I think it’s safe to say most people were horrified upon hearing about Emily Baer’s close encounter with death after smoking synthetic cannabis. Some state governments, such as NJ, have recently adopted a ban on synthetic marijuana. Despite first impression, this is the approach to drug policy we need to distance ourselves from. Prohibition was sold on the pretense it could make society “safer.” Let’s be clear, these dangerous new substances exist only because of prohibition, the source of its many arms of harmful symptoms. Synthetic cannabis now gains a foothold in the dark corridors of the criminal underground.
According to a 2012 Report by the United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics, Reducing the Illicit U.S. Demand for Drugs, “The United States continues to be the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs.” Despite strict drug laws, demand is healthy as ever but why?
The system we’ve been applying for half a century is to coerce people to be moral by law. Many, like philosopher Alan Watts, liken these prohibitions under another instance of sumptuary law, which harken back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Back then, sumptuary laws were often used to regulate dress to preserve a visual distinction between classes and assure peoples consumption was befitting their station in life. Traditionally, they are any form of governmental control of consumption. Historically, these laws --like drug laws today-- were largely ignored and almost impossible to enforce.
“Any time you feel shoved… You will attempt to exert your self-control and preserve your dignity by refusing to do the thing that you are being pushed to do,” explains Dr. David Burns, critically-acclaimed author and adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “The paradox is that you often end up hurting yourself.”
Apologists for prohibition contend that if we do reverse sumptuary laws drug use will explode, and society will fall apart. Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser on drug policy at the White House, talks to this point when he says “marijuana legalization would expose us to unknown risk.” But doesn’t freedom involve risk? If the Pilgrims succumbed to fear and scary what if scenarios, they never would have left the shores of Britain and colonized America. “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator, says best-selling novelist, Steven Pressfield, “Fear tells us what we have to do.” It only becomes bad when we are unaware and give it control over our lives. The unknown is scary, but that’s how progress is made.
Occurring at the same time voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana these synthetic cannabis bans are a reminder that prohibitionist policies still reign. These policies have fueled cartels, public health crises (HIV, overdoses), scores of needless death and disappearances, massive jail populations, and the emergence of new dangerous substances --like synthetic cannabis and bath salts. These symptoms are peripheral to the central driving source of prohibition and its incompatibility with basic human psychology. Despite prohibitive decrees, people will do drugs and the market will respond. “If you deny people access to the better ones, the ones they want,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, “they'll turn to worse ones, ones that are more dangerous.” To circumvent law, new dangerous substances will appear in the future and around we go again on the Prohibition Ferris-wheel. I find myself asking, “When will it end?”