The present debate is about the legal status of cannabis. The topic is not itself whether smoking cannabis is an especially good idea, or the kind of thing everyone should do, or harmful, or beneficial. None of these will decide the question of legalisation and prohibition, certainly not on their own.
I do not believe any harmful effects to the user that might plausibly be discovered would be a sufficient justification for bringing to bear the power of the state to criminalise the possession and use of cannabis. Nonetheless, for those who disagree or whose attitude to cannabis has otherwise been shaped by highly exaggerated warnings, I've explained my reasons for thinking that the mental health risks from taking cannabis are minimal. I don't propose to go into those any further here.
The first issue I'll deal with is the burden of proof - in the first place, it seems clear to me that any exertion of state penal power over the individual requires justification. Hitchens advocates instituting a much harsher punitive regime than the present one, which already imprisons, fines, and brands as criminal a large number of users. One might suggest that the status quo is privileged, that any departure requires positive justification, but that need not concern us since neither Hitchens nor I consider the current position acceptable.
The 'precautionary principle' - that where it seems possible that a course of action may cause harm, the course should not be adopted - is of little help here - or for that matter in general - since unless unfounded fears are allowed to prevent any change, the 'possible' harms must in fact be probable to a sufficient degree, and since there will be pros and cons on both sides, the question rapidly becomes - which is to be preferred? The harmful effects of the present regime, and of the much harsher regime Hitchens advocates, are clear - imprisonment is a major harm in itself to individuals and those close to them, and while relatively few may be prosecuted, many more take furtive and burdensome steps to avoid it - which accounts on large part for the relatively low rate of conviction. And those who do not share the conviction that cannabis is an innocent herb may not appreciate the resentment, and perception of victimisation that this involves.
I've previously mentioned the harmful effects of the lack of regulation which comes with less-than-completely effective prohibition. These would occur even if possession and use were to be entirely decriminalised. Criminal gangs and unscrupulous dealers will sell to any age group and freely adulterate a product which in any case cannot be checked for strength or specific constituents (for example, one might wish to ensure that one's cannabis contained a relatively high proportion of cannabidiol).
Hitchens says If it is right for the substance to be illegal (the core of the argument) then it is right for the law to punish its possession. We are not talking about freedom of speech or thought here.
But from this we may also conclude that if it is not right for it to be punished, it is not right for it to be illegal. Punishability and illegality in the present sense of the word are inseparable. One may decide that possession of the substance would best be eliminated, and from that conclude that it should be criminal, but that is a highly dubious move. A very obvious issue is whether legalisation would increase cannabis use from current levels. To Hitchens this may be somewhat irrelevant, since he seems intent on ramping up the penalties and the detection effort so as to eliminate cannabis use and traffic. I have no doubt that this could be done - but I repeat my question to PH - just how far would we need to go to achieve this?
For one thing, as well as punishment, criminalisation requires detection. Serious attempts to wipe out cannabis would surely require extreme intrusions into personal privacy, such as drug testing, sniffer dogs at every corner, stop-and-search, and destructive search of the homes of those merely suspected of possession. As well as being intolerable, this would of course be very expensive (as is foregoing the tax revenue which might be gained by legalising trade in cannabis). the problem is that for all Hitchens's talk of wider social effects, impacts on family, and so on, cannabis possession and use is objectively speaking a very private business. There need be no victim to report it, no very easily detectable effects in the public space. Cannabis use is unobtrusive, and detecting it is accordingly intrusive.
It is worth mentioning that the present system, under which scarce police and court resources are not directed toward cannabis users as a matter of priority, mitigates some of these harms to a degree, at the expense of a good deal of arbitrariness and discretion on the part of the authorities - and unequal treatment is very likely to penalise the poor and the marginalised, indistinguishable as they are on inspection from those utterly alienated members of the socially excluded underclass whom many rank and file police openly regard as 'scum'. Those minorities for whom driving a BMW tends - still - to provoke suspicion rather than deference among the police will of course tend to find that they are disproportionately harried. Such functional harassment may sound trivial to those who don't experience it, but the daily drip-drip of humiliation and obstruction is very far from trivial.
