This is a response to James Garry's Politics on Toast article - http://politicsontoast.com/2011/09/03/cannabis-is-legal-in-britain-or-skunk-shops-in-suburbia-part-ii/. Here, I explain why the current situation of lax law enforcement is 'bad for both sides' before laying out a detailed case in favour of legalising marijuana in Part 2.
The description that James provides of high street shops that sell 'hydroponic equipment' is an amusing one and more relevant to the conversation than it may at seem at first glance. I've heard of such shops (although I haven't, to my knowledge, ever been in one - nor is there such an outlet in my locality of which I'm aware), and it indeed appears that the existence of "grow kits, ultra violet lighting, fertilisers, seeds, vaporisers, bubble bags and much more" all under one roof may have more than a little to do with the large-scale production of marijuana, which is still an offence you occasionally see punished by the courts in an era where the attitude of law enforcement in general is more 'pragmatic' or 'relaxed'.
In that sense, it is surprising that the authorities have not at least gone in there to check the place out - more than anything they could simply confiscate the offending 'seeds' and point out that much of the remaining equipment could be used as part of a perfectly legitimate enterprise. a less lucrative one yes, and that's something I'll come back to later, but an entirely lawful means of making money nonetheless. As it is, these 'hydroponics' outlets are to 21st century Britain what speakeasies posing as pet shops were in 1920s America during the era of prohibition. This point is especially relevant because when presenting the case to legalise marijuana, alcohol is the elephant in the room on a number of levels.
When those campaigning for legalisation found a stronger collective voice in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the walking disaster that was the last government made yet another decision that owed a great deal to its innate ideological and intellectual bankruptcy. Straddling between a wish to appear 'tough on crime' by appeasing the anti-narcotics sentiment of the (for want of a better phrase) 'Daily Mail tendency' and the realisation that the war on drugs was a losing one, cannabis was reclassified to Class C status in 2004. Five years later they reversed the decision and returned the drug to Class B status, perhaps inspired to do so in part by the rise of skunk on our streets, but more than anything else by political expediency.
As in so many areas, Labour's policy on drugs was muddled and completely lacked either vision or direction. What we ended up with in practice was semi-legalised dope through stealth, a substance that was technically illegal but with a degree of poetic licence given to local law enforcement in regard to how they policed its use - a narcotics postcode lottery, if you will. This was and remains, to coin a phrase, "a miserable little compromise" that suits nobody.
It is also profoundly unconstitutional and dangerous. Something that caught my eye in one of James' posts was an observation that "I don't get Libertarians", with the (not uncommon) suggestion that Libertarians are essentially anarchists who lack either the courage, conviction or both to label themselves as such. This analysis is of course wrong so please let me explain:- the fundamental difference between Libertarianism and anarchy as I see it is a firm belief in the rule of law. This is essentially what separates us and I'll explain its relevance to this discussion.
A few months ago, during a regional Libertarian meeting, one of the guys asked how we would feel about supporting a campaign advising people not to pay the TV licence fee. I'm all for either an optional licence or privatising the BBC, but made it crystal clear that imploring others to commit a criminal offence is the wrong way to bring about change, since doing so seriously undermines the rule of law. Creating a culture in which law enforcement can see illegal activity taking place but choose to ignore it clearly falls into the same category, and so James' point about enforcing the current law is indeed correct, even if the analogy with shops selling weapons and 'robbery equipment' does not fit exactly.
There will always be cases where the punishment of a criminal offence is either unpopular or deemed by many to be an unworkable waste of police time - this will invariably lead to there being at least a strong case for reviewing the existing situation, as there is for the legalisation of marijuana. However, there are right and wrong ways to go about attempting to bring about and implement this change. Presenting the case in a fashion which takes sufficient public opinion with you to secure a majority is the only reasonable means by which such a shift can have the confidence of the general population. Not only does the current status of 'technically illegal, practically legal (depending on where you live)' undermine the rule of law, it ultimately does no favours to any honestly-presented case for legalisation.
One may suggest I should be happy with any outcome that leads to marijuana being less illegal than it previously was - as someone who seeks to engage in honest debate, the means by which it was achieved somewhat take the edge off any (questionable) sense of progress. The pro-legalisation side of the argument has never actually 'won' as such and we'd do well to remember that - nor will the opportunity to do so ever arise if we see the existing arrangement as valid. As for the halfway house solutions occasionally put forward by those on the fence, decriminalisation in reality is a cop-out that achieves nothing, as is the peculiar notion put forward by "strange people who are mentally creative enough to view cannabis consumption as acceptable but cannabis supply to be immoral".
James is right in the sense that as with many issues, there are only two stances towards the legal status of marijuana (and indeed other drugs) which can be seen as completely honest - those of blanket prohibition and outright legalisation, so I have total respect for an opponent who takes up a position based on firmly held principle. In Part 2, I'll explain precisely how and why I believe that this view is inherently flawed. Take care and I'll catch you soon.