CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Marijuana Decriminalisation: Dispelling The Myths

Jul 26, 1999

There are a number of important reasons why marijuana use should not be decriminalised or legalised.

Legalisation of marijuana will greatly increase the number of users. By removing the penalties for usage, and by (in theory) reducing the costs, demand will increase. This is a simple function of supply and demand: make something easier and cheaper to obtain, and you increase the number of people who will try it.

Ironically, one person advocating legalisation is also a world authority on market forces. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman said several years ago, “Legalizing drugs might increase the number of addicts, but it is not clear that it would. Forbidden fruit is attractive, particularly to the young.” But as James Q. Wilson wisely pointed out, “I suppose that we should expect no increase in Porsche sales if we cut the price by 95 percent, no increase in whiskey sales if we cut the price by a comparable amount – because young people only want fast cars and strong liquor when they are ‘forbidden’.”

Advocates of legalisation claim that such a move will reduce drug-associated crime. But will it? Not necessarily. Even if we assume that lower prices will cause addicts to steal fewer valuables, we know that this will be offset by the general crime increase associated with the increase in users. Any police officer will tell you that a person on drugs will be more likely to neglect a child, abuse a spouse or take a life. It’s not just that people do bad things to get drugs; drugs make them do bad things. Consider some statistics:

-A 1991 US federal survey found that a majority of those arrested in 24 cities for robbery, assault, burglary and homicide tested positive for drugs.

-In New York in 1987, 73 per cent of child abuse cases involved parental drug abuse.

-A 1994 study of 31,000 abused and neglected children in Cook County, Illinois found that more than 80 per cent of the cases involved drugs.

-A 1992 study of NSW inmates found that 67 per cent of prisoners had been on drugs while committing the crime they were imprisoned for.

Also, cheaper drugs do not necessarily mean less crime. When inexpensive crack cocaine flooded America in the early 1980s, the rate of addiction soared, as did crime rates. Indeed, police noted that wherever drugs were the cheapest, crime rates were the highest.  And when Britain gave out heroin to addicts in the 60s, a very large proportion remained involved in crime.

(Lest it be argued that it is mainly hard drugs that are associated with criminal activities, bear in mind that almost all people enter the world of hard drugs via the door of “soft” ones like marijuana. This is the overwhelming testimony of those working with drug addicts.)

Also, we know that keeping an activity illegal deters people from taking part in that activity. Remove the penalties or sanctions, and many more people will take up the activity.  We can learn from history here. After Europe imposed the opium trade on China in the mid-19th century, by 1900 there were an estimated 90 million opium addicts in the nation. When British physicians could write prescriptions for heroin in the 60s, the nation’s junkies increased thirty to forty-fold.

In Holland, where marijuana is openly sold in “coffee houses,” drug addiction has become a massive problem – so much so that Dutch authorities are now having a rethink. They are now clamping down on a problem which is getting out of control. Acknowledging that drug-related offences and links with organised crime are on the rise, the Dutch Government will drastically cut the amount of cannabis that can be sold in the coffee houses, and more jail cells will be built.

Critics will argue that prohibition has never worked. But the facts speak otherwise. During Prohibition in America, consumption of alcohol declined substantially, as did the cirrhosis death rate for men (cut by two-thirds between 1911 and 1929), and arrests for public drunkenness (dropped 50 per cent between 1919 and 1922). When Muslim societies removed restrictions on hashish in the 15th century, it is said that this resulted in “a large number of people from all walks of life [being] in a constant state of intoxication”.

Some people argue that since more and more people are now using drugs, why not concede that we have lost the war against drugs? Why not legalise this inevitable trend? But is the trend inevitable? Can it not be turned around, or at least checked? This is the case with cigarette use. Several decades ago around 60% of all adults and young people smoked cigarettes. But now, due to education, health warnings, and government restrictions, that figure is around 30 per cent. Social trends can be reversed.

Also, are we really losing the war? Five per cent of all Australians use marijuana on a weekly basis, compared to weekly alcohol users (66 per cent). That tells me two things: the illegality of marijuana use acts as a deterrent, and the war is far from lost.

