The recent editorial “Cannabis use booms on campuses” (Sept. 10, page 8) by retired military instructor Chen Hung-hui (陳宏煇) — whatever a person’s opinion on the use and dangers of the popular recreational drug are — contains a startling claim.
Despite stating that an autopsy did not confirm the cause of death, Chen inferred that a student who had smoked cannabis had died as a result of the substance. If true, this would be the first recorded death worldwide from the use of cannabis and therefore a matter of grave concern and international attention, especially given the ubiquity of the use of the drug globally.
The response in Taiwan to this editorial among those who have lived or studied in places where the drug is available, legally or otherwise, has been widespread ridicule. Comparisons across social media have been made to the infamous 1936 film Reefer Madness, directed by Louis Gasnier, which portrays the melodramatic events that ensue when high-school students are lured by pushers to try marijuana — from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, conspiracy to murder, attempted rape, hallucinations and descent into madness from marijuana addiction.
Chen said that the Executive Yuan announced at the end of last month that it would make cannabis the main target in the government’s fight against drugs and adopt a “triple reduction policy” to decrease supply, demand and harm of cannabis. One has to wonder why the government feels the need to crack down on the cannabis trade and use at this time.
Of all the recreational drugs that pose a danger to the health and mental well-being of users, from a medical standpoint, cannabis is far less damaging or addictive than other drugs that are also available in Taiwan, such as opiates, methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and ketamine. It is not advocating decriminalization or legalization of cannabis to make that comparison, it is just a well-known fact among health workers and law enforcement personnel.
It is also a fact that a “war on drugs,” like the “war on terror,” is a battle that cannot be won any more than if the government outlawed kaoliang liquor and instituted prohibition. Experience from countries that have attempted to stamp out illegal recreational drug usage shows that the trade of recreational drugs is driven underground into the hands of largely “professional gangsters” who are willing to take the risks to continue with supply, because this pushes prices much higher and the financial rewards become significant.
These rewards then often finance other horrific black-market activities, such as sex trafficking and slavery. In short, the battle comes at a huge cost to the government, law enforcement, courts and end users.
It has been proven impossible to end all demand for illegal recreational drugs, as it has been to eliminate all prostitution. As such there will always be supply, largely because the wealthiest members of society are willing to pay almost any amount for it. Many countries now realize this and are trying different strategies that acknowledge these realities.
Whatever position someone might hold on this issue, I would hope that a reasonable and rational discussion can be held on it, with sufficient time and prominence given to input from law enforcement personnel, health workers or users.
What is not helpful, as is the case when discussing any complex issue of law and public health, is polemical and frankly hysterical moral posturing based on no empirical evidence.
My contribution to this debate in no way reflects a position of the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in Taiwan, or advocacy for that. It is simply a request for mature and fact-based discourse.
Ben Goren is a businessman, essayist and a long-term resident of Taiwan.
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