Cannabis a special case ?
by Richard Cowan
In matters as complex as drug and drug prohibition issues it is important to begin by starting with the basics. For many people cannabis and its prohibition should be viewed as just one part of a broader social problem. To them, either the drug problem or even the entire social order is part of a larger moral disorder that needs to be reformed from one perspective or another. To these people dealing with cannabis separately may seem either too narrowly focused or even a betrayal of broader principles.
Many prohibitionists seem to be almost fixated on cannabis. Often they spend more resources on cannabis than on other drugs. Most justify this attention on the grounds that cannabis causes hard drug use, but the most fanatical prohibitionists (extremists are found on every issue) actually claim that cannabis is the most dangerous drug. These people are disproportionably influential, especially in the US and France. These people dominate the drug education industry in the US to such a degree that most drug education is actually just heavy-handed prohibitionist propaganda.
Unfortunately, this has the effect of undermining the credibility of real education, and may actually increase the use of hard drugs by young people. I have had many young people tell me that when they found out they had been lied to about cannabis they thought they had been lied to about other drugs as well. This would seem to be common sense but it escapes well-intentioned fanatics.
On the other hand, many anti-prohibitionists oppose separating the cannabis reform movement from anti-prohibitionism in general for both philosophical and practical reasons. From the perspective of a personal freedom argument, there is no reason why government should have power over anyone's freedom of choice, whether the choice is cannabis, alcohol or an opiate. They fear that the re-legalisation of cannabis will deprive the movement of its strongest constituency and weaken the drive to legalise other drugs.
Others view hard drug prohibition as a much greater social problem since cannabis users seldom commit crimes of violence and they don't generally steal to support their 'habit'. Also cannabis use and prohibition does not produce major public health problems likeAIDS and other disease involved with injectable drugs. For all these reasons, there are those on both sides of the issue who do not believe cannabis can or should be dealt with separately.
Moreover, most cannabis users are personally indifferent to the legal status of other drugs, even if they are all too aware of the high costs of prohibition and the threat to everyone's freedom inherent in the methods necessary to enforce prohibition. It is certainly not true that the legalisation of cannabis would inevitably lead to the legalisation of hard drugs, but the wild card in real world politics is that the re-legalisation of cannabis would leave cannabis users free to speak out about the methods of prohibition, which they cannot do safely at present. This does not necessarily mean that they will favour the legalisation of other drugs but they will certainly oppose many of the current methods used to enforce prohibition.
On the other hand, the simplest and most direct reason advanced for a separate cannabis reform movement is that cannabis really is different from other illicit drugs and unlike other drugs, cannabis has a large constituency who are mobilising to support its legalisation. This is not simply a democratic argument but a social and practical one as well. When a middle class cannabis user is arrested the arrest generally causes them and society more harm than their cannabis use does. This has the effect of alienating these people from the political system in general and the police in particular. And certainly this is a misuse of police resources at a time when violent crime is increasing.
Ironically most people who are in favour of re-legalising cannabis are very sceptical about ending the prohibition of most other drugs. These people, who are not ideologues, also recognise that if the prohibition of other drugs is to have any chance of success then cannabis must first be re-legalised. There are several common sense reasons for this. First, the finite resources devoted to cannabis prohibition could be much better used in almost any other law enforcement application, whether the enforcement of prohibition of other drugs or crime in general. Second, cannabis prohibition alienates a large segment of the population which undermines all law enforcement. Third, cannabis must be separated from the other drugs and this can be done only by re-legalisation.
The so-called 'gateway' theory that cannabis use leads to hard drug use is not merely wrong, and a logical fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc), it is actually the direct opposite of the truth. Would there be more or less hard drug use if cannabis was to disappear? The evidence suggests that there would be more. People who use drugs other than alcohol are by definition looking for a non-alcohol high. If cannabis is not available, they must seek something else. Although cannabis can be used to excess it is far less damaging than any other drug, legal or illegal. Thus cannabis use does not lead to the use of the other drugs, but actually would be a barrier or filter to their use - so long as prohibition does not throw cannabis into the same distribution channels and reduce its availability relative to stronger drugs. The economics of contraband actually encourages the smuggling, selling and use of stronger and therefore more profitable drugs, which means that cannabis is the first to be driven out of the market. Making cannabis legally available would reduce the demand for other illicit drugs, thereby making their prohibition less costly.
There are other problems unique to cannabis prohibition. The most important is that cannabis has many genuine medical uses. Certainly it is possible, and entirely consistent with modern practice, to have a substance available by prescription but not allowed for recreational use, such as morphine. Cannabis would not have to be an exception to this practice, however, the fact is that it has many more uses and is far less dangerous than most other readily available palliatives. There should be medical grade packaging, but should it be harder to get than more dangerous substances? Then there is the question of hemp.
The suppression of hemp by the American prohibitionist movement may have been a means to an end or an end in itself, but it is backfiring on the prohibitionists. Hemp can be grown with very low levels of psychoactive ingredients, but its wide spread cultivation for non-drug purposes may make the suppression of hemp grown for drug use even more problematic. This is not so much the result of the plants looking the same, but rather because it is difficult to demonise an agricultural crop over a long period of time. Facts get even more in the way when they are growing in farmers' fields.
Finally, there is the success of the Dutch model of selling cannabis in coffee shops. This has worked very well. The reality of this success takes this subject out of the realm of speculation. We need not ask ourselves what might happen if we legalise cannabis. The Dutch model (not technically legalisation but close enough) shows us the way. Failing to follow this success is not merely stupid, but morally wrong. Indeed, to delay the implementation of the Dutch model would impose intolerable costs on society by undermining the moral authority of the law and the confidence of the citizens in law enforcement - as indeed it should.
Ultimately the most basic reason for ending cannabis prohibition is that it is based on a simple fraud and it is morally wrong.
Cannabis prohibition is a disaster and a major impediment to any successful drug policy, whether prohibition or legalisation. It is not for us to create a utopia, but rather to eliminate such evils as we can. Cannabis prohibition is one such evil.
Richard Cowan is the director of NORML, the US-based National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.