But more importantly, this reasoning is seriously flawed. To say that we should legalise pot use because so many are violating the law is like saying since so many people are killing and raping, perhaps we should legalise these crimes as well. Such arguments from utility are facile. When America sought to racially integrate public schools in 1954, should it not have tried because so many people believed in school segregation? Morality, more than mere utilitarian considerations, should guide our legal system. Law should shape behaviour and compliance, not just reflect them.

Nor should we abandon moral principles simply because in an imperfect world not everyone lives up to such ideals. It would be great to pass a law that banished all murder or alcohol-related road deaths. This we cannot do. But we nonetheless pass laws that deter murder and drink driving by making them illegal. To argue that such laws be abolished because they are frequently violated is foolish in the extreme.

This raises the question of the normative effect of the law. Besides proscribing what we may and may not do, the law acts as an educator. By declaring certain things illegal, the law sends out a moral message that such activities are wrong and to be avoided. Correspondingly, to legalise a previously illegal activity sends the signal, especially to our young people, that such an activity is now morally acceptable. What society was once seen to disapprove of it is now seen to endorse.

Some claim that the money saved in stopping parts of the drug war can go to rehabilitation. There are two problems with this: one, most addicts in treatment programs are forced there by the criminal justice system. Second, the rate of permanent recovery is low. Better to spend dollars on keeping kids off drugs in the first place than in spending hundreds of dollars on treatment later on.

Also, consider the costs of legalisation to society: lost productivity, increased medical services for addicts and their families, more road accidents, poorer educational performance, increased policing, more babies who may pick up their mother’s addiction, etc. A recent study found that the annual cost of drugs to the Australian community is 14.3 billion dollars. Increase the number of drug users, as legalisation will do, and you increase this figure as well.

Finally, opening the door to legalised marijuana usage will simply act as the thin edge of the wedge. Demands will soon be made for cultivation of other drug crops in the home, and soon calls for the recreational use of various “hard” drugs will be heard as well. This in fact is the ultimate aim of the pro-legislation lobby, as is clearly set forth in their writings.

At bottom, the drug problem is not so much a legal problem as a moral and cultural problem. To throw up our hands and give up our children is a sign of moral irresponsibility. As retired NSW District Court judge Kenneth Gee QC has said, “Legalisation is really a counsel of despair, almost irreversible once embarked upon. It should not be tried. It will not work.”

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2 Responses to Marijuana Decriminalisation: Dispelling The Myths

  • I hope I don’t lose my life for stating this, but….in the U.S., where I live, marijuana is so easy and cheap to obtain (and yes, consequently, use is rampant) that there must be a large level of government compliance in importing it.
    Most of it comes in through the southern border, but few people are ever caught smuggling it into the country. When we do hear the occasional report of 2 million dollars worth of drugs being confiscated by U.S. government officials, we should ask ourselves what we really think they do with that kind of fast-moving merchandise…burn it? I suspect not. Keeping certain drugs illegal, particularly marijuana, also keeps the federal prisons full, providing many jobs for American citizens. Great, huh? Nobody really cares about the crime rate as long as crime is profitable for the general population. For example, my local newspaper has run several articles bemoaning the lack of inmates in the city juvenile detention center. There are not enough child criminals, ostensibly, to warrant increased funding and officials may lose their jobs. Oh no!
    Of course, there is not a word about how this might possibly reflect a decrease in juvenile crime, which should be applauded by the community. While drugs are certainly not harmless, drug enforcement policies in America are in need of serious reform. Where is the government accountability for the lack of border patrol? I would also like to emphasize that in America LEGAL prescription drug abuse is on the rise. The drug Xanax, a prescription tranquilizer, is very widely abused. I have seen more people lose everything over that drug than any illegal drug. Personally, you couldn’t pay me enough to take it. What is to be done in a society with values like this? It is beyond sad.
    Georgia Akin

  • Hey, you are right. I truly appreciate the post.

    Joe Williams

    http://www.marijuanaaddictiontreatment.com

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