Cannabis and the Need for a Paradigm Shift21/05/2013 17:18
By Ed Bliss
Cannabis is illegal because it is stuck in an artificially created paradigm designed by many different prohibitionists with equally varied motivations for maintaining this status quo. So entrenched is the current paradigm in the public consciousness, and so powerful are the forces behind prohibition, that a piecemeal approach, no matter how validated by fact, is insufficient to combat it. In order to properly liberate cannabis, and those who wish to benefit from it, the existing paradigm must be systematically and holistically dismantled and replaced with the truth.
The current paradigm places cannabis alongside chemical drugs such as heroin and cocaine and charges it with being addictive, dangerous to health, demotivating, a menace to children and society, and a gateway to other drug habits. Faced with this fearful scenario the general public are conditioned to accept all restrictions against the plant without feeling the need to give it further thought. The challenge for the anti-prohibitionist is to not only counter generations of falsehoods perpetrated against cannabis, but to present all the facts to the public in a manner which they can acknowledge, accept and then question why they have been lied to. Most people will accept that a widely held belief can be false, but it will not change their behaviour; but if it can be demonstrated that an entire paradigm which they subscribed to is a lie, then they will be forced to reconsider where they place themselves within that structure. The aim is to force them to reject it because they know it to be false and to then embrace new legislation because they feel informed and empowered to do so.
This article hopes to provide a discussion point as to how the minority of us, the active anti-prohibitionists, can affect this shift in public consciousness.
The Perception of Cannabis
The central premise of the prohibitionist’s paradigm is that cannabis is a drug. Cannabis is a naturally occurring plant and whilst it might conform to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a drug: “a substance taken for its narcotic or stimulant effects” it is imperative that anti-prohibitionists attack the existing paradigm at its core and start to remove the idea that cannabis is in anyway the same as addictive, harmful, artificially processed chemicals such as cocaine and heroin. Whilst this author would like to see an end to the failed “War on Drugs” in its entirety, as cannabis liberationists we can no longer afford to allow the general public to consider cannabis in the same category as the aforementioned drugs. We need to promote cannabis as a plant and a herb with a myriad of uses, only one of them narcotic, and reduce the association of the word “drug” and all of its negative connotations. Cannabis is a plant that grows freely on our planet; the ultimate aim must be for the prohibitionists to be seen as out-of-step for wanting to deny it to the inhabitants of the same planet it grows upon; perhaps if the prohibitionists don’t like it they should go elsewhere!
The issue of “harm” is one that is used most frequently by prohibitionists to create the necessary fear response from the public in order to sustain the illegality of cannabis. An independent review of the relative harm of various substances conducted by Prof. David Nutt et al, published in the Lancet 2007, calculated the “mean score” for harm based on the combined propensity to induce dependency, cause physical harm and its effect on families, communities and society. The study showed that cannabis scored low (about 50% lower) compared to other illegal substances with which the paradigm tries to include it (such as Heroin and cocaine) and significantly lower than alcohol and tobacco. If the prohibitionist argument is that cannabis is harmful and should therefore be illegal, then this is easily debunked against the legal status of alcohol and tobacco. The prohibitionist may well counter that some harmful substances are legal due to quirks of historical timing but there is no reason to make more substances legal. This, however, is unscientific and fails to address a moral charge to be answered by anyone who believes that citizens should lose their liberty and freedom as a penalty associated with cannabis possession, sale or cultivation when it is demonstrably less harmful (the supposed reason for its illegality) than alcohol or tobacco consumption. Forcing people to answer this moral charge is vital to cracking the foundation of the current prohibitionist paradigm.
One of the problems faced by the prohibitionists is that a large demographic that it seeks to keep indoctrinated within its paradigm used cannabis in the 60’s and 70’s with no ill effects on their health, their families or their careers. This is why the fallacy has been created to suggest that cannabis today is stronger than it was thirty or forty years ago. It’s a clever ruse because it enables people to assuage their hypocrisy at opposing something they once enjoyed, without feeling guilty! The fact is that there was plenty of cannabis around that is as strong as today’s strains back in the 60’s and 70’s, especially the hashish. Stronger cannabis might be more prevalent today, but that is not the same argument, and it doesn’t take into account quantities consumed. Just as one might consume two pints of beer instead of 50ml of vodka, there is no evidence to suggest that someone who has access to cannabis with a higher concentration of cannabinoids will consume the same quantity or more as someone with a lower strength strain, regardless of the era they consume it in! Destroying this myth is crucial in removing the comfort factor that some people have when occupying the existing paradigm.
