Pubdate: Sun, 1 Nov 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Andrew Sullivan
Referenced: The Fortune article
Referenced: The Department of Justice memo
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - United States)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Popular)


The Humble Joint Can Save Lives. We Look Forward to the End of 
Senseless Prohibition

You know things are shifting in America when Fortune magazine, the 
bible for business journalism, runs a cover story titled "Is pot 
already legal?". You also know it when Barack Obama's Department of 
Justice publishes a long-expected memo signalling that the federal 
government will no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries if they 
are legal under state law. That happened formally this month.

It was not, moreover, a symbolic gesture. Marijuana for medical 
reasons -- to tackle chemotherapy-induced nausea or Aids-related 
wasting or glaucoma, among other conditions -- is now legal in 13 
states, including the biggest, California. Next year, 13 more states 
are planning referendums or new laws following suit. Last week a 
California legislative committee held the first hearings not simply 
on whether medical marijuana should remain legal, but on whether all 
marijuana should be decriminalised, full stop. The incentive? The 
vast amounts of money the bankrupt state could raise by taxing cannabis.

Now look at the polling on the question. In 1970, 84% of Americans 
supported keeping marijuana illegal. Today, that number has collapsed 
to 54%. The proportion believing that marijuana should be legal has 
gone from 18% at the end of the 1960s to 44% today. On current 
trends, a majority of Americans will favour legalisation by the end 
of Obama's first term. In the western states, 53% already favour 
legalising and taxing the stuff. Support for legalisation is 
strongest among the young -- the Obama generation -- but has climbed 
among self-described Republicans as well.

But the reality is already ahead of the polls. Take a trip, so to 
speak, to Los Angeles today, where one would be forgiven for thinking 
that marijuana was already legal. There are more than 800 marijuana 
dispensaries in the city -- and an estimated 7,000 in the state of 
California as a whole (many times more than in Holland).

Getting a doctor's recommendation for marijuana is easier than 
getting health insurance -- just look at the ads in the papers, where 
a consultation costs about $200. The dispensaries range from the dime 
store to elaborate palaces of capitalist taste. Seminars are held for 
entrepreneurs who want to start a business selling medical cannabis. 
On display are sophisticated strains that can provide exquisitely 
tailored effects: some best for countering nausea, some for building 
appetite, others for going to sleep, others for staying alert or for 
watching movies or for general relaxation.

The concentration of THC, the active compound, is much higher than in 
the past. But since no one has ever overdosed on marijuana, it's 
difficult to say why that matters. Yes, if someone has a history of 
mental illness, it's not that smart to experiment with the 
cannabinoid receptors in the brain. But it isn't smart for such 
people to take any drugs -- or too much alcohol -- for that matter. 
For most people, stronger pot merely translates into a need for less 
of it to get the same effect. Too much and you'll likely nod off -- 
and wake up later with no hangover. If pubs served pot rather than 
beer, crime rates would plummet.

Americans, for whom the use of marijuana is almost a rite of passage 
in most colleges, know all this. And at some point they stopped 
pretending otherwise. The past three presidents smoked marijuana in 
their earlier days, even if only one has openly written about it. 
(Obama, when asked the Clinton question -- if he had inhaled -- 
responded: "I thought that was the point.") In an online press 
conference with his younger supporters, the first question was about 
whether legalising and taxing pot would be a good thing to help raise 
revenues. Obama laughed it off. With an annual deficit of more than a 
trillion dollars, he may not be able to laugh it off much longer.

The key to the shift has been the emphasis on marijuana's medical 
properties. Human beings have used marijuana as medicine for 
millennia. It was once sold in the States by Eli Lilly, the 
pharmaceutical manufacturer. Allowing this compassionate use for a 
few soon revealed, accidentally, how harmless it is. It is not 
chemically addictive, although some mild withdrawal can happen if you 
are a regular pot-smoker and go cold turkey. Its side-effects are 
minimal compared with those of most authorised drugs for similar 
conditions. It is far less addictive than tobacco or alcohol. It 
leads to no measurable degree of antisocial behaviour, as is the case 
with, say, crystal meth or cocaine or heroin. Many of its users are 
successful, productive members of society who simply prefer it to 
alcohol as a relaxant in the evening or as a way to get through 
cancer treatment.

Denying Aids patients a tool to stay alive tips the balance. I have 
one friend who would never have been able to tolerate the medications 
that saved his life without it. That's pretty persuasive stuff and 
lots of people have similar first-hand experiences. A gateway drug? 
Yes, many users of hard drugs smoked pot in the first place. But 
almost all started out with alcohol as well -- and that is not illegal.

Of course, nothing is inevitable. The police still police it and 
hundreds of thousands of Americans -- disproportionately black and 
poor -- are in jail for it. Los Angeles's failure to regulate 
adequately its hundreds of dispensaries may lead to connections with 
organised crime that could come back to delegitimise the whole thing.

I give it a couple of years to become a non-issue or to go into 
reverse. And my bet is that in a decade's time, the banning of 
cannabis will seem as strange as the banning of alcohol. In the end, 
unnecessary prohibition undermines itself. And this time around, 
there are millions of cancer and HIV patients who are on the side of 
legalising and some truly desperate branches of government looking to 
see what they can tax next. In fact, I'll go further: sooner rather 
than later, marijuana may be more acceptable than tobacco.

The need for taboos is eternal. But the object of the taboo is always 
shifting. The age of tobacco may be ending; and the millennium of 
marijuana may be about to begin. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake