In this chapter I want to begin to take on the issues
arising from a number of forms of behaviour which are apparently less
than "optimal" though not as obviously damaging as war or violent crime.
Social and political attitudes to these issues are confused, often contradictory
or hypocritical and largely irrational. Some of these activities, like
private motoring, are not only permitted, they are actively endorsed,
despite the enormous costs they incur. And others, such as using cannabis
are prohibited despite the low level of harm they cause. There
is little logic to the way in which society has arrived at these conclusions,
so you might think that with a liberal sprinkling of rationality, we
might eliminate some of the contradictions and straighten out the mess.
We probably will, but don't hold your breath. The tenacity with which
the irrational mind clings on to the fantasy it perceives as reality
is much greater than rational beings can fully comprehend.
To the rational mind, a revelation which changes reality (or rather,
one's perception of it) is never that much of a "big deal". We have
long since accepted that we do not know all that is to be known.
We accept that our descriptions of the world about us are always purely
provisional and simply based on rational analysis of the best evidence
to date. If new evidence arises, then we (more or less) happily adapt
our picture of the universe to encompass the new data. Our arguments,
if you like, are never about whether reality is a particular fixed notion,
but rather about whether or not a particular observation or new piece
of evidence is sufficiently reliable, repeatable or well analysed to
justify a modification to our global definitions of reality. Our picture,
therefore, of the world, is always getting richer and more comprehensive.
By contrast, the fundamentalist's world view, being fixed to utterances
and insights many centuries out of date, is constantly under attack
and they react as you would expect to such attacks. The
specific attacks might come in the form of scientific revelation, be
it the Copernican view of the Solar System, Darwin's theory of
evolution, Big Bang cosmology or whatever. They may come in the form
of medical or technological breakthroughs which allow us to do things
which were "supposed" to be the province of god - such as flying through
the air; speaking to people thousands of miles away; carrying out safe
abortions; maintaining life in circumstances that have always previously
been fatal (eg by curing cancer or giving blood transfusions); even
sometimes literally reviving the dead. And sometimes it may be
a hybrid of both - such as the potential miracles emerging in the field
of genetic engineering.
All these new truths challenge the fundamentalist quite profoundly,
because the fundamentalist worldview doesn't have a place for man performing
godlike miracles. But, in addition, (and more relevant to the issues
we are discussing here) the whole field of human behaviour is a major
battleground for fundamentalists because part of that same crumbling
mythology is dedicated to telling us how to live our lives. Hence whenever
we rational beings want to exercise our freedoms to behave in ways that
suit us, be it by shopping or working on "the 7th day", eating pork/beef/shellfish,
writing books (like "The Satanic Verses"), reading books (that don't
support their fantasy), going anywhere without your husband (in some
islamic countries), watching "adult" movies, pre-marital sex, or even
worse, gay sex or abortions etc etc. we are, on each such occasion,
challenging their world view (which is essentially that their deity
forbids such behaviour). Clearly, widespread evidence that people
"get away with" behaving in these forbidden ways is a major contradiction
to their world view and this compels them to do what they can to prevent
Despite many Western Governments' otherwise wholehearted embrace of
the conclusions and consequences of the rational scientific paradigm
which has lifted most of the first and second worlds out of our superstitious
adolescence in the past 2 centuries, most of these governments, even
the secular ones like the USA, are still dominated by, and behave
in accordance with, deeply ingrained religious values. Most of the man-made
"laws" which govern Western society are still based on traditional
JudeoChristian values and are principally designed either to justify
the status quo in relation to who owns what, to underpin their notion
of who has what authority over fellow citizens, or to protect or maintain
allegiance to the antiquated views of the religious establishment.
It shouldn't surprise us, therefore, when the establishment has such
a hard time coming to terms with sections of its mature adult population
who demand freedoms that the establishment has "always" ruled out as
being "beyond the pale" - even if the freedom required is simply the
freedom to have fun!
Having fun is one of the most important freedoms we all desire. Yet
some of the ways we choose to have fun can bump head on into the irrational
opposition of the state. For me, the prime example of this at
the end of the twentieth century is the continuing prohibition of the
use or distribution of a number of the so called "leisure drugs".
The "War On Drugs", which has been going strong in one form or
another since the late 1920s, will seem almost as bizarre to our descendants
as does the ludicrous treatment of suspect "witches" in the late "middle
ages" to readers at the dawn of the 3rd millenium (Christian Calendar).
Let's try to take an objective look at what is really going on here.
Some basic facts which, as far as I am aware, are completely undisputed.
To begin with, there are a number of substances available to human
beings which can alter mood and even perception. They range from mild
stimulants like tea or coffee to major stimulants like "crack cocaine"
whose effects are so extreme and ecstatic that users are reputed to
become literally instant addicts.
With the exception of a handful which have been created artificially
or modified chemically in the 20th century, some of these substances
have been used by humans all over the planet for several hundred years,
and in some cases many thousand. Beer has probably been brewed
since before writing was invented and certainly dates back more than
6,000 years. First recorded use of Cannabis dates back a mere 4,700.
Anthropologists have noted that not one human society
has evolved without, apparently independently, also creating or discovering
mind altering substances which are used to achieve at least relaxation
and sometimes insight. They usually take the form of alcoholic drinks
and/or a concoction which can be smoked. The point of the drinking and
smoking is roughly the same in every society - to achieve some pleasurable
alterations to the mental state of the participants. In some it has
been take further and used as a means of creating a mental state where
the individual is - or imagines that he is - capable of greater insight
than when not intoxicated. As we discuss here
the evidence suggests, ironically - given the primary source of modern
opposition to recreational drugs, that the roots of Religion are to
be found in the Shamanic use of these mind-altering substances.
