Five reasons to keep cannabis illegal


From the third word of its name alone, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) sounds like a relic of a bygone age. Temperance isn't a popularly exhorted virtue any more, and even when it is talked about, the words used are very different. Yet recently, the body that previously fought the legality of alcohol because of the horror of the beer-hose, have today returned to fight the legalisation of cannabis.

Portland, the largest city in the US north eastern state of Maine, has passed a local ordinance legalising the possession of up to two and a half ounces of cannabis. This is more symbolic, since it has no effect on state laws which the police force will still be obliged to enforce. However, this seeming relaxing in state condemnation of drugs has brought the WCTU out of retirement and back into prominence, but in a new and different way.

"We just want to bring a new passion here. It's not that we want to be self-righteous and condemn you because you're drinking or drugging or you're smoking pot," said the Rev David Perkins, who is working with his wife to restore the WCTU's Portland chapter. "It's not that. We want to love you but tell you that there are ill effects".

It is understood that this local ordinance is something of a dry run for a wider application of a more complete legalisation of possession of cannabis.

Here are some of the reasons why legalisation would be a dangerous route to go down.

1. Cannabis is linked to psychosis

Although many pro-cannabis activists would argue that the link between cannabis and psychosis is not proven, the level of proof available is comparable to the proof we had in the 1980s that cigarettes cause cancer. Specifically, we did not have definitive proof, but there was so much almost-definitive evidence that to claim otherwise was just obstinate.

In 2007 a paper was published by the University of Montreal that examined 622 independent studies into the link between cannabis and psychosis. They confirmed that there was a definite increase in risk of psychosis among cannabis users, but the precise reasoning why remained unclear.

The previous defence of this position by pro-cannabis activists has been that people with psychotic symptoms often seek out cannabis as a means of dealing with their issues was debunked because many of these studies were longitudinal in nature, and controlled for groups of people with detectable psychotic symptoms.

A later study from 2011 which was conducted by Theresa Moore and Stanley Zammit and published in the Lancet, collated the work of 35 other studies from across Europe and the US. This group noted that the risk of psychosis seemed to increase as the amount of cannabis taken increased, thus further confirming the link between cannabis and psychosis.

This provides one of the biggest explanations as to why cannabis has to remain criminalised. Unlike alcohol, where inebriation is mostly limited to hours immediately following consumption, cannabis-induced psychosis can be a long-term mental problem, and can present a risk to the wider public from this person for many years to come.

2. Cannabis is a gateway drug

Even if it can be argued that the harm derived from cannabis is substantially less severe than other illegal drugs like ecstasy, cocaine, or heroin, and it is only marginally more damaging than alcohol, the bigger problem with cannabis is its link to other drugs. A study from New Zealand conducted in 2000 showed that Cannabis users were 60 times more likely to take other banned substances than non-users. Other works published in the Archive of General Psychiatry showed that, in a sample of those who had used cannabis over 1,000 times, 90% had tried other illegal drugs. By contrast, of those who had never used cannabis only 6% had taken a different contraband substance.

There is a physiological, medical, explainable reason for this. American research has suggested that the effect on the brain caused by cannabis is very similar to the effect of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin, but in a less potent form. Therefore, as the brain becomes hardened to the effect of cannabis, more powerful stimulants are needed. Cannabis use needs to be curbed then, not only because of its own harm causing properties, but because of the damages caused by that which it often leads to.

3. Legalising cannabis increases use

Despite what many people claim, this is a reality according to multiple sources. One study from 2000 compared cannabis use at the University of Newcastle at that time to the level of use in 1987. They concluded that, based on the respondents' claims, the increase of cannabis use they found could be traced to an increase in overall social acceptability of cannabis, not merely the fact that it was illegal.

This conclusion is borne out in other research too. In a survey by New Musical Express (NME) of over 1,500 respondents, 61% of those who had never tried illegal drugs said that they would start smoking it upon legalisation. The British Crime Survey also showed that peer influence was generational, meaning that any increase in adults taking these drugs would most likely result in children taking more of them too. Forty three per cent of children whose older or younger brother or sister had at some point or other taken drugs reported that they themselves had tried drug taking compared to 20% of those with no drug-using siblings.

