Of course marijuana isn’t ‘safe’ – but should it be illegal?

    13 October 2014

    Sometimes I read things that really get on my wick, and last week was one of those times. A new, ‘definitive’ 20-year study has ‘demolished the argument that the drug [cannabis] is safe’, according to the Daily Mail.

    Has it, though? There are various things wrong with that claim. One, no study is ‘definitive’; two, the research was not a ’20-year study’, but a review of other studies carried out over the last 20 years. There are lots other things wrong with the coverage, too, including the startlingly ridiculous claim that cannabis is ‘as addictive as heroin’. Even according to the research itself, less than one-tenth of people who try cannabis become addicted to it, compared to nearly a quarter for heroin. It also said that cannabis ‘opens the door to hard drugs’, which, again, the research itself does not support.

    But the most important problem is that it is demolishing an argument (apparently) that no one sensible is making. Oh, no doubt you could dig around on the internet and find a few pink-eyed hippies telling you that smoking weed makes you live longer, but none of the serious people – the former police chiefs and former heads of state and former high court judges – who back decriminalisation think that cannabis is safe. It patently isn’t. While you can’t overdose on it, there is a plausible causal link to mental-health problems, and if you’re smoking it, you’re increasing your chances of getting all the hundreds of diseases that smoking causes.

    All the questions about whether it is ‘more’ or ‘less’ dangerous or addictive than any other drug, including tobacco and alcohol, are irrelevant as well. The only question that needs asking is: does making cannabis illegal reduce the harm that it causes? (I should admit it’s not quite the only question. The other question is: does the state have the right to tell adults what harms they may do to themselves? But that’s a bigger philosophical debate than I can get into here.)

    Time and time again, the evidence has come back that: no, prohibition of a drug does not reduce the harms associated with that drug. The World Health Organisation ran a major study and found that ‘countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones’: that is, you can crack down on drugs, but it doesn’t tend to make fewer people take them. What it does, instead, is drive the production and sale of those drugs into the hands of criminal gangs; push otherwise law-abiding people into contact with criminals; make the quality, purity and safety of drug supplies impossible to regulate; and render it more difficult to get those suffering from addiction and drug-related disease the medical attention they need.

    So ‘the argument that the drug is safe’ is a non-argument, a straw man, a ridiculous piece of puffery held up solely to give the Daily Mail something to attack. The drug clearly isn’t safe. No drug is safe; no human activity, for that matter, is completely safe. But making it illegal doesn’t make it safer. What’s really harming our children is the fantastically stupid level of debate around drugs in this country.