The standard argument is that cannabis is too harmful to be allowed and this is why it has been made illegal. This extreme level of harm is ostensibly the reason why criminal penalties are applied to its possession and cultivation. However, as this article will examine, this argument is hypocritical and dishonest.
There’s no doubt that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis. In New Zealand, alcohol is believed to kill between 600 and 800 people every year, mostly from cancer, heart failure and liver failure. This is a horrendeous body count by any standard, even higher than the suicide count and the road toll.
The butcher’s bill for tobacco is even worse – this is believed to kill 5,000 people in New Zealand every year. 1 in every 1,000 Kiwis killed every year by one legal drug can only really be described as carnage. It’s orders of magnitude more destructive than cannabis, which is not conclusively known to kill anyone.
This argument for cannabis law reform is therefore very simple. If alcohol and tobacco do not meet the threshold for causing sufficient harm to be banned, then neither does cannabis. Put another way, if either alcohol or tobacco are acceptable when judged by balance of harm, then so is cannabis.
Others will respond that there’s no reason to add yet another harmful drug to what’s already available.
As mentioned elsewhere, this argument is ignorant of human psychology. People who want to get high will use whatever is available to them. There are no perfectly sober people enjoying their lives right now who are at risk of becoming a cannabis addict after one puff. There are, however, a lot of hard-core alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical users who would switch to using cannabis instead if it were available.
In much the same way that voting in an election means supporting one evil for the sake of defying a greater evil, many people use cannabis instead of a drug that is more harmful. In other words, cannabis can serve as a substitute for alcohol. This point has been argued at length elsewhere, but it’s important enough to be worth bring up again here.
If you could reduce the nation’s alcohol consumption by a quarter, you should also reduce the nation’s death toll by 150-200 every year. A proportion of people would use cannabis instead of alcohol if they were given the opportunity, so if legal cannabis would reduce the alcohol intake then it would save lives.
Even if a third of those who gave up alcohol for cannabis died from complications related to cannabis use (a ridiculous idea if one realises that legalisation will mean vaping instead of smoking), this would still represent a saving of 100 or so lives every year. So if other drugs are both more harmful than cannabis and legal, then it makes sense that cannabis should also be legal, because then some people could switch to it.
Some will respond that alcohol and tobacco are “part of our culture”. Well, we cannabis users would respond that cannabis is part of our culture. Certainly no-one asked us what our culture was, and if they had asked, many of us would have told them that we prefer to use cannabis. The people who made the decision are in the pockets of big alcohol manufacturers – they’re not objective judges.
For those of us who are part of the cannabis culture, using cannabis simply fills the same niche as those who recreationally use alcohol or tobacco. We know that it’s slightly physically harmful and can be mentally harmful if misused. Everyone knows this. It’s just that we believe the social, emotional and psychological benefits of recreational cannabis use outweigh the minor harms.
Yet others will argue that “the horse has bolted” when it comes to alcohol and tobacco. These drugs are so widespread that they are now impossible to prohibit.
However, the same is true of cannabis. Cannabis is easier to manufacture than alcohol, and getting hold of seeds is barely more difficult than getting hold of seeds for any other plant. Cannabis is everywhere in New Zealand, and plenty of people are willing to help others get seeds (or even clones) simply to defy the Government. An entire underground culture dedicated to its survival and propagation exists.
If it’s too late to enforce alcohol prohibition, then it’s too late to enforce cannabis prohibition as well.
In the end, the fact that there are drugs that are both more harmful than cannabis and legal is proof that our drug laws are not logical. Indeed, our drug laws are based more on past hysteria than any sober appraisal of the evidence. Cannabis law reform would be the first step in rewriting these laws to achieve harm minimisation.
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.