In response to an opinion piece written by conservative political commentator David Frum, clinical psychiatrist David Nathan argues that regulated legalisation is necessary to prevent disproportionate criminal sanctions being brought against individuals. Furthermore, he disputes the idea that maintaining the illegal status of marijuana is an effective way of “sending a message” to young people.
I agree with much of what [David Frum] says about pot’s potential harm, especially for the young and the psychiatrically ill. Like Frum, I am a father who worries about my kids getting sidetracked by cannabis before their brains have a chance to develop. But I am also a physician who understands that the negative legal consequences of marijuana use are far worse than the medical consequences.
Throughout my career as a clinical psychiatrist, I have seen lives ruined by drugs like cocaine, painkillers and alcohol. I have also borne witness to the devastation brought upon cannabis users — almost never by abuse of the drug, but by a justice system that chooses a sledgehammer to kill a weed.
By trying to hide marijuana from innately curious young people, we have elevated its status to that of a forbidden fruit. I believe a better approach is to bring pot into the open, make it legal for people over the age of 21, and educate children from a young age about the actual dangers of its recreational use.
Although a link has been established between pre-adolescent use of cannabis and mental health problems, no such link has been identified in adults.
Indeed, the harms of cannabis use to the individual may well have been greatly overstated in the past. Recently, a study by Professor David Nutt at Imperial College, London made an attempt at assessing the relative harms of various legal and illegal substances using a scale of harms developed by the Beckley Foundation. When the study was completed, cannabis was determined to be less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco.
Additionally, use of cannabis does not lead to the harms of others. Its status amounts to nothing more than a bad habit; a selfish act detrimental to ones own health, but not the wellbeing of those around you. As such, a study by the UKDPC published in October likened cannabis use to “moderately risky” activities indulged in by adults for their short term benefits, like gambling or eating junk food. Making an exception to treat marijuana smokers as criminals brings significant difficulty to the user’s life and wastes valuable resources without necessarily reducing prevalence of use.