There’s No Good Reason to Legalise Cannabis – Jake Painter

It would appear that the cannabis debate has begun back in earnest. Sadiq Khan – forgetting or being deliberately ignorant of the fact that he as London Mayor has no power to drug laws – has gone on a sort of Meiji tour of the United States, in order to find out how a ‘civilised’ country goes about dealing with cannabis. One can generally feel the tide turning against those of us who are against legalisation, with countries like Canada and with more and more US States legalising the drug. As such, those of us who are vehemently opposed to cannabis legalisation need to rally around the banner and speak out definitively to say: “there is no good reason to legalise cannabis”. Which is rather easier to do than one might think, since the pro-legalisation side relies on many tropes and myths, that are easily dispelled but are rarely challenged.

The most prominent of such myths is that the enforcement of such laws are impossible. The tale goes that the war on drugs has failed and that the sheer number of those who use cannabis recreationally is evidence of this. On the contrary, it demonstrates the opposite; in that the huge number of people who use cannabis is direct evidence that this supposed war on drugs has never been fought. Hitchens is a good reference to start from here. In his book ‘The War We Never Fought’ He outlines that since the early 1970s the British State has gradually but surely relaxed the penalties for cannabis use and distribution. This process started with the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act which made the distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ substances, with cannabis being lumped into the former. This started off the process of seeing Cannabis as a much less dangerous substance than it actually is and subsequently led to authorities taking it less seriously as a result.

Hitchens again uses historical reference points and demonstrates proves this trajectory to be true. In 1976 for example the penalty for cannabis possession was reduced to a mere 3 months in prison and more recently in 2012, the Sentencing Council recommended that people who are in possession of as much as 13lbs of cannabis should not face prison. Indeed, in the first full year after the 1971 act came into being, cannabis offences went up by 37%; from 9,219 to 12,599. This at first glance may give off the impression that there was an establishment crackdown on the use of cannabis but what must be borne in mind is that the act itself severely weakened the penalties for possession and legally separated the offence of possession and distribution. Meaning that even though (and this is broadly true today) distribution of drugs was more harshly punished; the light touch on possession meant that there was always going to be ready demand for cannabis, therefor drug dealers would still run the risk of continuing to sell the drug. Naturally creating an even bigger problem for the police than if possession was just treated as harshly as distribution.

Arguably the most prominent example Hitchens mentions is – now Liberal Democrat politician – Brian Paddick’s experiment in Brixton, when he was the new commander of police in the borough of Lambeth. In 2001 Paddick embarked on a new policy of simply giving those found of Cannabis possession a warning and confiscating the drugs, instead of arresting them. Not only would this encourage David Blunkett (Home Secretary at the time) to reclassify Cannabis as a class C drug – further diluting the penalties – but also utterly failed to solve the issue at hand. During the first 6 months of Paddick’s experiment, the number of dealers and users increased in the borough of Lambeth by 13%. There are however, more contemporary and historical examples other than Hitchens here. In fact, a hell of a lot more. The Sun reported in June 2019 that on average just 22% of people across England who are found in possession of Cannabis are charged for their crime, down from 27% in 2017; but this figure is as low as 14% in Cornwall, 13% in Leicestershire, and 12% in Surrey. The Guardian also reported in July 2018 that in the previous year of 2017 only 15,120 people in England and Wales were prosecuted for possession of Cannabis, a 19% drop since 2015. Most fascinatingly of all, it also stated that only 6,524 people in 2017 were issued cautions – 34% fewer than two years before. In essence, police are increasingly even reluctant to give slaps on the wrists these days.

In order to have a proper debate on cannabis legalisation, we must foremost have an honest debate. We cannot have said honest debate if the pro legalisation side perpetuates the myth that the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed because we have been actively trying to punitively punish drug users and it has not worked. Because not only have we categorically not been stringent in the enforcement of the such laws, there has been no ‘War on Drugs’ in the first place. You cannot measure the success of a policy that has never been properly tried in this country. The best thing about this myth is that there are plenty of historical examples of how when the state actively and consistently enforces the law on illicit substances, they get the desired results.

Japan is the best example of how if a country enforces its drug laws, it will see very few people actually use drugs. This is for very good reason. Japan – which is a stable democracy that respects the rule of law – is country that takes a no nonsense approach to the matter. If you’re a Japanese individual facing 5 years for possession and 7 years distribution and even if you’re a foreigner, you’re guaranteed to at least be deported and banned from ever entering the country again. This is not UK 5-7 years where you’ll probably only serve half your sentence on ‘good behaviour’; you will serve out those years, along with most likely having a very public and very humiliating arrest and court proceeding, along with spending a prolonged period of time in a jail before even being convicted of anything. This has proved effective as there were only 5,273 people involved in Cannabis related cases in 2020. Even though case numbers have doubled over the past five years, this is tiny compared to the UK. In 2010 only 2.76 million Japanese (2.9%) had used illicit substances of all kinds, compared to the UK where 8.8% of UK adults had used illicit substances of all kinds (according to the 2010/2011 British Crime Survey).

