Steve Rolles talks about legalization

In a chat in 2018, Steve told us a lot about his trajectory in the fight against prohibitionism and the advances that we already see in large countries. Check out how his guidance helped Canada legalize with the Public Health approach!

In a world where prohibitionist policies do more harm than drugs itself, it is essential that there are courageous people on the front lines to create more open and transparent dialogues on the subject. Steve Rolles is one of those individuals. For about 20 years, he has been fighting for more just and liberal laws in this regard, not only for cannabis, but all types of drugs. After all, how can replacing highly punitive and archaic legislation with texts help education, public health and break an almost secular taboo?

We had the pleasure of talking to Steve Rolles at the Stimulus conference, which talks about drugs, policies and harm reduction. It took place in Alberta, Canada, a few days before the country legalized cannabis federally – in 2018. In addition to talking about our work and introducing Girls in Green to a lot of amazing people, bringing debates about accessibility to content about cannabis and other drugs , we exchanged a lot of ideas with this amazing guy! In the conversation, we talked about how, in an ideal setting, drugs should be regulated, in addition to the current context of countries like Canada, the United States and Uruguay, where cannabis was regulated, and what expectations we, as Brazilians, can have for our future in this matter.

Come with us? Check out this super complete interview:

Steve’s Book: Legalizing drugs

Girls in Green: What is Transform and what projects are you involved internationally?

S: Transform is a UK based drug policy and advocacy organization. We focus historically, we’ve been set up for about 20 years, and we focus historically on regulation. So models of regulation, trying to say what the world would look like after the war on drugs is over. I guess our USP, if you like it, our unique selling point in the drug policy ecosystem is that we’ve had a very specific focus on regulation models and we actually generate very detailed models of how regulation can work, not only for cannabis, but for all drugs.

GG: What do you think are the best practices for other countries that are planning on regulating?

S: one of the key things that I think that Canada did really well is that it had a really solid process. And actually the political process of how you come up with your regulation model is really really important. So what they did is they set up a task force, that task force had people from public health, from criminal justice, from social policy, from all different sorts of academic areas and professional areas, that was I think about 20 people on that task force.

Then when they engaged with a whole range of stakeholders, so they met with parents groups, they met with teachers, they met with cannabis growers, cannabis users, public health people, enforcement people, indigenous groups, minority groups, young people. They met with pretty much all the different stakeholders and they got all of them and they invited written submission as well. And then they sat down and they spent a really good amount of time processing that information and helping it shape the recommendations that they then came up with.Those recommendations would then grow into the legislation, and the legislation then had to go through a political process. You can see where the politics has seeped in, so some of the drug war politics are still there, but from the whole, I think it’s a very sensible, public health led model. Putting public health at the center of the process and having a very clear set of objectives for what the policy was trying to deliver in terms of protecting young people, protecting public health, minimizing crime, minimizing the illegal market.  what they’ve done, I think, as a process has been very wise and I think that’s a really useful model for other countries to copy and build up.

GG: What do you think are the three most important aspects when starting to regulate cannabis?

S: To accept that when you start, is not necessarily where you’ll be five years of ten years or fifteen years. So I think it’s ok to have a cautious start. You don’t have to open the market for all kinds of cannabis products on day one. So you could for example just say we’re gonna herbal cannabis available in phase one, and in phase two, maybe a year later, once we’ve established a system and it’s shown to be up and running, we’ve dealt with some of the teething problems, then we could look at edibles and extracts, or consumption venues, like cannabis lounges or coffee shops. The second thing I would do is make sure that the retail point and marketing of products is very carefully and strictly controlled.

“For me, the key of freedom that we need to be acting on is the freedom of people who want to use cannabis to be able to access and use it legally.”

Making sure that the public health is front and center in the design of the policy and in terms of taking the policy forward for me is critical, and the retail point is where that really comes down. So I think not having fancy branded products, not having kind of beautiful venues where you go and buy cannabis, for me it’s about the freedom to use cannabis. And I guess the third point relates to that, is that we need to be careful to file all the policies to prevent corporate capture of the market. We need to learn from the mistakes we made with alcohol and tobacco. What we don’t want is for cannabis to be aggressively marketed to young people as a kind of cool lifestyle product in the way that alcohol and tobacco has been in the past. In this time around, I mean, I think we wanna use cannabis regulation as a way to show how to do drug regulation right. Cause if we get it right, then when it comes to other drugs in the future, we can show that we can do that responsibly. Because it’s a lot easier to regulate cannabis than it’s going to be to regulate MDMA, or magic mushrooms, or opioids.

GG: What do you believe it’s the tipping point to start a conversation with the government about cannabis regulation?

