Monday, March 19, 2007

Keep cannabis illegal

Those who enthusiastically urge the decriminalisation of possessing and growing cannabis – in Australia primarily the Green Party – are engaging in an unethical advocacy. It is just far too risky.

The Independent argues that, in the UK, modern forms of cannabis are unambiguously linked to psychosis and to addiction. The evidence in Australia for increasing levels of addiction to high strength cannabis and of a link with psychosis is strong. As I have argued in the past, the causality of the link with psychosis is questionable but it certainly can trigger psychosis among those predisposed and it is particularly dangerous among teenagers (and here). On the basis of a sensible precautionary principle, cannabis use should not be legalised - if you foolishly do wish to use it at least wait until you reach age 25+.

As The Independent remarks, in the UK ‘More than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction - and almost half of those affected were under 18’. ‘Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at London's Institute of Psychiatry, estimates that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness if they had not used cannabis.’

A major study is about to appear in The Lancet supporting this analysis. The Independent’s article was an apology for its campaign over the past 10 years to legalise cannabis.


taust said...

What evidence is there that making the drug illegal reduces the usage of the drug?

conrad said...

HC, I think you've gone back to authoritarian mode. Before making cannabis illegal you need to consider at least (without even considering civil liberties)

a) whether it makes much difference to supply.
b) the cost of keeping it illegal (such as police, courts, jails, etc.) and the supply down.

It would be good if you could stick a number on these two and then subtract how much you think cannibas costs the community.

hc said...

Taust, I believe in the law of demand - that quantities purchased depend negatively on user costs (here prices inclusive of possible penalties, fines). Raising these user costs by keeping cannabis illegal will reduce demand.

Demand will also be increased if governments send out the erroneous signal that usage is safe enough to permit individuasl use and growiing personal supplies.

Conrad, You don't make murder or robbing banks legal because there are costs of prosecuting murders and robberies.

I don't have data on costs of legalising - that would be a considerable exercise - but look at dangerous recent damage trends in recent UK cannabis use.

Have I switched back into authoritarian model? No I would prefer use not to be socially sanctioned but do not favour drastic penalties involving jail sentences. Just hefty fines for first offences.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

hc - from memory the figures from holland don't bear out the increased psychosis etc.

Addicted? If studies showed some people were "addicted" to sex would you ban sex?

conrad said...

HC: Robbing a bank damages other people -- smoking pot damages yourself, not unlike smoking cigarettes. Sticking people in jail damages people and these costs should be included. I didn't say that the government should tell people it is all fine -- I think they should use a strategy of harm minimization, as have done quite successfully for cigarettes, AIDS, skin cancer, etc. The efficacy of such strategies needs to be compared vs. the current strategy which evidentally doesn't work well.

FXH: I think it is pretty well established that marijuana can bring on psychotic episodes -- most of the debates centre around whether they increase them.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

conrad I'm aware of the issues around psychosis and I certainly would suggest that anyone with a family history or personal history of psychosis stay away from cannabis as an individual. On a larger level or population level I'm not clear that if there was no access to cannabis that these individuals, as a group, wouldn't have as many episodes or find some other drug.

I tend towards some mixture of decriminalisation and reduced criminalisation.

Bill said...

Moved from the Ice/Herion discussion.
It is becoming clear that marijuana use can aggrivate existing mental problems, in a small percentage of people. But what of the vast majority of the popluation that can handle this substance. Should they be collectively punished with:
a) dealing with black market
b) inconsistent supply
c) inconsistent quality
d) Fines, jail and social stigma...
simply because a small fraction are unable to handle it?
While there may be many people presenting themselves with chronic cannabis smoking, the sheer numbers of every-day drinkers suggests to me there is a hidden problem with alcohol dependancy. There's even a worldwide program designed to dry out drunks - AA.
An alcohol analogy; A small fraction of people become violent and offensive when using alcohol. A larger percentage will develop long-term health problems due to their alcohol use (brain damage, liver desease). Remeber people, the recommended intake of alcohol on a weekly basis is 21 units for men, 14 units for women. Any more than than and you are technically a problem-drinker. (UK Govt) One bottle of red contains 7 units. So much for responsible drinking - I know dozens of 'two scotches and a bottle of red a night' types. Should the bulk of the population be banned from using this substance simply because a small fraction 'can't handle their grog'? Clearly not, it is a matter of personal choice. So why isn't other (at present) illicit substances treated in the same way.
In my view, any restrictions on mind-altering substances needs to be based on harm, not historical artifacts left behind by a racist policy. (Reefer Madness in 30's). Refer to the Science select Committee's harm chart for a rough guide.

