MarijuanaSometimes I wish members of parliament would smoke cannabis more often. It would be great if we could sit down and watch the news one day to hear the words, “well folks, we’ll rejoin the presentation of the Budget just as soon as the Chancellor stops his bout of uncontrollable giggling,” or, “we’ll resume Prime Minister’s questions just as soon as the MPs come back from their munchies break,” and even, “well, it seems as though the Leader of the Opposition has fallen asleep.”

Given some of the decisions emanating from Westminster you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe a few politicians in high places have indeed been smoking weed. Or might they make marginally better decisions if they were? I’m not sure. But this week we yet again see not only a top politician but the top politician in the country – Prime Minister Gordon Brown – all over the place as regards to drugs policy, and more specifically on what classification should be given to cannabis.

Gordon Brown is nothing if not a bumbling babbling blundering buffoon. How dare I insult our glorious leader, eh? Well, is it technically an insult if it’s true? Brownie wants cannabis upgraded to class B, after having been downgraded (by the same Labour government) to class C a few years ago. To this end he called on a panel of experts, at taxpayers’ expense, to research the matter and report back its findings with a view to deciding what should be done. The panel of experts have researched, studied their balls off, read scientific studies until they didn’t have any pupils left in their eyes, and it seems that they found no reason why cannabis should be upgraded to class B. But will Brownie listen to them? He’s not really giving us much hope that he will, and I’m sure his opponents will have a giggle fit if he doesn’t.

Brownie, ignoring bucket loads of scientific evidence and riding rough-shod over individual freedom, thinks cannabis should be reclassified so as to protect children. All manner of policy disaster has been justified by appeals to protect children, and in this case Brownie is skating on thin ice if he thinks that by reclassifying cannabis to class B he is protecting anyone. The evidence suggests that the contrary is true. Of course Brownie has his spin doctors working flat out trying to convince us all that since cannabis was reclassified as class C it has become more of a problem. Regrettably the facts are few and far between when it comes to trying to justify this claim. If Brownie can clear the fog in his mind perhaps he could clarify the matter for us. After all, Brownie’s own government figures contradict him: the British Crime Survey of 2006-2007 reported that fewer people have used cannabis since it was downgraded.

Of course there are a few stronger forms of the drug flying around the streets, and some of these strains have links (the exact nature of which are still unclear) to forms of psychosis. However, several mental health charities have suggested that by reclassifying cannabis as a class B drug makes it harder for people to get help, since it further criminalizes them and stops them coming forward in the first place. Reports also suggest that people tend to prefer to educate children about cannabis rather than threaten them with prison. Most importantly, reclassification of cannabis will do absolutely nothing to increase the probability of people giving it up. Perhaps Brownie could also tell us since when did young people decide whether or not to take a drug on the basis of whether or not it’s class C or class B? One charity reported that only 3% of people were influenced by the legal implications of cannabis use.

The classification system (rooted in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971) is about listing drugs in order of relative harm. Cannabis might be dangerous (as is alcohol, contact sports, driving, sex) but the point of drug classification is to show where it lies compared with other drugs, and the advisory panel on the matter have argued that cannabis is not in the same boat as drugs which are classified as A or B: heroin, crack, or ecstasy. So his choice is: back down and risk the wrath of the campaigners he has won over by claiming on several occasions he would upgrade it, or ignore the advice of his panel of experts and risk looking rather stupid, arrogant and egomaniacal. Of course if he decides to ignore the experts he needs to tell us why he wasted public money on research he was going to ignore anyway.

If Brownie wants to follow the science he will be forced to acknowledge that many claims about the danger of cannabis are wildly exaggerated, and the link between cannabis and schizophrenia is at best tenuous. Many people suffering from mental health disorders such as schizophrenia take cannabis which can aggravate the symptoms, but this is very much different from claiming it caused them in the first place. Too many commentators think that cannabis causes mental health without asking themselves how many people with deteriorating mental health are more likely to take up using the drug because it numbs pain and brings short-term relief for many symptoms of mental ill-health. It always strikes me how a statistical correlation between A and B leads some to conclude, a little too easily, that A causes B. It’s the old “correlation = causation” fallacy.

The last time we had a review of cannabis classification the government’s advisory council said: “The evidence suggests, at worst, that using cannabis increases the lifetime risk of developing schizophrenia by less than 1 per cent.” Put this together with research from Keele University which discovered that rising cannabis use over the past 30 years had not been accompanied by a rise in schizophrenia, and you don’t have much left of a scientific case for much of what Brownie wishes was true.