The Perception of Cannabis Users
Regrettably we live in a world where image is vital as far as public opinion is concerned. Consider the age and public profile of political leaders 30-plus years ago compared to today. The validity of what one has to say is less important now than how you look when you are saying it. As abhorrent as this fact might be, if we wish to be successful in destroying the current paradigm we need to accept it. For cannabis legalisation this means two things: we need to be seen to have leaders who have a good mainstream public image and, more positively, we need to be seen as inclusive to all ages, genders and ethnicities.
The prohibitionists would paint all cannabis users as wasters and slackers. Whilst this author seeks to judge no-one within our movement, there is a definite desire in some to fulfil this “stoner” stereotype as a fashion statement or lifestyle choice. I understand the appeal, but the fact of the matter is that this plays into the hands of the prohibitionist agenda. To weaken the existing paradigm we need to curry favour with the general public by showing the more accurate portrait of who makes up the cannabis using population – this, of course, is everyone from all walks of life.
The way we describe ourselves is crucial to how we are perceived by others. In the existing paradigm a negative association is perpetuated by calling cannabis users “stoners”, “potheads” and “druggies”, amongst others. Why should it be that someone who enjoys Cuban cigars should be a “connoisseur” or a collector of wine might be an “aficionado”? Perception is everything and the consensus will only start speaking differently about people who enjoy cannabis if we start doing it first. If a cannabis meeting is described as a “gathering of cannabis aficionado’s” rather than a “stoner rally” there is a much higher chance of this image seeping into the paradigm. We should do this with pride; whilst the medicinal properties of cannabis are truly profound, the current trend in some parts of America for all people to call all cannabis “medicine” is a little embarrassing and fools few people. In many instances cannabis is the best medicine, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of enjoying its smell, taste and high just as a connoisseur of whisky does with his or her chosen drug. The paradigm won’t shift if we’re too weak to proudly admit we enjoy cannabis for all of its many uses.
Of course we do not simply counter the stereotype of the unproductive stoner with the language we use. The consumption of too much alcohol in an evening results in a hangover the next day; this can prevent that person from working or contributing positively to society. Not so with cannabis. Admittedly if one is very excessive in their cannabis use there can be a slightly dazed sensation the next morning, but this pales into insignificance with the vomiting, headaches and loss of function that society has so readily accepted from the existing paradigm’s drug of choice. The Institute Of Alcohol Studies estimates the cost to the UK economy as a result of alcohol consumption and abuse to be £6.4 billion! On this basis, whilst cannabis liberationists need not be anti-alcohol, our opposition who wish to question our productivity without hypocrisy had better be tee-total. As far as the general public and paradigm shift is concerned, cannabis can be presented as a substance that, like alcohol, can be enjoyed in moderation but with much less severe after effects than alcohol, which is a more harmful drug.
Why Non-Cannabis Users Should Support Legalisation
This is the single most important facet of the struggle to break down the existing paradigm. The key strength of the extant prohibition scenario is that people who don’t use cannabis don’t care enough to want to change its legal status. If we fail to educate the wider public of the benefits of legalised cannabis to them we will never succeed. As the political landscape shifts ever further to the right, with even Labour and Liberal Democrats occupying the space once the preserve of the Conservatives, we underestimate the power of selfish politics at our peril. We can expect no empathy from the masses; we must show them what is in it for them.
As anti-prohibitionists we have no bigger weapon in the battle for mass support from people who do not use cannabis than our ability to generate tax revenue. Not to put too fine a point on it, if one does not support the taxation of cannabis then one supports prohibition. The fight for legalisation needs to be able to clearly estimate the amount of tax revenue legalised cannabis would produce and then present this to the general public in terms that they relate to – for example numbers of schools, hospitals, reduction of income tax etc. The majority of people do not smoke cigarettes, and come the budget non-smokers happily remark at the amount of tax added to a packet of cigarettes by the Chancellor, content in the knowledge that they haven’t had to raise that tax themselves. We need to demonstrate that we can provide them that contentment on another product, but we don’t take it back with the strain that cigarette smokers put on the NHS.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2012 there were 18.2 million families in the UK. The same source states that there were 2 million lone parents. That means there is somewhere in the region of 34 million parents that we can appeal to with common-sense and fact based policies. In the current prohibition-centric paradigm the sale of cannabis has been voluntarily placed in the hands of gangs, criminals and dealers. Of course not everybody who sells cannabis is a shady character with no morals, but the Government has given full control of cannabis regulation to the black market, so it’s impossible to assess who is selling what and to whom. This means there is no quality control, no guidance on strength and no age checks. Therefore naturally curious teenagers are able to buy unregulated products from people who may only have profit in mind. Under a legalised system control would be given to local authorities to license premises to sell controlled amounts of cannabis to adults only, with severe penalties for selling to people under 18. This would not increase the prevalence of cannabis in a community, it would regulate and control it and make it much harder for children to access.
