Every culture has its founding myths, distorted by telling and by time, and the truth of them sometimes matters less than the legend. Cannabis culture is associated with “four-twenty,” and since 4-20 is the American way of expressing April 20th, that date is celebrated as Cannabis Culture Day. It may be true that some high school students who called themselves the Waldos met at 4.20pm to seek out an abandoned cannabis crop, but the story racks more of lore and legend than it rings of reality.
Either way, on April 20th there are gatherings across the world centred around cannabis. Some are calls for legalization, but as more and more countries and states legalize it, many of the gatherings are simply celebrations of victory. When Washington DC’s Initiative 71 succeeded in legalization in 2014, the Mayor gave its leader the licence plate number 420 in celebration.
At the heart of it lies the desire of some people to consume substances that give them pleasure, a category that includes alcohol and nicotine. Others who disapprove have in the past used laws against such activity. They do not consume it themselves, and they want to prevent others doing so. It may be that the substances have harmful effects, but the choice of whether to accept the risks of what might follow is a choice that those of a liberal persuasion believe should be made by the individuals concerned. It is fine for them to be made aware of the possible consequences, but the choice should still be theirs.
The harmful effects of criminalization were vividly revealed in America’s period of Prohibition. It led to criminal gangs corrupting the police and the judicial process and to murdering competitors in turf wars. The illegality made it profitable for bootleggers, and turned ordinary citizen into law-breakers at odds with authority.
The illegality of narcotics leads to the rise of criminal gangs. Their actual production cost is tiny; it is their illegality that makes them expensive. Their manufacture, transport, distribution and sale all carry the risks of fines and imprisonment, and these risks have to be paid for. Were the drugs legal, none of these attendant risks would be carried, and the prices and profits would plummet.
Rival drug gangs in South America bury hundreds of victims in mass graves, while their bosses put billions into bank accounts. Teenagers in Britain murder each other on the streets in turf wars to decide who gets to tap the local income stream that illegal drugs generate. The huge profits made are magnified by being untaxed. Legal drugs would be cheap, controlled in quality, regulated in advertising and sale points, and have their profits subject to taxation.
With legalization would come control. Crime rates would plummet, including violent crimes. The prison population would be dramatically reduced, and the drain on police and court time spent on dealing with narcotics would end, leaving them far more able to deal with crimes that mattered.
As we mark Cannabis Culture Day, therefore, we should redouble our efforts to bring about the end of the perverse prohibition that casts such a blight on our society.