Should you ever doubt which ideology reigns supreme in Western society, look no further than the legalization debate. The dominating narrative is thoroughly liberal; drug use is a “victimless crime” and those who oppose legalization are dumb (and probably evil) reactionaries who simply didn’t get the memo about bodily autonomy. The opposition, of course, cowers before the legalizers, trying desperately to prove their innocence.
In this article, I shall do no such thing. I readily admit to being a dumb (and probably evil) reactionary, and I think the very idea of “bodily autonomy” revolting. I do not feel particularly sorry for people who are heavy drug users; they are criminals and belong in prison.
Whatever accusations the pro-drug establishment (because they are part of the establishment1) might come up with for people like me, I accept them.
But, Dear Reader, none of that matters to you, does it? I believe you to be a level-headed, intelligent person who is only concerned with the truth, wherever it may come from. So ignore the haters, if you will, and follow me down the rabbit-hole.
Part 1: The Scientific Evidence
Let us start with science. We are often told by those campaigning to legalize cannabis that it is a “soft drug.” Indeed, some even claim it is positively harmless, and compare it to drinking coffee.2 Any scientist worth their salt will inform you that nothing could be further from the truth.
The UN’s World Drug Report summarises much of the most important scientific evidence about marijuana use. Some of the long-term effects include, amongst other things: increased risk of depression, schizophrenia, and latent psychosis.3
Adolescents who use the drug suffer from impaired visual short-term memory and less effective visual processing. There is even compelling evidence that marijuana permanently lowers IQ in teen users (though, full disclosure, the jury is still very much out on this).4
The Hippie Stoner?
The stereotype that often comes to mind when thinking about marijuana is that of the “hippie stoner”—a somewhat slow-witted, albeit very happy, guy with long hair, a tie-dyed t-shirt, and pacifist ideals. And while this stereotype may be at least partly true (as nearly all stereotypes are), it doesn’t give us the whole picture. A 21-year longitudinal study of a birth cohort of over 1200 New Zealand children found a significant association between marijuana use in adolescence and young adulthood and adjustment problems such as depression, suicidal behavior, other illicit drug use, and—perhaps most surprisingly—violent crime.5
The Gateway Theory
There have been repeated attempts to discredit the so-called gateway drug theory, which was first popularized in the 1950s. In 2003, Jacob Sullum wrote this in the libertarian Reason Magazine about the hypothesis:
“Half a century later, this idea, known as the ‘gateway' or ‘stepping stone’ theory, remains a bulwark of marijuana prohibition. Its durability is largely due to its ambiguity: Because it's rarely clear what people mean when they say that pot smoking leads to the use of ‘harder’ drugs, the claim is difficult to disprove.”6
I disagree with Sullum that the gateway hypothesis is a “bulwark” of marijuana prohibition. For me, its importance pales in comparison with the countless other reasons for prohibiting marijuana consumption. But nevertheless, it’s one well worth examining.
The critics of the gateway theory say that it is impossible to infer causation from correlation. It is true that much of the early work on the gateway theory suffers from the post hoc ergo propter hocfallacy. But it would be a mistake to dismiss a theory simply because the early evidence in favor it is somewhat shaky, especially when there is more recent, and more sophisticated, evidence that supports it.
A twin study conducted in Australia showed that, as a matter of fact, individuals who had used cannabis by age 17 were about 2.1 to 5.2 times as likely as their abstinent twins to be addicted to other drugs later in life, even when controlling for known risk factors.7
The Myth of the Soft Drug
The most damning evidence, however, comes from a recently published study conducted in Sweden. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet outside of Stockholm followed more than 50,000 men for 42 years, beginning in 1969 and 1970. The researchers found that men who used marijuana regularly (at least 50 times) at ages 18 and 19 were 40 percent more likely to die by age 60 compared to guys who hadn’t used the drug. The correlation remained even when controlling for other factors affecting mortality, such as alcohol use, mental illness, and childhood/adolescent social problems.8 Far from being a “soft drug,” as the proponents of legalisation like to call it, marijuana is literally deadly.
I could go on forever about the health effects of marijuana use. The link to myocardial infarction, stroke, aerodigestive tract and lung cancer (cannabis is much more dangerous than tobacco cigarettes), the Atlanta Birth Defects Case-Control Study, the Ottawa Prospective Prenatal Study, etc., etc.
The dangers of marijuana consumption are well-documented, and anyone who denies them is either extremely ignorant or wilfully trying to cause harm to others.
Part 2: The Morality of Drug Use and Prohibition
The legalization crowd loves to perpetuate the myth that marijuana is “pretty much harmless.” But the truth is, most of them don’t care either way. It’s simply an effective tool for disarming those dumb, evil prohibitionists. Once you’ve conclusively debunked the “soft drug” argument, the true nature of those friendly, evidence-driven legalizers is exposed. They don’t care about evidence; they don’t care about science. None of that matters to them.
