Friday, 9 September 2011

Time to Lift the Stigma from Mary Jane (2 of 2)

This is Part 2 of my response to James Garry's Politics on Toast article - In Part 1, I explained how the current application of the laws on possession of marijuana act as a blockade to adult debate of the issue. Here I lay out a critique of the prohibition angle and my own case for legalisation.

The attitude of Libertarians towards questions of personal and lifestyle choices is one of the substantial differences that sets us apart from Conservatives. People are individuals, they are not owned by the state or a society that dictates to them that a 'greater good' should take precedence over their liberty - ergo, the personal and lifestyle choices of the individual are entirely their own, unless it can be demonstrated that this choice in itself causes harm to others.

In my opener, I referred to alcohol as the 'elephant in the room' on a multitude of levels when discussing the legal status of marijuana. I'm making no attempt to deny that the continuous smoking of cannabis (to levels that might actually constitute misuse or abuse) can have harmful effects, both immediate and cumulative - impaired physical health, including some of the effects that are inevitable consequences of smoking tobacco, along with damage to ones mental capacity and well-being. Statistically, it is true that prolonged and extensive use of the drug increases the likelihood of illness, be it physical or mental. There is also a marginal role in violent behaviour and the unfortunate phenomenon of 'drug driving' that has begun to blight our roads in recent years.

However, there are two points worth making. First up, just about every charge one might throw at marijuana is equally applicable to alcohol. Drink-driving is responsible for 17% of deaths on our roads on an annual basis and has also been linked to depression, self-harm, suicide and even episodes of psychosis. Its role in violence and disorder is as clear as a bell to anyone who visits one of our towns or cities on a Saturday night, while it is also estimated to be the cause of some 17 million days off work in the Uk in the average year. By the same standards that prohibitionists apply to marijuana, there would be a very strong case for closing those pubs that remain, tearing down wine racks in supermarkets and enforcing nationwide sobriety - yet a widespread campaign to ban alcohol in Britain does not exist. There would appear to be two main reasons why this is the case.

Firstly, the lessons of history show us that the prohibition of any 'fix' pursued by a substantial percentage of the population simply does not work. What did this experiment in 1920s America actually achieve? More than anything, it made a few villains immensely wealthy and rendered the alcohol market the subject of a turf war, where it became part of a much wider crime network that included protection rackets and extortion - death was often an occupational hazard of life in the drinks trade. The absence of a some form of legal control also led to the rise of 'moonshine' beverages that were notoriously dangerous. As the government attempts to price us all out of a beer or glass of wine, I'd expect more operations like the exploding vodka plant in Lincolnshire to emerge.

Quality control is also an important question here - as someone who has been to many gatherings where the drug was on offer (and smoked a few joints myself, though not for a few years now), I got to know several people who partook a more than occasional herbal cigarette. On one occasion, a mate of mine had a strange experience after smoking a joint which roused my attention (I was being boring, sticking simply to alcohol and 'regular' tobacco that night). When I later observed that he had not quite been himself, my friend explained that after again seeing the individual who had sold him the merchandise, he had learned that this smalltime dealer 'cut his dope with LSD'. I'm not saying that had he known in advance that the transaction would not have taken place anyway - it may well have done.

The point is, he was deliberately deprived of the opportunity to make an informed decision, and this is what happens when you surrender the entirety of a market to criminals. Drug dealers are not known for their honesty and nor do they pride themselves on the impeccable quality of the product they sell. By definition it is impossible to know the exact figure, but sensible estimates suggest that two million people in the Uk smoke marijuana with some sort of frequency, while half of those aged 16-29 have tried it at least once. Prohibition deprives these consumers of the right to understand exactly what they might be paying for and make an informed decision, while facilitating the 'souping up' of drugs by dealers that make them a whole lot more dangerous.

It is also necessary to take to task James' observation that "Many people who take cannabis do not function as the rest of us do". He partially qualifies this by stating that "Yes, not everyone who takes cannabis becomes psychotic or otherwise mentally ill. But the little impairments are just as damaging to society", but this still implies that those who smoke it immediately become incapable of compartmentalising their lives and understanding when it is or is not ok to get 'stoned'. Those I have known with whom marijuana played some sort of cameo role in their lives were perfectly capable of holding down jobs, even progressing in their careers and acting perfectly responsibly when the situation required it of them. Of course, some whose minds are somewhat altered may make a wrong decision to jump in their car - the same could be said of an people who drive while visibly plastered. Drugs can also 'take over' an individual's life, be they alcoholics, pot-heads, painkiller addicts, whatever - this owes far more to a person's addictive personality than to the drug itself.

