Thursday, 18 March 2010

The indefensible War on Marijuana and the urgent need for change.

– By Christopher Landau

As a regular user of Marijuana for close to four years, I have often felt a vested and indeed necessary existential interest in defending my drug of choice. In the last few years in particular this interest has gained more importance as the visibility of the debate has risen in the public discourse. I have come to believe that arguing for the de-criminalisation of marijuana is insufficient and so I intend to argue here for it's complete legalisation - something which I discovered to my relief, is very easy to do.

Who am I arguing against?

All those people that find my initial premise offensive, as they bask in their narcissistic self-serving moral indignation. The long line of shamelessly incompetent, morally bankrupt and hypocritically pietistic cabinet ministers who have forged careers and reputations pontificating on the subject of marijuana prohibition. And the crooning horde of journalistic hackery, that seem simply unable to deal with the huge problems of prohibition rationally.

Marijuana’s detractors (like it's users) hail from all quarters and all walks of life. So it is to their eternal disservice that as the number I have encountered over the years has steadily increased, the sophistication and subtly of their reasoning has never escaped the doldrums. An almost entirely predictable pantomime of the same non-arguments are wheeled out time and time again, with enough self riotousness on display to power Bono for a year. You quickly realise when arguing with these people that it is akin to trying to convince a religious zealot of the illusionary nature of his God. Not much fun for anyone.

Zeitgeist - A truck that the media steers

A shameful example of journalistic hackery springs to mind. In March 2007 one of the Britain’s best loved 'leftist' newspapers The Independent ran the following front-page headline: “Cannabis: An apology” The article stated that:
“In 1997, this newspaper launched a campaign to decriminalise cannabis. If only we had known then what we can reveal today…Record numbers of teenagers are requiring drug treatment as a result of smoking skunk, the highly potent cannabis strain that is 25 times stronger than resin sold a decade ago.”

The Independent had performed an abrupt U-turn on the issue of prohibition, apparently in the light of compelling new evidence. But after Ben Goldacre of The Guardian read the Independent's mea culpa he came to a very different conclusion. Goldacre wrote a counter piece in which he bulldozed the Independant's so called evidence. He concludes his response with this astute observation "The more I see of the world the more it strikes me that people seem to want more science, rather than less, and to deploy it in odd ways: to abrogate responsibility; to validate a hunch; to render a political or cultural prejudice in deceptively objective terms. Because you can prove anything with science, as long as you cherry pick the data and keep one eye half closed."

Was this just an aberration? A cautionary tale of failed journalistic integrity? Or a symptom of an inherent institutional bias? Is the unwillingness of our politicians and our journalists to even have an honest discussion on the issue of marijuana prohibition (let alone regarding harder drugs) affecting our ability to judge fairly, if the policy of prohibition is actually working or not?

Of course even those politicians who do support some sort of drug policy reform keep there mouth’s firmly closed. It has to be said not not solely from fear of the lobbyists in London and the influence of Washington, but the reaction from the public itself. Before we can all jump on the bandwagon and simply blame the powers that be for the lack of serious debate, we have to accept that if public opinion was organised and directed on this issue, we could see more support from other quarters. As it stands at the moment, there seems to be no coherent legalisation movement (Despite numerous high profile advocates) that has succeeded in effectively mobilising public support.

Thinking the unthinkable

For some, the idea of legalising weed is akin to a sort of iconoclasm and the tearing down of a key societal concept of the last century. From “Reefer madness” to “Cops” popular media has long been an effective means of reinforcing negative stereotypes of drugs and their users, it seems to have largely succeeded. The history of the last century is littered with artificially created social paradigms like these that simply defy rationality. Many governments of the world are complicit in the spread of misinformation about marijuana and other illegal drugs it's true, but the American government has really lead from the front.

A pertinent question you might be wondering is “Is this important?” So I tell you even if you don't smoke pot, yes. You forget at your peril the massive financial and human cost of this prohibition. The U.S led war on drugs costs the U.S and U.K taxpayer billions per year, therefore it should surely be just as legitimate an issue for public debate as the “war on terror”, but this is not the case. The true costs of this war are simply not reflected within the mainstream media discourse. Why?