Real world examples of cannabis legalisation also support this view. In the Netherlands, the use of cannabis increased from 15% of 18 to 20-year-olds using it in 1984 to 44% using in 1996. In Portugal, where many other illegal drugs have been effectively legalised (sale is prohibited, but possession only results in a criminal record if you do not attend government mandated treatment sessions) use of cannabis in the population has increased between 2001 to 2007 from 7.6% to 11.7%.  At the same time, levels cocaine use have more than doubled. Much as many would like to believe that legalisation would create a world where everyone behaved responsibly and conditioned their actions to the facts in the available case, the evidence does not support this view.

4. Taxing cannabis wouldn't make up for medical costs associated with it

A popular view from many in the pro-legalisation camp is that if cannabis were legal, we could not only regulate it to make it safer, it could be taxed and bring in much needed government revenue. This would mean that those who developed medical issues such as psychosis as a result of overindulging would have theoretically paid for their treatment indirectly by the time it came round to them needing hospitalisation. The facts are however not in this calculation's favour.

Alcohol-related costs of all kinds, from medical to legal to infrastrucre damage and repair total over $185 billion in the US. By contrast federal and state government collect an estimated $14.5 billion in alcohol tax revenue, making the cost more than 12 times the income. Similarly, tobacco use costs over $200 billion annually, but only $25 billion is collected in taxes, eight times the tax revenue collected.

Exact figures for cannabis aren't clear, but there are some things we can base our information on. There is not just the medical cost of treating psychosis to consider. Contrary to popular belief, people die from cannabis use all the time, and not just from overdoses. Home Office statistics from 2000 suggest that 12% of all road accidents are caused by cannabis use, with a rising trend that in the long term could see cannabis use overtake alcohol as the leading cause of intoxication-related car accidents. Other studies show that a significant percentage of homicides involve the perpetrator being on cannabis at the time. These are all issues with far higher significance than mere economics, but it doesn't take much imagination to see the sheer size of the financial burden these issues carry with them.

There's also no reason to think we'll get all the taxes we should be. Seventy per cent of what is sold at legal cannabis retailers in the Netherlands is believed to be from an illegal grower who consequently will have not paid any tax and thus not contributed to the system. The Dutch illegal cannabis trade is still worth $10 billion US annually. That's $10 billion the Dutch government doesn't have to deal with the problems caused by cannabis.

5. Cannabis slows everyone down

The central economic argument against cannabis legalisation can be summed up in one word. Unproductiveness. Alcohol might leave you with a hangover that lasts a few hours, but cannabis can knock you out of the world of work for days at a time. In 2009 the BBC's investigative journalism programme "The Report" highlighted the case of one individual who was incapacitated for three days straight as a result of the use of a particularly potent variety of cannabis known as 'Skunk'. As the programme points out, this is not an isolated case, as use of increasingly strong strains of the cannabis plant have been an ongoing trend since the 1970s.

If this trend were to continue and use were to increase, as the evidence suggests it would do if cannabis was legalised, we would see a potentially massive drop in economic productivity. More and more people having to take more time off sick or just drop out from work all together is not something our economy needs.

The immediate after-effect is only part of the problem. Because of the way cannabis affects the brain, flashbacks of previous experiences can occur without warning. This pushes the 'hangover' from cannabis use into the weeks and months, rather than merely days. And this doesn't factor in the long-term mental deficiencies cannabis can cause, making a worker potentially unreliable for life. In one study of 150 long-term users of cannabis (people who had smoked cannabis at least six times a week for at least two years), 66% noticed that their memory was faulty, almost 50% were less able to concentrate on a complex task, and 43% were less able to think clearly.

It was precisely this kind of issue that the Women's Christian Temperance Union was fighting against when it sought to prohibit the sale of alcohol, men and women who were so sunk into an incapacitating habit that they were no longer able to look after themselves or their families. And while their efforts ultimately failed, in that not only is alcohol freely(ish) available in the US, but they also created a powerful underclass of racketeers and smuggles, the same is not true in the current situation. The rate of people in the US aged 12 and over who used cannabis in the past 30 days was 13.2% in 1979. In 2008 that number is 6.1%. This is a successful policy. Drug use is declining under a policy of criminalisation. Nor are the punishments overly harsh, with only 0.1-0.2% of the US prison population incarcerated because of cannabis possession.

The fight against cannabis, and all illegal drugs, is ultimately one that we are winning, and one that is worth winning. On this point, the Women's Christian Temperance Union is unambiguously moving in the right direction.

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