This is quite a long article, so you might want to put the kettle on.
Let me say that I am not a hippy or an anarchist hell-bent on seeing society collapse into a fetid pit of its own making. I am also not a personal fan of the effects of cannabis and have never broken UK law by consuming it in this country.
However, I am of the opinion it should be legalised. The ban on the plant is outdated and political in nature. it has nothing to do with the perceived danger of the drug but is more to do with vested interests and outdated concepts. Let’s have a little look at the drug in question.
“The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others… It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.“
– Wolfenden report 1957
I will be putting forward an argument that many of you will disagree with. Some of you will have personal adverse experiences with cannabis. Please allow me to state my case before you reject what I have to say.
Cannabis was made illegal in 1928 under an amendment to the 1925 Dangerous Drugs Act, although doctors were still allowed to prescribe it when they saw fit but rarely did. There were no domestic reasons for the ban, no public lobbying and no public outcry. Recreational use was in fact rare. Even the prohibitionists who campaigned against alcohol and cocaine had no real opinion on it. Stories about cannabis were few and far between in the press, who tended to focus on cocaine and opium. The ban was therefore not really down to UK public outcry. The 1928 act came after Britain signed up to the 1925 Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control, which was organised by the fatally flawed league of nations, the ban on Cannabis being pushed by Turkey and Egypt. There was thus no logical domestic need for it to be banned at the time.
So rare was it, that in 1945, there were only 4 prosecutions for cannabis offences in the UK
In 1961 the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs updated all previous drug treaties and set up a classification system based on the drug’s harmfulness. The propaganda against cannabis actually increased its exposure amongst a UK population that had never really heard of it. In Europe, it became “an American thing” to do, made popular by jazz and blues musicians as well as artists and English hipsters, the streets becoming flush with a steady stream of supply on the back of immigration from the Caribbean. And then came the “60’s” decade of free love, and the CND movement where liberal-minded young people mixed with anarchists, philosophers and radicals. Cannabis became a sign of rebellion. Would this have happened if it had been legal?
The 60’s saw people demand the right to any pleasure that did no harm to others. Even the middle class were smuggling and dealing amongst their own peer groups. The public demand for cannabis began to grow, and the government hit back using cannabis arrests as a means to stifle political protest. Its illegality was used as a political weapon.
1964 was the first year that more white than black people were convicted of cannabis-related offences. Despite the growing crackdown, its use continued to grow due to its popularity amongst British music bands. Illegality propelled it into the growing subculture. It’s illegality arguably fuelled its popularity.
Then came the 1964 Dangerous drugs act (tabled as a private member’s bill by Tory MP Sir Hugh Linstead) which saw cannabis offences rise by 79% in one year. The bill was reportedly in response to growing public concerns of the effects on society of the cultivation and usage of cannabis and the subsequent act ratified the 1961 UN convention.
It became an offence to allow premises to be used for drugs taking or production (which meant cannabis couldn’t be researched for medicinal purposes). This was when the UK press really started to push the “cannabis was dangerous” meme onto the minds of the British public, which just helped spread the message of its existence and increased its popularity.
In 1968 Baroness Wootton, heading a UK government committee concluded that “the long-term consumption of cannabis in moderation has no harmful effects”. The report was widely ignored.
The UK classified cannabis as a Class B substance in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. For the first time in the UK it became totally illegal to grow, produce, possess or supply the drug, and the crime of “intent to supply” was introduced. Although to this day one can still legally purchase and own the seeds. It was moved to a class C in 1979 reflecting its general lack of harm.
The 1991 Criminal Justice Act made drug rehabilitation a part of a probationary order.
The 2000 Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act brought in the mandatory Drug Abstinence orders which required the testing of supervised and recently released prisoners. In 2004 possession briefly stopped being an arrestable offence. However, it was reclassified back to class B in 2009 where it remains to this day. 2005 Drugs Act introduced drug testing on arrest
In 2005 it was calculated that 30% of 16-59-year-olds had used cannabis. But a 2015 report by the European Drug agency found that cannabis use in England and Wales had dropped by half in the 15 to 34 age bracket. Drug offences decreased from 72k in 1994 to 20K in 2015. Interestingly the arrests for possession with intent to supply has hardly changed in the same time period. I was very surprised by that, but this drop has nothing, it seems to do with the law. More it appears to be down to the unregulated nature of cannabis production with the more powerful “skunk” being the most popular variety. Skunk is too strong for many people new to the drug and they are thus turned off it. However, these stronger unregulated strains are also more likely to produce unwanted psychological effects. It’s illegality means there are no quality controls, and thus the dangers associated with its use are increased. Also, culturally, cannabis in the UK tends to be mixed with tobacco and tobacco use is falling.
This is not to say there aren’t dangers associated with it. Cannabis is the third most common reason to seek rehab treatment after alcohol and tobacco. 1 in 10 can become dependent although it is not physiologically addictive. There are also questions over long-term effects. Some papers show daily users have a 2% risk of developing schizophrenia, double that of the general population. But, and it’s a strong but, legalisation means that money that is spent enforcing its prohibition can be redirected to mental health services across the board, and the weaker strains will become more prevalent as corporations take over the growing and manufacture of the drug under government licence. And that doesn’t even start to factor in the almost £1 billion a year that could potentially be raised through direct taxation.
