Nov 2009

Cannabis prohibition — a question

While the question is implied in my previous post, I’d like to spell it out directly here in the hope that someone can provide an answer.

Why is it a criminal offence to possess cannabis?

The recent admission by the British Home Secretary that their policy is not based upon scientific advice is merely an unusually candid statement of a well-understood truth.

Stephen Whitehead, in the comments to my last post, suggests that the policy might be a product of “values and social norms”. But which values, specifically? And how does one pin down “social norms” long enough to legislate and incarcerate based upon them?

I’d argue that the values of a liberal society are actively transgressed by a government that chooses to destroy the lives of those who engage in a private activity that harms nobody except in extremely rare cases, themselves. Intoxication is not itself a transgression of any western values. And social norms are a dreadful basis for legislation. Those who speak of the wisdom of crowds have never studied group psychodynamics. Groups of people can be manipulated into accepting almost any set of social norms one cares to mention. For good or for ill.

So if a government acknowledges that drug prohibition is not based upon the harm caused by drugs (and indeed seems to exacerbate that harm), then what is it based upon? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Up until now I assumed it had something to do with our laws being made by a generation of people who were ignorant and fearful of drugs and who erroneously assumed drugs were more harmful than prohibition. Now, however, we have law-makers who were adolescents in the 1960s and 70s, many of whom admit to having tried it themselves* and who have received clear advice from experts in the field that prohibition simply doesn’t have a scientific justification.

What worries me is that Stephen Whitehead may well be right. Drug prohibition, like so many other areas of policy, is indeed based upon “values and social norms”. But “values and social norms” is little more than a respectable way of saying “the editorial position of tabloids”. Our law-makers (and this goes for us over here in Ireland as well as my friends in Britain) appear infinitely more concerned with keeping The Daily Mail and The Sun happy than they are with passing rational laws and doing the right thing.

And people still wonder why I (and so many others) have begun to hold the democratic process in such contempt. There’s no way of testing it, of course, but I pretty much guarantee that were the editors of tabloid newspapers and Sky News to shift their position on drug prohibition tomorrow that the entire public debate would have changed within a couple of weeks and we would see major changes in the law within a few months or so. And when a handful of media moguls have the power to substantially alter “values and social norms” it becomes quite clear why “values and social norms” should never trump scientific evidence and rational assessment in the arena of public policy.

Update 15:36: And on roughly the same topic…

The excellent Stewart Lee
* and who would never have been selected as parliamentary candidates if they’d been criminalised as a result. How much more harmful would a five year jail sentence have been to David Cameron than the pot he smoked at Eton? How much more harmful would a criminal record be to Jack Straw’s son, than the little bit of weed he sold? But so long as the harm isn’t happening to them, our political classes appear blind to it. Petty, vindictive, hypocritical bastards that they are.

Posted in: Opinion