Hugo Rifkind

The only way to end the war on drugs is to stop fighting it

Legalising cannabis isn’t as exciting as you’d expect. But it may be much more important than you think

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

It’s surprisingly boring, legalising weed. In Colorado, where recreational doobie has been utterly without censure for, ooh, about a week and a half now, the Department of Revenue (Marijuana Enforcement Division) has published Permanent Rules Related to the Colorado Retail Marijuana Code, which is 136 pages long and no fun at all.

Were I actually in Colorado, I suppose I could always spark something up to help me get to the end. ‘The statutory authority for this rule is found at subsections 12-43.4-202(2)(b), 12-43.4-202(3)(b)(II), 12-43.4-202(3)(b)(III), and 12-43.3-301(1), C.R.S,’ it drones, at the top of the final page. If you like, imagine that read out by a posh girl in a breathy voice over a drum beat, like they used to do in the Orb.

Right now, an ounce of marijuana costs you about $400, provided you are openly going to smoke it for fun. If you have some medical reason for needing it (and hundreds of thousands of Americans maintain they do), the cost is slashed by half. If you want to sell, you’ve got to control every aspect of your own supply chain (a bit like Morrisons does, I believe, with meat) and if you buy, you can’t cross state lines.

Nobody really knows how well any of this is going to work yet. Possibly vendors will make a killing. Possibly most of them will go bust as competition forces prices to plummet. Perhaps counter-intuitively, for the experiment to really work, it’s the latter that really needs to happen.

This is the year of the hash revolution. Uruguay may have set the ball rolling last year, when it utterly legalised the cultivation, sale and consumption of cannabis and marijuana in one fell swoop, but US has picked the ball up and is running with it. Washington state will follow Colorado later this year in doing much the same. Maine is heading that way, too. Massachusetts and bits of Michigan are legalising possession and numerous states are on the verge of legalising the stuff for medical use, which means almost the same thing for anybody over 21 who is prepared to pretend that they have a headache.

It’s massive, this. Nearly half a century since the start of the ‘war on drugs’, this is the first inkling that it might one day end. Nor should it be confused, any of it, with de facto strategies of tolerance by various European police forces, or the hare-brained, bonkers policies of decriminalisation in Holland and elsewhere. In fact this is the opposite, for both of those merely create a legal marketplace for an illegal industry, thus encouraging it to flourish. This, by contrast, is an economic land grab. It is the process of taking a criminal industry away from criminals.

Unsurprisingly, America is embarking upon a wide debate about the social harm that weed may or may not cause. If you’re young, particularly, it’s almost certainly pretty bad for you. In the US, while most drug use is plummeting among kids, marijuana use inches up and up. In the UK, the picture is less clear but, let’s be honest, legalisation is hardly going to make it drop, at least in the short term.

In the longer term, as it happens, I suspect it might. And yet I’d argue that this shouldn’t really be the point. Our media, for obvious reasons, often seems to give the impression that the great evil of the criminal drugs trade is the way that it makes some middle-class kids do unexpectedly poorly in their A-levels. Whereas actually, even if one buys the contentious argument that the stuff can cause schizophrenia (as opposed to perhaps just triggering it, sooner, among those heading that way already), a worse evil is the way it makes into criminals people who would otherwise not be. This is as true on the streets of Brixton or Moss Side as it is among the fields and plantations of any blood-soaked, third-world basket case of a nation you’d care to point a thai stick at.

If you want to end the war on drugs, the only real solution is to find a way to stop fighting it without surrendering to the bad guys. The triumph here is that people have finally made a more sensible assessment of just who the bad guys are. Just over a year ago, I wrote here that you’d be buying dope in your off-licence within a decade. Scratch that. Five years, tops.

A prince’s privilege

Has there ever been a more confected pile of bilge than the supposed controversy over Prince William going to study agriculture at Cambridge, despite not having the A-levels that would normally be required? ‘It’s an insult to every student whose A-levels and degree are the same or better than his, and who didn’t get a free pass to Cambridge in spite of them,’ wrote Melissa, a supposedly furious postgrad student, in the Guardian.

