing the demand for Cannabis – specifically here, recreational Cannabis – speaks almost directly to harm reduction. Demand reduction is usually one of the aims of legalisation of an illicit substance – the fact that a substance previously only obtainable on the so-called “black market”, is made readily available to most people assists in reducing the demand for that particular substance. Legally cultivated Cannabis would have been produced according to good practice standards and be subjected to testing and analysis to identify any harmful trace elements, making it a safer option in comparison with illicit Cannabis.

Public education and awareness campaigns in respect of the harms associated with recreational Cannabis

This consideration speaks directly to harm reduction through education and awareness. Private Cannabis Clubs are a great vehicle to mobilise this initiative and from the study Harm reduction and cannabis social clubs: Exploring their true potential, by Obradors-Pineda, A; Bouso, J; Parés-Franquero, O; and Romani, J, it can be seen that the concept has somewhat found a home in European Cannabis Social Clubs:

Prevention of persons under 18 to access recreational Cannabis

Now that legislation surrounding Cannabis is taking a less restrictive turn, proper research can be conducted to determine the influence of Cannabis on a developing adolescent brain. Initial studies suggest that frequent Cannabis use may impact “academic functioning, as well as social and occupational functioning extending into later life”. In light of the Portfolio Committee’s instruction to treat Cannabis like tobacco and alcohol when designing its commercial regulation, restricting availability of Cannabis by persons younger than 18 is a sensible step towards responsible and controlled use of recreational Cannabis.

Prohibition of advertising or promotion of recreational Cannabis

As just mentioned, the Portfolio Committee is to approach recreational Cannabis in the same light as alcohol and tobacco – products which have restrictions on advertising and promotion. These restrictions relate directly to harm reduction and is present in most legal substances that are considered to have a harmful effect. Prohibition on advertising also extends to many medical products, meaning that the idea is to avoid encouraging the use of products with a pharmacological or psychoactive effect.

Population level monitoring of use and associated harms of recreational Cannabis

Population monitoring has been taking place for decades in different shapes and forms and for different reasons. In our progressive era, it is safe to say that data is king and this data includes the usage and habits of recreational Cannabis consumers. One of the purposes for gathering this data is to be able to pinpoint any significant harms that may increase once the commercial recreational market is on its legs. Further programmes and initiatives may then be developed to address the identified harm.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from the points discussed above. The first is that the commercial clause at its core, is about respecting our right to consume Cannabis, while ensuring that it is done safely. The second is that Private Cannabis Clubs, if operated correctly, could be the most powerful tool to contribute towards harm reduction – in fact, we include it in our Private Cannabis Club: Framework Manual for Set-Up and Management as an integral component in the Membership Experience.

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