From the archives: Is There A Case For The Legalisation Of Cannabis?

Kate Hoolu

This was an article from 1996 for information-spreading purposes in the older age-range, and at the time uninitiated UK market (written for an unpublished collaboration, alas) and it’s really interesting to see how times have moved on. Nowadays the older set that this was aimed at are probably smoking the stuff for their arthritis, if not growing it …

In this essay I will discuss the origins, uses and history of Cannabis, present several of the arguments for the legalisation of the drug and conclude with recommendations for one means to settle the debate.

What legalisation means should be clarified. Presently in the UK it's illegal to possess, cultivate or supply the drug. Legalisation implies these criminal offences would be permitted. A lesser motion is suggested in that cannabis should be decriminalised, with possession (and cultivation) of moderate quantities for personal use permitted, but with the full force of the law still being applied to those who supply it to others. An absolute legal definition of "supply" is similarly problematic. This applies equally to the drug dealer who sells a kilogram of cannabis for money and a person who passes a cannabis cigarette to another socially, without financial gain; i.e. at a party.

Another difficulty with the legalisation question covers how/if any supply infrastructure would be regulated. Suggestions vary between retail sale in the same locations as tobacco, sale in specialist-licensed outlets, availability from chemists (either with or without a prescription from a General Practitioner) or the current situation of private individuals supplying the drug on an ad-hoc basis.

Each idea has merits and demerits, but before these can be addressed, revenue has to be examined. Whatever the imprecise estimates of the level of cannabis use in the UK, there may be millions of pounds involved each year. Since it's possible that legalisation of cannabis, hence easier availability, would result in reduced consumption of taxed goods such as alcohol and tobacco this shortfall might be made up by an excise on cannabis. Depending upon method of supply; enforcement of this tax would be difficult and avoidance simple, either by growing the drug at home and/or use of the black market. However, the latter would be reduced in impact by legal cannabis supplies. The profit involved in smuggling cannabis instead of heroin is vastly different; weight for weight heroin sells for 40 times the price of cannabis, and doesn't have the distinctive smell of cannabis, which Customs drug detection dogs trace so easily.

So as well as generating greater profit per unit weight, heroin is easier and safer to smuggle. Therefore it's likely that were cannabis legalised, drug smugglers would abandon it as less profitable than before.

Whether this would increase the influx of other drugs is debatable. It's likely this would only be resolved when/if cannabis was legalised, but in theory a great deal of Customs and Police time (previously spent on anti-cannabis enforcement) would be available to detect other more dangerous materials.

Were duty imposed on cannabis this raises the question of taxation versus relative strength, much as taxes vary between beer and whisky. Relative strength depends upon quality of the drug. In illegal supplies quality control is irrelevant. Cannabis varies greatly between strong and inert (i.e. counterfeit, sold fraudulently) either accidentally or via dilution with inert materials. Since the substance sells by weight, any adulteration boosts both weight and profits. Were a tax imposed, then legal cannabis quality would have to be assured. One logical implication would be officially regulated farms and blending of harvests to assure a standard strength (much as specific gravity is monitored on alcohol). This would require administration, especially if the drug were grown overseas and imported, with a consequently increased price to the consumer to cover these overheads.

Restrictions on legal cannabis use would be needed. Similarly to alcohol there would be limits on driving motor vehicles (unfortunately there's no "breathalyser"-type test for cannabis). Consumption of alcohol under 18 is illegal and an age threshold would be needed for cannabis. Difficulty in assessing age is regularly highlighted in alcohol and tobacco sales and would be no easier with cannabis users.

It is important to know what it is that is being used. Cannabis derives from a plant of the Hemp family; Cannabis Sativa, a perennial shrubby plant in tropical/sub-tropical regions. It also grows in temperate regions as an annual plant. There are 3 main drug products of the plant: Herbal cannabis; the leaves and/or flower heads (commonly called grass or weed), a concentrated resinous form (hashish) and distilled viscous oil.

