Story telling is an important skill if you are a government or media drug warrior, if you are unable to trade in facts (because you don’t have any helpful ones), frightening narratives have to be created in order to justify your incoherent policies. Villains must be invented and nightmare landscapes have to be designed. New generations are born who need to hear the story, old generations who have forgotten have to hear it once again.
Do you remember the good hash from the sixties? You are probably a bit young, I am definitely too young. Our parents remember it though, and their parents do too. Back in the sixties cannabis was just as illegal as it is today. Headlines warned against the dangers of cannabis and arrests were made, prison sentences were served. Many disagreed with this law and so cannabis consumption influenced culture and a not insignificant number of people’s way of life.
The exact same story is of course being played out today with the so called “dangers of skunk”. The same people who perhaps realised that cannabis was not really that dangerous and actually quite a lot of fun during their own youth are being told (and are telling others) that in fact cannabis is extremely dangerous. The favoured trope of how it was all better back in the good old days is writ large. At the same time the older generation's past transgressions of hash smoking are legitimised and codified (those harmless hippies were so lucky) –part of another simpler and safer time which has now sadly faded away.
If you watch Channel 4 Drugs Live experiments or read Daily Mail horror stories, you could be forgiven for thinking that modern cannabis aka “skunk” (which strangely enough is the same plant as the cannabis from fifty years ago) has absolutely no pleasurable side effects, that it induces paranoia immediately and places a dose of schizophrenia in the post addressed directly to your brain.
Ignoring the misleading language and fallacy of the term “skunk” for a moment, skunk is also apparently the predominant type of cannabis available on our streets. (Elsewhere on this site you can find exhaustive explanations as to why this is not true.)
If fillets of roast beef and pieces of smoked salmon overnight started tasting of ashes and made everyone vomit no one would buy them anymore. The excellent Neil Woods writes that there are at least two cannabis grows for every police officer in the UK http://ukleap.org/you-cannot-beat-the-demand/ elsewhere I have read that there is effectively one person growing cannabis on each street in the UK. Without a doubt though, there is a lot of cannabis being grown in the UK for the domestic market.
The story of complete proliferation through the UK clashes with that of “skunk” being a truly horrible experience. So one of the stories cannot be true –either cannabis is regularly consumed by many, many people or it is a dangerous substance without any joy to it which no one has any incentive to consume ever.
The unspoken truth about cannabis and other drugs is that people like the effect that comes from consuming them. Whether its medicinal or recreational a substance is sought out and taken because people understand they will enjoy the effect. Society drinks alcohol because the majority of young men and women through to great grandparents enjoy the effects of drinking either in moderation or to some degree of excess.
Normally, it might be wise to address the incorrect argument that the reason people repeatedly smoke any kind of cannabis is because its some kind of addictive gateway substance. There is not a reason to do this any more as the prohibitionist argument has changed from "Well maybe its safe-ish but you will end up on heroin" to "It is flat out the most dangerous drug in our society". It is this sort of storytelling, changing the danger to suit the times which delays the end to prohibition. People come to realise the truth about one argument such as the gateway theory and discount it. Now the skunk argument is being very, very gradually discredited, accordingly we will see it dropped in favour of a new invented harm. So it will continue and continue.
There are different harms around each substance that vary according to the substance and its manner of intake, but the core reason that narcotic substances including alcohol and tobacco are indulged in is because people like them and enjoy their effects. Different amounts of users depending on the substance are problematic for society. Alcohol users as a group are far more of a problem for society than cannabis consumers for instance –just check the violent crime statistics.
So, if as a government you have decided that you don’t want people to do something that they enjoy (whatever it is and for whatever reason) and you have already banned it and threatened the people involved with ruined lives one way or another; the next best thing to do is to start designing a mythology around it. This can include elements of racism and flat untruth, moral warnings and more, but the most powerful imagery is that of a struggle or a war.
Officially, The War On Drugs began in the middle of 1971, though many narcotics had already been banned around the world for several decades previous to this. The War on Drugs is interesting and important as it was the first deployment of military forces against one or more nouns.
A war is a potent device to use in your narrative, it generates ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains, traitors, duty, and of course victory and defeat. It is very compelling and dramatic. Looking through our television and computer screens though it only takes a child to tell you that it is civilians who suffer the most in a conflict, and as Bill Hicks said “A war is when two armies are fighting”.
Once a war is declared it has to be ended at some point either in victory or defeat. The costs of our war spiral ever upward with no end in sight because the enemy the war is fought against is the taxpayer funding the same war against itself; in the UK to the tune of £400 a year each:
Personally, I am very unhappy with how my £400 is spent each year! Being born after the 70s I have not lived during a time when my allotted country has not been at war with drugs. During this time I have seen more and more drugs become available and for less money.
It is quite simple when we look at the War on Drugs and prohibition to see past the huge amounts of money spent on keeping various herbs and chemicals illegal and out of any and all regulation, and also past the huge amounts of money made by different organisations (both legal and illegal) and private individuals. We have separately become adept at suspecting our politicians and public bodies of regular corruption and lying and so eye their policies with a certain cynicism. So there needs to be a further obvious justification to keep The War on Drugs going despite our suspicions, and so we see huge chunks of anti-drug propaganda in play every day targeting our sympathies and our fears –our children and our young people.
