Back in the 1960s, hippies, rock stars, pop singers, students, dropouts, and other opponents of The Man demanded the legalization of cannabis in the name of freedom and experimentation. "Free The Weed!" they shrieked. Let grown men and women decide for themselves how to get their rocks off.
Today, in Western Europe at least, things couldn't be more different. Dope lobbyists now demand the legalization of cannabis on the basis that it is a safer, less swagger-inducing alternative to alcohol, that is more likely to make people feel zonked (which is good) rather than riotous (which apparently is bad).
Some advocates explicitly celebrate marijuana's "calming effects" and its ability to dull our "aggressive disorders." They have even championed sinister social experiments, where European authorities have encouraged young men and women to smoke dope rather than consume alcohol in order to stay "relaxed" and "in control."
This is no 60s-style call for free living. It's a Soviet-style call to promote drugs as a way of doping the masses and to smooth out young ruffians' rebellious edges.
The transformation of the dope lobby into a new kind of booze-hating temperance movement became clear during the David Nutt controversy here in Britain. Professor Nutt was the chief drugs adviser to the UK government until he was unceremoniously sacked last month for publicly challenging the government's line on cannabis. The government wants to keep cannabis as a Class B drug (a "dangerous drug" which can earn its dealers tough prison sentences) while Professor Nutt says it should be Class C (still officially illegal but recognised as not-very-dangerous and thus not really of interest to the authorities).
Yet Professor Nutt's "revolt" against the government—he has become a one-man, government-criticizing media machine since his sacking—has been motivated less by a love for freedom than by a one-eyed hatred of alcohol. Nutt has bigged up cannabis in order to denigrate booze.
He wants alcohol included alongside cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and the rest in Britain's Misuse of Drugs Act, so that it will be more tightly controlled and its "misuse" more regularly punished. Forget cannabis, it is alcohol that "will kill your kids," Nutt hysterically warned parents, before demanding that there should be prohibition for under-21s (as there is in the United States) and that the price of alcohol should be raised to make it less accessible.
John Stuart Mill dealt with these sly, temperance-driven demands for price hikes 150 years ago. In On Liberty he argued that price rises based on moralism were a form of prohibition-lite, a kind of "sin tax."
"Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price," Mill said. "To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable."
That Nutt's sympathy for cannabis-users is really a fear of alcohol-users in disguise became clear during a big public debate on November 11. The professor was at King's College London to talk about his experience of being sacked by the government, and his groupies—the temperance movement—were out in force. A member of Alcohol Concern, which partakes in hysterical scare-mongering about booze, spoke in Nutt's defense, as did a campaigning group of police officers who think drugs should be legalized and booze more tightly controlled.
It was hard to distinguish between the anti-alcohol rants of these killjoy campaigners and the apparently radical arguments of the dope lobbyists. A member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy—a pro-cannabis network of young people—stood up and congratulated Professor Nutt for exposing how dangerous and destructive alcohol is in comparison to weed.
For many years now, there has been a profoundly unholy alliance—in terms of outlook and ideas—between the old-style temperance movement and the hippyish pro-dope campaign. Britain's Legalise Cannabis Alliance says alcohol is the real "hard addictive drug." It talks about "drink-frenzied Britain," where every Saturday night the "police try to control the streets and the National Health Service struggles to cope with the alcoholic aftermath." (A dope campaign expressing sympathy for the cops? Well I never.)
As the author of Clearhead, a blog by a former cannabis smoker, puts it: "[Dope users] look upon the average drinker with a feeling of moral superiority." This became clear in Britain a few years ago when some short-lived, semi-legal dope cafés were opened around the country. These cafés banned booze. One had a sign saying: "No alcohol or drunk and disorderly persons on the premises." Another had a poster reminding patrons: "Will you please bear in mind, alcohol kills 28/33,000 people every year." These figures come straight from the straight-laced fun-haters at Alcohol Concern.
Cannabis campaigners continually talk up dope's "pacifying" qualities in contrast to booze. The Hempire, an online collective dedicated to all things dope, says "cannabis is well known for its calming effects" and can "help with sufferers from aggressive disorders." Such claims have pricked the interest of various European governments, which have carried out dope-promoting experiments as a way of "pacifying" potential troublemakers and tearaways.
In 2004, police in Portugal instituted a policy called "Here We Blow," where they allowed English soccer fans visiting the country to smoke dope, while simultaneously clamping down on drunken behavior The aim was to "reduce the chance of a punch-up between rival soccer fans." The Legalise Cannabis Alliance cheered this authoritarian experiment, arguing: "If people are drinking they lose control; if they smoke cannabis they don't."
In Holland in 2000, during the Euro 2000 football tournament, the authorities allowed cannabis cafes to remain open late and encouraged soccer fans to spend their time smoking rather than drinking. The aim was to "relax the fans." One cannabis campaigner in Amsterdam—home of so much dope-smoking—said: "Have you ever heard of anyone smoking a joint and then starting a riot?"
That is what's attractive about cannabis both to contemporary dope lobbyists and to people in authority: It slows us down; it makes us sleepy; it metaphorically castrates us; it reduces riotousness. Booze, by contrast, makes us cocky and arrogant and up for fun and fighting—which is the nanny state's worst nightmare.
Cannabis should be completely decriminalized. But that should happen in the name of giving people full freedom of choice over what they ingest and how they have fun, not in the name of doping the apparently troublemaking, booze-consuming sections of society.
Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London.