Hypocrisy is my favourite word

The first issue that might strike one as odd when looking at the question of Cannabis is how very legal it once was. Not only was it legal but it also happened to be one of the largest agricultural crops in the world. Cannabis, can also be Hemp, one of the most robust, durable and natural soft fibres on the face of this planet. Up until 1883 and for thousands of years before that, Cannabis was the largest agricultural crop in the world. It had thousands of uses and products, such as fabrics, paper, lighting oil, rope and even the first sail cloth. Fifty percent of medicine marketed in the last half of 19th century was also made from cannabis and in 1938 (the year all forms of cannabis became essentially outlawed) an article in Popular Mechanics stated that cannabis was capable of producing over 5000 textile products from its soft fibre and over 25000 products from its cellulose. Ironically, the first law ever put on the books regarding Marijuana in the U.S was one ordering farmers to grow Hemp, in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia in 1619. Benjamin Franklin used it to start one of his first paper mills, and even the first two pages of the declaration of independence were written on cannabis hemp paper. These sorts of historical anecdotes can of course go on and on, but you get the point.

You cannot get high from hemp as it doesn’t contain enough of the psycho-active compound Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This makes it all the stranger that hemp was lumped in with other forms of cannabis and cannabis medicines during the drive for prohibition in the 1930’s. This derived in part from the so called “Reefer Madness” depicted in the early 20th century “yellow” journalism, which surfaced with articles depicting Blacks and Mexicans as savage beasts; smoking marijuana and then playing the devils music whilst often insulting the readership - the large majority of which happened to be white. This crude and offensive depiction of blacks and Mexicans as the “other” that must be feared, simultaneously stigmatised marijuana in the eyes of the white American middleclass.

At the same time, an increasingly vocal opposition towards Hemp cultivation emerged out of Washington. With lobbyists recruited by elite interests hailing from within the American industrial complex profoundly afraid that Hemp was essentially “too useful” to be allowed exception from a prohibition. This might seem strange, but it was speculated at the time that hemp would come into direct competition with many other industrial materials. Not to mention that Hemp can be grown by anybody, for very little cost and cannot be patented.

A plant that has been cultivated and refined for thousands of years, Marijuana was made effectively illegal in 1938 (you had to get a tax stamp to cultivate it which they didn't give out) and the prohibition of all forms of cannabis has continued to this day. This situation has only changed once since then, during WW2 - when hemp was deemed so useful to the allied forces they actually produced “hemp for victory” posters.

In the American Congress in 1948 cannabis legislation did come under review once more, but not with intent to change its illegality. Instead the House essentially decided that marijuana was made illegal for the wrong reason. They finally realised that marijuana didn’t in fact make people violent as they had originally argued, but instead made them become more passive or heaven forbid even Pacifist. Congress declared “The communists will use it to weaken are will to fight” and in 1948 voted to keep marijuana illegal for the exact opposite reason that they had done so in the first place. All through the years since then, report after report, commissioned by everybody from the mayor of New York in 1944 to the president of the United States in 1972 has come to the same conclusion, Marijuana should have no criminal penalty attached to it. Yet here we are today with marijuana just as illegal as it was seventy odd years ago.

The arguments for Prohibition and why they fail

If we assume that the ostensible goal of prohibition is to reduce the quantity of cannabis available and to reduce the demand for it in the first place, in both instances prohibition is clearly an abysmal failure. In 1957 there were estimated to be fifty five thousand marijuana users in the U.S. Today conservative estimates put that figure at over fifty million. (It is likely to be significantly higher due to under reporting.) That’s a one hundred thousand percent increase during just fifty years. Below are listed some of the most common arguments used in favour of prohibition today and why they inevitably fail:

