Thursday, 4 October 2018


So it turns out the Otago University Proctor has been burgling student flats and nicking people’s bongs. There was a big protest against him last week, which I sadly couldn’t attend due to a class. I remember a time when the student libertarians could make common cause with us campus Lefties on cannabis decriminalization, if nothing else, but all the right-swinging commentary I’ve seen on the issue this week has been of the bog-standard cookie-cutter “if you think this is abuse of power go live in North Korea” variety.

It is morally wrong for a person in authority to break into people’s private spaces and remove things unless their authority is specifically and publicly constituted to grant them the power to do that, and the Proctor’s is not. This follows so straightforwardly from the trust principle that I can’t be bothered laying it all out. It is equally clearly morally wrong to constitute any authority to give its bearer the power to break into people’s private spaces and remove things unless the things in question pose sufficient risk of harm in that space to outweigh the breach of trust occasioned by the break-in. Any law which grants (for example) the police such powers is an immoral law and ought to be both changed and, until it is changed, resisted. Again, taking the trust principle as the basis of morality, which I do, that follows as night follows day. And I’ve argued the trust-morality connection over and over again on this blog, so I shall skip over that too. The only remaining question, and the topic of this post, is: does cannabis pose a risk of greater harm than is caused by arrests, seizures, prison sentences, and permanent criminal records?

The answer to that question is as follows:


Well, that was easy. See you next ti—

...oh, all right. Here, have a graph. If you click it, the link will take you to the data behind it.

There are exactly zero confirmed cases of death from cannabis use – in stark contrast with alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal. For addictiveness it’s roughly on a par with caffeine. It is associated with the same sorts of respiratory injuries that tobacco is, but that’s (as far as researchers can tell) because it’s delivered as a smoke and so comes along with tars and similarly harmful products of combustion. Hence if your drug laws are to have any semblance of logic or consistency, either you must allow cannabis or you must ban alcohol and tobacco. And if you’re thinking about the latter option, the United States already tried that with alcohol and it was a disaster.

Cannabis does bring a heightened risk of developing schizophrenia if it’s heavily consumed in adolescence. That, I’ll grant you. And it is reasonable to ask how, once legalized, it would be kept out of the hands of teenagers, given that the surest way to get teenagers to try something is to tell them it’s for adults only, as the tobacco companies know to their tremendous profit. But I’ll tell you a big secret: prohibition isn’t keeping it out of the hands of teenagers either. If you sell a substance legally, you’ll probably think twice about selling it to under-age people because that’ll get you in trouble. If it’s a prohibited substance you’re in trouble anyway, so why narrow your market?

The damping effects of cannabis on motivation are much better-known than the medical evidence for them actually warrants. Part of the problem is that people assume the cause upon seeing the effect. I have long hair that I can’t seem to get the knots out of, and I don’t wear shoes much, and so I have often been asked by complete strangers where they can score some pot in Dunedin; whereas you probably wouldn’t make that assumption of an internationally successful scientist and author like, say, Carl Sagan. On the handful of occasions when I have smoked pot, I’ve found my motivation increased rather than lowered – one time I stayed up all night writing.

I won’t deny there are people who take up cannabis and proceed to lose all interest in life; but, as is typical with other substance dependencies, I suspect you’ll find this is a sign of underlying stressors like an abusive home life or an unsustainable work or study schedule with no other way out. And if someone is having substance problems, it’s easier for a legal supplier than an illegal one to refuse their business, as G. K. Chesterton long ago pointed out with regard to alcohol. Perhaps this is why Portugal has experienced such a drop in drug-related social problems since they legalized all recreational drugs there.

There are of course many wild claims out there about the health benefits of cannabis; if you believe some people, it’ll cure everything from cancer to the common cold. It’s hard for researchers to find out which of these claims have substance on account of, you guessed it, prohibition. I mean, sure, a government can license a pharmacology institute or whatever to do controlled experiments, but they can’t exactly license the entire supply chain so the institute can get hold of enough of the stuff to run anything with a meaningful sample size. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that cannabis is an effective painkiller, and last I heard there was some evidence – at a “not sure yet but worth following up” level – that it might slow the progression of some cancers.

Even if you want to be cautious about recreational cannabis, there is absolutely no justification for keeping it from being used as a medicine. Obviously it wouldn’t come from the pharmacist as a cigarette, since smoke and tars do so much damage to your lungs. And it’s a bit slow to get working when taken orally, hence why people sometimes get into trouble the first time they try edibles, eating more and more just because it hasn’t hit yet. The fastest form of delivery might be a nasal spray; your smelling nerves take in molecules from the air because that’s how smell works, and they’re a direct channel to the brain because that’s how nerves work. For people with impaired olfactory function, an inhaler might be a second option.