There are subtle differences in appearance generally perceived as indicating region of origin and means of production (hence relative quality) from which spring many colloquial names; i.e. dark resins from the Indian subcontinent are called Pakistani black.

However macroscopic appearance seldom reliably indicates geographical source, as horticultural/processing methods are non-standardised. Thus a sample of cannabis may equally have grown in Beirut or Birmingham; any claim by a supplier as to country of origin may be to justify pricing levels, much as vintage wines command a high price.

The drug can be smoked (alone or with tobacco) eaten or drunk in suspension. The effects divide into tangible medical changes (decreased blood sugar, depressed respiration, lowered blood pressure) and more subjective sensations; including enhanced perception of sound, colour, taste and smell (the latter two often leading to seemingly insatiable appetites) general well being and eventual drowsiness (Blacks 1979). This stimulation of appetite is unofficially used to treat eating disorders (i.e. anorexia nervosa) with varying success.

The feeling of well-being is identified as a danger of the drug, as it's "illusory". Freud was one of the first psychologists to experiment with drug effects on the nervous system; concluding that chemistry determines consciousness (literally: we are what we eat-drink-smoke-inject etc), and both recent developments in quantum physics and philosophers such as Bertrand Russell have persuasively indicated that reality relies intrinsically upon individual consciousness. As for value judgment of illusions, it has been remarked by the anti-psychiatry movement in psychology (Szasz 1960) that far from being ill, depressives actually have crystal-clear perception of the world as it really is. As such, cannabis use may prevent onset of depression; and it has been noted that a high score on traditional psychiatric health assessments is often associated with overly optimistic views of reality and "abnormal cheerfulness" (Taylor et al 1988).

Negative effects reported seem the reverse of the positives: nausea, vomiting, irrational fears and headaches. Long-term use appears to lead to impaired short-term memory; although the effect seems temporary, as shortly after the drug is stopped the memory functions return to previous levels. There is noticeable high incidence of seemingly organic borderline psychoses in West Indian ethnic communities, which has been tenuously linked to chronic excessive cannabis consumption, but there are too many variables to identify cannabis as the most likely cause. Another negative effect is that, as an illegal drug, the users are risking arrest and conviction; with subsequent labeling as drug-using criminals.

Cannabis is insoluble in water and therefore not injectable. Thus it hasn't the serious health dangers of intravenous drugs, such as septicaemia, venous embolism, hepatitis and transmission of HIV; the causal agent of AIDS. Since cannabis is smoked it's probable the same dangers as tobacco apply; i.e. cancers (lip, throat and lung) coronary disease and bronchitis.

It's unknown whether these are due to tobacco smoked with cannabis; this needs comparative studies of drug users who smoke it with and without tobacco. Such a study has not been carried out and would need stringent controls to eliminate confounding variables, not least of which would be the likelihood of cannabis-with-tobacco smokers also being smokers of tobacco alone. No direct health risks have been identified from eating or drinking cannabis. The lethal dose by mouth has been estimated at around 6 ounces of cannabis resin for an average-weight adult male. It has been suggested that this quantity would be (a) extremely expensive and (b) likely to induce vomiting due to the bitter taste and large volume in the stomach well before full absorption into the bloodstream from the digestive tract; hence a fatal cannabis overdose seems highly unlikely.

Cannabis isn't physically addictive but as with many legal drugs such as coffee, a psychological need can be demonstrated with long-term use. The withdrawal seems far less distressing than with alcoholics or heavy users of tobacco.

Definition of the stereotypical cannabis user is difficult, as this drug seems to have permeated all classes, racial groups and social spheres. Discovery of how widespread is any illegal drug is beset with problems. Apart from statistics for arrests there's little accurate information, as this merely details those apprehended; as with any crime it can be argued that only the stupid or careless are caught.