1) “Smoking cannabis kills brain cells” – In 1974, the Heath/Tulane study was conducted and the results seized upon by the then President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who said at the time: “The most reliable scientific sources say brain damage is one of the inevitable results of the use of marijuana.” During the Heath/Tulane study, monkeys were given doses of marijuana, which were initially reported as equivalent to “thirty joints a day”. The study reported that all the monkeys began to atrophy, dieing after only a few days. Brain damage was recorded by taking tissue samples from the dead monkeys that had been given the marijuana and comparing it to brain tissue taken from normal monkeys. This study became the foundation of the Reagan administration and other special interest group’s claim, which is still repeated to this day; that smoking marijuana kills brain cells. However, after six years of requests from journalists and advocates they revealed how it was conducted. Instead of administering thirty joints a day for one year, Dr Heath had devised a method to pump the equivalent of over sixty extra strong joints through a gas mask in five minute bursts, over the course of three months. There was no additional oxygen put into the mix, just pure marijuana. Unfortunately for the monkeys, (but perhaps not us pot smokers) tissue damage is to be expected within minutes of oxygen deprivation to the brain. Subsequent studies have found no link whatsoever.

2) “Smoking cannabis can cause lung cancer” and Smoking cannabis is just as bad as smoking tobacco” – There has not been one peer reviewed scientific study which has established a link between smoking pure marijuana and developing lung cancer. Not one medical facility or university has ever reported a death directly attributable to marijuana. Despite this, a study conducted in 1999 by the U.S government still tried to insinuate a hidden danger, including sentences such as “Marijuana may cause cancer” and even “Marijuana should cause cancer.” The oft repeated and baseless justification used being: “we haven’t established a link yet, but it surely must exist!” David Malmo-Levine of the Vancouver drug-war history school stated in 2008 “You should smoke marijuana moderately because it can paralyse the Cilia, [microscopic organisms that move fluid over the surface of the lungs] but if it’s not radioactive, you’re not going to get cancer from it.” There is no record of any smokers of marijuana getting brown lung syndrome and there is no record of a marijuana smoker getting emphysema. Of course smoking can be harmful, because of the properties of smoke, but not as a result of the cannabis plant itself. Nicotine on the other hand, contains many elements not found in cannabis, which do cause cancer and do cause these other diseases. Every year in the U.S and U.K, cigarettes kill more people than Aids, Heroin, Crack, Cocaine, Alcohol, car accidents and murder combined. Tobacco as the number one killer is responsible for over four hundred thousand American deaths per year, so it is interesting to note that tobacco farming receives U.S government subsidies and is grown with radioactive fertilizer.

3) “Marijuana is addictive” Asked to rate substances in order of there addictive potential, two researchers in the U.S stated in their findings that - "Nicotine is the most addictive, followed by Alcohol, then Heroin, then Cocaine, then Coffee and then finally Marijuana." Marijuana smokers often combine the drug with tobacco which of course, can increase the addictive potential of smoking a joint; but there are no physically addictive components in weed.

4) “Marijuana today is much stronger than it used to be.” Another commonly used argument is that marijuana today is not comparable to the stuff our parents smoked in the sixties. Claims of “Super” skunk and talk of the ‘perfect plant’ abound. But it is all arrogant, ignorant, bollocks. There has always been a range of THC levels in the different strains of plants available and there has always been very strong cannabis on the market, albeit harder to come by, as it had to be smuggled from Colombia, Thailand, Nepal, Morocco etc. Just because we can now replicate the very best strains of marijuana more easily, we shouldn’t forget that these strains have been cultivated and refined for thousands of years before. It is no more than a stroke of our own ego to think that during 50 years of prohibition we have somehow improved upon varieties of marijuana, that have been cultivated for drug use in places like India for thousands of years. What we can accept is that there are some nuances to this debate; but that shouldn’t mean we have to listen to this gnashing of teeth and hysterical paranoia of some impending strain of deadly super skunk. I call bullshit until they can produce a shred of evidence.