(There is one possibility which seems interesting and arises from taking to its conclusion the idea of cannabis use as a private matter. It would be possible that non-commercial cultivation for personal use be entirely legalised, while trading in cannabis remained illegal. Private individuals could, on this model, purchase properly labelled and regulated cannabis seed and cultivation equipment, content testing kits, perhaps even lockable growing units analogous - though the parallel is overblown - to gun cabinets. This could have some advantages in addressing the concerns of those with whom I disagree, and thus enabling a consensus position, and might even have other advantages. Or it might be utterly unsustainable. This is so speculative and underdeveloped a position that I'll leave it hanging for now, possibly revisiting it later.)
Leaving aside the unsatisfactory status quo, I repeat, there should be a presumption against prohibiting any conduct, which can be overturned only given a good reason to do so. Hitchens seems to have misunderstood my earlier statement of this principle, responding I don’t think, as Mr Wilkinson implies, that we are naturally lawful creatures. I start from a willing acknowledgement that there will have to be laws. The point is, which laws?
In deciding if there is a good reason to prohibit, we can't ignore the impact of prohibition. If we are to look at harmful outcomes, we must look at them in the round, including the consequences of trying to deal with them. We must also weigh harms against benefits.
One point which I think is not really answered by Hitchens is that of paternalism. As an opponent of nannying, interfering government action, one would suppose that he should be opposed to people being prohibited from doing thing which need affect only themselves. One rather thin response is I don’t mind being called ‘paternalist’, as I think drug-takers are largely infantilised by their pitiable habit, and need a parental hand. I read this as saying that while paternalism is not in general an adequate basis for punitive measures, in this case it is, because of the childlike nature of cannabis takers. I'll not dwell on the merits of that argument.
The other tack is to bring in actual children - or at least adolescents - and argue as follows: their own cannabis use is a source of very significant harm, they are not capable, or not to be trusted, to decide for themselves, and that their gaining access to cannabis can only be prevented by prohibiting all possession of cannabis. The prohibition of cannabis to consenting adults is thus presented as a side-effect of protecting children, or more plausibly, adolescents.
We are now in the realms of a social cost-benefit analysis, with potential harms to children factored in and suitably weighted. If this is the right way to look at the issue of social harm - and I think it has to be - Hitchens's position amounts to a claim that the risk to teenagers is sufficiently large and grave to outweigh ill-effects of prohibition, including foregone benefits.
The enjoyment of cannabis use must feature in any consideration of costs and benefits, as must the freedom to choose whether to make use of this natural substance (it could after all be grown and consumed entirely in private and without affecting anyone else at all). It's all very well for Hitchens to disapprove of cannabis use - but his attempt to pick and choose between pleasures is not convincing As I've suggested, enjoyment of cannabis is certainly not limited to, nor even mainly constituted by, mere empty pleasure or euphoria - though in any case, it's a rather Spartan approach to suggest that a bit of pleasure counts for nothing at all. We will need some reason to think that the benefits of cannabis are of no value at all.
In his first response, Hitchens stated:
I believe there are people who enjoy mistreating animals. For all I know they say it enhances their appreciation of art, food , music and sex, and stimulates creativity - though I haven’t a clue how one would measure any of these things anyway. I couldn’t care less. Their pleasure in this activity is of no interest or consequence in any discussion of what the law should say about cruelty to animals.
And no, I am not comparing cannabis smoking to cruelty to animals, merely demonstrating that the point is irrelevant.
But of course the entire point is to compare (not necessarily equate) cannabis smoking to cruelty to animals. The reason why the fictitious benefits of animal cruelty are not regarded as relevant is that cruelty to animals is so bad, or an evil of such a kind, that it either hugely outweighs or 'trumps' the benefits that in Hitchens's thought experiment might be derived from it. But of course, cruelty to animals - in animal testing, meat production, even fox hunting and other blood sports, is regarded by some (if they are honest about what is involved) as capable of being justified by benefits - not necessarily very major ones - to humans. Of course, one may very well disagree with that view - or maybe the idea here is that sadistic pleasure in particular is the evil which trumps any benefits. But in either case, exactly what the corresponding evil is in the case of cannabis remains to be seen. The position that taking cannabis is evil in itself and cannot be tolerated will be dealt with separately.
This seems as good a point as any to address two issues which arise from posts made by Hitchens which, while not addressed to me as part of this exchange, have been posted since it began.