I know marijuana users who switch to stronger hallucinogens when the supply of cannabis is unstable.
Its horses for courses really. Some like dissociative depressants (alcohol, ketamine), others like stimulants (meth, cocaine) others again like hallicinogens (cannabis, LSD,).

One serious argument for legalisation of every drug is to keep them out of the hands of youth. In my teenage years it was so much easier to procure cannabis than alcohol - alcohol is a controlled substance.

In addition the quality of cannabis in Australia, or at least Melbourne, is not like 'skunk-weed'. I know somebody who has procured over 1000g of marijuana over a 10-year period and 'high quality' cannabis is quite rare. And hashish - its as rare as a blue moon.

Oh and there is a method of inhaling THC without smoking it - Vaporisers have been availiable for years but have never become widespread.

Perry said...

If cannabis laws were based on facts, I would be long dead by now. After thirty years of smoking the evil weed, my only regret is that I didn't start using it earlier. I've never had any related illnesses or hangovers. Prohibition is all about protecting corporate profits rather than any concern for public safety, because it's been used for thousands of years without a single confirmed cannabis (only) related death ever being recorded.

Chidori Ashi Kun said...

I think it would be a disaster for Australia's youth if smoking pot was decriminalised.

derrida derider said...

Given the sheer volume of outright lies the authorities have told over the last 50 years on drugs, I want to see the replicable, objective studies before I worry about a link between cannabis and psychosis. I want to see some trustworthy estimates (ie not ones emanating from "the authorities") of how strong that link is - it's a very different issue if .0000001% of users experience psychosis than if 10% do.

The line about modern weed being much stronger than the stuff we smoked in our hippy youth comes from the US DEA, and has no empiric support - it's yet another flat lie.

And Harry, you discredit yourself by quoting figures such as "x number were treated for cannabis addiction". Cannabis is not physically addictive, and so-called "psychological adiction" is just a stigmatising way of saying some people like the drug. I bet you can't distinguish it from my fondness for my new car.

Not least of the problems with making drugs like this illegal is that encourages people with a vested interest to whip up scare campaigns. And the hypocrisy of such things when about 20k Australians a year are dying of alcohol-related disorders is stunning.

conrad said...

DD, I think its pretty well established that there is link between pot and psychosis -- its easy to find individuals that go off the deep end whenever they smoke. So there must be some effect, however small across the population.

The main problem with all of this psychosis stuff is that it is really a diversion to the main damage caused by pot -- which is lung cancer, emphasema, and all the other things that inhaling carcinogens causes.

This is one of the problems with running disinformation campaigns -- people simply don't believe anything the governement says, even when it is reasonable (e.g., inhaling carcinogens causes cancer).

Exactly the same problem can be seen with the ecstasy campaign. The governments line is ecstasy will cause you to die, which is ridicuolous given the proportion of people that die taking it. The real campaign they should be running is ecstasy causes brain damage, but now no-one is going to believe them.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

" I bet you can't distinguish it from my fondness for my new car.'

dd - is it a tax sucking South Australian 6 cylinder?

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I agree with dd (clearly an old pothead)that the "dope is stronger these days" argument doesn't hold water. For a start there is no measured baseline in any country to compare.

Ask any old hippy, like dd, if a block of hash or some Qld Topheads or hash oil from 1974 were weaker than the Red Hill Hydroponic around now and they will laugh at you. (if they have had a few tokes they'll just snigger and grin quietly to themselves)

There might be a kernel of factoid in the "stronger" argument in UK where they previously had only weak stalky locally grown stuff early on until the market kicked in and upped the quality.

The biggest fact against the "stronger" story is that when smoking dope people titrate the dose they want, it's one of the reasons it's smoked rather than injected or eaten.