Like most political disagreements, the drug debate boils down to first principles. The proponents of legalization are, fundamentally, liberals. They subscribe to the harm principle of John Stuart Mill and believe society to be no greater than the sum of its parts. This is why every discussion about the morality of drug use and drug prohibition always devolves into an endless rehearsing of the same tired lines: “no victim, no crime,” “what other people want to do with their bodies is no business of yours,” and so forth. This is all well and good, but it ignores two minor things: human nature and the real world.
It is plainly clear to anyone who’s spent even the least bit of time in reality that drug use is not a “victimless crime.” There are, in fact, many victims:
1. The drug user. Proponents of legalization are enamored with the idea of Man as a perfectly rational decision-maker, who has full agency over his actions. If such a person exists in the real world, I sure as hell have never met him. Human beings are, after all, only human. Our rational decision-making faculties are only so strong. We make ill-considered decisions based on impulse, gut feeling, our emotions, boredom, and ignorance pretty much all the time.
When we do drugs, we fall victims to ourselves. And once we’ve started, the drugs affect our brains so as to make it even more difficult to make decisions that are good for us.
No one in their right mind would deny that it is the duty of every good-hearted person to pull a would-be suicide away from the ledge of a bridge, or otherwise use coercion to prevent someone from killing or seriously harming themselves. Why, then, is it wrong to stop people from hurting themselves and others by prohibiting drugs?
2. The drug user’s nearest and dearest. No man is an island. When you develop a drug habit, everyone in your immediate surroundings is affected. Friends and family especially. They are the ones that will have to help you when you need it, and you inevitably will. If you’re unlucky and suffer from, say, a permanent cannabis-induced psychosis, helping you will turn into a full-time job for them.
The toll drug use takes on friends, and particularly family, is enormous, and both emotional, financial, social, as well as psychological. Drug consumption is a crime that leaves the people you love the most victims.
3. The society at large. Drug use—regardless of its legality—is obviously bad for society in more than just one way: culturally, morally, economically, etc.
It destroys social capital. While moderate alcohol consumption often has positive effects on social capital, drug use does not. When two people get together to have a glass of wine or a beer, the main purpose is not, as a rule, to get drunk.
Alcohol serves primarily as a social lubricant; let the wine flow so the conversation may follow. This is clearly not the case with other drugs. It is not uncommon for drug users to get together to do drugs, of course. But that is always their primary purpose: to do drugs and to get high. They come together in a sort of collective loneliness if you will.
Because there can never be the same sense of togetherness (which is, after all, what cultivates social capital), there can be nothing redeeming about drug use, especially when you consider the devastating effects on those who are addicted—and drug addiction is far more common than alcohol addiction, relative to how many consume each substance.
Drug abuse, of course, destroys social capital—no one denies this. It tears families apart; it ends careers, it alienates people and more often than not leads to violence.
Apart from the effects upon social capital, drug use damages a nation culturally. It is a self-evident truth that the culture of a nation shapes those who inhabit it. But it is also shaped by them. A culture which accepts drug use will inevitably breed more drug users, and, as a result, become more accepting of drug use. And downwards the spiral goes.
It is clear that drug use is not, in fact, a victimless crime, but far from it. It is truly degenerate in every sense of the word; eating away at the moral, social, and economic fabrics of the individual as well as the nation and, by extension, the world. Actions do not exist in a vacuum; no man is an island.
Part 3: The Law
The rhetoric of harm reduction is simply an admission that yes, marijuana use is harmful, but no, we shouldn’t do anything reduce it. Someone truly dedicated to reducing the harm caused by marijuana and other drugs would look at ways to prevent as many people as possible from getting their hands on any drugs in the first place. How do we best accomplish this, then?
The goal of the state should be to cultivate that which is good and reduce or eliminate that which is bad. Drug use falls into the second category, so the state should strive to eliminate it. However, it does not necessarily follow that drug prohibition is the answer.
In fact, one of the most common arguments that we hear for legalization is that drug use actually decreases when drugs are legalized, and that drug laws are in fact unenforceable. Both of these fly in the face of reason, but since they comprise such a large part of the pro-legalisation case, they are nevertheless worth examining in closer detail.
The former argument is fairly dangerous, as it lulls people into the false belief that we all really want the same thing. This is almost never the case, as becomes pretty clear after you’ve debated with a proponent of legalization for a while. The argument is simply the first line of offense in the assault upon traditional morality, and when it fails, the legalizer resorts to the type of arguments that have already been debunked in this essay. But let us for a moment pretend that this argument is posited in good faith. Is it valid?