I had agreed that this issue was outside the remit of this debate, since licensing cannabis as a medicine could be done independently of policy on non-medical use. However, Hitchens has made some comments in the post Denying Reality. The Red Herring of ‘Medical Cannabis’ and the Long Goodbye of Mr ‘F’ which threaten to unredden or de-herringify the issue:
No serious drug could be administered in the forms in which cannabis is taken by those who use it for pleasure. There are, on both sides of the Atlantic, drugs made from THC (but which do not provide a high) They are rarely prescribed because they simply aren't very effective. (Nabilone is the main one in Britain).
This is interesting: the synthetic version of THC (not made from THC) - which supposedly lacks the relatively benign side-effect of a THC high - is, apparently, ineffective, but the effective form of the drug could never be licensed. If that is the case, then the only way in which people can get the undoubted medical benefits of THC is by self-administering the substance, as is done with various other herbal remedies that are available without prescription.
In that case, the medical benefits of cannabis are no longer irrelevant to the legalisation debate, but provide a very important - overriding, one might think - positive benefit of legalisation.
I am though only going by Hitchens's remarks, which do not consider an alternative explanation for cannabis/THC not being licensed: the pharmaceutical industry can't patent it, and rightly see it as competing with other lucrative products, which might also explain why Hitchens has the impression that Nabilone has no 'high' (it does have advertised side-effects which seem remarkably similar to a high, as seen by medical science) - the absence of a high is the USP (unique selling point) of synthetic or semi-synthetic - patentable - chemicals. (I'm not quite sure of this point, since I understand there has at least been some attempt to patent THC. I've not had time to check this as yet.)
The point that someone from NORML once suggested that publicising medical properties of cannabis could work to improve the general image of the substance (which has after all been under sustained and unscrupulous attack for many decades) doesn't seem to me to be of much interest. Now if a trusted source of presumptively neutral information, such as a scientist involved in research on the subject were to make it clear that he was in the business of producing propaganda, that would be a different matter. An advocate acknowledging, in a rather naive way, the rhetorical aspects of the debate and the importance of image, not quite so important.
Hitchens has also provided a list of news stories (High and Violent) which purport to show a new - rather desperate - suggestion for a harmful effect of taking cannabis - that it has a more than negligible chance of triggering a violent attack.
He subsequently follows up with: The Conformist Bigots of the Cannabis Lobby:
I think it very funny that an unadorned recitation ('High and Violent', posted on Thursday afternoon) of a few factual stories from several newspapers over the last few years, the fruit (as clearly stated above) of a brief search, making no wider claims than that the image of cannabis as an invariably peaceful drug is questionable, should have aroused the excited storm of spittle from the drug lobby which we see here.
The brevity of the search is of course irrelevant - searching the internet is a fast business. But such a search is cherrypicking anecdotes from among cherrypicked anecdotes. A few such accounts give no indication of prevalence - but the fact that the stories are considered newsworthy gives some indication. Of course, a single or very small number of confirmed instances could prove that a violent reaction to cannabis is possible - but for that one story would do (in fact the form of most of the news stories is 'violent person - either insane or under the influence of alcohol or major drugs - subsequently found to have taken cannabis'. This is not exactly scientific, is it. And even if all of these examples were actually shown to be of cannabis-induced murder, the incidence would be vanishingly small compared to the death and destruction caused by cooking at home, for example. But like terrorism scares, scares about this kind of incident have a much firmer grip on the public mind and produce a hugely disproportionate response.
I wonder what other things one could find to have coincided with nastiness ten times in as many years? I wonder what the papers would be like if instances of those high on cannabis helping old ladies across the road were considered news? And I wonder if driving under the influence - which would of course remain illegal - should really be classified as 'violence'?
I don't think this line of argument merits further consideration.
Social cost-benefit calculation
Hitchens's strongest remaining consequence-based argument for comprehensive prohibition seems, as I suggest, to be harm to young people. I've already provided my reasons for regarding the mental health risks as highly exaggerated if accurate at all, and any risk there may be should certainly be discounted heavily since the legalisation case allows for criminal penalties for supplying such psychoactive substances to minors (I wonder whether caffeine, a powerful stimulant for all that it is largely non-euphoriant, should be subject to this kind of regulation).
I might add Allan Bloom's point in 'The Closing of the American Mind', to some extent backed up by Tim Lott in 'The Scent of Dried Roses', that those who have achieved exaltation through drugs in early life are left afterwards with an emptiness, a flatness, an absence of the superlative, which stays with them all their lives. I have a strong suspicion that the human body has only a limited capacity to deliver the sensation of joy, and that the use of drugs eventually exhausts it, with sad consequences for the individual...there are good rational and material justifications for restraining unwise and impulsive young people from consuming chemicals which might - unexpectedly and irreversibly - drain all the colour out of their later lives.
