The Politics of Prohibition
“Be wary then, best safety lies in fear”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i
In 1928, without debate or second thought, the government of the day made marijuana illegal. Now over 80 years later that ban remains in place, with scant chance of change. With the new government in the UK just six months old, now seems as good a time as any to examine the usefulness of prohibition to governments and politicians.
Following the news that we might have a hung parliament my response was, I suspect, much the same as everybody else: “Hung? Hanging’s too bloody good for ‘em”. The truth is that we now have a coalition consisting of a reactionary Tory party and the Liberal Democrats, the only mainstream political party to have advocated the legalisation of cannabis. All of this is fronted by Prime Minister David Cameron, a millionaire toff who was nearly expelled from Eton for skinning up behind the Bentley sheds.
Of the two parties, the Lib Dems are very much the junior partners in the coalition. This means that the question of cannabis legalisation will most certainly not be on the political agenda. It also remains a distinct possibility that the Liberals will distance themselves from the policy in order to appease their coalition partners. The evidence available so far would suggest that the Con Dem coalition will follow the New Labour example. And it is their track record in office that will allow us to understand the importance of prohibition
For many an optimist, New Labour’s decision to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug was seen as a stepping stone to a more enlightened policy on drugs. Marijuana was - as it remains - a hugely popular and relatively ‘safe’ recreational drug and the move by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett appeared to be an acknowledgement of its widespread usage. Whilst movement may have been slow, surely legalisation (or, at least, decriminalisation) would not be far behind.
Yet within five years the judgment was reversed - the only time that a Blunkett decision was ever considered too liberal. In and of itself the pronouncement was not overly surprising. Whilst much was made of New Labour’s decision to reclassify dope down from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004, it is worth remembering that far from being a progressive blow against prohibition, it was rather a grudging recognition that threatening millions of people with imprisonment for having a quick toke was simply not a viable proposition.
The question then became why re-classify? Some have pointed towards Gordon Brown’s own prejudice against drug usage – ironic given that during interviews Brown’s jaw would jut and gurn all over the place as though he had sprinkled MDMA over his morning cornflakes. Yet he did make much of his “moral compass” and his dour Presbyterianism certainly fitted the policy decision. However, is this really the whole story?
The official reason for the change was that powerful new strains of “Super Skunk” were readily available to young people across the country. The supposed potency of the dope was apparently behind all sorts of acts of anti-social behaviour and was a direct cause of schizophrenia. Brown even went so far as to talk of the dangers of “lethal cannabis”.
But the rhetoric was far removed from reality. Most obviously Brown’s statement was quite blatantly untrue. There are no recorded instances of marijuana being the cause of someone’s death. It begs the familiar question as to why dope is illegal when cigarettes, which kill over 100,000 people a year in the UK, are on sale in thousands of shops across the country?
As Weed World pointed out at the time, even if the strength of dope had increased, it still paled into insignificance compared with the hash on offer in the 1960s. And, hidden in the depths of the scare stories, it was usually revealed that people committing crimes had taken a cocktail of drink and drugs - only one component of which was cannabis. As any youth worker (or cop) will tell you, the gate-way drug for so called anti-social behaviour isn't weed - it's alcohol.
The questions that surrounded a possible link between marijuana and mental illness seemed to carry more weight, supported as they were by findings in The Lancet medical journal. Yet there are problems with the study. It is a summary of other work rather than a truly original piece and the base figures are low (for instance, a 100% increase sounds a huge amount, but if the starting point is one or two then the jump, in real terms, is minimal).
An additional problem is that it is, obviously, a single report. There are numerous other studies in the public domain arguing a contrary position. The levels of attention lavished on it were in no small part down to the Home Office, who believed that it offered empirical proof of the policy decisions they had already reached. The politicians devalued the study by holding it up as the definitive piece of work rather than a contribution to an ongoing debate.
Disregarding any counter arguments (and cherry picking the scientific evidence to validate their conclusions) officials maintained that once more making cannabis a Class B drug would help to keep strength down and pull the rug from underneath organised crime.
The decision to reclassify was remarkable not insofar as it represented a U-turn in policy but that it ran contrary to the advice of the government’s own scientific advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Comprising scientists, clinicians and a variety of other specialists in the field, the ACMD was charged with producing a report into cannabis in 2008. Of the 24 recommendations to come from the group, the government accepted 23. The only one that they rejected was the advice to retain the Class C status of cannabis.
In the ensuing furore Professor David Nutt, Chair of the ACMD, resigned with the words of the Home Secretary, Alan Johnston, ringing in his ears; “I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. Nutt retorted by criticizing New Labour for “distorting” and “devaluing” research evidence.
And so, there we have it. Drugs policy is determined by political expediency - not scientific evidence. For Gordon Brown and co, struggling in the opinion polls and vilified by the press, reclassifying cannabis allowed them to look tough on an issue that they believed would play well with the Daily Mail readers of Middle England.
Another striking example of the government’s refusal to let the facts get in the way of policy came amid the uproar surrounding mephadrone. The inexplicably popular tabloid newspaper The Sun broke a story that the legal high, designed to mimic the effects of cocaine, was the cause of two deaths. Caught in a shitstorm largely of their own making, and unwilling to wait for any hard evidence, Brown and Johnson introduced an emergency ban on mephadrone.
Their actions sent the ACMD into meltdown with resignations from members who cited the government’s insistence on treating serious scientific enquiry as an irrelevance, and the issue of drugs as a political football. Some time later, after tabloid judgment had been passed and legislation changed, the coroner’s verdict concluded that mephadrone played no role in the fatalities.
In each case the spectre of drugs is used by a government in order to strike a tough stance. The government find a convenient scapegoat – for crime, poverty or unemployment - rather than admit that their choices and policies lie at the heart of the problem.
Through history religious puritanism, money and even (on occasion!) scientific evidence have all played their part in determining which drugs are freely available and which are deemed illegal. It is also true that the government want to exert a degree of control over the people who elect them. Governments have long tried to tell us what we can ingest, imbibe and inhale, where we can go, who we can go there with, and what we can do to each other when we get there.
If the government was serious about taking distribution away from organized crime and regulating the THC levels of cannabis then the answer wouldn’t be to hard to find. If they legalized the drug and ran it as a nationalised industry (and, of course, let people grow their own) they would achieve all their objectives and make a few quid as well. Now there’s joined up thinking in times of a recession! Just think of it as the green shoots of recovery.
Instead the drug laws seem increasingly removed from scientific evidence, yet at the same time it is easy to overstate the influence of individual politicians’ morality when decisions are made. Overwhelmingly, retaining prohibition is a political tool. It allows the government to create a moral panic, to perform a political sleight of hand and distract people from its own incompetence. Politicians have given a new twist to the words of Shakespeare at the top of this article; “best safety” for the government is for people to live in fear of some great danger. Prohibition serves this end well.