Don’t let the title fool you, I’m actually a supporter of drug legalization. However, the hypocrisy in this country has to be called out. As misguided as many may view my opinion as being, I’m of the belief that as adults, we should have the right to choose what we do or don’t put into our bodies. If it were up to me, all soft-drugs would be legalized or at the very least decriminalized. We live in a world where it’s acceptable to eat, drink, and smoke yourself to death, provided you do so on the legal, taxable substances. Make no mistake: the most dangerous thing about soft-drugs is getting caught with them. Taking the government view on these matters into consideration, I’m going to explore the legality of certain substances in order to truly highlight the blatant hypocrisy and to demonstrate that public safety is not the government’s concern.
Understanding the Law
I’m from the UK, and so I’ll be composing this argument with the UK government in mind. Depending on the information and research available, I will occasionally focus on specific countries within the UK, mostly Scotland and England. It speaks volumes that we have to travel all the way back to 1971 in order to view the law controlling drugs in the UK.
The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) serves to classify illegal substances into one of three categories, known as the ABC system. ‘A’ represents the most harmful drugs and ‘C’ represents the least harmful (as far as illegal drugs are concerned). ‘B’ represents some form of arbitrary middle ground. Unlike many other countries, the UK does not attempt to clearly define the “entry requirements” for each class in the ABC system. As the parliamentary website states:
“The Misuse of Drugs Act did not specify why particular drugs were placed in Class A, B or C but did create an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to keep the classification of drugs under review.”
Cannabis has an interesting history within the UK’s ABC system. Originally a class B, it was reclassified as class C in 2004. However, it was moved back to class B in 2008 as a result of stronger strains becoming available and the potential connection this had to mental health issues. Yet around 7.2% of adults (between 16 and 59) have used the drug, which is around 2.4 million people.
Soft Drugs vs Hard Drugs
As I mentioned, the UK does not divide its illegal substances into categories based upon the addictive qualities and overall harm of the drugs. This distinction leads to terms such as ‘soft drugs’ and ‘hard drugs’. These are incredibly vague and don’t have a set definition, which can confuse matters. Typically, ‘soft drugs’ is used to “describe drugs like cannabis or LSD which cannot result in physical dependency.” While the term ‘hard drug’ “usually refers to drugs that are seen to be more dangerous and more likely to cause dependency such as heroin and crack cocaine…”
So, why am I mentioning the terms at all? Despite the definitions being somewhat open, there is certainly a clear distinction between the two. One group can be used in moderation without negatively impacting the induvial or society to any great extent, the other, not so much. You don’t have to have seen Trainspotting to know that weed and psilocybin don’t really compete with the harm of heroin.
My argument is formed around this simple point of view: when we explore the reasons why certain drugs are illegal (soft drugs such as marijuana, psilocybin mushroom, and DMT) and legal (such as alcohol and tobacco) we find that the justifications for each are flimsy, at best. If safety is the government’s main cause for concern, surely that must mean that alcohol and tobacco are safe to use, right?
The UK’s history with tobacco is a little strange. Having arrived in England in 1565, tobacco didn’t seem to take with the British public. King James I spoke out publicly on the matter, describing tobacco as:
However, it soon followed the common path that most drugs take: it became a medicine. During the plague, it was believed that tobacco smoke could protect people from “disease miasmas” (a poisonous vapour carrying disease that could be detected by its bad smell) (somewhat ironic). The connections between slavery and tobacco imports are widely known, and this was a major issue until machines took over in the late 1800s.
Anti-smoking campaigners were largely regarded as “eccentrics” and yet they are primarily responsible for the introduction of a clause in the Children’s Act in 1908 which made the sale of tobacco to those under the age of 16 illegal.
Despite a connection between ill-health and smoking being widely known, the supposed stress-relief provided by tobacco came with “health benefits” that would serve as a major selling point. Sound familiar? Only recently have the supposed health benefits of “a glass of wine a day” been shown to be inaccurate from a scientific standpoint.
In the 1950s, the first reports linking smoking to the formation of lung cancer were released. The government, very aware of the economic domino effect that would follow a decline in smoking, didn’t speak out on the matter until the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that cigarette packaging included a health warning. In the 1980s, the risk associated with public smoking was raised, but again, it took until 2007 for the government to ban smoking in enclosed public places. It wasn’t until this same year that the government raised the minimum age for purchasing tobacco to 18.
Is Smoking Harmful?
According to the Office for National Statistics, it is estimated that 15.1% of adults in the UK smoke cigarettes as of 2017. This number varies slightly between sources as Cancer Research suggests that around 19% of UK adults smoke. This would be around 9.4 million people (which is nearly double the entire population of Scotland). They also suggest that smoking is the “largest cause of cancer” in the UK, with it being responsible for around 15% of cancer victims. It’s also worth noting that the same website reports the significantly higher prevalence of smoking within poorer areas.
We can delve into these figures a little more. For example, we can consider the hospital admissions related to smoking. According to NHS England figures, in 2016/17 there was estimated to be 484,700 admissions attributable to smoking, which is around 4% of ALL hospital admissions.
The above graph is also from the NHS England website. As you can see, adults who had never smoked were more likely to report feeling healthier than those who were ex-smokers or current smokers.42% of non-smokers described themselves as being in ‘very good health’ compared to 26% of current-smokers. 11% of current-smokers described themselves as feeling in ‘bad or very bad health’ compared to only 5% of those who have never smoked.
It’s important for people to realise that tobacco carries a mental health impact as well. You’ll often hear discussions about other drugs and how they cause mental illness (such as marijuana), and yet the same types of studies show the exact same thing for tobacco consumption. More in-depth research paints a fuller picture of the impact of smoking on neurological processes being akin to that the government/media claim is the case for marijuana consumption.
Death by Tobacco
Given that we’ve explored the general health implications tobacco quite clearly has, does it cause death? Of course it does! Throughout the UK, there is alarming number of preventable deaths each year as a result of smoking. In Scotland, the number is 10,000 (one fifth of all deaths), in Wales the number is 5,500, in Northern Ireland its 2,300, and in England it’s a staggering 78,000 death. Every year in the UK, 95,800 people are dying from a drug that the government deems safe enough to be legal.
When it comes to passive smoking, which is arguably more horrifying given that nobody chooses to be a passive smoker, we find some pretty similar results. Research suggests that around 11,000 deaths in the UK each year are the result of passive smoke inhalation, with 20% of these being from smoking at the workplace and 80% being from home.
The impact of passive smoking is most noticeable in children, who rarely have a choice as to whether or not to be in the vicinity of smokers. Cancer Research suggests that there is overwhelming evidence to support that idea that second-hand smoke can lead to lung cancer (among other types), heart disease, strokes, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and more. Children who live in a household where at least 1 person smokes are more likely to develop asthma, chest infections, meningitis, ear infections, and coughs and colds.
Smoking and Pregnancy
One shocking statistic relates to pregnant women. According to NHS England, 10.8% of mothers were smoking at the time of delivery. Why does this matter? During pregnancy, it isn’t just the health of the mother that is a cause for concern. Research suggests that smoking during pregnancy can have an adverse effect on the child’s neurodevelopment. It has been suggested that this is a result of the carbon monoxide contained in tobacco smoke which limits the oxygen available for the baby’s brain. Smoking during pregnancy can also result in tissue damage which could include lung or brain development issue, or the development of a cleft lip.
Even pregnant women who simply inhale smoke passively (as well as those who smoke directly, obviously) are likely to give birth to a child with weaker lungs, which leads to a major increase in potential health problems in later life.
The negative health impact that smoking has isn’t limited to the development of the child though. When a mother smokes, she is more likely to enter premature labour. Given that the leading cause of death, disability, and disease among new-borns, is preterm birth, this is a huge cause for concern. This issue includes passive smokers. Mothers who smoke (either directly or passively) are more likely to give birth to a low-weight child, which typically has long-term health implications.
Even if the labour and birth seem to go smoothly, babies whose mother smoked during pregnancy or who smoke near the baby after birth are three times more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This goes above and beyond choosing to consume a drug. This is quite clearly an epidemic that is impacting the lives of those who haven’t even been born yet! What say do they get in the matter?
Since we’ve already established that widespread death and disease hasn’t been enough of an incentive to outright ban tobacco smoking, perhaps money is a better approach. The problem we have here is that the tobacco industry contributes around £12 billion in tax each year which is arguably the main reason that the government would never consider making the substance illegal. But how much does it cost?
Smoking costs NHS Scotland (a public body that gets its funding from the government) as much as £300 million each year, which in the face of £12 billion is barely a drop of water in the ocean. In England, this figure is as high as £2 billion though, which certainly begins to raise the cost.
There are other costs to take into consideration that go beyond health. For example, early death due to cigarettes causes an employee’s company to lose manpower, the costs of cleaning up cigarette butts and packaging, putting out fires caused by cigarettes, the loss of time (including in hospitals) of the extra breaks that smokers typically take, not to mention the lost time when people get ill as a result of smoking-related illnesses. When you add up all the costs of smoking, you find that it comes to around £14 billion, according to Policy Exchange.
The final point I want to make relates to the addictive nature of tobacco (or more accurately: nicotine). I discussed earlier that the ABC system for drug classification ignores the addictiveness of drugs and instead focuses on a more arbitrary approach based on the opinions of people who aren’t carrying out any significant research on the matter.
Most smokers would like to quit, yet only around 6% of smokers are able to quit each year. On top of that, it takes most smokers multiple attempts to successfully quit, if at all. Cigarettes contain a number of different chemicals that a person can become addicted to, but the main one is a result of the nicotine and its effect on dopamine, which ultimately results in the rewiring of neural pathways until what we consider to be addiction kicks in.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, withdrawal symptoms for nicotine can include:
“…irritability, craving, depression, anxiety, cognitive and attention deficits, sleep disturbances, and increased appetite. These withdrawal symptoms may begin within a few hours after the last cigarette, quickly driving people back to tobacco use…withdrawal symptoms peak within the first few days of the last cigarette smoked and usually subside within a few weeks. For some people, however, symptoms may persist for months”
When it comes to addiction, it’s difficult to compare one drug to another. One study from the 1990s by Henningfield and Benowitz used a set criterion for determining addiction (which included aspects such as withdrawal, tolerance, dependence, and intoxication) to rank the most addictive drugs. When it comes to withdrawal, nicotine was tied in 3rd place with cocaine, beaten only by heroin (number 2) and alcohol (number 1). Nicotine ranked first for dependence and 2nd for tolerance.
Results from more recent versions of this study support its conclusions. Other sources place nicotine as the 5th most addictive substance on the Earth, behind barbiturates, cocaine, alcohol, and heroin. The New York Times even wrote an article in 1987 about nicotine being harder to quit that heroin.
We often hear that you can’t compare one drug to another, which is arguably true as each drug varies from another in a number of ways. Cannabis is a class B drug in the UK which can land you up to 5 years, an unlimited fine, or both, for possession, and up to 14 years, an unlimited fine, or both, for supply/production. Could we compare it to tobacco? In several ways, yes. One causes undeniable mental and physical health issues which leads to thousands upon thousands of deaths every single year (including newborns and children). One costs the government and taxpayer and estimated £14 billion per year, which it doesn’t cover with the £12 billion in returns in tax. And one is legal and readily available in most shops to anyone over the age of 18. The other is cannabis!
The continued outlawing of marijuana and its consumers is largely a result of the government’s failed “war on drugs”. News articles use intimidating and misleading headlines to scare the populous into believing that cannabis causes mental illness (when using correlation as a justification for concluded causation) and yet ignore the far more relevant and blatantly obvious connection between tobacco, mental and physical illness, and ultimately death.
I can see no real justification for the continued legalization of this substance while still outlawing recreation marijuana use. Tobacco is addictive beyond measure, it’s harmful beyond what could ever be justified, and it costs more money to the government and the country than it makes. If life, health, and money are all being neglected for the sake of keeping a harmful substance legal, then what possible precedent could any government have for outlawing other, less harmful substances?
Thanks for reading! What are you thoughts on the legality of tobacco, particularly when compared to marijuana? Let me know down below!
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