Obama's cannabis defence illuminates NSW booze laws


'Cannabis defence', by Chris Johnston. African American men stand behind bars sharing a small joint, guarded by a large man in a 'Jails-R-Us' T-shirt. A white man smoking a large joint walks by with immunityLast week US president Obama surprised many by claiming in a New Yorker interview that marijuana is 'less dangerous' than alcohol 'in terms of its impact on the individual consumer'.

The statement was made amidst the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado and Washington, which Obama called an important 'experiment'. Although careful not to endorse the drug (he explicitly stated he would discourage his own daughters from partaking), Obama nonetheless drew swift and heavy criticism.

The Drug-Free America Foundation claimed the president is 'either seriously ill-informed ... or is completely ignoring warnings from his highly-esteemed advisers'.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine released a statement saying marijuana impairs memory, motor function and respiratory health, while the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed to the drug's highly addictive nature, with 4.2 million Americans either addicted to or abusing it in 2011 alone.

In mistaking comparison for endorsement, Obama's critics spectacularly missed his point.

Far from giving the drug his presidential seal of approval, Obama was attempting to start a conversation, on societal attitudes to marijuana versus alcohol certainly, but primarily on the way marijuana laws disproportionately affect black and Hispanic communities: 'Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do ... And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.'

Obama has highlighted an obvious double standard at work and the reasons for its existence must be explored.

Cannabis use is targeted with a fervour that saw eight million arrests from 2001–2010. And yet alcohol, despite its own addictiveness (one 2007 study found that 30 per cent of Americans will abuse booze at some point in their lives), is not only socially accepted but widely encouraged.

But pointing out that marijuana may not be as dangerous as alcohol is not the same as saying it is harmless.

Indeed, a recent long-term study has indicated that cannabis affects young brains differently than those of adults, leaving teenage users 'at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory'.

While such findings are used as justification both for criminalisation and harsh punishment, the already legal status of alcohol makes it easier to excuse its own destructive qualities. These include impaired brain function, increased risk of some cancers, liver disease, weakened immune system, loss of concentration, and decreased productivity. Then there is the problem of alcohol-fuelled violence, which I will get to a little later.

To quibble over which drug is more harmful is to misread Obama's statements. The real question is, why is marijuana treated as a legal issue and not one of public health?

The answer certainly involves race, as Obama well knows. The president is not, as his detractors so often accuse him, 'playing the race card' when he says the criminalisation of marijuana disproportionately affects blacks. The Washington Post reported earlier this month:

Black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested (for cannabis possession) than whites. While white and black Americans use marijuana at roughly similar rates — though whites aged 18 to 25 consistently surpass their black peers — arrest rates are nowhere near comparable ... African Americans represented 14 per cent of drug users ... yet accounted for 34 per cent of all drug arrests and 53 per cent of those sent to prison for a drug offense.

It would be a stretch to say marijuana remains illegal simply to keep black people in prison, but the 'war on drugs' does help America's private prisons turn a profit. Mandatory minimum sentences for many drug-related crimes (including simple possession) has seen the prison population increase by 700 per cent in the last few decades (despite violent crime rates decreasing). One in six federal prisoners is in a for-profit institution.

It's no surprise then that private prison corporations are among those special interest groups funding the war on drugs. As this MSNBC report notes, the top three private prison companies have spent over $45 million on lobbying and campaign donations to pro-drug-war politicians over the last decade. 

Other parties paying to keep marijuana illegal include pharmaceutical companies, who would see a large dent in profits if medicinal marijuana was legal, and alcohol distributors, who would also suffer losses should recreational users have a legal option to choose cannabis. 

And in a nation still divided bitterly along race lines, blacks, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, bear the brunt of the prisons-for-profit program. Not only are they more likely to be arrested, charged and imprisoned, but also — as Obama noted — the entrenched discrimination that sees more minorities living in poverty means they are less likely to have the resources to escape punishment.