So much is - I hope - largely uncontroversial.
So what, I ask, is all the fuss about?
What happened? Where, when and to whom? What was it that suddenly caused
many nations of the earth to conclude that some of these substances
had mysteriously become so dangerous that - even in countries who boast
of being "the land of the free" - individuals could not be allowed
to make their own decision on whether or not to consume them. How
on earth could we have reached a situation in what is otherwise one
of the most nominally liberated societies on the planet, the USA, where
they can even live with the consequences of allowing the individual
liberty to own lethal weapons but run from the somewhat less dramatic
consequences of allowing the consumption of cannabis?! (update
Dunno! (update Feb 2007. Ten years after writing that, I think I do
now have a pretty comprehensive understanding, after much research and,
most recently, having read Martin Booth's "Cannabis:
A History" which confirmed most of the impressions I had formed.
Gratifyingly he provides detailed support for most of the conclusions
we've reached on this page and I will, in due course, incorporate several
references to this masterpiece. Strongly recommended)
I still don't fully understand the answer. Coming late to the study
of History left gaps in my education and I imagined that filling these
gaps would provide the answer. I'm now more inclined to expect the answer
lies in the study of mass psychology. I've spent several years looking
for clues. Here on the web you can usually find the answer to everything.
Or at least the answers we've figured out so far anyway. Except, it
appears, that one. If, that is, anyone has figured it out.
I had thought, for example, that the waves of prohibitionism might
have their roots in the prurience of the late Victorian age. But no,
it turns out that Queen Vic herself took cannabis as a medicine.
I've read accounts that it all stems from the racist white American
establishment in the late twenties and thirties taking it out on the
Afros because the brothers weren't suffering from prohibition to the
same extent as the white population; which in turn was because
their favourite intoxicant was ganga - which, of course, hadn't
been banned. That may have been a factor but the Mexicans, then as now
a source of cheap labour in the South, attracted far more overt attention.
The Hearst led newspapers, having learned that Marihuana (as the Mexicans
called it) was their recreational drug of choice, routinely sought to
blame the weed for every breach of the peace for which a Mexican could
legitimately be fingered. When America criminalised Cannabis in 1937,
racism was certainly one of the motives. Was it the only one?
I've read opinions that it's all down to the visceral fear of the religious
establishment that we might find a different path to the gods than the
one they're in charge of. Or the fear of the political establishment
that minds liberated by drugs might see through all their mind games
and learn how to undermine their position. Which sounds about right
to me but I wouldn't want anyone getting paranoid about it :-)
Certainly there are no medical discoveries or recommendations
which support prohibition. Indeed, whenever asked, the medics have nearly
always opposed prohibition. There are no formidable authoritative
reports spelling out the destructive dangers which require the prohibition.
Indeed all the major public reports have the same flavour - generally
indifferent or mildly supportive (of cannabis) And nor are there
historical records of significant damage or social disruption being
caused anywhere or anywhen in history by widespread social drug use.
There are well documented accounts of the vested interests of - for
example - Randolph Hearst and the Oil industry both using the alleged
dangers of Cannabis intoxication as excuses to outlaw the production
of Hemp which threatened their Paper and Fuel industries respectively.
None of these quite explain how the authorities became as hostile as
they are today - where in some countries, growing, supplying or just
using cannabis is treated as a more serious crime than homicide. That
is why I now incline to the view that we must seek a psychological explanation,
as "hinted" at the top of this page.
When I went to school, they really hammered in the anti-drugs message.
Damned effectively too, it has to be said. I personally bought it hook
line and sinker. I remember, in my 20s, arrogantly stating that I didn't
need drugs because I could get just as high on the workings of my own
mind. Think I really tried cannabis around the age of 30. (Always
was a late developer!) Couldn't see what the fuss was about -
in the sense that it didn't do anything for me. I did like the smell
though! Turned out I just wasn't getting enough of the right stuff.
But I didn't find that out for about another 10 years! Then I saw the
light! Almost literally.
For me the attraction of cannabis is the enhancement of the senses.
Taste, touch, smell and - especially - Hearing all become much sharper.
You suddenly find you can follow the lyrics of your favourite songs
- words you've never previously been able to decipher are suddenly crystal
clear. You can also simultaneously follow all the different musical
threads in even the most complex pieces. The mind's response to this
glorious clarity is sheer ecstasy. And in peak moments, in darkened
rooms, the visual cortex will even produce flashing colours synchronised
with the music, almost certainly as a result of 'data overload'. The
brain is processing so much music data that it begins to spill over
from the aural to the visual centres and you literally "see" the music
as flashing or undulating colour.
Of course, this is a mere patch on the effects of LSD which can take
the effect into convincing hallucinations, but it's pretty damn good
and, for those who like to keep a fraction of a grip on reality - even
if it is reality through rose tinted glasses - it's a very comfortable
and "non threatening" trip. So I was pretty grateful I'd finally discovered
it. I've continued using it to this day.
Now, believe it or not, I'm a bit of a health freak. Ever since giving
up tobacco in my mid twenties, I've maintained a regime of exercise
and diet designed, not to put too fine a point on it, to prevent me
going the way of my father who died from a massive heart attack in his
mid fifties. So, as you can imagine, I'm fairly fussy about what
I put into my body. Low fat, high fibre, low red meat, loads of
garlic, a bit too much red wine but nothing excessive. Vitamin supplements
to make up for the fact I don't enjoy most green vegetables. You get
the drift. You can understand why, therefore, I went looking,
with considerable interest and a little trepidation, for the evidence
of the damage my new found pleasure in Cannabis would be likely to
cause me. I wanted to make a rational judgement as to whether or not
I should permit myself this particular self-indulgence. It was illegal.
