Sep 2006

The madness of cannabis prohibition

Back in the UK it seems that the Home Office – that most trustworthy of ministries – is considering a fairly radical overhaul of drug policy. Clearly “Dr. John” Reid wants to deflect media attention from the screw-ups his department is making in the area of immigration and anti-terrorism. And what better way to achieve this than by screwing up a whole other area of policy? You may recall Reid as the minister who was discovered with cannabis in his home but to whom – conveniently – the drug laws don’t apply. The new proposals being considered involve a redefinition of the quantity of cannabis (and other drugs) which qualifies as “possession for personal use”; i.e. how much a person can possess before being classifed as a dealer and sent to prison for a long time. Up to 14 years in fact.

In the case of cannabis, the proposal is to limit the quantity considered “personal” to 5 grams. Now, I lived in the UK for a decade and a half. During that time I met a large number of pot smokers (I guess attending, and helping to organise, various cannabis law reform events will tend to encourage such encounters). I would estimate that at least 90% of those pot smokers regularly purchased their stash in quantities of a quarter ounce or more. A quarter equates to a shade over 7 grams.

So if these proposals are accepted, the practical upshot will be to define 90% of the UK’s regular tokers as “dealers”. Which is irrational in the extreme (what? drug laws irrational? surely not!) It implies that the other 10% of tokers are buying huge quantities of pot in very small portions and smoking it very quickly indeed. Or else that very little pot is actually being smoked, with lots of people just selling it to one another for the sheer joy of commerce.

There can be no question that these latest proposals are absurd. Quite aside from anything else, at a time when the UK’s prisons are acknowledged to be dangerously overcrowded, it defies all good sense that the Home Office should seek to classify perhaps as many as 2.5 million people as meriting 14 years behind bars for a non-violent, victimless crime.

But of course, it isn’t merely these latest proposals which are blatantly insane. It’s the entire notion of cannabis prohibition. And it isn’t confined to the UK, but stretches across the globe with one or two islands of sanity stubbornly reminding us that the criminalisation of a medicinal plant, popularly consumed for its recreational side-effects, is a matter of choice not divine imperative.

So I want to take a little time here to examine the issue of cannabis prohibition. I want to examine both the principle behind the policy, and the practical consequences of that policy. I want to examine them – as far as I’m capable – rationally and objectively. My position on the issue is clear, but I want to demonstrate why that position is right. And why this is not merely a difference of opinion, but a policy area where there are logically clear right and wrong approaches, and where the wrong approach has been implemented for far too long.

The Principle of The Thing

In truth it’s impossible to discover a logically consistent principle behind the prohibition of cannabis. There are extreme religious sects which outlaw the consumption of any psychoactive substances up to and including refined sugar. However it is obviously not that principle upon which cannabis prohibition is based. We live in a society which condones the use of a vast number of different psychoactive substances, from chocolate to morphine (in the words of Andrew Weil).

More than that, our society continually endorses the consumption of new psychoactive substances. Prozac anyone? Xanax? We clearly don’t live in a society which takes a principled stand against the consumption of mind-altering substances.

But perhaps the principle is narrower in focus. Perhaps we live in a society which outlaws the consumption of dangerous psychoactive substances on principle. Except again, we clearly don’t. Both alcohol and tobacco have well-documented dangers associated with them (with regards to both physical and mental health). In 1994 (not particularly recent, but representative enough) there were over 600,000 deaths directly attributed to tobacco and alcohol in the United States alone. That’s a huge number. And no illegal drug even comes close.

So it’s safe to say that while two drugs responsible for that level of carnage are freely available for taxation and purchase (from sweet shops in many countries), we do not – as a society – take a principled stand against the consumption of dangerous substances.

You could argue that we do take such a principled stance, but that we are inconsistent in our enforcement. That actually, on principle both alcohol and tobacco (and caffeine and many others) should be treated the same as cannabis; that brewers and bartenders should be imprisoned for 14 years as “dealers” and that our failure to do so is just that – a failure. However, there is absolutely no evidence to support this view, and I would suggest that asking a Home Office minister whether a bartender or a Coca-Cola salesman is ethically identical to a “drug dealer” would result in a snort of derision.