I mean, yes, it’s a bit unfair. Yes, his background is indeed affording him advantages over and above mere commoners like the rest of us. The thing is, if you truly object to the unearned privilege of HRH the Duke of Cambridge, then it’s a bit weird to decide that his tailor-made diploma at your Department of Land Economy is the place to start. Because despite those mediocre A-levels — and I’m sorry, Melissa, to be the one to break this to you — it turns out that he’s also going to be King.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Your cheap, snide remarks about the medicinal use of cannabis ignore the now overwhelming evidence of the important new science of the endocannabinoid system. True, the regulatory regime in California has brought the idea of ‘medical marijuana’ into disrepute but that is a small price to pay for overturning the completely idiotic and dishonest prohibition of cannabis. It brought our legal systems and governments across the world into disrepute. Only now is the truth beginning to emerge..

    Your remarks also overlook the enormous relief of pain, suffering and disability which cannabis now brings to increasing numbers of people, cheaply, safely and effectively. The liars and propagandists in the UK Home Office who have cruelly denied this to UK citizens will shortly be exposed for the abusers they are. They, indeed, are the real cannabis criminals.

    Many scientists now believe that the endocannabinoid system may be the most important set of physiological processes, regulating our central nervous, immune, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive and other systems. Cannabis is a cheap, safe and effective way of modulating and treating disorders of these processes.

    So please, drop the truculent and facile bleating and wake up to the real world. The idiotic policies we have followed on cannabis are at last crumbling away. Those responsible for them are charlatans and deceivers – and that includes every home secretary since 1971.

    • Hugo Rifkind

      You’re angrily disagreeing with somebody who basically agrees with you here, Peter. Maybe smoke less?

      • I smoke very little Hugo and only in the evenings when work is done. Why do you descend to such personal remarks? It’s the same as your disparagement of medicinal use. What is achieved by it? All you do is prolong the misinformation and lies. Surely journalism can be nobler than this?

        • Hugo Rifkind

          Peter, this is an article about why cannabis should be legal. This is what I think, and it also seems to be what you think.

          I am also entirely prepared to accept that it has medicinal uses as well as recreational ones and I’m not at all sure why you seem so determined to presume otherwise. I hope this helps.

          • Perhaps you would choose a different tone if you saw with your own eyes that it’s not just about ‘pretending to have a headache’ but is a safe and effective alternative to highly toxic, life-shortening, personality-destroying pharmaceuticals. It’s not quite so amusing once you see that.

            I appreciate your responses though and I am glad we are in agreement.

      • Hugo, don’t be so gullible. Only the weed can cure people’s ills? A pill couldn’t? No wonder I don’t trust the Left to run the world: they live on fumes and believe in fairytales.

        Everyone I’ve known, virtually, has tried it. Hasn’t made them better, happier people. And the fact I’ve never smoked it hasn’t made me worse. It’s idiocy in a weedy little roll, really. A waste of time, and worse.

  • Transformdrugs

    Great article. Transform Drug Policy Foundation launched its latest publication ‘How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide’, in the UK Houses of Parliament in December. It is the result of collaboration with experts all over the globe, and examines the pros and cons of all the existing cannabis regulation models, including Spain’s cannabis social clubs, Dutch coffee shops, Colorado and Washington, Uruguay and various medical supply models, as well as lessons (good and bad) from alcohol and tobacco. In line with your thoughts above, it aims to help make cannabis legalisation the really dull and ordinary regulatory challenge for policymakers that it should be – but hopefully in a readable and interesting way! The book and an executive summary are available at

    • maxwood

      One way to contribute to the Liberation without plowing through the 136 pages of Rules and Code Hugo referred to: open a less Regulated bizness than selling herb but just as necessary: a One Hit Head Shop. Offer unambiguously legal on-site demonstrations of 25-mg-serving-size single-toke equipment featuring unambiguously unregulated sifted particulate alternative herbs like alfalfa, basil, chamomile, damiana, eucalyptus, fo-ti-tieng, ginseng leaf, hops flower, oregano, peppermint, etc…. you get what I mean. For information about Long-Drawtube One-Hitters google Long-Drawtube One-Hitters.