I don't consider this a clear enough case of harm to carry much weight. Even if it is broadly accurate in the sense that intense experiences may make subsequent ones seem less intense by comparison, thisapplies to anything, not just drugs. I don't accept the 'limited supply of joy' hypothesis at all.
But what of other harms that might be associated with cannabis use among teenagers? Habitual cannabis use during the school day, is certainly going to interfere with learning, for example. And there may be other harms from taking cannabis at a young age. How widespread heavy cannabis use under the age of, say, 16 actually is, I don't know, but as Hitchens would no doubt - plausibly - point out, it may be expected to affect the poorest and most disadvantaged in society much more than others. I think that we would expect playground cannabis-smoking to be a feature of more deprived areas rather than affluent and comfortable ones. Again, my approach to this is to ask why that should be.
I return to an issue which I've raised in a different connection - the idea of cannabis as a kind of viral infection, an exogenous influence, an uncaused cause. This is wrong. Even teenagers are not helpless in the face of the evil weed, and there are more basic determinants of heavy cannabis use - rebellion, despair, alienation, boredom, which need to be addressed directly and which cannabis use adds only to a relatively minor extent. When Marx spoke of the opium of the people, he was referring to the painkilling, not euphoriant, properties of opium. In any case, I still doubt the ability of any likely prohibition regime - and certainly the current regime - to do a better job of keeping cannabis away from the under-age than legalisation with strict penalties on supply to minors would do.
Hitchens claims that those advocating legalisation - or opposing increased and more consistently enforced penalties - are greasily selfish dope-smokers who believe that they are not vulnerable to reefer madness, yet are willing to put others at risk of it. (I know for a fact that some legalisation advocates don't take cannabis themselves, but no doubt most campaigners do use cannabis at least sometimes. If they didn't, a different personal attack could be mounted, accusing them of advocating something they are not 'willing' to take themselves.)
I've made my opinion of the reefer madness claim pretty clear already, so I think this argument fails basic factual checks. But since we are operating at this level of rhetoric, I would point out that - like most authoritarian views - the prohibitionist outlook is also 'selfish': the non-cannabis using prohibitionist (surely a majority of prohibitionists are not users) has little to fear - fit-ups and mistakes excluded - from punitive measures for cannabis possession, while being eager that others should face them. No doubt the prohibitionist considers that punitive measures are deserved by the 'giggling', irresponsible dope-smoker, but if so, some arguments need to be provided that cannabis use is wrong - to the extent of being punishable by law without regard to the consequences for the convicted person. I will deal with that issue in the following, final, post.
On the topic of hypocrisy and self-serving arguments, the issue of alcohol is worth revisiting. Ronald Reagan in one of his drug-war speeches exemplified this. Recognising that his generation had recourse to large doses of gin ('Martinis') as a socially acceptable 'crutch', he raised the putative complaint from the younger generation that cannabis was simply their equivalent. His answer - that he would prefer it if this generation didn't 'need' any 'crutch' at all. That's easy for him to say - before approximately 6.15pm, at least.
Leaving aside the characterisation of either gin or cannabis as a 'crutch', the hypocrisy argument is not purely a negative point-scoring exercise. For one thing, the social effect of such hypocrisy is corrosive, and means that the consent of a substantial proportion of the governed will be withheld, making the law against the almost indetectable crime of cannabis possession almost impossible to enforce. For another, it tends to suggest that those applying a double standard do not in fact believe their own arguments, but rely instead on prejudice, which of course tends to undermine their persuasiveness a touch.
The most important consequence of the double standard, though, is this: if cannabis is to be banned, then so is alcohol. But alcohol is not to be banned - as all involved in the debate clearly in fact agree. The inescapable conclusion is that cannabis is not to be banned either.
I've already, like Reagan, suggested that cannabis can supplant alcohol as a means of altering consciousness. Reagan's reply is 'do as I say, not as I do'. Hitchens does not take that approach:
Sometimes we may have to accept it as a compromise while we try to remove a poison from our culture, or at least greatly restrict it. But that is a defeat, and there is no need to acknowledge defeat with cannabis. It is nothing like so deep in our culture as cars, alcohol or tobacco.
