Side event: Social Norms and Rituals, Individual and Collective Self-Regulation Strategies in Cannabis Use – What Research and Alternative Practices Can Tell to Cannabis Policy Reform

Organised by Società della Ragione ONLUS, Associazione Luca Coscioni, Associazione Forum Droghe, Movimento per il Contenimento dei Danni, the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service, the International Drug Policy Consortium, Science for Democracy, and the Transnational Institute

Forum Droghe: We are discussing all over the world about alternative cannabis policies. We are very focused on legal regulation of production and supply – but it’s very interesting too to talk about what other implications of these alternative policies on the side of the demand regulation policy – I mean use of cannabis.

I want to propose a specific perspective: we know, through qualitative research, that prohibition hinders and limits the possibility to create, share and disseminate informal social norms about cannabis use. Legalisation ‘frees’ this natural social process. I draw a parallel with alcohol: it’s interesting to suggest what happened in the Mediterranean model of alcohol use. It is based off of wider socialisation process and learning social process and is based on a common and shared informal norms to promote, safer use of alcohol. In this model, prevalence is not so important – but it is important that there is a safer, regulated model of use. In Italy we have high prevalence of alcohol use, but a high number of problematic use.

We know that cannabis is legal in some places, but cannabis use is very normalised. And this means not only millions of people who use cannabis; it is not only a quantitative issue, but it means that there is a culture of use and that there are informal norms and rituals and that these kinds of use take place in daily life.

It is very important that we have more research about self-regulation. Since the 1970s there are many studies on drug use with the perspective being a user perspective, focusing on competencies and resources. These kinds of research have discovered that those who use drugs learn from their experiences and are able to change their behaviour; they adopt a wide range of informal mechanisms in their daily life to control use; and adopt norms and rituals, socio-cultural environment is a crucial factor in which.

In this line of research, we made qualitative research collecting life history of cannabis use of people in Belgium, Italy and Spain. We made this in the framework of the a project coordinated by TNI. You see some numbers here: what is interesting is that people we interviewed had never been in prison, so were not institutionalised, and have been using cannabis for at least ten years – so have a story to tell. 50% of them are members of cannabis social clubs – this is why we were interested in understanding if these kinds of groups play a role in self-regulating strategies. We focused on controls that users fit into every day life, as well as perception of what is controlled and uncontrolled use. We also focused on the factors that facilitate or, inhibit, controlled use. You can visit our website to find the results.

The most interesting thing is trajectories of use – we asked our interviewees to draw a lifetime of their use, assigning a ‘high’ peak, and ask them to tell us why they changed their behaviour, the reason why, how, what their strategy was, and what the result was. It’s interesting that the trajectories for everyone were varying. That means that we are very far from linear trajectories suggesting to buy the addiction model – which says, you start, use becomes more intensive, it becomes intensive, and then you are an addict. This is not the case of our interviewees – they had periods of intensive use, followed by periods of more moderate use. People are able to change their behaviour; in the case of these interviews this was without professional support – it was a national process. It’s important that the life trends tend towards more moderate and functional use – it’s decreasing in the life line. At every step of this line, there is a process of learning: they told us that for each phase of their use history, they learned something – so the learning process continues. They became expert users in this way.

It’s interesting that in these lines there is a continuum from high peaks and low peaks – and this is different from the all-augmenting perspective of the addiction model. It is also interesting that there is no typology of users – there are not some users that can self-regulate and some who can’t, everyone is able to do it in different ways.

Something about the control strategy: it’s important to stress the positive aspects of cannabis use. Because if my objective in cannabis use is clear, I can know what functional use is and what disfunctional use is. Temporary abstinence is a way to regain control after high level use. They say quality is more important than quantity – so it’s important to choose the type of cannabis that you fit to in your model of use. In this there is a very important role of cannabis social clubs. They are important also because they create a context which is stable, there is no stress, no anxiety, and they support the wellbeing of the users. This is an important factor for safe use. They support also the creation of a social culture of cannabis use.

There are some indicators of control and uncontrolled use: controlled use, being that the individual is able to reduce consumption when they feel like it, being aware of quality, fulfilling social tasks. I think that knowing this self-regulation strategy is important for policy too, to shift from risky properties of substances and users’ powerlessness to the positive role of individual and environmental resources in regulating the use of drugs. And also to recognise and empower social norms, rituals, cultures, learning and strategies of controlled use.

