Hemp as a "drug"
Marijuana prices in Japan
How many users are there?
The Hemp Control Law
Hemp prohibition in Japan
What is "Harm reduction"?
They say the difference between a policy and a crusade is that a policy has
to be judged by its results, but a crusade is only judged by how good
it makes it supporters feel. On that basis drug prohibition is a
successful crusade but a failed policy.
Prohibition of selected drugs has been around for several decades
but despite increased efforts and costs it has not managed
to achieve its stated goal, to end use of these drugs. Judging
by past experience it will never reach it, or even come close.
This lack of success is not because we aren't doing enough.
Instead, it's because we've been doing the wrong things.
We've been doing things that we thought would send messages but
otherwise weren't really very effective. We are not directing
our limited resources into the most effective way of handling
the problem. We are ignoring evidence of ongoing failure because
we would rather not face our taboos.
The simple idea of harm reduction is to do whatever works best,
measured by the total amount of harm as its outcome.
The law of unintended consequences
This little story is said to have happend in Eastern Europe.
Civil servants were found to be using lots of pencils. It
was assumed they were stealing them for personal use at home. The
administration decided to put a stop to it. One new pencil
was only to be issued if one old pencil stub was returned.
To their surprize pencil usage increased even more: Instead
of being able to take four new pencils home the civil servants
now had to cut up a fifth pencil to make four stubs first.
The lesson is that sometimes the attempted solution creates
responses that are worse than the original problem. It's not
what we attempt to achieve that matters but what we actually
Drug law enforcement initially set out to protect people from
problems involving drugs by making certain substances legally
unavailable. However, enforcement of such drug laws can lead
users to switch to other, more dangerous drugs. It leads to
huge, uncounted costs to society from criminalisation,
from the spread of infectuous diseases by behaviour encouraged
by illegality. It expands opportunities for violent criminals.
Drug money allows gangs to recruit more criminals. It is their
life blood. So much money to be made with things that are
illegal will corrupt law enforcement and all security branches
of the government. Abusers will shy away from seeking help for
fear of getting arrested. Users will lack safety advice and
controlled product quality. Black market dealers sell to buyers
of all ages, and they often sell many kinds of drugs. Whatever
health risks there are from a drug, they will always increase
if the drug is banned and in proportion to how hard the law
When such things happen, the actual outcome of what was a
well-meaning policy leads us away from the goal of protecting
society. It has happened many times: During alcohol prohibition
in the USA people switched from beer and wine to more easily
concealed hard liquor and mafia gangs violently fought over a
black market. People died or went blind from bad liquour.
When opium smoking was eradicated in South-East Asia it caused
a switch to intravenously injected heroin abuse which became
a wave that spread HIV and AIDS. Addicts are younger than ever.
In Japan where marijuana is treated no different from
harder drugs many young people who experiment with drugs
do not use less harmful cannabis as in more cannabis-tolerant
countries but try far more dangerous solvents or amphetamines
because these are more readily available. The harder you try
to stop marijuana, the harder the drugs that people will use
In the last decades, an alternative approach to dealing with the drugs
problem has gained support in many countries. This approach, called
"harm reduction", does not simply try to reduce drug availability at
all costs but also considers the damage done by drug law
enforcement and any responses to it by the drug users and sellers.
It takes into account the law of unintended consequences.
If total eradication of currrently prohibited drugs is an unrealistic
goal then we need to find a way to live with the availability of drugs,
striving to minimize harm caused by both drug use itself and by the
direct and indirect effects of our policies meant to discourage drug
use. Just like doctors who often have to prescribe medicines that can
have undesireable side effects, we have to weigh the benefit of different
"treatments" for the "disease" versus the potential harm from these
"treatments" so as to pick one policy that offers the greatest amount
of benefit at the least damage to society.
Harm reduction is not just a theory. It has been put into practise by the
Dutch government and parliament since 1976. The Dutch can buy cannabis in
coffee shops. Decriminalisation has not lead to increased drug use.
Problems with hard drugs are much lower than in France or Germany.
The Dutch economy is the most productive in Europe.
Harm reduction and marijuana
Some might say, even if alcohol and nicotine cause significant health damage,
that is no argument to legalise marijuana. "We have enough problems with two
legal drugs, we don't need another one." According to this thinking, if marijuana
were made legal again, more people would use it and the harm from increased
marijuana use would come in addition to existing harm from legal drugs and this
should be prevented at any cost. Though this argument sounds plausible at first,
there really are many problems with it, since it ignores many important aspects
of the situation:
- It doesn't matter how many different legal substances
are available, what matters is how to minimize harm from them.
It makes no sense to coerce people to use more harmful drugs
instead of letting them use less harmful
ones, no matter which one is used by more people already.
If one really believes that total prohibition and jails are the
best way to prevent abuse and one recognizes that alcohol is one
of the most frequently abused drugs then one would have to argue
that being found in possession of alcohol should put you into jail.
Yet nobody is arguing for alcohol prohibition, because the USA tried
it and it didn't work.
