The so-called “War on Drugs”, at least as an exercise in law enforcement, may be drawing to a close. On December 11th, Uruguay legalised the trade and possession of marijuana for recreational use. On January 1st, the state of Colorado permitted its sale for the same purpose. On January 2nd, the conservatively inclined Fox Business Network sent a reporter to a Colorado facility which was growing marijuana: the somewhat bleary eyed and distracted owner suggested that fourteen other states were likely to follow in his state’s footsteps and another two were contemplating loosening legislation to allow its consumption for medical purposes. It was also mentioned that the potential value of the market was in the region of $2.5 billion. On the same day, Fox Business’ website reported that the shares of a company called MedBox, which manufactures marijuana dispensing machines, were up by 57%.
When a conservative news network changes the discussion from how to ban a thing to how to make money off a thing, one can be reasonably certain that a paradigm shift has become inevitable. Marijuana will probably be legalised in most countries: the ones that do not do so will be the outliers. This is all well and good.
My opinions on this subject are subject to certain caveats. I am not speaking from an experienced point of view: I have never smoked pot nor do I wish to do so. This is in spite of fact that I lived in the Netherlands in the late 1990’s, a time when “Dutch” was a direct synonym for “liberal” and “tolerant”. Admittedly, I was there for work rather than bohemian purposes; yet, I may have been one of the few foreign residents of Amsterdam who didn’t partake. Being a non-consumer of the product, however, may have sharpened my awareness of its presence. There were many places in Amsterdam which reeked of it: not only did it emanate from the infamous “coffee shops” even in the early morning, it was openly smoked in the streets by passers-by. I intensely dislike the scent of it: I recall my first whiff of it making me sick to my stomach, and this trigger still remains with me. The effects of extensive marijuana smoking are not necessarily pleasant for everyone. I once saw a young man who obviously got a bad batch: after he finished smoking, he sat down in the middle of a central thoroughfare and essentially had a nervous breakdown which manifested itself in the form of hysterical screaming. Eventually, he had to be gently but firmly led away by the Amsterdam police. Despite the distaste informed by my experiences, I would rather that it was out in the open and legal. I believe the problems one can associate with smoking pot are rather similar to another form of substance related recreation: I find how people get drunk to the point that they vomit in public repulsive too. However, at least when discourse turns to those who drink excessively, we generally speak in terms of it being a public health issue. We tend to bring in doctors to pontificate rather than police. We now have an opportunity to move matters on in a similar way in regards to narcotics. We should be asking what is it about modern life, what ennui that lay therein which drives people to abuse themselves in particular ways? Can we construct frameworks, such as minimum pricing, which will allow us to control consumption? What can we do to ensure that vulnerable people, like the young man who lost control completely, receive adequate care?
So long as the anarchy fostered by illegality remained, we were not in a position to ask and address these questions effectively: rather, we were left with the threat of prison, as if humanity could be punished into sensible behaviour. The fateful experience of America with alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s should have proved otherwise; all that fatally flawed experiment did was create a market for poisonous moonshine and made petty gangsters into millionaires. Governments throughout the world have spent billions of dollars in re-learning this particular lesson. The changes put in place by Uruguay and Colorado suggest we’re now at a moment analogous to when Franklin Roosevelt made it legal to drink 2% beer: this small crack in the legal log jam opened wide shortly afterwards.
Fourteen states, $2.5 billion market size: the main danger of legalisation is that the engine of capitalism will start to pick up steam and companies will advertise a particular reefer as better, stronger, and more long lasting in its effects. The facility visited by the Fox Business reporter looked potent enough: my understanding is that the hemp plants raised for this particular purpose give off intoxicating vapours on their own. Furthermore, the reporter and the owner were in an enclosed space. Given this, I was surprised they weren’t experiencing the munchies. I also didn’t expect them to be as lucid as they were. Nevertheless, a reporter from a widely-watched television network visiting such a place is progress of a kind. No doubt a politician will visit such a farm soon and praise the imagination and industry of the growers and may seek campaign contributions. Perhaps a more substantial lobby for Marijuana growers will form in Washington, which will desire tinkering with standards to allow newer, stronger blends to be put on sale.
Yet, this is better. It’s definitely preferable that the sometimes nauseating churn of politics and business happens instead of a young man on a Detroit street corner is thrown in jail after a random stop and search during which he’s found to have a plastic bag of the stuff in his pockets. It’s better that producing pot is no longer racy, but regulated. It’s better that we start having support groups come out in the open for those who wish to give it up. It’s progress, but the kind that comes with caveats, which tends to be the hallmark of a genuine improvement. Yes, the stubborn or the puritanical might construe this as a form of surrender: but giving up when the stand that one takes is proven to be ridiculous is a victory for common sense.