But, the scientific case is not the only thing to consider here. Even if cannabis caused more serious mental health problems than, say, socialism, it does not follow that it should be upgraded, or even banned at all.

The argument that sits festering in the minds of autocratic politicians and moralisers is this: drugs generally, and in this case cannabis, lead to an increased risk of mental health problems and therefore government should ban them and clamp down strongly on drug possession and use. It’s a popular political argument: if it’s bad for people then it should banned. But, there is a hidden assumption in the argument, which is: whatever leads to an increased risk of mental health problems should be banned by government, or, more generally, if something is bad for people then it should be banned. The correct response is to ask “why?” Why should government ban something that may lead to an increased likelihood of mental health problems? What justifies this notion? It’s classic “save you from yourself” mentality, a gross example of how government attempts to nationalise the lives of individuals. The fact of the matter is that it should be up to each individual what they do with their own body and life.

I alluded earlier to the famous “what about the kids!” argument, and it’s at this stage that it reappears. Kids will be adversely affected if cannabis or other drugs are legalised, won’t they? Well, not obviously. If any parents are reading then they should realise that their teenage son or daughter has probably already experimented with a substance that is either illegal generally or at least for under 18’s. Banning will not decrease use. It never has. All it does it make use more dangerous. Criminal gangs have a monopoly on illegal substances, and do you really think that your local friendly drug dealer gives a shit about the levels of rat poison in an ecstasy tablet? Legalising drugs helps to remove them from a deeper criminal underworld and allows legitimate companies and business selling the drugs to build up a good reputation for the quality of their product, thus making drugs far safer.

In any event, I always found the argument that adults should be banned from something because adolescents might get caught up in it to be a rather curious one that rarely leads to calls for the banning of alcohol, pornography, gambling or sex. I certainly agree that minors should be prohibited from purchasing drugs or alcohol. However, this does not mean banning the entire adult population from using these things. Alcohol laws allow adults to make choices about going out for a drink or purchasing alcohol. There is no reason why we can’t have a similar approach with regards the use of cannabis or other drugs.

Many people will undoubtedly have problems with my individualistic approach to this issue. One objection is that drug users put an extra strain on the National Health Service, and since we all pay for it we are all affected by someone else’s supposedly private and personal decision to take drugs. Doesn’t this justify the banning of cannabis? If it does then, to be consistent, we need to look even further than cannabis. We need to look at every single case of self-inflected injury and illness and at every single activity that causes, or increases the likelihood of some form of ailment: smoking, drinking alcohol, playing football, mountain climbing, eating hamburgers, having sex, sun bathing, sneezing in public, crossing the road, driving a car, owning a pet, watching television, or leaving your house in the morning, to name but a few of the many activities that increase the likelihood of certain unsavoury things happening: lung cancer, liver disease, heart attack, stroke, falling off a cliff, spreading TB, knocking down a pedestrian, getting obese.

The fact of the matter is that this is not really a good argument in favour of drug prohibition. What it actually provides is a strong argument against the existence of a National Health Service. If we are to have an NHS we need to bite the bullet and treat all people on it no matter how they have been injured or made sick. That’s simply the price we pay for it. But, a system of private care would be so much better. It would mean that each and every individual is responsible for their own choices and the consequences of those choices. Conditions and ailments caused by cannabis use are therefore of no issue to anyone but the user in question, since no one but him or her must pick up the tab for the treatment if he or she has no medical insurance. In fact, a private system of health care might be better at making people quit such activities, since insurance premiums for some people might be far higher or even difficult to get at all. A private system of health care would certainly remove a central plank in the position of control freaks who want to interfere in the lives of other people, and that is a prize worth striving for in the fight for continuing freedom, liberty and personal responsibility.

Since government is unlikely to adopt a libertarian philosophy any time soon, perhaps I could suggest a compromise. A better approach to drugs law would be to completely legalise drugs and thereby hand the market over to reputable and accountable companies. Government could then impose a tax on drugs and use the money raised to treat those who damage their health and to clamp down on those who sell drugs to minors. They could even use some of it for educational programmes. This would mean that only those who use drugs pay for any damage caused, while shifting more responsibility on to individuals to make their own decisions and choices. If government reckons that it can help to inform people about the relative dangers of each drug then it could continue to finance and publicise research, as it has been doing (although given the amount of privately funded research this should be questioned).

Such an approach is far from perfect from a libertarian perspective, but it’s a decent step in the right direction.