5) “Smoking weed is immoral” The moral question of legalisation for marijuana is a difficult philosophical question. So my philosopher buddys will have to forgive me for saying ultimately, I think we are at a juncture where this question is irrelevant. I'l explain why. A typical liberal argument might sound something like this: “well isn’t it obvious that we shouldn’t make judgments about somebody, based on their private tastes and modes of recreation. They aren’t hurting anybody and we have no right to demonise and indeed criminalise them.” The problem with this argument is that it is essentially an argument for a form of moral relativism; a valid philosophical position to adopt (although I have never met a true moral relativist) but not without difficulties. For instance, if I am not allowed to say somthing like "I believe smoking weed is absolutley immoral, and therfore should be illegal", well what else am I not allowed to say? How about "Watching child porn is immoral and should be illegal"? Of course the antithesis has its own philosophical difficulties; the most obvious one being how to answer the question: “Who decides what is moral?” But my contention is that this sort of debate, at least pertaining to marijuana legislation; just doesn’t get us anywhere useful. We could argue until the end of time and we would still not come up with the 'right' answer. Instead I claim that we need a rational policy debate about the actual results of prohibition.

6) “The gateway theory” Formerly known as the “stepping stone hypothesis” this is an argument as old as marijuana prohibition itself. It is also the argument I hear repeated most often by my various protagonists over the years. It is also the most nonsensical. The theory says that essentially if you smoke marijuana, it makes you in some way more inclined to try ‘harder’ drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. But this is just patently untrue balderdash. Every time it has been studied, every time it has been looked at, they have never found anything that would suggest that there is something in marijuana that would make you want to go and try something else. There is no known, inherent, psychopharmological properties in marijuana that pushes one towards another drug. If there are no inherent components that can be tested scientifically; what are we arguing about here exactly? Does a love of alcohol stem from a childhood fondness for milk? Does a habit for cocaine stem from cherished memories of post bath-time talcum powder? Statistically, only 1 out of every 100 marijuana users uses cocaine and less than one uses heroine.

Unforeseen consequences

By making marijuana illegal, by definition you create a criminal class and a set of circumstances where people have to come into contact with criminals. This is the huge irony of the gateway theory, it is actually because the black market throws together the dealers of both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs that people are more likely to encounter other substances. Not to mention that when you have an unregulated black market, identification and accountability become redundant concepts. How many dealers for example, give a fuck about how old their buyers are? Prohibition therefore creates the very circumstances that we claim to abhor.

Lessons not learnt

How many of us still remember the prohibition imposed on the U.S throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s? Alcohol prohibition birthed and gave rise to an unprecedented and massive proliferation of organised criminal groups operating within the United States, and fostered a broader disregard for law and the police. It was a law that right from the beginning the vast majority of American society simply refused to obey. During this time alcohol poisoning went up 600% and ‘speakeasies’ were just as ubiquitous a feature of the neighbourhood as the dope dealer is today. If you prohibit something that people don’t want, such as ammonia nitrate fertilizer for example; you probably won’t hear too many objections and you might even do some good. But the lesson that we need to learn from the prohibition of alcohol is that if you prohibit something in demand, society will reject the rule of law and calamity will surely follow.

Of course alcohol abuse still creates problems for society today; but mass numbers of people are not being killed over the right to distribute it. When alcohol was prohibited people got to see for themselves the visceral and rapid change from a society governed by law, to a society governed by gangsters. A man who knows better than most the difficulties of fighting marijuana is the former mayor of Vancouver and former member of the RCMP drug squad Senator Larry Campbell; who said in 2008: “This [prohibition] brings crime into it, because the benefits and the ability to make money off it is so huge. We have to remember that marijuana is just a weed; and yet it is worth more ounce for ounce than gold.” In Vancouver today it is estimated 1 in 5 houses are illegal grow operations, when you consider that walking ten pounds of marijuana out of Vancouver and across the border to the U.S doubles its value this begins to make sense. By prohibiting marijuana you create an artificially inflated value for that drug which is so huge, even murder becomes justifiable. The use of the criminal law, for the basis of public health is a wholly bad idea, we should not legislate morality.

