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When people claim that cannabis doesn’t kill anyone, what they seem to be suggesting is that people don’t die from overdosing on the drug. In this limited sense, they may be right. But, make no mistake, cannabis is a killer.

For a start, smoking pot is a really good way of delivering a variety of toxic substances directly into your lungs. Then there’s the well-documented impact on mental health – especially among the young – triggering psychotic episodes, some of which result in suicide or violence to others. To these tragedies you can add various lower-level impacts on mental and physical functioning and the consequent toll of accidental deaths.

Determining the extent of cannabis-related deaths is difficult – it took decades of research to establish the facts for alcohol and tobacco. But the fact that conclusive studies exist for one set of substances and not another says nothing about their relative harm.

In any case, the comparison of harm done to individuals is not the only issue – one also has to consider the harm that different drugs do to entire cultures. Writing for the Telegraph blogs, Colin Freeman thinks through the impact of decriminalisation on British society:

  • “The working assumption for the authorities would have to be that there could be a big increase in use, as people who were previously deterred by illegality began indulging. How much punchier would market towns be after midnight on a Saturday, for example, if the average male reveller had had half a gram of coke as well as six pints of Stella?”

The mind boggles, but there’s a serious point here. Criminalisation rarely succeeds in eliminating a drug altogether, but it does limit its availability and therefore contains its use. Freeman explains why this external constraint is important:

  • “…the few nations where drugs, rather than booze, are the intoxicant of choice, do not make particularly encouraging examples. Alcohol is at least an honest poison: anyone who over-indulges will suffer a hangover the next day, which acts as a built-in limiter on consumption… Other substances, such as opium, marijuana, and khat, the amphetamine-filled leaf popular in Somalia and Yemen, exact no such immediate penalties on the constitution. Instead, they act in a much more insidious fashion, which can allow their use to become far more widespread.”

Mr Freeman knows Somalia well – not only as a foreign correspondent, but also as a former hostage of Somali pirates – he has therefore seen what happens when drugs take hold of an entire culture:

  • “…the fact that khat has no immediately debilitating side-effects – save for aching jaws for novices like me – means that Yemenis and Somalis are prone to overindulging, to the point where it has seriously cramped their work ethic. Trying to get anything done after 2pm is all but impossible, as most menfolk, rich and poor, are busy chewing…
  • “Yes, of course, somewhere like Yemen is very different to the UK. But if anyone wants to know what a society where drugs are an accepted part of life looks like, this is a glimpse. It may not be the end of civilisation as we know it, but it isn't exactly the pinnacle either.”

Yemen is indeed a very different place to Britain, but imagine what would happen to our culture if alcohol could be consumed in, say, pill form – and without causing hangovers. Do you think that, in such circumstances – and in the absence of legal prohibition – there’d be less drunkenness or a great deal more?

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