Surely that had to be for a good reason. Which presumably had its basis
in the harm it was going to do me.
Did I start my search with any preconceptions? Well yes. I admit I
was rather hoping to be persuaded that it was harmless. But I was honest
enough to admit the possibility of that just being wishful thinking,
so with a measure of self discipline of which I am proud(!), the
very first search I typed into good old altavista was - I kid you not
- "case against cannabis". And the very first item which came up on
the search results was this
one written for and on behalf of the UK Home Office. Honestly!
(I had originally written "go try it yourself" but I found the other
day when I decided to repeat the search, that it didn't work. You can
still find the information but you need to go looking for the "Wootton
Report" which I'd never heard of prior to this discovery on the web.
Having found it again, however, I've now included the entire report
as an appendix to this book, so you can download the whole thing and
read it for yourself. Use the link above)
So this was the expert advice given to government. Nobody, of course,
trusts governments these days, but I thought I should at least be open
minded enough to hear what their own experts are saying.
I read it with growing disbelief. Here is a report, prepared, at the
government's expense and request, with the intention of reviewing precisely
the evidence that I myself was looking for; viz the evidence which shows
just how harmful cannabis is, was or can be. And to cut a long story
short - especially as you can now read "the long" for yourself if you
didn't already know about it - they concluded, essentially, that while
they could not actually pronounce it "harmless", it clearly produced
significantly less damage than either tobacco or alcohol in all the
areas they investigated.
And the only reason that they argued that it should continue to remain
illegal was that its legal use would encourage even wider use and, most
importantly, an increase in the taking of more potent drugs.
The medical conclusions of that report remain scientifically unchallenged
to this day. Indeed, the growing scientific consensus has merely further
endorsed its conclusions. Most recently the influential American "Institute
of Medicine" - at the behest of the then US Drugs "Czar" Barry McAffrey,
not a noted supporter of our right to enjoy ourselves this way - has
formally recommended limited trials of medical cannabis.
The UK government was, to coin a phrase, "gobsmacked". The US
Government likewise. Neither expected such a clear refutation
of the existing position and didn't have a clue how to deal with it.
In practice, what has happened in the UK, since 1968 when the report
was published, is a typical British fudge in that - rather than cave
in altogether and legalise it - they've simply issued semi public guidelines
to the police that users should merely be "cautioned" rather than prosecuted,
unless they are in possession of enough to be suspected of "dealing".
As a result, some 40,000 users are now "cautioned" each year. Recently,
(March 98) a Yorkshireman who grew the plant to produce relief for his
wife who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis was acquitted by a jury of
"dealing" and "got off" with a mere £100 fine, which is about
as close as we can get to acceptance without actually changing the law.
And which sits in stark contrast to the US position in which, during
the same week, we saw Oklahoma citizen Will
Foster, who has been growing the stuff to alleviate his pain from
an acknowledged medical condition, failing in his appeal against being
sent to prison for 93 years (yes Ninety Three!!) - as though the action
of cultivating cannabis is somehow even more heinous than many a first
degree murder! Mind you, though it's a bit of a bummer for Will, I suspect
he may be just the martyr we need! The sentence is so obviously
ludicrous that it increases our chances of tearing apart the law which
imposed it. (Much more difficult to oppose laws which are seen,
generally, to be exercised "reasonably". This kind of stupidity may
be just what we need to convince the wavering or indifferent public)
Following that astonishing first search result, I went on to find literally
hundreds of reputable sources - mostly pro but some anti - about cannabis
on the web. You will find some alarming claims about the effects of
the drug but you won't find a single peer reviewed paper which actually
supports any claim of harm at levels equal to or greater than the levels
of harm caused by the legal drugs tobacco and alcohol. In fact the overwhelming
scientific consensus is now conclusive - despite over 30 years of US
government funded research designed to validate prohibition - that cannabis
is not only much less harmful than either of the other two, but that
it actually produces mild benefits.
This research has been most recently summed up by the highly respected
magazine based in the UK. In particular I recommend you read the bit
about "The Report
the WHO tried to hide" (Since then I've collected a whole bunch
of cannabis related
Of course, I found this all very encouraging. I don't particularly
want to damage myself any more than I have to! So it's all been
pretty reassuring to find that the biggest single risk I face as a result
of using cannabis is that of gaining a criminal record! Now that
really can damage your health!
But hang on, what on earth am I doing which justifies society branding
me a criminal? Well why not use the same criteria to judge this behaviour
as we've already applied to abortion, capital punishment and the morality
Question one, when I take cannabis, who is entitled to take part in
the decision making process? Who, in other words, is affected by my
actions? Well obviously I am. And anyone I'm in the company of is affected
to some extent. If I was stupid enough to be driving while high, then
other motorists would have a legitimate interest. Anyone else? Not that
I can think of. You can make a tortuous argument that if there are long
term health effects then the community at large has an interest in that
it may have to foot the bill for taking care of me in my cannabis crazed
dotage. But the interest of the community in that context is simply
satisfied by imposing an obligation on the self abuser to provide resources
for his own treatment. (Here, in the middle of the capitalist phase,
that means we tax the stuff!)
Just think back, for a moment, to the abortion issue. In short, if
we were only talking about whether a woman should have her breasts reduced
or enlarged it wouldn't even be a controversial issue. No one would
think of intervening in that decision. The only person who has to live
with consequences of such a decision is the woman herself. She might
want or need the support of her partner but even that is merely "desirable"
rather than mandatory. The reason abortion is so controversial
is only because there is clearly a case for arguing that another defenceless
human is seriously affected by the decision.