For further clarification I'll consult an older post - though I recognise that Hitchens may not still hold precisely the same views, since he is, to his credit, willing and able to change his mind:
As I have many times said, I would willingly give up the small amount of alcohol which I drink, if I believed that by doing so I could help protect others, less able to exercise self-control, from its many wicked effects. I just don't happen to think that my sacrifice would achieve anything of the kind, and so prefer to proceed along the lines of restricted sales, tough licensing laws and the religious re-education of the people (as took place both in Protestant England and Roman Catholic Ireland in the 19th century) which would lead necessarily to greater temperance.
I have every reason to think that Hitchens means what he says here - but few others do. And even Hitchens is quick to conclude from this 'cultural embedding' that the only alternative is a system of regulation basically the same as the current one (or the very similar one which was in place before all-day licensing was introduced a few years ago), along with education.
Unlike cannabis, which is not legal and is not part of our culture, alcohol has been legal in this country for many centuries, many people use it in moderation, and it is perfectly possible to consume it without stupefying yourself.
I'm assume Hitchens has some specific point in mind here as to the precise significance of long-standing legality, but rather than provide my own elaboration of what that might be, I'll ask him to clarify, and simply add that of course that something is already legal or illegal cannot in itself provide a justification for its continuing to be.
It is of course also possible to smoke cannabis without stupefying yourself, as I pointed out in the opening post of the debate. The degree of intoxication experienced from consuming cannabis, just as much as from taking alcohol (and let's not pretend that the intoxicating effect of a single alcoholic drink is either non-existent nor a large part of the motivation for drinking the stuff) is controlled by dose, which is controlled by the person taking it. And most people who smoke cannabis do so in relatively small doses. Of course under legalisation and regulation, cannabis dosage could be controlled and sensible doses would be standardised. Smoking extra-strong joints might well come to be as frowned upon as drinking Special Brew or what's known in Glasgow as electric soup.
The effects of cannabis, I may as well point out, are not simply to stupefy, any more than they are to provide pure pleasure (opiates are perhaps the closest common drug to doing that). Cannabis has complex and often subtle effects. The individual effects and pharmacodynamics of the active constituents present in various proportions in cannabis and its smoke are not very well understood, but typically lower doses of cannabis tend to provide the experience if anything of being more sensitive to many things, not less so, and to stimulate rather than suppress thought.
Cultural embedding might include established traditions for sensible use - though the British have never been renowned for great temperance in the use of alcohol, perhaps tending to rely on the low alcohol content of ale to regulate use where our Mediterranean cousins have been used to wine, or perhaps requiring more in the way of intoxication to see them through the cold months. In any case, there is clearly a distinct lack of moderation in its use among a sizable proportion of the population. And Hitchens acknowledges that education and training is required in sensible use of alcohol. But even if such education takes effect, this provides a reason why prohibition may not be required. Cultural embedding is supposed to be a reason why prohibition is unworkable.
I don't think an appeal to socialisation and pub culture is necessarily going to make all the difference, either. Pub culture has been substantially damaged by banning smoking, especially in premises which for one reason or another are unable to provide surreal 'virtual saloons' complete with canopy, sofas and extremely wasteful mushroom heaters. It's further been transformed in many cases by an increased emphasis on food, and of course city-centre standing-room-only megapubs are an innovation.
I suppose the idea, stripped of the impressive resonance of the term 'cultural embedding', is a root just that if alcohol were to be banned tomorrow, there would quite possibly be riots and certainly a huge backlash. But this does not rule out a more gradual approach, such as Hitchens perceives the progressive marginalisation of tobacco to be - though he does not appear to suggest that tobacco will eventually be outlawed altogether. A phased approach could also be taken to legalisation: in general, problems of transition are surmountable given a little imagination and forethought.
As Hitchens says:
As for ‘following rather than leading public attitudes’, I do not know how old Mr Wilkinson is, but my conscious life has more or less spanned the period in which cigarette smoking has moved from being normal and accepted to pariah status - and the period during which drunken driving was severely discouraged by moral pressure and law (law being far more effective). In both cases, the authorities spent a great deal of time and money changing attitudes. Plenty of people refused to accept that it was wrong to drink and drive, for many years after it was obviously so. It was many years before Richard Doll’s first report and a general acceptance in society that smoking was likely to lead to serious health dangers. In both cases the government had to ‘lead’ public opinion, not follow it.