Actually I started writing this a few days before the protest. I was editing some lecture notes in a university library a couple of tables away from the door to a videoconference room, and three students went in and proceeded to hold what was evidently the Nay side of a video-link debate on the legalization of cannabis. The male one of the three had a particularly loud and annoying voice, but all of their arguments were so stupid that I must, in charity, suppose that they had been roped in to argue the Nay side without believing a word they were saying. (This is why I’ve never done competitive debating.)

Their worst argument of all was against medicinal cannabis. We don’t need it, said Mister Loud Voice, because we’ve already got painkillers. Maybe if I hadn’t had so many pharmacy lectures in the last few years that wouldn’t have sounded quite so head-smackingly silly. Yes, we have other painkillers. We have paracetamol (what North Americans call acetaminophen), which is safe unless you have liver disease. We have non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen, which are moderately safe unless you have stomach ulcers or acid reflux. We have corticosteroids, which do nasty things to your bones if taken for any length of time, and we have opioids, which right now are killing Americans in record numbers as the cohort who got addicted to them en masse in their teens enter retirement. A lot of elderly people have both liver and stomach trouble and can’t really afford to make their bones any weaker than they already are. What possible justification can there be for denying them a safe, effective painkiller?

Close behind was the bit where they said their main concern about cannabis was that it might lead people on to other, more harmful drugs. Yes, I’m sure that happens. But do you know why it happens? It happens because once you’ve got into cannabis, well hey, you’re already breaking the law and thumbing your nose at a disapproving society, so why not go for a harder-core experience? The same happened with alcohol when that was prohibited. Once again, legalization would lighten the problem, not worsen it.

All the same, that argument does illuminate the cultural mindset that hangs like a ball-and-chain about the ankles of the legalization movement. The basic problem is one of our mental categories for hazardous substances. Some substances are filth and some are poisonous and some are medicines and some are chemicals, but the troublesome class here, the one cannabis has been put into, is the class we think of as Drugs! (The exclamation mark should be pronounced as a horrified gasp.) I can’t just call them “drugs”, because that word, like “chemicals”, has an application which is scientifically meaningful, morally neutral, and vastly broader than the colloquial one. Drugs in the scientific sense do include cannabis, and also alcohol – the phrase “drugs and alcohol” makes about as much sense as “vehicles and cars” – and caffeine, and nutmeg, and St John’s wort, and moisturizers, and anything else that has a dose-dependent effect on the human body or mind.

Drugs! as a subclass of drugs share no common attribute but that they are illicit. But because they’re a culturally recognisable category, it’s easy to think of them going together. Thus, to Mister Loud Voice and millions like him, cannabis goes naturally with heroin and cocaine and methamphetamine because they are all Drugs! The government in its infinite wisdom has recognised that people should not use Drugs! and so has passed laws against them. If you let people use one kind of Drugs! then you are declaring that Drugs! are OK after all, so of course they’re going to move on to other kinds of Drugs! as well. In case you haven’t guessed, I think the very concept of Drugs! hinders rather than helps us in developing rational drug safety policies. But that’s by the by.

So if there’s nothing wrong with cannabis, why is it illegal? I don’t think Mister Loud Voice used that particular argument, but others certainly have. The answer, of course, is that most law-makers think that way too. But why did it become illegal in the first place? Recreational marijuana, previously the most popular legal alternative to alcohol, was banned in the US just when Prohibition was lifted and all the enforcement officials were looking for new jobs. Medical cannabis followed in the 1970s as a casualty of Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs. And the US has enough clout internationally that a lot of other countries still think it’s an example worth following. I’m chary as a rule about Big Bad Government conspiracy theories, but in this case we have a paper trail and a confession:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war Left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
John Erlichman, Assistant to President Nixon for Domestic Affairs, speaking to Harper’s Magazine in 1994

And nowadays of course you have the private prison industry in the US, which has threatened to sue several states if they legalize cannabis and thus reduce the prison population with its convenient supply of cheap labour and legal inability to vote. So in summary, the Proctor of Otago University has committed burglary against the community he is tasked with serving in order to uphold a legally-sanctioned societal prejudice known to be based on fifty-year-old racist lies. I would have joined in the protest if I could. Consider this my contribution.