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.