  • Specifically for the UK, based on independent expert research, CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform published ‘How To Regulate Cannabis In Britain’ in October 2013.

    The report may be downloaded here:

    The research document ‘Taxing the UK Cannabis Market’ may be downloaded here:

  • David Lindsay

    Hugo Rifkind and I were born in the same year, and, although I have never taken any illegal drug, this article certainly took me back. It should be read with some Britpop on in the background. Or maybe something by the Spice Girls.

    However, working as I do with undergraduates, I am afraid that it is simply out of date. Among the younger generation now, a very few people take a large amount of drugs, but everyone else never touches them. The people who might occasionally have had a spliff or two at parties no longer exist.

    Illegal drug-taking has never been normal, and it is now very abnormal indeed. But we now have a rising generation the overwhelming majority which is not prepared to be bullied into silence. With any luck, by no means only on this issue. It will be fascinating to watch all of this pan out over the coming decades.

    Illegal drug use is now a small and declining minority interest. But one that does an enormous amount of social harm. Like so very many expressions of the “free” market, which cannot exist in general but not in drugs, prostitution or pornography, just as, for example, there cannot be the unrestricted movement of goods, services or capital but not of labour, i.e., of migrants.

    • Liberty

      Your last point, that we cannot have unrestricted movement of capital, goods or services without unrestricted movement of labour is false. It is perfectly possible. We did it for centuries before the EU was invented and it is done throughout the world outside the EU to this day – end economies outside the EU are doing a whole lot better because of it.

      • David Lindsay

        We did it for centuries before the EU was invented

        No, we didn’t. When, exactly?

        it is done throughout the world outside the EU

        No, it isn’t. Where, exactly?

    • Dr D.

      As a current undergraduate I can assure you that drugs are rife.

      • David Lindsay

        But most people don’t take them.

  • David Kay

    grow your own weed. dont give the cash to drug dealers, plus buying weed from a drug dealer is like buying booze from the netto. its crap. its like drinking £5 a bottle brandy all your life then you discover remy martin

    • Eddie

      I can see no problem with people growing their own for personal use.
      However, most grow your own is done in houses bought by Vietnamese gangs who use slaves to grow the dope for them.
      How immigration and multiculturalist diversity enriches our society eh?

  • Jim

    “a worse evil is the way it makes into criminals people who would otherwise not be”

    Cannabis does not have agency. People criminalise themselves when they knowingly break a law to engage in what is nothing more than a trifling pleasure.

    • NotYouNotSure

      It is more reasonable to view it from the other side, trifling pleasures are criminalised by politicians. Do you like drinking tea, betting perhaps or a bit of fishing ? Now imagine whatever it is that you like to do and politicians decide to ban that, you still going to make that argument ?

  • Shorne

    It has always been my experience that habitual cannabis use makes people very,very boring.

    • Eddie

      Indeed. And habitual use makes people psychotic too – which is at least more interesting that the years of waffle that preceded such loonytoon behaviour.

      • maxwood

        “Habitual use” 97% of the time turns out to be H-ot B-urning O-verdose M-onoxide $igarette papers. The most unboring cannabis use is at least 47 hours after the last toke– yes, abstinence makes the intellect profuser.

  • Eddie

    In effect, it has been decriminalised in the UK.
    Back in the late 80s, if you had a tiny piece of blow on you when searched by the police, you’d have been arrested, Now? Not so.
    Ditto for customs. I remember getting searched and the customs plastic plods doing a chemical test on a tobacco tin I had – if that had shown a trace of cannabis, I would have got done. Now? A bit of cannabis gets you a fine and no record.
    No drugs should be made legal. End of. That does not mean that addicts should not get free drugs, or that policing issues might change. But legal? How very naïve.