But where's the defenceless party in the cannabis case? Where's the
Banning alcohol - or at least public drunkenness - might be justified
by the consensus view that violence and various other antisocial behaviour
is clearly linked to the abuse of alcohol. By contrast, cannabis
users tend to be more sociable than non users and far less likely to
perform any violent act. You'd have thought the governors would
have welcomed it with open arms as a "pacifier" of the masses. Mao's
phrase describing Western TV as "opium of the masses" is very apposite.
Whether or not you agree that TV fulfills that function in western society,
Cannabis would get very close to that effect for real! Or at
least it would if you believed the propaganda. We'd all be "dope fiends"
unable to string a coherent sentence together. I've got news for
you guys. It aint that good! (or bad depending on your point
Do you drink alcohol? Many of you will answer yes. Do you spend your
waking life drinking the stuff? Of course not. You've got lives to lead,
businesses to run, jobs to go to, people to impress, children to feed,
etc etc. So you take it when it's appropriate and rarely overdo it. You
did go a bit wild in your late teens and twenties but didn't we all?
Are there abusers and people who "suffer" as a result of their alcoholism?
Yes, thousands, but should we stop you drinking it reasonably
sensibly, as you do, just because there are a minority who can't cope
Cannabis is much the same, except it's much harder to "overdo" it.
Most users consume it sensibly and in moderation. There are a few -
far fewer as a percentage than with alcohol - who cannot deal with it
sensibly, or do not get enough of a "buzz" from it and go on to more
potent drugs which they are even less capable of dealing with. But these
are the tiny minority. Most are like me. I enjoy it generally in the
privacy of my own home, and smoke the equivalent of no more than one
joint a day. I can go without a toke for days or even weeks on end without
any significant cravings or other ill effects. I wouldn't dream of driving
under its influence, even though I retain greater control than under
the influence of alcohol. I wouldn't turn up for work either drunk or
high. Not only is this disrespectful to the colleagues I work with,
but it impairs my efficiency. And I'm unlikely to win contracts
if I have a reputation for being out of my skull on the job!
Like many a drinker, I take a glass of wine or three with my evening
meal. I might also take a toke or two after a hard day's programming
or training. And then, while pleasantly relaxed and intoxicated, (much
more pleasant than being drunk by the way) I may chill out and listen
to some music. Or I may do what I'm doing now, and create another chapter
of the book. Yup, thats right, I'm stoned right now! Yet even my worst
critics are unlikely to argue that I'm currently mentally impaired.
(Even if the punctuation does slip a bit from time to time!) And
as for being "criminal", all you can say about that is that it gives
criminality a bad name!
So again, why is it that, in the 20th century, almost every
nation state has concluded that some of these substances were so dangerous
that otherwise relatively free individuals could not be allowed to choose
for themselves whether or not to partake of them?
In the continuing absence of any clear or sensible answer, let us now
examine the case for the consumption of the currently illegal drugs
- of all kinds - from the Survival
Based Ethics (SBE) perspective.
The Pain Pleasure Matrix is simpler to analyse in this issue than with
some of the previous issues we have discussed. Drugs cause both pleasure
and pain. Pleasure when used wisely and Pain otherwise.
The degree of Pleasure they can cause is intense. With the advanced
mind altering drugs, the pleasure levels are probably greater than any
other pleasures so far known to mankind. This is, of course, why people
want them in the first place. It's amazing how seldom you will find
that Statement of the Bleedin' Obvious in any discussion of the issue!
The pains can be pretty intense too. For the abuser they can include
brain damage and terminal illnesses. For the rest of society they
include the costs of having to deal with the health problems of those
abusers who have fallen victim to their abuse; and the sometimes violent
and destructive behaviour which addicts can resort to in pursuit of
satiation of their addiction. It is worth pointing out, to the uninitiated,
that violent behaviour is much less often a product of illegal drug
taking than is the case with the consumption of alcohol. What violence
there is tends to be associated only with the more potent drugs, such
as crack-cocaine or heroin, and arises from the desperation of
the addict to get back to the intense pleasure which only the drug can
supply. In SBE terms, if we regard the Suicide as an example of the
extreme form of 'Escape From Pain', then the Violent Addict is similarly
an example of extreme 'Pursuit of Pleasure'.
Now, where lies the balance of Pain and Pleasure in this particular
The answer, it seems to me, is almost embarrassingly simple. The only
legitimate complaint the non drug user can make to the user, is that
there is a social cost to drug use (or, more correctly, abuse). This
applies in similar but greater form to the consumption of both the (currently)
legal drugs Alcohol and Tobacco. i.e. When the abuser is damaged, the
community is left to pick up the pieces. The community also loses whatever
useful contribution that individual had been making prior to their collapse.
Is this adequate reason for banning the activity? If so, then, obviously,
we have to ask why haven't we banned alcohol and tobacco with their
much greater social costs. But it goes much further than that. A number
of activities we indulge in frequently result in social costs.
As suggested at the beginning of this chapter, the single most lethal
and damaging activity we revel in is driving private cars! The deaths
caused each week by that activity alone outweigh the deaths caused by
the illegal drugs in 5 years!!
If we had known, at the beginning of the 20th century what became clear
by the middle of it, that 75,000 people would be killed every year (just
in the USA) by these vehicles, does anyone imagine that they would have
been allowed on the road?!!