- Laws that seek to control availability through prohibition
are misguided and ineffective. Availability is not really the
decisive factor in drug use since rising demand will lead to
higher prices which usually attract more suppliers, as economics
Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman
has long pointed out. As long as there is enough demand for drugs
availability will always catch up, no matter what new laws we pass.
In a free country prohibition
could never wipe out the use of prohibited substances,
since prohibition-inflated prices will always attract criminals
looking for easy profits. As borders are crossed, prices go up
more than a 100 times. It is estimated that if the government
of Mexico could intercept 50% of all cocaine this would only
increase drug prices in the USA by 3%. An intercept rate of 50%
is impossible to achieve. Law enforcement usually intercepts
less than a tenth of the drugs that are produced or smuggled
into a country while over 90% of the drugs reach the profitable
black market, earning criminals a fortune. 8% of all world trade
dollars are made on illegal drugs, bigger than all the car exports.
We know from experience that alcohol prohibition did not stop
Americans from drinking, but it created a rich source of
income to violent gangsters such as Al Capone.
- A single marijuana plant produces enough seeds to grow thousands
of new plants. It is as easy to grow as maize (corn) or tomatoes and yet in Japan
it usually sells for twice the price of gold.
It doesn't matter how illegal this plant has become, as long as illegal
marijuana production is so easy and profitable it will be impossible to
stop, no matter how much tax payer's money is spent on arresting users.
Even after 53 years of cannabis prohibition, the plant grows wild in
many parts of the country, as it has done for thousands of years.
- If we want to to discourage excessive marijuana use or use by
adolescents we don't have to make it illegal, we can simply make it
expensive. Rising tobacco taxes have motivated many a cigarette smoker
to give up smoking, and marijuana is less addictive than tobacco.
The government could sell marijuana in licensed
stores (not supermarkets) and tax it like it taxes beer and cigarettes.
It could sell grow licences for personal use to adults.
This would also make available more money for drug treatment and
health education, paid for by drug users and not by other taxpayers.
People who are really interested in drugs other than alcohol and
nicotine will go ahead and try them, whether they are prohibited
or not. This is especially true for young people who are naturally
curious and not as capable of judging the legal risks as well as older
people are. Punishing those who are only experimenting with a
drug and who would mostly grow out of it very soon is
counterproductive, especially when the direct health risks of the
drug are as moderate as in the case of marijuana.
- It is questionable if legalisation would lead to any significant
increase in use. If prohibition worked then the Netherlands, where
cannabis use has been tolerated by the police for almost a quarter
of a century (since 1976), should have higher rates of use than
next-door Germany or America. This is not the
case. Use rates amongst the Dutch are similar to rates amongst
Germans. In the USA, where some people serve lifes sentences without
possibility of parole for growing marijuana,
the rate of use is 6.4% versus only 3% in the
more tolerant Netherlands. That's because the Dutch spend more of
their drug policy money on health-care based policies that work and
not on police and prisons that are ineffective.
Drug use is affected far more by social attitudes, fashions and
information than by laws. Marijuana use is relatively low in Japan
not because it's illegal but primarily because most people still
think it is an addictive narcotic like opium or heroin. As more
people discover that this is not the case use will probably rise
(as it has been gradually rising for over 30 years), whether
marijuana is legalised or not.
Japanese marijuana seizures increased six-fold from 1998 to 1999.
Drug laws don't control use, they react to it. The end of alcohol
prohibition in the USA was preceeded by 13 years of rising illegal
alcohol use. It is likely that before marijuana is legalised or
tolerated in Japan again its use would already have stabilized at
the rate at which it which it will be consumed without criminal
A drug policy that keeps marijuana illegal can not talk honestly
about the risks of nicotine and
alcohol, for fear of either showing
the risks from marijuana as benign by comparison or exposing
its own hypocrisy. Legalisation is a chance to better treat
or drug problems #1 and #2, nicotine and alcohol.
Legalisation will not happen without public debates about the
risks of all drugs. This will make people more aware of the
abuse potential and harm from currently legal drugs. We would
have a chance to explain that "legal" is not the same as "harmless".
Even if marijuana use were to become more common after legalisation,
the most likely side-effect of that would be a drop in alcohol
and tobacco consumption as people become aware that these are
also drugs that carry risks.
Not only would people be more careful with the currently legal drugs, they would
also have less incentive to use them as much. People smoke fewer joints than
cigarettes and can't handle much alcohol when they smoke cannabis. Many cannabis
users virtually give up alcohol altogether. In many societies where cannabis
use is common (such as the Brahmins of India, Islamic societies and amongst
the Rastafarians of Jamaica) alcohol is either banned or frowned upon.
Since alcohol abuse is far more harmful to people's health than excessive
marijuana use the net result of this switch would be beneficial.
- Tough laws and propaganda against cannabis
encourage abuse of other,
far more harmful drugs.