Public surveys are prone to many distortions. Answers to a question may be understated (caution as to what purpose the answers may be put to, and hence fear of subsequent prosecution) or exaggerated (from a desire to appear rather adventurous). This is similar to the problems discovered by Cumberbatch and Bates (1989) in studies of juveniles who had apparently viewed explicitly violent videotapes. Each subject was given a list of titles of "video-nasties" and asked to indicate whether they had watched them. On analysis it initially appeared that a high proportion of children had seen many of these films. However most of the titles were spurious, having been fabricated by Cumberbatch in order to assess the subjects' honesty levels.

Some 68% of the respondents admitted to seeing films that did not in fact exist

This highlighted problems of participant (dis)honesty in surveys. Once subjects have lied in one category of a survey it cannot be assumed that they have told the truth elsewhere; hence possibly invalidating the entire study. Since the jargon of drug use seems to have penetrated society to a greater extent than use of the drugs it's likely that non drug-users already know a great deal of drug-speak, and could thus give informed (but misleading) answers.

{On web-orama: See a separate article about survey accuracy, “the man in the street… etc” in press at time of writing this}

Were this form of methodological control applied to drug use surveys there's a problem in invention of spurious names for drugs. There is already a range of slang for drugs, so it would be difficult to invent a credible name that wasn't already in use. Additionally some equivocal terms apply to different drugs; the street name "white lightning" refers to any one from heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and home-made
vodka. These are all very different substances, introducing interpretation problems. Numerous users of a substance identified by slang could be aggregated by researchers as one drug when it may be four (or more) different drugs.

For cannabis there are literally dozens of different regional and social terms such as weed, puff, b(h)ang, draw, blow, dope, hash and gear; the latter is generic for any illegal drug (Bloomsbury 1989). These validity factors should be remembered whenever illegal drug statistics are interpreted.

Many problems in interpretation would be less troublesome were legal cannabis sold openly (as discussed above) and sales figures could be aggregated and interpreted. Additionally it's likely that retail cannabis would quickly become known by brand name, thus reducing use of equivocal terms.

Presently, possession of horticultural equipment and cannabis seed is legal. Cultivation of cannabis is legal if the grower is European Community-licensed and the plants are Hemp spp. grown for fibre (thus unsuitable for cannabis). Cannabis seeds also appear in food for caged birds and fishing bait. It's only when seed is deliberately sown that the law is broken. Proof of intent seems important; there are several "urban myths" of people who've accidentally grown cannabis plants from birdseed and not been prosecuted. The EC licensing system for hemp growers seems a smokescreen in the legalisation debate. This form of hemp is not suitable for drug use, being grown as fibre for textiles, paper, cellulose and fuel for power stations. These functions cover some of the uses of wood, but hemp crops annually and is therefore a rapidly renewable crop, cheaper and more environmentally responsible. This has been rather mis-used by pro-legalisation lobbyists as a "Green" argument, to paraphrase: "legalise cannabis-growing and save the rainforests". It seems not to be quite so simple, as the current EC hemp crop fulfills the agricultural-economic requirements without being of use as a drug.

Historical users are often cited in the pro-legalisation argument; i.e. in diaries of George Washington, first US president, there are numerous references to hemp on his estates, and the deliberate separation into female and male plants; this time-consuming and difficult task is only necessary when hemp is grown for drugs (Wilson 1990). The relevance of this to the argument is hard to discern, but it seems to be that by indicating that Washington ran the USA while on drugs they should still be legal.

Using one individual case from 200 years ago to imply generalisations is hardly a strong argument.

Legal home cultivation of cannabis would be unlikely to encourage an escalation into cultivation of other drugs, as few are growable in the UK without specialised equipment and expertise. It has however been speculated that with projected changes in the UK climate, the probability of Cannabis spp. becoming an endemic wild perennial (from seeding by birds and/or assiduous cannabis enthusiasts) within 50 years is quite high. This likelihood would increase were it accidentally or deliberately cross-bred with more frost hardy Cannabis spp., which are farmed for fibre. Should this happen the case for legalisation would be strengthened, from the precedent of the Psilocybe mushroom. This grows wild in the UK as the so-called "magic mushroom" and has effects similar to the hallucinogens LSD and Mescalin. Since the fungi grows wild, prosecution of consumers is rare, unless their behaviour transgresses other laws, i.e. public order offences. Similarly, as it's a wild plant, the owner of land where it grows cannot be prosecuted. Eradication would be virtually impossible as it seldom grows over 2cm high, thus rendering it all but invisible other than by close examination.