I cannot think of another principle by which the prohibition of cannabis can be justified. So whatever rationale may be behind the prohibition of cannabis is clearly one born of practical considerations rather than a moral position.

And in practice?

In practice cannabis prohibition has been a disaster. The policy is directly responsible for a massive increase in funding for organised crime and extremist groups throughout the world. It’s true that I’ve met tokers who take pride in scoring their pot from a local grower, or who source theirs directly from a Dutch organic grow collective (or whatever). But it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of cannabis purchases will line the pockets of gangsters in the supply chain.

It’s mind-boggling… with cannabis prohibition, the governments of the world have taken a multi-billion euro industry and deliberately relinquished all control over it. Instead of regulating and taxing it, they have voluntarily placed it into the hands of violent criminals (and, we’re led to believe, terrorists). I’m talking here about a global market valued (by the UN) at almost €115 billion.

Even worse, the prohibition of cannabis is directly responsible for creating close ties between the market for cannabis and the market for other more addictive drugs. In exactly the same way that selling cigarettes from sweet shops normalises tobacco within mainstream society; so it is that dealers who sell cocaine as well as cannabis have normalised hard drugs within the world of cannabis use.

When the Dutch decriminalised cannabis and allowed its sale from licensed outlets the short-term effect was an increase in cannabis consumption among Dutch young adults. However in the medium term the policy has actually reduced the number of Dutch people using the drug. Not by much, but the rate of consumption among Dutch nationals is less than that of the UK, Ireland and many other nations who have a policy of prohibition. Most importantly however, the Dutch have registered a significant fall in the uptake of hard-drug consumption. The Netherlands is one of the few nations in Europe where the average age of heroin addicts is rising.

In other words, by reducing the link between cannabis and hard drugs, less cannabis users are now trying heroin. This is the final nail in the coffin of the already discredited “gateway” theory of drug use (the idea that the use of one drug leads to another). It seems that the real gateway to hard-drug use is cannabis prohibition.

Unfortunately, The Netherlands has come under huge pressure to end its policy. It is a clear measure of the social benefits of that policy that they have – until now – resisted this pressure. One problem, however, that their policy has created is that of “drug tourism”. Well, I say that their policy has created it… it would perhaps be more accurate to claim that the policy of prohibition employed elsewhere has created the Dutch drug tourism problem.

And it is a problem. I don’t deny that. People under the influence of cannabis, with very few exceptions, are not overtly antisocial. This is in high contrast to those under the influence of alcohol. However, having thousands of very stoned foreigners wandering around your city is likely to annoy and, in some cases, inconvenience the locals. It is this factor which has galvanised a certain amount of opposition to the cannabis liberalisation policy in The Netherlands.

As a comparison, however, I’d like to hold up Temple Bar – the area of Dublin City where the nightlife is concentrated. Thanks to Ryanair and their 99 cent flights, Temple Bar has become the stag and hen-party capital of Europe. Every weekend it is filled with thousands of foreign tourists on a 48 hour binge of alcohol consumption. The comparison between central Amsterdam and central Dublin on a Saturday night is revealing. I’m not claiming that Amsterdam is some kind of hippy-dippy flower-power utopia. Far from it. But the level of outright aggression to be found in Temple Bar is genuinely unsettling. It’s a deeply unpleasant place at night.

Crappy soapbar

Another side-effect of cannabis prohibition is that it’s a policy of harm-maximisation. It makes the consumption of cannabis considerably more dangerous and more damaging than it would otherwise be. Not only has the distribution of the drug been placed into the hands of gangsters, but so has its production. Up to and including the quality control process.

There are physiological dangers associated with cannabis smoking. It is arguably carcinogenic, and while this has not been established as a fact there’s a good deal of inconclusive evidence to suggest it. It contains more tar than cigarettes (though the “twenty times more tar” claim that you’ll often read is a significant overestimation). However, as recent developments in the United States with regards to the tobacco-industry lawsuits have demonstrated; low tar cigarettes are just as carcinogenic as high-tar cigarettes. This throws the assumption that tar is the problem ingredient in tobacco into question. I’ve heard other theories suggesting that a particular lead-isotope found in tobacco (though not cannabis) could actually be the problem, which would imply that cannabis is far less damaging than tobacco.

