The trouble with dope: it rots the soul
Never mind scientific studies into the alleged harms of cannabis - how about making a moral case against dope?
A friend once told me about a conversation he was involved in at a restaurant in Edinburgh where he worked. The kitchen crew were debating which was the most dangerous drug. Was it tobacco? Maybe it was alcohol? Surely heroin would be a candidate. ‘It’s cannabis’, said the chef forthrightly. ‘It’s f***ed your brains up so badly, you don’t even realise it’s bad for you.’
This anecdote came back to me after reading the numerous news stories yesterday about a new study on the long-term effects of cannabis smoking. The study is the result of a research programme that has followed over 1,000 children born in 1972-73 in the southern New Zealand city of Dunedin. The central finding is that subjects who started regularly smoking cannabis in adolescence performed less well in a variety of cognitive tests than those who really got into indulging in spliffs after the age of 18.
The researchers suggest that this shows – fairly obviously – that cannabis is not harmless. But specifically, they argue that consuming a fairly strong, psychoactive drug in your teens, when various portions of the brain are still being formed, is particularly bad news. The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, states: ‘Persistent cannabis use over 20 years was associated with neuropsychological decline, and greater decline was evident for more persistent users… Collectively, these findings are consistent with speculation that cannabis use in adolescence, when the brain is undergoing critical development, may have neurotoxic effects.’
In truth, all that can be firmly stated about this study is that the kind of people who take up pot smoking at an early age are likely to do less well in IQ and other cognitive tests later in life. The arrow of causation could be the other way round – that cognitive failings could lead people to smoke cannabis, perhaps as a kind of self-medication. While the link suggested by the researchers looks plausible, drawing firm conclusions is difficult. Moreover, the corollary of that claim is that taking up cannabis after the age of 18 won’t rot your brain.
Still, such research findings may be rather annoying to those who have criticised alcohol in recent years as harmful while cannabis is deemed to be a safe and pacific choice. Cannabis is the drug of choice for those who prefer dopes to noisy, boisterous drinkers.
The real problem is that studies like this will be absorbed into a wider climate in which how we judge right and wrong is based on risk rather than morality. So the choices we make about what we eat are constantly viewed through the prism of obesity, diabetes and various other health panics rather than old-fashioned notions of getting enough (but not too much) to eat and enjoying what you scoff. Smoking is seen as inherently evil because active smoking will definitely increase the risk of certain chronic diseases and, on average, smokers die before non-smokers. Whether we drive a car or take a flight must all be weighed now against the possible risks to the planet from climate change.
This is all a pisspoor substitute for the messy and complex business of grappling with morality, of really endeavouring to figure out how best to lead your life. There is, in fact, nothing inherently wrong with consuming ‘junk’ food, drinking oneself into a state of inebriation or getting stoned. There is a time and place for each of those things, which can be pleasurable and even life-enhancing.
Nor is this merely a question of one’s effects on others, a question which all too often these days leads to scientifically dubious debates about ‘passive’ smoking or arguments about intervening in our bad habits for ‘the sake of the children’. Of course, it is right to keep the feelings of others in mind when thinking about your actions, but we shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into toeing some health-faddist, prohibitionist line just because of some trumped-up harm to others.
The aspect that seems to be missing from modern debates is about the morality of Not Being a Complete Waste of Space. Whether it is the pothead or the drunk or anyone else who is merely occupying the world rather than living in it, it is entirely legitimate to criticise those who make no effort to pull their weight in the world or assume that society will be there to catch them when they fall.
This is not to moralise about the actions of others, turning differences of personal taste into ethical positions. It is certainly not a clarion call for some kind of back-to-basics government crackdown on the ‘wrong sort’ of people. There are a wide variety of legitimate ways of living – otherwise moral debate would be meaningless – and tolerance of others is a virtue that we should uphold. ‘Different strokes for different folks’, as the man in the corner with the spliff would no doubt remark.
Rather, it is about being judgemental in an honest fashion. In other words, not hiding what are, in fact, moral judgements – or perhaps political manoeuvrings – behind the smoke screen of science or statistics. In the process of discrediting a whole bunch of old strictures about how we should our lives, the past few decades have seemingly called into question the idea of debating morality full stop. Thankfully, for the petty authoritarians of this world, this awkward problem of moral judgement has been replaced with risk aversion. Why convince someone that a way of living is the right one when you can just scare them into line instead?
Clearly, it’s nice to know before you embark on a course of action if there is any danger involved, though I doubt parents have ever needed a longitudinal study to realise that their pot-smoking kids are not exactly doing their mental faculties much good. But we can’t make judgements about our lives solely on such a crass basis.
So, when I have a problem with dope smoking, it’s not because of the long-term health risks. People themselves can make that call. Nor do I have the slightest problem with those who enjoy a spliff now and again. It’s the dropout, do-nothing, relax-man-don’t-get-stressed attitude that many who self-identify as dope smokers express. Even worse, it’s the cultural trend towards celebrating this professional uselessness that is properly immoral.
I know, as I finish this article, that drinking a substantial amount of alcohol will probably ruin my sleep, give me a headache and maybe even harm my liver. But I’m going to a party tonight and I fully intend to drink more than the recommended daily units and no doubt annihilate a few thousand brain cells in the process. I also fully expect to have a good time in the company of friends – and get up for work the next day, too. That’s moral judgement in action – and so much better than ‘drink this’ or ‘smoke this’ and you’ll die.
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