So where now?
This seems to be the big question struggling to find it’s way onto the agenda of cannabis law reform campaigners over recent months.
Perhaps first it’s time for a quick review of how the case for cannabis law reform has been made in the past, which went something like this:
Cannabis is the great hope for mankind, it really is a miraculous plant. Almost every part of the plant offers value to civilisation: The roots bind soil, preventing erosion and flooding. The stems provide fibre which can make everything from paper to a fine cloth to rival silk. The fibres of cannabis are long – up to a meter or so – meaning few knots are needed which in turn means smoother, stronger and finer cloth. It can be made into strong material suitable for building houses and insulating the lofts, it can even make car body parts and it can be used to make bio fuel to run those cars.
The seeds make a wonderful food rich in proteins and produce oils with many industrial uses which could rival the petrochemical industries.
But perhaps the strongest case for cannabis is it has known and recognised medical uses covering a wide range of applications, so long denied by the law which classed cannabis as having no medical uses. Perhaps the highest profile medical campaign has been based around Multiple Sclerosis with many sufferers of that distressing illness using illegal cannabis as the only effective medication. MS isn’t the only medical application of cannabis though, people use it to deal with a whole list of aliments. Perhaps sometimes, maybe often, the effect is palliative but if it helps people cope with otherwise debilitating conditions, then why not?
Then we have people who use cannabis for spiritual reasons. This includes long established religions such as Rastafarians and Coptic Christians for whom cannabis is an essential part of their culture, for Hindus of course, it forms the basis of the whole system of belief.
The ability of cannabis to allow people to concentrate on thoughts is well documented and to many this represents a spiritual dimension in its own right and has produced works of art, especially music.
Add to all this the fact that cannabis grows almost anywhere with minimum input of chemical fertilisers and its products are biodegradable. With a list of attributes like this, how could the cannabis law reform fail to make a watertight case to challenge prohibition?
Well, of course, one element is missing from all the above – all of which are, incidentally, true.
What’s “wrong” with cannabis is the fact that people enjoy using it not for therapeutic reasons, not for spiritual reasons or for making cloth or paper, but because of its intoxicating effects. Cannabis makes people stoned and so it gets used for fun and this is a bad thing according to those who we are daft enough to allow to rule over us.
So while the legalise cannabis campaign praised all the good uses of the plant, the public debate has always been about this recreational use and how undesirable it apparently is. Cannabis, we are told, has a “high potential for abuse” – “abuse” of course, being killjoy puritanical speak for getting stoned, for using cannabis for fun. The vast majority of people who use cannabis are these so-called “recreational users” and the hence law reform campaign is really a campaign to allow people to get stoned.
It’s worth mentioning at this point of course that cannabis isn’t a new drug to a huge swathe of the world, its recreational (as well as spiritual and medical use) being familiar with in many cultures for thousands of years. But of course these have been cultures traditionally considered at best as colonies of the west, or at worst as little more than a source of cheap or even slave labour. The prohibition of cannabis thus has its roots in racism in many respects.
The racist effects of the prohibition of cannabis continue to this day, resulting in police action against minority communities over the past 40 years which have caused riots and made normal policing all but impossible in some communities. Recently we’ve seen a revival of stop and search with cannabis possession often being the key to further police public alienation. We can expect this to get worse when cannabis is moved back to class B, if the law is indeed enforced.
Despite all this concern about the evils of drug use, the recreational drug of the ruling elite – alcohol – isn’t even considered a drug as far as policy is concerned, whereas cannabis is classed alongside heroin and cocaine. This hypocrisy isn’t lost on cannabis users of course.
So what’s gone wrong with the law reform campaign?
Cannabis has – or perhaps had – a well deserved reputation for being a pretty safe drug. Stoned people were not violent, the A&E wards weren’t full of stoned people and no-one died. Yes, cannabis is pretty safe, but campaigners had to take things to a stupid level and cannabis was promoted as the “harmless herb” and the law reform campaign as a campaign to “free the weed”. Pretty safe cannabis is, yes, but was it ever harmless?
The very fact that cannabis allows people to meditate on their thoughts of course can have a dark side, is this really such a good thing to expose very young people to with no guidance? Is cannabis bred for strength and used to get hammered really as harmless as some claimed?
The “harmless herb” argument was easy to destroy and it really should have been obvious that this would happen. It was to some of us who were questioning what “free the weed” actually meant a decade ago, but we were somewhat lone voices.
The thing that really sticks out to any non-user of cannabis these days is what can be considered the “traditional” way cannabis has been used in this country – the joint. A joint being a large cigarette packed full of tobacco and with no filter. Now, whatever health effects smoking cannabis might have, mixing it with masses of tobacco is only going to add to them not least because tobacco, unlike cannabis, is highly addictive and a known carcinogen.
