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Rapid response to:

Head To Head Head to Head

Should the supply of cannabis be legalised now?

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: (Published 03 July 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l4473

Rapid Response:

Could cannabis legalisation close a gateway into drug dealing?

When considering the possible legalisation of cannabis, it may be worth discussing the broader societal impacts as well as the effects on individual users.

Cannabis is often considered a gateway to harder, more dangerous drugs. This most likely applies not only to drug use, but also to drug dealing. Many young people who have been involved in drug dealing and distribution report that cannabis was their point of entry, often as it is seen as being safer, with more lenient penalties[1]. To disadvantaged young people, this could seem like an appealing, “low-stakes” way to make the money to become self-sufficient, in many cases beginning with social supply rather than active drug dealing. However, it can bridge the gap to more serious involvement in drug distribution, and criminal exploitation, such as in county lines activity.

The harmful effects on teenagers and young people who become involved in drug networks have been widely documented. For instance, young people who are involved in county lines have been found to have a vastly raised risk of becoming addicted to drugs themselves, being involved in violent crime and trafficking, and being victims of child sexual exploitation[2].

The precise impact of legalising cannabis on involvement in illegal drug networks is probably not entirely predictable, but it is important to consider possible effects, particularly on young people at risk of exploitation. In US states where cannabis has been legalised, there is little evidence regarding effects on drug dealing specifically, though reports do suggest a reduction in violent and drug trafficking-related crime[3]. The topic may be something that merits further study and consideration. It is possible that cannabis legalisation could remove an attractively low-risk pathway into drug networks, which at the moment, is all too often the first step that leads vulnerable young people into more damaging and dangerous situations.


[1] Densley J, McLean R, Deuchar R, Harding S. An altered state? Emergent changes to illicit drug markets and distribution networks in Scotland. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2018;58:113-120. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.05.011

[2] Glover Williams A, Finlay F. County lines: how gang crime is affecting our young people. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2018;0:1-3 doi:10.1136/archdischild-2018-315909

[3] Gavrilova E, Kamada T, Zoutman F. Is legal pot crippling Mexican drug trafficking organisations? The effect of medial marijuana laws on US crime. The Economic Journal. 2019;129(617):375-407. doi:10.1111/ecoj.12521

Competing interests: No competing interests

09 July 2019
Katherine J Read
Medical student
London, UK