Politicians will just have to bite on the bullet--dope will be decriminalised
When Olympic officials decided last week to give errant snowboarder Ross Rebagliati his gold medal back, the cheers drowned out the boos. It was a minor scandal involving a minor sport, but it spoke volumes about the world's shifting relationship with its favourite illicit drug.
A decade ago, Rebagliati would have been ostracised regardless of whether cannabis was on the list of his sport's banned substances.
What's changed today is that our attitudes towards illegal drugs are becoming more sophisticated and discriminating. After thirty years of research into the harmful effects of cannabis, there can be no hidden dangers left to discover. We know that it is plain nonsense to regard cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug, just as it is a myth to think the substance rots the brain or leads inexorably to harder substances.
And despite the anti-dope propaganda that circulates in the US, most people are thankfully well aware that no great social disaster has befallen the Netherlands, where cannabis has been sold openly in coffee shops for years. It would take a perverse mind to twist the data from Amsterdam into a argument for continued prohibition (see The Dutch experiment).
While no sensible person believes cannabis is totally safe, even police chiefs back moves to decriminalise the drug. Only the politicians still seem irrationally terrified by the idea of any relaxation in the law: they think they can continue in the old way, lumping all drugs together.
Before anyone decides what decriminalisation should mean in practice, however, we must take a hard look at every aspect of cannabis, from its long-term effects on the brain to the social effects of legal reform. If there is to be change, how far should we go? At one extreme, we could go Dutch, at the other, we might decide to do little more than rationalise the existing legal penalties and allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to people with serious illnesses.
And if reefers are to be doled out on the NHS, for example, what information should go on the side of the packet? Or should we wait until researchers have figured out how to put cannabis into aerosol devices?
Such complexities are why Britain's House of Lords was right to defy Home Secretary Jack Straw recently and launch its own inquiry--and why US drugs supremo Barry McCaffrey was right to commission the US National Academy of Sciences to report later this year on the harmful as well as the medicinal effects of cannabis.
Conversely, the pressing need for an open debate about cannabis is precisely why the WHO was so wrong to bow to political pressure and expunge from a recent report an informative if controversial comparison of the harms caused by different drugs including alcohol (see our news section).
Of course, ever since the splendidly named Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1894, independent panels have been politely saying that the evils of cannabis have been exaggerated--and politicians have been politely ignoring them. Change is looking more possible now because the forces pressing for legal reform come with unprecedented levels of popular support.
In Britain, Tony Blair and his Cabinet can always discard the opinions of the House of Lords, but they are fools to ignore opinion polls in tabloid newspapers which suggest a majority of the nation is now in favour of legal change.
And the US government may have already met its Waterloo on the dope issue. In recent months, it has been locked in a bitter and futile dispute with the states of California and Arizona which have independently ruled that doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana with impunity. Even in America, threatening vulnerable patients and their doctors with legal action is no vote winner.
Something will have to give, and the best bet is that California and Arizona will triumph in the end. If they do, it will be the beginning of the end for outlawing marijuana because where the US government goes, the rest of the world will quietly follow.
None of this, of course, means cannabis is as safe as some of its advocates claim. But neither, as our special report shows (see A safe high?), are the opposing claims of the world's biggest funder of research into marijuana to be taken at face value.
Campaigners and pressure groups can be forgiven for trading propaganda, but we should expect world famous scientific organisations like the US National Institute on Drug Abuse to evaluate honestly the research that has been done.
From New Scientist, 21 February 1998