The fundamental distinction is that when discussing the 'accepted' drug of alcohol, most people are capable of seeing the forays into criminality undeniably influenced by its use and rationalise that the majority of responsible drinkers ought not be punished for the indiscretions of those who cannot judge when getting behind the wheel is not a good idea, or that enough is simply enough. Yet, replace beer or wine with marijuana in the same conversation and some of those who would defend to the death an individual's right to partake in the former suddenly morph into holier-than-thou puritans, perhaps convinced that it serves as a 'gateway drug' to more harmful things. It is indeed the case that marijuana can be 'the first step on the narcotics ladder', but only because it introduces its users to criminals and low-lifes giving them the hard sell.

I've never bought a bottle of wine from a shop and been asked by the girl at the counter 'by the way, have you tried this?'. We need to break the chain, then when the expected collapse of society into wholesale disrepair does not happen, move on and look at legalising other drugs. Any prediction is little more than an educated guess, but there may indeed be an increase in use of marijuana immediately after legalisation, owing much to some sense of novelty factor. However, this in itself does not equate to the wrecking ball that many prohibitionists would suggest that it does. Maybe we can finally discuss as adults when it is or is not responsible to smoke marijuana, something that is simply not possible when the substance concerned is illegal (drink-driving has become deeply uncool and so can dope driving). It is not a substantive part of my argument, but the revenue that came through taxing the drug would also be more than useful and facilitate a small cut in taxation elsewhere.

An end to the hypocrisy on drugs is long overdue, as is the breakup of the criminal monopoly that can only be facilitated by prohibition. Take care and I'll catch you soon.


  1. Daz,
    I was a teenage pot smoker, like most of my friends at the time. I dabbled with speed and acid, but mainly stuck to pot. Whilst I don't think it did any physical or mental harm what it definitely did do was kill my drive and ambition. I eventually decided to pack it in when I could see that my former pot smoking friends were getting on with their lives and achieving things. The pot was making me too soft, too accepting too content and too lacking in resolve to get the things I really wanted out of life. From talking to friends who have had similar experiences I think this really is the main drawback of marajiuana.

    Now that George Michael has got the nice house in Highgate he can afford to kick back with the odd spliff and drive his Range Rover into Snappy Snaps every now again, but the rest of us have to put a bit more effort in.

    Any government be it Labour, Liberal, Conservative or Monster Raving Libertarian would be crazy to legalise marajiuana simply because of the negative effect on economic output. The last thing we need is a recreational drug fuelled recession.

    I think it is more a case of the effect on the economy as a whole rather than the effect on the indivual.

  2. Afternoon Voice - given that 2 million people are believed to smoke marijuana with some regularity, would you attribute part of the current economic situation to recreational drug use? And does it not suggest that the current illegal status of the drug has a negligible effect of whether people choose to smoke it or not?

  3. 2 million users in a country of more than 60 million, that is a very small number compared to legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, don't you think?

    If you think that whether something is legal or not has a negligible effect on take-up why is the number of users so low.

    I am a tea-totaller and I am very much in the minority and I'm sure I am viewed as a bit odd for not indulging in perfectly legal substance. There is nothing strange or odd about not smoking marajiuana, I have never suffered any social pressure to do that (well not since I was about 17 anyway).

    Legalising something almost certainly results in an increase in consumption. "Satisfaction should be within an arms reach of desire" said Philip Kotler, the Godfather of "marketing". Hiding something away is definitely not a good way of promoting sales.

    Marajiuana has always been seen as a gateway drug to harder substances like cocaine and heroin. Contrary to what you might read in the popular press addiction to hard drugs has reduced year-on-year since records began (albeit they only started recording the number of addicts 6 years ago)so controlling up-take of the gateway drug could be having a positive effect.

  4. VoR, you could be correct in what you say about the effects of MaryJ.
    From a more libertarian (personal freedom and responsibility-orientated) approach, it is the approach you might be advocating that could be the problem.
    People need to understand the effects of MaryJ and make their own informed choice based on the available facts.
    To dictate, top down, what people should or should not do (or think?) is more lord-of-the-manor stuff, telling his serfs how to behave and what's good for them.
    It's the control thing that leads to the riots.
    When people no longer have reason to think for themselves.