Governments all over the world have spent decades and billions fighting a "war on drugs". However, many believe that the most commonly used illegal drug, cannabis, should not be illegal at all.
Advocates of legalization point out cannabis' medicinal properties, its ability to open up the mind, and plentiful evidence that it is less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco. Critics of legalization meanwhile cite studies showing cannabis' harmful physical and psychotic effects and its tendency to act as a gateway to harder and more dangerous drugs.
The debate can also be framed as one that pits the concept of freedom of the individual against the concept of the paternalistic state. Some will argue that people should be allowed to do whatever they please to their own bodies. Others believe the state has a responsibility to protect people from harming themselves, and indirectly harming others, by smoking cannabis.
It is important that we have the liberty to do what we want to our own bodies. People are allowed to eat or drink to their detriment. In many countries it is legal to take one's life. Why then, should people not be allowed to harm themselves through cannabis use? (Assuming that cannabis use is harmful. In most cases, this is highly debatable.)
Smoking cannabis may have effects on others, such as through the effects of passive smoking. However, regulation has been brought in to minimize the effects on others for alcohol and cigarettes, such as bans on smoking in public places, and the same thing could be done for cannabis.
While individual liberty is an important good, there are cases in which a Government can be justified in behaving in a paternalistic manner, even to prevent individuals harming themselves. Few people debate the law that you must wear a seatbelt in cars, for example.
Moreover, cannabis can harm others and many of the ways in which it does so would not be possible to counter with regulation. In the words of philosopher George Sher, "Drug use harms strangers by involving them in the collisions, shootouts and other catastrophes to which the impaired and overly aggressive drug users are prone. It harms family members by depriving them of the companionship and income of their addicted partners. It harms fetuses by exposing them to a toxic and permanently damaging prenatural environment. It harms children by subjecting them to the abuse of their drug-addled parents"1.
1 Wolff, J. (n.d.). Regulation of Recreational Drugs. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from University College London:
Although cannabis can have some harmful effects, it is not nearly as harmful as tobacco or alcohol. Research by the British Medical Association shows that nicotine is more addictive. In England and Wales, cannabis was said to have helped cause 17 deaths, compared to 6627 for alcohol and 86,500 for tobacco1. A study, published by The Lancet, that scores drugs out of 100 for the harm they cause the user and others, gave alcohol 72, tobacco 27 and cannabis 202.
Given that tobacco and alcohol are more likely to harm the user and other people, it seems ludicrous that they should be legal and cannabis should not be. The legalization of cannabis would remove an anomaly from the law.
1 TDPF. (n.d.). Drug Related Deaths. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from Transform Drug Policy Foundation:
2 The Economist. (2010, November 2). Scoring Drugs. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from The Economist:
It is difficult to assess the true harm caused by cannabis. There are limits to the scope for information on its effects because of its illegal nature1. However, it is widely acknowledged that there are links between cannabis use and mental and physical health problems2. It is also widely acknowledged that excessive cannabis use can harm relationships and prevent people from acting as functional members of society. Cannabis is generally smoked with tobacco and cannabis users are more likely to drink alcohol. Regardless of whether cannabis itself is worse for you than tobacco or alcohol, it is still bad for you and therefore it should remain illegal.
The reason alcohol and tobacco are legal is not related to their effect on our health. They (alcohol and tobacco) are legal as they have existed in this country since long before laws were passed in relation to health and were far more popular than cannabis so it would have been much harder to ban them. Cannabis is illegal not because it supposedley is worse but because it is was less commonly consumed. That said, alcohol and tobacco are irerelvent in this debate.
Many of the problems associated with cannabis use arise from the fact that it is illegal. Cannabis is the world’s most widely used illegal drug – 23% of Canadians admit to having smoked it and up to 7 million people in the UK are estimated to do so.
In 2009, the UN estimated that the market for illegal drugs was worth $320 billion. This market is run by criminals and is often blighted by violence. It has cost thousands of innocent lives, particularly in supplier countries such as Mexico and Afghanistan 1. In the US, Milton Friedman estimated that 10,000 people die every year as a result of drug dealers fighting over territory 2. Many of the victims are innocent people, caught in crossfire. By legalizing cannabis, the size of this market for illegal drugs would be significantly reduced and so, effectively, would the number of crimes and unnecessary deaths that come with it.
Another way of seeing the problems of prohibition is to look at the failed attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. People continued to consume alcohol, only it became 150 per cent stronger, was as easy to obtain for minors as for adults, and was sold by murderous gangsters like Al Capone 3.
Given all of the problems associated with prohibiting cannabis, it seems nonsensical to spend billions fighting a drugs war when instead governments could reduce crime and make money by selling cannabis in a regulated manner. They could spend some of the profit on treating people who did experience any harmful effects.
1.United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010, http://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr/WDR_2010/World_Drug_Report_2010_lo-res.pdf
2.Hari, 2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/com
Legalizing cannabis would not stop the criminals who currently sell it from continuing to commit crimes. They could simply diversify their activities. Many of them would already be dealing other drugs or involved in other criminal activities. The legalization of cannabis could simply give them a legitimate base from which they may operate.
In order to end the "war on drugs" and the problems of violence associated with it, all drugs would have to be legalized. While some debate the harmful effects which cannabis may have, few argue that drugs like heroin and crack cocaine do not present a serious threat to people. To sell these kinds of drugs legally would be irresponsible and would ruin lives, families and communities.
Cannabis use can alter one's perception of reality or consciousness. The alteration need not be thought of as spiritual or religious to be respected for what it is; a fresh look on a reality that we are programmed as humans to perceive only in a particular manner. Cannabis can help humans perceive that complex reality from simply a different perspective, which can benefit our appreciation for that reality and our unique and limited perceptions of it. With this more intelligent approach to cannabis consumption, it is easy to argue that mental, perceptual, and societal benefits exist1.