Parallel to this issue of supply chain mechanisms is that of the “gateway drug”. There is nothing about cannabis as a substance that lends itself to encourage people to investigate or experiment with other substances or narcotics. Prohibition, however, forces the sale of cannabis on to the black market and into the hands of gangs and individuals who may also sell hard drugs. Naturally, these people may coerce someone who has bought cannabis from them to try their other products and thus prohibition has created a gateway to hard drugs. A new paradigm with legalised cannabis would remove the access to hard drugs completely as “drug dealers” would not be part of the paradigm, thus making communities safer and reduce crime.
Another benefit to those who are not interested in cannabis is that licensed premises locate cannabis use in a specific place and people are free to access this if they wish to, or avoid it if they do not. The current system is a free-for-all on a black market and cannabis sale and consumption takes place wherever it suits the black market to operate. The Dutch system, whilst not perfect, does mean that cannabis sale and use is localised and penalties for street dealing or consumption keeps it out of the way of people who do not wish to see it.
Currently, prohibition allows criminal gangs to finance themselves via the sale of cannabis. Anti-prohibitionists can create change within the current paradigm by convincing the general public, who do not care about cannabis, that by supporting prohibition they are directly supporting gangs who indulge in all manner of criminal activities that the average person would not wish to be associated with. A clear message needs to be sent to the public that a vote to legalise cannabis is a vote to cut off funding to criminals and to place this money in public coffers.
There is currently a very high level of dissatisfaction in the legal process. Every week people can be overheard in buses, pubs and offices lamenting the latest example of the drink-driver, thief and even rapist who escaped a custodial sentence. Whilst it is not the place of the anti-prohibitionist to comment on what the penalties should be for various crimes, what we should strongly point out is twofold. Firstly, cannabis consumption is victimless, unlike the aforementioned crimes; therefore whatever ones views on consuming cannabis we can agree that there is no victim. The only victims are caused by the current prohibition allowing gangs and criminals to control its supply. Secondly, if we allow the police, the courts and the prison service to stop worrying about cannabis as an offence they will be free to deal with the very real crimes (offenses with victims) that the public lament are not being addressed properly. As Sir Ian Blair said, when he was the Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (later he become the Commissioner, the highest ranking member of the Met) “during the 30 years of my police service, the policing of possession of small amounts of cannabis has become increasingly pointless…It was grossly inefficient for officers to spend hours processing individuals for the possession of cannabis”. Therefore we can make a strong argument to the general public that we can free police and court time and clear prison cells for the people who make their streets unsafe and break into their homes and cars rather than clogging the system with people who did nothing more than relax with cannabis in their own homes.
Finally, we need to demonstrate to the public the manifold health benefits that can be derived from cannabis and that there may be a time when they, as a result of injury or disease, may need cannabis in the way that millions of other people currently do to make their lives functional and pain free. If such a time arrives in their lives, they will be better placed to use this option if a legal structure already exists for the provision of cannabis rather than forcing them into the hands of a street dealer.
Exposing the Motivations of the Prohibitionists
No one likes being patronised or lied to, but this is what has happened to the general public by the prohibitionist agenda. We can significantly damage the existing paradigm if we can show the public the deceit that has been used to gain their support, and why this has been done. In doing so we must be mindful not to patronise them ourselves, or attempt to brow-beat them into submission, or we will find their preference is the comfort of the familiar paradigm and they will resist change. We need to inform the general public in a manner than allows them to draw their own conclusions. If we used truth and evidence based arguments they will hopefully conclude to reject the existing paradigm of prohibition. To do this we should start at the beginning.