And this is consistent with the comments of mine to which it was a response: my point was that criminalisation has to follow rather than lead public attitudes - how those attitudes are shaped is another matter. the same does not apply to legalisation. the public do not have to be convinced that something is a great idea for restrictions on it to be lifted - of course they should probably not be under the true or false impression that the lifting of restriction will impose a significant cost or burden on them, and in the case of cannabis they need not.
But perhaps there is something about alcohol that makes it harder to convince people to give it up than nicotine? I don't think we have far to look for what that might be: a substantial mind-altering effect. It may well be that people have - and will always have - a desire or felt need to alter their state of consciousness in one way or another, and indeed to do so by the use of intoxicants. Perhaps this basic human motive could be satisfied by training in meditative and similar techniques - though I'd like to think that Hitchens would find this more creepy - certainly if it were a state-run programme - than recourse to intoxicants, which at least have some element of spontaneity and sociability.
I can't go into this issue in much more detail at this stage. In lieu of further elaboration (and in default of having actually researched it in any detail at this point) I'd offer this paper as some kind of reference point: Bowins, 'Psychological defense mechanisms: A new perspective'.
If this approach is correct - and without pretending that my unsubstantiated opinion is persuasive, I'd say it certainly seems plausible - then the debate takes on rather a different complexion - and we may find that all we have is a choice between different intoxicants. I've already suggested that cannabis and alcohol are in large part competitors for peoples' leisure time. To this we may add the other major street drugs - and of course prescribed pharmaceuticals, which might thus be revealed as being in competition with cannabis not only for the market in those effects standardly attributed to 'medical marijuana', but also the lucrative market in antidepressants and other psychoactive medications widely prescribed, in particular by GPs on the basis of a 15-minute consultation and a stockpile of subliminal logos which they see very deliberately emblazoned over the freebie notepads, pen and sundry items which they are equally deliberately showered with by the drug companies.
Which leads tolerably neatly to the last (I have probably missed some) of the general, broadly consequentialist, considerations Hitchens presents as militating against legalisation, and in favour of heavier penalisation, of cannabis: the Huxley gambit.
This is of course not the Aldous Huxley of the Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, but the Aldous Huxley of Brave New World:
a drugged society is likely to be a complacent society and a softly totalitarian one, as predicted in ‘Brave New World’. Huxley’s mindless, history-less, dissent-free, hideously calm dystopia...is also the logical consequence of permitting self-stupefaction as a general act.
This is pretty heavily hyperbolic: permitting 'self-stupefaction' does not have as a logical - nor even inevitable - consequence anything like 'Brave New World'. But there is a point here - doesn't recourse to recreational drugs such as alcohol, chocolate and cannabis tend to make people less dissatisfied, less angry, less likely to rise up in revolt? Probably.
We are more passive, less free, more subservient. more conformist and less critical than we used to be.
I'm not sure when this golden age of bold individualistic iconoclasm is supposed to have happened, but I 'm happy to agree that we could do with a lot less conformity and a good deal more criticality.
Certainly the image of the 70s Marxist, quoting Althusser while concentrating his (for it is a he) energies on bed-hopping and quaffing red wine has some resonance. But is there any reason to suppose that cannabis use is more distracting, more soothing and placatory than any other activity capable of filling the secondary role in the 'bread and circuses' schema?
Not really. It is not true that cannabis makes people generally lazy and feckless. This is certainly something that may happen while stoned - just as with several pints on a Sunday afternoon. There may be some confusion caused by the fact that the only very visible dope-smokers tend to be those who are, well, visibly doped. And of course the lazy and feckless may well fill their lazy and feckless hours with an activity like smoking weed, or drinking booze.
But those who don't smoke large quantities - and possibly, those who smoke strains with low cannabidiol content, such as the demon skunk - aren't sedated. And the effect of cannabis at moderate dosage is to make one more sensitive to many things. On this regard, the operation of cannabis is almost exactly opposite to that of alcohol, which is a central nervous system depressant and turns people into increasingly crass, insensitive idiots. The 'paranoia' that sometimes affects some people on cannabis is a matter of over-sensitivity to others, of excessive self-consciousness, shyness, suspiciousness. This is a good thing. There has tended to be a general shortage of suspiciousness, of politicians, of business interests, of the permanent state, and of just about every other powerful interest.
