Many people take an overly simplistic approach to cannabis law reform and assume that cannabis prohibition leads to less use and less desire to use. In truth, much like the fact that people don’t use more cannabis in places where it is legal, cannabis prohibition doesn’t even help addicts. As this article will show, it would be easier for people to stop using cannabis if it was legal.
The logic appears to be that making cannabis illegal will make people decide to stop using it. If it’s not possible to openly grow and sell cannabis, some people reason, then it won’t be as easy for a person to maintain a cannabis habit, and therefore people will be incentivised to quit.
Many people who support this theory seem to assume that cannabis users, many of who are using the substance for medicinal reasons, will just sit and mope for a while and then go and do something more productive. Not only does this ignore the obvious fact that it’s easy to get hold of cannabis pretty much anywhere in New Zealand, it also ignores human psychology.
The reality is, thanks to the wonders of something called variable interval reinforcement, prohibiting cannabis actually makes addicted cannabis users more addicted. Under prohibition, because a person can never be sure if they can maintain a supply, they come to cherish cannabis a lot more when they do get it. So when they do use it, the reinforcing effect is much more powerful.
There are two major reasons why legal cannabis would make it easier for those who are cannabis addicts to quit.
It might not be easy for the average educated, middle-class person to appreciate, but not everyone trusts their doctor or mental health worker. Just because the average Normie considers their doctor to be an intimate confidante doesn’t mean that the average cannabis user feels the same way.
Attitudes have changed sharply compared to some decades ago, but there’s still a lot of distrust on the part of many cannabis users towards health professionals. So if they are honestly advised to quit cannabis for good reasons, they are less likely to pay heed, because they can’t be sure if the advice is coming from a place of honesty or is a formality due to the law.
It’s not easy for a doctor to say that cannabis would be beneficial if it is not legal. For one thing, they don’t want to get a reputation for being the local cannabis doctor. For another thing, there are potential professional consequences. None of them want to explain to a professional board why they recommended an illegal drug to a patient.
If cannabis were legal, it would be possible to trust your doctor if they would say that you wouldn’t benefit from using medicinal cannabis. As it is, if your doctor does not recommend medicinal cannabis, it’s impossible to know if they say this because they believe cannabis would be harmful, or if they believe cannabis would be beneficial but are afraid of potential professional or legal consequences for saying so.
The second major reason is that legal cannabis would make it easier for a user, who accepted that they were addicted, to taper down their use with the intent of stopping.
This relates to the reinforcement schedules referenced above. In the same way that it’s better to use variable interval reinforcement to strengthen a response, it’s better to use fixed interval reinforcement to weaken one. This is because it leads to a gradual weakening of the craving, rather than taking it full force and risking a relapse.
Anyone who has tried to suddenly stop using tobacco or alcohol knows how difficult it is to just make a clean break with it. In most cases, if there is not an immediate threat of death, a person will be advised by their doctor not to quit cold turkey but rather to taper down over a few weeks or a month. As mentioned above, this is partly to avoid relapse, but it’s partly because this is less painful.
People who were interested in stopping their cannabis use could, if we had a sane system, get a prescription for a fixed amount of cannabis with a view to tapering off. They could be given a number of joints and told to smoke x for the first week, x-1 for the second week, x-2 for the third week – or whatever worked.
This would prevent the disaster scenario familiar to people who have tried to stop smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol, in which one sits there while the craving for the drug rises and rises, until one finally caves, at which point using it feels like a divine gift. As mentioned above, this variable interval reinforcement only makes it much harder to quit.
Legal cannabis would be much better for those addicted than prohibition is. It would encourage addicts to trust their doctors when they suggested that cannabis had no medicinal value for them, and it would enable those doctors (or psychologists) to provide a schedule of decreasing fixed reinforcement that would allow for a relatively painless transition to sobriety.
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.