The legalization crowd often points to Portugal and the Netherlands to support their claims. Let us look closer at these two countries, starting with Portugal.
The Case of Portugal
Portugal is often used by the pro-legalisation lobby as an example of how great drug decriminalization is, and how it leads to lower drug consumption rates. The statistics and reports that they point to are often cherry-picked, or conducted by various pro-cannabis advocacy groups. When you look at what the numbers actually say, it becomes pretty clear that Portugal’s decriminalization project isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
The first general population survey on drug use, sampling 15- to 64-year-olds, was conducted in 2001. Since then, two more surveys have been conducted: one in 2007, and one in 2012. In 2001, lifetime use of all illicit drugs was 7.8%. In 2007, it had increased to 12.0%. In 2012, it had decreased a little again, to 9.5%. Still, that is an overall increase over the course of 11 years.9
Drug use amongst schoolchildren has also increased since decriminalisation. Between 1999 and 2011, lifetime prevalence of cannabis use amongst 15- to 16-year-olds doubled from 8% to 16%. Lifetime use of inhalants also doubled, from 3% to 6%.10
I think these numbers speak for themselves. The Portuguese experiment has completely failed to solve the drug problem, and it was destined to fail from day one.
What About the Dutch?
The Netherlands has a policy of non-enforcement for violations involving possession or sale of up to 5g of cannabis, and another policy which regulates the illicit sale of those small amounts in open commercial establishments. Additionally, a 500g limit on trade stocks was established in 1995.11
In other words, cannabis has been de facto legalized in the Netherlands. Has use rates declined because of that?
Prior to the 1976 de-penalisation, cannabis use amongst Dutch adolescents had actually been on a steady decline for at least 6 years.12 Meanwhile, in the 1984-1996 period, which is when most of the policy changes took place that eventually led to outright de facto legalisation of cannabis, lifetime use amongst adolescents skyrocketed from 15% in 1984 to 44% in 1996.13 That’s almost a 200% increase in 12 years!
Now, there are obviously non-policy related influences on cannabis use that could theoretically account for the drastic increase of cannabis use in the Netherlands. But that seems unlikely, given that the increase that took place between 1984 and 1992 happened while use levels were either flat or decreasing in comparable places like Denmark, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United States, Oslo, and Stockholm.14
The War on Drugs
The idea that our governments are engaged in a vicious war on drugs, first popularized in America and then spread throughout the West like a venereal disease, is naught more than a myth. There is no war on drugs; not even in the United States. In fact, in nearly every Western country, drug use—and particularly cannabis use—is de facto decriminalized.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d absolutely love it if the Western governments started fighting a war on drugs. Few things would make me happier. But the reality isn’t always what we’d like it to be.
The myth of the American war on drugs is continuously perpetuated by the cannabis lobby and its useful idiots in the media and elsewhere. The problem is, it doesn’t stand up to the least bit of scrutiny.
In 2009, the annual prevalence of cannabis use (amongst ages 15-64) in the United States was 13.7%.15 That means about 28 million people used cannabis. In 2010, there were 750,000 arrests for marijuana possession.16 By comparison, there were 2.6 million arrests for public drunkenness, sales to a minor, DUI, and other violations of liquor laws (yet we never hear talk of a war on alcohol three times as violent as that on drugs—strange!).17
If 28 million people use cannabis annually, that means only about 2.7% of cannabis users get arrested for possession every year. Total days of use are estimated at about 3 billion annually, so there’s only about one marijuana-possession arrest per 4,000 days of use in America.18
Of course, the actual risk of arrest is considerably lower than that. As RAND scholar Jonathan Caulkins points out:
“Relatively few of those arrests result from police decisions to seek out and arrest marijuana smokers; most are by-products of other actions—mostly by uniformed officers rather than drug detectives—ranging from traffic stops to stop-and-frisks executed in the name of order maintenance. Sometimes marijuana charges replace other charges: if police find marijuana while responding to a domestic-violence complaint but the complainant is afraid to testify, a prosecutor might press the drug-possession charge instead. So 2.5 percent per year probably overstates the average arrest risk for someone who uses marijuana but otherwise does nothing to attract police attention.”19
“Still,” you might protest, “750,000 arrests—that’s a lot of people that they throw in prison.” But most arrests do not lead to prison sentences. A lot of the time, offenders don’t even get handcuffed; they simply receive a notice to appear in court. Furthermore, not all arrests lead to prosecution and the ones that do often lead to small fines of a few hundred dollars. For example, the state of New York punishes possession of “small” quantities (25 grams or less) with a $100 fine for first-time offenders, $200 for second-time offenders, and subsequent offenses are punished with a fine of $250 and up to fifteen days of jail time.20
The amount of people who actually do time for marijuana possession is incredibly small. Here’s Caulkins again:
“About 40,000 state and federal prison inmates have a current conviction involving marijuana; perhaps half of them are in prison for offenses related to marijuana alone. The vast bulk of these inmates were involved in distribution; less than 1 percent of state and federal inmates are serving time for marijuana possession alone—and in many of those cases, the possession conviction was the result of a plea bargain involving the dismissal of more serious charges. Jacqueline Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University has shown that prisoners whose conviction charge was drug possession actually had more serious histories of violence than those convicted of violent crime; it takes an extraordinary criminal history to lead a judge to sentence someone to prison time for just possessing drugs, especially for just possessing modest quantities of marijuana.”21
Most Western countries have similarly laughably lax attitudes towards marijuana possession. Peter Hitchens has dedicated a lot of time and effort to dispelling the myth of the drug war in the UK—in fact; he’s even written a book on the subject. (Mr. Hitchens, who belongs to that rare breed of journalists who actually care about their readers, was kind enough to offer guidance during the research stage of this part of the article, and pointed me to several good sources on the enforcement of drug laws in America.)