The mass media, the ridiculous barrage of quietist propaganda churned out by the likes of David Aaronovitch, are the real source of a mindless, history-less, dissent-free society - but rather than a hideously calm dystopia, this is a mundane reality. Received opinion, the opinion of the privileged is that everything is going perfectly well thank you very much and only misfits think anything seriously corrupt or vicious is afoot. (This irrational insistence seems impervious to the constant stream of evidence that tells us otherwise.)
This is relevant in the context of my remarks two posts back, regarding the harms that can come from cannabis. There I mentioned that some transient effects of cannabis can be classified under the heading 'psychotic symptoms'. Note that checklists of psychotic symptoms tend to include such items as 'suspicion of others' and 'having ideas that others do not share'.
I am happy to own up to those two, with suitable qualifications, for which unfortunately there is no space on computerised diagnostic checklists.
If cannabis has a slight tendency to prompt original thought and to overcome complacent and misplaced trust, the influence of one of its opponents - big pharma - tends to work in the other direction, by way of drug prescriptions for low-level psychiatric diagnoses.
Psychiatry is important and useful. Alzheimer's disease, senile dementia, chronic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other major well-defined conditions, have devastating effects on many people and on their families. But other psychiatric diagnoses are less clear-cut, and have a nasty tendency to border on social engineering. One need not speculate about the extent to which psychiatrists, or perhaps more germanely, GPs making psychiatric diagnoses and prescriptions, share the complacent attitude described above and treat dissenting opinion accordingly. That is not the point: the very logic of individual psychiatric treatment is that society at large is a given, and the individual's well-being is a matter of adapting - conforming - adequately comfortably to that Leviathan.
An eminently sane unhappiness and alienation from society can easily become a 'symptom' (that is to say in this context, one of a group of items on a scored checklist) of some invented 'dysphoria' or other. When failure to fit in to society, a felt malaise, an unwelcome inability to adjust to social conditions, rather than any more objectively ascertainable criterion of mental illness is used, the aim of making people 'well-adjusted' rapidly converges with that of creating docile and compliant citizens.
But isn't this 'whataboutery'? Why point the finger at the quietist media and the potential problems of too-easy diagnoses of neurosis? Because I think not only that any influence of cannabis pales into insignificance by comparison with them, and with alcohol and vacuous entertainment on the telly, but also that if anything, cannabis tends to cut against these influences, by stimulating unconventional thought, indeed any thought, and - if my line of argument thus far is sound - by displacing antidepressants and so on as a source of consciousness-alteration.
(By the way, surely the career-minded networkers of New Labour are very much of the literal 'don't inhale' persuasion, while only a proper Charlie would suggest that the Cameroons tend to be partial to the weed?)
I don't necessarily claim that the effects I rather tentatively suggest are very strong. Even if those who use cannabis tend if anything, to be more likely to adopt positions that are in opposition to authority, this association, if real, may of course be an artefact of the current prohibition regime - unconventionality might explain a willingness to take illegal substances, or rebelliousness night be stoked by finding one's choice of drugs criminalised. I would certainly, in any case, maintain that cannabis is not the Soma Hitchens thinks it is.
And in the end, all this has little relevance to the legalisation debate. The idea of social engineering to ensure freedom has an oxymoronic quality about it. Increasing liberty does not mean forcing people to act in a way which will maximise their future tendency to exercise liberty in a certain way. Freedom includes the freedom to do nothing, and to do things which some might consider make one less free. Overriding freedom of action for the sake of a claimed greater future freedom may perhaps be justified - depending on how absolutist one wants to be about simple freedom of action - but it had better be well-justified. Hitchens does not provide a suitably strong justification. In other words, if cannabis use means 'soft totalitarianism', still better that than the alternative - the hard totalitarianism of unrelenting prohibition.
There is another way in which the banning of drugs in general, and of the most prevalent of them, cannabis, is relevant to freedom, which relates to the points made some yards further up this post, concerning drug enforcement efforts inevitable intrusion into the private realm. The War on Drugs, like the rest of the unbroken lineage of phoney 'wars' that includes the earlier Cold War and the current favourite, the War on Terror, has performed two major functions - overseas, to provide cover for military 'interventions', and on the domestic front, to justify ever greater incursions into civil liberties. If one cares about liberty, one had better think very carefully about endorsing drug prohibition.
Having dealt at some length with policy matters, I'll defer discussion of more purely moral issues to a separate post, to follow shortly.