tag: Drug policy

Nov 2012

Send in the drones

Last Tuesday – mesmerised as I am by coloured maps – I stayed up late enough to see Barack Obama hold onto the US presidency. So I went to bed early Wednesday morning knowing that Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be President of the United States. And I was glad about that. The lesser of two evils won. And as a friend pointed out, “The lesser of two evils is still evil, but is also lesser. That’s just maths.”

When I awoke the following day though, I was a little taken-aback when I watched his victory speech online. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the people in that convention hall were precisely the people who will feel strongest about an Obama victory; but I found the sheer distance between their euphoria and my resigned fatalism a little disconcerting. Then I read an article about that mass re-tweeting of Obama’s “victory tweet” with the attached photo, and it floored me. According to a different article, that creepy photo of Barack and Michelle embracing has been shared by almost three quarters of a million people on twitter and 3.6 million Facebook users. That was last Wednesday; I feel certain the numbers are higher by now. And I’m pretty certain the vast majority of those people weren’t forwarding the photo as an example of “a creepy thing”.

And then I had three different discussions on social media forums which led me to realise that quite a lot of people seem to be relatively heavily invested in Obama; intellectually, emotionally, politically… however you want to put it. Mostly those on the American centre-left, but plenty of non-Americans too. They didn’t find that photo – and the shared urge of millions to forward it to their friends – at all creepy. They found it celebratory, uplifting, inspirational even. And that sense of disconnect I’d been feeling continued to grow.

Political puppets

Hey! There’s one guy holding both puppets!

Once again, let me stress that I’m glad Obama beat Romney. If someone put a gun to the head of someone I loved and told me to choose the next US president from between those two men, I would – of course – choose Obama. I’m not sad because the greater of two evils failed to win the election. I am, however, pretty sad that the entire world – but Americans in particular, as it’s their president we’re talking about here – appear to passively accept a state of affairs in which they choose between two evils every four years. Here in the 21st century, is that really the best we can come up with? Because it’s far from the best we can imagine. Is the gulf between our imagination and our ability to shape our society so vast? And have we completely abandoned all attempts to bridge it?

I understand that relatively rational, relatively liberal Americans are consumed by a fear of the right-wing crazies in their midst. There is a fundamentalist religious movement in America (along with a bunch of Machiavellian politicos willing to exploit it) whose views on many issues are right off the chart – whether it’s legitimate rape, the death penalty for rebellious children or that whole “teaching creationism as a scientific alternative to evolution” thing; there is a segment of the US population who appear to want some kind of psychotic theocracy. And I understand the celebrations of those who see Obama’s victory as having prevented that outcome.

But those celebrations rest upon two very dubious foundations (in my view). The first is the idea that a Mitt Romney victory represented such an outcome (I’ll explain in a moment why I don’t believe it would have). The second is the idea that returning a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America to the White House should be a cause for celebration under any circumstances. Even if the only alternative to Obama had been a bizarre genetic experiment comprising equal parts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Osama bin Laden… even then, the proper reaction to a victory for a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America should be some brief muted applause followed by an immediate decision to change the system so that the lesser of two evils is not the only option next time around.

Mitt Romney: He’s no Jim Jones

Firstly, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. While Mitt Romney would have offered the occasional bone to the Tea Party movement and other religious fundamentalists in America, he’s certainly not one of them (Mormon or not). As president he would have had to take them more seriously than Obama; so yes, once again, I’m glad he didn’t win; but Romney represented the rich, corporate wing of the Republican Party; not the poor, deluded, religious wing. His position on things like homosexuality and gender politics is less liberal than Obama. But he’s far from the religious extremist that many Obama supporters saw him as. Just as Barack Obama was painted as a far-left, ultra-liberal communist Kenyan by the US right, so Romney was also demonised by the US left (admittedly, not to quite the same extent). Those on the left who cannot see this, or deny it happened, or insist that “their side” would never use such dirty tactics are – sadly – just as deluded as those who believe the nonsense spewing from Fox News.

First and foremost Mitt Romney represented the wealthy elite. And exactly the same is true of Barack Obama. To suggest otherwise is either ignorance or wilful self-delusion. It’s almost certainly true that Obama doesn’t view everyone else with quite so much contempt as Romney (see: the 47 percent) and is willing to throw them a few more crumbs, but the fundamental changes necessary to rid America of deep economic injustices are just as far away under an Obama presidency as they would have been under a Romney administration.

Barack Obama: Liberal-lite

When it comes to social policy, there is some clear water between Romney and Obama. And it’s on this subject that the various Obama fans I have spoken to always want to focus. And yes, to return to the gun-to-head-Romney-or-Obama scenario, it’s here that I too would base my decision. Obama’s support for gay marriage is to be welcomed (though his unwillingness to be proactive on the subject is a bit of a cop out). And he doesn’t appear to view women with quite as much disdain as the Republican party – certainly if he does, he’s too smart to blurt out dodgy statements about “legitimate rape”.

But Obama’s presidency to date has seen no attempt to reform drug policy. And given the monstrous incarceration rate in the United States (with most of those in prison for non-violent drug offences) this is not “a minor issue”, as someone described it to me in a conversation. Far from it; this is one of the fundamental human rights issues facing America (indeed the world) right now. The US prison population is disproportionately made up of poor, young, uneducated men from ethnic minorities. The US state is destroying the lives of millions of these people for doing something that – at most – should be viewed as a public health issue, and in a lot of cases shouldn’t be anyone’s business at all. It’s called a “war on drugs” but it’s really a war on poor people (or as Bill Hicks described it, “a war on personal freedom”). And Obama has been fighting that war on poor people just as enthusiastically as any president before him.