If the dope is weak people suck more in, and smoke more, to get the "right" dose if stronger they suck and smoke less. (the same process tends to operate in low tar cigarettes smoking).

As I said before I'd advise anyone with a history themselves or a family history of psychosis not to smoke dope (and not to use speed).

But I'm inclined to the view (partly because we know that people with schizophrenia are twice as likely to smoke dope than others) that if dope was eliminated then most of these same people would find close substitute.

hc said...

Most of these comments I disagree with.

Note in my original post I did not claim scientific uncertainty about effects I said that risks were too high. Maybe cannabis is safe and doesn't cuse psychosis but it certainly activates latent problems and, contrary to DD's claims, is highly addictive on the basis of self-reporting. Many are turning up to clinics seeking treatment for long term dependencies on cannabis.

Conrad I think the best harm-minimisation strategy is to strongly encourage people - particularly those aged < 25 years - not to use.

Thanks for your remarks Bill. I think there are problems with protecting the rights to safe use of alcohol by addressing the problems of excessive usage. If it is difficult to preselect those who are likely to have dependency or psychosis problems it may be better not to use at all.

By the way DD it is totally wrong to argue that because there are significant problems with alcohol (and worse problemds with tobacco) that we should leave other health concerns unaddressed.

And of course fxh there are better ways of treating psychosis rthan using cannabis (or tobacco or alcohol).

Sam Ward said...

Cannabis was banned because Hemp paper production threatened to bankrupt William Randolph's Hearst's lumber mills.

Hearst's yellow journalism and racist propaganda that suggested hemp consumption encouraged "Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men's shadows and look at a white woman twice." eventually led to the tax act that led to a de facto ban that led to an actual ban that led to today's ridiculous war on drugs.

Good to see you continuing their good work, Harry. Bravo.

Sam Ward said...

By the way DD it is totally wrong to argue that because there are significant problems with alcohol (and worse problemds with tobacco) that we should leave other health concerns unaddressed.

Prohibition prohibition prohibition.

Why do continue to try pretend it never existed, Harry?

The experiment of alcohol prohibition proved once and for all that banning leads to much worse consequences than does harm minimisation.

You couldn't find a more stark and relevant comparison to any other possible policy decision.

It's a complete joke that people still think banning drugs is a good idea when the example of alcohol prohibition has been staring them in the face for 80 years.

hc said...

Sam, Its encouragement such as yours that keeps me motivated. I agree prohibition didn't work and agree that that has implications for managing illicit drugs. The costs of keeping cannabis illegal don't seem great to me and the benefits of restricting supply, keeping prices high and generally expressing social disapproval of use are considerable.

You don't actually discuss risk and information. Its mainly a civil liberty issue to you. This is an issue but there are other aspects to this discussion.

conrad said...

"I think the best harm-minimisation strategy is to strongly encourage people - particularly those aged < 25 years - not to use. "

I guess the logical choice you really want to think about then is what the trade-off between spending money on criminalizing something and spending money on harm minimization is. If the same amount of money spent on criminalization was instead spent on harm reduction programs, and it led to less harm overall, then surely that must be a better alternative (I'd be interested to know if anyone has got the numbers for this).

Sam Ward said...

It's not mainly a civil liberty issue to me. The main issue to me is that the war on drugs is ridiculously expensive and accomplishes nothing, without even considering the loss of liberty involved.

In fact it accomplishes less than nothing, as prohibition showed, the consequences of banning drugs is the formation of organised crime syndicates that negatively impact the entire population, not just drug users.

And all this to protect the stupid people from themselves.

I might be an asshole, but I don't really care if stupid people drink/smoke/OD themselves to death. But the war on drugs hurts everyone, even those who have never touched drugs or alcohol in their life.

Shawn said...

Let's stop and think about this for just a second:

* Marijuana is currently prohibited
* alledgedly gangs are growing "skunk" which is making teens go psychotic

So, it doesn't seem unreasonable to conclude that when you prohibit pot you create the right circumstances for teens to go psychotic. Pot IS prohibited. This IS what happens when you prohibit pot.

And your conclusion is: let's continue on this path.

Consider wine. If a winery created a new kind of super-strength wine and it was found to devastate their customers they would STOP making that wine or face lawsuits and risk losing their customer-base.

In a regulated market you don't have the problem of dangerous substances. In a regulated market you have responsible retailers who won't sell to minors. In a regulated market you buy a product and it has a label on it saying "If you have a history of mental illness DO NOT USE". In a regulated market "skunk" would NEVER exist!

Shawn said...

perhaps as an economist you'd be interested to hear what Milton Friedman has to say about prohibition:

hc said...

Shawn, The interview with Friedman (here) is very good. This guy is one of my heroes.

Note that Friedman recognises that there is one problem with his proposal - viz, use of drugs may increase. I think 'may' should be replaced by 'almost certainly will'.

In that case you will have a lot more people exposed to perhaps lower levels of damage. And in some cases to much higher damage with respect to drugs like cocaine.

On your specific point. I fiind it hard to believe that legalising cannabis will lead to lower THC content cannabis being produced.

Anonymous said...

What if legalizing hemp could help save our planet? (Cutting down rainforests for paper?? 1 acre of hemp equals 4.1 acres of trees.)

What if people were told that George Washington & Thomas Jefferson grew hemp?

What if Christians were told that the first Bibles were made from hemp paper?

What if school children were taught the in colonial America you could LEGALLY pay your taxes with hemp?

What ii everyone was actually educated in this matter, instead of being brainwashed by the media?

Anonymous said...

hey old fogies! hurry up and die off so people with opinions that really matter can start making some decisions! we are terribly sorry that this isn’t the world war 2 era anymore, and times change. I personally am sorry that people are dumb enough to use cocaine and other HARMFULL DRUGS. The fact of the matter is if you legalized marijuana you would get rid of the gateway drug. and in time I think kids would stop graduating to the drugs that actually pose a threat to our societies as a whole. get the idea out of your head that marijuana is harmful. its untrue and if you for one second believe that marijuana is more harmful that the average cigeratte ..then go home. just go home. the scientific facts were released in 2006 for a while, but the federal government made them take it back! ha what kind of crap is that....WE DIDNT SAY IT WAS OKAY TO RELEASE THE INFO SO TAKE IT BACK! oh okay big bad government we better do that so you don’t threaten us any further! so sorry for speaking the truth. but the truth sometimes hurts....doesn’t it??????
I read a few peoples blogs. And I would like to inform you if marijuana were legal there would be no low supply. So you can quit talking about the supply being low and people needing LSD and other drugs that should remain illegal. It just wouldn’t happen. So have fun doing all you can do to keep it illegal. Perhaps we the public will keep producing more and more better marijuana on our own and continue to skip uncle sam till the end of time? Tax it and make it legal or shut up. It’s a losing battle and you all know it. I don’t care if you don’t want to smoke it. That is great! More for me. But you might want to consider refraining for speaking about things that you have no actual first hand knowledge of. I personally would love to see every dollar spent on fighting marijuana spent fighting the real drugs that destroy families and dreams. COCAINE, METH, HEROIN other un-natural drugs that really really destroy people and make people forget who the hell they even are. The worst thing I have ever done on marijuana was forgot about something I was suppose to do and perhaps took a nap or maybe even took time to do something for myself vs. for someone else. Is that so wrong???????
Ok thanks and have a good day

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Anonymous said...

What an idiot you are, what makes it alright for people to go out and get plastered on alcohol, start fighthing and generally cause havok??

I'd much rather walk by a gang after they have had a few spliffs to themselves than a few bottles of vodka!

Anonymous said...

You guys really need to look into your facts. Cannabis/hemp has never killed anyone in its long history. Before WII cannabis/hemp was the major crop to date before even bibilical times. It was mandated that every farmer grow cannabis/hemp, you could even pay your taxes with hemp. If all fossil fuels and their derivative, as well as trees for papaer and construction were banned in order to save the planet, reverse the Greenhouse Effect and stop deforestation. The only known renewable natural resource that is capable of doing this would be cannabis/hemp. Which for over 5000 years it was. whats your thought? Plus cannabis is not addictive, and there are no known HIGHS from hemp.