By Nathan Lee, Finance and Politics writer
Exploring the counterproductive nature of illegalising industries.
Maiorem legem, maiore flagitio; greater the law, greater the crime.
Legalising industries does not place them outside the reach of the law. Indeed, making a product or service legal by law heightens the grip of the authorities. Rather than acting behind a black curtain, removing the guise of criminality brings ‘taboo’ products and services into our legal structures, thus eliminating the dangerous elements of trade which are brought about because of the black market.
Prohibition failed in America because it circumvented the popular will by using legislative muscle that, ultimately, backed the government into a legal battle it was obligated to support in a world where the majority would rather not. It caused more problems than it solved and led to organised crime, gun fights in the streets and the infamous Al Capone.
Illegalisation of marijuana has had the same affect. It costs millions of pounds in taxpayer’s money to send police squads in to seize a drug that has comparatively the same impact on our health as alcohol. There’s a strong case that alcohol is actually the greater evil; it causes far more deaths, it’s linked to cancer, it has a more severe effect on the brain and, consequently, it costs more in health-related treatment.
So why the stigma?
The Hemp Stigma
In 1952, Conservative MP for Carlisle Donald Macintosh Johnson (mandatory Conservative double barrel) published a paper entitled; “Indian Hemp; a Social Menace”. Ever since there has been a parliamentary stigma attached to marijuana which has been impossible to bypass for mainstream political parties and too risky to endorse for fringe parties looking to break into the mainstream.
The so-called ‘hemp stigma’ has created an overcast cloud on society which will be hard to shift. Industrial hemp cultivation, a potential multi-million tax windfall, will remain underground for as long as people smell weed and think ‘crime’, while walking past wafts of alcohol in the pub without batting an eyelid.
The first battle is not a political one; changing perceptions is a vital step forward if this perceived social ill is ever to be accepted within society.
The case for legalisation
New research from the Institute for Economic and Social Research at the University of Essex suggests Britain could profit from decriminalising cannabis.Instead of dealers being behind bars they would be put to work earning taxable income and running taxable businesses. Once the cost for regulating the market and medical treatment for abusers are knocked off, the overall savings could be £361 million.
This is the same realisation the American government had in the prohibition era. They found the state could make huge amounts of money if liquor was legal by taxing businesses and putting criminals behind bars (that is, the pub bars). With this money, the industry became better regulated. In Britain beer is taxed heavily and ‘Drink Responsibly’ schemes and healthcare is provided thanks to the stream of money reaching Whitehall.
‘Drug dealers’ of cannabis – a slanderous term as preposterous as ‘alcohol dealers’ – would undoubtedly conform to new legislation because it will be in their interest to do so. Government would be able to control quality and ensure that the drugs don’t fall into the hands of children. Measures akin to the cigarette industry – where packaging is amended, products are stored behind counters and strict age controls are in place – could be introduced, filtering the murky waters of the black market into something a little more translucent.
Making it OK
The main counterargument against the legalisation of marijuana is the belief that it would create a gateway to stronger drugs. Although I’m not a seasonal crack den visitor, I know the link between a natural plant and intravenous chemicals isn’t a strong one. This assumption is paramount to saying those who drink more than 10 pints are more disposed to heroin use.
A 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey found 58% of Britons think cannabis should remain illegal. Regardless of what studies are produced or how much evidence supports legalisation, weed remains a social menace, rather than a scientifically proven and sociologically explored Ill. Our man Macintosh Johnson seems to have spread a timeless blanket of apprehension over the nation which is supported by a lack of knowledge and fear, which is more than can be said of Prohibition America.
Illegalising industries is costly and ineffective, but it seems like it’s here to stay; at least for now.