Drug war absurdity: Australian edition

After a long period with little movement either way, there’s not much doubt now that the momentum is running against drug prohibition. The legalisation of the marijuana industry in Uruguay, which I wrote about a couple of months ago, is just one sign of the increasing prominence and respectability of the anti-prohibitionist position.

In a column yesterday at politics.co.uk, Ian Dunt asked “Are we witnessing the tipping point in the drug debate?” As far as Britain goes, he thinks the answer may be “yes”: “The force of the pro-reform argument is now so strong it is rare to hear anyone argue against it. And in fact hardly anyone outside the Home Office or tabloid columnists ever does.”

Australia, however, lags behind. Just how far behind was demonstrated this week by a federal Liberal National Party backbencher from central Queensland, George Christensen, who – in the words of the ABC’s headline* – “supports legalising marijuana and removing taxes on tobacco.”

As you can easily confirm by reading the story, the general tenor of Christensen’s remarks was anti-marijuana. His theme was that marijuana is more dangerous than tobacco (a position not currently supported by evidence, to say the least), and that restrictions on the latter are misguided.

I wouldn’t count on it remaining visible for long, but the post last Monday on his Facebook page reposted a graphic from someone named Emily Miller, with her comment that “Obama hails [pharmacy chain] CVS for stopping selling tobacco products but has no trouble with smoking marijuana. This photo from Drug Free America shows the damage to the lungs of smoking pot vs tobacco.” The graphic, a very unpleasant representation of a pair of lungs, claims “Marijuana deposits four times more tar in the lungs than tobacco.”

That prompted a robust discussion on the page, and perhaps as something of an afterthought, Christensen made the following comment:

not that I agree that this is a reason to ban pot but what gives me the irrits is the double standards over restricting smoking vs a relaxed attitude to pot. My preference would be both to be legal with a lot of the taxes and restrictions removed.

Well, there’s certainly a double standard, but I don’t think it runs the way Christensen seems to think. Tobacco smokers face excise taxes, some legal restrictions and (sometimes) a degree of social ostracism. Marijuana smokers face complete legal prohibition, the threat of criminal prosecution, fines and jail, and the need to source their drug from the criminal underworld.

Growers and traders in marijuana face the likelihood of long prison sentences. The worst that seems to face the tobacco industry, whose product is more deadly by several orders of magnitude, is that politicians might stop taking their money.

Christensen’s libertarian attitude, such as it is, deserves support, and I hope he withstands the forces from the government that will be brought to bear on him to make him recant. But it would be unwise to follow too much of his advice about drugs, or to think he’s coming from a position favorable to marijuana users.

Yet some people just can’t help themselves. Labor’s shadow health minister Catherine King, as quoted in the ABC report, said that tobacco and marijuana “are clearly not the same thing [!] and Mr Christensen should know better.” She “called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to reassure the community that the Coalition was not planning to decriminalise cannabis use.”

So Christensen, who at best has made a misleading comparison, is attacked for the amount of common sense that he did display – in effect, for not being even more misleading than he was.

I’ve no doubt that Abbott will give King the reassurance that she seeks. And so the madness continues.


* Hat tip to Terje Petersen and Trisha Jha for drawing the story to my attention.


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