ICEERS: I would like to share with you on the cannabis social clubs in Spain, as well as some legal and policy context. I will also provide some data from a study we published.

Spain is one of the countries with the higher prevalence in the past few decades – more than half a million people using cannabis every day. WE also estimate that 120,000 are using cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Most of these people are supplying from cannabis clubs and self-cultivation. We can also see that the support for regulation of medical and recreational cannabis is high in Spain – but despite all this, we still don’t have a medical cannabis programme or recreational market regulation.

This is the context in which the cannabis social clubs works. For those who are not familiar, the term ‘cannabis social clubs’ covers different realities on the ground, but they are ‘legally constituted, registered, non-profit associations of adult cannabis consumers that collectively cultivate cannabis plants to meet their personal needs’.

Some data: this phenomenon is very focused in Catalonia and the Basque Country – we have more than 1000 clubs in the country. It’s important to recall that this is not a result of public policy, it’s an alternative from civil society: it allows individuals to cultivate and share among small groups, without resorting to the black market. We estimate that between 6-12% of cannabis social clubs members will use cannabis for therapeutic reasons.

The context which makes this phenomenon possible: there are several ‘legal loopholes’ – well I’m not sure if we can call them legal loopholes, but our experience in Spain is that drug use, possession and cultivation are not criminalised – but there are hard administrative sanctions. So we call this ‘crim-light’. Also, in the 1980s, we had a problem with heroin use and very strong social implications; the Supreme Court decided to develop and apply this doctrine of shared consumption, which means that no criminal offence is applied if the interchange of the substance is made within a closed, concrete group, there’s no profit made, and there’s immediate consumption. This has been a guide for CSCs o find their roles. Also, it’s important that they are legally established associations: they are based in the law, including having a board, and due to the shared consumption doctrine – their activities aren’t considered criminal.

The activities of the clubs has dealt with different administrations. The central government has been belligerent against clubs, but regional parliaments and municipalities have tried to introduce laws regulating the activities of these clubs; these activities deal more with the daily life of administrations. Regional parliaments have passed laws to regulate CSC activities. We also have municipal bylaws regulating the premises – including hours of operation, hygiene, relationship with the community etc.

The most recent data we have: this research was conducted in 20 CSCs in Barcelona, with a sample of 155 members, in 2015. The average member is a man, in his early 30s, educated, stable employment, and emotionally stable. Most live with their parents which is common in their 30s in Spain. It’s not like the inmate we sometimes see from the authorities in relation to cannabis use. Many said that they used the same amount of cannabis as before and many said they had used more previously. When people join cannabis clubs, they tend to use more in private places and the premises of the clubs – so the use in public spaces decreases, which means that are joining a cannabis club you get less fines. Also, very important is that members value very highly the risk reduction services and information services provided within the premises of the clubs, so many of them consider that when they join the clubs they are reducing their risk associated with cannabis use.

To conclude, I would like to share with you some ideas for the potential of the model: one interesting thing is that, for cannabis users, when it comes to CSCs and potential they take a leadership role – so they can be active agents in generating informal social norms and peer training. This is clear in therapeutic users; the CSCs have welcomed these users into a place where they can be informed. Also the clubs provide a private space for use, and information on quality, a stable supply – important for therapeutic users – also for the community, it’s important that the clubs are agents of separation of drugs markets. When there’s a club in a community the illegal market decreases, so there’s law enforcement optimisation. CSCs are privileged spaces for implementation of risk reduction programmes and identifying problematic use. They also can be considered spaces for socialisation and the creation of culture. Finally, for society, CSCs can be conceived as promoting civil society participation and policy experimentation.

I would like to pose you this question: if all this happened without regulation – can you imagine if all these informal social norms were translated into formal, evidence-based and accountable public policy?

Tom Blickman (TNI): ‘Cannabis in the city project’. We ran this in six countries in Europe – Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark and Belgium. At the time, in 2016, these countries had some attempt to self-regulate. We looked at the situations in each countries, produced country reports and then we had an interactive seminar when we brought together these academics, and people from the municipalities, and activists.

