Why Marijuana Should Not Be Reclassified but Declassified


The perennial debate about the classification of drugs has again turned to the status of cannabis (marijuana). The UK’s Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 catergorised “controlled substances” into three groups in descending order of severity: A, B and C. Thus Class A contains heroin, cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy); anorectics and mild stimulants find themselves in Class B and Class C enjoys such members as cannabis and ketamine (a horse tranquiliser). The categories persist to this day, though with various bolted-on caveats. For instance, temazepam is in Class C, but upgraded to Class A if prepared for injection. Cannabis is currently Class C, having been demoted in the recent past (2004) from its lofty flight with the Bs. And so on. Needless to mention, Class A attracts the most severe legal penalties, whether for possession or supply. A rough guide to what a transgression of the law might result in is given below in summary form:

Offence Court Class A Class B Class C
Possession Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2500 fine 3 months / £500 fine
Crown 7 years / unlimited fine 5 years / unlimited fine 2 years / unlimited fine
Supply Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2000 fine
Crown Life / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine

Most recently, on the back of new evidence concerning the “harmful effects” of cannabis on its consumers, the UK government has proposed to move the drug back into Category B.

Evermore obviously the boundary between the government’s responsibility to protect the public as opposed to blatantly invigilate it is being erroded, and the persistent call to expend masses of energy in auditing the wisdom of shifting marijuana from one contrived legal category to another does nothing but produce hot guff at the tax-payer’s expense. Of course quite a pretty rant on the government’s approach to civil liberties as a whole might be launched from here, but I’ll spare that pleasure for another day.

Briefly, however, I do not see any legitimate reason the government or any authority could give to justify a prohibition on people from ingesting or inhaling anything. A private individual’s body and mind are not the property of the state, nor should they be.

On the 19th July 2007 Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, revealed to the public that she smoked cannabis at university herself. She was quick to repeat just how “wrong” it was. Presumably, she means that it was illegal (legality and morality do not necessarily – and frequently don’t – correlate). Her name ranks amongst several senior government officials who have admitted to using cannabis. Should we fear the correlation becoming any stronger? One would hate to add becoming an MP to the list of ceaselessly advertised ill-effects resulting from using weed.

What ought to irk the public is the “argument from harm”. The spread of available medical studies on the topic affords no conclusive support of the thesis that cannabis is harmful in all (or possibly even most) of the suggested respects. It is true that correlations between the onset of schizophrenia or depression and cannabis have been found in smokers from particular social or ethnic groups. For example, teenagers have been found to increase their risk of future depression or anxiety if they smoke marijuana. With respect to cancer, the results are inconclusive, with some studies affirming that anti-tumour defence is impaired by its use whilst others claim that no such link is observed. Certainly in a culture exercised by scrutinising the effects of illegal substances, however, we seemingly need frequent reminders that the three biggest legal drugs are certainly no less harmful. The trio of alcohol, nicotine and tobacco all enjoy notoriety for their ability to induce dependence. Nicotine is particularly pernicious since its effects spread to those immediately in the vicinity of the smoker (an effect recent prohibition on smoking in public places rightly seeks to irradicate). Where this happens in households with small children for example it is particularly harmful and unpolicable even if it came to be recognised as abuse by law. Alcohol-related deaths in the UK number some 10,000 annually, not including fatal car accidents whose victims were not under the influence. Psychological dependence on caffeine is probably all too familiar to you or someone you know. A March 2007 study in the journal Lancet has found that both tobacco and alcohol are more harmful as drugs than is cannabis. And the point that cannabis can be enjoyed without smoking it is also frequently neglected when the debate orbits in the public’s attention.

Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology John Morgan offers the following opinion of marijuana’s dangers and what implications this should have for its legality:

Of course, no drug is taken without a concomitant risk, be it psychotropic, pharmaceutical or otherwise. But the inconsistency lies in the fact that demonstrably far more dangerous drugs than cannabis are legally available. Consider, for instance, the millions of instances of alcohol-seeded violence society is asked to suffer. To my knowledge, there exists no established connection between marijuana and becoming violent. Indeed, it has a reputation for inducing quite the opposite effect (exceptions here prove the rule – a privilege alcohol doesn’t enjoy). The argument that it leads to paranoia is quickly debunked when you consider that all psychoactive drugs rely on their responsible use, including consideration of setting. Drinking heavily in the company of people you despise has smaller than normal chances of ending on a positive note either. Taking drugs responsibly is another consideration often thrown out with the bathwater by prohibition advocates. (This is evidenced in the language surrounding drugs: it’s always drug abuse, never merely use.) Responsible use entails consideration of the set and setting in which the drug is taken.

Meanwhile, the positive effects of cannabis use (not its abuse) seldom receive mention. Cannabis is a universally acknowledged social drug of no lower standing than alcohol, and which frequently is set in a context of social etiquette and communion with fellow users. It’s ability to generate creative output in individuals also receives little mention. Instead the theory that it is a “gateway drug” leading to the use of heavier substances has neither been convincingly demonstrated (not to speak of proof) nor has it been divorced in study from socio-economic factors such as poverty, education and other cultural influences. Certainly it is true that innumerable millions use the drug without moving onto heroin or cocaine or esctasy or LSD.

It should arouse the public’s suspicion that a legal drug of alcohol’s destructive potency is legal (and rightly so), but marijuana is not. Note too that the three legal drugs mentioned above are all taxable: alcohol, nicotine and caffeine all require, to varying degrees, specialised manufacturing. On the other hand a cannabis plant can be grown by almost anyone even in the UK’s climate. That is not taxable and is not legal either.

Legalising marijuana would have the following beneficial effects:

1) The production, sale and distribution of marijuana is a lucrative criminal activity. It could be undermined by legalisation since the provision of legal marijuana would be made more securely and reliably available commercially. Police resources would not be unnecessarily expended on processing petty distributors and anyone found in possession. How on earth policing of marijuana possession is supposed to be realistic anyway is beyond comprehension. According to the Office of National Statistics, a third of all young men use the drug:

Prevalence of drug misuse by 16 to 24 year olds in the previous year, 2004/05, England and Wales

Prevalence of drug misuse by 16 to 24 year olds in the previous year, 2004/05, England and Wales. (Click on the graph for the full article) Note, incidentally that the source article is called “Drug misuse”, which is already to suggest impropriety. How do we know young people aren’t just using, as opposed to abusing?

According to Home Office statistics for 2000, when cannabis was a Class B drug, police seizures in the UK numbered 91,000 – that’s 95% of the entire category. See here for data.

2) The production of marijuana, in becoming a legal business activity, would flourish to provide a market specialising in variety and quality, as well as providing tax revenue which could be used to help healthcare funding. The point is that legalising cannabis could be used to actually improve health, not diminish it. The tax revenue and savings on policing could be used to make improvements to quality of life.

3) Marijuana could be sold only to people over a particular age, if required.

4) The principle that repression leads eventually to indulgence would loosen its grip. That is to say, legal cannabis would lose its appeal at least partially for underaged consumers. This is a notable effect in Holland, where interest in drugs is lower than in the UK amongst school children.

In summary, the government have a bad case for keeping marijuana illegal: it is certainly less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol and less addictive than those or caffeine – all of which are legal. It costs a fortune to police. Instead it could be legalised and the savings and resulting tax revenues could be put into healthcare and education about drugs in general. Unlike alcohol, cannabis does not fuel droves of street thugs to commit violent crime. It’s legalisation could open the door to standardised, tested and regulated quality products, just as is the case for the legal drugs. It could create jobs, not put people in prison. Finally, the evident hypocrisy of government officials is laughable: their enjoyment of the drug is now “wrong” but without justification. There is no obvious inherent moral deficit in using cannabis itself. It’s effect on the mental state of the user should not be the subject of prohibition; the government ought to have no stake in our consciousnesses.