Challenging reefer prohibition madness

In March of this year a body of drug experts will present its recommendations on cannabis control to a meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. This committee shall report later in the year to the General Assembly, which will then set worldwide drug control policy for the next decade. This week’s edition of New Scientist contains an editorial and news article on the subject, both of which are worth reading.

The Beckley Foundation is a charity dedicated to the scientific study of psychoactive substances, of which cannabis is by far the most widely used ‘recreational’ example. Of the opinion that the damage done by cannabis prohibition is worse than that due to the drug itself, the foundation proposes that states legalise the possession and use of cannabis, and prepare and distribute limited potency forms of the drug for recreational use.

In the Beckley Foundation’s report I detect a serious attempt to the assimilate the available hard evidence on the health implications of sustained cannabis use. That said, I would quibble with a few points, including the claims that cannabis can act as a “gateway drug”, and that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) levels are now up to three times what they were a decade ago.

The first of these claims is meaningless given the number of variables which affect individuals’ lifestyle choices and socio-economic circumstances. As for cannabis strength, those of us with experience of the drug over several decades will attest that plant strains with a very high THC content have long been available, and that users adjust their intake as appropriate. However, it is true that THC levels in so-called “skunk” cannabis have risen in comparison with the other active ingredient – cannabidiol (CBD) – which provides the more mellow side of the high. THC does indeed trigger psychosis, but so too will caffeine in a high enough dose.

The Beckley Foundation’s recommendations have some merit, but if you accept that prohibition is flawed, then you must also acknowledge that the state will have only limited control of a legal market in recreational cannabis.

Should the state be actively involved in the preparation and use of a recreational drug, and could it succeed in controlling THC and CBD levels throughout the market? In my view the answer to both these questions is no. What the state can do is regulate the market in cannabis in the same way it does those of alcohol and tobacco. This will not protect every single user from harm, but that is an unrealisable goal, and we must leave people to take responsibility for their own lives.

All this is academic, however. I fear that the Beckley Foundation’s ideas will sink without trace, and not because of any inherent shortcomings. The reason is that the political forces in favour of prohibition are at present very strong. Within the UN, for example, drug tsar Antonio Maria Costa is fundamentally opposed to the use of cannabis for any purpose, and sees the entire drug control system collapsing if we were to relax the cannabis laws. He may well be right. In the US at federal government level, marijuana use is regarded as a form of moral turpitude for which transgressors should be subject to the most severe criminal penalties. This is total fantasy, and a socially unhealthy one at that.

The only way I see this situation changing is if we chip away directly at the credibility of those groups in favour of continued drug prohibition, And not just cannabis, either; prohibition has failed across the board, and in fact serves the interests of organised crime. The arguments put forward in favour of prohibition are flawed, but in political terms the drug control agencies and third sector lobby groups remain powerful, and it is on this level they should be engaged.