S: the interesting thing with Uruguay is that it was very different from the way US reforms have unfolded. In the US, it’s been activist led by these ballot initiatives, so most reforms have been led by votes. I think Vermont is the first one where it’s been a legislative specifically led, but all the other states have been activist and industry led. In Uruguay it’s very different, it was politically led. So Mujica, the president, basically decided that it was what he wanted to do because he thought it was the right thing to do, and there was no popular mandate, it was still about 30%, it wasn’t like a majority support in the US, it was about 30%. So what happened there was leadership. So I think this is a really important concept, there is a possibility that politicians, our elected leaders, would actually lead on this, at something that maybe isn’t popular or isn’t majority support now, will be in the future once it’s established and shown to be the right thing to do and shown to work and shown to be better for social justice and public health and crime reduction and all the rest of it. There are different dynamics by which cannabis reforms can unfold. Sometimes it’s supported by activist process, sometimes it’s a top-down legislative-government process.

Alice interviewing Steve

GG: How have you started advocating against the war on drugs?

S: Oh gosh, I kinda bumbled into it about 20 years ago, it wasn’t like strategic plan, I was working for an organization called Oxfam, and developed an organization, my kind of academic background was in development and international relations, I’ve been working on a reset project in India for a year, and then I come home and I was working in Oxfam, but Oxfam is a big development organization, I was working on a little regional office, and you feel like sort of a small part of a big kind of corporate.

This organization, Transform, was set up in Bristol, where I was living at the time, by my colleague Danny Kushlick, and he got some funding and he wanted to employ some people to work for him, and it just seemed like an interesting thing to do, it’s an issue I agree with the cause, and it just seemed more exciting and interesting than working for Oxfam. So I started doing it 20 years ago and I’m still doing it 20 years later. But it’s been an interesting journey, because when we started, we were seen as a kind of quite marginal, extreme, fringe organization. “You wanna legalize and regulate all drugs? Are you crazy?”. But what started as kind of marginal thing is now mainstream, and what started as a theoretical proposition is now policy reality. So it’s happening, it’s happening and it’s happened now. All that work we did over those years, muggling and advocating and lobbying, it’s paid off. And it’s very rewarding personally to see that work coming to fruition now. And I guess what I see is now it’s beginning to happen, the work we’ve done has positioned us really well kind of on the fangot of it, you know, we get to travel, we get to influence things, we get to, instead of be shouting at governments, we sit down with governments and design policies now. So it’s been a nice journey and it’s personally rewarding to know that we’re winning, it’s happening.

GG: If you had a crystal ball, how long do you think it would take for our own country to regulate cannabis?

The report “Regulation – The Responsible Control of Drugs” is the result of the 2018 Global Drug Policy Commission, where a practical map of the benefits and difficulties of the transition from illegal to legal markets has been placed. If you want to check the material in full click here

S: we’ve already seen Uruguay, and Uruguay borders Brazil. We’re about to see, I think in the next year, I think we’re about to see Mexico and Colombia I think is probably quite near. I mean, the Calderón government is maybe less sympathetic than Santos government, but I think we are looking at the beginning of a kind of domino effect in Latin America. So I think when Mexico goes, we’re probably gonna see Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and a bunch of the Central American countries, I think Argentina may be quite near, Colombia may be quite near, Chile even. Even some of this conservative, a lot of conservative countries in Europe have been very progressive on drug reform, because there is a  thread of conservative thinking which is fundamentally pragmatic, ‘cause they don’t like wasting money, and the war on drugs, above all, you know, from a political point of view, it’s a massive waste of money. And it’s only worth spending that money if it works for you politically. And as the kind of political potency of the war on drugs begins to diminish, politicians will be “why we’re spending billions on this when it’s clearly bullshit and it’s clearly not working and it’s clearly harming”. It starts to be an electoral liability rather than an electoral, you know, a good thing politically, it starts to be a bad thing politically. And when that happens, when the popular opinion starts to move past that certain threshold, suddenly it’s game on, and it can happen.

“So Brazil might seem quite unlikely for it to happen, but I think when other latin american countries start to change, and it’s shown to work, Brazil will follow soon enough. Even conservative Brazil, even with all the political difficulties and challenges in Brazil I suspect that maybe not this next government, but within a decade I’m sure Brazil will move too, because mainly I think that most latin america will have moved already. I don’t think Brazil will lead the chart in Latin America, but when the others move, I think it will move too.”

You can watch our full interview on IGTV! We were delighted with the vision of the Rolls, and we really want to believe in this optimistic scenario for Brazil. After all, we know how much drug war policies affect our peripheries and the most marginalized populations, and how much the law has openings that allow for misinterpretations (and, many, many times, of a racist nature).

Did you like to know more about all this? Tell us what you thought about Transform, if you didn’t already know it, and what are your expectations for our regulation – which we know will happen sooner or later!

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