Why is cannabis illegal? The chances are that very few people outside the cannabis movement have ever stopped to consider this. If we are to dismantle prohibition this surely lies at its foundation and we should attack this first. Cannabis was initially made illegal after lobbying from Egypt to have cannabis included in the Opium Act as they feared the threat of hemp fibre to their cotton industry. This is why cannabis was first made illegal and this is why millions of people have been jailed ever since. We need to make this common knowledge and attack the lies from their inception.
In America the origins of prohibition also lie in racism and protectionism. Harry Anslinger was Assistant Prohibition Commissioner in the Bureau of Prohibition when the failed prohibition of alcohol was ended. Fearing for his, and his departments, future Anslinger needed a new enemy for prohibition and found it in cannabis – a substance he demonised as a curse brought about by “Negros” and the burgeoning jazz scene. He made claims about the plant through “Reefer Madness” propaganda that were so absurd that they are now laughable. None-the-less they are the basis for which millions of people are jailed for cannabis, that trillions of dollars are still being spent on a failed drugs war and that America leans on other nations to maintain strict penalties for cannabis.
We need to show the public that they are lied to by a corrupt democracy which allows “donations” from various groups with a vested interest in maintaining prohibition to dictate government policy at the expense of the best interests of the people they serve. We need to demonstrate how and why the pharmaceutical industry, the alcohol and tobacco companies and many others fight to keep cannabis illegal to protect their profits. In America there is a private prison system which fights to keep prohibition, and America influences other nations to do their bidding.
In the UK it is still illegal to grow hemp without a hard to obtain Home Office license. Hemp is not a narcotic and has a myriad of beneficial uses. We need to ask the general public to question why this is the case. In answering the question they can only conclude the truth, that hemp is restricted to protect the business interests of loggers, cotton producers, the petro-chemical industry, energy companies and many more. Hopefully, once this revelation is made, it is not too far a leap for people to conclude that cannabis is restricted for equally selfish and damaging reasons. Perhaps the fight for unrestricted hemp is the unnoticed ace up the sleeve for the fight for full legalisation of cannabis? If we concentrate on the less exciting, but massively important, battle for hemp we will defeat many of the opponents of legalisation in a single battle. It’s a battle that will be much easier to win than the full war for cannabis legalisation, but will pave the way for this future ideal.
How to Achieve the Paradigm Shift
There are many reasons to legalise cannabis, more than have been described here – but these stated are amongst the most pertinent facts which can be used to attack the current prohibitionist paradigm. Our enemies are well funded, powerful, well organised and have succeeded in persuading the general public of their argument. How do we defeat this paradigm? By doing the same – but with the weight of truth on our side.
The cannabis community is very good at educating itself, but often fails to use this education in the most effective manner. We are good at “preaching to the choir”, but less effective at targeting our efforts in a manner most conducive to success – at the unconverted. Generations of marching and placard waiving, whilst worthwhile, have not been successful. Trying to occasionally convince lawmakers with science and fact have failed with successive governments because the lawmakers are puppets to the lobbyists and corporate sponsors. The only way we will succeed in obtaining total cannabis freedom is a structured, holistic attack on the existing paradigm and shifting it to a new one; and the only way we will do that is by converting public opinion using the kind of logic outlined previously in a message taken directly to them.
If we are serious about cannabis legalisation, and we should be because our fellow human beings are languishing in prison cells at this very moment for something that should not be a crime, then we need to get organised and get lots of cash. Fortunately we now have NORML UK which can and should serve as the premier organisation for the cannabis movement in the UK. Without organisation there is no chance of paradigm shift occurring as a piecemeal or disjointed effort will not be focused and powerful enough to succeed. We all need to get together behind one big push for legalisation.
So everyone should join and get active with NORML. That’s the easy bit. There’s no point deluding ourselves, if we are to achieve the necessary paradigm shift for cannabis within society we are going to need a lot of money. Most of this will probably come from personal donations and fundraisers, we’re all going to have to get generous and maybe go without the odd bag of weed and contribute to the cause instead; but NORML can also be instrumental in liaising with and, dare I say, courting high profile cannabis aficionados and supporters of change in drug law. These figures are vital to publicise campaigns and perhaps be motivated to make sizable contributions towards a clearly budgeted and focused campaign.
People, whether they are grass-roots or high profile, cannot be expected to constantly throw cash at a generic “lets legalise cannabis” ideal. The paradigm shift will occur with a series of very carefully targeted actions with stated aims which will require transparent costing and structured fundraising. This will allow people to clearly see where their money is going and what it aims to achieve. The first stage must be advertising.