And that’s not the half of it. The effects of the American drug war on places like Mexico and Colombia have been little short of devastating. Torture, corruption and tens of thousands of violent deaths… all because the United States refuses to take a rational approach to the issue. Some analysts believe Obama has plans to revisit US drug policy in his second term. If this does prove to be the case, then I have two reactions:

  1. Yay! Well done. Finally!
  2. Hang on, you waited until your second term to do something about this? Presumably because you were worried it might affect your chances of re-election? You spent four years trampling over local democracy by cracking down on popularly-mandated medical marijuana initiatives in your own nation, and watching while tens of thousands died horrible deaths at home and overseas… all because you were worried that to do otherwise would threaten your job security? Seriously? You absolute bastard!

But let’s hope he does something about this insane drug war over the next four years, even if it will demonstrate he’s a typical cynical careerist politician with no moral compass.

Cluster bombs and predator drones

And here, finally, we get to the main reason I felt such a disconnect with the euphoria surrounding Obama’s re-election… the main reason I found that photo of him and his wife hugging so very creepy…

The man’s a child killer. And not just kids. He’ll kill pretty much anyone – man, woman or child. And not just one or two of them either… Barack Obama has ordered the deaths of dozens – perhaps many hundreds – of children. And people are sharing a photo of him hugging his wife? Seriously, I just don’t understand it. So what if he’s better than Romney? He murders children, what the hell are you celebrating!?

I have addressed the issue of cluster bombs on this blog before; but it’s not an issue that can be discussed too often. Handicap International “is an independent and impartial aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.” They – along with many other campaigning organisations – have highlighted the role played by the United States in the “production, stockpiling, trade, and use of cluster bombs”. In fact, during the past four years the Obama administration has been hugely instrumental in obstructing international efforts to ban the production and eliminate the use, of cluster munitions. Despite the fact that the use of cluster bombs clearly contravenes several international treaties (including the 4th Geneva Convention and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions), Obama has consistently reasserted the right of the United States to deploy these heinous weapons – weapons which, let us not forget, disproportionately result in civilian casualties (note: the US is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions but boycotted the Convention on Cluster Munitions when it was signed in 2008 and continues to do so).

Only last week UK Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of cluster bombs in Syria citing them as “further evidence of the brutality of the Assad regime.” He went on to insist that “the apparent use of cluster munitions shows an appalling disregard for human life.” I completely agree with Hague’s statement, but I find it pretty weird coming from him of all poeple. While the UK was actually instrumental in setting up the 2008 Convention, it is one of the closest military allies of the nation most responsible for the use of these weapons. Furthermore, Hague’s government – unlike the previous New Labour administration – appears to be quietly backing US efforts to overturn the Convention.

Let’s not be under illusions; any state military or non-state militia using cluster bombs is an enemy of humanity. It’s that simple. Barack Obama – by asserting the US right to use these vile things, and furthermore to actively obstruct international attempts to end their use – is a goddamn monster. When you forward that photo of the Obamas, you may as well be fawning over a photo of Syria’s Assad hugging his wife. Or Saddam Hussein hugging his. Because to knowingly use cluster bombs is to knowingly murder and maim children. There is no other way of looking at that issue. In the murky world of global politics you rarely find a black-and-white issue. Well, cluster bombs is one of the rare ones. And if you think it’s not; then go do some bloody reading on the matter. And that’ll be “bloody” in both a literal and an expletive sense.

Predator droneAnd then there’s the predator drones. Imagine a scenario where the Pakistani government regularly flew remote control weapons platforms over Texas. Platforms that periodically launched missiles at buildings suspected of housing enemies of the Pakistani state. Imagine a large proportion of those buildings also contained innocent civilians; sleeping families, students studying for their exams, average Americans watching TV. Imagine if the US government had issued repeated statements forcefully demanding that Pakistan cease their bombing campaign. Imagine this went on for years.

I’ve heard people argue that “while the number of drone strikes has increased significantly in the last few years, US intelligence is getting better and there are now fewer civilian deaths”. Would that placate the population of Texas, I wonder? “Hey Hank, I know you lost your kids in that last drone attack, but actually the Pakistanis have killed less children this year than they did last year. So chin up, eh?”

Maybe you’re happy with a US president that oversees such a policy. Maybe cluster bombs and drone attacks are cause for rejoicing in your world. They’re not in mine. And they never will be.

And no, Mitt Romney would not have been any better in that respect. He wouldn’t have halted drone strikes. He wouldn’t have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. But that just means modern politics is deeply screwed up. If the best we can do is manufacture a false choice between two murderers every four years (or a murderer and a would-be murderer), then we really don’t have much to celebrate at all. I’m glad that Mitt Romney is not the president of the United States. Truly I am. But don’t expect me to jump for joy at the re-election of a mass murderer. And next time you see that victory photo, try to remember that the man with the satisfied smile on his lips also has the blood of children on his hands.

UPDATE: Worth mentioning that I didn’t even get around to Obama’s lamentable environmental record… worthy of a blogpost (nay! a book!) all its own. “Clean coal” my arse!

