issue 140 October 1984
The myth of the evil weed
Pot-smokers run wild! And marijuana turns people into jellyfish or violent criminals,
depending on which piece of bigotry you listen to. Police have spent two decades persecuting cannabis-users, wasting energy that many would argue was badly needed elsewhere.
Australian Labor Party official Andrew Scott argues that the law as it stands makes no sense.
CANNABIS has been misrepresented more than most drugs. When it was criminalised in the United States in 1937 it was due largely to the efforts of Harry Anslinger, then head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. He wrote that when cannabis is used: ‘the willpower is destroyed ... the moral barricades are broken down and often debauchery and sensuality results.’
One of Anslinger’s disciples claimed that cannabis made ‘a jellyfish’ of the user and ‘ruined careers for ever’. And they were still at it in the Sixties — Harry Giordano, one of Anslinger’s successors as head of the Narcotics Bureau, said ‘it will be a sad day when somebody decides to legalise marijuana* because what is the next step? ... I am afraid that this is just another effort to break down our whole American system.
Such exaggerated claims about the harmfulness of cannabis arose out of Establishment wariness of the values of a ‘permissive’ society. In the willingness of the young to use cannabis, many saw a challenge to traditional values: pot smokers were seeking immediate experience, and they were not enthused by the ethics of competition or the impulse to acquire material wealth. This jolted the puritan conception of the place of pleasure in a decent society.
But if the cannabis prohibition laws were the instrument of one group’s morality, the opposition to them was based on no less moral premises. Anthropologist Margaret Mead pinpointed the double-standard of the Establishment when she said: ‘marijuana is less toxic than tobacco and is milder than booze yet there is the adult with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other telling the child "you cannot".’
The first concern when thinking of removing criminal sanctions from cannabis is the effect on criminal behaviour. The clear conclusion that has emerged is that, while alcohol is universally agreed to contribute to violent crime, cannabis has no such consequences. And where alcohol releases impulses and lowers the inhibitions which restrain aggressive behaviour, cannabis tends to lower aggression and increase passivity.
Laws as they stand encourage people to reject cannabis in favour of a drug which has so much more potential for violent criminal behaviour.
Alcohol’s adverse physical effects are well documented. Drunkenness itself gives rise to many injuries, mishaps and accidents while chronic abuse of alcohol brings nutritional problems likely to lead to stomach inflammation and fatal liver disease. Vitamin deficiencies endured by the alcoholic have been linked to deficiencies in the nervous system, impairment of vision and general loss of strength and coordination. Cannabis, although it has a mild potential to create psychological dependency, is not physically addictive like alcohol. Withdrawal from alcohol causes ‘the shakes’ and the DTs, while the mental consequences of vitamin deficiency and toxic psychosis through alcohol may amount to brain damage or prolonged intellectual deterioration. a process which leads to the visible phenomenon of premature ageing.
An argument now invoked frequently to forestall legislative reform is that, in the absence of a simple means of determining whether drivers are under the influence of cannabis (as with an alcohol breathalyser test) society cannot afford to risk decriminalisation of the drug.
Research into the relative effects of cannabis and alcohol on driving has indicated that where there is no significant difference in performance between drivers under the influence of cannabis and those who have taken no drugs, there is a noticeable decline in performance under alcohol. In addition, it is the regular users of alcohol who are most likely to drive dangerously, whereas only the most inexperienced of cannabis users have been demonstrated to drive at all dangerously.
‘So even if cannabis is no more harmful than alcohol, and even if it’s considerably less harmful, that doesn’t mean we should legalise it. Two wrongs don’t make a right.’
Classically the last refuge of the prohibition camp, this line of thought brings us back to the fundamental problem with banning cannabis. To continue denying calls for the legalisation of cannabis while continuing to confer legitimacy on the consumption of alcohol is to institutionalise a double standard — it is to assert that the mainstream majority can have their drug, but a large minority can’t have theirs, even if it’s less harmful.
For more and more people, this double standard has acquired a vicious sting. Everyone knows that cannabis laws are not enforceable, and many are starting to realise that they are enforced in a selective and inequitable way. The real beneficiaries of the law are the profiteers who peddle the drug.
Decriminalisation legislation in the Netherlands and in several states of the US reflects the shift in public and political opinion toward acceptance of the inevitability of cannabis law reform. But it has taken a long time to see the obvious — leaving in the meantime a generation of people who have been arrested, fined and imprisoned under the cannabis laws.
* ‘Cannabis’ is the name of the plant. North Americans refer to it by the Mexican word ‘marijuana’.
Andrew Scott is a student organiser and member of the Education and Youth Policy Committee of the Australian Labor Party.