A recent interview with Pierre Kopp in Le Monde called for a legalisation approach regarding cannabis sale – the economist believes that if the French government legalized and taxed cannabis in the same way as tobacco, the state would save more than €300m and receive duty worth about €1bn. Yesterday, the Guardian published the interview (by Laetitia Clavreul) in English – and according to Pierre Kopp, legalizing the drug would not lead to a sudden rise in consumption, providing the duty imposed by the state kept the product at its current price. The article also tells the story of “Julien”, a 24 year old Swiss student and cannabis grower.
Should the use of cannabis be legalised to end the dealing that has poisoned life in France’s banlieues, and to guarantee the quality of a substance that is widely consumed but is often of very poor quality? The economist Pierre Kopp, of Paris University, has compared the cost of combating cannabis abuse with its possible cost if legalised. He considers that, as with tobacco use, the key factor in cannabis legalisation would be the duty levied by the state: ideally that duty should be high enough to prevent increased consumption of the substance, while bringing in sufficient revenue to fund prevention.
Laetitia Clavreul – Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 16 August 2011 14.02 BST
Do you agree with those who claim that legalising cannabis would lead to increased consumption?
Legalising the drug would not lead to a sudden rise in consumption, providing the duty imposed by the state kept the product at its current price (which is about €5.5 [$8] a gram). The price is the key variable: if it is too high, it would encourage dealing; if it is too low, consumption could take off. In fact it ought to be slightly higher than at present to make up for the absence of risk in purchasing (being cheated by a dealer or arrested by the police).
The second key factor is education. Hazardous forms of use must be prevented by warning potential consumers about the effects of excess consumption or the risks of driving under the influence.
How much does the use of cannabis currently cost society?
To assess the impact of use, we have taken into account a whole series of factors: the consequences for public finances of spending on policing and healthcare, and also the pensions that will not need to be paid because of fatalities, the benefits in terms of consumer enjoyment, the profits of organised crime, and other factors. We know that taken as a whole, illegal drugs (cannabis, heroin, cocaine etc) have a negative impact on what economists call collective welfare valued at €900m. In other words, they represent a loss of resources that could be better used.
It is hard to assess the impact of individual drugs, but we do know that law enforcement mostly targets cannabis. I estimate that about a third of the negative impact of illegal drugs is attributable to cannabis.
What would we gain from legalisation?
The state could save about €300m on spending arising out of arrests, or perhaps even more if you include the cost of custody, the running of courts and the enforcement of sentences. The state would also receive duty worth about €1bn. And then manpower and resources could be redeployed in prevention and combating trafficking of other drugs.
How do you rate existing policies for combating cannabis abuse?
Economists tend to consider that good public policies minimise social costs; that is, they help to improve collective wellbeing at a lower cost. The current policy on cannabis is expensive and its benefits are uncertain.
After 1995, France revised its policy on heroin and authorised substitutes, resulting in a drop in the number of overdose fatalities. With cannabis, the current policy makes no sense: the state spends approximately €300m a year to arrest about 80,000 people, without this having a noticeable impact on consumption, which has remained at a high level. But a similar result could be achieved at much lower cost by concentrating on education and care.
Other countries have depenalised usage. Is that a possible solution?
It seems obvious to me that we need to end criminal prosecution. But as an economist I would rather see controlled legalisation, with the state supervising production and distribution. It would thus be possible to control prices and combat possible misuse of cannabis more effectively. Repressive policies clog the courts and take a disproportionate amount of the police’s time, as well as fuelling tension on underprivileged housing estates.
Julien (not his real name) is 24, Swiss and a student in Geneva. When he starts talking about his cannabis plants there is no stopping him. “I really enjoy growing, it’s like a hobby. And, what’s more, it earns a lot of money,” he says, “€25,000 to €30,000 ($35,000 to $42,000) for each harvest.” With three crops a year, he is doing much better than when he worked at McDonald’s.
It was there that a workmate mentioned the idea. Many young people join with friends to grow four or five plants for personal consumption, but Julien was more ambitious, starting with 100. His customers, who all belong to much the same upper-middle-class circles, are very grateful: they rate his organic marijuana very highly.
His initial outlay only amounted to €6,000 ($8,500), advanced by his former workmate, in exchange for half of Julien’s first two crops. He bought two tents, each housing 50 plants, and set them up in the cellar of the house where he lives. His mother used to live here too, but these days she just drops in occasionally. Then there are special lamps, carbon filters to prevent the smell and various other substances. In all it occupies just a few square metres of floor space and he can buy all he needs in a grow-shop. “It’s really handy. You can find all the gear and [cannabis] sprouts, and of course the staff are always happy to give advice,” he explains.
A batch of little plants costs €500 ($700), plus a further €300 ($420) for soil and organic fertilisers. The growth period lasts 10 weeks. A partner helps Julien, taking 10% of the crop. In an average week he spends about four hours on the plants, mostly watering them. Otherwise, planting takes about six hours and pruning, halfway through each crop, another four. Stripping the leaves and flower-heads is the most time-consuming process, taking up to 48 hours. But he ropes in his partner for that job, “smoking joints and drinking beer”. He keeps about 2.5 kilos. He could do a fourth crop, but reckons he earns enough as it is.
Julien is not bothered about competition. He thinks there are about 100 other growers with as many plants operating in the Geneva area. But demand is huge and he sometimes cannot satisfy the 100 or so customers he supplies directly or via acquaintances.
Some are thinking about going into the business too. “Self-production is only just starting in France, but it will catch on,” Julien asserts. “Folks are fed up with paying a fortune for bad Moroccan [resin] and having to go to edgy places to get the stuff.”
All in all, Julien can only see advantages in local production and selling to friends. The quality is better. Buying off street dealers, there is always the risk of being cheated in one way or another. There are no other drugs in the loop and no middle-men, so the goods are cheaper. And very little chance of being “grassed”. “One buddy won’t tell tales on another,” says a customer, who drops by with a friend to pick up some grass for himself and his mates.
Is he afraid of the police or bothered by moral issues? Without avoiding such bothersome questions, he disposes of them pretty quickly. “Above all, I grow plants. I don’t see myself as a dealer,” Julien says. “I don’t sell heroin or crack [cocaine] to strung-out addicts, just grass for people who fancy a joint.”
But he does accept that what he is doing is wrong, though he thinks the Swiss authorities are more tolerant towards consuming and selling cannabis than in France. These activities are nevertheless illegal in both countries. Nor has usage been depenalised, though the idea of only imposing fines on offenders has been raised, and applied in some Swiss cantons.
As for the danger involved, Julien is more concerned about “driving risks, dropping out of school, social isolation and depression caused by excessive consumption”. But the people he knows seem to lead perfectly normal lives. And what about him? He is making the most of it for the time being. “Once I’ve finished at college, I’ll go to work like an honest citizen,” he says.