The war on drugs and the long march towards cannabis legalisation

The legalisation of cannabis and other ‘soft’ drugs is an issue that should be much higher up the political agenda. The so-called ‘war on drugs’, declared by then US president Richard Nixon in 1971, has failed in every imaginable way. Despite hundreds of billions in government spending, overflowing prisons and countless lives lost or ruined, prohibition has not eradicated illegal drug use and the problems which stem from it. Not even close. Instead, the current regime has succeeded only in creating a lucrative yet illicit trade that sustains all manner of underworld enterprises, from juvenile street gangs to international terrorist groups. The supposed cure, in other words, has made the sickness even worse.

Compounding matters further, the current regime has created a sort of catch-22 situation in which otherwise law-abiding recreational drug users are required to engage in routine criminality. At one and the same time prohibition therefore makes sinners out of saints, unjustly hobbling decent, inoffensive people with unnecessary police attention and records, while also eroding respect for—and thus in turn the power of—a legal system that’s frequently and fragrantly disobeyed in search of unnecessarily proscribed highs. To continue with such an obviously counter-productive approach is on the face of it absurd, especially when it comes to a comparatively harmless substance like cannabis. (After all it isn’t excessive smoking of marijuana that puts A&E departments up and down the UK under massive strain every weekend!)

Indeed, when it comes to cannabis, the argument for its legalisation not only rests on an assessment of the costs of prohibition. But also on the significant benefits that could result from removing it from the contraband list. These include a range of medical uses that, while increasingly recognised, nevertheless remain difficult to properly research and exploit while the current legal set-up remains in place. Then there’s the variety of other products which can be derived from what is a very durable and versatile organic substance, clothing and food included. If this potential was fully unleashed, it would create thousands of new jobs and generate billions in tax revenues. So much so that all things considered it’s difficult to see how you can justify continuing with the current regime. All the more so if you consider yourself someone of a liberal persuasion, who’s guided by the principle that people should be free to do that which injures no other.

Similar arguments could be made for legalising magic mushrooms, along with several other ‘soft’ and/or plant-based substances. Yet despite a reality in which remedy has caused as much, if not more, harm as the problem it looks address, against all sense prohibition has stubbornly persisted. In no small part this is because of a lack of political will. Many people, proles and policymakers alike, see the flaws in the current approach. The problem is they can’t be bothered to do anything about it. It’s simply not considered a pressing issue. What’s more, the fear of appearing soft on questions of law and order discourages otherwise reforming politicians from taking a lead on what is seen as a high-risk low-reward issue. Last but by no means least, that those most affected by the current set-up are typically subaltern individuals and communities also plays a role in keeping drug reform on the back-burner too.

Things are changing however, albeit at what to those who wish to see meaningful change can sometimes seem like glacial speed. Whereas a few decades ago only really the Netherlands stood apart in its attitudes towards recreational drug use, tolerance of cannabis smoking in particular, in recent years attitudes have been shifting. In the belly of the beast above all. The US, the nation that has historically provided the moral impetus and material assistance necessary for the prosecution of an international prohibition regime, is now at the forefront of the legalisation debate. Over 30 US states/jurisdictions have already undergone some kind of decriminalisation, as medical dispensaries and other authorised sellers have popped-up across the country. And of course where America treads others usually quickly follow, Britain included.

A volatile reactionary like Trump in the White House may put a partial brake on this. Contrary to campaign statements that the federal government should leave individual states to determine their own cannabis rules, since coming to power his administration has looked to clamp down on recreational use in particular. However no matter how hard Trump tries to turn the clock back, this will only prove a temporary hiccup in much larger historical process. For the truth is that the old paradigm is reaching its end, while a new one waits in the wings. Prohibition’s days are numbered. All that remains to be seen now is quite how long the march to legalisation will take, along with whether cannabis will do it alone or with some of its more psychedelic friends.


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