Even if an area were to be cleared of the fungus by chemical or mechanical means, it spreads by microscopic wind-borne spores, so inspection and eradication procedures would have to be performed annually, thus becoming expensive and tedious. Should cannabis become perennial it's likely the same legal position would apply.

Any discussion of cannabis must refer to the city of Amsterdam, where a progression of liberal administrations have permitted open sale and use of cannabis by individuals, while still acting against large-scale suppliers. It has been found that the per-head problem with other drugs such as Heroin is no greater in Amsterdam than in other European cities, and the Amsterdam police force have considerably more time to pursue other criminals since cannabis use was permitted. With deregulation of European customs boundaries since 1994 it's likely that greater quantities of cannabis are circulating within Europe: some see this moderation of border checks as a first step in the inevitable but gradual move towards legalisation. With greater harmonisation of Europe via the EC it's possible that a more permissive stance might be taken in the long term.

Any UK Government which relaxed cannabis laws would be taking major risks with the electorate. As seen in recent wranglings within both Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, a great deal of political capital is made by one party labeling another as advocates of drug addiction. An overly simplistic and generally erroneous label, but one that would probably stick in the minds of the general public.

The main Party Political benefit of legalisation would be to reduce crime figures overnight; as the large majority of cannabis users break no other laws. A cynic would argue that a Government passing such legislation would make the utmost self-aggrandizement from a reduced crime rate being due to implementation of effective policy; rather than from a statistical trick, but that again is a side issue to this essay.

An erroneous belief circulates that cannabis use causes violent behaviour. This misapprehension is based on the Order of allegedly drug-crazed Assassins led by
Hassan-I-Sahbha in the 11th Century: the etymology of hashish being from the same root as assassin. It has been proposed (Wilson 1990) instead that I-Sahbha's "wonder drug" was in fact the Flyagaric mushroom, one of the most powerful hallucinogenic drugs known to science, rather than cannabis; which was in common use throughout the middle-East during that time (Allegro 1970).

Most aboriginal cultures have a tradition of shamanic worship via drugs of various kinds (Drury 1989) but a more recent religion has particular relevance in this debate. Adherents of Rastafarianism use cannabis as a sacrament, much as the Native American Indian church holds the drug Mescalin (derived from the indigenous Peyote cactus) sacred. In the USA, Amerindians have legal dispensation to use peyote for religious purposes. However the drug remains illegal for other Americans. This awkward debate involves implied racism versus religious freedom; where the United Nations declaration of Human Rights regarding freedom of worship collides with national law on drugs.

The US situation seems an uneasy compromise and is upset regularly when mixed-race individuals claim treatment as Amerindians. There are Rastafarians in many countries, as yet there has been no special dispensation in the UK for them to use cannabis sacramentally; large numbers have been prosecuted, for what could be regarded as practicing an internationally-recognised religion.

When discussing such drugs there is conflict between mysticism versus science; subjective religious experience doesn't lend itself easily to empirical measurement and testing. With cannabis any relevant literature seems equally likely to derive from poets or mystics as from psychologists. The work of Timothy Leary applies here, as he held both perspectives being both a PhD psychologist and visionary mystic (Leary 1965). His observations of the actions of drugs were carried out scientifically with checks for confounding variables and use of control groups. In the absence of much other research his work remains among the best contemporary data available.

Since cannabis is illegal it's virtually impossible to be granted a research licence, despite the acknowledged beneficial medical uses. These are demonstrated by patients who (illegally) self-medicate for conditions including asthma, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Cannabis isn't a cure for many illnesses, but can be the best treatment to alleviate suffering. As such, it's in widespread unofficial use in hospices and terminal wards. In a recent Radio documentary (BBC 1996) senior medical staff admitted not only do they not prevent these patients obtaining cannabis, the drug is also written up on their medical charts as an aid to gaining an entire picture of their levels of medication. The longer-term use of such anecdotal data would be when/if cannabis is legalised it could be immediately researched with some prior understanding of reactions with other medicines.