ETHICS OF PROHIBITION
It is quite easy for me to argue that Cannabis prohibition is unethical. Cannabis prohibition contravenes the autonomy of the individual. The state is telling a person what can and can’t be done with one’s own body? The state is telling us that it does not respect the individual liberty of the person. The health impacts are minimal when compared to alcohol and tobacco, yet the more dangerous alcohol is freely available to those inside the restrictions set by law. This shows a basic hypocrisy in the law as it presently stands.
The stronger cannabis versions that have been a direct result of its illegality have resulted in a 50% increase in those seeking medical help over the last 10 years so it could be argued that banning cannabis has increased its harm due to the lack of quality control. People will use cannabis no matter what, the harsh penalties imposed in the US states were it is still illegal to show that. By banning it, people’s health is put at risk and it is more difficult for people to seek medical help when they need it. Interesting, the percentage of use in the population is lower in the Netherlands and Portugal where cannabis is not prohibited to the same level.
There are nearly 200 million users worldwide
Is banning cannabis a benefit to society? The aim is to maintain the health and welfare of society, to benefit others, but does it do this? It certainly doesn’t help the treasury or those with chronic illness. It doesn’t help the young and the impulsive who are the most likely to be arrested by the police or suffer the side effects of unregulated drugs. It’s banning assumes it is dangerous, but by having no controls, there is no guardian over what is being put out there. Also, as it definitely has analgesic benefits, its controlled use by chronic pain patients could result in a decrease in the use of opioids which are definitely physiologically addictive and dangerous. It has also been shown to benefit patients taking chemotherapy, thus 1 in 3 of the population will be denied its therapeutic effects at some point in their lives. There is also a strong argument that much of the artistic side of our society (music, art and literature) would be poorer without cannabis. Would we even have heard of Jimi Hendrix or Andy Warhol?
It is very difficult to overdose on the smoked form. The lethal dose is far above what can realistically be consumed.
Is making cannabis illegal fair to society? Seizure of illegal shipments decreases supply, which arguably keeps it off the streets. But is giving organised crime and terrorists another readily accessible method to raise funds fair to society? Is it better for cannabis use to be in darkened bridge underpasses or in licenced facilities where healthcare provision can be targeted? Would it not be better for it to be controlled, regulated and taxed than to help fund Al Qaeda and criminalise the nation’s youth? All for a drug that, to date, has not been shown to cause death due toxicity or overdose. Can the same be said for alcohol, tobacco, fentanyl or opiates?
MORALITY OF PROHIBITION
In my mind, its illegality is based mainly around punishment based on outdated concepts rather than protecting the greater good. For example, does prohibition deter cannabis use? Is the punishment meted out reformative and preventative, or is it purely retributivist in nature? Cannabis use is pleasurable, but also has side effects and utilitarianism is also interested in minimising suffering as well as empathising pleasure. Do the benefits outweigh the risks to the individual?
A fact that seems to disprove the claim that harsh laws deter use can be seen in the fact that over half of all the pot growing seizures in Europe were in the UK. And as reported in 2014, possession of cannabis offences accounted for 67% of all police recorded drug offences. Clearly, the threat of law enforcement has not deterred the sale and use of cannabis, and the sale of cannabis paraphernalia can be seen in every city in the country. So if harsh laws do not prevent use, in the majority, their implementation becomes purely punitive. It is, therefore, time to legalise the manufacture, distribution and sale of cannabis, under licence, to take it out of the hands of criminals.
Natural law states that any law that is good is moral and thus any moral law is good. Under this theory, the purpose of humanity is to live a good and happy life, and any law that goes against this is immoral. A law that is flawed or unjust should not be followed. But to do so risks falling foul of the laws of the land. Cannabis use has limited health impacts when viewed against alcohol and tobacco, and for the majority, moderate use definitely improves the person’s quality of life, especially for those with chronic illness. There are some who would argue that Aristotle would not approve because his view was that human beings need to use reason and that cannabis hampers rational thought. Conversely, there are those who would argue the exact opposite, that cannabis opens up the mind to ideas and concepts that without it would have remained closed. In my own opinion, making it illegal seems to be immoral under the utilitarian view.
As I have shown it’s illegality arguably actually increases the risk of harm to the population, especially when we consider that the original laws were not based on any real perceived threat. Does cannabis use harm others? Wel,l there is the argument that it could put others in danger in the same way as alcohol use puts others in danger. But whilst alcohol use makes people impulsive and violent, cannabis use usually has the opposite. There is a reason the view of the “stoner” is a person sat about eating Cheetos. The US NHTSA found cannabis consumption was not associated with an increased probability of getting into a road traffic accident.
Licence it, tax it and control it. So the same legal restrictions that apply to alcohol could be put on cannabis. Here are a few other things to consider:
– Could be worth up to £6 billion to the UK economy and £1 billion to the treasury if legalised
– Over 1600 prison inmates on cannabis convictions costing £50 million a year
– The state of Colorado made $200 million in taxes from cannabis legalisation in 1 year which was enough to fund much of the states scholl system. DUI’s have dropped markedly as has violent crime.
– Research done by the liberal democrat party indicated in 2015, there were over 87000 cases opened relating to the drug, resulting in over a million police hours at a cost of £31 million
That’s the way it looks from here
Dr Stephen Hudson BDS, MSc, PGD Med law, PGC Dental Law & Ethics