What next for drug policy?

An interview about cannabis, ecstasy & co. with Stephan Schleim

De Lapuente: Do you still believe in cannabis legalization in Germany?

Schleim: The “war on drugs” proclaimed by US President Nixon in 1971 – shortly afterwards the Republican had to resign because of had to resign due to intrigues – is becoming in more and more places a war against the population. In Bern (Switzerland) they are now even working on the legalization of cocaine.

The Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023 showed that not even a technologically highly advanced army can prevent the smuggling of rockets. And even in prisons there is a lively drug trade. Incidentally, there seems to be less violence where more cannabis is used.

The futility of prohibition should finally be admitted. In addition, cannabis is once again recognized as a medicinal product, as it was until the 1930s. As things stand, the governing coalition is Germany is pushing through a minimum consensus. But I fear that end up creating a new bureaucratic monster.

De Lapuente: What monster are you afraid of?

Schleim: People argue about such details as whether you could have three or five hemp plants at home, be allowed to keep 25 grams or more of weed, how far away “cannabis clubs” should be from schools and so on. No wonder that the police and judges’ association moan about the expected extra work. Hemp has been used throughout human history for thousands of years without this regulatory frenzy and generally without many problems.

Here in the Netherlands there is a principle of toleration (Dutch “gedoogbeleid”), whereas in Germany the principle of legality prevails: this means that the authorities here can turn a blind eye or look the other way if prosecution is not worthwhile in the end, perhaps even doing more harm than good. The increasing shortage of personnel alone means that this should be the guiding principle.

De Lapuente: Will public order collapse if legalization comes?

Schleim: According to my review of the scientific studies, order is more likely to collapse if such a law is not introduced. An approach of decriminalization with prevention along the lines of Portugal since the early 2000s should be the minimum.

We now know that the campaigns against cannabis & co. in the early 20th century (e.g. the educational film “Reefer Madness”) were state propaganda. It is incomprehensible to me that even today so many “experts” are allowed to get away with spreading prejudices and untruths – even in respected media. That saddens me.

De Lapuente: If cannabis is not a danger – and that’s how I understand you – then why is the state interested in delaying legalization?

Schleim: Here I have to speculate. Apart from entrenched thinking and prejudices that have been fed by decades of anti-drug propaganda, prohibition allows state actors to make far-reaching encroachments on important fundamental rights. After the German Constitutional Court ruling of the 1990s, inconsistent practice has prevailed in the federal states with regard to the treatment of “small quantities”. I consider this in itself to be a constitutional problem.

In any case, today’s optional rules allow the authorities to act arbitrarily, which can be directed against certain sections of the population. When you see that some offenses for the possession of cannabis products in the milligram range end up in court, it’s worrying. However, I consider the German police and judiciary to be largely honest.

Carl Hart, a pharmacology professor of color at the prestigious Columbia University in New York, makes us painfully aware of the structural racism that still exists in drug policy: in some US states, the police can subject citizens to far-reaching measures based on suspected “cannabis odor”. According to Hart, this is mainly aimed at black and Latino people. Some of these operations end fatally.

But here too, hardliners are campaigning with the “fight against crime”. The argument assumes that voters are afraid of criminals.

Another important detail to your question: I consider cannabis, used sensibly, to be relatively harmless. However, you should not drive or operate machinery while intoxicated, for example.

De Lapuente: So no brain cells die in young people if they occasionally smoke a joint? In any case, the rhetoric is somewhat reminiscent of some prudish warnings about masturbation from the past …

Schleim: In a boxing match or with a hard header on the soccer field, the damage is likely to be greater.

I’m currently working on a book about brain development, for which I’m taking another close look at these studies on hemp and the brain. I’m already noticing how the experts contradict each other: they’re calling out completely different age limits. Often these are not scientific sources, but rather health policy pamphlets. And where I have been able to check the sources so far, the results have not been conclusive.

As with all substances, it depends on the dose and frequency of use. You should also bear in mind the demonstrably exaggerated scaremongering that has been going on about drugs since at least the 19th century.

De Lapuente: And then there’s the fear that cannabis is the gateway. Before you know it, you have a needle in your arm and are injecting heroin. Can you understand this theory?

Schleim: The persistence with which drug opponents repeat the myth of gateway drugs gives me the impression of brainwashing. According to the motto, “if A occurs first and then B, then A is the cause of B”, it would be even better to call beer or even breast milk a gateway drug. In our cultural history, such thinking has been criticized for centuries as a logical fallacy – so long ago that the error in reasoning was even given a Latin name (post hoc, ergo propter hoc; after, therefore because of).

From a more modern, scientific perspective, a report commissioned by the US Department of Justice addressed precisely this question as recently as 2018. The conclusion, after evaluating 23 independently peer-reviewed, individual scientific studies, is that “no causal link between cannabis use and the use of other illicit drugs can be claimed at this time.”

Switching to more dangerous substances through contact with dealers seems more plausible. This is why the drug report by a Dutch think tank led by senior civil servants and scientists advocates the regulation of the relatively harmless ecstasy/MDMA: anyone who wants to buy this popular illegal substance in the Netherlands today – alongside cannabis and cocaine – is shown long “drug menus” via chat apps or on the internet. This means you are offered drugs that you weren’t even looking for. The Dutch experts therefore expect that the regulation of cannabis and ecstasy will result in less consumption of “hard drugs”.

