There is something almost sinister about this nation’s obsession with alcohol. It has been our drug of choice for thousands of years, and to this day it remains so popular that the idea of someone who doesn’t drink alcohol is somewhat alien to us. Upon learning that someone chooses not to drink alcohol, our initial reaction is almost exclusively: “Why?” It’s very telling about ourselves as a society, that someone should have to justify their reason for not drinking. It almost implies that they are part of some weird sub culture, since they don’t take part in an aspect of our own cultural practices. We all know this, and many would happily acknowledge it when it’s pointed out to them, but we rarely think about the wider implied consequences of this culture of drinking. When discussing the decriminalisation of cannabis, many turn to alcohol and question why this is not only legal and acceptable, but heavily ingrained in our society, yet cannabis remains illegal and something of a cultural taboo.
This comparison between cannabis and alcohol has become a somewhat tired and worn out narrative, but it is important that we continue to address it, since its potential has not yet fully been realised. Very recently the pro decriminalisation camp for cannabis was rocked by an article written in the New York Times by a Paediatrician named Aaron E. Carrol entitled ‘Alcohol or Marijuana’ A Pediatrician Faces the Question?. In the article, he takes a very frank look at the culture of drinking in the USA, comparing the dangers of drinking with those associated with the use of cannabis, and the statistics are startling.
‘The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that alcohol use is a factor in 40 percent of all violent crimes in the United States, including 37 percent of rapes and 27 percent of aggravated assaults.’
And how many violent crimes involve cannabis? As far as anyone can tell, none. In fact the only trend between cannabis and crime is associated with its distribution. As Carrol puts it:
‘People who are high are not committing violence.’
And here we see a main focal point of the argument over the illegal status of cannabis. Alcohol is highly toxic to the individual, but it is also catastrophic to the wider community. Speaking about the overall impact of alcohol in the USA, Carrol continues:
“Every year more than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related accidents. About 600,000 are injured while under alcohol’s influence, almost 700,000 are assaulted, and almost 100,000 are sexually assaulted. About 400,000 have unprotected sex, and 100,000 are too drunk to know if they consented. The numbers for pot aren’t even in the same league.”
Our own nation’s statistics are just as startling. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in the year of 2013/2014, out of 1,327,000 total reported violent incidents, 704,000 were alcohol related. 53% of violent crime in this country is directly related to alcohol. But how many deaths are a result of alcohol? Well, we have figures for that too. In February of this year the ONS released data showing that in 2013 8,416 people suffered alcohol related deaths.
So now we ask the inevitable question, the one that by now every cannabis enthusiast proudly displays the answer to in every argument surrounding the issue. How many deaths are linked to the use of marijuana?
And the answer? None.
And here’s the thing, anyone can look this up. In this digital age we live in our current generation of young adults has greater access to information than any generation that has come before it. In seconds, anyone can read all of the data and statistics surrounding the effect of any drug, not just on the human body but on society at large. We are no longer reliant on the information provided by the policy setters at government, we can look up research studies and scientific journals for ourselves, and over time the fog of disinformation has been lifted, little by little. From all this, an adult can make an informed opinion, and from there choose what is best for them, right?
Well, no. Cannabis is still illegal. There is a very dangerous but popular misconception these days that cannabis has become “practically legal”. Let there be no misunderstanding here, despite grumblings among the police on the media, and the Police Commissioner of Durham speaking publically about his decision to cease policing small scale cannabis use and cultivation, cannabis is still very much illegal in this country.
But why is this? Here we all have unprecedented access to a wealth of information that shows the true nature of cannabis, and how small its potential for harm is in comparison to many legal drugs. What is stopping the science from becoming policy?
Well, a high profile case in the UK may hold some answers.
In 2009 the chairman for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor David Nutt, was sacked from his post following the publication of his research, known as the Lancet Report. The ACMD is an institution set up and designed specifically to advise government ministers on drug policy based on scientific research and the evidence that they came up with. So what did professor Nutt’s research contain? If you will forgive a brief oversimplification of it all, he essentially sought to correct the misconception surrounding what is meant by the “harm” caused by a drug. To quote the report itself:
“Members of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, including two invited specialists, met in a 1-day interactive workshop to score 20 drugs on 16 criteria: nine related to the harms that a drug produces in the individual and seven to the harms to others.”
