The Criminalisation of Cannabis: an offence to reason

By Gemma Phelan

We are witnessing a global shift towards the decriminalisation of cannabis which can be attributed to many factors but none more so than the on-going resistance to government control of this medicinal plant. 

Throughout history there have been many instances when legislators, having adopted the role of ‘moral guardian’ were later forced to amend their statutes in the face of growing opposition. Both the gin laws in England and the more recent attempt at prohibition in America yielded similar results. Prohibition, having been legalised in three out of four states by 1920 marked the rise of underworld gang warfare. In supplying the demand for liquor, wealth and power shifted into the hands of unscrupulous gangsters who eventually rose above the legal trappings of a system that was intent on depriving citizens of a much sought after commodity. Such was the rebellion that those who had prided themselves on abstinence now took delight in concealing hip flasks, as breaking the law became not only acceptable but expected. In hindsight, one wonders how any government could have thought these measures to be effective but like many unworkable laws it took an extreme situation for the unreasonable to become rationally justifiable. A factor intervened that was to tip the balance in favour of the absurd, the First World War.

The prohibitionists, at the onset of the war argued that the use of grain to make liquor rather than bread was unpatriotic, which was soon followed by a change in the constitution. However, when wheat supply was in surplus the requirement of a two thirds’ majority to overturn the amendment was not so easily achieved as the prohibitionists were not going to be as accommodating as their opponents had been to them. Having been introduced for the good of the people, by now prohibition had grown into a sinister conflict between the individual and the state.

Outdoor cannabis plants in Spain.

An outdoor cannabis plant legally growing in Spain.

Ironically, it is this same resistance to control that could be said to have ensured our survival throughout history. Such cunning is applauded in its opposition to tyranny, like the Czech armament workers whose interference with the making of bombs during the Second World War ensured their failure to explode when dropped over Britain. Although under close watch by their supervisors, the workers still managed to render the bombs useless by leaving out component parts. Whether it is the Czech armament factory workers or the drug users, it is the same characteristic in both types of people, and no more than the Nazis could browbeat the Czechs into submission will we ever stop certain people from taking drugs. This is because when it comes to avoidance, something of our prehistoric past comes into play, at which point the struggle between law enforcers and drug addicts moves from being between the competitive intelligence of the former and the thwarted logic of the latter to a conflict between blind reasoning and a Neanderthal cunning, two sides of humanity that are equally necessary for survival whether in a jungle or city. The mistake legislators have made is that they fail to recognise the potential of such instinctual behaviour.

The idea of reason versus instinct is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it confined to the war against drugs. We only have to look at the various guerrilla wars that have taken place around the world to see the consequences of a cunning mentality waging psychological warfare against those defending a set position, when during conflict the unwritten rules of warfare gave way to the merciless pursuit of victory. Regardless of the inadequacy of routine military tactics, nations still allowed themselves to become involved in conflicts where the guerrillas had all the advantages. So it is with the ‘war on drugs’. Even countries with the most draconian drug laws have failed to counteract supply. Hence, it could be said that all drug users are doing is acting upon this means of survival and all governments are doing is trying to make them conform, yet these actions seem justified because they appear to be based on the protection of the individual even if in the long run we end up relinquish other freedoms. Furthermore were we to side with the anti-drugs camp we could be easily convinced into conforming to other things. In which case, although there are good reasons for complying with social norms, sometimes there are better reasons not to, so even if we have to tolerate a certain amount of anarchy it is worth it because we are reinforcing the characteristics that make society stronger. We could even say that the determination shown by those breaking the current laws is necessary for our own protection against those who would have us conform without question.

Gemma Phelan is from Ireland where she works as an editor/proof reader.


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One Comment

  1. I often think that cannabis users are in a prison with an open door but too stoned to move.

    If you accept that the misuse of drugs act is the main legal means of restricting cannabis then I believe there is a real challenge to the way it is enforced. The act itself does not mention substances by name but sets up a framework for the regulation of drugs. It requires a system of penalties based on relative harm and not on historical or cultural bias (specifically stated in the wording of the act). The relative harms are to be derived from the findings of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (and nowhere else).
    The Advisory council has consistently found that the potential harm from cannabis is less than for alcohol or tobacco (both of which are legally available – albeit restricted in some ways). In this light the criminalisation and category B ‘controlled’ status of cannabis is in direct contradiction of the misuse of drugs act. It may mean any convictions under the act are not sustainable and that consecutive Home Secretaries have acted illegally in ignoring the finds of the ACMD in this way. Even if this were in debate there was definitely no reason to re-classify cannabis back to category B from it’s (temporary) status as category C.

    Please get this checked with you legal people.
    You can read the act here ( ) if you want yo verify my interpretation as well.

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