Note: I had intended to illustrate this blogpost with an image of a cluster bomb victim, but I felt uncomfortable posting such a photo as I would inevitably be using an image of an individual in great distress to make a political point (albeit a valid moral point as well). However, I suggest you do a quick google image search on “cluster bomb injuries” if you are in any doubt about the horrific nature of these weapons. And if you do so, note the high proportion of children… because of the nature of the devices; cluster bombs disproportionately target children. How? Well, they leave lots and lots of shiny unexploded bombs lying around – the kind of things that most adults would know to avoid but which attract the inevitable curiosity of children and toddlers.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2011

On This Deity: 31st May 1996

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

31st May 1996: The Death of Timothy Leary.

At 12:44am on the 31st of May 1996, Dr. Timothy Leary sat bolt upright in bed startling the small group of friends and family who had gathered to keep him company during his final days. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year and it had finally run its course. “Why not?” he asked those keeping vigil. Again, louder, “Why not?” He repeated the question a third time. “Why not?” Then, lying back down, Dr. Leary whispered his final word… “beautiful”… and slipped into death. He was 75 years old.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Nov 2010

The US Midterms: a dimebag of hope

Well, it looks like the Democrats are going to take a pasting in today’s mid-term elections. Hardly surprising really. The hope and optimism that Obama brought with him into office was so great that he was always going to fall short when it came to delivering on it. A combination of genuine disappointment and being comprehensively outmaneuvered in the media appears to have shifted public opinion against his administration and, by extension, against the Democratic Party.

US politics offers us an object lesson in how people can be manipulated to act against their own longterm interests (it’s the same in every modern captialist democracy, of course, but the United States is so big and powerful that trends get magnified making them easier to identify).

Take the healthcare issue for example. It was the central plank of Obama’s campaign. He spoke about it in almost every speech he made during the run-up to the election. And yet a combination of corporate financial muscle and Republican propaganda seemed to convince the very people the plan was aimed at helping, that it was some kind of socialist hidden agenda being foisted upon America without a mandate. Low-income Americans with no healthcare have been actively denouncing their newly-acquired ability to see a doctor if they get sick. People who, should they find themselves with a serious illness, would have previously been faced with a choice between crippling debt or no treatment are campaigning against “ObamaCare Socialism”.

“America’s not about hand-outs”, they cry, “it’s about working your way to the top!” It seems to me that tens of millions of low-income Americans have been hoodwinked into believing that they’ll be rich one day. That “the top” has room for all if they only work hard enough. So instead of working towards a more equitable society, where even the poorest are taken care of, they instead adopt right-wing quasi-libertarian beliefs that only benefit the wealthy. The rich and powerful have engineered a deluded populace to support their lavish lifestyles… a nation of turkeys campaigning for an early Thanksgiving.

The thing is, every society in history has taken good care of those at the top. There’s nothing unique about that, despite the belief of many Americans that they are in some way socially advanced. Seems to me that a truly Great Society is one that also manages to take care of those at the bottom. Feudalism is alive and well and proudly living in the Unites States. It just has better P.R. these days.

In the end, big business forced Obama to water-down a healthcare plan that had been approved by a majority of US voters. If ever there was an example of how capitalism subverts politics, that was it.

In fact, a mere two years after being elected on that issue (he was elected for many reasons, of course, but healthcare was his number one rallying call), the Democrats are actively distancing themselves from it. Bizarrely in half a presidential term it’s gone from being a vote-winner to a clear vote-loser. As usual, The Onion succinctly captures the current mood among US Democrats with their article, Democrats: ‘If We’re Gonna Lose, Let’s Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We’ve Made’. The only reason for this is the massive Public Relations machine that the US Right set in motion.

It’s sad how easily people can be manipulated into self-destructive behaviour.

No Victim No Crime sticker

No victim no crime
Vote 'Yes!' on Prop 19

My one hope for today’s elections is, it goes without saying, the possibility of California passing Proposition 19. While it’s far from perfect, it might well prove to be the first substantial nail in the coffin of our clinically insane War on Some Drugs. If it is defeated, it will again demonstrate the incredible ability of people to act against their own best interests. Despite the high-profile donations to the pro-legalisation campaign, they are being matched by the anti-Prop 19 campaign. And who are the major backers of the anti-Prop19 campaign? Interestingly, it’s the alcohol industry.

But of course.

We’ll soon know the results of the mid-terms and whether California has voted sensibly on the cannabis issue. A Democratic wipeout is pretty much a given, though it may present a silver lining… some of those Tea Party weirdos are bound to damage the US Right when given a national stage upon which to perform. And the Californians might make it a day to remember for good, as well as bad, reasons. Celebratory bong, anyone?

Well, here’s hoping!

UPDATE 3/11/2010: Well, the Dems lost the House of Representatives and saw their Senate majority whittled down to less than a handful. I’m not suggesting the Democratic Party are anything other than corporate mouthpieces, but the lurch into loony territory currently underway in the Republican Party means the Dems are a marginally better option at the moment. People with Sarah Palin’s view of the world running America? Not a happy thought. On top of all that, the Californians couldn’t even answer a simple Yes/No question correctly. I’m genuinely disappointed by this as it would have presented a real challenge to the madness of our War on Some Drugs. In the end, when asked “do you wish to continue acting in a dangerously psychotic, self-destructive manner?” more than half of Californians replied, “Yes”.


Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

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.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

Scientific advice and policy confusion

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the drug policies of most governments are profoundly irrational. They are based upon ideology, spurious reasoning and outright falsehoods. Furthermore there is no evidence whatsoever that they achieve their stated aim. In fact, the circumstantial evidence available seems to suggest they have precisely the opposite effect to that which is desired by policy makers. Prohibition appears to increase drug use, as well as increasing the social problems associated with that drug use.

Never has this bizarre irrationality been thrown into more stark relief than with the British decision to sack Professor David Nutt. Professor Nutt was the UK’s chief scientific advisor on drug policy and chaired the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In response to his dismissal two more members of the council have resigned and there are rumblings that the entire ACMD is about to dissolve in disarray with Professor Nutt claiming that there is “no future for the council in its present form”.

Nutt is a psychiatrist and pharmacologist. He heads the Psychopharmacology Unit in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Bristol, is a Consultant Psychiatrist to Avon and Wiltshire Partnership NHS Trust and is Head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London. He was appointed Chairman of the ACMD because he probably knows more about the science of drug use than anyone else in the UK.

Professor Nutt was fired by the British Home Secretary, Mr. Alan Johnson. Johnson left school when he was 15 to stack shelves at Tesco. He then worked as a postman for a while before becoming a career politician.

Science Vs Policy

In a letter to Professor Nutt, Alan Johnson informed him he was being dismissed because “I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”.

This is a remarkable admission, by the man in charge of UK drug policy, that the policy is not based upon scientific advice. It’s reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s contempt for what they described as “the reality-based community”.

We’ve known for years, of course, that the British government (along with almost every other) do not base drug policy on the scientific advice of those actually qualified to provide it. Professor Nutt’s statements about the relative dangers of various drugs (the statements that got him into all this trouble) are very similar to the conclusions reached by the Wootton Report forty years ago. According to that report (published in January 1969), “Cannabis is less dangerous than the opiates, amphetamines and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol.”

In Nutt’s case, his indiscretion was to provide a list of commonly consumed drugs in order of the harm they cause based upon the scientific evidence available. Cannabis is listed in 11th position while alcohol is 5th and tobacco 9th.

It’s worth pointing out that this list was published two years ago. In the intervening period, Nutt has essentially watched as every piece of scientific advice provided by the ACMD has been ignored, while at the same time parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee sought the advice of Amy Winehouse’s dad (a cab driver)* on drug policy. One imagines that Professor Nutt’s frustration began to increase when he noted that his advice was not merely being ignored, but that policies were being pursued (the reclassification of cannabis as a Class B substance) which actively contradicted his advice.

I would argue, despite Alan Johnson’s claims, that Professor Nutt was not merely right to inform the public that his advice was being ignored, but actually had an obligation to do so. The public, after all, should know the basis upon which policy is being decided. Particularly if that policy involves the potential criminalisation of between 2 and 5 million people (“In the UK, around 15 million people would now admit having tried cannabis, with between 2 and 5 million regular users.” — Cannabis Use in Britain, PDF).

Professor Nutt, and it’s worth making this clear, never made any specific policy recommendations. He didn’t call for legalisation or decriminalisation and never suggested that cannabis or ecstasy were harmless. He merely made the following observations:

  1. most of the drugs for which we currently incarcerate people for using are less harmful than drugs we sell in corner shops and derive tax from.
  2. some of the drugs for which we currently incarcerate people for using are less harmful than common recreational activities such as horse-riding.
  3. there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the current drug classification system results in a reduction of drug use.
  4. the current drug classification system may actually result in significant social harm.
  5. numerous statements made about drugs by politicians are demonstrably false (including Gordon Brown’s bewildering comment about “lethal cannabis”).

I am forced to wonder, now that Alan Johnson has admitted that drug policy isn’t actually evidence-based (not in those words of course, but it’s the inescapable interpretation), just what he believes it is based upon. Whatever it is, the tories are clearly in on the secret as David Cameron is — unsurprisingly — supporting Alan Johnson on this issue and suggesting that Professor Nutt’s comments about ecstasy were not “a particularly good way of putting it” (it seems Nutt failed to spin the truth sufficiently to make it palatable to Cameron’s irrational hardline stance).

Of the mainstream politicians, only the Liberal Democrats seem to have worked out exactly what’s going on, with Chris Huhne insisting that “any minister who hides away from scientific advisers who are saying clearly what the scientific evidence shows is frankly going to end up with policy which is a complete mess.” He also suggested that the government may as well set up “a committee of tabloid newspaper editors to advise on drugs policy”.

Personally I suspect they already have.

Tune in next week when Gordon Brown appoints a window-cleaner from Stoke to design the next generation of nuclear power stations.

* I’m not suggesting that Mr. Winehouse’s observations about the lack of rehab facilities for heroin addicts aren’t valid, merely that Professor Nutt is bound to wonder why the government bothers soliciting scientific evidence and advice in the first place, if policy is ultimately going to be made by a postman who consults a cabbie.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

The efficacy of anti-depressants

As most people will have heard by now (it’s been pretty widely reported), a recent study by a British University (Hull) suggests that…

… compared with placebo, the new-generation antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication. Given these results, the researchers conclude that there is little reason to prescribe new-generation antidepressant medications to any but the most severely depressed patients unless alternative treatments have been ineffective.