After the legal and moral hurdles a final problem with research becomes that of standardised dosage: any research programme would have to grow its own cannabis; causing a possible security problem. As previously remarked, illegal supplies vary greatly in strength; thus a useless research tool, as any studies would not be repeatable, and hence easily invalidated (Regardie 1968).

The main thrust of the debate seems to be in morality rather than law: known poisonous and/or carcinogenic drugs are allowed to be deliberately consumed, with Governments taking a percentage via taxes. Tobacco and alcohol are legal drugs, but to many people their use is morally reprehensible due to health risks. Cannabis is illegal, and similarly many view this drug as dreadful. The main difference being that there's no reliable research on any dangers which cannabis use may pose. In other words, people are taking known poisons legally while the unknown substance is banned; which seems at best a back-to-front state of affairs. This matter of inadequate information must be rectified before any steps can be taken towards (or away from) legalisation.

Whatever the dangers of cannabis may be, it seems idealistic to expect zero-risk from any activity. My generation has grown up in a world that, at worst, seems to have corrosive rain, carcinogenic sunlight, pathogenic food and fatal sexual activity. None of these phenomena are prevented by ignorance, so it seems odd that cannabis receives such blatant denial. An intelligent approach from government, combined with an intention to educate would work much better than the current displacement approach of authoritarian prohibition and deliberate fostering of ignorance towards cannabis.

Personally I'm not concerned there is a drug in wide circulation that may or may not have dangers to health, it is only one of many. What is worrying is instead of proactively and responsibly researching this drug to either confirm the worst fears or eliminate the worries (and thus probably both generate another consumable for revenue generation and release a valuable medicine to healthcare practitioners) successive Governments are pouring money into Customs and the Police. This is a reactive system that (at best) seizes 5% of the total cannabis used in this country.

Decriminalisation for research would be the first step to recommend. Any further measures would depend upon results of detailed and stringent research, which would have to be both independently funded and carried out in numerous parallel studies. Throughout this essay I have had to leave various aspects of the cannabis debate hanging unanswered; because there has been so little research there are few scientifically acceptable answers at this time, and it is doubtful (in light of recent events regarding the dangers of BSE) that there will be political expediency in legalisation until such data has been produced.


Legal bit: This is and always was a purely academic article. The author, and the website on which it appears are not in any way condoning the breaking of any applicable laws in your country. If you copy this article please ensure this disclaimer remains with it. Thankyou

Bibliography: - there are a lot of citations in this, so here are the main sources:

Allegro (1970). The Magic Mushroom And The Cross, Abacus
BBC (1996). Radio 4 "Cutting Edge" Programme 30/6/96
Blacks Medical Dictionary 1979
Bloomsbury Dictionary Of Contemporary Slang 1990
Cumberbatch & Bates (1989). study of Violent Videotapes, cited in Haralambos & Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives; Collins 1994.
Drury (1989). Shamanism, Element.
Freud. Consciousness as Chemical, cited in The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay; Random Century 1989
Leary (1965). The Politics Of Ecstasy; Paladin
Regardie. Roll Away The Stone; Llewellyn
Szasz. (1960) Notions Of Mental Illness,
Taylor et al (1988). Illusory Beliefs In Mental Health;
Brain/Mind Bulletin, August 1988, cited in Wilson; Quantum Psychology, Falcon 1990.
Wilson (1990) Sex and Drugs; New Falcon

Secondary Source Data:

Kramer; (1993) Listening To Prozac, Fourth Estate
Russell; The Problems Of Philosophy, Opus 1980 (originally 1912)

Plus anecdotal comments from numerous cannabis smokers who understandably wish to remain anonymous.