Alcoholic Elephant in the Smoking Room

When the news came that Cannabis was to be reclassified as a class B drug, I had expected there to be something of a reaction from the British Blogosphere, which has a healthy Libertarian bias. Back in the office after a week without proper internet, I found precious little online writing on the subject. I reasoned that this might have had something to do with the Lancet Report (and podcast) into the effects of cannabis use, and the associated risk of psychosis.

However, I had reckoned without Tim Worstal and his excellent statistics.

So, does 0.2% of users being harmed pass our test? 0.05%? 0.01%? Even at that higher number it’s still vastly lower as a percentage than the numbers harmed by either tobacco or alcohol: and yet they are both legal. I’d wager very long odds that it’s lower than the STD infection rate on one night stands: which are also legal. I’d even take an evens bet on whether it’s less dangerous than playing golf in a thunderstorm which while stupid is also legal.

Just another example of bansturbation I’m afraid, this time it’s the social authoritarians in the Tory Party getting their rocks off over the matter. Heaven forfend that the citizenry should actually be free to go to hell in their own preferred manner.

I think the comparison with alchohol is important here, because it highlights an essential contradiction at the heart of the debate. Both alcohol and smoking are legal, despite being harmful. Why not cannabis too?

Throughout, it has been noted that the skunk on the streets is far more powerful and harmful than the milder forms that our cabinet smoked as students. Aside from looking like a convenient get-out clause for those who have admitted to a toke or two twenty years ago, it also ignores the fact that there are many different types of cannabis in circulation.

In any case, is the undoubted potency of modern skunk an argument for legalisation and regulation, or further crimminalisation and marginalisation? The recent orthodoxy claims the latter, and says that because cannabis is so harmful, it should be banned. But that is analagous to saying that alcohol should be banned because Moonshine is so toxic! Just as there is a world of difference between the causual, weekend wine-drinker, and the serious alcoholic with his Vodka or (worse) bottle of Meths… so there is a difference between a weekend spliff in the garden, and a heavy skunk-user putting himself at risk of psychosis. It would be nice if someone stated that either drug, in moderation, does make the parties and the conversations a little more interesting (to the partakers, at least)… but that consumption to excess can lead to a lack of productivity, and then serious damage to one’s health. The absolutist, binary debate on this issue is unhelpful and unlikely to wash with the young people who need to be so well informed.

I think a more compelling argument against casual drug use, is that it provides financial support to gangsters. The usual mitigation for cannabis use is that it is a victimless crime. At present, however, there is no way of knowing if this is actually true. Illegal drugs do not come with a ‘Fair Trade’ certificate to reassure you that no human-traffickers, Russian Mafioso or Jamaican Yardies have profited (or indeed, been murdered) during its production and bagging. When politicians admit to trying cannabis at university, they are always asked whether they ‘inhaled’, but never if they knew where the drugs came from. This latter question would, I believe, be more pertinent. That few politicians would be able to answer it is probably the main reason why this particular argument is sidelined in the debate.

Surely a more sensible approach to the issue would be to legalise cannabis, and then regulate it and tax it in the same manner as alchohol and tobacco. This is the only sure way to reduce the potency of the drugs being consumed. Better information about the strength and origin of their cannabis will help people to make a more informed choice about how much to consume, and lead to a reduction in associated health problems.

2 Replies to “Alcoholic Elephant in the Smoking Room”

  1. I read this for the first time at 2 am this morning (on the way to shutting down my computer) and almost added my comment then but decided I had enjoyed too much of my legal drug of choice to manage anything coherent. (And isn’t it interesting that no-one is arguing that we should criminalise wine though the alcoholic content per glass is so much stronger than it was a few years ago: almost like skunk?)

    This morning your argument looks very clear. I have been meaning to write something about our daft and inconsistent attitude to social drugs for a long time. Five years ago ( before the last Scottish parliamentary election) I was hired by the then Health Education Board for Scotland to write a pair of companion booklets on drugs and drinking (I got drugs, my friend and colleague got drink).

    We had long, diligent discussions round the HEBS committee table with an editorial team including researchers and policy makers. Some of us, like me, were more than a little sceptical about the value of any publication pretending to offer balanced information for parents – when it was clearly intended to demonstrate that the then minister for health was DOING something. But since the booklets were going to be published anyway, some of us, like me, wanted to make the information as clear and helpful and unsensational as possible.

    I still have a stash of them under my desk, reminding me of the politics behind health education. There were some very decent and principled people in our team. In theory we were all meant to be producing material to put parents minds at rest but we still ended up pushing out the none too subtle message that every parent should be afraid and on the look out for warning signs – hammered home with ‘statistics’ from the latest survey; scary stuff like “65% of 15 year olds said they had been offered a drug. 37% said they had used a drug” (Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey 2002). No mention of how much booze their folks were knocking back every night. (or the fact that the police are far more concerned with the effects of drinking on young people than they are with that vaguer catchall demon ‘drugs’ – I know that for a fact after sitting next to the former Chief Constable for Lothians at a corporate function).

    I did try to inject a little reality into the text (spattering in a few quotes from my youngest son’s school essay on drug taking). But my best achievement was to compile an A-Z of mind changing substances which duly appeared in the booklet, ‘drugs, what every parents should know.” Guess what, it begins with A for Alcohol!

  2. A lot of people benefit from illegal drugs – it’s the second biggest business (in terms of cash turnover) in the world. Where do you suppose a big slice of that invisible, untaxed income ends up ? If it was legalised and taxed the commodity price would go down, while the production costs (due to regulation, legalised workforce etc) would go up. End of big cash income stream. Best keep it illegal then.
    The reason why some drugs are illegal and some aren’t is I think a result of a mish mash of prohibitive legislation through the 20th C. Most drugs were legal in the UK as recently as 100 years ago. Drug use generally starts in the higer eschelons of society, due to cost and the ability to travel, tea coffee and tobacco were one the preserve of the upper classes. If you were being cynical, you could argue that historically, once the price dropped to the point where the masses could afford a particualr substance, the toffs made it illegal so that the workforce do some work rather than getting stoned all day. Alcohol somehow slipped through the net in Europe, probably because it can be made cheaply almost anywhere, from anything, and would just be too difficult to ban, so it was taxed heavily instead.
    Its also interesting that caffeine (once considered a subversive drug) is the only one which were are positively encouraged to take, perhaps because it increases alertness and productivity.

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