Thursday, 17 February 2011

Free the Weed!

For most people maintaining a prohibition on certain undesirable substances (e.g. cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis etc) just seems common sense. Even though after 40 years of a "War on Drugs" such illegal substances are now cheaper and stronger than before this so-called "war" was declared. In the early 70s the shift from the hippie pseudo-spiritualism to a strenuous hedonism was emerging. A bi-product of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which is often looked back on as a spontaneous explosion of civil disobedience and sexual liberation that eviscerated the rigid traditions that had lingered on from the Victorian era for too long. This aspect of the 60s counter-culture has been assimilated into the dominant ideology, which might explain why drugs are cheaper and more potent today than they were 40 years ago. But this is also why today we have access to legal highs and cyber sex, only a step away from pornography and illicit drugs, the successes of the "War on Drugs" are easy to see.

The availability of drugs has increased, along with the potency of the substances, it's commonly accepted in nightclubs and at parties. Not to mention the black market that has been built by the criminalisation of such substances, the only forms of regulation and intervention in these markets are the police and in some parts of the world the drug trade has become a substitute for a welfare state. Still we hear the drug warriors argue against decriminalisation, usually with the help of tall straw-men and very slippery slopes. Take the common defence of marijuana illegality, that it's a "gateway drug". Ironically the criminalisation of cannabis has driven people from mild drugs to hard drugs. As cannabis is bulky and smelly, it is easier for the authorities to intercept which has inflated the price of cannabis along with the "risk factor" for criminals. Drugs like cocaine is worth more per ounce than cannabis and is easier to smuggle. Raids on dealers create "marijuana droughts" which can drive people onto harder and more addictive substances. Cannabis was not a "gateway drug" originally, but has become a gateway through criminalisation.

The impact on the developing world can be seen in that the drug trade alone accounts for 25% of the Mexican economy and over 50% of the Afghan economy, a lot of the revenue made from heroin trafficking undermines and corrodes civil society and the state itself. In such narco-states, the drug trade exists as an underground capitalist economy and partly serves as a substitute for welfare measures which are often lacking in such countries. The way drugs have been criminalised in these countries contain the drug trade as a black market monopolised by cartels who compete for control of the market. This leads to violence, which in turn leads to tighter policing of the lives of the poor and in turn generates extreme violence - as seen in Mexico where the bloodshed has been reaching new heights in recent years. The criminalisation of drugs in this way provides a "justification" for an interventionist police state, rigged with pretexts to detain and imprison unruly members of the superfluous population. A situation which has given the Colombian government "justification" to send death squads into slums as part of social cleansing.

The answer to the problems of narco-states are more complex than calls to simply legalise drugs, but we in the developed world do not face the same problems. For instance, it would be preferable to use the opium crops in Afghanistan to develop the pharmaceutical industry as opposed to the doomed policy of trying to eliminate the crop. The same argument can be made in regard to Mexico, where the "War on Drugs" has done nothing but penalise farmers. In a country like Britain it would preferable to decriminalise heroin as part of a rehabilitation programme, whereby heroin is prescribed to addicts who are then weaned off the drug gradually. The result of this would be to kill off the black market for heroin, as addicts would have access to a better quality of heroin for free and a route to a better life. No doubt the reactionary press would start foaming at the mouth "Why should I pay for their addiction?!" These hypocrites would try to engineer a moral panic whilst standing by a solution to drug addiction reminiscent of the gulag, at a huge cost to society.

The class aspect of banning a substance is too often overlooked. In 18th Century England there was a ban on gin, in those times it was cheaper than water and was drunk compulsively by working-class people. Whiskey was a rich-man's vice in those days and so gin was banned while whiskey was not. In the 20th Century racism came into play in drug laws, marijuana became a target in the US as it was smoked by Mexican and African-Americans.  In the US if you are convicted of possession of cocaine you will mostly spend a year in prison. But if you were convicted of possession of crack cocaine you could spend 10 years inside. There is a correlation between class and race, but the principle difference is that cocaine is snorted by rich whites and crack is smoked by poor blacks. As a result of the financialisation of the economy, not to mention lousy schools and a racist criminal justice system, African-Americans fall into the superfluous population of the US. The "rolling back" of welfare provisions has forced many impoverished black people onto crime, particularly drug crime, as a substitute for the loss in welfare as well as work.

Drug consumption does transcend class boundaries, it's usage among working-people is part of the reason for it's illegal status. Furthermore the illegal status of cannabis goes a long way to protecting the business interests of drug lords and cartels, just like the bootleggers and rum-runners of the Prohibition era, who make billions a year tax free from trafficking in cocaine and heroin. The legalisation of cannabis has progressive potential as the conditions for it's production can be created anywhere, it would be difficult to monopolise, low prices could be maintained and that would provide jobs for people. It's even possible to structure production and distribution along cooperative lines, without bosses and space for workers' democracy. It could be taxed and regulated, which could constrain the use of certain chemicals, restrict it's consumption to adults as well as to provide consumers with objective information on the effects of the drug.

The US government banned marijuana in 1937, after Congress declared that there is a link between marijuana use and mental illness. The declaration was based on the testimony of Dr James Munch, a pharmacologist working at Temple University, who testified that when he gave marijuana to dogs they went "insane". This was after a representative of the American Medical Association who claimed that there is no evidence that cannabis is harmful to the health of humans. Naturally it was the testimony of Dr Munch that was taken on board by policy-makers. Today the debate on cannabis legalisation has been thoroughly obfuscated to the point where many people believe that there is a clear link between cannabis use and schizophrenia. Firstly, schizophrenia is a rare condition so it is difficult to determine its causes. What we do know is that if you smoke cannabis excessively you are 2.6 times more likely to suffer from psychotic experiences than a non-smoker. Whereas, if you smoke tobacco you are 20 times more likely to develop lung-cancer than the average Cheech and Chong.

As for the claim that cannabis use would increase if it were legalised, and the problems it "causes" now would be exacerbated, during the Prohibition era in the United States there were higher levels of alcoholism than there was prior to the Volstead act. The flirtation with prohibition was a disaster in the US. It led to an unprecedented crime wave, thousands were left dead from gangs or from rotgut alcohol and nurtured a contempt for law among the population. Back then it was the divine mission of saving the people from "Demon Rum" that the Congress was embarking upon. Now the classification of cannabis is supposed to protect us from ourselves, to stop us from descending into a load of Zombies - to paraphrase Gore Vidal - and in our endless search of Doritos whilst constantly murmuring "groovie". Decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs, even as soft as cannabis, seems to be the last taboo, as gambling, alcohol, tobacco and pornography are readily available for every citizen - all of which can be addictive and destructive. For we are still deeply puritanical in some respects, though not puritan enough to be enraged at the depiction of women found on Page 3.

Related Links:
Estimating Drug Harms: A Risky Business?

Evidence Not Exaggeration
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
Gore Vidal - Drugs: Case for Legalizing Marijuana
Milton Friedman - Why Drugs Should be Legalised?
The Six Groups who Benefit from Drug Prohibition

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