I’ve just finished reading the actual study (link above). It’s a statistical analysis of the available data, not a psychiatric / medical study in itself, so it was tough going and rather dull stuff for someone like me with no formal training in statistics. All the same, if this study is confirmed (and it’s important to note that it has only just been opened up to the peer-review process, so we shouldn’t leap to any conclusions until this has been done) then it’s a damning indictment not only of the pharmaceutical companies (who, after all, we kind of expect this kind of behaviour from anyway) but more importantly of the regulatory bodies all over the world who have approved this medication.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that the findings come as something of a surprise to me. Some years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression (on the severe side, but not within the “most severe” category… I did not require hospitalisation, though it was considered at one stage) and prescribed extremely high doses of one of the SSRIs investigated by the Hull analysis. I’m no longer taking them — I’m very glad to say, as I wasn’t a fan of the side-effects — but I do attribute my recovery in part to the medication. Needless to say, I’m rather intrigued by the possibility that I’d have gotten roughly the same benefit from a placebo.

Indeed, if anything, this seems to be another justification for my current belief that psychoanalytic psychotherapy (incorporating, though not restricted to, some of the techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is the best treatment for depression. It probably goes without saying, that particular belief is one of the primary reasons I’m studying what I’m studying (mind you, that’s a far longer article).

Because of the enthusiastic approval of anti-depressants by official regulators, doctors see it as a simple and efficient way of treating an increasingly common illness. Unfortunately, if — as it appears — the bloody things don’t actually work, then it means we’re flushing an awful lot of public money down the drain (or rather, we’re meekly handing it over to large corporations) which has an actively damaging effect on public health, as we’re underfunding other therapies which do have a clinically significant effect above and beyond that produced by a placebo.

As I say, we half-expect large corporations to fudge the figures in search of profit, but the regulatory bodies are supposed to be on our side. We employ them to root-out these kinds of false claims, but if this study is confirmed, it would appear that the FDA (and the others who followed suit) are guilty either of dangerous incompetence, or of deliberately putting corporate profits before the mental health of the public.

UPDATE 16:35 I was chatting with a friend today. His girlfriend was on the same antidepressants as I was prescribed (Venlafaxine) and like me, she found them helpful but is glad to be off them. He said, mischievously but rather perceptively, “aren’t you lucky you were taking them while they still worked?”

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2007

Pot again

With the obvious exception of elected politicians, a significant majority of the people who smoke cannabis will enjoy it. It’s a biochemical thing. Dopamine and what have you. It’s like eating chocolate… for most of us it’s an actively pleasurable experience. But you’ll meet people during your life who simply don’t like the taste of chocolate all that much. Which is fair enough… maybe it’s blue cheese that floats their boat. Whatever.

Of the majority who do enjoy a toke or a toblerone, almost all will do so in moderation — or at the very least know their limits. Very few will become chronic pot heads and/or morbidly obese due to yorkies. If you doubt this (with regards to pot anyways) then I suggest you read Tim Worstall’s fine examination of the statistics. Despite the large number of recent newspaper headlines warning of the sinister harm wrought by cannabis, it turns out that a tiny percentage of regular users experience that harm… somewhere between 0.01% and 0.2%. Now, I don’t know what percentage of regular chocolate consumers suffer serious ill-health because of chronic usage. Whether it be diabetes or high cholesterol or the myriad other problems we’re told are associated with bad diet. But I do know that nobody, quite rightly, is suggesting that possession of a bar of dairy-milk should be considered a criminal offence. Imagine sending someone to share a cell with a rapist because they were caught eating chocolate.

My chocolate analogy also has another aspect to it… there are those (the UK Conservative Party for instance) who still trot out the “gateway theory” as a rationale for criminalising cannabis. The theory being that those who use cannabis will be more likely to use harder drugs due to some undefined biochemical conditioning that occurs in the brain. This is simply absurd and — when taken to a logical conclusion — rests upon the assumption that our neurochemistry is aware of which drugs are legally proscribed and which can be legally prescribed.

Seriously… think about it…

– “Cannabis leads to heroin!”
Wow, really? So does alcohol lead to heroin?
– “Of course not!”
Well, does tobacco lead to cannabis maybe?
– “Not a bit of it! Cannabis leads to heroin which leads to speed, ecstasy and cocaine.”
Er… do any of them lead to prozac?

In reality the “cannabis gateway effect” (which does exist in many places) has been demonstrated to be sociological rather than biological. It is the prohibition of cannabis which places it into the same supply-system as the harder drugs. Those who smoke cannabis are more likely to have regular encounters with those who sell hard drugs than those who do not. It’s all quite easy to understand when you actually think about it rationally for a second.

But yeah, the chocolate thing. You see, there’s a very coherent and convincing argument to suggest that some kind of “psychological / biological gateway” theory may have merit, though not in the sense the tories would have you believe. Essentially our very early experiences with drugs will shape — not only psychologically, but also neurochemically — our relationship with drugs throughout our lives. And, so far as western culture is concerned, the first substance most of us encounter that can truly be considered a recreational drug… is chocolate. If you’re interested in this, I recommend Andrew Weil’s From Chocolate To Morphine which is very informative, though he does descend into polemic from time to time.

