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Apr 17, 2018 2:05 PM

50 years on: Should marijuana be legalised?

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 8, 1968.

Should 'pot' be legalised?

Entertainer Don Lane, right, arrives at court with barrister Marcus Einfeld on March 29, 1968.

Entertainer Don Lane, right, arrives at court with barrister Marcus Einfeld on March 29, 1968.

Photo: Noel Stubbs

Mention the word "drug" in Australia, not only in polite society, and invariably it will arouse irrational and unnecessary fears. The consequences of drug-taking are generally thought to range from sexual perversion and free love to insanity and homicidal tendencies. It is believed to be a great evil, which should be rigorously suppressed by the law.

There is rarely a distinction drawn between hard and soft drugs, between those proven to be highly dangerous and addictive and those comparatively harmless. They are all the same to most people.

Locally-made marijuana bought by Fairfax reporter in a King's Cross coffee lounge, on June 15, 1967.

Locally-made marijuana bought by Fairfax reporter in a King's Cross coffee lounge, on June 15, 1967.

Photo: Fairfax Media

But they are not - and that is where several questions arise: Should the law on marihuana - a soft drug - be more strictly enforced? Or liberalised? Or should the drug be legalised completely?

This is the pot debate.

Apart from "marihuana" (or marijuana), the drug is known in Australia by various other names and nicknames: Indian hemp, pot, cannabis, hashish, charge, tea and grass.

It is a plant and grows pretty much anywhere, but especially in hot regions. The best supplies come from the Middle East, North and West Africa, India and the West Indies. In N.S.W., it thrives around the Hunter Valley. It requires little attention, and, since the seeds are easy to obtain, anybody can grow it successfully in his backyard.

Marijuana legalisation rally in Martin Place, Sydney on July 04, 1978.

Marijuana legalisation rally in Martin Place, Sydney on July 04, 1978.

Photo: Fairfax Media

The physical effects of smoking it are a reddening of the eyes, a dryness of the mouth, and a marked increase in appetite. Beyond this, however, any description must be hazy. Not only do the effects depend to a large extent on the individual, but most reports are highly subjective, and therefore not absolutely reliable.

However, a recent issue of World Health the magazine of the World Health Organisation, reported as follows: "The general effects seem to be the liberation of certain inhibitions, accompanied by mild hallucinations. There is usually a feeling of foolish well-being, often marked by uncontrollable laughter and giggling. It does not appear to affect sleeping habits... it promotes hilarity, talkativeness and increased sociability."

Don Lane, leaves the court in Phillip Street, Sydney, after a court hearing into his alleged possession of illegal drugs, 29 March 1968.

Don Lane, leaves the court in Phillip Street, Sydney, after a court hearing into his alleged possession of illegal drugs, 29 March 1968.

Photo: Staff photographer

A 22-year-old graduate of an Ivy League college in the United States, Mr Andrew Gavin, wrote last year: "At first, I was only dimly aware of any increased sensitivity to sight and sounds; holding the smoke in my lungs made me dizzy."

After a few more tries over a few weeks, he went on: "It then induced a pleasant feeling of relaxation, a light-headedness, and increased awareness of colours, a more acute ear for music."

Advocates of legalising marijuana see a positive danger in the present prohibition. They say that somebody who tries pot and finds it doesn't hurt him is the more easily induced to try heroin, since both are illegal and the penalties pretty much identical.

Health officials in Washington estimate that 20 million Americans may have tried pot at least once, and that between 300,000 and 4.5 million smoke it regularly. Estimates in Australia seem to be less reliable.

Most pot parties, rather than "like orgies in Californian fleshpots, or stupefaction in Moroccan cellars," as one Australian journal put it, in fact are remarkably tranquil.

Legally, marihuana is considered a narcotic, and is classed together with heroin and morphine. As a matter of form, marihuana has been outlawed in Australia, and now severe penalties exist for those found smoking it, or having it in their possession.

Some argue that society should not legislate against pot, since it is a private experience, and seldom affects anybody else outside the group smoking it.

Against this, it is sometimes urged that it is necessary often to protect the individual against himself, against his more harmful desires.

This argument has been considered by Dr Duncan Chappell, lecturer in Criminal Law and Criminology at Sydney's Law School.

Dr Chappell wrote in Quadrant recently: "We assume that society has an interest in the personal health and welfare of its citizens... society and the law are, however, inconsistent in their attitudes in this field. For while we may compel a drug addict to seek a cure for his illness, we do not compel someone who has a potentially fatal illness, to submit to an operation."

That the law is inconsistent in this regard does not mean that the law on marihuana is wrong in itself.

Dr Chappell admits that marihuana frees one's inhibitions, and suppressed desires and wishes. He distinguishes, however, between desire and performance.

This is substantiated by Dr Sandford Feighglass, of the University of California Medical School, who was quoted in Newsweek last year as saying: "Even if it does in fact release one's inhibitions, it is not proved that one will be moved to act."

Dr Chappell says that by banning marihuana society is probably stimulating its use. He says that many who smoke marihuana are doing so as an act of defiance against authority.

There is much to be said for the argument advanced by Dr Chappell and others that to separate the sources of hard and soft drugs by allowing marihuana lo be purchased in the local store would probably make it more difficult for people to get drugs like heroin. Those using marihuana would then never need to come into contact with a peddler — at present the only source of hard drugs.

One of the most powerful arguments against the use of marihuana rests on the finding that, among heroin addicts, a very large proportion took marihuana before graduating to heroin.

This argument led Judge Charles Wyzanski in the United States to say: "It is of course absurd to say that because most users of heroin first used marihuana it proved to be a preliminary step to heroin addiction. One might as well say that, because most users of heroin once imbibed milk, milk leads to heroin."

This was refuted by Ferdinand Mount, who dubbed it a "patently false analogy." To him: "Everybody has imbibed milk, but a very small proportion of the population has used marihuana. To say that from this small number are drawn almost all the even smaller number of heroin addicts is to remark on a significant association between the use of marihuana and addiction to heroin. The association is striking enough lo give rise to considerable concern."

David Ausubel, in his book, 'Drug Addiction, Psychological and Sociological Aspects', stresses that habitual users of drugs have most frequently inadequate personalities.

Heroin addicts, then, are an unstable minority. It is unfair to use them as an example, since there is a very marked distinction between their behaviour and that of an ordinary, pretty-well-balanced person.

Confronted with the mass of argument on either side in America, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice stated: "There are too many marihuana users who do not graduate to heroin, and too many heroin addicts with no known prior marihuana use, to support such a theory."

Besides, advocates of legalising marihuana see a positive danger in the present prohibition. They say that somebody who tries pot and finds it doesn't hurt him is the more easily induced to try heroin, since both are illegal and the penalties pretty much identical. A distinction in the law could foster discrimination in the user.

So that is the pot debate.

Looking at it on a wider perspective, Newsweek last year quoted a Yale psychologist as saying: "What worries me is the state of the nation where the most exciting thing available to the brightest young people is pot. After all, it is a pretty poor substitute for real, active, exciting, meaningful experience."

Sidney Morning Herald
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