  • marksheasby

    Hugo, as a police officer I believed in the decriminalisation of drugs in the way you recommend, i.e. commerce not criminality. So much crime and victimisation was generated by it’s illegal status it seemed a straightforward decision. However, as a father of teenagers I am very concerned about the prospect of easily available drugs. The only fact I am certain of is that the ‘war on drugs’ will / has failed.

    Accepting that drugs will forever be present in our communities, whether we like it or not, I believe the debate for and against is far too polarised. There are benefits for and very real dangers to present an argument against. Peter Reynolds below, for example in his vociferous advocacy for the use of cannabis makes no mention of the medically proven risks of schizophrenia from high use.

    Legal, cheap and easy access drugs equals less crime, less victimisation, more choice. It also means more addiction and the accompanying medical, social problems and costs. In my view a proper debate isn’t the advocacy of either position as a perfect solution, it’s a debate to determine the least worse of two unpleasant options.

    • I am not engaged in any advocacy for cannabis use except for medicinal or therapeutic reasons which can be supported by evidence. I am engaged in advocacy for cannabis law reform because, as you seem to understand its prohibition causes far more harm than it prevents.

      If adults want to use cannabis recreationally I believe they should be able to make that choice but I am not advocating that anyone should do so.

      There is evidence that cannabis use at an early age can increase the risk of schizophrenia, perhaps as much as doubling it. Professor David Nutt suggests that we should regards this as about the same as a doubling of the risk of being struck by lightning. Professor Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry says “cannabis is safe for over-18 brains, but risky for under-18 brains”.

      The prevalence of dependency (about 9% of all users) and intensity of withdrawal symptoms are less than coffee (Hall et al 2001, Coffey et al 2002, Copeland et al 2004). I also refer to the Henningfield and Benowitz ratings of addictiveness, both of which show cannabis as less addictive than nicotine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol and caffeine:

      Legal regulation of cannabis is the only option that makes any sense. It won’t eliminate all harms but it will minimise them.

      • marksheasby

        Thanks for updating my knowledge Peter – interesting stuff. I also stand corrected as to your non advocacy. I would re emphasis my point that a proper debate on pros and cons is needed. It’s not a straightforward issue.

  • black11hawk

    I heard the course William is going to do is not even a selective one anyway, so it wouldn’t matter if he’d got 2 D’s and an E at A-level he’d still have got on, the whole thing was just a straw man.

  • Tom Tom

    Deregulate gun ownership and stop the silly war on legal ownership of handguns. Victorian England had no restrictions. If you want to stop drugs trade criminalise tobacco so they move into that segment for profits.

  • ‘Hundreds of thousands’: heh heh heh. Uh-huh.

    And you know: he won’t be King. King has a political meaning. He can’t ever be King in the political meaning, the essential meaning. That has died. He is first man ever to be The Man That Would Not (Truly) Be King.

  • Jonah Goldberg on weed:

    “Pot smoking is something to grow out of early, or never start. Yes, I know there are exceptions, but as a general rule I’m convinced pot-smoking — particularly routine pot-smoking — creates potheads, by which I mean fuzzy-minded and slothful people (or people who are more fuzzy-minded and slothful than they would otherwise be). If you are one of the high-functioning exceptions, or if you are a pothead and don’t realize that you are not one of the high-functioning exceptions, I’m sorry if this hurts your feelings….

    Often when I make the — to my mind obvious — observation that heavy pot-smoking creates burnouts, I’m accused of exaggerating the percentages. I’m told that the exceptions are a much larger constituency and the burnouts are a much smaller one than I think. Okay, maybe so. But the fact remains that for a significant number of people, pot puts you on a bad path that becomes harder to get off over time….

    The irony is that liberals who think inequality is so terrible are cheering a reform that will in all likelihood exacerbate inequality. At least the libertarians celebrating the news from Colorado are consistent. They don’t care about income inequality. They argue legalization will increase liberty and happiness. They are right on the liberty part. The jury is out on the happiness part.”

  • Rob

    Peter Reynolds:

    You’re not doing your cause any good. By your actions here, you’re just reminding everyone of the dangers of daily cannabis use – taking the smallest of things and blowing them out of all proportion. You seriously need to calm down.