When the US state of Colorado legalised cannabis (marijuana) at the dawn of the New Year, it inevitably divided the commentatiat. Whatever your approach to drugs policy, it is certain that Colorado will be where legislation will be put to the test. Though there are various complexities and conflicts surrounding federal law, the upshot is that it is legal to purchase cannabis for recreational use from any of 59 licensed shops. Other states, including Washington, are set to adopt similar systems for cannabis retail.
As any social scientist will tell you, 70-odd days is far too early to draw any conclusions about the success of a policy. Indeed, regardless of what happens in Colorado, there are plenty of other countries and regions which will be used in debates. I believe that the objective of any drugs law must be to minimise harm to the community, and then to the people who use them. If you apply a scientific approach to those criteria, the conclusion is that the “War on Drugs” is causing more social harm than controlled legalisation. All it has done is to move the industry underground, creating a funding stream for organised criminals: endangering users by lowering supply quality; and actually encouraging consumption by glamourising it. We are covering familiar arguments.
But there is another argument in favour of legalisation, one that has swayed Colorado’s government: money. It emerged yesterday that the state raked in over $4,500,000 in taxation on cannabis in January alone. The money is to be split between public health projects and building new schools.
If addicts are going to buy cannabis anyway, what’s wrong with ensuring that they take a clean supply in a controlled environment and that the money they’d be spending anyway goes to the government and not violent criminals? It’s a way of squeezing some social good out of an inevitable trade. We think nothing of taxing alcohol and cigarettes, both of which cause significant harm to some of their consumers and to society at large. If you don’t agree I’d suggest you look at the length of a lung transplant waiting list, or a town centre police station on a Saturday night. The distinction we make between alcohol and other soft drugs is a cultural construct, not one based in fact.
Depending on which estimates you believe, between two-thirds and 90% of British and American people in their mid-teens have sampled illegal drugs. The ubiquity of evidence of drug use in our towns and cities suggests that a number of adults use drugs regularly. Consider the economic benefits that limited legislation of soft drugs could have in raising tax revenue (the figure could amount to billions a year) and easing crime and health problems associated with drug addiction. If scientific logic doesn’t sway the pragmatists, maybe financial logic, the most persuasive of all, will.