And yet, can anyone, in their wildest dreams, imagine banning the use
of private cars now? It is virtually unthinkable. I can certainly imagine
circumstances in which it might become possible (Scenario 1 - Public
Transport has become so good that it is actually the preferred option
for the vast majority of the population. Scenario 2 - so much of our
activity is carried out on the Web that daily private travel becomes
near obsolete) But in such a case, banning simply wouldn't be necessary
because usage will have fallen to such an extent that the killing would
have become a much more acceptable rarity.
So why do we tolerate such a high level of social cost to motoring
activity? Because - despite having never measured it - the consensus
is pretty clear. Society as a whole, (not just the drivers) considers
that the benefits of private motoring outweigh the costs. The freedom
to travel individually in hours to destinations that your recent ancestors
would have considered several weeks journey represents a staggering
advance in our ability to communicate, trade and generally interact
with other members of our society. It has also made possible, for the
first time in human history, the option to live somewhere completely
different from the place you 'earn a living'. It started the trend
which personal computers and the web will complete - divorcing "work"
from the "workplace". The deep desire for genuine uncomplicated
freedom which seems to exist in all human beings is, in short, deep
enough for them to conclude that this freedom is worth paying for -
even with thousands of annual deaths.
On a much reduced scale we exercise that freedom in other, occasionally
costly ways. An athlete with a broken neck, a rock climber lost on the
hills, a transatlantic sailor overturned in his boat; all examples of
acceptable activities which bear a social cost.
The point here, surely, is that the real opposition to the use
of certain drugs obviously cannot be based on assessment of risk. There
are, of course, associated risks. But these are demonstrably considerably
less than many of the activities we currently tolerate. (as acknowledged,
for instance, by the Wootton Report or more recently, the IOM report,
As an aside, one of the things I would like to see published - might
even try it myself if I can find the statistics - is a "table of risk"
for all common activities. We already know, for instance, that more
people die from taking paracetamol than, for instance, Ecstasy. We know
that Alcohol kills vastly more than all the illegal drugs combined.
That between them, Tobacco and Alcohol kill more than a hundred times
as many as are killed by all illegal drugs. (And it should be pretty
obvious to all but the brain dead that there cannot possibly be 100
times as many people taking Tobacco & Alcohol and neither do they
consume the equivalent of 100 times as much...)
But did you know that more people die falling off ladders in their
own homes than falling off mountains? That more people die being struck
by lightning than are killed by taking ecstasy tablets? etc etc. It
would be a great public service if we could all turn to the 'Official
Table of Risk Statistics' where the activity you were interested in
could be shown in the context of all the other risks we take.
Be that as it may, as soon as you start to look at risk in this way,
i.e by comparison with other risks, it becomes obvious that the people
making laws are making their decisions on other criteria. They will
still feebly argue otherwise. For instance they will argue that, granted,
Alcohol kills vastly more than Ectasy and Tobacco vastly more than Cannabis,
but there are, nevertheless, bound to be casualties from the abuse of
these substances, why on earth should we add to the list of these legally
At this point, in the UK at least, they'll probably mention Leah Betts
- the last unfortunate teenager who is publicly understood to have died
as the direct result of an adverse reaction to the ecstasy pill she
was given as an 18th birthday present. In fact the inquest revealed
(and the tabloid press pointedly did not) that the actual cause of death
was the excess fluid she had imbibed. (mostly water) And it is clear
that she had overdone the fluids in part to counter the alleged dehydration
effects of the drug. In fact, she died as a result of ignorance. Had
she been given proper guidance on how to regulate her fluid intake whilst
taking E, she would have had a fabulous 18th birthday party and nobody
would know her from Eve.
What they don't seem to realise is that far from endorsing the case
against legalising drugs, she is a poignant example not of how dangerous
drugs are, but, on the contrary, how comparatively safe they are! The
whole point of remembering Leah Betts is that we can and do!! Leah died
in 1995. This is now 1998! Why has no other ecstasy victim taken her
place in our memories? Because there hasn't been one, despite an estimated
1-2 million regular weekly users having consumed an estimated 300 million
ecstasy tabs in that time!! If you still haven't got it in perspective,
you might be interested to learn that in the same period, over 3000
died from aspirin poisoning in the USA in 1996 alone (can't find
the UK statistics - yet!) Adjusting for the larger US population,
taking ecstasy, at least in the short term, is roughly 3000 times safer
than taking aspirin! (1999 - Since writing this comment on Leah Betts,
we've heard about the tragic deaths of another 4 ecstasy users in similar
circumstances. I think you'll agree that the argument still holds)
But then, of course, we come to the list of fatal victims of cannabis
poisoning or overdose. Here is the complete list of all known cases
of those unfortunate souls who died in the past 3 years.
And here is the list for the last 2,000 years.
I've left the gaps in case we ever discover that anyone has died from
cannabis poisoning or overdose, but as far we know, no-one ever has.
Doesn't that make you wonder just how we could possibly have let them
ban it in the first place??!!
Now, in contrast, how many names of dead alcoholics, or victims of
lung cancer, or car crash fatalities can you remember in the period
of, say, the last week or so? Come to that, have you ever heard
of one of the unfortunate victims who were killed by aspirin? Quite.
Unless you are in the terrible position of having lost a close relative
or friend to such a cause, (in which case you have my deepest sympathy)
it is extremely unlikely that you can name names here for precisely
the opposite reason (to our not being able to name cannabis victims)
viz: There have been thousands of deaths from any one of these other
causes, so many that you cannot possibly remember their names.
You don't even get to hear about the vast majority of them, because
that cause of death is so common, so routine that it is not even considered
newsworthy. Yet so few have died from ecstasy in the last 3 years
that we can all remember her name!