Each drug was given an overall harm score out of 100, with 0 being no harm at all. The scores for harm to the self and harm to the community were combined to give an overall score, and then each drug was ranked. So where did cannabis rank?
In 8th place. This isn’t too surprising, but what was controversial was its harm score of just 20. To put this into context, tobacco holds 6th place with a score of 26.
But what about really dangerous drugs, like heroine? Heroine holds 2nd place, with a score of 55.
1st place goes to alcohol, with an overall harm score of 72.
Above is a graphical representation of their research, research that showed that the most harmful out of the 20 most common drugs in our society was alcohol, a legal drug. For suggesting that illegal drugs were significantly less harmful, not only to individuals, but to the community at large, Professor David Nutt was sacked by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. But this actually backfired and had the total reverse effect of what the government wanted. The sacking of Professor Nutt attracted a wide amount of media coverage, and his research ended up being widely recognised and praised for its frank look at the nature of harm done by various drugs.
This sparked a widely heated debate that still goes on to this day. Nutt clashed with politicians over the role science should play in the creation of policies, and many of these clashes made national headlines. He infamously fought with Jacqui Smith, when she was Home Secretary, over the classification of ecstasy. When arguing for ecstasy to be reclassified as class B rather than its current position as a class A drug, he compared 100 deaths a year from horse riding to 30 deaths from ecstasy. Speaking later to the Guardian Newspaper after the incident he said:
“This leads us to a position where people really don’t know what the evidence is,”
But he wasn’t alone in his despair over the treatment of his research. Richard Garside, the director of the Centre of Crimes and Justice, said that:
“I’m shocked and dismayed that the home secretary appears to believe that political calculation trumps honest and informed scientific opinion. The message is that when it comes to the Home Office’s relationship with the research community honest researchers should be seen but not heard.?
Garside then went on to write an open letter to the Home Secretary that expanded on his disappointment at their decision. Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne also condemned the Home Office’s decision to disregard the research. He went on record, saying:
“What is the point of having independent scientific advice if as soon as you get some advice that you don’t like, you sack the person who has given it to you?”
And now finally we can begin to decipher the true nature of the debate surrounding the decriminalisation of cannabis. In the recent documentary “The Culture High”, directed by Brett Harvey, they address this debate and present a question which highlights the problem. If scientific research doesn’t play a central role in policy formation, then what does? In this particular case, the answer was political manoeuvring. It is far more advantageous to be seen to be hard on drugs, and so that is exactly how politicians reacted to the research. This was the first high profile case of its kind, and it showed us all how opinion was a far more important factor in deciding on policy than scientific evidence is.
And now, here we are, six years later and with the weight of all of the studies, data and scientific journals we could possibly want behind us, and yet we haven’t moved an inch. The evidence on its own is not enough to make any real change to the law, we need to change the established opinion of those at the top. We have all the ammunition we could ever want, but without proper use disinformation and personal opinion will continue to dominate the law makers and policy setters. We have seen what the power of organised distribution of information can do, even in the US, the birthplace of the “war on drugs” opinion is rapidly shifting. It is up to us, not the scientists, to show how changing your opinion based on new evidence is not political weakness, but is, in fact, a sign of intellectual strength.
- ACMD homepage
- Centre for Crime and Justice
- Lancet Report
- ONS data for alcohol related deaths in 2013
- ONS data for violent crime linked with alcohol
- Aaron E. Carrol, ?Alcohol or Marijuana? A Pediatrician Faces the Question?, The New York Times (2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/upshot/alcohol-or-marijuana-a-pediatrician-faces-the-question.html?_r=1&abt=0002&abg=0
- James Cusick, ?Cannabis growers should not face prosecution, says police chief who has stopped targeting ‘small-scale’ producers?, The Independent (2015) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/cannabis-growers-should-not-face-prosecution-says-police-chief-who-has-stopped-targeting-smallscale-producers-10405887.html
- Mark Tran, ?Government drug adviser David Nutt sacked?, The Guardian (2009) http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/oct/30/drugs-adviser-david-nutt-sacked
- Ricardo Baca, ?Pediatrician: I would rather my kids choose marijuana instead of alcohol?, The Cannabist (2015) http://www.thecannabist.co/2015/03/23/pediatrician-marijuana-alcohol/31995/
- Richard Garside, ?Open Letter to the Home Secretary?, (2009) http://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/open-letter-home-secretary
- ?Cannabis row drugs adviser sacked?, BBC News (2009) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8334774.stm