Us and Them IV: Tipping Point

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them III – Us & Them IV ]

"... laughed my ass off, and had a really good time!" - Bill HicksAnyone who’s been reading along at home should now have some idea of how we got here, and why. Cannabis was criminalised by racist sentiment and lies on the floor of Congress. A twenty-year campaign of misinformation was waged in support of the petty ambitions of a Beltway Napoleon. Via the UN, in 1961, the USA strong-armed much of the world into a war they didn’t want. The relevant authorities have known since 1972 that cannabis is not dangerous and that the War on Drugs as a whole is miguided, and they have deliberately ignored all evidence to that effect. This pernicious attitude has proved durable and persistent. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been destroyed, tens of thousands have been murdered, and the bald economics of demand creates supply have carried on regardless. Vast criminal enterprises have been spawned by prohibition, and the costs to society of this ugly and vindictive conflict have been born, overwhelmingly, by the poor and by people of colour.

The alert reader will have noticed by now that I am writing a series investigating the geo-politics of the War on Drugs and yet I’m mostly talking about marijuana prohibition in the US. You’re right, but I’m not trying to indulge in rhetorical sleight-of-hand; the chronicle and socio-politics of US marijuana prohibition completely changed the way the non-medical use of drugs is perceived and discussed, let alone treated, in the post-Enlightenment West. From Anslinger’s ambition has grown the dominance of a moralistic doctrine on self-medication which prior to that point had not controlled a major polity since the Puritans banned Christmas [1] in the 1650s. The war on drugs (excepting only those which have a powerful, pre-established lobby, of course) starts with marijuana.

In general, my reasons for focussing on cannabis fall into three categories: polemics, politics and practicalities. Treating those in reverse order, practically speaking cannabis is the most vulnerable target in the prohibitionists’ defensive cordon. Its recreational and medicinal uses are widely-known and very easy to defend empirically. It’s been in human use as long as alcohol and possibly longer while doing much less harm [2]. It is substantially more widely used around the globe than heroin and cocaine. The prohibition on cannabis makes less sense than any other drug, and now that we can debate the issue honestly and in public, that makes it the low-hanging fruit we should pick first.

Politically, the process of releasing cannabis from the prison of Anslinger’s lies and starting an empirically-sound public debate is very considerably further on than any other drug. Between the Portuguese and Polish experiments, the ballot legalisations and medical marijuana laws on the books of half the US states, the forthcoming regulation regimes being planned or enacted in Latin and Central America, and the UN GCDP report, the battleground for common sense on cannabis is well-prepared. Even if you take the libertarian view that all drugs should be legal for personal use, defending heroin, crack cocaine or crystal meth is quite difficult; defending cannbis really isn’t.

The third reason is that the travesty of marijuana prohibition simply overwhelms that of any other drug but LSD. The legions of black young men sentenced to the brutality of the corner and the super-max, the hordes of murdered Mexicans, the beheadings in Saudi Arabia and floggings in Singapore, all for a plant which in most of these places grows locally and has a long history of use there. The creation of the INCB in 1961 was an American project, intended to draft the rest of the world into America’s domestic war on minorities, musicians and political dissenters. Cannabis has very considerable medical benefits, virtually no side-effects, and isn’t addictive. Its only social harms are 100% products of prohibition, not the drug: which is not true of any of the other popular recreational drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis prohibition is senseless, counter-productive and systematically cruel, and it should end. And if that doesn’t count as polemic enough, maybe I should use more swear-words.

A majority of US citizens now oppose cannabis prohibition. A majority of British subjects do, as well. The tipping-point in public, popular support has now been reached. The ‘public’ part is important: all kinds of people have opposed prohibition for a long time, but now people feel free to say so. Something is changing, but there is resistance.

The next few essays in this series will examine the forces which maintain prohibition against all logic, common sense and popular pressure, under the title Perverse Incentives. I’ll then go on to look at some recent publications in the nascent debate, and investigate the arguments against the WoD, and look at some of the unlikely figures who support cannabis legalisation. That final part of this series will be under the title Orwell’s War.

[1] Yes, I know that’s not quite precise, but it’s a good catch-all. They did ban drinking, dancing, the lighting of bonfires on holy days, the decoration of the house for Christmas or May Day, May Day parades and many other things.

[2] Read ‘none at all’.

[ Perverse Incentives IPerverse Incentives IIPerverse Incentives IIIPerverse Incentives IV ]

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4 Responses to “Us and Them IV: Tipping Point”


  1. 1 kitwhitfield 11/03/2013 at 9:19 am

    This is all fascinating, and I really look forward to reading more!