And just so I don't get accused of mindless advocacy of the drug, I
will point out that the jury is still out on the question of long term
damage. As ecstasy, unlike alcohol or cannabis, is a very new drug,
we cannot be sure - any more than we can with BSE ridden beef, or genetically
engineered tomatoes (about which, more below) - that it carries no serious
long term consequences. You might, therefore, as an ecstasy user, wish
to exercise caution, and perhaps limit yourselves to one or two sessions
a week, and perhaps a maximum of 2 or 3 tabs. Of course, the only way
to be absolutely sure of no long term damage from E, is to stop taking
it altogether. (As is the case with red meat or chicken) However, as
time goes on, and we acquire more data from long term users, the risk
clearly falls. To date, after about 12 years of sustained use, there
remains no firm evidence of serious long term complications.
So whichever way you cut it, both the potential and "realised"
risks from many illegal drugs are rather low. Even with the potent ones,
though the potential risk is clearly high, the "realised" risk has been
remarkably low. (Reflecting largely sensible use) All Drastically
lower than the impression given by the anti-drugs propagandists, but
not zero. Some of us will die, or suffer incurable or
chronic illnesses as a direct result of using the drugs we favour.
So why should we add to the list of 'legal' hazards?
For the simple and same reason that we allow those legally damaging
activities in the first place. Because we value freedom so highly that
we are prepared to die for it, or to allow others to die for it on our
behalf. Because we do not accept that any group or individual knows
better than we do ourselves what is good for us. This is the logical
consequence of allowing democracy. The fundamental
basis for democracy, which we've already discussed, is that no-one
can judge the effect of anything whatsoever on your pain pleasure matrix
as well as you can judge it yourself. This alone produces the
requirement to consult all affected citizens in order to determine the
consensus on any issue.
So, for example, if we discuss the issue of Rock Climbing, who should
be consulted? Should those who have a fear of heights - and thus have
no intention whatsoever of ever climbing anything more challenging than
a staircase - be allowed to outvote those who enjoy the thrill of clinging
to a vertical face above a 1000 feet of fresh air? Of course not, we
say. But why is it so obvious? When a climber falls, the cost of the
Search and Rescue teams, the hospitalisation, loss of wages, loss of
production etc etc are quite significant on a per capita basis. Not
perhaps as much a treatment for a terminally ill smoker but not far
off. Nevertheless, the gut response is that if someone is 'daft enough'
to go climb the rock, good luck to him or her.
So whats the difference if someone is 'daft enough' to smoke cannabis?
It cannot directly harm any other individual any more than the rock
climber can. (It may be that secondary, or "passive" cannabis
smoking is a potential hazard similar to passive tobacco smoking - though
there is, as yet, no evidence to that effect - in which case, we probably
should avoid smoking in the presence of those who don't indulge and/or
don't wish to be exposed to that hypothetical risk.) Its
overall social costs are actually, on a per capita basis, likely to
be somewhat less than the rock climber as the risks are much much lower.
It is a highly pleasurable activity and it is really only the individual
who needs to make the decision on whether or not to indulge in it. No
one has ever forced another individual to smoke cannabis any more than
individuals have been forced to climb rocks (leaving aside military
training and some bizarre boarding schools for the time being!)
Of course any activities which carry any risk should have that
risk properly analysed and then placed in the table of risks so that
people can make informed choices as to which risks they wish to take.
In the case of cannabis and ecstasy, however, they would clearly be
positioned somewhere near the bottom of any table of, say "the 1000
most common risks".
In any case, in considering the question of "adding" risks unnecessarily,
contrast the attitude on the question of, say, legalising cannabis,
with the recent introduction of genetically altered tomatoes and soy
products into our food chain. The risks of cannabis are well documented,
although research continues. The most obvious consumer test results
arise from the observation that it has been consumed continuously by
what now amounts to hundreds of millions of people fairly continuously
for not just the 40 or 50 years we've been demonizing it, but for literally
THOUSANDS of years! The first
recorded use of cannabis in 2727 bc doesn't quite predate
the first records of Alcohol (circa 6000 bc) but 4,700 years is a fairly
long clinical trial I think you'd agree! And in short, we already
know all we need to know about cannabis in order to make an informed
decision. Granted we may, with modern medicinal research techniques,
be able to discover that it is causing damage at a level not detectable
by epidemiological means, but it's still obvious that cannabis is no
more dangerous to overall human health than is, say, eating red meat
and, probably, somewhat less so. The absence of any disease pattern
in the populations where it has been regularly consumed satisfies the
Popper test perfectly!
By contrast, the genetic alteration (by which I mean, of course, direct
interference with dna, not mere "selective breeding") of our food has
taken place only in the last decade. It may be (and indeed I suspect
is) completely benign, even possibly beneficial. But we certainly
don't yet know that. And we have deliberately eliminated the
major method by which we could discover any substantial long term risk
- i.e. epidemiological surveys. Specifically, we have allowed the authorities
to distribute these products worldwide without labelling them or separating
them out from "normal" products. Thus not only does the consumer have
no way of knowing whether they are consuming these products, but nor
does the producer. So any effects will simply be lost to the general
background of all causes. We could thus be producing, say, a rash of
brain cancers in 50 years time which no-one will ever be able to pin
down to genetically altered tomatoes. (It could just as easily be a
very long delayed result of BSE for instance, or depletions in the ozone
layer, etc etc)
So, in this case, where it suits them, they have not only falsely and
prematurely denied risk (because it is, as yet unquantifiable), but
they have thrust that risk upon us all without consulting us, and indeed,
against some fairly vehement opposition.