And even with the increasingly deadly opioid epidemic in the US, the problems and substances used only multiplied when authorities dried up the legal sources, as I recently explained here.

With regard to heroin, I would also like to point out that the dangerous diseases HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are transmitted by contaminated syringes, not by the drug in itself.

De Lapuente: Isn’t it part of the human condition to want to get intoxicated from time to time?

Schleim: Yes – and even for some animals. Around 30 years ago, a courageous judge – Wolfgang Nešković, from 2009 he briefly sat for The Left in the German parliament – ventured to have the German Constitutional Court confirm a “right to intoxication”. At the time, he was ridiculed by experts.

Today it is clear that he was right on many points. In a liberal constitutional state, the prohibition requires a good justification, not the other way around. Individual freedom ends at the freedom of others.

Sensible substance use is at most harmful to oneself. And even that is often exaggerated. Most people also use alcohol sensibly, which many experts consider to be more dangerous than cannabis.

De Lapuente: Where does this human need for intoxication come from? Are there any scientific explanations for this?

Schleim: It’s not just intoxication in the sense of euphoria or the “high feeling”. People use psychoactive substances for all kinds of reasons to cope with life. In psychology, we call this “coping”. I have explained this in more detail in my new book (open access).

For example, if I have more stress at work, I also consume more alcohol and sweets. The smartest solution would of course be to reduce stress. But that doesn’t always work straight away. It’s then easier to turn to substances.

I am not surprised that ecstasy/MDMA has become a popular party drug when many young people today complain of loneliness. With the help of this drug, they feel more open and connected. Conversely, active membership of a sports club, for example, is a protective factor. There, too, you meet up with others and ideally feel connected.

“Coping” usually works well for a while, but it doesn’t change the causes. If you consume more of a substance and more frequently and your life suffers as a result, you should seek psychosocial help.

De Lapuente: But surely intoxication also – or especially – takes place among primitive peoples. Do these groups also have or have they had stress?

Schleim: In such ritual applications, which often have a religious meaning or are part of an initiation rite, the intoxication, the ecstasy is not in the foreground, as I understand it. In their world of thought, one can – or even should! – then encounter “demons” that need to be overcome. Today we call this a “bad trip”, medically “psychosis”.

The psychedelics used for this purpose often imply that the drug can only be used again after a few weeks. Or you have to increase the dose a lot. This can be explained quite well neurobiologically.

So this is something different from the functional and performance drugs for everyday life that we know today. In contrast, the traditional chewing of coca leaves – probably for over 8,000 years – in South America is definitely associated with hard work or long marches.

The quantity consumed also plays a role: for example, opium consumption was very widespread in the Ottoman Empire. Its soldiers used the drug very effectively in battle, reaching as far as the city walls of Vienna. They probably used it to control nervousness, anxiety and stress. There is also always a placebo effect.

When used differently, the same substance has a sleep-inducing effect. This would be rather detrimental to warfare.

De Lapuente: Finally, a perhaps romantic and therefore cheesy question: wouldn’t a “society under influence” be a real opportunity for more creativity and relaxation at the same time? Or is that not a good thing?

Schleim: Such visions have been played out time and again in novels – either utopian or dystopian. The result depends crucially on the substance and the context.

Here is another example from the Netherlands: among the most popular illegal substances here are ecstasy/MDMA and cocaine. While the former is used by partygoers all over the country, cocaine use is mainly concentrated in Amsterdam – and then especially in the southern axis (Zuidas) with its large law firms, banks and consultancies.

I don’t want a society based on cocaine or amphetamines/speed, in which we wage endless legal and economic wars. Cannabis, psychedelics and opiates are more reminiscent of the hippies and the “Summer of Love”. It was this counterculture that served conservatives to instigate the “war on drugs” in the first place.

This brings us back to the first answer of the interview.

The questions were asked by Roberto De Lapuente from Overton magazine, where a slightly modified version of the interview has already been published in German.

Das könnte Sie auch interessieren:

Das neue Buch des Autors zum Thema Substanzkonsum ist hier als Gratis-Download verfügbar: Mental Health and Enhancement: Substance Use and Its Social Implications

Folgen Sie Stephan Schleim auf Twitter/X oder LinkedIn. Titelgrafik: Lindsay Fox auf Pixabay.


Die Diskussionen hier sind frei und werden grundsätzlich nicht moderiert. Gehen Sie respektvoll miteinander um, orientieren Sie sich am Thema der Blogbeiträge und vermeiden Sie Wiederholungen oder Monologe. Bei Zuwiderhandlung können Kommentare gekürzt, gelöscht und/oder die Diskussion gesperrt werden. Nähere Details finden Sie in "Über das Blog". Stephan Schleim ist studierter Philosoph und promovierter Kognitionswissenschaftler. Seit 2009 ist er an der Universität Groningen in den Niederlanden tätig, zurzeit als Assoziierter Professor für Theorie und Geschichte der Psychologie.

Schreibe einen Kommentar