The perils of mandatory sentencing should also serve as something of a warning to NSW, which has announced mandatory minimum sentences as a response to alcohol-fuelled violence. First time offenders convicted of one-punch assaults could likely find themselves with much harsher sentences than long-time criminals, depending on whether alcohol was a factor in an attack. Which goes to show that it's not about which drug is more dangerous but how society chooses to deal with each one and why.

This is the conversation America should be having in the wake of Obama's comments. Drug dependence is a public health issue but the unholy alliance of capitalism and racism means the lives of minorities are effectively destroyed for a crime that's usually punished with little more than a slap on the wrist when committed by whites.

Ruby Hamad headshotRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, marijuana, Obama, alcohol-fuelled violence



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Existing comments

I'm staggered that if I am drunk and kill someone with one punch I get a mandatory 8 year sentence but if I'm not drunk and kill someone with one punch I may get a suspended sentence. And the people and the culture and the system that facilitated and encouraged me to get drunk get off scot-free?
Ginger Meggs | 01 February 2014

Precisely because drug use - legal and illegal, is a public health issue, it should be subject to very strict lews. Look what has happened since alcohol retail laws and pain-killing drug retail laws have been relaxed - and continue on the downward slipper slope. More and more use and abuse, more and more potent types available readily to people, especially younger people. If mandatory sentenceing laws only offend a few politically sensitive people, but act as the deterrent they are intended to be, as well as the removal from harming others, well and good. An increase in the prison population should be the impetus to end prisons being an 'industry' propping up employment, and make them the concentrated re-education and rehabilitation institutions they need to be.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 03 February 2014

Phillip SeymourHoffman has just been sadly found dead of a suspected drug overdose. He was quoted as saying a while back that he liked his drugs. It would seem we can,t stop the greed and corruption of those who supply and directly or indirectly supply these banned substances. But can we move the discussion to an understanding of the society that has emerged. How can we raise , educate our children and citizens to live with hope and good decision making ? How can we best support them when they make mistakes? Alcohol is being abused by underage teenage drinkers,adolescents and adults. Let,s have honest discussions and funded policies that get at underlying causes of our society,s malaise.
Celia from Richmond | 03 February 2014

You raise a number of related problems which highlight a couple of serious situations for which there are no simple answers, Ruby, because a political or legal solution seems not to work. Is there a real way to give young people, particularly underprivileged ones, a life where they do not need the artificial highs that some get from alcohol and drug misuse? Is any drug use misuse? I am unsure punitive programs on the scale you describe do anything but satisfy vested interests including the immensely profitable private prison industry. I think we are looking at something very dark in our affluent society as far as this misuse/abuse goes. There are, as you point out, several vested interests involved. I think the solution, or solutions, may come from outside left field, where some simple but compassionate people, who can run programs which change others are quietly at work. It is real grass roots stuff that works which is needed. A very good article which, hopefully, may get people thinking and looking outside the square. The answer, as you seem to imply, does not rely with the "Yes Minister" approach of recycling failed initiatives.
Edward F | 03 February 2014

Fr Mick I like your last sentence. But how well do you think privatised prisons will work towards re-education and rehabilitation?
Janet | 03 February 2014

Private prisons of the American sort and rehabilitation programs run in them may be at cross purposes. I think we need to look at the Scandinavian approach. Our habit of recycling failed programs that don't work needs to be addressed. They can become self perpetuating to our considerable cost.
Edward F | 03 February 2014

Indeed, a recent long-term study has indicated that cannabis affects young brains differently than those of adults, leaving teenage users 'at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory'. NOT TRUE Study author Ole Rogeberg of the Ragnar Frisch Center for Economic Research in Oslo, based the new research on a computer simulation. Drawing on results of earlier studies, it traced the potential effects of those socioeconomic factors on IQ. He found patterns that looked just like what the Duke study found for smoking marijuana. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/does-marijuana-lower-iq-new-study-challenges-link/ Why has this not been seen before? Why did this just become news? The truth is that cannabis is embarrassingly safe. That's why prohibition is dying.
Name | 03 February 2014


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