"Those who walk the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road."
"The use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction."
The La Gardia sub-committee of New York 1944
"It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues."
Our Response to ReclassificationThe Home Secretary has taken a very important step forward with the announcement that cannabis is to be reclassified. This relatively minor move is nonetheless the single most important shift in drug policy for over 30 years. Reclassification is nothing but the official sanctioning of previously widespread practice, yet it's implementation signals the beginning of the end of prohibition and the start of moves toward some kind of legalisation.
These moves must be made slowly and with great consideration. The aim of all involved in the drug debate is to lessen the impact drugs have on both the individual and society. None of us want to see more people having more problems with drugs. However, the Home Secretary's stated aims of creating a distinction between drugs of relative harm and freeing up valuable resources are not likely to be achieved with this version of reclassification.
Before we describe why this is so we must first answer criticism that David Blunkett should even be attempting such a move. Many people think we need more prohibition, not less. This presupposes two things, firstly that prohibition can be made to work and more importantly that it is society's responsibility to try and make it work. What we know without any shadow of a doubt is that prohibition hasn't worked so far. There are vastly more cannabis users than ever before, cannabis costs exactly the same now as it did 20 years ago, it's quality has improved, there is national availability and few shortages.
We cannot use education to warn people of the dangers of cannabis whilst prohibition is still in place. Most people's actual experience of the substance is entirely different to the experience official information led them to expect. In addition, users mistrust this information because they know it's agenda is not to tell them the truth but to get them to stop. These factors ensure that drug advice is not credible, is not believed and, therefore, will not be acted upon.
If education won't warn people off cannabis the only other option available is to employ harsher penalties and greater enforcement. We would have to make sure there is a very good chance people are caught using cannabis and when they are the punishment is sufficient enough to scare them off ever using it again. The problem is our jails are full, our police are overstretched and our judicial system is at breaking point. If we were to attempt greater enforcement we'd need to spend billions of pounds doing so. Money our hospitals, schools and transportation infrastructure desperately needs.
But let's imagine a rich seam of diamonds is found under the Malvern Hills and enough money becomes available to make prohibition possible. The question that must be asked, the vital question so often overlooked, is whether prohibition is a policy we should even attempt.
What is at stake is freedom of choice. The only time the state is justified in imposing limits on these freedoms is when our actions affect the person or property of another. Drug use, in and of itself, is not cause enough. Just cause comes with drug related crime - or the risk thereof. The clearest example of this is drink-driving. Society curtails the driver's right to consume alcohol for the benefit of everyone else on the road. The same is true for passive smoking. Laws have only been enacted to ban smoking where the health of non-smokers is at risk. These laws do not exist to protect smokers from themselves.
Alcohol and tobacco are useful reference points for a number of other reasons. Alcohol is a drug which directly kills about 40,000 users in the UK each year. In addition, according to the British Medical Association, it is responsible for 60-70% of homicides, 70% of rapes, 66% of child abuse cases, 75% of stabbings, 70% of beatings and 50% of fights and domestic assaults. Tobacco is even worse, though it mostly kills users rather than innocents. About 100,000 people will die in the UK this year from smoking related diseases - or about one in the amount of time it will take you to read this article. There are incalculable costs to society and the smoker's loved ones from this particular drug.
An argument could clearly be made that because these drugs affect others the state should intervene to prohibit them. No such intervention takes place because it would be both unenforceable and counterproductive. Smoking and drinking would only be driven underground where there are no restrictions on sale and dangerous problems with quality. Moreover, we understand that people have a right to drink and smoke if they chose to do so. The state can warn us of the probable consequences of our actions but will only use the law to prevent consumption when it directly affects someone else.
It is vital to view alcohol and tobacco as drugs because we are often told that any and all drug use is wrong. Yet if the consumption of alcohol and tobacco is tolerated then clearly drug use is not wrong in the moral sense. The issue we have is not with intoxication itself but with levels of intoxication and with certain intoxicants.
How cannabis became an unacceptable intoxicant is a matter of some scandal; but one beyond the scope of this document (you can read more about that here). No matter, the fact that 3.1m people engage in a massive act of civil disobedience each year is enough cause to examine whether cannabis should remain in the illegal category today. The sheer number of people involved should, at the very least, mean we examine their request for liberalisation without first condemning their actions out of hand. A workable policy will remain eternally elusive if we continue to think there is no such thing as safe cannabis use.
Cannabis is not a benign substance but major Government studies continually conclude its risks are exaggerated and are significantly fewer than the risks of alcohol and tobacco. Moreover the harm prohibition causes is significantly greater than any harm the drug itself causes. It is impossible, therefore, to support the prohibition of cannabis on current grounds. If protecting the health of individuals or society is the issue then alcohol and tobacco must be prohibited without delay.
However, if prohibition is based on the absolute rejection of the right to choose cannabis then we must acknowledge our own hypocrisy in tolerating alcohol and tobacco. Necessarily we must then engage in a battle to ensure prohibition is successful, we must accept the need to divert funds from hospitals and schools to fight this battle and we must live with the dramatic loss to our own civil liberties which will inevitably follow.
The reclassification of cannabis indicates the desire of the Government to move away from a policy of prohibition to one of harm reduction. The Home Secretary said the decision was based on the need to create a clear separation between drugs of relative harm. The problem is, we cannot create this separation without dealing with the issue of supply.
The problem with tolerating personal possession but forcing users to buy from dealers is that the lines between cannabis and crack remain blurred. Users buy from dealers who often have other drugs, street dealers proliferate and supply drugs of all kinds to whoever asks, users are still engaged in an illegal activity and will thus find the step up to harder drugs easier to make.
The only possible way to deal with this issue is to create a regulated supply of cannabis. A regulated supply must, by it's very nature, be safer than an unregulated supply. Only by regulating something can you control it. A cannabis coffeeshop is accountable, has got more to lose than a dealer and is therefore much more interested in abiding by regulations. Coffeeshops will not sell to 15 year olds, dealers will. Coffeeshops will not sell other drugs, dealers will. Coffeeshops will take steps to ensure safe consumption, all dealers care about is increasing sales of more profitable substances. Confining cannabis sales to coffeeshops means that any street dealing is conspicuous and, therefore, easier to prevent. Not until we do away with street dealing we will make it hard for children to get cannabis. Not until we create coffeeshops will we make it harder for everyone to be exposed to other drugs.
The most confusing aspect of the reclassification announcement was the part increasing penalties for supplying a Class C substance from five to fourteen years. It is difficult to understand how resources will be freed to deal with other issues when these penalties clearly demonstrate the Home Secretary sees the supply of cannabis as something police should concentrate on.
If we really do want our police to focus on rapes, murders, burglaries and muggings. If we want to create a distinction between cannabis and more dangerous drugs. If we want to create a credible drug policy that users will accept and abide by. Then we must experiment with establishing a regulated supply of cannabis.