Doctors have got it wrong
- Doctors have not understood why cannabis is so dangerous, says professor of sociology Willy Pedersen. In collaboration with postdoc. Sveinung Sandberg he has written the book Cannabiskultur
In Pedersen's opinion the danger with cannabis is not merely bio-medical but that cannabis first and foremost is about a symbolic community that can gain a central place in some people's lives.
– Cannabis use and the rituals that go with it become primary. Some people regard me as a liberal towards hash, but that's actually wrong. As with other illegal substances cannabis is in itself dangerous. What is dangerous about cannabis in particular is that the user becomes entangled in a milieu, says Pedersen.
Dangerous because it becomes one's identity
– Cannabis can become very dominant in one's identity. The style set that accompanies cannabis use is out of step with other values that we prize in our society – such as a gaining an education or a job. The danger lies in the role cannabis has in our society: Both as a sub-culture and a way of being on the outside, and as a gateway to an illegal lifestyle.
In Pedersen's opinion parents and school-teachers are right when they say that it isn't good to smoke hash. But:
– You won't find the most important answer in bio-medical research as to why cannabis results in lower cognitive function. Cannabis has had an impact because it has become a very strong cultural marker. You won't see that by looking into a microscope.
Little social research
Even though cannabis came to Norway 40 years ago the research of Sandberg and Pedersen is the first thorough social science research on this topic. In their opinion it is surprising how little research has been done on cannabis from a social science perspective, while there has been a great deal of bio-medical research on it. A medical perspective means that one often overlooks the power of the ritual, say Sandberg and Pedersen.
Medically, cannabis is not as dangerous as many have believed, say the researchers.
In 2009 researcher David Nutt was fired from his position as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for the British Government. In an article he wrote for the Lancet he argued that if one measures the effects related to addiction and physical risks then cannabis is not very dangerous. It is a little less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, his study had demonstrated.
A robust culture
Sandberg and Pedersen's research shows that the cannabis culture is not a fleeting sub-culture. It's actually quite robust.
– We often think that sub-cultures can quickly change. But when we talk about today's young cannabis users it would appear that they have much in common with those who introduced the drug 40 years ago, says Pedersen.
– Secrecy is important. Only very few would stand in the queue at the chemist's with old ladies to buy marijuana, says Willy Pedersen. Photo: Francesco Saggio, UiO
There's room for both well-dressed higher income users and those leading a more marginalised existence within the cannabis culture. But the rituals are the same. «Den som mekker’n, trekker’n» (he who rolls smokes), the smokers intone – throughout the whole of Norway.
– When they smoke users of cannabis have the same rituals regardless of whether they have a quick sneaky toke outside one of Oslo's finer restaurants or find themselves in some freak collective. Cannabis users are a diverse group, but they draw upon the same set of rituals and symbols. Our definition of a sub-culture is that there is a set of conceptions that people can draw upon. Thus, there are a suprising number of similarities between Finnmark and the West coast, between cities and rural communities.
Fun because it's illegal
– At the heart of cannabis culture is its illegality», you write. What does that mean?
– The secrecy that surrounds it makes this drug completely unlike tobacco or alcohol. When we ask users whether it would be nice to be able to go the chemist to buy hash we see that very few are interested. Standing in queues with old ladies would remove much of the charm of smoking hash, says Pedersen.
The excitement of cannabis culture has its own value. When we spoke to Pedersen he had just returned from Amsterdam, where he had been observing people in "coffee shops". The people who sit in the coffee shops are run down. In the Netherlands cannabis no longer has the symbolic meaning it once had, says Pedersen.
An illegal economy
What about buying and selling? At the lowest levels the cannabis economy is influenced by the cannabis culture, with sharing, an interest in nature and philosophizing as key cocnepts, Sandberg and Pedersen have discovered.
– A typically held view is that alcohol use is more questionable than cannabis use. Probably, tens of thousands of young people share this view. This group of people is quite large.
Higher up in the system the culture is more typical of organised crime, and inolves groups such as motorcycle gangs who control parts of the market. Although Sandberg and Pedersen have also interviewed several independent players connected to the more classic cannabis culture who are involved in smuggling.
The war on drugs is over
In 2009 Willy Pedersen publicly announced that he was in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis use. Many European countries have now gone quite far towards decriminalising the use of cannabis. Pedersen also believes it is worth looking at the possibility of decriminalising cannabis trade, but the danger of this is an increase in its use.
– It would appear to be quite safe to give the Police a lesser role, says Pedersen, who thinks that an initial step could be the decriminalisation of the home growing of a few plants in order to remove the burden of possible prosecution from many users.
In his opinion there has been a disproportionately great interest in heroin in Norwegian drugs policy, which was reflected in the Stoltenberg Committee report on assistance for addicts, that was published before the summer of 2010.
– There are probably nearly one million people who have used cannabis in this country. It's our society's most important illegal drug.