To state the blindingly obvious the tobacco connection was an issue the law reform movement should have faced early on, at least as far back as the mid 90’s. But the promoters of the “harmless herb” argument would have non of it. Of course, most were heavy tobacco smokers themselves and insisted that they wanted the right to use cannabis in any way they wanted and smoking with tobacco was an important element of the “freedom to chose”. So a safer use campaign didn’t happen (beyond UKCIA’s tokepure) and “the harmless herb” remained a gateway to one of the most additive and destructive drugs we have.
The “harmless herb” argument continued into the 21st century when it came under a sustained attack around 2004 with claims of a link to mental illness.
The result of the mental health claims was perhaps predictable and set the law reform movement back badly. The issue was taken up by prohibition supporters as a reason to tighten the prohibition laws in the name of protecting young people, in particular their sights were fixed on reversing the move to class C, a move which had been put about by some campaigners as a move toward legalisation, which it had not been. Most of the law reform campaign simply tried to dismiss the claims of a link to mental health problems even though world respected scientists were adding their voices and a major mental health charity took up the fight. The idea that a regulated legal regime would protect people simply didn’t fit with free the weed and the law reform movement found itself isolated and marginalised.
The basic reason motivating a large number of law reformers has been simply the desire to promote individual freedom, the right to choose and the idea of regulating and controlling the cannabis trade didn’t sit well with that motivation. As a result the prohibitionists were handed the whole argument lock stock and barrel.
The result has been the law and order argument has been gifted to those who promote prohibition as an effective way to control cannabis, when in truth it’s not hard to argue it does precisely the opposite.
Because of it’s myopic devotion to prohibition, urged on by wealthy prohibition lobbyists and their determination to squash the recreational use of cannabis the government has come down on all uses of the plant. It’s no longer a mitigating reason to use cannabis as pain relief and medi users have been dragged through the courts as a result.
Much play was made of the almost unofficial legalisation of Sativex cannabis medicine, but it’s not easy to get and many medical users are still forced to use the street supplies. As a result we have perhaps the first signs of a new medical campaign, with “Protest London” pulling a small but respectable demonstration of medical users in London last week. Talk is now of concentrating on the medi weed issue because, simply, it’s the most deserving element of the campaign. So it is of course, but to do so would be a mistake.
Sadly the medical issue is easy to paint as a “smokescreen” way to get recreational use legalised and, it has to be said, there are some who use it as just that, just as some use the religious issue.
But of course, the reason people can’t self medicate with cannabis or indeed do anything much else with the plant is because the recreational use is illegal and until something is done about the recreational issue, all the other beneficial aspects of cannabis are denied to society. The thing is, few people would say that nothing needs to be done about recreational cannabis use, the question is what?.
We have a massive industry providing cannabis to millions of recreational users in every town and village in the land. All of this industry is outside the law, an underground economy operating with no restrictions and no regulation. The minimum age for buying cannabis is £10 – in other words in some areas kids find it easier to buy cannabis than beer because beer sales have age limits, cannabis sales don’t. So much for it being a “controlled drug”, that is the big lie of prohibition. The huge profits fund organised crime and not a penny goes to building schools or hospitals. Add to that eye watering bills for enforcement which at best scratches at the surface and more often than not catches the small time player, not the “Mr Bigs”.
The authorities cry crocodile tears of concern for young people yet continue to promote a regime which not only prevents any form of control of the trade but also any valid studies of it. It’s a policy which has as one of it’s core aims to make the supply as contaminated and uncertain as possible which in any other field would be considered as endangering people by adding extra risks, which of course it does. Only with illegal drugs for example would you hear the phrase “dangerously pure” uttered without the slightest hint of irony.
There are, of course, victims in all this. If the mental health debate has done anything it’s demonstrated the need to protect kids and to keep them away from the cannabis trade. It’s also highlighted a vulnerable section of society, people suffering from mental illness who are at the greatest risk from the exploitation the illegal trade can bring about. Cannabis is a widely varying substance, it isn’t even correct to call it “a drug”, different strains having different ratios of active compounds producing markedly different results and for some people this may be very important indeed. All this requires proper regulation of the trade, the very thing prohibition actually sets out to prevent.
Something needs to be done about recreational use. It isn’t going to go away so the issue is surely how, not if, we manage it. That has to be the focus of the law reform movement over the next few years. Unless we can do something about recreational use we can kiss goodbye to all the other uses of the plant. The message though isn’t “free the weed” or “the harmless herb”, it’s got to focus on public health and safety and law and order. This isn’t something that’s going to go down well in some parts of the law reform campaign and will be a bitter pill for some to swallow for sure.
It’s time to ditch the simplistic “full legalisation” mantra which aimed to get cannabis treated like any other vegetable and to undermine the false claims and damaging impact of prohibition. To do that we need to take the health concerns seriously and to be a part of the debate everyone else is having. Legalisation would allow proper control of the supply side, in other words real and effective harm reduction. It isn’t however, about encouraging use or about promoting getting stoned as some kind of panacea for societies ills.
We need to make cannabis a controlled substance.