Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll – well, just drugs actually

(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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

Decriminalisation is just like legalisation except without all the benefits.

Why not allow our farmers to grow a cash crop ideally suited for Australian conditions?

Why not allow legitimate businesses to take over the production and distribution of marijuana, so your kids aren’t forced to go to the Coffin Cheaters clubhouse to pick up an ounce?

I also find the study that found higher heroin prices reduces robbery a little meaningless. Perhaps robberies were down because the junkies found another source of cash. Like cutting and re-selling? Or perhaps the robbery rate always falls after the holidays, because people are back living in their houses.

Either way, I find it hard to believe that the junkies simply “gave up” because it became too expensive.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

Weatherburn has offered a view that, in the presence of ‘drought”, heroin users tend to switch to other drugs which are more freely – and more cheaply – available; principally methamphetamine these days but basically, the whole gamut. And some just stop. It raises some interesting questions in relation to prevailing assumptions about heroin: that it’s inherently and universally addictive and impossible to shake without significant and prolonged clinical intervention. I’ve long doubted the latter assumption. I’m not at all convinced that withdrawal can’t be a practical option in many – if not most – cases. I’m also interested in Weatherburn’s hypothesis about a polydrug setting for heroin use. Australians tend to be polydrug users rather than (as in the States) single substance consumers. However, Heroin has always been seen as “different” in that respect and given that it’s an opiate – with an introverting effect opposed to the more extroverting effect of “uppers” – not previously thought to be commonly associated with them. The on-the-ground experience in Sydney might seem to be telling a different story.

I also think that a lot of drug use effect needs to read against circumstantial setting. MJ’s most intense demotivating effect seems to occur in those who are already pretty much demotivated. If you’ve got nothing much to do other than smoke big fatties, drink VB and watch daytime TV, then symptom, cause and effect are likely to be conflated in a fairly impenetrable way.

There’s something worth exploring in the way we’ve traditionally used mind-altering substances. Did the Inca need a Nancy Reagan figure urging people to just say no to Coca? What about the Aztec with Mescaline and Peyote? The Celts with Honey Mead? The Arabs with Qat? But I guess that they didn’t have daytime TV either…..

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

…and in that respect, how is it that Polynesians and Melanesians have pounded the root of the Piper Mythesticum plant to make Kava for millenia without undue ill effect, while the same substance recently translated to northern Australia has instantly become a Major Health Problem?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Geoff,

Your take on the demotivation effects of gunja mostly echoes what the paper’s authors assert i.e. demotivation is a consequence of continual intoxication/stonedness rather than a lingering after-effect. However, my own experience (albeit rather a long time ago now) belies that. I WASN’T a person who “[had] nothing much to do other than smoke big fatties, drink VB and watch daytime TV”. I was studying law at a sandstone university, holding down 2 part-time jobs etc etc. I gave up gunja because I found its demotivating effects, even when smoking only every 3-4 days, were quite long-lasting and significant i.e. they were perceptibly affecting my academic performance. That’s why I gave up (except for occasional tokes at parties).

As for kava, it’s argued that Aborigines in Arnhemland drink kava in vastly larger quantities and much more frequently than Polynesians. Stripped of the constraints imposed by ceremonial/traditional use, and with it being consumed solely to get stoned, the likelihood of abusive levels of consumption is much higher. Moreover, we are often talking about a “polydrug” situation, with kava abusers also smoking lots of gunja (which grows wild in numerous parts of Anhemland) and nipping into Darwin to hit the grog several times a year.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“Your take on the demotivation effects of gunja mostly echoes what the paper’s authors assert i.e. demotivation is a consequence of continual intoxication/stonedness rather than a lingering after-effect”

We’d need to have explored your situation more thoroughly Ken before we could totally ascribe your apparently transient demotivation to MJ – might have been a phase you were going through :) Regardless, you were able to recognise it and do something about it – that’s the key.

I guess my point is less that MJ causes demotivation and more that MJ – and associated substance use – exacerbates the negative effects of being chronically demotivated.That doesn’t exclude the very real potential that all drugs have to produce highly individualised outcomes in the user, but if yours is a pretty fucked existence then you can guarantee that drugs won’t be improving things. The kava thing is a classic exanmple of adding on to an already less than optimal set of life circumstances with bugger all behavioural boundaries and hence, kind of predictable results.

