Prohibition of cannabis is justified on something like the following grounds: cannabis is harmful to people, and it would be desirable if they did not use it. People who are caught with cannabis should be treated harshly so that others are deterred from using it. Thus the ideal society would be one in which no individual ever felt the need to use cannabis, but given that people do, the best way for the state to respond is to impose legal sanctions on them. I would like to examine these claims and hopefully convince the reader that their premises are misleading, and the conclusion correspondingly problematic.
Firstly, it is my view that the proposed harms associated with cannabis as usually construed by prohibitionists are at best significantly overstated and at worst totally fictitious. It is worth noting that no significant physiological harm has ever been demonstrated to result from cannabis use. Frequently referred to is a capacity of cannabis use to act as a trigger for psychopathologies like psychosis, schizophrenia, paranoid and anxious disorders and depression. While there is a correlation between cannabis use and both chronic and acute mental illness, it is not nearly so straightfoward as prohibitionists would have one believe. People with long-term psychological issues are more likely to use alcohol and illicit psychoactive drugs to begin with, especially if they have not been prescribed medication for their condition or if their medication is not working. Such people have a more complicated relationship with social norms than most, and may be more likely to want to experience drug-altered states for themselves than to remain satisfied with the propaganda vision of those states. Drugs and drug culture offer a diverse, even transcendental respite from a largely painful lived experience incongruent with mainstream social reality. It is true that chronic cannabis use and chronic mental illness can catalyse one another to cause significant harm to vulnerable individuals. However, reducing this relationship to an assertion of simple causality and extending it to people in general is intellectually dishonest, morally vacuous and politically reactionary.
There is also the claim that cannabis turns people into criminals; I won’t give this much attention, as it is not cannabis that I see going around locking people up, but the state.
The prohibitionist agenda also systematically erases discussion of the positive outcomes that can result from cannabis use. The most politically well-known of these relate to its use as pain medication for cancer patients, but I feel the claims made in those cases might be extended to the cannabis-using population as a whole. When used responsibly and in moderation, cannabis provides an opportunity for relaxation and reflection unlike any other psychoactive substance. The dosage is very easy to control and the effect mild. A wide variety of positive psychological outcomes are commonly reported – improved mood, increased appreciation of music, film, food, sex, comedy and almost anything else, increased capacity for honest and meaningful communication with others, and pleasant subtle distortions of sensory experience. These outcomes are much more widespread among the cannabis-using population than the negative ones – about 35% of Australian adults report having used cannabis in their lives, while the incidence of serious mental illness is nowhere near that high. I ultimately advocate for total individual bodily autonomy, and this seems especially clear-cut in this instance, where the potential benefits seriously outweigh the potential risks.
I note here that we live in a society where the recreational use of ethanol is not only condoned, but widely encouraged. It is also employed as an aid to relaxation and as a social lubricant, but it can induce a recklessness that leads people (especially young men) to violence, is widely implicated in courses of action and thought that people later come to regret, and has been conclusively demonstrated to be addictive and carcinogenic.
The claim that “cannabis use is harmful to people, and it would be better if they did not use it” I have thus shown to be misguided. It might better be replaced with something like “cannabis use results in overwhelmingly positive outcomes, but can be psychologically dangerous in certain circumstances.” If one accepts this, one must also accept that a regulatory framework must be established which demonstrably increases the incidence of the positive outcomes while moderating the incidence of the negative ones. The claim that cannabis use is absolutely harmful is simply untrue, and it is correspondingly dishonest to claim that it would be better if no individual ever used it.
Secondly, the claim that legal sanctions are an effective way to mitigate the harms of cannabis use is dishonest beyond belief. We have shown how cannabis can only be said to be truly harmful for individuals vulnerable to psychosis, schizophrenia and the like; imprisonment is much worse for these people than leaving them alone. The prison environment is a systematically abusive and dehumanising one which is especially harmful for people who come from marginalised backgrounds to begin with. The argument for criminalisation is thus totally self-defeating; cannabis is prohibited on the grounds that it causes mental illness, but the “solution” involves the extreme abuse of exactly those individuals who have experienced both mental illness and cannabis use. It also imposes significant harm on non-vulnerable individuals, who are fined and imprisoned and accumulate criminal records despite a total absence of any demonstrable harm they have caused to themselves or to anybody else.
The idea that legal sanctions are a good harm minimisation strategy also wrongly assumes that the law is an impartial instrument which will act justly and universally in carrying out its edicts. The reality is that cannabis prohibition disproportionately affects marginalised sections of the Australian population, and is used as an excuse to imprison people who have done nothing but offend the bigoted sensibilities of a person in police uniform. The systemic racism of the police force is well-documented. Sniffer dogs have been shown not to be impartial agents, but social animals who respond to subtle body-language clues from their handlers, which may not be conscious. Suspect individuals are more likely to be searched, and people from marginalised socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be treated as suspect. More than half of the people in juvenile detention in this country are Indigenous, and cannabis is implicated in 48% of their cases. A “crime” that sees inner-city middle-class white kids slapped on the wrist with a caution sees ATSI kids jailed. What emerges is a picture of cannabis legislation as an instrument of political repression.
The obvious conclusion is that people sincerely interested in people’s well-being must support the dismantling of prohibition and its replacement with a more reasonable and compassionate policy. In circumstances where mental illness and cannabis are implicated, the response should be treatment and support rather than imprisonment. For the majority, cannabis is largely harmless and beneficial. The most significant set of harms to individuals and society from cannabis occur at the production and distribution levels, rather than the use level. This is the direct result of prohibition, as the cannabis industry is required to operate without coming to the attention of the authorities. In such circumstances, violence is widespread and there are no safeguards to fair working conditions or responsible environmental practice, as would exist with any regulated business. Again the clear solution is to do away with prohibition, and allow individuals to set up businesses growing and selling cannabis.
Prohibitionist ideology asserts that some conservative authority has the right to tell individuals what they may and may not do with their own bodies and lives. It has convinced many people that prohibition is in their interests, when in reality it is not. Criminalisation of cannabis use has spent unbelievable amounts of money on being ineffective in moderating the harms associated with the drug, and introduced a myriad of new harms alongside the existing ones. It’s clearly time for this to change.