CANNABIS: SHOULD WE DECRIMINALISE
People keep asking for a debate on cannabis
legalisation. Who are they asking? What are they waiting for? What's stopping
them? Here's one view on how to start.
are normally treated to lengthy and earnest lists of all the reasons why banning
cannabis isn't succeeding in reducing or eliminating use, and why punishing
users fails to deter them or others from continuing to use it.
implicit theme is that any rational person can see that continuing the blanket
ban is irrational, and that an alternative is needed. Unhappily, this presumes
that drug policy it-self is rational, and that demonstrations of ineffectiveness
- even counter-productiveness - will suffice to change it.
isn’t, so it doesn't.
drug policy - the drug 'war' - is both a crusade and a folly. We seem to have an
irrational crusade rather than a rational policy because drug policies are never
judged by their effectiveness, only by how good they make the crusaders feel. So
politicians and educators always "stand firm" in their beliefs because
such moral uprightness itself makes them feel good. Ever increasing
demonstrations of failure actually makes them feel even better.
alternative", they always bleat, "cannot be contemplated". And
they mean it.
a folly because to qualify as a folly, a policy must not only be unsuccessful,
it must also be plainly against the interests of those in whose name it is being
carried out. Neither drug users nor those about to join their ranks benefit from
drug policy. Heaven forbid! Follies have one other self-protecting
characteristic: nobody wants to recognise them for what they are.
complain, then, that a crusade is losing and that a folly is foolish points not
to failure but to success. If we want to rearrange cannabis policy, we must
try another tack.
there is no need to demonstrate that a policy isn't working as the basis for a
debate. In a democracy, any policy is debatable at any point. We don't need to
debate the need for a debate: we can just have it.
the faint-hearted, though, there is growing evidence of a desire to do so, with
recent surveys showing that about a third of all adults would like some sort of
decriminalisation of some drugs, with a majority of those under 30 wanting the
rather than criticise, we must be creative. And rather than moan about the past,
we must look to the future.
some plans. What are the options?
the outset, we do not face a stark choice between total prohibition and complete
freedom, but of one of a series of approaches lying somewhere between these two
ideal end points. Given the maxim that every wedge has a thin end, total
legalisation is harder to achieve than partial decriminalisation. It isn't hard
to see where initial energy should be directed.
some basis to policy. This has some relatively unpalatable strands. They are
that we have to
recognise that the various
pleasures bobbing around in the box called "addictions" (yes, it
includes nicotine, alcohol, and gambling) can be problematic for some who indulge.
even if this isn't likely to be the case for others. Indeed, typically, drugs
pose tiny problems for most: big ones for a few. Ecstasy is a good example of
pleasure for millions, and tragic and fatal adverse atypical reactions for a
tiny minority. Even cannabis isn't harm free, and some unfortunates suffer
psychoses as a result of use.
· remember, however, that there should be limits to
the interventionist power of any democratic state, and with Mill, On Liberty,
that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over
any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to
others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
· reach for sophisticated rather than tabloid
policy goals. Not the concrete incarceration of drug "barons", or
reductions in the numbers of users, but the abstract reduction of drug-related
harm. If we can generate indices of the latter, increases in numbers of users
might be acceptable as long as total aggregated harm declines. Proponents of
cannabis decriminalisation fall into a trap here. The drug, they tell us, is a
harmless pleasure, and thus should be allowed. Yet if cannabis is already
harmless, how can legalising it further reduce harm?
· realise that there are no cost-free policies. Any
policy will have both negative and positive consequences. The task is to
construct and then compare the cost-benefit ratios for different policies.
· regulate different drugs in different ways.
· reject “magic bullet" control options. One
club in the golf bag is not a match winner. Up to a point, additional clubs
permit more successful play. And,
· relativise, thus, the debate. Total availability
is as barmy as total prohibition. There are no absolutes here. As they use to
say, "in wise hands, poison is medicine; in foolish hands. medicine is
poison". The core of any rational drug policy is to balance prohibition
and availability in a way that minimises total harm. The challenge is to
rearrange the two components sufficiently regularly to maintain it.
Third. those who want to see the
possibility of change debated have to start the ball rolling by suggesting
sensible practical answers to key questions. Here, in no particular order, are
some of the ones that will have to be answered if cannabis use is to be even
Age. What should be the minimum age for decriminalised use?
It isn't much good saying 16, when research evidence shows that the major use
growth sector is currently those aged from 11-15.
Potency. What level of THC (the active ingredient in
cannabis) should be allowed? This might seem simple, but I can still remember my
embarrassment when I asked the head of one of the biggest drug treatment
agencies in Thailand why cannabis shouldn't be legalised. He laughed politely,
and waved his hand dismissively. "You Westerners", he drawled. “you
only smoke what we throw away!"
is a very tricky choice between government supply, and thereafter a government
as addicted to cannabis tax as it is currently to tobacco tax, and illegal provision
(assuming legal consumption) which creates the unpalatable anomaly in
transaction wherein one party-the buyer-is operating legitimately, and the
other, the seller, not. In visible street policing practice, of course, these
are usually roles rather than people.
'free" should this be? Critically, will advertising be allowed? Once use is
legal. what is the case against advertising?
Public. Should consumption in public be allowed? Presumably not, or those not
wishing to ingest might become passive users. But if possession is legal,
where can it be consumed? What of under age users who don't have private
property in which to become consenting non-adults?
· Employment. I presume that we wouldn't consent to
use at work (although the use of alcohol during the day, sometimes even by key
decision makers, is a scandal), but since consumption would have to be tested
for, and since we have no scientific method of doing so that would not generate
a positive result for drugs consumed the previous night, how could we enforce
it? Are there some categories of employment (teachers, airline pilots, MPs, and
so on) that we would not want to use it even the previous night?
· Leisure. Since the point of cannabis for users is
that it distorts temporal and spatial perception and alters mood, should car
drivers, boat owners, supermarket shoppers, and so on. be banned too?
· Form. Should smokeable cannabis be permitted? An
obvious harm is that cannabis smokers use it with tobacco, and the physical harm
from the latter is well known. Would we only allow edible or drinkable cannabis?
These have been linked to mouth cancers. Slow release drug patches then? What?
Drug "tourists". How
would we respond to drug tourism? That is, to those fleeing-temporarily or
permanently-harsher drug user regimes to smoke on benign British shores?
· Government. How involved should it be? Just to
turning a formal blind eye? Or should it grasp the policy bull by the practical
horns and establish a government bureaucracy to manage the situation, and set
price, purity and potency levels, and even take over manufacture and sale? If it
takes on the latter, how would we deal with people who still buy from the black
These are only a few of the main problems.
The ultimate dilemma for government is that if the price is reduced adequately
to eliminate black market supply, then we would almost certainly see an increase
in use and in the number of users and probably, in ways we haven't we haven't
even thought of, a net increase in aggregate harm. But that shouldn't stop us
from debating it.