Rights, Representation and Reason

Back in the early 1990’s when I first got involved in the cannabis law reform effort it all seemed so easy, we wanted to free the weed; it seemed a simple thing to ask for. The original Legalise Cannabis Campaign had just about finally died and the new “Campaign to Legalise Cannabis” (which was to have “international Association” added to its name so it could contain the letters “CIA”), based in my hometown of Norwich, had been set up to fill the gap.

It was assumed back then that all the stoners would rally to the flag and support the new campaign, we really did think it would be easy.

An awful lot of water has gone through the bong since those optimistic and heady days. Not least of all because the whole scene has become much nastier, in that it is now big business and the war on drugs has been stepped up several notches. What had been a mostly pleasant sub-cult of “alternatives” is now pretty much mainstream underpinned by a vast unregulated and uncontrolled industry providing a product of highly variable quality at unknown strengths and potencies.

In an attempt to keep the lid on things what we used to regard as absolute rights of privacy have been trashed – if it had been suggested 40 years ago when the Misuse of Drugs Act became law that we would have to submit to pee tests at work, body searches to get into pubs and clubs and so on it would have been laughed at, now it’s the norm. “It couldn’t happen here” we used to think, well it did.

Of course, all this was the inevitable result of prohibition and it can and will get a lot worse yet if we let it.

So the reasons for campaigning for drug law reform – and cannabis law reform is by far the biggest element of that – are real now, and they affect a lot more people than just those who want to get stoned.

So what of the arguments in support of cannabis law reform?

Originally, using cannabis was simply seen as a right. Perhaps that isn’t so clear now. Excluding medical use, cannabis use is not a fundamental human right. It isn’t like the issue of gay rights or racial equality; you are born with a sexuality or skin colour which is what and who you are and as such you have the right to equal treatment under the law.  Likewise, access to clean drinking water and other such issues which are vital to your basic well-being and survival are examples of fundamental rights.

It can be argued that the medical use of cannabis fits the definition of a fundamental right, a right to obtain pain relief from a naturally occurring plant is surely a reasonable thing to demand.

But getting stoned for fun – or indeed as some kind of sacrament – isn’t in the same league. You won’t die if you can’t get stoned, the desire to get stoned isn’t a genetically pre-programmed aspect of anyones personality or character. Using cannabis (non medically) is not a fundamental human right in the basic sense.

Or is it?

The argument goes that we are responsible for our own welfare, only I should decide what goes into my body. likewise it is my consciousness, I am the only person who should decide whether or how to alter my perception of the world. Without these rights, I am not a free man.

This is the rub. This sort of thing is only important to you if you rate it as important. As it happens, I do, but many people do not. Because it isn’t a universally held right, nor one on which your survival depends, it isn’t one that can simply be demanded and attempting to do so can easily be portrayed as being selfish, even anti social. Simply demanding a right which many do not accept exists isn’t going to help the law reform campaign, likewise acts of mass defiance or individuals posting movies of themselves smoking bongs on youtube may even be counter productive.

So is there a way we can use this desire for “internal freedom” as a campaigning tool? Well, yes there is, but it’s going to have to be argued in a different way to what has been done thus far, and it has to be a part of a wider case based on issues far removed from the old idea of “freeing the weed”.

The case is being made by several bodies now for a regulated regime of drug control – real drug control meaning the trade is controlled – because of the spiralling violence and harm caused by the present regime. The prohibition lobby is countering this by demanding draconian enforcement, a very real war on drug users.

Fact is each and every one of us makes their own decision about taking drugs of any kind and the law plays a part in the decision-making process. How much of a part is open to debate though, the issue is how much the fear of punishment is countered by the attraction of perception changing. This is where reality comes into the argument because of the perceived right that many people have to be sovereign over their own bodies. The cold, hard light of reality will always mean attempts to enforce prohibition will be a constant game of cat and mouse, it will always be a matter of constant, ever-increasing repression just to keep the lid on things. That is the reality the government seems unwilling to accept and the prohibition lobby deny.

The other part of the reality is the law of  supply and demand: If there is a demand for a product someone will supply it. Again, this seems to be something politicians don’t understand, which is odd given their apparent enthusiasm for free market economics. If the gangs find they need to protect themselves then it just adds a bit to the price, the demand isn’t going to go away. The inevitable result of enforcement is violence.

Add to this the problem of uncertain supplies. As this blog has noted many times before, cannabis isn’t a drug in the sense that it is a combination of two major components THC and CBD (and many minor chemicals). So we don’t just have the problem of unknown doses, but also potentially of unknown potencies. In addition of course there’s contamination, which adds a total wildcard to the health issues. On top of that, access to the market by kids.

All this is a long way round of saying the law reform campaign now is about law and order, not of demanding some kind of right. It is based on this perceived right because it is something a significant number of people will decide to exercise whether politicians like it or not. It’s simply pragmatism really, of dealing with things as they are, not as some political social theory suggests they should be.

This is an argument that needs to be made by sober-minded people, not by cannabis evangelists. So it isn’t a case of representing some kind of “cannabis community” – which doesn’t really exist anyway – its more a case of telling some possibly uncomfortable truths to the people at the greatest risk of the present drift to anarchical fueled police repression, a real full on war on our own people. Those at greatest risk of that aren’t just cannabis users, it’s everyone, all of us.

We need to speak to the vastly greater number of people who don’t use cannabis, who probably don’t even like it much. To do that we have to talk TO them, not AT them, which means accepting their concerns and addressing their fears.

In all this I have made a distinction between medical use and recreational/spiritual use, in that a good and solid case can be made for the medical use of cannabis to be considered a right. If we accept this distinction, then the medical campaign needs to be separate for the general law reform campaign. Of course this gets messy because medical use is only prohibited because recreational use is, but it has been done in some countries, even here to an extent.

The law reform movement needs to change from being something designed to appeal to stoners to something designed to appeal to mainstream British society if it is to progress.


UKCIA is a cannabis law reform site dedicated to ending the prohibition of cannabis. As an illegal drug, cannabis is not a controlled substance - it varies greatly in strength and purity, it's sold by unaccountable people from unknown venues with no over sight by the authorities. There is no recourse to the law for users and the most vulnerable are therefore placed at the greatest risk. There can be no measures such as age limits on sales and no way to properly monitor or study the trade, let alone introduce proper regulation. Cannabis must be legalised, as an illegal substance it is very dangerous to the users and society at large.

2 thoughts on “Rights, Representation and Reason

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I still believe quite strongly in the civil libertarian case for the right to grow and possess cannabis, I think we have a grotesque state of affairs right now and that issue alone is still very important in the end, however it is fortunate now that there are so many other compelling arguments to be made favour of regulation in terms of crime reduction, health harm reduction, tax gains and so on. So you are right, it really should be possible to make the case for cannabis legalisation resonate with non-users of cannabis. When they can see that it concerns them directly, their tax money being used to fight crime, their tax money being used to treat people with drug problems (when regulated sales would wipe out treatment costs on their own), they should hopefully see that even if they don’t like cannabis or cannabis users for whatever reason, they themselves would stand to gain from a regulated system.

    I’d like to see a UKCIA post on this topic. Something like “Why non-users of cannabis should support cannabis regulation” with some bullet points, or something to that end. It’s sad but true that people only tend to care about issues in society when they themselves are affected by them, and that’s the critical message to convey; they are affected.

    Great post.

  2. Likewise, users and non-users of drugs alike ought to understand that it concerns not just cannabis and the demand for cannabis, it concerns all drugs and the supply and distribution of all drugs, too.

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

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