Prohibition is Harm Maximisation

Years ago, the cannabis law reform campaign described cannabis as “The harmless herb” and the big reason put forward for legalisation was that cannabis was harmless and didn’t present any form of risk whatsoever. It became a mantra the prohibition lobby were only to keen to exploit with their claims of a link to mental illness, painting cannabis campaigners as at best naive, at worse downright deceptive.

If course “harmless herb” was a stupid claim to make; nothing on earth is “harmless”, nothing is absolutely safe for everyone under all conditions of use. Cannabis may well be the “safest therapeutic drug known” according to the DEA’s Judge Francis Young back in the 1990’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

For many years now, Transform Drug Policy, a law reform campaign which isn’t cannabis focused and which campaigns for the end of prohibition across the board for all drugs, has taken the view that the reason to legalise drugs isn’t because they’re safe, but because they’re dangerous. The logic is simple; the more dangerous a drug is, the more important it is to properly control and regulate the trade. But it was never an argument a lot of cannabis campaigners were going to be happy with because it sort of implies the safer a drug is, the less need there is to legalise it.

A measure of success for the government’s drugs policy is highly variable doses on sale and high levels of contamination. Prohibition not only makes any kind of quality control difficult, it actually sets out to prevent it. This is just one example of how prohibition deliberately sets out to increase harm and its why UKCIA has been banging on for years with the message “Prohibition is harm maximisation”

So I’m please to see a much more all inclusive argument from Transform, summed up with this excellent meme:

And that, surely, is the truth?

So how is cannabis potentially dangerous?

All consciousness altering drugs have to potential to make certain tasks more dangerous of course, it goes without saying that it’s not a good idea to wave a chainsaw around when you’re stoned, likewise avoid driving. For very small number of people cannabis can be truly addictive, less seriously for about 1 in 10 it can be habit forming, although this is usually fairly mild. Breathing in any kind of smoke isn’t good for your lungs and cannabis does contain carcinogenic compounds.

A quick look at official websites about cannabis harms often make for dire reading, some being little more than government propaganda while others make their assessment from the effects of black market street cannabis.

The impact of prohibition

A general point about kids and drugs is worth making. As brains develop they don’t just grow, rather they develop and grow as they learn, a process called neuroplasticity. A brain develops by making sense of how it perceives the world around it and anything that interferes with that learning/growing process has the potential to harm it. So this isn’t something specific to cannabis, it applies to all drugs and maybe other things that aren’t drugs like video games, but use and especially heavy use by kids is something to avoid. Prohibition of course does nothing to protect kids and often ensnares them in the drug dealing business (Independent)

Prohibition makes doses unknown and in the case of cannabis there is the extra variable of potency – the ratio of THC and CBD. The claim made so repeatedly it must be true (!) is that high THC cannabis increases the risk of developing long lasting mental health problems, not least of all because “modern” strains do not carry as much of the antipsychotic chemical CBD. Now disputed as all this is this charge is a very serious one; Mental illness – schizophrenia – is a horrible illness, it destroys a person. If this is even a possibility then surely we should be doing everything in our power to reduce the risk and the only way to do that is through a regulated, properly controlled trade so at least you know what type of cannabis your buying, perhaps even as Lord Monson suggests, banning very high THC / low CBD cannabis. In any case, nothing is possible under the present prohibition regime.

Under a legalised regime, blending becomes possible. So it is relatively easy to produce any THC/CBD ratio you like. The whole-cannabis medicine “Sativex” made by GW Pharms is made this way, a blend between a high THC Sativa and a high CBD Ruderalis strains to produce a mix of pretty close to 50:60 THC and CBD.

The prohibition trade is totally uncontrolled to the extent that it even passes off counterfeit products. This is a well known problem for ecstasy where drugs such as PMMA sold as E have killed people. With cannabis we now face the problem of SCRAs – the Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists or “legal highs” known as “fake cannabis”. If it hasn’t happened already it’s only a matter of time before some weak weed is sprayed with this stuff to “spice it up”. SCRAs certainly are dangerous, nasty drugs which only came into being because of the prohibition of cannabis in the first place. Black market contamination with this stuff is a real threat.

Another risk which is totally unquantified and may have implications for the mental health debate is the use – maybe even overuse – of organophosphate (OP) pesticides by the unregulated growing industry. In states where cannabis is legal pesticide contamination is a very real issue and many are now banned. Over here we are kept in the dark. OP’s, derived from nerve gas,  were never intended to be smoked and there is no way to know what the health risk may be.

Even some conscientious hobby growers use pesticides on their crops and think that flushing the plant at the end of the grow cycle will remove the residue, it won’t.

Because of the prohibition policy there has never been a safer use campaign aimed at cannabis consumers in this country and the government absolutely refuses to run one. The most obvious safer use would be to dissuade consumers from mixing cannabis with tobacco, as unbelievably most still do. UKCIA has been running Tokepure for over 15 years now, it’s almost certainly the single most important harm reduction information relevant to the greatest number of people the government could provide. Cannabis may not be harmless and even smoking pure is not good for your lungs, but it is made vastly more dangerous by mixing with tobacco; tobacco is very much more addictive than cannabis and is a known cause of cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), both of which kill.

Of course cannabis doesn’t have to be smoked, under a properly regulated legal system eating or drinking (edibles) would become a far more reliable and safer way to consume it, as we are  seeing now in US states where recreational use is legal. Under prohibition however knowing the dose is almost impossible and contaminants on the herb or especially on hash add another unknown risk. Likewise vaporisers remove a lot of the problems associated with smoking. UKCIA guide to edibles

Prohibition makes the carrying of safer use equipment risky and in some places the police are doing their best to prevent sales of what they like to call “paraphernalia”. All this works so as make use as dangerous as possible instead of encouraging sensible harm reduction.

Prohibition treats the very people it claims to want to protect as criminals which is utterly self defeating. It doesn’t stop people using drugs, it just makes them devious in the way they go about doing so. Worse, when something does go wrong the law gets in the way of calls for help. It also makes the solving of disputes through legal, peaceful means impossible, meaning violence is common.

Last but not least, because the illegal drug trade is uncontrolled and unregulated, your friendly cannabis dealer might also offer you all sorts of other drugs. In fact this is the only way cannabis may be a “gateway” to other drugs, purely because of our brain dead drug laws.

Cannabis may not be harmless, nothing on earth is, but under prohibition cannabis is made as dangerous as it can possibly be. The thing is, it’s deliberate government policy. Can you name one other government policy that actually sets out to maximise harm?


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.