Should Cannabis be Legalised?

In case you missed this article in Huffington Post, where it caused a storm of negative comments (127 at the last count), I am also publishing it here. I would be REALLY interested to know what your views are — please leave a comment below.  The article was also published on the Hotnews blog called Contributors, where a lot of comments were also written, but these comments are more interesting and individualistic than the ones on HuffPost, presumably because there’s no pro-cannabis lobby in Romania telling people how to react to articles they don’t like.

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The legalise cannabis lobby should be reeling from recent reports that show the negative impact of cannabis: a group of New Zealanders were studied over 40 years and the results show that the IQ levels of teenagers can be permanently reduced by the drug; and a report from California describes the failed promise of “Medical Marijuana”.

Perhaps it is naïve of me to expect the legalise cannabis supporters to suddenly say “we were wrong” and all go home. This doesn’t seem to happen when people adopt a confrontational position they believe in deeply. In Britain and the US the legalise cannabis lobbies are huge, and this year they have been getting a lot of airtime.  Soon enough they will set up branches and recruit supporters in Romania; there are plenty of pro-cannabis people in Romania, judging by the comments I got when I published this article in Contributors, the Hotnews blog.

But it has been fascinating to observe how Britain’s legalise cannabis lobby has dealt with the news that their drug of choice is bad for teens. Peter Reynolds of CLEAR (Cannabis Law Reform) is a former politician who has registered CLEAR as a political party in UK. Judging on how he has turned this potentially devastating report to his advantage I would also say that he’s also a PR genius.

This is how he headlined the news (that cannabis is damaging to teenagers) on the CLEAR website: “Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London Confirm Cannabis is Safe for Adults.”

“The vital and important point about this” writes Peter Reynolds, “is that it sheds light on the appallingly irresponsible policy of prohibition. Our governments are failing entirely to provide any protection to our children against cannabis dealers. All the evidence is that where cannabis is legally available to adults through a properly regulated system, use by children falls and age at first use increases.”

This is a PR case study in how to avoid the impact of a negative report: focus on a positive element within the study (a statement by one of the authors saying “I’m fairly confident that cannabis is safe for over-18 brains but risky for under-18 brains”) — and then follow up with a fresh attack of your own.

All this sounds very convincing and is useful ammunition for all those casual users who believe that cannabis should be legalised. There are scores of other arguments in favour of legalisation: it could improve the quality of the drug on the street, it would bring in tax revenue and cut out the mafia, it’s good for pain relief, it’s less harmful than alcohol, it’s widely used already and it’s not addictive.

Before I started working for Castle Craig rehab clinic I was in favour of legalising cannabis. I had experimented with it at college, believed it wasn’t addictive and liked the idea of taxing the drug and cutting out the criminals who profit from it.  But when a journalist in London told me that “cannabis is the number one problem drug for psychiatrists” and that it can also cause psychosis, I started researching it. And what I found out made me realise how lucky I was to escape the negative effects of cannabis.

Each one of the pro-cannabis arguments can be picked apart and demolished, every one of the studies they quote can be countered with other studies, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere.  Much more useful is to simply look at the families around us and ask them what impact cannabis has had on their loved ones. In my experience it is very negative.

My impression of Britain’s pro-cannabis lobby is that they seem unable to see any harm in their drug of choice, and some people even believe that it’s good for you. But these same people would be the first to recognise that tobacco is really bad for you; ingesting all that poison into your lungs causes nothing but harm. But what’s the difference between smoking a joint (which partly consists of tobacco) and smoking a cigarette? How can one be bad for you and the other not?

As regards the damage to young brains, the chairman of the alcohol and drug rehab clinic where I work, Peter McCann, recently told me that “the male brain doesn’t stop developing until the age of 28 so I don’t see why it is only teenage brains that are affected.” He also reminded me that we treat a lot of addicts whose primary drug is cannabis.

I spoke to a lady in Brighton on the south coast of England and she told me that her two grandchildren, both cannabis users, laughed off the report about the negative effects on teens: “That only applies to people who use skunk” they told her (skunk is the most powerful form of cannabis available in UK). This is typical of people who regularly use drugs: denial is the most common feature.

A former patient at Castle Craig Hospital told me that “cannabis will change a person. It distorts your vision of reality. It’s the world’s best procrastination drug. It also makes you paranoid.”

