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The Greatest Threat From Cannabis Lies in its Illegality

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matt_benoit via Getty Images
matt_benoit via Getty Images

*Co-authored with Craig Jones, PhD, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada (NORML Canada)

The 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy's opening declaration -- "the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies [...] fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed" -- could hardly be more definitive.

Front and centre is the continued prohibition of cannabis, arresting 57,429 Canadians for simple possession in 2012. On the afternoon of April 20, otherwise known as "4/20," recreational cannabis users from all over the globe will gather in public spaces to spark up and mellow out with friends and associates in peaceful civil disobedience against a harmful law. The day has become a global 'flip of the bird' to anti-drug warriors and cowardly policy makers who hide behind the "we don't have enough evidence" fraud.

It's beyond ironic to hear policy makers repeat this canard because cannabis was added to Canada's list of prohibited substances in 1923 on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Since then, a veritable mountain of peer-reviewed science has converged on the conclusion that of all the currently illicit drugs, cannabis is by far the least dangerous and considerably safer than either alcohol or tobacco. Its greatest threat to users and society -- as the 2002 Senate Report on Illegal Drugs concluded -- lies in its continued criminality, not its use.

This conclusion is hardly an outlier: it's the succinct summation of almost every major report ever done by a liberal democracy since -- believe it not -- the Report of the Indian Hemp Commission to the British House of Commons in 1893-94. That particular analysis, over 100 years ago, concluded that if hemp drugs were a problem, for which they could find no proof, their prohibition or excessive taxation would create bigger problems -- including the creation of a black market.

How far-sighted those commissioners appear in the light of subsequent events.

It would be nice to think that the policy makers who added cannabis to Canada's schedule of prohibited substances in 1923 would have at least thumbed through the seven volumes of the Hemp Drugs Commission report, but the truth is that no one really knows why cannabis was prohibited.

Knowledgeable fingers point to the salacious Maclean's magazine articles of 1920 authored by Emily Murphy and summarized in The Black Candle. Although now greatly discredited, in its time it solidified conventional wisdom that non-Anglo immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and Mexico constituted a dire threat to the racial purity of the British settlers on the northern half of our continent. Still, it has to be counted as one of the great successes of the century-old war on drugs that policy makers -- even in this evidence-saturated age -- still prefer to run for cover rather than admit, "it was a mistake, we must correct it."

Here in Canada, there persists a prohibition on rationality -- at least on the government benches. The Prime Minister and his parliamentary hand puppets lambaste reformers for "wanting to sell cannabis in corner stores," relieving his MPs of defending a discredited policy and ginning up the fear-mongering machine so beloved by social conservatives here and in the United States. When you're committed to a fraud, perpetuation is the path of least resistance.

"The arc of history is long," Martin Luther King sagely observed, "but it bends toward justice." Cannabis prohibition is based on a fraud, and all frauds are eventually exposed. The celebrants on April 20 don't necessarily know the history of how cannabis came to be illegal, but they do know what the evidence says: cannabis is less harmful to users than all other illicit drugs and considerably less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. They know that the greatest threat from cannabis lies in its continued illegality by policy makers who wish the evidence would just go away.

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