Liberalism and Legalisation

Last weekend, I had an interesting and surprising discussion with some medical students, on the legalisation of cannabis.

Since they were students, I sort of assumed that they would be in favour of legalisation; and that the hypocrisy in the differing laws on alcohol and cannabis would be self-evident. Not so! Instead, they were almost unanimously in favour of prohibition.

Their objections to legalisation were based on their clinical experience of patients with cannabis-induced psychosis. De-criminalising cannabis would endorse and encourage cannabis use, increasing such mental illness. When I responded with a standard liberal argument on personal responsibility, they made the point that most people were not responsible. Amusingly, they pointed to the vast array of empty bottles on the table, explaining that even they were knowingly binge drinking, despite being probably the most educated group of people in the perils of substance abuse.  What hope for everyone else?

All I could do was remind them that all of the psychotic episodes they will have witnessed would have been as a result of illegal cannabis use. They would not have seen comparative data for legalised, regulated inhalation. Could it be that perhaps regulated drugs were safer?

The debate was a timely reminder that political discourse amongst the general population is very different to the extremely liberal bubble in which I work. Out there in the real world, people are much less libertarian, more authoritarian, and for good honest reasons too. Amongst that group of med-school friends, the perception persists that criminalising something is the natural and appropriate response when confronted with something bad.  The liberal case is often woolly, idealistic and missing crucial pieces.

So, what I should have asserted:   Prohibition is only appropriate for those activities that harm others, and not for self-harming acts.  We could then have had a discussion about whether smoking and drinking harms others or not, where a much more fruitful and divergent discussion is to be had (in this respect, I guess this post serves to shut the barn door, two days after the horse bolted).

What is so often missing from the liberal argument, is the acceptance, even the embracing, of the bad things that happen in an extremely liberal society.  I have twice before made that point here, when discussing ID cards and other civil liberties.  At the Convention on Modern Liberty, Dominic Grieve spoke of the “mythological state of absolute security.”  Perhaps we need to speak of a mythological state of absolute health too, and admit that the consequence of decriminalisation will be an uptick in cannabis use, and an associated increase in the risk of health issues… but that we should do it anyway.  The benefits to society would be greater, and we can work out regulatory ways to reduce that risk.

Photo by Ace. No drugs were used in the production of this picture.
Drugs can help you see the world differently.
Photo by Ace. No drugs were used in the production of this picture.

6 Replies to “Liberalism and Legalisation”

  1. That’s depressing and interesting in equal measure – however, see this – US residents at least support cannabis legalisation, but think everyone else doesn’t. On that basis, your studenty types could simply be trying not to come across as idle stoners defying what they believe would be the ‘right’ view to express to their peer group.

    (it also depresses me that a generation of students are accepting the flaky-at-best, probably-completely-false view that cannabis causes non-trivial harm, but that’s another story for another day)

  2. I enjoyed your write-up of our ‘debate’. And my first ever photography publication to boot… I’m a particular fan of the ‘mythological state of absolute health’, or it’s non-existence as it were!
    🙂

  3. Alsosee this: all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs were abolished in Portugal and consumption actually fell:

    Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

    The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined”

    Also re the medical students: wouldn’t they be biased? If a fraction of the people who use cannabis suffer psychosis as a result this will be the fraction that appears in the medical literature and the fraction that med students are exposed to.

    Or they could be right. It could be cannabis is harmful, but prohibition has failed to stop cannabis use, so why continue with an expensive, failed policy?

  4. Yo Bert, loving your work. I still, however am not convinced. You say that we could “…admit that the consequence of decriminalisation will be an uptick in cannabis use, and an associated increase in the risk of health issues… “. This is fine if it was just you and your mate on a desert island getting stoned and perhaps getting psychotic or not, but in society there is a greater knock on effect. If you do “increase the risk of health issues” then how are we going to pay for it? I think we have enough to worry about with smoking, obesity, diabetes and general old age without adding another strain to the NHS. It’s also not just health issues that come from an uptick of cannabis use. Poor life outcomes such as lower educational outcomes, unemployment and dependence on the welfare state are also related to cannabis overconsumption, again who will pay?

    On Tom’s point about cannabis use falling in portugal, I think it’s important to remember that the only way we can measure cannabis consumption is by self report so I don’t know how reliable any statistics are. I just think that if you make something legal then it gives the message that it’s acceptable and gives the opportunity to those who perhaps weren’t going to break the law to consume it legally. In addition, those that already do consume it might increase their frequency/amount of consumption now that it’s readily available. It’s also the excess of cannabis that leads to most problems so I don’t think we should be handing it out to people.

    In addition, Tom’s point that as medical students we might be biased as we are exposed to more psychotic people and so get a skewed idea of it’s prevalence in relation to cannabis. That’s not what I’m basing my ideas on and is not how medical literature works either. Medical studies are critically appraised to prevent people simply studying only psychotic patients who have consumed cannabis and working a causal relationship from that. Instead, studies have found that cannabis may alter brain functioning in susceptible individuals leading to increased risks of psychosis and psychotic symptoms. Obviously its very difficult to find a direct causal relationship because of so many compounding factors and I think the studies allow for that.

    Rob, you say that “The benefits to society would be greater, and we can work out regulatory ways to reduce that risk” where does this information come from?

    Finally, I was just thinking about what you (Rob) said the other night that throughout history humans have always consumed mind altering substances and that cannabis is a modern day equivalent. I know you haven’t mentioned it in your blog entry, but surely that contradicts what you wrote in ‘Vegetarianism and Religion’ that you shouldn’t justify something just because ‘ its always been that way’. I know that drugs alter the way you see the world and perhaps that’s good for art and advance, but isn’t it also a bit sad that we have to rely on substances for that and could we not reach the same states of vision via meditation etc?

    Just some thoughts

  5. Great thoughts, Florence, thanks for sharing.

    Perhaps there is an element of being hoisted by my own petard, vis-a-vis “its always been that way” but I’m not basing my argument on that.

    The “benefits to society” is a moral, not an empirical claim. I’m arguing that criminalising something you do to yourself is puritan and wrong. There is of course an argument that there would be a passive smoking risk from legalisation of cannabis, but I didn’t hear that argument during the debate and I don’t see it above.

    As for “who will pay”? Couldn’t the NHS receive the revenues from a cannabis tax, just like they do from cigarettes?

    I also question the link between legalisation and poor life outcomes. At present, there are people who enter a) the criminal underworld and/or b) the criminal justice system, through cannabis. Legalisation would break that link. The psychosis comes from over-use, which would fall in a regulated legal market. And this might be offset by the social benefits of drug-use too. There’s no denying the positive role that pubs and alcohol plays in fostering A Good Time Had By All, and surely cannabis can play a similar role. More tokers, more seminal rock albums, surely!?

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