 What people are not often aware of however is Japan’s Methamphetamine epidemic, which started after the Second World War and continued to 1957. Methamphetamine – which is an addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system – was introduced to Japan in large quantities after her defeat in WW2, where large military stockpiles (coming from US service men) found its way onto the black market. In the 12 years after the end of the Second World War, it has been estimated that 550,000+ abused the drug. This epidemic only ended when the Japanese authorities introduced a heavy crackdown on the substance, including stricter laws, in the mid-1950s and had almost entirely eradicated the drug by 1957. This is partly because it is another clear example of how drug laws – when used properly – are very effective, but also because it dispels a myth that the pro legalisation lobby level at people on our side of the debate. That being that Japan has comparatively low drug rates because of its strict traditional culture. If that was the case then why did Japanese self-discipline not prevent the epidemic from happening in the first place? If culture was such an important factor then Japan wouldn’t have needed to enforce strict laws on drugs in the first place. However it did and it still does.

Indeed, some individuals may say that Japan’s 5,273 cannabis related cases in 2020 and the UK’s 15,120 in 2017 are not all that different and would even make the case that Japan has to enforce their drug laws less because of said cultural discipline. Discounting the variances in population between the two countries, one must also point out (as borne out by the historical evidence and statistics) that Japan’s low cannabis related offences has little to do with culture but in how strictly it enforces its laws. The UK in comparison has low cannabis related offences for the exact opposite reason, it refuses to largely enforce its laws: which explains why drug use in general in the UK is so much higher than Japan, even though the nominal statistics aren’t all too dissimilar.

“Aha!” the pro legalisers might say, “what about the prohibition of alcohol in America, didn’t that spectacularly fail and is evidence that the prohibition of illicit substances doesn’t work?”. Well, this is the thing, prohibition in America did actually work. Mostly. An article in the American Journal of Public Health by Jack S. Blocker in 2006 spells out as much and states that the Volstead Act of 1919 did actually reduce consumption of alcohol significantly. Shortly after prohibition was enacted, alcohol consumption fell to 4.5 litres per annum; which was about 30% of pre prohibition consumption levels. In addition to this, it was very effective in changing the drinking culture of America, as alcohol consumption levels would not reach its pre prohibition levels until the 1970s. I am not advocating for the prohibition of alcohol in this country. Even if it is/was desirable, the cultural imprint alcohol has in this country is far too great to overcome. What I am merely pointing out is that if a country is serious about banning or enforcing the law on illicit substances, it can and will often succeed. Prohibition may have only tackled the supply issue and made exemptions for consumption, but it still had its successes. It’s also worth noting that prohibition didn’t end because it became a failure/became unenforceable, it was largely down to the Great Depression that led to the need of the government needing extra tax revenue and the need to reinvigorate American industry that became its death kneel. Since the prohibitionists had made the case that prohibition would equal prosperity, (with a more productive and happy workforce) the case for keeping prohibition quickly fell apart. In addition, Blocker mentions the decline in Victorian morality as another factor, since it was so vital in driving the temperance movement that got prohibition done in the first place.

There is one last trump card from the pro legalisers, at least when it comes to enforcement. It goes along the lines that if we were to legalise cannabis we would free up precious police time and in addition to that, we would kill the black market. The first point is downright cowardly. Law (at least not in nominally free societies) is not made because it is easy, it is made because it is the right thing to do and serves the societal good. We actually have plenty of police officers to do the job. In 1961 there was roughly 807 people per one police officer, in 2017 there is 462 people per one police officer in England. If they were not so tied up with unnecessary paperwork, bureaucracy, and being PC PC’s, they would be able to conduct their Peelite duties and patrol our streets (deterring criminality); then I’m sure they would be very effective in enforcing our drug laws. When it comes to the argument on black markets though, it is yet another myth. Not a single country or territory where they have legalised cannabis has the black market been eliminated or severely weakened. In Colorado for example, John Kellner (district attorney for the 18th judicial district in the Denver suburbs) points to one of the reasons why the black market continues to exist and even grow stating that criminal enterprises they can now: “hide in plain sight”. With cannabis being legal, it’s easier for criminal elements to conduct their operations more openly without as much fear of reprisal by the law. Furthermore, it is still cheaper for Coloradoans to buy illicit cannabis rather than the legal stuff, a problem also faced in Canada where they have also legalised it. In Canada, up to 42% of users still buy at least some of their stash from illegal sellers.

But why not legalise and tax it?! This is a popular argument, particularly in this country. After all, if we legalise cannabis and tax it, we can send the money to this countries most sacred of institutions, that being the NHS. Think Tanks like the IEA certainly argue there’s a huge windfall to be gained here (though mind you, they’d rather see the NHS reduced the cinders, rather than any more billions spent on it) but again, the real world gives us a cautionary tale here. A report by the Centennial Institute in Colorado in 2018 stated that for every $ Coloradans gain in tax revenue from Cannabis sales, they spend a further $4.50 mitigating the effects from cannabis use. These costs are largely related to strains on the healthcare system and due to high school dropout rates. The report suggests that long-term cannabis use (again) may lead to reduced cognitive ability amongst users, especially if they start before the age of 18. In addition to this, cannabis use tends to lead people to lead sedentary and inactive lifestyles; which in a country which has a huge problem with obesity, inevitably drives up health costs. With the lower educational attainment associated with cannabis use, comes with it a less productive workforce which is bad for the local economy. Other costs include cannabis users driving under the influence of cannabis and crime related costs.