Why decriminalising marijuana is not enough

There are a number of important distinctions between the ‘legalisation’ and ‘decriminalisation’ of cannabis. Legalisation makes marijuana a product that is legally available to adults. That would mean that there would be no unregulated distribution, sale, or use. The decriminalisation of marijuana creates a situation where you aren’t going to go to jail for using it, but society is still essentially saying “no”. It doesn’t address the issues of organised crime and it doesn’t create a situation where you have retail sales. Decriminalisation is reduced to further absurdity when you realise that it would be legal to possess and use marijuana, but not to produce it or sell it. In fact it is the worst of both worlds and sends out a horribly confused message. Marijuana needs to be treated for what it is, and taxed and regulated precisely as we do with alcohol and tobacco. Michael R. Caputo is associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of California and in his 1991 report, he estimated annual profits from the legal taxation of marijuana ranging from “2.55 to 9.09 billion dollars”, that was almost twenty years ago.

The real obstacles to change

We must make no mistake, the real target of the U.S led war on drugs and its anti drug rhetoric is cannabis and the people that smoke it. As former national administrator of the U.S Government’s marijuana research program, Dr Tod Mikuriya stated, the attitude of the U.S goverment torwards cannabis resembles “a religious jihad”. In the early 1970’s the modern age of drugs prohibition began in earnest. By 1972 the Nixon administration had seized the opportunity prohibition created and set about using marijuana prohibition as a tool, in the systematic persecution of the Vietnam Peace movement. (The plan being to simply arrest all of the anti-war protesters for pot possession.)

Since Nixon things have only got worse, with President Reagan in the 80’s asking us all to give up our “crutch” and both former presidents of the Bush tribe declaring proudly “acceptance of drug use, simply is not an option for this administration.” The underlying logic for these politicians was the same. Marijuana makes people think, it opens up minds to new ideas and opposing points of view - not to mention it has helped people in their creative endeavours, transforming the very cultural landscape we look upon. In short, they thought that it would make people more liberal. Marijuana is now such a politically charged subject exactly because it taps into a fundamental question about conservative identity. When tags such as ‘liberal’ and 'stoner' can be used interchangably by the right as a euphemism for a 'hippy', ‘socialist’ and indeed even ‘fascist'; we see how polarised the debate has become and how unhealthy this is for the purposes of a rational dialogue.

It doesn’t help matters that the issue is simultaneously sensationalised and trivialised by the main stream media, led in America of course by Fox News. We therefore find ourselves in a tricky situation. For serious reform to be possible, we must see a shift in U.S public opinion. Why the U.S? Because any other nation that attempted to legalise cannabis unilaterally would be given short stick by the rest of the international community and serious reasons to return to the status quo anti. Reform has to start with the U.S, but to do that we have to change the minds of people not only at the top of U.S politics, but an unwilling media, a well funded police force and a profitable corporate and military industrial complex. Top that all off with the vocal cries of anti drug conservatives and fundamentalist Christians, it seems we have an up hill struggle.

The war on drugs is a monster of our own creation, but it has out-grown us. The U.S spends an estimated 7.7 billion dollars annually to enforce marijuana prohibition; whilst four fifths of Canada’s annual enforcement budget of 500 million dollars is spent combating marijuana alone. So why is it such a big deal? MONEY. The drug enforcement industry is now a vast and exuberant recipient of taxpayer dollars and the enforcement industries themselves, be they lawyers, police, prison contractors etc. A shadow-shadow industry if you wil, has emerged. The police are now the willing and invested participants in the very prohibition they enforce. It is important to keep in mind that it is in the interests of both the authorities and the criminals to keep marijuana illegal.

We should also not forget the various corporate and elite special interest groups, willing to take up the fight to support prohibition today. For example, over the past decades there has been a rapid growth in the construction of prisons in the U.S almost matched by the rapid growth of prisoners themselves. There are more people held in U.S jail today than there has been at any other time in history. In 2008 U.S jails held well over two million people, which means approximately one in every eighteen men in the United States is behind bars, with seventy percent of those prisoners being non- white. (In Japan they incarcerate thirty eight people for every one hundred thousand population, in the U.S the figure is seven hundred and twenty six people per hundred thousand.)

