One of the most fundamental arguments for cannabis prohibition is that cannabis is harmful. Because of this harm, the argument goes, we need to make cannabis illegal. This will give people less opportunity to use cannabis and thereby have their lives destroyed. As this article will examine, there are at least two good reasons to oppose this argument.
Firstly, we can see prohibition causes more harm than legal cannabis would – and over and above the harm caused by enforcing the prohibition. When a country or state introduces cannabis prohibition, they usually also introduce a number of ancillary laws that are ostensibly to fight the harm of cannabis, but which end up causing more harm.
It’s apparent that burning plant matter and then inhaling the smoke is not the best thing you could do for your lungs. This is not a contentious assertion, and the vast majority of cannabis users are fully aware of it. But when people have tried to take measures to make cannabis use more safe, they find themselves being stymied by the law. In many cases, the law is intended to penalise not just cannabis use but the entire cannabis culture.
Manufacturing cannabis butter to make some brownies changes your crime from possession of a Class C drug to manufacture of a Class B drug. So if a person decided to make some hash brownies, they would then not only be in possession of a Class B illegal drug, but they could also be charged with manufacturing it – which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
We are told that the schedule of increasing penalties reflects the schedule of increasing harm caused by these drugs. But the harm of cannabis does not increase 56 times because someone made some bud into some brownies. There’s no logic to that at all – if anything, the harm is lessened by virtue of avoiding lung damage.
It’s true that the psychoactive effect of hash brownies will be greater than smoked bud, but the psychological drawbacks of using cannabis have been massively overstated. The cozy consensus that using cannabis causes schizophrenia has been shattered by new research suggesting that it is a genetic propensity to schizophrenia that predicts cannabis use, and not the case that cannabis use alone predicts schizophrenia.
In any case, it’s possible that even cannabis bud does not cause net harm. Yes, smoking it is not great, but the smoke damage may be outweighed by the medical benefits of lower stress etc.
Likewise, the example of “drug paraphernalia” is another one in which the majority of the harm is caused by the law itself, rather than cannabis. People have been arrested for the possession of water bongs and charged with a more severe crime than mere cannabis possession – but using a water bong is more healthy than inhaling hot smoke. Despite being more healthy, possession of a bong carries a maximum penalty of a year’s imprisonment in New Zealand.
The physical harms of cannabis have generally been overstated. Of course, inhaling cannabis smoke is not ideal but even this is transparently less dangerous than rugby, horse riding, skiing and downhill mountain biking. All of these activities, whose level of risk falls into the acceptable threshold, are legal. Therefore the “cannabis is so harmful it should be illegal” is nonsense.
Moreover, even the most ardent cannabis user doesn’t smoke as many joints in a day as a tobacco user smokes cigarettes, and so the level of risk here falls into already established acceptable limits.
Another major argument when it comes to the supposed harms of cannabis is that prohibition is a bizarre response to any supposed harm caused. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that cannabis is harmful – how does it make any sense to introduce more harm into a person’s life, just because they used it? The idea of punishing an adult into taking responsibility is ridiculous.
The argument that cannabis should be prohibited because it is harmful is mistaken. Cannabis prohibition itself is responsible for more harm than cannabis is. If reducing harm done to human beings is a consideration when setting legal policies, then it’s clear that prohibition ought to be repealed for the sake of a less punitive approach.
This article is an excerpt from The Case For Cannabis Law Reform, compiled by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.