Wednesday, 28 March 2007

"Skunk killed my beloved son" - or did it?

The UK's Daily Telegraph carries a haunting story of a mother who says she lost her son to cannabis. "Guy may have taken his own life, but it was cannabis that killed him," she says.

There are many things to be said about this, and one of the most important is that this when any sixteen-year-old boy takes his own life this is a tragedy. Let none of us miss that point. But many other things are also true, none of which are mentioned in this article -- and all of them are, I believe, relevant.

The first is that signs of adult psychosis do not generally emerge until late puberty. Normal teenagers, as Guy reportedly was, will often exhibit no signs of psychosis at all until those first symptoms emerge. I mention this simply to suggest that the link between Guy smoking cannabis and Guy exhibiting psychosis as reported is not made -- that is, the causal connection is not made. It's quite possible that it developed naturally, and only emerged with adolescence. It is simply not possible to say with confidence, solely on the facts reported, either that "it was cannabis that killed him," or even that it was cannabis that caused Guy's psychosis.

Now, included in this Telegraph article is the additional story that the UK's Independent newspaper is to resile from "its 10-year campaign to decriminalise cannabis" because of a link that is made.
[The Independent] cited new research published in the Lancet, showing that the drug is more dangerous than LSD and ecstasy, and confirmed that a link has been established between strong cannabis and psychosis.
So there is research that does show a link. Let's assume that it does, and the link is not backwards (ie., that people who smoke cannabis develop psychosis because of it, rather than that people who develop psychosis find that they enjoy using cannabis). Does that link mean that cannabis should be illegal? Is The Independent right to resile from its ten-year campaign?

Well, I say no, it's not. The first point to make is that LSD and Ecstacy (and cannabis) are less harmful than alcohol. As is cannabis. That is undoubtedly the reason that these two were chosen by the journalist as the comparison here.

The second point is that the deaths and harm attributed by researchers and newspaper headlines to drugs are occurring in a legal regime not in which drug use is legal, but one in which drugs are already illegal. We are already in the ideal world of which anti-drug campaigners wish for.

But what do we see in this 'ideal world'? We see that demonising drugs does more harm than good. Making drugs illegal has not kept drug dealers off the streets; it hasn't kept drugs out of the hands of youngsters; it hasn't ensured that dealers' profits have gone down while the quality of what dealers supply has gone up; it hasn't ensued that drug-related crime has gone down.

Instead -- in yet another instance of the Law of Unintended Consequences -- making drugs illegal has ensured exactly the opposite of what was supposedly intended. Just as with the prohibition of alcohol in the Twenties, drug prohibition has ensured that those who sell this stuff are people who are predisposed to criminality; that the quality control (or lack thereof) of their products is left in the hands of these criminals; that drug-related crime has gone up; and that (unlike products that are legal), sales to youngsters of illegal products can't be properly policed. And despite their illegality they do get into the hands of youngsters, who in their rebellious teenage stage are predisposed to look favourably at something as rebellious as a widely used illegal substance, and what they're using is of a quality of which no one can really be sure.

A third point to make here is what Milton Friedman called his Iron Law of Prohibition, which states that prohibition causes the prevalence of ever-more virulent drugs.
[Friedman] once told Bill Bennett, Bush Snr’s drugs tsar, “You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favour are a major source of the evils you deplore.”

Friedman proved, for example, that prohibition changes the way people use drugs, making many people use stronger, more dangerous variants than they would in a legal market. During alcohol prohibition, moonshine eclipsed beer; during drug prohibition, crack is eclipsing coke. He called his rule explaining this curious historical fact “the Iron Law of Prohibition”: the harder the police crack down on a substance, the more concentrated the substance will become.
Why? Read on here to find out whole, straightforward reasoning, but here's the short answer:
Prohibition encourages you produce and provide the stronger, more harmful [product]. If you are a drug dealer in Hackney, you can use the kilo of cocaine you own to sell to casual coke users who will snort it and come back a month later – or you can microwave it into crack, which is far more addictive, and you will have your customer coming back for more in a few hours. Prohibition encourages you to produce and provide the more harmful drug.
A further point to make is to those who say that all that's needed is just to get drugs off the streets and out of the schools, and what's needed to get drugs off the streets and out of the schools is just more vehement enforcement. To that I have one word: "Crap!"

