Imagine that you’re a smuggler. You’re running a high-risk operation bringing contraband jewellery out of a country which outlaws the export of any precious or semi-precious stones. If you get caught, you face years in jail. Do you smuggle a) quartz or b) diamond?
No, it’s not a hard question, is it. If your risks are high, your potential rewards had better be as well, or you might as well invest your money in a tax-free ISA and save yourself the effort. A high-quality diamond weighing a gramme could sell for up to £53,000, according to a no doubt completely trustworthy website I found via Google. The same quantity of quartz might get you a penny, if it’s good stuff. So, you smuggle the diamond. Your risk is still high, but your potential benefits are, too.
Now, imagine that you’re a cannabis producer. You live in a country that has relatively draconian measures, including jail terms, for producers. Do you grow a) old-school weed such as your parents smoked at the Isle of Wight Festival while watching Procol Harum, which has to be grown outside in huge fields or b) terrifying luminous-green “super-skunk” that you can grow in large quantities under lights in your mum’s basement, and which sells at two or three times the price and is probably called something like “The Howling Paranoia” or “Everyone Is Staring At You Oddly”?
Yes, obviously, you grow the Panic Bags. It’s exactly the same benefit/risk calculation that goes on when you’re choosing whether to stick your money in low-risk, low-reward savings accounts or high-risk-but-high-reward investment funds. If your 0.15 per cent interest savings account had a decent chance of losing all your money (not to mention sticking you in jail, of course), you wouldn’t bother.
It’s worth thinking about all this when you read that “super skunk” and its various stablemates are being blamed for an increase in mental health issues. We report that figures released to MPs “show that the number of hospital admission for mental or behavioural issues due to cannabis rose from 651 in 2008/09 to 1,003 in 2011/12”. Now, as ever, the relative risk should be displayed alongside the absolute risk: last year the Home Office reported that there were 2.3 million cannabis users in Britain. One thousand of them were admitted to hospital; to be very simplistic about it, in 2008/2009, for every 7,000 cannabis smokers, two would have an episode that required hospitalisation. Now three do. This is not the stuff of Reefer Madness; there is not an epidemic. (And, of course the causal arrow might not be as straightforward as all that: some reports suggest that part of the reason cannabis smokers are more likely to have mental health problems is that people with mental health problems are more likely to smoke cannabis. But it seems likely that there is some causal link.)
But that’s not really the point. The point is that if you want people to stop growing, importing and smoking the really strong stuff, then stop incentivising them to do so. I went, yesterday, to a lunch organised by the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, which had various grandees from fields including public health, international development, and disease prevention, to discuss the new report “Count the Costs: 50 years of the war on drugs“. I have to say that of all the costs of the war on drugs, the leap from a 0.029 per cent risk of hospitalisation to a 0.043 per cent risk for Britain’s pot-smokers is not one of the greatest ones. Not compared to the multi-billion-dollar actual cost (the world spends as much fighting the war on drugs as it does on international aid, one chap from a development charity said yesterday, and that’s just the direct costs). Not compared to the epidemic of Aids and hepatitis caused by dirty needles, or the collapse of the rule of law in Afghanistan and much of Latin America, or the forced poverty of growers, or the criminalisation of large swathes of the population in the West, especially young black men in America.
If, though, we are going to worry about the mental health problems caused by cannabis, then let’s be honest about what causes the cause. “Super skunk” is a symptom of drug prohibition, not a thing that has sprung from nowhere. Anecdotally, speaking to cannabis users, I’ve heard several say they’d like to buy something other than skunk (which makes them paranoid) but can’t get hold of it. In a very minor way, this is the drug war in microcosm: efforts to crack down on a perceived problem end up creating a far worse one. If kids are smoking stuff that’s stronger than it used to be (and they are, although nowhere near as much as the most panicky reports suggest), it’s because the law is forcing them to. Maybe it’s time to stop.