The global story about cannabis — the most-used recreational drug in the world — is about as fuzzy as your body feels after taking your first hit. While some places, such as states in the US, have legalized the drug, it is strictly prohibited in others.
Almost 200 million people smoke pot worldwide according to the 2019 World Drug Report, published Wednesday, and that number is rising. Whether this is a good or bad thing seems somewhat hard to decipher with inconsistent global regulations on the drug, conflicting research studies and little concrete evidence of its long-term effects.
This inconsistent approach to regulation is most apparent in the United States, where, for example, one can take a road trip to Colorado — where cannabis was legalized recreationally in 2012 — and purchase the drug at one of the local streetside dispensaries as long as they have an ID.
However, immediately after crossing the border into Kansas, Colorado's border state where the drug is illegal, pot-smokers can be arrested and charged with thousand-dollar fines or jail time. If caught again, they could face even heftier jail sentences.
It seems hard to construct a solid moral opinion on a substance that becomes illegal after crossing a border. If the government is acting in our best interest, but some governments deem the drug permissible for consumption while others send its users to jail, how do we know what's right?
A contradictory tale
The United States isn't the only nation telling a contradictory tale between reality and regulation.
In Europe, home of the highest global concentrations of teenage pot-smokers, it's up to member states to decide their drug policies. Like the US, there isn't a blanket European Union-wide legislation for cannabis.
So, while in the Netherlands one can sit in coffee shops and smoke weed as long as their racing heart desires, in Hungary, for example, they could be slapped with legal penalties involving jail time should they decide to light up in public.
We have to be careful when making these comparisons, however, according to Thomas Pietschmann, a UN drug researcher and co-author of the report. He said that although the situation may appear comparable between European states and US states, it's a different story.
Despite what most people think, weed isn't entirely legal in the Netherlands and can only be sold and smoked in designated coffee shops. It is decriminalized, however, so people can't go to jail for smoking a joint on the street. The purpose of the shops isn't to ignite interest in the drug, but rather to dilute it.
Since its decriminalization in the 1970s, weed use in the Netherlands has actually plateaued. The Dutch government has made frequent pointed attempts to quell the spread of the drug, banning its advertisement and, at one point, restricting its sale to only Dutch citizens over 18 when the onset of "drug tourists" grew too annoying for Dutch citizens.
This decriminalization doesn't differ much from the majority of European Union member state policies, most of which took the form of "harm reduction" after the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. While the United States criminalized most forms of drugs, member states such as Switzerland led policy efforts aimed at harm reduction.
These efforts took shape in the form of areas such as Zurich's "needle park", where the government allowed heroin addicts to shoot up in a controlled environment.
In the United States, Pietschmann said, drug regulators have been far more extreme. In the 1960s and 70s, attitudes toward pot were fairly liberal, with loose regulations and a turn-a-blind-eye attitude. This changed in the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," which implemented zero-tolerance policies in which anyone caught with drugs of any variety could be jailed.
In the 1990s, with President Bill Clinton's prevention-centered approach to drug reform, the drugs were destigmatized and acceptance toward cannabis steadily grew. In 2008, campaigns for the legalization of medical cannabis emerged.
Medical marijuana was legalized and weed started becoming decriminalized overall, leading to lower public perceptions of risk. Media contributed to this culture of weed acceptance, Pietschmann said.
"All the newspapers talked about how great this is, how fantastic this is, all kinds of money for businesses,” Pietschmann said.
The United States has since found itself host to a bustling weed economy armed with shiny marketing and heavy pro-cannabis lobbying forces.
So... is there a problem with weed?
The contradictions between reality and regulation may remind one of the conversations they had with their equally-stoned roommates while taking their first-year philosophy courses. What is reality? What is right and wrong? Good and bad? Is this all conception?
Pietschmann, who also does research on drugs such as heroin and Fentanyl, isn't particularly concerned about people over 18 who occasionally smoke a joint.
"If you ask if people are dying from pot, we don't have evidence," he said.
He cautions against subscribing to extreme claims surrounding the drug.
"People have said when you legalize cannabis, crime will decline. Hasn't happened. Weed use will decline. Hasn't happened. Some have been afraid that when you legalize cannabis, its use will increase significantly in young people. Hasn't happened — people above the age of 25 are using it more."
The problem with pot is simply that too many people are smoking it, he said. It can mess with your motivation, keep you from thinking abstractly or mathematically, and in some cases cause car accidents, he said. For a small minority of people, it can cause mental health issues such as psychotic episodes. This is somewhat contrary to popular belief, which often states weed can't cause mental issues, but can only soothe them.
The report cautions people to take note of the increasing lobbying influence of the legal weed industry.
Read more here: New Zealand to vote on cannabis legalization
With the introduction of pot to the private sector, there has been a growing market for high THC cannabis grown in greenhouses using high-tech innovation.
This can have surprisingly detrimental effects on US society, he said. Before, much of the pot exported to the United States came from Mexican farms. Now that tech has revolutionized the sector, creating multimillion dollar companies profiting off high-THC weed snacks like gummies and brownies, people's tolerance for the natural weed grown on farms has lessened, causing them to buy less of it.
Although this could seem like a good thing to some Americans, Pietschmann said, it can have reverse effects.
"The problem is that in some of the areas in Mexico where cannabis is cultivated, people are growing poppies and exporting heroin to the United States instead," he said.
Global weed use has grown by 60 percent over the past decade, with people smoking around 130 percent more than before.
The biggest issue Pietschmann sees is youth smoking, which he said can have negative effects on brain development and IQ, citing a study conducted in 2012 in New Zealand, which indicated that pot smokers under 18 experienced an approximate 6-point loss in IQ points.
Last year, according to the report, youth cannabis use increased slightly. Although this should be monitored, Pietschmann said, one year is not a proper indicator of a trend.