1 Harris, S. (2011, July 6). Drugs and the Meaning of Life. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from Huffington Post:
Cannabis does not open the mind. Rather, it harms it. Many researchers have concluded that cannabis impairs short-term memory, cognition and motivation. It has also proven to be highly addictive for some users and has damaged people's mental capabilities and abilities to function in society1.
2 Mabry, C. D. (2001, October). Physicians and the war on drugs: the case against legalization. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from Qualified Surgeons:
People who use cannabis will be more likely to move on to harder drugs. While the bad effects of cannabis may be disputed, the harmful effects of hard drugs cannot – they seriously damage people’s health. A major study in 2011 found that ‘smoking cannabis daily sets users up for a lifetime of multiple drug use’ 1. Heavy users are more likely to resort to crime to fund their addiction. Their habit often harms their relationships with friends, colleagues and family. State money then has to be spent on benefits, on policing, and on rehabilitation programs.
There is little evidence of cannabis being a gateway drug. In fact, there is a higher correlation between cigarette smoking and hard drugs. If anything, the only way in which cannabis could be said to be a gateway drug is that it is illegal and people may be inclined to buy other illegal drugs after they have bought cannabis, particularly as some dealers will sell other drugs. This problem, however, would be immediately eradicated if cannabis were legalized.
Furthermore, the people who refer cannabis as a "gateway drug" don't take into consideration the prerequisites and situations people are in prior to ones marijuana use. The people who use it as an additive to relaxation occasionally and are in a relaxed environment, maybe with a few friends over to hang out aren’t using it as an escape from reality but at an additive to their relaxation and fun. When cannabis is referred to as a “gateway drug” people are generally and unknowingly referring to the people who use marijuana as an escape from a much less than pleasant reality and “smoke themselves sober” therefore requiring a harder drug to get the same high and escape that cannabis once provided for them.
The debate over the effects of cannabis is based largely upon conflicting evidence. For example, some argue it can cause psychosis while others argue it only has positive effects on the mind. The effect of any illegal drug is a very difficult area to study 1. Most drug users use more than one drug and researchers are often limited to studying those who admit themselves into clinics with a crisis – something of a skewed sample.
Given that Governments cannot accurately predict what the effects of legalizing cannabis would be, it is prudent to maintain illegality. What if, for example, a state decided to legalize cannabis, to only discover five years later that it has a dramatically more negative impact on human cognition than previously thought, or that it substantially increased the risks of psychosis?
Legalization of cannabis would make it easier for scientific studies to take place, thereby providing a more accurate picture of the physical, psychological, spiritual and sociological effects of the drug. Just as the lift of the taboo on discussions of a sexual nature in schools around the world has resulted in people being more informed as to the dangers of unprotected sex, so would the increased availability and accuracy of scientific data on cannabis serve to reduce the ratio of abuse to responsible use.
If cannabis is legalized, it will become socially acceptable and more people will smoke it. It will also become more readily available. In the Netherlands, cannabis usage went up after it was legalized1. With more people smoking, more people will experience the adverse physical and mental health effects - more people will be harmed. Furthermore, as Dr. David Murray has noted, 'marijuana use is the leading cause of treatment need for those abusing or dependent on illegal drugs'2; therefore not only will more people use cannabis, more of them will be addicted.
1 Mackenzie, D. (1998, February 21). New Scientists Marijuana Special Report. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from UKCIA:
2 Dubner, Stephen J., 'On the Legalization - or not - of Marijuana', Freakonomics, 30 October 2007
First, it is not necessarily a bad thing for cannabis use to increase. Countries with the highest usage rates include some of the most prosperous in the world – Canada, Australia and New Zealand for example.
Secondly, even if increased cannabis use is a bad thing, there is little evidence to prove usage would necessarily go up if cannabis were legalized. Usage may have risen slightly in the Netherlands but cannabis was depenalized in 1976 and usage rates remain lower than in the US today. Moreover, there are other reasons why usage rose. According to Dirk Korf of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Amsterdam, "There is no appreciable causal connection between the Dutch decriminalization of cannabis and the rate at which cannabis use has evolved" 1.Portugal decriminalized drug use in 2001 and, a decade later, drug usage and drug related crime rates have fallen and cannabis use remains below the European average2 .
Studies have shown that cannabis may cause a number of physical and mental problems. It can cause respiratory problems, increase one's heart rate and lower one's sperm count. Cannabis use is also associated with causing or worsening some forms of psychosis. It has also been found to increase tiredness, depression and paranoia, impair short-term memory and hormone production and cause general cognitive decline1. As for cannabis' medicinal qualities, safer, more effective drugs are available. They include a synthetic version of THC, cannabis' primary active ingredient, which is marketed in the United States under the name Marinol.
1 Frank. (n.d.). Cannabis. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from Talk to Frank:
While there are studies that argue that cannabis is harmful, there is no substantial proof of many of the harmful effects it is accused of having. Indeed, there are many studies that claim it does not have these harmful effects. For example, a 15-year John Hopkins University study published in May 1999 found "no significant differences in cognitive decline between heavy users, light users, and non-users of cannabis."1 It is also claimed by many researchers that while cannabis has some potentially harmful effects, it is far less harmful then tobacco and alcohol2.
Cannabis is also known to have medicinal qualities, such as in relieving pain for MS sufferers. In California, for example, it is possible to obtain a "medical marijuana" card.
2 The Economist. (2010, November 2). Scoring Drugs. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from The Economist:
Lykestos, C., Garrett, E., Liang, K., & Anthony, J. (1999). Cannabis use and cognitive decline in persons under 65 years of age. American Journal of Epidemiol, 149(9), 794-800.