    A doctor friend of mine makes an interesting point: that while it’s painfully true that some drugs are more addictive and harder on the body than others, there are always going to be people who seek them out whatever the law because there’s something in their brains or their lives or their personalities that makes that particular drug the experience that plugs their particular gap. Like there’s no point taking codeine for depression, there’s no point taking weed for a feeling that only heroin drives away. Along with recreational drug use, there’s also self-medicating drug use, and the really harmful ones serve that function for some people. We all sometimes do unwise things to make the bad feelings go away.

    Which suggests that while it’s probably not a great idea to have a heroin shelf next to the wine shelves down the local Co-op, a better way to ‘war on’ the really damaging drugs would be to take at least some of the resources and pour them into researching less toxic and less addictive alternatives. It’s a better time to be mentally ill now than it’s ever been in the past, but psychiatric medication is still so much a black box that we could really, really do with a whole lot more research into what helps people there.

    Plus, of course, not waging war on entire communities would probably result in fewer traumatised children who grow up with gaps only heroin or crystal meth could fill.

    • 2 Chris Naden 11/03/2013 at 10:19 am

      there are always going to be people who seek them out whatever the law

      That right there is why the prohibition wasn’t ever going to succeed in affecting addiction rates or eliminating use. This isn’t new: the term ‘the Demon Drink’ was not coined to describe alcohol, but coffee, and banning that never worked either. Humans like to get high; drugs, dancing, sex, drumming, football, and polyphonic harmony grant us wings to touch the face of god, whether we believe in one or not. Prohibitions which work (e.g. the relatively universal human social taboos against theft or murder, subject to local definitions) attempt to control behaviours which are rare. The average person does not, in fact, want to kill. The average person does desire a sense of the sublime.

      Like there’s no point taking codeine for depression, there’s no point taking weed for a feeling that only heroin drives away.

      Which is why cannabis was never a gateway drug. Like I suggested above, heroin is one of the difficult ones; it clearly is extremely chemically addictive, and it clearly does cause real damage, even when it is not prohibited. The harm reduction argument, though, is very old and comes from the Chinese; two pipes a day can make a happy man, but only as long as he can afford two pipes a day. Heroin does much more harm prohibited, because it is the addict who cannot feed his habit who becomes a societal time-bomb (see also the farm wives of 1906 from Us & Them I. Keith Richards claims to have given up heroin after some forty years of regular use because quality has fallen so far; but he could always afford what he wanted.

      It’s a better time to be mentally ill now than it’s ever been in the past, but psychiatric medication is still so much a black box that we could really, really do with a whole lot more research into what helps people there.

      See Ben Goldacre on the subject. A side note is that in the case, for example, of cannabis, self-medication is not necessarily mental-health related. Yes, it is an excellent palliative for depression, but to take my own example, when I’ve been self-medicating with that drug the first three things I was ameliorating were bowel cramps and intense nausea, joint and muscle pain, and insomnia, for all of which the drug works better and with many less damaging side effects than anything pharmaceutical.

      As this series goes on I’m going to be linking a number of medical marijuana sources you may find interesting :)

      Plus, of course, not waging war on entire communities would probably result in fewer traumatised children who grow up with gaps only heroin or crystal meth could fill.

      And right there you have the War on Drugs in a sentence. In combination with other social injustices like zoning ghettoization, white flight, and so on, the prohibition regime and the intensely … selective methodolgies of the enforcement establishment have (as the NCMDA report suggested in 1972) actively created entire communities which are sufficiently traumatised by social failure that drug addiction becomes inevitable rather than occasional. In the process they have created the tools of social destruction; prohibition does not merely feed, it creates, organised crime. Chicago had no Al Capones in 1900: West Baltimore had no Avon Barksdales or Stringer Bells in 1950.

  2. 3 kitwhitfield 12/03/2013 at 6:27 pm

    Thought you might find this interesting:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/magazine/the-criminalization-of-bad-mothers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

    An article by a friend-of-a-friend about how drug laws are now being used to criminalise pregnant women, separate mothers from children, and generally screw over families in the name of ‘fetal personhood’.

    • 4 Chris Naden 12/03/2013 at 7:08 pm

      Excellent link, thank you! Reminded me of one I saw a while back about mothers who use cannabis objecting to having to carry a social stigma which wine-drinking mothers do not, even when they are less likely to have any problem behaviours. Useful things :) thanks.


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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
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