“Encouraging more people to try this dangerous drug would be no liberation at all… Calls to make dope as freely available as cigarettes or alcohol are gathering support but ignore the real harm it does,” Clare Foges warns in an informative article in the Times.
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A quarter of a century on from Bill Clinton’s declaration that he “didn’t inhale” in college we have yet another politician who declares that they did (oh, for the more refreshing admission that they simply inhaled buttered crumpets). Jo Swinson’s “shock” confession was accompanied by the announcement that the Liberal Democrats would legalise cannabis for over-18s. You may be forgiven for shrugging about the contents of their manifesto; Swinson is not on the verge of becoming prime minister. Yet in the event of a hung parliament, she is likely to enter into a process of bargaining to prop up one of the larger parties. In that case, this policy — once a pie-in-the-sky hope for libertarians — will be near the top of the Lib Dem wish-list for government.
The momentum behind legalisation has been building fast. Canada was the first G7 country to allow recreational use. Eleven US states have legalised the drug. Last year our own parliament passed a law allowing the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Support for full legalisation has soared: a YouGov survey this summer found that twice as many were in favour of legalisation as against it. The arguments for legalisation are beautifully simple — less power to criminal gangs, fewer young people criminalised, more tax revenue — and the corporations making them have pockets that are beautifully deep. Anyone arguing against legalisation risks looking like a reactionary, attempting to block the “progressive” revolution of Weed & Woke cafés and Deliveroo-style drivers bringing an ounce to your door. Nevertheless, I fear we are drifting on the tides of fashion towards a dangerous destination.
If you are against the legalisation of cannabis, you are automatically cast as defender of the status quo, which is a difficult role to play. Those who point out that “the war on drugs” isn’t working are right. But then neither is “the war on violent crime”, “the war on domestic abuse”, or “the war on burglary”. Failing to stop these other crimes would never be seen as a reason to down weapons and admit defeat, and yet this is what many propose we do on drugs.
The difference, argue those in favour of legalisation, is that while all these crimes are self-evidently harmful, the smoking of cannabis is pretty much harm-free. This has been the greatest fillip to the legalisers: the idea that cannabis is a benign substance, its worst effects a bit of muzziness and a craving for Monster Munch. Unlike its hardcore cousins heroin and cocaine, cannabis is widely perceived as gentle and soft, the Horlicks of drugs. This may have been true of weed smoked in the Seventies and Eighties, when the drug contained very low doses of THC (the psychoactive compound that delivers the high) but the cannabis (or skunk) of today is anything but gentle. To associate the oregano smoked decades ago with this hugely potent stuff is like bracketing a naughty seaside postcard with online pornography.
Study after study has found a clear association between the high levels of THC that most present-day cannabis contains and serious mental health problems, particularly schizophrenia and psychosis. The most extensive report was published in 2017 by the American National Academy of Medicine, a 468-page tome with an unambiguous finding that “cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk”. This formalised knowledge that had been shared for millennia; around the first century AD, a Chinese guide to herbs and drugs warned that cannabis smoking led to “seeing devils”.
Those tormented by devils today tend to seek sanctuary in the local A&E, where admissions for psychosis have been rising. This year another study found that the use of super-strength cannabis in London had helped to drive psychosis rates to the highest level recorded in Europe. Professor Sir Robin Murray, a psychiatrist at King’s College London, declared that “in Brexit Britain we are leading in one area still and that is the frequency of psychosis . . . If we could abolish the consumption of skunk we would have 30 per cent less patients.”
The Big Dope lobby has an answer to evidence such as this: the high-potency drug thrives in an unregulated black market. Once regulated, they suggest, only the weaker, safer, low-THC forms of cannabis would be licensed. But THC is the part of the drug that delivers the high. Users want the bigger hit that comes with a big THC dose. If this isn’t available over the counter, they’ll just carry on buying it under the counter. This is what has happened in Canada, where about half the cannabis consumed is bought on the black market. Around the world we have seen that legalisation does not rid a country of its dealers; instead, by normalising drug use, it increases their potential market.
Before we embrace a policy that could dramatically inflate the weed-smoking part of the population, we need to be clear-eyed about the third link in the chain: cannabis use; mental health problems; violent crime. In an extraordinary number of brutal crimes, the assailant had a history of heavy use. Many of these are documented on a website called Attacker Smoked Cannabis, whose curator writes: “Once one learns the characteristics of violence committed by cannabis smokers — frenzied, savage, sustained, unprovoked — such violence becomes easy to spot. A young father violently killing his child? A victim stabbed 10, 20, 50, 100 times? . . . Such crimes used to be rare in the UK and Ireland, if they happened at all. In 2019, there were more than two dozen before Easter.” Seeing devils, those smoking high-strength cannabis can become one.
As for the effect of legalisation on violent crime, several American states are our guinea pigs. In Tell Your Children: the Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson shines a light on the data in states that have legalised cannabis. Taking four that changed their laws from 2014 to 2015 — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — he calculated a 35 per cent rise in murders from 2013 to 2017, compared with a 20 per cent rise nationally. Though Berenson does not suggest this is all down to legal weed, he wants “people to stop saying that legalisation reduces violent crime. It doesn’t.”
The promised gains of legalisation are outweighed by the dangers of normalising what can be a mind-wrecking substance. I don’t suggest the status quo is satisfactory; only that legalising the drug would make it considerably worse. Liberals might have chosen the legalisation of cannabis as their next great crusade but encouraging more people to try this dangerous drug would be no liberation at all.