(via Michael Jennings) A fairly old paper titled The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States by Charles Whitebread, Professor of Law, USC Law School makes fascinating reading for those interested in the bizarre byways of history in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.
Actually the paper is rather misleadingly titled. Although it deals in passing with the history of laws relating to morphine and heroin, it’s mostly about American marijuana laws. This extract about the genesis and early history of marijuana will give you the flavour:
Let me pause to tell you this. When Professor Bonnie and I set out to try to track the legal history of marijuana in this country, we were shocked that nobody had ever done that work before. And, secondly, the few people who had even conjectured about it went back to the 1937 Federal Act and said “Well, there’s the beginning of it.” No. If you go back to 1937, that fails to take account of the fact that, in the period from 1915 to 1937, some 27 states passed criminal laws against the use of marijuana. What Professor Bonnie and I did was, unique to our work, to go back to the legislative records in those states and back to the newspapers in the state capitols at the time these laws were passed to try to find out what motivated these 27 states to enact criminal laws against the use of marijuana. What we found was that the 27 states divided into three groups by explanation.
The first group of states to have marijuana laws in that part of the century were Rocky Mountain and southwestern states. By that, I mean Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana. You didn’t have to go anywhere but to the legislative records to find out what had motivated those marijuana laws. The only thing you need to know to understand the early marijuana laws in the southwest and Rocky Mountain areas of this country is to know, that in the period just after 1914, into all of those areas was a substantial migration of Mexicans. They had come across the border in search of better economic conditions, they worked heavily as rural laborers, beet field workers, cotton pickers, things of that sort. And with them, they had brought marijuana.
Basically, none of the white people in these states knew anything about marijuana, and I make a distinction between white people and Mexicans to reflect a distinction that any legislator in one of these states at the time would have made. And all you had to do to find out what motivated the marijuana laws in the Rocky mountain and southwestern states was to go to the legislative records themselves. Probably the best single statement was the statement of a proponent of Texas first marijuana law. He said on the floor of the Texas Senate, and I quote, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (referring to marijuana) is what makes them crazy.” Or, as the proponent of Montana’s first marijuana law said, (and imagine this on the floor of the state legislature) and I quote, “Give one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona.”
Well, there it was, you didn’t have to look another foot as you went from state to state right on the floor of the state legislature. And so what was the genesis for the early state marijuana laws in the Rocky Mountain and southwestern areas of this country? It wasn’t hostility to the drug, it was hostility to the newly arrived Mexican community that used it.
The major problem I have with Whitbread’s paper is his conclusion. He uses his study to argue against Prohibition of drugs as an effective strategy. That’s a trendy argument to advance these days, and it’s one to which I used to subscribe fairly passionately. However, I now think the picture is rather more complicated. A recent NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research paper by Marilyn Chilvers and Don Weatherburn concluded about heroin useage and the impact of prohibitionist policing:
Recent evidence suggests that another way of reducing the rate of robbery may be to increase the price of heroin. Around Christmas 2000, a major shortage of heroin occurred in Australia, forcing heroin prices up and heroin purity and availability down (Weatherburn, Jones, Freeman & Makkai 2003). The initial effect of higher heroin prices appeared to be an increase in robbery. Within just a few months, though, robbery rates began to fall and have since fallen quite substantially. Weatherburn, Donnelly and Chilvers (2003) found strong evidence that the fall in robbery was closely associated with the drop in heroin consumption, even controlling for other factors that might have influenced the incidence of robbery, such as the rate of unemployment. …
On the available evidence, then, it would seem prudent for authorities to pursue a range of strategies to reduce the incidence of robbery, rather than focusing on any one strategy. Increasing the availability of treatment for heroin-dependent robbers, while at the same time endeavouring to make heroin harder to get and more expensive, should help reduce the number of people motivated to commit robbery to fund their purchases of heroin. Increasing the clear-up rate for robbery, on the other hand, should help reduce robbery through the more familiar mechanisms of deterrence and incapacitation.
Thus, if we take an instrumental/consequentalist approach, then the most effective way of minimising the number of people using heroin (assuming we accept that heroin use is on balance something best minimised) may be a combination of prohibitionist law-enforcement strategies (directed specifically at importers and traffickers) along with medical treatment-based approaches to existing addicts.
For cannabis, the picture is a bit different. This paper by Hall, Degenhardt and Lynskey titled The health and psychological effects of cannabis use suggests that cannabis generally combines most of the nasty effects of alcohol and tobacco (e.g. increased risk of traffic accidents, cancer, lung disease etc) and that chronic cannabis use carries some additional risks: reduced male fertility; and a triggering (though probably not causative) effect in inducing psychoses (especially schizophrenia) in susceptible individuals. Interestingly, the paper argues that the effect that my own experience with gunja convinced me about, namely demotivation, isn’t sustained by research:
The evidence that chronic heavy cannabis use produces an amotivational syndrome consists largely of case studies. Controlled field and laboratory studies have not found evidence for such a syndrome, although their value is limited by the small sample sizes and limited sociodemographic characteristics of participants of the field studies, the short periods of drug use, and the youth, good health and minimal demands made of the volunteers in the laboratory studies. If there is such a syndrome, it is a relatively rare occurrence, even among heavy, chronic cannabis users. The phenomenon may be better explained as the result of chronic intoxication in dependent cannabis users.
Well you could have fooled me. As a very frequent user in my younger days, I experienced a marked demotivational effect. Even after I ceased regular use but had an occasional toke at parties, I generally found myself with a listless, “can’t give a fuck” attitude for a day or two afterwards. I guess I must be an atypical example.
Although that broad picture suggests that outright Prohibition of cannabis is a legislative overreaction, it also suggests that complete legalisation would also be ill-advised. Decriminalisation of personal use and possession of small quantities, along with a ban on all advertising (as with tobacco), seems like a reasonable policy to pursue.