The Flag of My Disposition

Flickr / Alexodus CC-BY

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”, section 6. 

Colorado legalised the sale of cannabis at New Years, joining the steadily growing club of countries, states, provinces and cities in which cannabis is legal or de facto legal. Washington State, the Netherlands and (sorta — kinda — not quite) Portugal are getting there. Uruguay just voted to make the sale and production of cannabis legal, though the act does not go into effect until April. Is the tide turning on marihuana prohibition?

If it is, I say: this is good news and smart, sensible policy.

I’ve been interested in drug policy for years, not because I had a personal interest in getting high (don’t get me wrong: I’ve smoked my share when I was younger, and probably your share as well), but because it was an area of social policy in which there was an obvious discrepancy between the rational policy and what was, by far, the dominant consensus around the world.

Those kinds of policy areas — climate policy, security council reform, and social and economic inequality are other, prominent examples — make me curious. What causes them?


It’s been fun watching the reaction to the legalisation in Colorado over the past few days. Not just because the conservative moralists have been apoplectic, but because it has become obvious that they quite simply do not have arguments to bring to the table.

An example. TV host Chris Hayes (I warmly endorse his book) was featured in Wonkblog’s delightfully nerdy series of “graph of the year”. He chose this one:

Source: Chris Hayes / Wonkblog / ACLU

The key to reading this research finding: white and black people use marihuana at roughly the same rate in the US. Anything that jumps out from this chart about that fact?

Now, there are people who get this fact of the bisected justice system and those who do not. There are people for whom cannabis policy needs to be made in the light of how harmful it actually is according to the best data and science we have. And there are those for whom such things do not matter. For whom cannabis and other drugs are fixed in the category of the moral evil.


Take a look, for instance, at the graph of how an article in The Lancet (for those of you not familiar with medical journals: the most well-renowned one out there) assesses the harmfulness of drugs on objective scales:

source: Wikimedia Commons

The further up and to the right on the chart, the more harmful the drug. Note the relative positions of alcohol, cannabis and MDMA (ecstacy) in this chart. And tobacco. Now notice how legal status is completely dissociated from position on this chart of the drug in question. Now, this chart is not the end of debates about drugs. I remain broadly sceptical of legalising GHB, MDMA and LSD without more thorough trials and studies. And steroids for sure.

But here’s the point: whatever you think about drugs and drug policy, whatever side you land on, you need to take that chart into your equation. You need to have the discussion rationally and on as objective grounds as possible. Charts like that one need to drive the discussion. Or this one:

Also from the Lancet.


But it doesn’t. Instead, more and more, I have become aware that the opposition to drug policy reform does not come from an understanding of the issues. Rather, as Andrew Sullivan points out in a great post today,

You’ll notice a few things about this inane discussion. There is close to zero informed understanding of marijuana, its physical and psychological effects. You don’t find discussions about how marijuana hurts the adult mind or how it’s as addictive and socially disruptive as alcohol (because those arguments disintegrate as soon as you try to substantiate them). There is a completely anecdotal premise that a drug used by the last three presidents – and countless truly creative and accomplished people – simply makes everyone “dumb.” (…) But my point is this: they haven’t even gotten past that basic stage of the debate because they haven’t spent more than a few seconds mulling it over.

(…) The other thing I notice is something I saw very early on when a whole bunch of pundits realized they had to say something to oppose gay marriage. These people simply don’t know a lot about the subject, do not regard it as serious enough to be better informed, and offer arguments that are so weak or irrelevant to the central question that they are setting themselves up for total failure in this debate.


The rest of the post is basically just a collection of pundits from around the interwebs hammering on David Brooks’ ridiculously bad column today.

One of the best responses to Brooks’ column, though, which Sullivan doesn’t post is this fantastic piece of satire in which quite simply every single reference to weed in the story has been rewritten to be about alcohol:

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.

In legalizing alcohol, citizens of all the states are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

(And I love the understated sarcasm of the ending: “Paul Krugman is off today.”)

And I suppose this is the point: legalising drugs is not deregulating it and making it available to everyone. At least, it doesn’t have to be. It all depends how you do it. The good kind of legalisation, contrary to belief, is a massive increase in the regulation on drugs. I want there to be much stronger limits on availability, the time of day you can by, age limits, licenses, prescriptions, etc. Today, in the US, teenagers have less trouble getting pot than any other drug, legal or illegal. The reason: because the people selling it are criminals. The rest of the world is not that different.


Photo: Flickr / prensa420 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sober aside: I do seriously miss getting high.

Marihuana is the start. But marihuana is a fairly social issue in most of the world. In the United States, the fight against marihuana is a major social ill.

But there are other drugs the treatment of which are major, major public health problems. The untold suffering of heroin addicts around the world, which I witness daily in the streets where I live, is completely unnecessary.

And I suppose this is the big point: for marihuana and for heroin we know what works. Harm reduction strategies like safe injection sites, drug checks, antagonist distribution, and for the love of God: at least needle exchange programs work. Decriminalisation and (for some drugs) legalisation works. Integrated treatment of health services, rehabilitation centers, social services and outreach programs work.

We know what works. A rational approach works. But we’re hindered from doing it by moral hangups, and the suffering and the social ills that comes out of failed prevention strategies spread through the most vulnerable members in society like precisely what it is: a sickness. In terms of prevention of human suffering, beginning to tackle the drug problem in a rational way is the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

I remain hopeful that the recent changes in policy around the world signal a broader shift in the opinions of the population. And I hope this will translate, soon, into changes in the lives of those afflicted by the insanity of our drug legislation.


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