“It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on personal freedom” – Bill Hicks
Cannabis. There can hardly be a more controversial plant in human society today. For hundreds of years, this plant has been used for textiles, medicinal use, religious ceremonies and most controversially, as a recreational drug. The advent of the 21st century has shown a definite trend in the liberalisation of laws surrounding marijuana use. The Netherlands became known around the world for its legalisation of marijuana for recreational use (with many restrictions, however). In 2001, Portugal took the bold step to decriminalise all drug use. Even more recently in the United States, the states of Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Washington have all legalised cannabis for recreational use. Indeed, there is a definite trend in the world today for the liberalisation of drug laws. As former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson said at CPAC ‘I would like to say that having a debate over whether or not to legalise marijuana is like having a debate over whether or not the sun is going to come up tomorrow.’
Despite this, there seems to be a legislative apathy about cannabis in South Africa. Even though there certainly exists an underground civilian movement for the liberalisation of drug laws, the unfortunate fact is that our parliament has to be more concerned with correcting the ill-discipline of its politicians and president rather than trying to make South Africa a better and freer place. The issue of marijuana might seem like one which is superficial and unimportant at this point in time, but I think that the liberalisation of our drug policy could actually have an enormous effect on crime, health and our economy. Here, I would like to lay out my case for the complete legalisation of cannabis in South Africa.
Dealing with potential problems.
Before we look at the potential good effects of cannabis legalisation, we should deal with potential problems that might arise.
It’s harmful to one’s health.
Actually, that’s an enormously debatable statement. Unfortunately, social conservatives in South Africa have forced an agenda on drugs in our schools, or so it seems. As someone who matriculated from high school fairly recently, I think that the attitude which our Life Orientation syllabus takes towards drugs is one of irrational demonisation and ultimately is the drive for the rebelliousness that causes teens to start smoking. When talking about the harmfulness of cannabis (when smoked) compared to cigarettes, we constantly hear conflicting views, as there seems to be no real consensus. The rational person here needs to take an open mind to the subject and we cannot simply demonise the drug without cause. I can say that from my research, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that alcohol and cigarettes are actually much more harmful than marijuana, but this is not something we are taught at school. Instead, it’s the same old anti-drug demagoguery which fuels rebelliousness and (it could be argued) is the ultimate cause of irresponsible drug use in our youth.
So, ultimately, we need to keep an open mind about this one. At the end of the day, however, even if marijuana is worse than cyanide, the libertarian should have no reason to think that the government is in any position to outlaw it and try parent its citizens with regard to what they put in their bodies.
Legalisation will increase accessibility
No doubt it will, but the evidence that we have does not suggest that an increase in accessibility means an increase in harm.
As I mentioned above, one of our greatest problems with drugs has been the demonisation and propaganda pushed by our education system. By having a message of ‘don’t do drugs because drugs are bad,’ it naturally means that drugs become a cool trend for rebellious teens to take part in. What teenage schoolchild has ever taken moral advice from their life orientation teacher? While it may be anecdotal, I can certainly say that in my high school environment, the morality which was pushed on us in life orientation classes was treated as nothing more than a joke and something more to rebel against. It is this culture which leads to our youth using drugs dangerously.
By contrast, cigarettes and alcohol – arguably as dangerous and/or addictive as marijuana – are widely accessible and so as a result, we are taught how to consume them safely when growing up. An increase in accessibility will not cause an increase in drug addicts necessarily. Ron Paul illustrated this very cleverly in a Republican debate in, of all places, South Carolina. What it will cause is an increase in knowledge about how to use drugs safely, and the available evidence from places such as the US state of Colorado and Portugal supports this.
Potential positive effects
Increased tax revenue
As a libertarian, I am, in principle, against any form of taxation. However, I also recognise the state of affairs of South Africa’s government and I have written in the past that a transition to a minimalist government would have to be a gradual one so as to prevent harm to the poor as much as possible. As such, one grave problem our country faces is that of our tax base, or lack thereof. News24 reported that a measly 3.3 million South Africans pay 99% of the national income tax revenue. Owing to our increasing calls for government benefits such as ‘free’ education and the futile support of failing nationalised firms, as well as the rampant unnecessary spending, that number of taxpayers is extremely minute. By legalising and taxing marijuana, we would be welcoming a new product from which we could raise tax revenue. This might make the price higher, but the principle of being able to buy cannabis legally would be a factor making it far more appealing to buy in a shop rather than from some shady guy down the alley. The aim would (of course) be to reach a point where we wouldn’t have to.
Cannabis is, after all, really a commodity – one with so many uses that people don’t often realise. Gary Johnson went so far as to proclaim its medicinal use to be a ‘miracle drug’ and even said that it could be a competitor to painkillers. The legalisation of cannabis could open up our market and create thousands of new jobs through products like textiles, alternative medicine, cosmetics, and others. New products could now be exported and tourism could increase due to our liberal drug laws. There would be huge economic opportunities opened up if we just legalised this plant.
Safety from buying it legally
One of the greatest dangers that comes with consuming drugs bought illegally is that there is no guarantee that what one buys is what is advertised. This is especially true of powdered substances like cocaine which can be cut with other powders. Similarly, if cannabis is legalised, those purchasing it can know who grew and cultivated it. There would be an incentive for businesses to ensure the safety of their product to consume. As mentioned above, the evidence available shows that countries with liberal drug laws have much lower drug-related mortality rates. Once again, the drive of competition in a free market will only be to the benefit of the consumer.
Safety in education
As I mentioned above, a large effect of trying to legislate morality and demonising certain substances ends up having the opposite effect and sadly, leads to actual harm. If we had an environment in which marijuana and/or other drugs were legal and spoken about openly, the education of the general populace around the use of psychoactive substances would be much greater. If we want to to ensure safer use of drugs, the solution will never be to legislate them away. If we want people to stop causing themselves unwanted harm from misuse of drugs, we need to teach them how to use drugs. That will never occur as long we insist in legislating them away for moral purposes.
Even if one were to discount everything else, the fact remains that by making a substance illegal, the government is violating your personal rights. For the classical liberal, the government should have zero say over what a person willfully decides to ingest. Some might say the the government has some kind of moral duty to make sure that people are making the right life choices, but who is the government to impose their life choices on us?
At the end of the day, it would seem absurd to call someone a ‘criminal’ for willfully ingesting a substance. Even if one could argue that ingesting that substance might not be the wisest choice for health reasons, that is no justification for throwing people in jail. Marijuana is seen by many as an incredible plant with multiple uses. If South Africa wants to move forward, in the words of Peter Tosh: “You’ve got to legalise it.”