So much stronger

Another theme in the recent race to see which media outlet can publish the most one-sided drug-policy story, is the claim that today’s pot is vastly more potent than ever before. This claim is false and is a simple result of journalists failing to do any research and instead reprinting “the official line” as fact. Usually the claim rests upon data produced by the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project. However, as this project is funded by, and falls under the jurisdiction of, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse which is itself part of the government’s Drug Policy Office, it’s difficult to conclude that it constitutes “independent” research (the organisation funding it has a clear and overt bias after all).

I too have a clear and overt bias (I’m strongly in favour of significant reform of our drug laws and the controlled legalisation of all currently prohibited drugs) but I hope that the following discussion of cannabis potency will be transparent enough to make my claims relatively uncontroversial.

Firstly let’s establish what is meant by cannabis potency. The composition of any plant is extremely complex with many hundreds, if not thousands, of identifiable constituent chemicals. In the case of cannabis, there’s only one we’re interested in — Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This is the primary active component; the chemical that gets you high; and the potency of a given sample of cannabis is expressed via the percentage of THC found in that sample.

Now, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA):

Marijuana is much stronger now than it was decades ago. According to data from the Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of commercial-grade marijuana rose from an average of 3.71 percent in 1985 to an average of 5.57 percent in 1998. The average THC content of U.S. produced sinsemilla increased from 3.2 percent in 1977 to 12.8 percent in 1997.

Let’s take these figures at face value though, as Brian C. Bennett writes, the methodology used is extremely dubious (I urge you to read the first three paragraphs on that page). Not only that, the DEA have been very selective indeed in the figures used. The comparison of 1977 (3.2%) and 1997 (12.8%) seems extremely dramatic. But if we were to take the figures for 1978 and 1993 (i.e. much of the same period) there’s a clear decline in average potency (from 6.28% to 5.77%). What are we to make of that?

Anyways, taking the figures at face value as I promised to do, the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that they have restricted the study to “U.S. produced sinsemilla”. This is despite the fact that (according to the New York Times magazine, reprinted here):

Fewer than 20 years ago (article published in 1995 – Jim), virtually all the marijuana consumed in America was imported. “Home grown” was a term of opprobrium, “something you only smoked in an emergency,” as one grower old enough to remember put it.

So while modern US-grown cannabis is probably as strong as that grown anywhere else in the world (with perhaps the exception of Thailand), thirty years ago it wasn’t. However, cannabis grown elsewhere and then imported into the USA during the 1970s (or Ireland or the UK) was sometimes just as strong (or almost so) as these supposed new super-skunks* that everyone’s getting into a lather about these days. According to a United Nations survey, for instance, the average potency of Thai cannabis seized in the U.K. in 1976 was 9.3%. And in 1980 the average for both Thai and Indian cannabis (again, seized in the U.K.) was 11%. (source) Neither of these are far from the “new high strength” numbers trotted out by the DEA and subsequently parroted in the media, and as they are average values we can safely assume that some individual samples were even more potent.

Something has changed, however, and that’s the relative availability of stronger cannabis. It’s easier to track down super-skunk today than it was to get your hands on thai-stick in 1977. Thanks to prohibition however, it’s impossible for someone to be aware of the strength of the cannabis they are purchasing. So a person who tends to smoke low-strength ditchweed may get a far stronger batch than they’re used to without being aware of it. As a result their first smoke from it may well be extremely stressful (imagine drinking a pint of beer only to discover afterwards that it had the same alcohol content as wine). Subsequently, however, the smoker will be aware of the higher strength and will simply smoke less of it in a session. Just as a wine drinker consumes less (in fluid ounces) than a beer drinker but still gets the same buzz.

In fact, because a smoker will consume more weak cannabis to get the same buzz as they would from a stronger strain, it’s likely that the weak stuff will have a greater negative impact on their health (through inhalation of more particulates) than the strong stuff. It’s simply misleading to suggest that a person will get higher from smoking stronger pot. The tendency of almost every pot-smoker is to smoke just enough to get them to the comfortable high that they enjoy, and in order to reach that they’ll smoke more or less depending on the potency.

And finally

Unlike many commentators I am completely unsurprised by the news that the UK’s reclassifaction of cannabis from Class B to Class C has been followed by a very significant fall in the number of people using the drug; particularly young people. Nor am I surprised by the news that the government is planning to reverse that policy.

After all, just as elected politicians appear to have a specific brain-chemistry that prevents them enjoying pot, they are also well known to be unable to distinguish between sensible and nonsensical drug policies.

* Incidentally, “skunk” and “super-skunk” are just the new names (for sensi, thai-sticks and the various other strong strains that have been available for many years) and not new plants.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2007

The UK public smoking ban

In less than a week (July 1st 2007), England and Wales will follow the lead of Scotland, Ireland and a whole host of other places in banning tobacco-smoking in enclosed public places. Neil Clark has a piece in today’s Comment Is Free — Liberal England: Going Up in Smoke (also reproduced on his blog) — which attacks this ban as illiberal. He goes as far as to state that “the first country to introduce bans on smoking in public was the Third Reich” and asks:

Isn’t it sad that 60 years after playing a decisive role in the defeat of the Nazis and their loathsome, intolerant ideology, Britain, in its illiberal attitude towards smoking and smokers, is now aping them?