There has been as violent and vigourous enforcement of the War on Drugs as it's possible to have, and what we usually see is not the harm caused by drugs themselves, but the harm caused by the War on Drugs itself. It's not a question of either more virulent or more vehement enforcement -- when governments have spent billions and billions of dollars on the War on Drugs, and they can't even keep drugs out of prisons, which are surely among the most policed places in the country, then they certainly can't keep them off the streets. And they don't.

Most of the harms associated with drugs are those caused by the War on Drugs itself. The harm caused to youngsters like Guy is part of that War. Supply by gangsters, and drugs in schools; ever-more virulent drugs; increased crime; criminalisation of users .... all of these harms exist now in this regime in which most recreational drugs are not legal, and these problems either only exist or are exacerbated by that very illegality.

And here's the last point to make. Consenting adults have the right to make their own choices for themselves, and we do. I do. As with alcohol use, so with drug use, youngsters need to be able to see both responsible drug use, and people saying no because they want to say no, not because their free will has been lobotomised.

Because in the end, that's the most important point. You can't ban free will -- and of course you can't stop people making choices --and if you try to, then you have to deal with the consequences of your Canute-like stupidity. Or, that is, you help to ensure that people like Guy have to. As Milton Friedman concluded, “Drugs are a tragedy for addicts, but criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike.”

LINKS: Skunk killed my beloved son - (UK) Daily Telegraph
UK Study: Demonising drugs does more harm than good - Not PC
Law of unintended consequences - EconLog
Milton Friedman's 'Iron Law of Prohibition': More prohibition, worse drugs: - Not PC
Another iron law of prohibition - Not PC
More drugs, less crimes - Not PC

RELATED: Victimless Crimes, Cartoon


  1. Nice post.....I hope Leighton reads it.

  2. Me, too, James because he's been sent it. :)

    But I bet he doesn't, because he's been ignoring all my (much shorter) messages, too!

  3. He still sticks to his line that while drugs are illegal children are less likely to be exposed to them which is nonsense...the incentive of high profits means drug dealers are out their actively pushing to expand their client base/market share at schools etc.

    Telling him he's supporting socialism by opposing legalization might rock him a bit....;-)

  4. I would like to add that all the focus is on the losers who do themselves in or commit crimes to finance their habit. They ignore the millions of smart successful well grounded people who use drugs.
    Nor do guys like Leighton have any grasp of the positive good that drugs like cannabis has esp. in stopping suicides and easing depression and stress. I don’t know the story of this young guy, but I would not be surprised if nihilism killed him rather than pot!
    what happens to many youth is that they are raised with no secure foundation upon which to secure self esteem and value for life.
    when they get old enough to question existance, they find themselves in a vacume.
    Such people seek refuge in drugs yet because it is illegal, they find themselves further alienated from their pious family and friends who condemn them for seeking happiness in illegal substances and deride them as "Dopes".
    This criticism drives them further towards anti social mind sets, crime, and suicide!
    The second point re drug related crime is also a direct result of prohibition which makes drugs so expensive.
    Someone who has no ethical foundation, no self esteem, no
    other enjoyment in life but his favorite high is a danger to the life and property of others, whom he blames for making him a hunted outcast. The drug criminal is a vigilante who revenges himself on the society that has alienated him.

    Thus when I read Sus's interview with Leighton I could see a kindred spirit in most of his replies (esp re tribalism and his evaluation of Rand).
    What seems to keep him from becoming a Libertarian is his contradictory faith that government intervention is a valid substitute for self responsibility regarding drugs.
    As a parent I don’t fear my children trying drugs. I fear the state making criminals of them and making them social outcasts because they might choose to get high for fun or to get through some depressing situations that happen to us all!
    Leighton is actually a hypocrite in that he runs a winery!
    That is he finds value in alcohol but will make criminals of even his own kids if they find value in cannabis!
    It is not the end of the world as long as you dont make them outcasts at home!


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