UK Government statistics show that over 20% of the population use legal drugs — tobacco and alcohol — but less than 10% of the people use illegal drugs. If cannabis were legalised and it was promoted as much as alcohol and tobacco are, can we assume that the proportion of users would double? Surely the the number of teen users would increase too once it became legally acceptable (laws restricting their access to tobacco and alcohol don’t seem to have much effect).

4 Responses to Should Cannabis be Legalised?

  1. Christian says:

    It would still probably be much better to have more cannabis than alcohol users.. This is about alcohol, if it were to be discovered in our time:

    A terrifying new “legal high” has hit our streets. Methyl-carbonol, known by the street name “wiz,” is a clear liquid that causes cancers, liver problems, and brain disease, and is more toxic than ecstasy and cocaine. Addiction can occur after just one drink, and addicts will go to any lengths to get their next fix – even letting their kids go hungry or beating up their partners to obtain money. Casual users can go into blind rages when they’re high, and police have reported a huge increase in crime where the drug is being used. Worst of all, drinks companies are adding “wiz” to fizzy drinks and advertising them to kids like they’re plain Coca-Cola. Two or three teenagers die from it every week overdosing on a binge, and another 10 from having accidents caused by reckless driving. “Wiz” is a public menace – when will the Home Secretary think of the children and make this dangerous substance Class A?

    Coming from here: http://www.alternet.org/if-alcohol-were-discovered-today-would-it-be-legal?paging=off

  2. Julian says:

    That is an interesting article, Rupert, and no wonder it was attacked elsewhere. I wonder whether pro-cannabis organisations are simply saying ‘leave me alone to do as I wish’ – or whether those who wish to profit from selling the drug legally are pulling the strings? Besides, haven’t the drug legalisers had tangential political and social agendas since the 1960s? Timothy Leary comes to mind – and what a whack job he became (obviously nothing whatsoever to do with the stuff he smoked).

    Sometimes the presence of the experimenter alters the outcome. If cannabis affects the mind of the user, and the user measures normality against what he or she feels, objectivity will suffer. That is the fatal flaw in the arguments of the pro-cannabis lobby. Their only defense is to argue passionately that cannabis has no ill effects (‘therefore what we say must be valid’) – a circularity hanging upon the thread of an assumption. And they might win for the West, so short of absolute values, is assuming the habit of kowtowing to anything expressed with sufficient passion. (Just look how a spineless media self-censors criticism of the Islamists.)

    I would be alarmed at the prospect of legalising any recreational drug in Romania. We’ve seen how retailers and banks have used advertising to trick a naive post-communist populace into buying things they don’t need by borrowing more than they can afford. Even in the West where consumers are supposed to be sophisticated (no, I don’t believe it either…) retailers have managed to draw young people into binge drinking without the slightest qualm.

  3. Jason Reed says:

    Hi Rupert,

    I’ve been reading your comments & replies on the HuffPo, and you’re receptive to points. All credit to you, it’s heartening to have a proper discussion on this.

    I did a piece on the IQ study, and there’s a few points that were not highlighted in the mainstream reporting, see Prof Alex Stevens’ tweets in this piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jason-reed/cannabis-iq-level_b_1837916.html

    I also note that you quote the Lung Foundation’s report on cannabis’ cancer risk. You may be unaware of how much fuss this caused within the scientific community – there was a deep and fierce repudiation to the BLF report. Unfortunately, the press didn’t pick up on the aftermath, and that specific report simply didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    Invariably though, it’s *owing* to the harms of any drug – cannabis very much included – that we need to address the evidence for reforms. If you want to see another side to this discussion, I invite you to look at LEAP – Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. This org is comprised of senior police personnel, intelligence officers, judges et al, who raise awareness of how the current laws compound problems, create secondary harms, and are counter-productive. The debate around cannabis and controls extends way passed ‘it’s a harmful substance vs. no it’s safe’ — there are a great many areas that also need addressing.

    Always happy to discuss this with you publicly or privately.

  4. Thank you all very much for these really interesting comments. Thanks for telling me about wiz, I appreciate your thinking Julian and I really appreciate the comment of Jason Reed who holds out the offer of a dialogue on this issue.

    Incidentally, for some light relief, you should have a quick look at this, Robin Williams talking about alcohol and weed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIWB-Neyj-c

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