All very dramatic, I think you’ll agree. Albeit inaccurate. But what sort of journalist lets accuracy get in the way of a good turn of phrase? In fact, tobacco has been periodically banned outright and subject to numerous restrictions on where it can and can’t be consumed ever since it arrived in Europe. As far back as 1590, tobacco was the subject of a public ban. Then, in the 1670s, around the same time as England was trying to stamp out the practice of tobacco smoking by levying massive taxation on a weed “lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse”, there were areas of central Europe where the sale and distribution of tobacco was punishable by death.

But it’s not Neil’s factual inaccuracies that I want to address. Indeed it’s not so much what the piece says in attacking the ban, as what it fails to say, that really interests me. By painting the ban as an example of Big Oppressive Government Vs. The Little Guy, the article succeeds in framing the issue in completely spurious terms and fails to mention — even once — the actual reasons why the ban is being introduced.

Protecting The Little Guy

I think it’s now fairly uncontroversial to state that, whether or not your lips physically make contact with the cigarette, inhaling tobacco smoke carries long-term health risks. Indeed, if you were to ask any GP in the country, I feel certain you would be informed that avoiding second-hand smoke was highly advisable. This means — and here we have the crux of the matter, blithely overlooked by Neil Clark — that if you’re a bar-worker, you are forced into a choice: you can ignore the best medical advice we have, or you can lose your pay-cheque.

There is no liberal case whatsoever for the ban; if you support it you may be many things, but please, don’t have the audacity to call yourself a liberal. The argument for restricting smoking in public on account of the possible health risks caused by passive smoking is an argument for having separate smoking areas in pubs, cafes and restaurants and not for a blanket ban, which will encompass even private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy.

It seems that living in “a liberal society” means insisting that the — largely minimum-wage-earning — service sector must inhale Mr. Clark’s tobacco smoke or find another job.

But of course it means nothing of the sort. Despite the imperious insistence that supporters of the ban shouldn’t call themselves “liberal”, I find myself in exactly that position. I support the ban, and I am a liberal. My liberalism — unlike, it seems, that of others — doesn’t stretch to damaging the health of the waiters, bartenders and cleaners who have no choice (assuming they want to keep the job that’s feeding and housing them) but to share my space… yes, even in those “private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy”. Or do the members of these clubs do the cleaning and serving too?

But what if the staff assent to a pro-smoking policy too? Well, in theory that’s all well and good but it ignores the fact that the employer-employee relationship is a power-relationship. Like it or not, there would be plenty of unscrupulous pub and café owners willing to put pressure on their staff to sign a “smoking waiver”, perhaps in the knowledge that there are few other jobs in the local area, and plenty of unemployed smokers willing to fill the position. Neil Clark — and the others who, in the name of liberalism, propose exemptions — are proposing a society where an employer, when hiring, may discriminate in favour of those applicants willing to sign a document waiving their right to a working environment free of unnecessary health risks (a right under British law for decades, incidentally)…

Section 2(2)(e) of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) places a specific duty on the employer in respect of employees to provide and maintain a safe working environment which is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work.

It seems to me that employers; merely by allowing, let alone “requiring”, employees to work in a smoke-filled environment are already breaking the law. By enforcing a workplace smoking ban, the government is merely enforcing existing legislation designed, very specifically, to protect the powerless from the powerful.

It’s like when I read columnists or bloggers opposing rises in petrol duty or car tax by claiming that “it’ll hit the poorest the most”. All the while ignoring the fact that the poorest 20% of the population don’t actually own cars and would be far better served by a high car tax that directly reduced the cost of public transport. Similarly, those opposed to the workplace smoking ban who claim to be the powerless victims of government action, are conveniently overlooking the fact that the ban is aimed precisely at preventing them imposing their damaging smoke on people whose power to avoid that smoke is severely curtailed.

9 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2007

David Cameron and cannabis

There’s an essay by Robin Fishwick called In Defence of Hypocrisy which everyone should read. It’s very short but wonderfully perceptive, and it makes a point that should probably be made more often. In fact, I’m a walking illustrative example of Fishwick’s point. As mentioned recently, I was a strict vegetarian for most of my life; I did some hunt-sabbing in my late teens and I’ve been on a bunch of anti-vivisection or anti-whaling or anti-bloodsports demonstrations. I’d even put myself in the philosophically difficult position of believing that animals have certain ‘rights’ and that our behaviour towards them is in the sphere of ‘morality’.

However, since my early twenties, my footwear of choice has been the classic 7-eye, ankle-length Doc Martin black leather boot. And you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been hassled about this fact. Confirmed carnivores, fresh from stuffing their faces in MacDonalds somehow feel justified in pointing out my ethical failing. “How can you wear leather boots”, they demand, “and yet still call yourself a vegetarian?” Of course by now I’ve developed a full repertoire of responses depending upon the person challenging me. My personal favourite is “The same way you can have shit for brains and still call yourself a human being”.

Thing is, my reasons for wearing leather Docs wouldn’t pass the ethical tests against which I judge the food I eat. I don’t have some great moral justification… it’s just that I really really like the boots, they’re very comfortable, and they work out quite cheap (despite not being cheap to buy) as they only need replacing every five years or so. I guess I’m simply failing to meet the ethical standards I have set for myself. I’m a hypocrite.