In fact if it wasn’t for marijuana prohibition, the U.S drug enforcement industries would be unable to justify the vast sums of public subsidy that keeps them all in comfort. The U.S private prison system is now touted as one of the most profitable investment opportunities in the world not to mention ‘recession proof’. Extraordinarily expensive to build and even more expensive to run, prisons present a dream opportunity for those awarded the contracts; as state authorities throw staggering sums of money around. Perhaps then it is no surprise that the U.S prison population has quadrupled since the inception of the war on drugs, and that the U.S now holds over 25% of the entire world's prisoners.

The Pithy Conclusion

I have attempted to show as rationally as I can, the failings of the U.S led prohibition. Watching the U.S from afar is always grim; especially here, where you know that American neo-cons effectively determine large swathes of the U.K domestic policy towards drugs. Nevertheless, the anti-prohibition movement needs to get better organised; petitioning our politicans for parlimentary reform and badgering our journalists to their jobs properly might be a good start. To be perfectly honest though, I’m definitely not the one to lead that fight; in fact, after surveying the situation I can’t help but come to one conclusion - It’s time for a joint.


  1. To be fair, mate. It's an argument we won't win.

    It's not legal because they can't tax it effectively.

    Hope all's well on the Swede side of the world, you turnip.

    Big Ed.

  2. terror and economic criseses will never never end cause some people are very very angry due to the prohibition of free smok etc remember what i said it will never never never end!!!

  3. I've been smoking weed more or less every day for 3 years and am totally in support of you but just decided to question a few of your points.
    Firstly, I just find it quite hard to believe that smoking cannabis regularly does not at least increase chances of lung cancer. I'm sure inhaling any substance can lead to a build up of tar in the lungs, leading to cancer. I know there have been no recorded cases but who smokes only weed (no tobacco)for 30 years, dies and leaves their story to science.
    My only other point is about the addiction, you mentioned that it is not "physically addictive". I'm guessing you mean chemically addictive. I know this is true and what you say about smoking it with tobacco is true but even after running out of weed and smoking tobacco, I still feel an urgency to get more, probably because it is so fucking good. I just wonder what that is, if it's not chemically addictive, it must be socially addictive which means it's still addictive. Do I have a point?
    Hope it doesn't come across like I'm opposing you just thought it might be healthy to try and counter my own arguments for once. Cheers for the blog dude.
    Tycho Forbes

  4. Harry,
    Thanks for you comments, the more the merrier. I'l try and answer you to the best of my limited ability.

    You said:

    1)"Firstly, I just find it quite hard to believe that smoking cannabis regularly does not at least increase chances of lung cancer"

    Well there seems to be lots of conflicting research on this question, some studies have shown that smoking pure marijuana might actually lower the chances of developing lung cancer, see here - However as I said in my post, the properties of smoke in general can indeed be harmful to human health, if not carcinogenic. But Marijuana unlike Tobbaco is not grown using radioactive fertilizers and there are no known carcigens in the plant itself.

    2)'if it's not chemically addictive, it must be socially addictive which means it's still addictive. Do I have a point?'

    The problem here I think is one of semantics. 'addictive' has become a somwhat debased term. However in a scientific context we would usually be refering to physiological addiction, i.e where withdrawl from x = physical symptons, nausea, tremors, insomnia, etc. This was the 'addiction' I was refering too. When we take this definition we can then rank different drugs according to there empirically testable addictive qualities. If we do this we get a table that places marijuana right down the bottom, lower than cocaine, tobacco and coffee.

    However, as you say we can also use the term 'addictive' in numerous ways. The danger though when involved in a facts based argumnet against prohibition, is that our opponents use the definition of addiction that suits them, one that it is wholy subjective and open to manipulation.

    The modern approach that I favour and is being pioneered by those such as Professor David Nutt and others gives a more holistic 'harm' based account of drugs and the drug classification system. Rather than relying merely on a drug's relative addictivness scientifically, it takes into account the wider impacts of a drug on the social fabric of society. -

    Hope that helps. CJL