Because cannabis is just as harmful as crack and cocaine, warn our police chiefs, it should be put into the same Class A category – with its use and distribution punished accordingly.
I find the rational case for this argument to be weak. But since we aren’t always, and never merely, rational, I agree with our top cops.
Hence this is a case of rational rejection and intuitive acceptance – yet again semantics and semiotics find themselves at odds. Let’s get reason out of the way first.
The use of psychotropic drugs is coextensive with recorded history. The Therapeutic Papyrus of Thebes of 1552 B.C. lists opium among other recommended drugs. Even further back, Sumerian ideograms of about 4000 B.C. describe poppy as the “plant of joy”. Helen passed illegal substances on to Telemachus and Menelaus and, if she lived today, would have been nicked faster than you can say “let’s see what’s in your amphora, sunshine”.
Having thus passed the test of history, drugs do well on the political test too: not all users are left-wing. For example, though Byron and Shelley were a bit red, Coleridge, who popped opium and drank laudanum, was as conservative as one can get. Freud, who snorted cocaine, was indeed politically unsavoury, but surely Queen Victoria was no subversive, and yet laudanum figured prominently on her diet.
What about the moral argument? Are mind-altering drugs sinful in se? Every time we pour ourselves a cup of strong coffee to start the day or a glass of stiff Laphroaig to end it, we forfeit the right to argue against drugs on that basis.
And if our right foot ever gets heavy on a motorway, we aren’t entitled to say drugs are wrong simply because they are illegal. In any event, drug use in Britain was unrestricted until the 1868 Pharmacy Act and uncriminalised until the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act. So we can’t seriously believe that what was moral in 1919 all of a sudden became a sin in 1920.
One would be on equally shaky grounds with a utilitarian argument. Taken in moderation, drugs are no more harmful than alcohol. Taken in excess, most drugs can indeed have undesirable social consequences, but anyone who has ever been attacked by a drunk will agree that drugs aren’t unique in that respect.
Of course, drugs have some medically undesirable effects as well, including schizophrenia, but we can’t build a rational argument on such a shaky foundation. Again, there is no proof that moderate use of drugs is medically harmful. And there is much evidence that immoderate use of anything, from tap water to Puy lentils, can kill you.
There exists a powerful empirical argument against drug bans. After all, while every government in the world pays lip service to the drug ‘problem’, none has solved it.
The experience of countries like Thailand, where even the speedily enforced death penalty has failed to stem the flow of drugs, shows that policing can’t do the job even in conditions of dubious liberty. And the inability of Western governments to stop drugs in prisons demonstrates that even absolute unfreedom enforced by the state is no panacea.
The history of Britain and especially the US, where every post-war president has waged “war on drugs”, suggests that a relatively free country can’t stop drugs no matter how much it desires such an outcome. That at least six of those presidential warriors were drug users themselves proves the point further.
According to the old wisdom, what can’t be forbidden ought to be allowed. Do we seriously believe that any state can remedy the drug problem, if it’s indeed a problem to anyone but the addict himself?
Thirteen years between 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution put Prohibition into effect, and 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, ought to have been enough time to hammer the point home: large-scale state interference doesn’t solve problems. It either makes them worse or creates new ones (in that case, organised crime).
A war on poverty makes more people poor; an attempt to redistribute wealth destroys it; an overhaul of education promotes ignorance; an all-out effort to end all wars leads to more and bloodier wars. At the end of all that bungling nothing beckons but an even greater expansion of the state, a further reduction of liberty.
It’s undeniable that drugs are a factor in crime. Without digging up any statistics, I’m sure that drug users are disproportionately represented among felons. However, the same argument can be made against alcohol, and yet it can be scored at every corner without any risk of prosecution.
Talking specifically about cannabis, it can even be construed as being better than alcohol. The latter is physiologically addictive; the former isn’t. Quitting cannabis cold turkey causes no withdrawal symptoms typical of barbiturates, opiates and indeed booze.
Our police chiefs call it a “gateway drug”, the first step on the slippery slope leading to heroin and crystal meth. However, you can say exactly the same thing not only about booze but even about coffee.
Young lawyers and stock brokers drink gallons of the stuff to fuel 100-hour work weeks. Before long they start seeking stronger stimulants, usually cocaine or speed. Should we then label Lavazza as a Class A drug?
The argument I find not only unconvincing but actually pernicious is one based on the damage that drug use does to public finances. Since our healthcare is nationalised, it’s the taxpayer who has to fund methadone clinics, the argument goes.
This, to me, is an argument not against drug use, but against nationalised healthcare. Like everything else nationalised, it can – and does – function as an instrument of increased state control over every aspect of our lives. The adverse effects of such runaway statism are worse than the odd acid head going bonkers.
To sum it all up, the rational case against drugs is weak. So why do conservatives override reason and, unless we are out-and-out libertarians, keep insisting that drugs, including cannabis, should be banned?
Yet again, intuition goes beyond reason, aesthetics beyond ethics and semiotics beyond semantics. It’s not drugs as such that we find objectionable, but what they transmit: the signals of the sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n roll modernity. And in doing so, they reflect many other dynamics of the collapse of our civilisation.
Instead of St John’s Passion, today’s youngsters are exposed to the soundbites of psychobabble harmonised with the mind-numbing beat of pop in the background. Their inner resources depleted, their senses rivalling their minds for hopeless ignorance, they feel not happy but high, not sad but depressed – so why not use drugs?
Somewhere in their viscera, they feel they are thereby taking a courageous stand against ‘the establishment’, but in fact they are stamping into the dirt the scattered fragments of an imploded Western world.
Unskilled in semantics, they have to use semiotics to scream defiance, to spit in the face of the moribund beauty they despise. It is the dead face of Christendom that they are spitting in.
Drugs have not always had this particular semiotic agenda. But semiotics change with ages. What was good enough for Messrs Coleridge, de Quincey, Collins or Conan Doyle can’t be good enough for the few conservative holdouts still kicking.
Hence, while my reason sneers at our police chiefs’ proposal to treat cannabis as a Class A drug, my intuition screams: “Lock’em up and throw away the key!” A schizophrenic experience, that – and I’ve never even tried cannabis.