Adding to the mythology and imagery of war against a clear enemy separate to us, is the ever popular fear of the transformed other and the fear of the outsider coming into our safe society. In the middle ages as a society and culture we feared witches cursing our crops, in the 19th century we feared handsome exotic or vampiric foreigners corrupting our innocent women, now it is skunk genetically modified in a lab driving our middle class teenage children irrevocably insane.
A society always needs a scape goat and an explanation for its bad luck and failings. Drug users of all kinds are presented as being out of kilter with mainstream society, as recklessly engaging in dangerous behaviour –an enemy to themselves and their neighbours. We are incited by the media to hurt these people more and more and to want to punish them harder, to fear them, when in reality they are us, unsurprisingly "they" have far more in common with each of us than a legislating politician or an organised crime gang member does. This is because drug users of various kinds are everywhere, I include alcohol users amongst this as they have a noticeable mixture of problematic and non problematic users. Drug users are our siblings, parents, children, neighbours and friends, effectively everyone in our country has some sort of positive experience and some sort of problematic experience with drugs both legal and illegal. We are encouraged to look for division and to shun those we see suffering from problematic drug use as well as being suspicious and hostile to those enjoying positive drug use, without making a distinction between substance or behaviour.
Several years ago, during a hazier and more free period of my life I was a student. I went to quite a lot of house parties. Some of my friends were very, very into the then legal substance mephedrone, the main party house we all visited might as well have been a ski slope for all the powder kicking around. Time passed and mephedrone was banned. My friend Kelly, who was perhaps Swansea’s greatest connoisseur of mephedrone began to complain of the stuff burning her nostrils, ageing her skin and suddenly not being very good any more. Mephedrone was filthy stuff to begin with but within weeks of the ban, pieces of glass had begun to appear within it and the quality had diminished to a point where it was instantly detectable as being poor by a regular consumer.
Mephedrone is an interesting example because it seemingly appeared from nowhere was phenomenally popular, cheap, reduced the amount of other powder drugs being consumed and then was banned. The quality, price and obvious side effects all immediately changed for the worse after the ban, but the ban did not prevent its consumption.
Perhaps in some ways the worst thing about the War on Drugs is its imagery, for a politician to step away from it and to propose reform or even just a different approach they must effectively admit that the war has been lost and that it has ended in defeat. They open themselves up to accusations of cowardice or softness http://politics.co.uk/blogs/2015/03/31/labour-attacks-lib-dems-for-being-soft-on-drugs The middle ages were full of several decade long wars and it is true that our attitude to drug use in the West comes more than close to the medieval. A quick search on Google will suggest all sorts of early causes of drug prohibition –mainly racism, funding for groups about to be made irrelevant by the end of american alcohol prohibition, and suggestions of some sort of skulduggery by the paper industry. But whatever these causes once were, times have changed long, long ago even if our methods for tackling the issue of drugs has not.
Before the War on Drugs, countries had more individual freedom to determine their positions on drug use and drug users. Their decisions could be made without interference from any alliance or coalition. But while the causes for the war have changed, we are still fighting it. In truth we have forgotten why, other than culturally we remember we have always been fighting it, and for those of us who know why we are still fighting it, only an ever shrinking minority really believes in it any more. The stories of yesterday are repackaged and re-marketed but are less convincing each and every time.
If politicians are trapped within the story and unable or unwilling to represent the majority of society that believes the War on Drugs to be lost then we have to aggressively lobby and vote these politicians out with one hand and disregard their laws with another. What is in truth a war on people has to be ended by those same people that have been made a target of it. What also has been forgotten is that it is the duty of a member of parliament to represent their constituents. Instead bad laws that hurt the most vulnerable people in society for forgotten reasons are prioritised over health, safety and the public will. The challenge now is transforming this lack of support for prohibition into widespread active contempt for it.
If every single person in the UK who does not believe in prohibition wrote to their MP and the other candidates in their constituency before this coming election and indeed after it detailing their dissatisfaction with national and global drug laws and their intention to vote accordingly to related policy it may or may not make the news, but it would raise the profile of prohibition as a voter priority. Individual thoughtful letters mean so much more than internet petitions -especially when they are connected with actual verifiable votes. The possibility of effectively doing this on a local scale as well as a wider one and highlighting which of an area's prospective candidates are in favour of prohibition and its dark consequences and which ones just don't care and would rather tow their party line is also potent. Likewise asking difficult questions around prohibition to candidates on your own door step will force them to engage with the issue, it is time to challenge the make believe every step of the way.
Not everyone is able to talk about prohibition or drug use with their colleagues and family in person, but campaigns like Feed The Birds can be supported and United Patients Alliance stickers can appear mysteriously overnight in all manner of places. "Google Run From the Cure" might appear all over the place -write it in the sand on the beach! Everyone can do at least one thing and challenge the culture and mythology around the drug war by making ignorant prohibition-friendly attitudes as distasteful socially as racism or homophobia and as difficult to support intellectually as flat earth theories. We can make drug use of all kinds, normal, understandable and human, we can demonstrate that cannabis consumers and medicinal patients are not only everywhere but are a vocal group and impossible to control.
We, both locally, nationally and internationally can make these laws unenforceable and so make changes to the law inevitable, only once we do this then can we all live happily ever after.