And look at the ludicrous position Britain's new Labour government
got itself into on the question of T-Bone steaks!! Here, they were advised
that there is a small but finite unquantifiable risk that consumption
of beef 'on the bone' might lead to infection by the agent which appears
to cause 'new variant' CJD. A perfectly rational piece of scientific
But it wouldn't have been stretching the facts too far to declare a
very similar caution in regard to genetically altered vegetables (except
that as well as not knowing the level of risk we don't even know how
the potential harmful effects may manifest themselves - at least with
the beef problem we know what we're looking for!) By any reasonable
scientific analysis the risks of either are very very low, to
the extent that to all intents and purposes they are equal. Yet on the
one hand we are now forbidden to eat the beef, and on the other, forbidden
to find out even whether we are eating the vegetables!! Where
on earth is the intellectual consistency in all this?
The answer is, of course, that there is none. So how would SBE analyse
behaviour like this and what recommendations could we make in the current
Well to start with, there is no rational case to prevent behaviour
by any individual which does not cause direct harm to another.
"Harm" does not include simple disapproval.
If the behaviour causes indirect social costs which must be borne by
the wider community, then the most that it is reasonable for that community
to seek is restitution of such costs by those who incur them. In other
words, for instance, drivers should not only pay for the roads, but
for the hospitalisation of the injured, compensation of the relatives
of the dead, loss of production incurred by the employer, environmental
damage suffered by the planet, etc etc. And they/we probably do! We
pay massive taxes on fuel (particularly in Europe), we pay insurance
premiums, we get taxed on company car private use, etc etc. You might
argue that we don't pay enough. OK, if the figures justify it,
put up the taxation or premiums.
The point is that this is an entirely reasonable way to behave. Drivers
benefits incur social costs. We should prepared to meet the bill. If
the benefits are felt widely enough, then the rest of the community
will happily share the burden. (for instance, if your customers value
you enough, then they will pay the increased price you have to charge
them as a result of the increased cost of your motoring. Indeed, in
a sense they'll have no choice and no "defence". If they "demand" goods
and services that require motor vehicles as part of the delivery system,
then they should be paying the full price...)
And surely we need look no further than motoring for the model on how
to deal with all risky activity. And that's all drug use is, another
risky activity, whose benefits are perceived, rightly or wrongly, by
the users, to outweigh the potential costs.
This plain and simple formula can be applied across the board to all
risk taking behaviour. Tobacco smokers already do more than meet the
full costs of their care - at least in the UK - through the punitive
levels of taxation they pay. (In 1996 the estimated cost of health care
to smokers was around £600 million. In the same year, they paid
around £10 Billion in taxes on tobacco alone) By contrast
Alcohol consumers may not be paying anywhere near the full costs of
their activities, other than perhaps the direct health consequences.
In particular, as far as I can ascertain, no funds from the sale of
alcohol find their way into the repair or replacement of goods damaged
by alcohol related activities. Society pays the cost through increased
insurance premiums. So perhaps the price of drinking should go up. And
so on and so forth. If we can identify the costs, then it is reasonable
for society to ask those who incur them to cough up. The same can apply
to all risky activities, including the consumption of mood/mind altering
drugs. If there are significant social costs to be borne, then simply
tax the damn things!
It never ceases to amaze me how blind the governments are to the potential
'win win' opportunities now facing them. As of now, roughly 30% of all
anti crime expenditure goes on the so called "War On Drugs". This
would disappear. In its place would remain the social, mainly
health related, costs of caring for the small percentage of drug users
who damage themselves by overuse or abuse. These costs would be small
fraction of the 'anti crime' costs. But, in addition, the consumption
would be taxed. And a reasonable guesstimate is that it would produce
income on the same scale as the revenue generated by tobacco.
Not only that, but I suspect that Cannabis in particular, as the most
widely used currently illegal drug, would, to a significant extent,
supplant the consumption of both Tobacco and Alcohol. It is not
going to be everybody's cup of tea, of course, but many of us find it
much more effective and pleasurable, with much less painful after effects,
than either Tobacco or Alcohol. So I expect it to become the drug of
first choice for perhaps a majority of users. If that gets anywhere
near happening, this in turn will further reduce costs as Cannabis damage
appears to be much less than either of the other two drugs. My guess
(and I admit it is only a guess, but I'd be surprised if it overstates
the case rather than understates it) is that when you add up all the
figures, legalising cannabis alone will make the UK economy around £5
Billion better off each year. (at 1998 prices!) [Update Feb 2009. (Better
late than never) Just discovered this
2005 paper by Prof Jeffrey Miron making a detailed academic analysis
on precisely the point I am arguing here, but for the USA not the UK.
Pointedly he does not consider the wider peripheral effects so his conclusions
are conservative. Nevertheless he still concludes a saving of $7.7 billion
And when will the tobacco companies wake up and realise that this is
precisely the opportunity they have been waiting for? They dread the
banning of Tobacco. But if they were to be given the right to
market Cannabis, subject only to a total ban on advertising of either
Tobacco or Cannabis, then I suspect their fortunes would be more than
On a personal note, I do frequently write - and even program computers
- while under the influence of Cannabis. I defy anyone to spot philosophical
or logical inconsistencies in my arguments (which are due in any way
to the cannabis at any rate!), and my programs remain relatively bug
free! You may not, of course, agree with a word I am saying, but it
cannot be reasonably argued that THC (Tetra Hydro Cannabinol - the active
ingredient in Cannabis) has impaired my ability to communicate. Although
it does sometimes produce a tendency to repetition.
On a personal note, I do frequently write - and even program computers
- while under the influence of Cannabis. I defy anyone to spot philosophical
or logical inconsistencies in my arguments (which are due in any way
to the cannabis at any rate!), and my programs remain relatively bug
free! You may not, of course, agree with a word I am saying, but it
cannot be reasonably argued that THC has impaired my ability to
communicate. Although it does sometimes produce a tendency to repetition.