But I’m in good company. The vast majority of the people I truly admire have stuggled and continue to struggle to reach the standards they have set for themselves. If you’re reading this and thinking “Bah! I always achieve the standards I set”, then I humbly suggest you’ve not set them high enough. Albert Einstein, a great thinker and a profoundly moral man, was a strong proponent of vegetarianism for most of his life. But Einstein was also a human being with human failings and a real taste for German sausage. In letters to friends he wrote about his “terribly guilty conscience” every time he gave into temptation and ate his favourite food.

Should we deride the man for saying that “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet” and then occasionally succumbing to the temptation of a smoked sausage sarnie? Or should we celebrate him for recognising a truth and doing his best to live his life accordingly, even if he failed from time to time? If it’s flawless heroes you want, then the human race probably isn’t the best place to look for them. We are imperfect creatures, and those of us who strive to overcome those imperfections – despite knowing that battle can never be completely won – shouldn’t be berated for each stumble.

Passive Vs. Aggressive Hypocrisy

But that’s hardly the whole story. There’s a hypocrisy that can’t be defended. One that is not the passive failure of individuals to meet the standards they set for themselves, but the aggressive insistence of others that we all meet standards they themselves fail to achieve. This form of hypocrisy can usually be seen in the three ‘P’s (parents, priests and politicians). So a child is threatened with a grounding if they get caught with a cigarette, despite the father smoking 40 a day. The congregation is threatened with eternal damnation if they steal, by a priest pilfering cash from the poor-box. And the public get threatened with a criminal record and imprisonment if they possess cannabis, by a politician who was an occasional toker for several years of his life.

All three of those are utterly indefensible. If a father wishes to punish his child for smoking a cigarette (not an unreasonable thing to do by any means) then he needs to give them up first. If a priest wishes to be a moral leader; to proscribe a standard of behaviour and threaten punishment for those who fail to achieve it; then that priest needs to live to that standard. And if a politician wants to enforce a law under which cannabis smokers are jailed or receive a criminal record (along with the various restrictions that places on the rest of your life), then that politician better not have been a toker himself.

Here’s an interesting question… does anyone believe it would have been possible for David Cameron to become leader of the British Conservative Party if he had a criminal record? Oh come on Tories! Be honest, there’s just no fricking way he’d even have gotten selected as an election candidate. Yet Mr. Cameron and his party have a policy that states clearly that Mr. Cameron should have been criminalised for his earlier actions. I love the description of the punishment Cameron received when his cannabis-smoking was discovered at Eton…

Eton launched an investigation into reports that some boys were buying drugs in the nearby town. During the course of the inquiry, Cameron and a number of other pupils admitted smoking pot…

Cameron was ‘gated’- meaning that he was deprived of school privileges and barred from leaving the premises or being visited by friends or family. His punishment lasted for about a week.

An Eton contemporary said the punishment had been particularly humiliating for the future Leader of the Opposition because it had come shortly before the annual ‘Fourth of June’ gala day, when the college is thrown open to pupils’ parents, relatives and friends who are invited to enjoy exhibitions, speeches, sports events and the traditional ‘Procession of Boats’.

‘Cameron was gated just beforehand, so his parents, who had been looking forward to spending the day with him, had to apologise to their friends,’ the student said. ‘It was all painfully embarrassing. But after that he pulled himself together and became an exemplary pupil.’

Awwww… poor lickle David… gated for a full week! And all that embarrassment. Meanwhile the latest Tory policy statement I can find on the subject of cannabis demands that the government reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug (rather than Class C as it’s currently classified). This means the Tory Party believe that anyone caught in possession of cannabis should be jailed for between 3 months and 5 years, receive a minimum fine of GBP2,500 and have a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

The Tories are prepared to forgive Cameron his youthful indiscretions of course. They’ve just spent over a decade in the wilderness with one unelectable leader after another; political expediency demands that they turn a blind eye to Cameron’s pot-smoking (and coke-snorting allegedly) days. But that’s just not good enough. The only reason David Cameron is within touching distance of power is because the policy he proposes regarding cannabis possession doesn’t apply to him.

Careful with that Vote

I was talking about the upcoming Irish elections with a friend recently. He was advocating a vote for Fine Gael for tactical reasons (a classic ‘anyone but the incumbent’ strategy that involves voting for the strongest opposition even if you don’t like them). “But D,” I argued, “you can’t vote for Fine Gael… you’re a pot head!” He dismissed this initially by pointing out that he didn’t vote on single issues. “Yeah, but this is one hell of a single issue D. You’re electing someone who wants to put you in prison. Who wants to take your family, your home and your job away from you. It’s sheer insanity for you to want that person in power.”

He’s reconsidering his position.

And I damn well hope David Cameron is reconsidering his. I’d love to ask him whether he believes his life would be better had his cannabis possession been subjected to the punishment he advocates for others? Would Mr. Cameron be a better, more-productive member of society if he’d been expelled from school, spent three months in a juvenile detention centre, and received a criminal record barring him from numerous positions (as well as travel to several countries)? Would society be better off to have one more half-educated ex-con with a chip on his shoulder?

We are all of us hypocrites from time to time, but David Cameron is guilty of an aggressive hypocrisy that makes him dangerous and untrustworthy and – I sincerely hope – entirely unelectable.

UPDATE: It strikes me that being “a half-educated ex-con with a chip on his shoulder” probably qualifies as “a better, more-productive member of society” than does Leader of the Conservative Party. However I suspect Mr. Cameron doesn’t think that.

23 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

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.

19 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion