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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 21st September 2011

A tweet from Transform Drug Policy Foundation took me to a number of photos in the USA’s National Archive showing some people smoking pot in May 1973. There’s no copyright restrictions on these photos so I thought I’d reproduce a couple of them here.

Cannabis smoker 1973

On the same day, I read the latest report from the FBI on the number of arrests associated with Cannabis sativa in the USA during 2010 showing that of the 1.6 million people arrested for ‘Drug abuse violations’ over 750,000 were arrested simply for possession of cannabis.

The FBI ‘Uniform Crime Report’ only covers arrests and does not deal with prosecutions and sentencing so I had to look elsewhere for that data. During that search, I came across the UCR figures for 2001. In that year, there were 640,000 arrests for cannabis possession. That 17% increase in the number of possession arrests came over a decade that saw a reduction in cannabis use as a recreational drug.

Data on imprisonment is hard to annualise because sentence lengths may vary but, it seems, that at any one time around 50,000 Americans are in prison for possession of cannabis.

I can’t help asking how we went from the 1970s, when the young people in the photographs were happy to be recorded using cannabis, to today when, in spite of much more information to show that cannabis use is less harmful than alcohol, simply being caught in possession of cannabis can see you imprisoned in the USA.

Cannabis smoker 1973

One difference, to the USA’s shame, is, of course, that the people photographed are white whereas being black is a proven risk factor for ending up in jail in America. Though action has been taken via The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (5th July)  to deal with the inherent racism of the law on cocaine, the issue of race and the application of drug laws in the USA is far from being resolved.

There are reasons for optimism over the potential for changes to the current prohibition regime both in the USA and around the world. In the UK, the Liberal Democratics’ annual conference approved a call for an independent panel to be established to look at the working of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and propose changes. In the USA, Ron Paul, currently running third in the list of potential Republican candidates for the presidential election in 2012, has repeated his long-held view that the ‘war on drugs’ should be ended and individuals should be allowed to take responsibility for the substances they use.

In some of the countries worst affected by the ‘war on drugs’, like Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia, there have been calls for a change of approach to focus on reducing demand rather than trying to eradicate supply.

But data such as these latest FBI figures just shows that the need for change is urgent to prevent many more lives being ruined, not by substance use but by illegal substance use.