Don't fear the reefer

The ‘war against drugs’

As we have seen time and time again, in the ‘war against drugs’ the first casualty is truth. In this total war, anything goes - including at times even the vaguest semblance of rationality. Nothing is too silly. Science can go to hell, moral panic is the order of the day. Just lie, lie and lie and hope that the media and ‘public opinion’ swing behind you. If not, there is always the law and the power of the state to save the day for western civilisation and moral decency.

Naturally, if things get really tough and the chips are down, there is always good old-fashioned censorship. For an excellent example of this anti-democratic and authoritarian approach to the ‘drugs problem’, just take a look at the United Nations and its World Health Organisation. In December the WHO published a report on cannabis, its first on the subject in 15 years. Rather uncontroversially you would have thought, it said that cannabis is less dangerous than either alcohol or tobacco, and concluded - gosh, what a revelation - that even if cannabis were consumed on the same scale as cigarettes and whiskey, it would probably still be less dangerous than either.

The report continued: “In developed societies cannabis appears to play little role in injuries caused by violence, as does alcohol.” It also pointed out that there is “good evidence” that alcohol can harm foetal development, while the evidence that cannabis can have similar detrimental effects is “far from conclusive”. The reason for making the comparisons between cannabis and alcohol was “not to promote one drug over another but rather to minimise the double standards that have operated in appraising the health effects of cannabis”.

All hell broke lose - and the truth was quarantined. Heavies from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse and the UN International Drug Control Programme rushed in to ‘pressurise’ the authors of the report. One member of the panel which drafted the report said: “In the eyes of some, any such comparison is tantamount to an argument for marijuana legalisation.” Billy Martin of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, said the drugs bureaucrats “went nuts” when they saw the report (quoted in New Scientist January 21). The relevant - ie, unwelcome - passages were scrapped.

Unfortunately for the drugs censors, the deletions were leaked to the New Scientist. This respected scientific journal was appalled by the bureaucratic, and anti-scientific, actions of the above organisations - and also by the rank cowardice of the WHO, which was “wrong to bow to political pressure and expunge from a recent report an informative, if controversial, comparison of the harms caused by different drugs including alcohol”. Even more outspokenly, the New Scientist editorial damned the “anti-dope propaganda that circulates in the US” and called the New Labour government “fools” to ignore the growing tide in favour of decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis - “Only the politicians still seem irrationally terrified by the idea of any relaxation in the law” (ibid).   

Apart from its obvious leisure use, marijuana appears to provide medicinal benefits: it has been recommended to relieve the pain of glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and Aids sufferers and as a palliative for those undergoing cancer chemotherapy. It was used in childbirth during the 19th century.

No wonder support for legal reform is gaining ground from all quarters. Despite that the anti-drugs war continues. Why? Not because the state is determined to protect its citizens or subjects from harm. No, the anti-drugs war is a form of social control. The state knows that the law is universally flouted by those under the age of 50. That means the law can be used to punish targeted individuals and groups and greatly strengthen the powers of the state. Some drug-takers are knighted or invited to No10 while others are demonised and imprisoned. There is a price to pay. A rich criminal sub-class above and thousands of extra prisoners below.

The rational case for marijuana is hardly a new one. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission politely pointed out in 1894 that the evils of marijuana had been exaggerated. A House of Lords science and technology select committee inquiry on cannabis opens next month, much to the extreme disapproval of Jack Straw. Last year a BMA committee began considering a case for cannabis on prescription for certain illnesses. Even senior police officers have called for decriminalisation. Earlier this month Ross Rebagliati, the errant Canadian snowboarder who tested positive for cannabis at the Winter Olympics in Japan, was given his gold medal back. The idea that cannabis could be a performance-enhancing drug was just surreal. 

The continued criminalisation of drugs, especially cannabis, is taking on the proportions of the US Prohibition. Some 40,000 people were either cautioned or prosecuted for drug offences in 1995 and this figure keeps going up. The long-time campaigner for cannabis decriminalisation Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport, correctly commented: “There is a vast army of individuals with a vested interest in keeping the present prohibitionist policies. They include the criminal fraternity and those who make their living from the prosecution of otherwise lawful citizens. I hope this report means governments are going to stop the fibbing at last.”

The tobacco firms are certainly preparing for the future. This week The Observer revealed that the British American Tobacco company experimented with a high-nicotine crop, specifically cross-bred to produce twice as much nicotine as normal. It also contemplated putting small traces of marijuana in cigarettes. The newspaper quotes from an internal BAT document, which states: “In the illicit use of marijuana, relatively large doses of the active personal are involved. If the use of such drugs was legalised, one avenue for exploitation would be the augmentation of cigarettes with near subliminal levels of drugs.”

Unsurprisingly, cigarette firms have already registered brand names with links to marijuana. In 1993 Philip Morris filed a trade mark application in France for ‘Marley’ - no guesses as to whom it refers. Other drug-related names registered by tobacco companies include Acapulco Gold and Red Leb (short for Red Lebanese).

The puritanical, ‘anti-drugs’ bodies were horrified. Paul Betts, director of Action for Drugs Awareness, thundered: “Marijuana is a drug, not a safe option” (February 22), and we were treated to a sanctimonious editorial from The Observer: “Here is something to ponder for those clamouring to legalise cannabis. Who would run that industry? Almost certainly the same people who have been cynically exploiting smokers for all these years” (February 22).

Drugs form a component part of human social existence and culture. Our fight to legalise drugs is not motivated by a desire to make companies like BAT even richer - though of course that it a very likely spin-off from such an eventuality. It is driven by a desire to liberate society from irrational prejudices and state terror.

Danny Hammill