In Pueblo Colorado – a post industrial town which saw cannabis legalisation as a means of bringing back industry into the town – the consequences have been particularly dire. Every day in ER someone comes in with cannabinoid hyperemesis, which essentially means that someone’s mental faculties are so damaged that they scream and vomit uncontrollably. This is in addition to the flood of psychosis patients they also have to deal with, many of whom have no previous psychiatric history. This is again due to the increased potency rising from 4% in the 1990s, to in some cases 80% in 2020. There is also evidence to suggest that cannabis is acting as a gateway drug as well. Since legalisation in Colorado, pueblo has not only seen a 57% increase in cannabis use but also a 143% increase Methamphetamine and a 10% increase in opiates.

It would be nothing short of disastrous if this happened in this country. In a country where productivity is already poor, obesity high, our education system hardly the envy of the world, and (most importantly) with an already struggling NHS; I fail to see where the merits lie with this argument. The NHS is already struggling with the huge backlog of patients as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown/pandemic and it was already struggling in many areas before the pandemic. Even in the best of times, the NHS would simply not be able to cope with the health disaster that would ensue if we legalised cannabis. The costs the NHS would have to burden to deal with increased mental and cognitive conditions (particularly with psychosis) will far outstrip whatever loose change we may get from cannabis sales. The costs wouldn’t even be strictly restricted to side-effects of cannabis, since because cannabis is a gateway drug (as alluded to with Colorado above but also the New England Journal of Medicine substantiates this as well), you could see the NHS having to deal with the side-effects of many other substance abuses. Which will most likely rise in light of cannabis legalisation.

Such dire consequences are not restricted to Colorado though, Canada has been experiencing similar issues, an article by the Psychiatry Advisor in 2019 demonstrates. The increased potency of cannabis in Canada (with the average amount of THC in cannabis rising from 8.9% in 2008 to 17.1% in 2017) has led to young people developing adverse social behaviours, decreased cognitive functions; and increased risk for depression, anxiety, and suicides. So what really is the big driving force for legalisation? Associate Professor Meldon Kahan, of the Department of Family Medicine, University of Toronto provides an clear answer:

The epidemic is driven partially by changed attitudes toward its use and by legalisation, but is driven largely, at least in Canada, by cannabis companies that are pushing it to this age group and claiming that it’s safe, while in reality, it’s anything but safe.”

There is a question on the online Political Compass Test that asks:

What’s good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us”.

Any sane person would say no but many people have (inadvertently or not) have been pushing the agenda of corporate dope. Whilst it is clear that there are no real altruistic or even practical reasons to legalise cannabis, there is certainly a lot of money to be made from it. One only needs to look at the people who are pushing it abroad and at home to drive home the point. In early 2021 the big US cannabis companies unified into a singular front to form the US Cannabis Council; which includes big names such as Acreage Holdings (a multi US state cannabis operator) and the Cronos Group (an international company with operations in five continents and does everything from research, production, distribution etc). Already largely successful at the state level, the stated aim of this group is to take cannabis off the Controlled Substances Act and more tellingly wants to lobby the federal government to grant access to ‘cannabis banking’. Can you imagine behind the scenes the amount of banks and financial institutions who are tacitly and discreetly supporting such an endeavour?

The UK is hardly immune itself. In 2019 the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group was formed and is directed by Tory MP Crispin Blunt. It received £400,00 in funding from American and Canadian cannabis firms, which are most likely the same bodies who are involved with the U.S. Cannabis Council. The groups stated aims are to introduce “safe access” to cannabis but it is all a ruse. There is no such thing as “safe access” when it comes to cannabis because as demonstrated before, not only is it not a ‘soft drug’, all the evidence points in the opposite direction. That matters little in the grand scheme of things however, because the intention is for these powerful interest groups to privatise the profits to be made from cannabis legalisation and for society to socialise the costs. Whether it be an overburdened NHS or the taxpayer that’ll have to pay for said NHS to stay afloat.

Fundamentally though, the facts are not what is most important here, at least not for those who favour legalisation. Because, when it comes down to it on their side, people are in favour of legalisation the vast majority of the time because they either personally use it or because they wish to profit from it. Which I don’t have that much of an issue with but only when it is honest. If you believe the individual is supreme, if you believe in the libertine attitude that every man is his own island, if you believe in unfettered hedonism, then I at least respect that point of view. What is infuriating though is when said people try to mask their true intentions with false altruism or try and say their position is the one based on reason and facts.

It’s not and we need to stop pretending otherwise. 

Photo Credit.

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