By making marijuana available through legally tolerated sales
outlets where minimum age laws can be enforced, people who want to try the
drug will no longer need to enter an unregulated black market where gangsters
will try to sell hard drugs to customers of all ages.
If young people in Japan were honestly informed that solvents are far more
toxic than marijuana and that stimulant drugs
such as amphetamines are far more addictive and harmful than marijuana
and if marijuana was available without fear of prosecution then this
could help reduce the widespread abuse of easily obtained solvents
(which cause brain damage) and of dangerous stimulant drugs.
- Even if legal marijuana would not reduce harm from other legal or illegal
drugs, prohibition itself causes harm. Users who get caught lose their freedom,
their jobs and their incomes. Jailed users don't pay taxes but instead have
to be guarded, housed and fed at taxpayers' expenses. Prisoners in the USA
cost between $20,000-$100,000 per year to house and feed (¥2,300,000-11,500,000),
more than studying at the best universities of the country. Jailing people
is one of the most expensive ways of dealing with a problem, which is why
it should be reserved for the more serious crimes. Giving young people a
criminal record for drugs does far more damage to their future careers
than the experimental drug use itself normally would.
The amount of money we can spend on a drugs policy is limited. We should
spend it on something that actually works. The drug war doesn't work.
You can not solve a public health problem using criminal law enforcment.
There is no evidence that prohibition is a cost effective method of
limiting or reducing drug-related damage.
The USA boosted its federal
drug prohibition budget from $65 million in 1969 to $1 billion in 1980,
to $17 billion in 1998, with virtually no impact on drug use, which
fell and rose independently. Even though over last few years arrest
rates went up in both the USA and Japan, hard drugs have become cheaper
in both countries. 
If we want to solve this problem we need to concentrate our resources
where they are most needed. Cannabis is not physically addictive.
Few users develop a psychological dependence. There are fewer
problem users amongst cannabis users than amongst users of legal
drugs. We should target our resources not on specific substances
but on specific people. First we should make accurate information
available. Most people avoid bad risks if they are given enough
information. To those who still run into health or other problems
we should then offer help, whether they abuse alcohol, methamphetamine,
nicotine or even cannabis. Chances are, if all the effects of drug
abuse were out in the open, it would encourage people to be more
careful and it would make it easier for those who need help to get help.
What can we do about drug abuse?
If drug use is increasing then that is for a
number of factors, such as changing values, cultural influences, personal
experiences in people's lives. Drug use is just a symptom of other causes,
some of which are very difficult to address. It should not surprize us
that attempts to treat the symptoms have little effect when the root causes
are left untreated.
Our modern consumer society encourages materialism,
stress, fast-paced lives, intense competition and it leads to a loss of traditional
values and of religion. However, many of the changes have positive effects too and
in any case are difficult if not impossible to undo.
When people look for
explanations to difficult problems, especially problems that they have no
first hand knowledge of, then it is easier to find an excuse, a scape goat
to blame the problem on. In medieval Europe epidemics were blamed on the Jews
and all sorts of evil was blamed on "witches" who were burnt alive. Nowadays
it's much easier to blame plants or chemicals than to think about the
way we work, raise our children and how we entertain ourselves and
then to change the way we live. That's why drugs have become such
a convenient scapegoat for the evils of society all over the world.
The existence of drugs is an excuse for not fixing the real problems,
and as long as people are afraid they will give up more of their freedoms.
It is part of human nature to seek altered states of consciousness, either
through drugs, sex, physical activity or religion. As long as there is
pain, boredom or curiosity there will also be drugs.
We should accept that as a fact rather than seeking a drug free utopia.
Total prohibition of virtually all drugs other than alcohol and tobacco
is not the least harmful drug policy because it ignores the individual
properties of each legal or illegal drug, the frequency at which they
are used and the damage done by enforcement.
- We should recognize the difference between use and abuse,
appropriate and inapropriate settings, adolescent and adult use
and less harmful or more harmful drugs. We need a more intelligent
drug policy that considers more than just the chemistry of a
We should regulate various drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) in
appropriate ways so as to minimize harm. What works for cannabis may
not work for amphetamines, cocaine or heroin. Different approaches
may be needed for different drugs. Being afraid of legalising harder
drugs is no good reason to keep arresting marijuana users who hurt
- We need a policy that's based on science and facts, not prejudice and
lies. The tolerant Dutch approach
is a better model to follow than the American policy of "zero tolerance",
which is just another word for intolerance.
Here is some information about specific drugs in Japan:
The "Hemp in Japan" library
How many marijuana users are there in Japan?
How expensive is marijuana in Japan?
The Hemp Control Law
OGD report 1997/98 on Japan
"While the federal budget to fight drugs went from one
and a half billion dollars a year up to 16 billion dollars
a year, the price of one gram of pure cocaine fell from
$300 in 1981 to $100 in 1997. For heroin the price
fell from $3,500 to $1,100."
Rev. Robert Schaibly, August 6, 2000
Hemp in religion,
for fibre, food and fuel,
Marijuana prices in Japan,
How many users,
The Hemp Control Law