By Benoît Gomis / BMJ

The momentum for cannabis regulation is growing around the world. The US is debating federal legalisation. Eighteen states—around a third of the US population—have already legalised non-medical cannabis since 2012. Uruguay legalised recreational use of cannabis in 2013, Canada in 2018, and Mexico is considering following suit. In Europe, Switzerland and Luxembourg have announced formal moves to implement a legally regulated market. The Netherlands is finally establishing a legal supply for its long-tolerated “coffee shop” sales, and Malta is allowing people to grow their own plants while eyeing more formal legalisation.

The arguments for such moves are founded in evidence. Prohibition has proved costly and ineffective—failing to deter use or eradicate supply. By regulating cannabis, governments can regain control of the market, including by managing the quality, potency, and price of available products, and how and where they are licensed to be sold. Governments can take profits away from organized crime groups and generate significant tax revenue, while ending law enforcement practices that have disproportionately criminalised and incarcerated minorities and marginalised populations. But as the debate shifts from questions of whether we should regulate cannabis to how to do it responsibly, there are important lessons to be learnt from the successes and failures of regulating other drugs. Not all regulatory frameworks are equal, and the history of the tobacco industry is a testament to that.

In a new report published by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), in collaboration with other NGOs, we explain how major transnational tobacco companies have been complicit in the illicit tobacco trade—playing an active role in smuggling their own cigarettes to enter protected markets, circumventing effective health regulations, and lobbying governments to decrease taxation or any form of regulation that impacts their bottom line. They have deployed their legal, lobbying, and PR machines to maximise profits, with little concern for the health and social costs of their actions. Many of these schemes were revealed in the late 1990s, thanks to a trove of internal tobacco industry documents released as part of various lawsuits.