The key points: while more and more countries explore new cannabis policies, the discussion of recreational cannabis regulation at the national level within Europe is in a deadlock in my countries. We had an interactive seminar in November 2018 – but then the next month Luxembourg announced that it would regulate cannabis, so maybe there is a different track now in Europe. But you also have to understand that, while Luxembourg is independent, it is about half the population of Amsterdam.

There are, of course, different kinds of already-existing cannabis markets in these six countries: the most well-known being the Netherlands and its coffee shops – about 580 in the Netherlands, which have a long history. we’ve heard from Spain, from Constanza, about CSCs there. Other countries do not really have such an already-existing system. It is important to understand that, although there are attempts at municipal level, these are very limited by their official powers; national law is still dominant, as is criminal law, and these are determined by the UN Conventions in turn. So the room for manoeuvre for municipalities is not very wide. But drug policy has to be implemented at a local level, city governments have to deal with the situation on the ground.

There’s a long history, of course: since the late 1960s many countries have been following the trend developing a leniency toward the stricter norms determined by the Conventions and national law; we see some kinds of distinctions trying to separate the cannabis market from more dangerous drugs. In each of these six countries there was already a ‘soft-defection’ from the prohibitionist model. If you look at Netherlands, for instance, the government never thought out the coffee shops: they developed, slowly, bottom-up. You could see the self-regulation model developing within the coffee shops, which later became rules for municipalities and later national guidelines for the prosecution. Similarly in Spain, people are tired with being confronted by the black market, start to organise CSCs, then the municipality has to deal with this. It’s a very bottom-up model of self-regulating the market.

One of the things you can see a bit differently, is that sub-national authorities, municipalities but sometimes regions – in the more Northern Countries like Copenhagen in Denmark, several cities in Germany – they are trying to get some kind of permission from the national government to set up pilot projects. This has been successful in the Netherlands, in Germany there is no project – despite several cities trying to get permission. In Switzerland these were also refused by the government.

What we came up with is two concepts we’re trying to develop: Local customisation and Multi-Level Governance. National governments may give more and more tasks to more local level, to municipalities or regions, to implement policies. We came up with what I think is the most interesting model, which we borrowed from the Netherlands: in the Netherlands, coffee shops are allowed but it’s up to municipalities to decide whether or not to have them. Only 25% of municipalities do. The city can also add some additional rules to the national guidelines – e.g. some cities don’t allow commercial coffee shops, only non-profits. So you can have a very tailor-made set of regulations and agreements to regulate your local cannabis market. This is an interesting concept; of course there needs to be national legislation to allow this, and need to start thinking about what is allowed under the UN Conventions – and need to start thinking about ways to reform these laws and treaties.

If you look at the US: Colorado and Washington, something similar exists. OK, cannabis is regulated, but you see that a lot of counties in these states opt out of these regulation model because they don’t want it. Keep it at the local level, let the citizens decide what they want, but create space for cities to do so and regulate their market.

Question: The South African national court ordered that cultivation and use should become legal. Until this judgment is implemented by the government, we have seen CSCs develop in the meantime. Would you advise that we set up CSC federations, as an oversight body? Secondly, what does one do about the ‘threat’ from commercialisation: just last week we had a workshop with all the private clubs in Johannesburg, and one man stood up and said ‘join my clubs – I will help you open up a club, it will become like a franchise’. My instinct for this is no, each club should be a separate and non-profit entity. But I didn’t have the right answer to him. What would you advise for this situation?

Question: What do you think will happen if some country says: bye bye conventions, we don’t think it’s in our national interest, and we’ll do what we want to do.

Costanza: In Spain, we have a very complex organisation of cannabis clubs: regional federations, a national federations (and another in Catalonia). The experience in Spain, I would recommend to explore this because it provides you with a tool to deal with the authorities. But also, our experience in Spain is that it’s very difficult to economically survive with a small club – especially in Barcelona where you’ll have to pay a high rent for your place. This is why bigger clubs ended up being bigger. Also, we have seen in Spain that the more you advocate for clubs, the more exposed you are to the authorities. Now we have the cheerleaders for the Catalan federations pending jail.

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