Does Prohibition Work?
When answering this question, the cannabis lobby points to the ever-increasing drug use rates of countries like the United States, which they say are engaged in a war on drugs that can’t be won. We just established that this is, in fact, untrue (I’ll let you decide if the cannabis lobby is ignorant about the facts or wilfully trying to deceive the public). But are there countries where drug prohibition has been tried with successful results?
When you look at the international data, Asia has the lowest cannabis consumption rates in the world.
A few Asian countries stand out in particular: Japan, South Korea, and, most notably, Singapore.
According to the UN World Drug Report of 2006, the annual prevalence of cannabis use was 0.1% in Japan, 0.3% in South Korea, and 0.004% in Singapore.22 The use prevalence rates for other drugs were similarly low. In Singapore, for example, cocaine use was at an astounding 0.0002% of the general population (in Western and Central Europe the average was 0.73%).23
These impressive numbers haven’t happened by chance, of course; all three of these countries have made a conscious effort to dissuade drug consumption, production, smuggling, and dealing. Rather than pursuing policies of decriminalization and legalization under the guise of “harm reduction,” Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau’s mission is to rid the country of drugs completely. They do this by focusing on enforcement of drug laws (which are very tough; habitual drug sellers risk the death penalty, and smuggling can carry life imprisonment24), preventive education, and working with civil society to garner support to create a Singapore without drugs.25 Both Japan and South Korea approach the drug problem in similar ways.
Drug policy is often conceived of in a very binary way: either you educate people about the dangers of drugs and try to rehabilitate drug addicts, or you lock them up in a mean and dark place. This is a false dichotomy, as Michael Teo, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia, points out in an article published by The Guardian:
“Public education against drug abuse starts in schools. For abusers, our approach is to try hard to wean them off drugs and deter them from relapsing. They are given two chances in a drug rehabilitation center. If they go through counseling, kick their drug habit and return to society with useful skills, they will not have any criminal record. Those who are still addicted go to prison, where they are put on general rehabilitation programs to help them reintegrate into the community.
“Strong community support against drug abuse has been critical to our fight against drugs. Singapore society resolutely rejects drug abuse. Several voluntary welfare organizations run halfway houses to help to recovering addicts adjust back into society. Many employers also come forward to offer reformed drug addicts employment opportunities.”26
Unlike the anti-drug education programs of the West, it seems that those in Asia actually work. In Japan, for example, opposition to drug use amongst children and adolescents has grown steadily during the past couple of decades.
The drug laws of the Far-East may not appeal to bleeding hearts, but it is far more compassionate to apply tough love to those who desperately need it than to enable their addictions by providing them with free drugs and syringes, as is becoming increasingly common here in the West.
Part 4: Conclusion
I hope to have shown conclusively, at this point, that cannabis is by no means a “soft drug”, and that, in order to further the commonweal, we must abandon any liberal delusions we may have about the issue and look at the actual facts: when enforced, tough drug laws deter consumption; syringe exchange programmes, methadone clinics, and wishy-washy drug education initiatives do not.
The idea that drug laws are unenforceable, and therefore not worth having, simply because one cannot completely eradicate drugs from society, is laughably stupid. There will probably always be some drug use, just as there will always be some violent crime, but that does not by any stretch mean we shouldn’t aim to make it as rare as possible. If we have to give a few vicious drug pushers the rope, who cares, They bear responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands.
Meier, M., Caspi, A., Ambler, A., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Keefe, R., & McDonald, K. et al. (2012). Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109/40: E2657-E2664. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1206820109. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from PNAS.org. ↩