Cannabis legalisation: a polite response

3 Apr 2018

In his article advocating for the legalisation of cannabis, William Read says we should not ‘succumb to the highly emotive arguments of traditionalists like Peter Hitchens whose reasoning seems to completely ignore the facts.’ The comment was a bit of a throwaway, given that Mr Read did not address any of Hitchens’ central points on the drugs issue.


But this is a real shame. Some years ago, I was blocked by ‘ClarkeMicah’ on a long abandoned Twitter account for being a ‘boring, unresponsive bore’. I don’t blame him – I was parroting one of the arguments now helpfully dealt with in a piece entitled ‘Stupid Arguments For Drug Legalization Examined and Refuted’ (see: ‘The stupidest argument in the world: “WOT ABAHT ALCOHOL AND TOBACCO, THEN, EH?”’). The abrupt block, following what I thought was a reasonable point, led me to read Hitchens’ book, The War We Never Fought. I originally planned to write a refutation. But by the end of it, my mind was changed.


If Mr Read is going to accuse Hitchens of making ‘highly emotive arguments’, he should at least deal with some of those presented in the book and elsewhere. As I see it, Hitchens makes three central claims: (1) Drugs, including cannabis, are dangerous and it would be better if fewer people used them; (2) for decades we have failed to enforce our laws prohibiting drug possession; (3) if we started enforcing our drug laws, fewer people would take drugs.


Mr Read, citing the examples of the Philippines today and the US during the era of Prohibition, seems to agree with (1) but not (2) and (3). He writes, ‘successive nations have tried to wage aggressive wars on drugs and in most cases they have failed or have caused far worse problems for society.’


Why do Hitchens’ critics never address the examples of Japan, South Korea, and pre-1970s Britain? All of these countries are/were law-governed democracies, they all enforce(ed) their laws against possession, and they all have/had very low drug use. US prohibitionists on the other hand, as Hitchens has repeatedly pointed out, did not punish possession of alcohol. And this really gets to the heart of the issue. The reason the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed in Britain and elsewhere is because successive governments have failed to properly enforce their laws.


The de facto decriminalisation of drugs in Britain is so self evident it’s amazing that only Peter Hitchens seems to be aware of it. It’s hard to believe that there’s a war currently being waged on drugs when you see someone openly rolling and smoking a joint while waiting for an early morning train to Chester in front of dozens of commuters (as I did the other week), or when you’re greeted by the smell of cannabis – and the same group of school kids smoking it – outside a tram stop on a main road (as I regularly am). As Hitchens says, ‘The police avoid arresting, the CPS avoids charging and the courts avoid punishing offenders’. And as a result, nobody gives a thought to the potential legal consequences of smoking cannabis – for all intents and purposes, and despite what our laws say, there aren’t any.


The central disagreement in the drugs debate isn’t over whether or not current policies are working – all sides tend to agree they are not. Rather, the disagreement is over what we’re doing and why it isn’t working. I challenge Mr Read – and any advocate of drug legalisation – to address two of Hitchens’ central arguments by answering the following: Do we really have a ‘war on drugs’ given that we don’t enforce our possession laws? And why couldn’t we replicate Japan, South Korea or our own (pre-1970) country and reduce drug taking by properly enforcing laws against possession?


The rest of Mr Read’s piece, regarding the money to be made from cannabis legalisation, is reasonable. But if he cannot explain why properly enforcing laws against possession won’t work – as it has done in the past and elsewhere today – then he must tell us what the misery generated through widespread cannabis use is worth in tax collections.


A meta-analysis involving 66, 816 individuals found ‘a 4-fold increase in risk [of psychosis and schizophrenia] for the heaviest users and a 2-fold increase for the average cannabis user in comparison to nonusers’. Although the research only establishes a correlation, the authors argue ‘there is sufficient evidence to justify harm reduction prevention programs’. (And Mr Read does say ‘it is undeniably true that there are health risks linked to cannabis use’.) Assuming the relationship is causal, given the levels of use today, there are likely thousands of lives ruined every year as a result of cannabis-induced mental illness – not to mention the lives of their friends and families. Let’s generously assume that cannabis consumption would not increase after legalisation: what price are we willing to put on all that suffering?


And let’s not pretend legalisation would eliminate the black market and the extra strong stuff. I knew people growing up who’d buy their cigarettes from a dealer. Many, particularly the poorest, would continue to go to their dealer for a tenner bag rather than pay £15 in the supermarket.


I’d like to see proponents of cannabis legalisation at least engage with the idea that the choice isn’t a binary one between the status quo and legalisation. Instead, the choice is between legalisation and properly enforcing our laws against possession. Let’s discuss what the consequences of those two policies would be, rather than dismissing our opponents’ arguments as emotional without actually addressing them.

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