Not to mention that you sometimes lose the plot!
What was I saying?
The SBE analysis would, by definition, be a straightforward objective
look at the facts. When you do that, the case for criminalising drug
users melts away. The survival costs of criminalisation far outweigh
the costs of legalisation. No libertarian philosophy could possibly
argue anything else.
I remain concerned, however, that there are clearly large numbers of
people who have no intention of taking any form of drugs into their
bodies and appear to be really concerned about the idea that I might
want to abuse my body that way. I really don't want to hurt or
unnecessarily upset these people. But, try as I might, I can't put you
in any other category but the one I reserve for Jehova's Witnesses or
other Christian Fundamentalists. They too want to save my soul. My message
to you is the same as to them, it's not yours to save!
But in this context, the proselytising fundamentalist is generally
more liberal than the State. They, at least, will take 'No' for an answer.
The State, by contrast, is prepared to punish me for disagreeing with
it. And that, my friends, is all it boils down to in the end. What we
do, to ourselves, in taking illegal drugs has little or no direct effect
on the rest of society. But refusing to conform - now that is
a threat to be taken seriously! If we get away with it on this issue,
then we are setting a precedent for all those who don't want to conform
to some other 'social norm'. And that is what the fight is really all
about. A power struggle going on between about 30% of the race against
a ruling 5 or 10% who have the support of about 20% leaving about 40%
What is at risk here is indeed the collapse of society.
Or, more accurately, the collapse of society as we know it.
Not because we're all going be wandering around permanently stoned
and the wheels will grind to a halt while we admire the pretty patterns
in the clouds for hours on end.
But because this change in the law is being brought about by the mass
disobedience of the populace who are supposed to know their place! And
once we have smashed down this particular barrier, the next one won't
seem anything like so daunting.
Cannabis legalisation isn't, of course, the only - or even most significant
- force pushing in this direction. The Web itself is the most significant.
But it's all connected. The Web will, I'm sure, play a major part in
the inevitable victory for drug users. It is already connecting us and
allowing us to speak our mind more openly than we've ever been able
to before - as it is on so many other issues. It allows us to plan and
co-ordinate our activities. To date those activities have been pretty
limited. I write these words a week before the London March in favour
of legalisation organised by the respected 'Independent
On Sunday' I'm not expecting much. If we get 20,000
there I'll be pleasantly surprised. And no way will it cause a massive
about face on the part of the government. But it is a major step nevertheless.
It is the first seriously organised such effort in the Western World
since Holland threw caution to the wind in the 70s. And it has been
fascinating to watch the pressure building for change.
(I went! And between 11 and 16,000 turned up. (depending who
did the counting!) Not bad, particularly considering the complete absence
of publicity - at least outside London - and the fairly restrained lead
given by the Sunday Independent. I wrote to them this
letter which produced no response whatsoever - as one might
have expected. Though, given that its main point was to propose further
action, and no other proposals were published, (then or since) I can
only conclude that they may be getting cold feet.)
Rarely a day goes by without some item on the news or in the press
about how a clear majority favour legalisation or at least a major review
of the laws. Even Tory MPs are coming out of the closet and admitting
they too inhaled! The dam will surely burst and I would guess that it
will be within the next 5 to 10 years. The repressors will, I think,
make one final attempt at battening down the hatches before we literally
For now though, I'd like to conclude by saying that this is a classic
example of a battle for individual liberty and, crucially, demonstrates
how careful you must be to choose the correct parameters for any democratic
Should we who are not Moslem, for example, be permitted to prohibit
by democratic decision their pursuit of their religion?
"Of course not" is your kneejerk reaction. And so it should be. Unless
you can demonstrate that their religious activity directly and negatively
affects you, then you have no part to play in the decision. In
the same way, no non cannabis smoker has any legitimate part to play
in our decision to smoke cannabis until or unless they can demonstrate
direct negative effects on themselves.
It may or may not be the case that there is, within the community at
large, now a majority in favour of the legalisation of cannabis. That
is irrelevant. Even if only one person wanted to smoke the stuff, then,
knowing what we know about it, there is no earthly reason why the rest
of us should stop him or her. And that is the key to winning this
argument, and many others like it. The principle we are fighting for
here is not the right of an amorphous national democratic majority to
have its way. It is for the ordinary individual to be allowed to conduct
his or her own affairs without interference by anyone else unless or
until that individual's behaviour directly and negatively affects the
lives or welfare of any other individual.
Not exactly a revolutionary concept. It is no more and no less than
the declared aim of the American Constitution ("inalienable rights;
that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;").
I have, of course, already
argued that such "inalienable rights" don't exist until we fight
for them and force other people to accept them. Isn't it worrying
though, that over 200 years after that particular recognition of the
desirability of individual liberty, we are still having to fight for
Cannabis campaigners must, therefore, not make the mistake of fighting
this as though it is a global democratic issue and trying to win global
consensus. It is "democratic" but the constituency that matters
consists only of the users. We don't need to justify our consumption
to non users because our consumption does them no harm whatsoever.
The problem with seeking a global consensus is that, should you lose
the vote by 1, you've lost the argument. As would the Moslem community,
or Jehova's Witnesses or whatever, should we "globally" decide we don't
want them within our communities. What we are talking about is how society
can strike a balance between individual/small group liberty and conformity
with the democratic will. How and where do we draw the line between
Anarchism and Democracy? Thats what the next
chapter is all about.
First uploaded 1998
Last (minor) revision Feb 2007