What is Harm Reduction?

See also:
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Marijuana prices in Japan
See also: How many users are there?
See also: The Hemp Control Law
See also: 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 the success of crusade is judged by how good it makes it supporters feel. Prohibition of selected drugs has been around for several decades but it has neither managed to achieve its stated target, to end use or abuse of these drugs, nor is it ever likely to achieve it in the future. It's a successful crusade but a failed policy.

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 takes into account the damage done by drug law enforcement and any responses to it by the drug users and sellers.

When drug law enforcement leads drug users to turn to more harmful drugs or when it expands opportunities to violent criminals then it leads away from the goal of protecting society. Historic examples of this were when during alcohol prohibition in America people switched from beer and wine to more easily concealed hard liquor and when mafia gangs took over the black market. Modern examples are the spread of intravenous heroin use in South-East Asia after opium smoking was targetted by law enforcement. In Japan where marijuana is treated no different from harder drugs many young people who experiment with drugs try far more dangerous solvents or amphetamines instead of less harmful cannabis.

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 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:

  1. 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 abused too then one would have to argue that anybody who drinks alcohol should also go to jail. Yet nobody is arguing for alcohol prohibition, because we tried it and it failed.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 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 through the "risk premium" they can charge. 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.
  4. 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. As long as illegal marijuana production is so profitable it will be impossible to stop, no matter how much tax payer's money is spent on arresting users. If we want to to discourage excessive use or use by adolescents by making sure that marijuana is expensive to buy then a far better way to do this would be to tax it like we tax beer and cigarettes. This would also raise extra money for drug treatment and health education.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. It is likely that before marijuana is legalised again or officially tolerated in Japan its use would already have stabilized at the rate at which it which it will be consumed without criminal penalties: The end of alcohol prohibition in the USA was also preceeded by 13 years of rising illegal alcohol use.
  8. A drug policy that keeps marijuana illegal can not talk honestly about the risks of alcohol and nicotine, for fear of showing the risks from marijuana as benign by comparison. Legalisation will not happen without public debates about the risks of all drugs and this will make people more aware of the abuse potential and harm from currently legal drugs. 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 recognize that these are also drugs.
  9. 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 hemp. 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.
  10. 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 and stimulant drugs such as amphetamines are far more 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.
  11. 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. Arresting people is one of the most expensive ways of dealing with an issue. Giving people a criminal record for drug use does far more damage to their future careers than the drug use itself normally would.
  12. The amount of money we can spend on a drugs policy is limited. We should spend it on something that actually works. 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. Offering drug treatment for hard drug addicts yields far better returns to society than arresting casual cannabis users, who in their vast majority are not part of any "drug problem".

What can we do about increasing drug use?
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.

  1. 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 no one.
  2. 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 substance.
  3. 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:

See also: The "Hemp in Japan" library
See also: How many marijuana users are there in Japan?
See also: How expensive is marijuana in Japan?
See also: The Hemp Control Law

Other drugs:
See also: Alcohol
See also: Nicotine (Tobacco)
See also: Amphetamines (Speed)
See also: Caffeine (Coffee)
See also: OGD report 1997/98 on Japan

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See also:
See also: Hemp in religion, for fibre, food and fuel, as medicine
See also: Marijuana prices in Japan, How many users, The Hemp Control Law