Advancing cannabis reform

‘The trans­-atlantic winds of change that have been blowing in the Americas for a while have now reached the shores in Europe.’ So described TNI’s Tom Blickman, in The Washington Post, the trailblazing decision by Malta and plans by Germany to legally regulate cannabis for recreational use. In 2021, TNI supported Malta’s leading cannabis reform organisation, ReLeaf, and widely shared our expertise on European reform, including in an industry podcast. We helped educate US policy-makers about the international implications of a federal bill to legalise and regulate cannabis. Together with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we submitted a joint written contribution to a public consultation on a draft Senate bill, which, if adopted, would have unprecedented impacts on drug policies worldwide.

In light of the growing medical cannabis market, we drew attention to new opportunities for small farmers in the Global South to transition out of illegality while continuing to grow cannabis. In a comprehensive report, A Sustainable Future for Cannabis Farmers: ‘Alternative Development’ Opportunities in the Legal Cannabis Market, we described the realities of cannabis cultivation in the Global South, experiences with crop substitution and ‘alternative development’, and medical cannabis legislation and practices across the world from a developmental and small farmers’ perspective. The pathbreaking report argues that lessening barriers for small farmers, while raising them for large companies, can help to steer legal cannabis markets in a more sustainable and equitable direction. TNI presented key points from the report at a side event during an Expert Group Meeting on Alternative Development, under the auspices of the Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development, inspiring a lively discussion involving government officials about ‘Alternative Development’ with cannabis.

Our analysis and policy recommendations around cannabis are shaped by our long-term collaboration with cannabis farmers in diverse regions across the Global South. For years, TNI has engaged with traditional cannabis farmers in the Rif region in Morocco to build their technical and advocacy capacity toward inclusion in the (international) medical cannabis market. In an important step forward, the Moroccan Parliament voted in favour of a bill to legalise the cultivation, use and export of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes (such as hemp fibre). Legalisation of medical cannabis in Morocco, which has long been an important producer for the illegal market, creates important possibilities for the farmers to engage in a legal economy.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, we supported the Cannabis Revival Committee to create a cooperative for a large group of traditional farmers and facilitated a workshop with cannabis farmers to strategise about their participation in the emerging medicinal cannabis market. The workshop took place prior to a regional policy dialogue, organised by TNI and the Medicinal Cannabis Authority of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which involved government officials from seven Caribbean countries. Significantly, farmer representatives were given the opportunity to share their views directly with the officials, stressing the importance of their inclusion into the market. The dialogue marked the first time a group of countries from the region discussed developments of the medicinal cannabis market and options for reform.

As cannabis reform picks up steam worldwide, our new briefing paper, co-authored with allies, focused attention on lessons from the illicit tobacco trade, which is largely dominated by transnational tobacco companies. The paper provides a number of recommendations for policy-makers about the design of cannabis regulation, including development of alternatives to commercial frameworks and policies that empower communities affected by cannabis prohibition.

Kratom and poppy

TNI also played an important role in developments around kratom, an indigenous psychoactive plant native to Southeast Asia which has been used for centuries as a traditional remedy for a variety of common ailments. For over a decade, TNI has been promoting the decriminalisation of kratom in Southeast Asia, collaborating with local partners and academics, and engaging in informal dialogues with governments. Our work bore fruit this year when Thailand lifted its ban on kratom, ending decades of repressive law enforcement against marginalised rural Muslim communities who use kratom for its psychoactive and medicinal properties. Following the lifting of the ban, more than a hundred people were released from prison and thousands were pardoned for kratom-related drug law offences. Decriminalisation marks a significant step toward improved recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples in Thailand, their use of traditional medicines and knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora.

Kratom is increasingly being used and sold in the US and Europe as an herbal medicine, health supplement and for self-medication, a trend that has pushed it higher on the global drug policy agenda. In 2021, we collaborated with researchers from Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Indonesia to provide key inputs to a review of kratom in October by the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (WHO-ECDD). Shortly before the meeting, we published a policy commentary detailing the severe negative consequences that would result from an international ban. On the other hand, in a commentary focused specifically on Myanmar, we argued that legal regulation of kratom in Southeast Asia could contribute to building safer communities, promoting development and supporting peace efforts. The input of TNI and partners contributed to the conclusion of the WHO-ECDD committee that no further steps towards international control were warranted at this point, a recommendation that was presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in December.

Other work in Myanmar looked at the effects of the declining opium market on the livelihoods of opium farmers. Designed in collaboration with the farmers and members of the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum, Poppy Farmers Under Pressure; Causes and Consequences of the Opium Decline in Myanmar included information on use trends, regional developments and conflict, and made an important contribution to current analysis on the topic.