This is Part 2 of my 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/. 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.