The total prohibition/criminalising lobby insists that there’s no safe way to use drugs – unless it’s alcohol by middle-aged Rotarians, oddly enough – but the practical reality is very different. Most people who do take drugs occasionally do so without destroying their lives – but some will. Total legalisation would do nothing to address the problems of the latter group, in fact, it would almost certainly exacerbate their problems – and inevitably impact on all of us. A considered decriminalisation is probably the way to go but what might that look like?

observa
observa
2022 years ago

My fundamental objection to the criminality of certain drug use, is largely the hypocrisy this entails for the young. Adults basically end up taking a ludicrous stance like- ‘MJ bad, alchohol good’. As well, this places the lucrative distribution of illicit drugs in the hands of criminals, with no dosage or quality control.

Treating all pharmacopea equally-ie a strong ‘natural is best’ community attitude, but with licensed and educated useage for adults only, should remove the hypocrisy. The adult community could then take a harsh penal stance to the provision of all proscribed substances to minors, in much the same way as we treat paedophilia. Drug use which leads to, or causes antisocial behaviour, could then be penalised with loss of licenced use, for miscreants. You could not absolutely guarantee that no licensed pharma would fall into the hands of the young or unlicensed, but at least the policing effort could be seriously concentrated there. As well, all pharma consumption could be statistically monitored, to provide timely and accurate health information, to users. This educational resource could also be used to educate and prepare adolescents, for their upcoming adult right to chemically alter their consciousness, with the poison of their choice. Albeit, this could be done under the strong overarching message that,’natural is best’, both for formative young bodies and minds, as well as adult ones.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Good point Obs. I’ve often felt that route should be explored more. By all means license, tax and regulate production but also consumption as we do with booze – with age limits and a range of sanctions and penalties for misuse with fines being ploughed back into education programs.

You could even take it a step further so that when someone turns 21 they trot along to the Drug Licensing Bureau and are tested for adverse reactions to various drugs and licensed accordingly.

“OK, you’re now legal for MJ but for not for alcohol as the testing program and the examiner’s shoes shows you’re basically a two pot screamer with a weak stomach.”

And you then show your license when purchasing the recreational drug of your choice from approved and regulated outlets.

Of course, as you pointed out, the system will still be open to abuse but not half as much as things are now, and only at specific points where law enforcement can properly focus and make a difference. For example it would make a massive dent in money laundering which often funnels drug cash to far worse purposes such as terrorism.

It would also help with collection of revenues unlike the current messy arrangement of asset confiscation and corrupt cops selling it back to dealers.

And then there’s the export angle.

“Police today seized and burnt a marijuana crop with an estimated street value of over $25 million. To our next story. This month’s balance of trade figures show no signs of improvement and analysts believe, etc, etc.”

observa
observa
2022 years ago

A couple of obvious flaws with the current differential treatment of drugs. Firstly we penalise drunks largely through loss of their driver’s licence, when it is not their ability to drive that is the problem. They should lose their drug licence, if driving under the influence, threatens the community. Their dependency is the problem, which should be treated. In fact P-platers understand the threat to their lifestyle that a lack of driver’s licence entails, which is why the young choose, currently, undectable, illicit drugs to drive.

Secondly, licensed, legally produced and cheaply available pharma, would negate the incentive to produce the same in the back-yard, with the problems of home invasions we currently have with MJ. As well, knowing that as an adult, you can have access to any drug of choice, would make people much more circumspect about their choice, particularly the experimentation period of adolescence.

How many people would be attracted to heroin, ecstasy, cocaine or amphetamines, if they had to go through the lengthy education and licensing to try them? On the other hand existing users could be accommodated cheaply and effectively by such a system. These drugs would no longer be ‘cool’, but simply another, unnatural, pharmacological experience, available to all adults. Also, there would be no incentive for organised crime to compete with low cost, legal suppliers, except to supply minors. We would throw away the key for these drug paedophiles when caught.

trackback
2022 years ago

Drugs, Again.

A mini-meme has surfaced again regarding the war on drugs in the US and Australia. Michael Jennings links to a paper detailing the history of the legality of Marijuana in the US. Ken Parish adds his own comments here. A…