Nimbin MardiGrass, cannabis law reform and political malaise

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As the smoke clears from Nimbin MardiGrass, Dr Samuel Douglas examines the politics behind cannabis law reform. 

Nimbin MardiGrass is a heady mixture of fragrant smoke, grass-roots activism, commercial hype and earnest discussions of cannabis law reform.

Far away from the festival excitement, I wonder what the chances are that anything will change. I also wonder if politicians understand any of the principles underlying this debate.

As I see it, central to this debate are notions of individual choice and minimisation of harm. (They are also the kinds of things politicians should be interested in. If they’re not, I’d suggest they need a change of career.)

All things considered, choice is good. The notion that people can and should make choices for themselves sits at the core of liberal democracy. It’s also a big part of respecting a people as people. If you don’t respect someone’s autonomy – their right or ability to choose – then how much do you actually respect them? If you believe that choice has any value, then taking people’s choice away requires some justification.

Broadly speaking, reducing harm is good and causing harm is bad. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but it’s not a huge stretch to say that it’s not okay to harm someone unless there’s some other good reason to do so.

Based on these two ideas, that choice is good and harm is bad, it follows that we should aim for a society where we give individuals the most choice for the least harm to themselves and the community. How might we do this? Sometimes this might mean prohibiting very dangerous activities, like drink-driving or train-surfing. But in other cases, individuals can achieve good outcomes for themselves and those around them if they have good choices available — there’s no law saying that you must eat fruit and vegetables and yet plenty of people manage to do so.

As a society, we’ve tried the approach of restricting individual choice where cannabis is concerned. I would argue, as former premiers and police commissioners have, that this approach protects neither the individual nor the community. I don’t think many drug dealers are asking their clients if there’s a history of mental illness in their family. And even though most of them are prohibited now, the only reason we even had potentially lethal synthetic cannabinoids was to get around the illegality of the natural version. The cost of prohibition is high, both to individuals on the wrong side of the law and to the taxpayer that funds this whole misadventure — and that’s before we even consider the potential tax revenue.

This failure is not only practical, it cuts to the core of why we have laws in the first place. I mean, if a law that’s meant to keep us safe doesn’t, what exactly is the point of it?

Politicians need to look at the world outside their biases, preconceptions and prejudices. Maybe progressive policies regarding the use, possession, production and sale of cannabis can be used to give individuals access to a broader range of less harmful choices than they have at present. Ideally, this would respect the autonomy of adults to make decisions for themselves at the same time as it reduced harm to these individuals, their family and friends and the community at large.

What would this look like? I think something along the lines of a non-commercial or restricted commercial scheme of legalisation would best achieve these aims — there are plenty examples abroad that we could consider. But I would not hold out for perfection. History indicates that even a poorly regulated legitimate market is preferable to a criminally controlled black market. Our current approach to alcohol isn’t great, but the Prohibition era in the U.S. wasn’t perfect either. Want to know why the streets aren’t awash with moonshine booze or why more people don’t die from methanol poisoning after a big night out on the town? The regulated legitimate market, that’s why.

Yes, the legal market in alcohol results in a lot of deaths in Australia — about 15 per day. But considering that cannabis, by itself, has resulted in approximately zero deaths from overdose, I feel confident that supporters of the current laws (including, somewhat ironically, the AMA) are not treating this issue with anything resembling a sense of proportionality.

Progress seems a long way off in Australia. At the supposedly libertarian end of the political spectrum, Senator David Leyonhjelm has retreated from the rhetoric of his nanny-state inquiry and seems more interested in pursuing the freedoms relating to having more guns and paying less tax. The Coalition stolidly backs the status quo, only grudgingly supporting a weak and restrictive medical cannabis regime. The Greens express some enthusiasm for change, notably from Senator Richard Di Natale and NSW MP Mehreen Faruqi, but the party seems more interested in showing how grown-up it is by indulging in bitter factional warfare. Victorian MP Fiona Patten also deserves an honourable mention for her long-time support for reform, but her Australian Sex Party lacks the power to affect change. Stuck in the middle, Labor desperately hopes that no one does anything that requires any of its senior MPs to have a distinct opinion or say anything original.

I can’t even begin to unpick the ideological malaise that has gripped the bulk of our politicians. But I do think I know part of the problem. Respecting someone’s autonomy – their ability and right to make a choice – is closely linked to respecting that person for themselves rather than just seeing them as a means to achieve your own goals.

It is roughly, what Kant was talking about when he said we shouldn’t treat people just as means to an end. To most politicians, most people are voters, a way of achieving power and wealth — a means to an end. Until that changes, maybe they’ll never respect any choice we make, other than at the ballot box.

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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