None of that is conclusive however and research is ongoing. So for safety’s sake, it makes sense to assume that the smoking of any substance has a potentially damaging effect on the lungs and throat of the user.

Nonetheless, whatever harm may be associated with smoking cannabis is significantly compounded when the cannabis is adulterated with dangerous chemicals. And thanks to a government policy which places quality control into the hands of unaccountable and anonymous gangsters, the hashish found on the streets of Europe is often “bulked-out” with rather nasty ingredients – many of which are far more damaging when smoked than either tobacco or cannabis. This snippet from the UKCIA website says it all really…

SOAPBAR (it’s called “soap” because a 250g bar is shaped like a bar of soap) is perhaps the most common type of hash in the UK and it is often the most polluted.

Now, not all soap is bad of course, but some certainly is. At worst there may only be a tiny amount of low grade hash mixed with some very strange stuff:

Beeswax, turpentine, milk powder, ketamine, boot polish, henna, pine resin, aspirin, animal turds, ground coffee, barbiturates, glues and dyes plus carcinogenic solvents such as Toluene and Benzene

… Join us in saying “NO” to crap hash, tell your friends, tell your dealer and ask your MP why they refuse to allow quality controls for cannabis

Harm Maximisation

And that’s not all. Not only does your government enforce policies which increase the likelihood of cannabis users damaging their lungs by smoking benzene and shoe-polish, but they also resist attempts to limit the damage caused by cannabis in other ways. The physical dangers of cannabis can be eliminated entirely by smokeless consumption. Cannabis can be prepared as a food or as a drink. However, there are certain drawbacks with these which make them unpopular with many users (dosage is harder to judge, the effects can take up to an hour to become noticeable, and the social ritual of passing around a pipe is lost).

This is why vaporisation is such an excellent method of consumption. A cannabis vaporiser contains a heating element which raises the temperature of herbal cannabis until the active ingredient (THC) vaporises. This vapour is then inhaled. The process is not unlike smoking through a hookah and physiologically is entirely harmless. Indeed, it has medical benefits as the THC vapour acts as a bronchial dilator allowing the lungs to expel any particulates that may have become lodged within them through smoke or pollution inhalation.

The problem with vaporisation is that it is an expensive method of consumption. Of course there’s the initial outlay on a quality vaporiser (at least €150). However, there are two other problems with vaporisation which are made vastly worse by prohibition. Firstly, to be effective, it requires relatively fresh herbal cannabis. This isn’t widely available to your average toker who considers himself lucky if he can get unpolluted soapbar. Secondly, the same quantity of herbal cannabis will have a lesser effect when vaporised than when smoked.

See, when you burn cannabis you are guaranteeing that every last bit of THC is inhaled. Even the best vaporisers will fail to get 100 percent of the THC. Some low-quality vaporisers won’t even extract 50 percent of the THC. This essentially reduces a toker’s stash by half. Given the difficulty in obtaining fresh herb, and the absurd prohibition-driven cost, very few tokers are willing to make this sacrifice.

Quite aside from all this, most cannabis users have never even heard of vaporisers. The prohibition of cannabis inevitably leads to a reduction in reliable information available to users.

The Obvious Conclusion

Cannabis prohibition is utterly irrational. There is no moral imperative behind it. It is merely an accident of history which has generated such a counter-productive and downright dangerous policy. There exists no evidence that prohibition reduces cannabis consumption. Indeed, by driving the industry into the hands of those who are willing to act beyond the law to increase their market-share, it’s arguably responsible for a longterm increase.

Furthermore, the prohibition of this medicinal plant has resulted in the end-product becoming increasingly harmful thanks to a complete lack of quality controls and a huge financial incentive to adulterate it with toxic, though cheaper, ingredients. This adulteration cannot be prevented so long as there are no legal frameworks for the production of hash.

And of course the policy of prohibition represents a significant loss in revenue to the state given that cannabis – just like alcohol and tobacco – is ripe for taxation. This revenue, along with all profits, are instead being funnelled into serious crime and terrorism.

The sooner this absurd criminalisation of nature ends, the better we’ll be. Not just cannabis users. Everyone.

Posted in: Opinion