Using the sort of logic and fact outlined earlier, a series of strategic adverts should be commissioned aimed at informing the general public of the issues at hand. These could be in the printed press, on public transport, billboards or local radio. National television would be ideal but perhaps prohibitively expensive. These adverts should be simple in their delivery of providing simple facts to educate the public. Cannabis was made illegal through deceit and is still illegal through lies; the only way we can force legal change is to start by changing public opinion to the extent that change is impossible to deny. In the modern world a concerted advertising campaign is the only way to bring these much needed truths to the public.
We also need to fund independent research into many of the claims we make about cannabis and to clearly rebut those made by prohibitionists. Research already exists, and we should make good use of it, but we should also commission good, science based and empirical research to bolster our claims in the face of bluster and propaganda from our opponents. We can then enter debates armed with good evidence to clearly make our case and to use in advertising our message. For example, one tactic that the prohibitionists love to use in public debates is to very unscientifically wheel out a mother who claims her child was made into an insane maniac by cannabis. Of course, if the legalisation lobby was to use such anecdotal, unsubstantiated and flawed evidence we would be pilloried, but within the existing paradigm the opposition will get away with it. With properly conducted research into these issues, and others, we can preempt and disprove this kind of propaganda before it has even been leveled at us.
The press are a fickle bunch, and although they attempt to change public opinion according to the needs of their financiers, they ultimately have to sell papers and will bend to the will of their readership. Through NORML we have to make as many newspaper editors like us. There is a game to played with the press and if a group or and individual is disliked by them then the press will sully them into the ground. A coordinated effort to be as welcoming, helpful and positive to the press should be seen as fundamental to any effort as they hold the power to shift the paradigm. Forgive them their sins, and encourage them in the right direction should be our mantra.
Through a single umbrella organisation, such as NORML, we should build bridges with other campaign groups to see if we have common ground and potentially swell our numbers for certain objectives. For example, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – Big Pharma fund cannabis prohibition and are our enemy, but they also vivisect on animals and we may find common ground with animal rights groups who would encourage their members to support a campaign to make a plant available that would stop people buying animal-tested drugs. Perhaps the environmental movement would rally its troops in a push for hemp to be a legal cash crop. We would be unwise to ignore any potential allies, and joining forces in this way we continue to strengthen our desired paradigm and weaken the current one.
Once we have undertaken successful advertising campaigns to garner public support, built positive relationships with the press, strengthened our numbers and allies and obtained high quality scientific data to support our claims, we can step up the pressure on Members of Parliament and perhaps fight for a referendum on the issue. At the moment cannabis is an easily avoided issue for MPs and it’s unlikely that it is worth pursuing the legal route until the previous steps of advertising and research are bearing fruit – essentially we have to make it an unavoidable issue for them before we approach them with a concerted effort for law reform. When we do approach them we need to preemptively disprove all the usual excuses that MPs use to discredit cannabis the second they get elected – the good news is that this shouldn’t be too difficult!
It’s very difficult to decide whether we should hold out for a total victory and the full legalisation of a herb which should never be illegal in the first place. The idealist would say “yes” and this is a valid position to hold. Equally valid is the pragmatist who sees benefit in securing footholds by obtaining smaller victories along the way; certainly getting cannabis rescheduled (again) from Class B to Class C would stop a lot of people going to court and prison and perhaps for this reason alone the pragmatist is correct. Removing the preposterous restrictions on growing industrial hemp would eliminate many of the prohibitionist financiers and perhaps generate an unlikely ally for our movement in the National Farmers Union. There is also the benefit of securing medical cannabis in the UK along the route to full legalisation. The idealist may well consider these worthy and useful but identify the problems of having to supply medical cannabis without a legal network and perhaps getting a few concessions along the way would weaken the eventual final push for full legalisation. There is no easy answer, and this author could never bring himself to vote against a rescheduling to Class C despite being an idealist. Perhaps this is a useful discussion for NORML to put to its members?
The cannabis community has been disjointed (pun intended), disorganised and largely unfocused. We have also been far too good at preaching to the converted and not good enough with taking the message to the uninitiated and explaining to them why this is an issue that affects everyone. The only way to rectify this is by generating the necessary funds to take the message directly to the people and creating the organisational framework to build relationships with the media and scientific community. Failure to do these things will result in the perpetuation of the prohibitionist control and dogma and the unrealised potential of a new paradigm for cannabis which would benefit the individual, the community and the planet.